Apr 202012

Four recent examples of how some people turn other people into sometimes painlessly mortal enemies – simply by jettisoning their own empathy gene.

Firstly, from today’s news, these curious statements:

“This summer the roads will be thick with bicycles,” Griffin wrote. “These cyclists are throwing themselves on to some of the most congested spaces in the world. They leap on to a vehicle which offers them no protection except a padded plastic hat.

“Should a motorist fail to observe a granny wobbling to avoid a pothole or a rain drain, then he is guilty of failing to anticipate that this was somebody on her maiden voyage into the abyss. The fact is he just didn’t see her and however cautious, caring or alert he is, the influx of beginner cyclists is going to lead to an overall increase in accidents involving cyclists.

That is to say, the cyclists are to blame when accidents take place – and perhaps mortalities too.

Empathy not possible then?  None at all?

And any particular reason?  Well.  Mr Griffin does actually choose to supply one:

“The rest of us occupying this road space have had to undergo extensive training. We are sitting inside a protected space with impact bars and air bags and paying extortionate amounts of taxes on our vehicle purchase, parking, servicing, insurance and road tax.”

He concluded: “It is time for us to say to cyclists, ‘You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up’.”

According to Mr Griffin, the norm is now an expensively cocooned environment, a technology-ridden existence and a wall of computers between action and act; the abnormal – searched out by these dangerously strange cycling bods who quite ludicrously like to remain in touch with the planet – being fresh air, the wind in one’s hair and energetically exercised bodies.

Words just fail me (well, they haven’t – but you know what I mean …).  Mr Griffin has used the reality of driving a car to explain why cyclists are wrong.  In the event, though, all the explanation really serves to do is reveal why he is unable to empathise with the reality he finds it so hard to be supportive of.


Secondly, this disgraceful prejudice, expressed with equally disgraceful clarity, in a blogpost titled “Should people on benefits be allowed to vote?”:

Is it ‘fair’ therefore that those whom do not positively contribute to government revenue (i.e the ‘net receivers’) should get to participate in the voting that helps to determine the political party and direction in where the country’s monies are spent?

And the mechanism used to allow the writer to reach this conclusion?  Yet another case where the empathy gene is summarily discarded for a “rational” explanation – in this case dragged out of a Darwinian capitalism:

It would be terribly ‘unfair’ of you to give equal representation rights to the chap who contributes 50 times more than the next person.  In the same way as if you own 60% of shares of a company, you’ll get 60% of the voting rights at the Annual General Meeting.  People with no financial stake in a company cannot turn up to the meeting and determine who the board representatives (the purse holders) are.  Even some of the couscous eating tent-frequenting anti-capitalists would find such a concept somewhat laughable.  Why do we accept one person, one vote then?

Although the author no longer belongs to the Tory Party, there would be plenty of people who might argue that neither should Cameron & Co.  As far as I can see, the thesis underlying the above words is that the country and its democracy should be given up to corporate capitalism.

As we were, dear friends.  As we were …


Thirdly, in a debate on the subject of removing the right to Legal Aid for asbestos victims, we have a totally desensitised government minister acting in the following way:

Labour MP Helen Jones told the House of Commons: “During the last debate, many of us were dismayed by the conduct of the minister on the front bench, who giggled and grinned through descriptions of people dying of mesothelioma and what they suffered.”

“Mr Speaker,” she continued. “I have to say that in almost 15 years in this house, I have never seen conduct which so demeans a minister of the crown and which is so damaging to the reputation of this house.”

Remember, this is a government minister who has been responsible for piloting a law through Parliament which may very well serve to benefit his own business interests.

Business before pleasure maybe?

On the strength of this week’s antics, it would seem that pleasure and business are equal partners.


Finally, this awful testimony, also from today:

Breivik himself maintains he is sane but a practitioner of political extremism.

Earlier on Friday, he insisted he was “under normal circumstances a very nice person, very caring about those around me”.

He said he “absolutely” understood why his testimony was horrifying to others.

But said he had embarked on a deliberate programme of “dehumanisation” in 2006 to prepare to carry out killings.

He added that empathy was not possible, as he would “break down mentally” if he tried to comprehend what he had done.

Asked if he could feel sadness, he said “yes”, saying the funeral of a friend’s brother had been his “saddest day”.

No further comment possible.  No further comment needed.

Except, I suppose, that – of all the above four cases – the only inkling of an awareness of the importance of empathy in human relationships has, quite paradoxically, been expressed by the man in the last example.

A man who, by doing so, admitted to awful crimes committed in its deliberate absence.

The other three meanwhile?  Not a sausage it would seem.

Nothing deliberate, anyhow.

Apr 202012

I take it that Norman refers to the Guardian, when he says:

In a far off land, the question has arisen whether a certain newspaper is a conduit for anti-Semitism. Some think so, and others think not.

I’ll play a short substitution game with the next two paragraphs in his piece, which in their original version describe the state of play in relation to the media treatment of Jews.  The originals can be found here.  My version below:

Those who think so point out that the newspaper in question provides space in its pages for the opinions of people on record as hating socialists; space also for those justifying the elimination of socialism from British politics; and space also for writers who deploy well-known anti-socialist themes even while professing that they have nothing whatever against socialism but are merely critics of Labour.

Those who think the paper in question is not a conduit for anti-socialism argue that it can’t be because it has socialists writing for it; and allows space in its pages for people who explicitly condemn anti-socialism; and is a liberal paper with a record of opposing extremism. Some say, as well, that it is the function of such a paper to be open to different points of view, and therefore it is not surprising if, as well as material of the latter kind, this newspaper allows room for material of the former kind.

Norman then goes on to show that the paper in question is actually partial in the causes it takes up and espouses or, alternatively, aims to criticise.

To be honest, I’m inclined to believe that if he feels this way about the Guardian with respect to Jews (if, indeed, it is that paper which is the object of his unhappiness), then – equally – socialists across the country who inhabit that political state which is Labour might feel just as maltreated by the Guardian‘s amoral tendency to “free” comment.

They don’t support our literal extermination – but they do perhaps support our figurative disarming, where this for example is clearly not the case with respect to the Liberal Democrats or even the Tories.

Which is why it does occur to me that in much the same way as Thatcher lived on in Blair, and in much the same way as Blair’s legislation has facilitated Cameron’s destruction of the Welfare State, so the Guardian‘s proud talking-shop which is Comment is Free has more than a little of that vacuous and morally empty hole which is said to have occupied Murdoch’s empire.

“We do what we do because, essentially, it sells news.”  I imagine these words, of course – I’m hardly privy to the private thoughts of Mr Murdoch.  But in the Guardian‘s trajectory, in its allegedly partial attachment to certain causes – and in its resistance to others – we have the makings of an argument which suggests that our favourite liberal paper has so grown up in the shadow of Murdoch that it has replicated, on the left, whether intentionally or by accident, even his empty soul.

Along with everything this might imply.

Which brings me to my initial question: does Murdoch’s legacy live on in the alleged amorality of the Guardian‘s Comment is Free?

Apr 202012

Chris rightly asks the question:

The answer is that all pose what might be the most important question in economics – of how to encourage creativity.

I think, however, the question is misplaced – misplaced because economics, as well as observers of the creative industries themselves, still sees human endeavour on a playing-field where individuals are more important than mobs.  In fact, some would eagerly blame open source movements and other crowdsourcing efforts for having removed the individual – as well as their due compensation – from modern creation.

But if we’re honest about this, it started at least as early as the nascent 20th century production line that was the Hollywood film industry.  (There are, if I remember rightly, historical references to the Flemish geniuses of Renaissance art also running their own industrially produced outputs – though obviously nothing on the scale of Hollywood.  On the other hand, what did the printing-press bring to authorship if not the industry of the many cooks who might very well spoil the broth constructively?)

And this selfsame Hollywood, for quite a while, was able to impose a model that other industries such as newspapers readily copied: take advantage of the multifarious skills the properly channelled mob might apport; pay them minimally for their efforts; and cream off the profitable results in terms of massive gains for hierarchies and shareholders decade after decade.

The problem, of course, for all the above now, is that the mob which once scraped a living by working for the corporates – which quite correctly invoked the added value that centralised communications, places of work and managed teams of able staff brought to very many creative people – has “disintegrated” into free-culture producer-consumers on the web.  The problem with the web isn’t just that the corporates are getting their content “ripped off”; the problem with the web is, really, that the ant-hill mob of selfless striving has replaced the permanent expectation to be individually famous – and paid for it.

If you stop blogging, another blog will replace you.  If you stop posting to Flickr, another photographer will step into your shoes.  We have taken on board so completely the fifteen-minutes-of-fame dynamic of Warhol’s that we actually now expect to be eventually trodden on – and our only desire is to carry on scurrying creatively for as long as our own personal resources last.

The problem, then, with creativity in modern economies isn’t finding ways of generating more of it.  We only have to read up on YouTube’s download and upload stats, on Wikipedia’s daily pageviews and on Pinterest’s current levels of interest to realise that quantity – and even quality – isn’t an issue.  The ant-hill mob is doing its biz – there’s no doubt about that.

No.  The real problem with creativity only exists within an individualist – and perhaps libertarian – focus on what human reward should really look like.  Even as traditional socialism vanishes from most of modern political practice, the old sharing and community instincts which form a part of being a human being find their expression in modern online creativity.

Essentially, creativity has finally gone all post-modern on us: it no longer needs the traditional economic process of investment, worker oppression and shareholder reward to produce its goods.

The question is whether this is satisfactory for any of us who still believe we human beings should be more than grains of sand on anonymous beaches.

And to that question, I really have no answer.

Maybe because part of its answer, sadly, lies in the meaning of life itself.

Apr 202012

Kevin suggests that what the lobbying scandals need are an improved political class.  He writes interestingly when he says:

The correct place to start is to recognise that most MPs – in all parties – are pretty straight. Let’s encourage them to know their own minds a bit more. And let’s provide them with proper independent policy support to help them formulate their own positions on the key issues.

One observation before we continue: whilst I agree that most MPs are likely to be straight, I am inclined also to believe that the higher up the greasy pole they get, the less straight they become.  This is a serious issue, of course, because the higher up they are, the more disproportionate their influences.

Anyhow.  Kevin continues to write interestingly when he concludes the following (the bold is mine):

The conspiracy theorists and gesture politics mob who want to choke-off lobbying will simply fail to do so if ministers come forward with weak measures, or we will see our democracy asphyxiated if they come forward with clumsy, catch-all ones.

But let’s use this moment to change politics as much as lobbying. Unless we beef-up our MPs’ ability to shape the policy agenda, rather be shaped by lobbyists of whatever hue, we will have missed a trick.

And the bottom feeders of the lobbying world will get away scot-free when this latest, predictable and toothless attempt to clean-up the industry fails to do just that.

I said much the same thing when I suggested the following recently, with respect to the related subject of party political funding and PR.  Which is precisely why I argued in favour of a system whereby customers of companies could decide whether to make a purchase on the basis of a traffic-light labelling system which explained how much an organisation was spending on funding and PR per political party.  In fact, I expanded on the theme in another post the other day on the subject of a US site called sopatrack.com.  Here, tools which scrape publicly available data help determine which US congressmen and women vote “with the money” – money the wider constituents of the American Congress may raise for their own, often grubby, purposes.

The virtues of the above two ideas?  Both of them give back to the voters the knowledge that translates into power – without requiring the current political class to change, a priori, its behaviours.  The only legislation we would actually need would be freedom of information powers to access the necessary datasets where access did not currently exist.  Not a small order, I do have to accept – but far easier an order to define and delimit than the diffuse desire to do something about political corruption.

So whilst Kevin is right – we do need a political class with more backbone (which, as he rightly points out, does imply independent means to study  matters of modern import accurately and objectively) – the constituency he misses out of the equation, the voters themselves, also needs a greater capacity to oversee what’s going on.

And the tools I mention above, providing not a political straitjacket but rather constructive carrots and sticks, could achieve just that.