Sceptical libertarianism and opera

Location: France

July 21, 2004

Animal wrongs

Excellent leader in today's Guardian on the difficulties faced by companies involved in constructing a medical research facility in Oxford.

As the Guardian rightly notes,

Contrary to what extremists assert, the vast majority of medical advances in the last century - insulin, antibiotics, vaccines, anaesthetics - have all depended on animal experiments. This is a battle that must be won.

Society is currently undergoing a rather sentimental phase when it comes to science. Rational debate seems difficult to find when discussing anything from MMR, GM foods or global warming. We seem more interested in frequent scare stories (Universities make you blind being my current favourite) than in promoting true human development.

UKIP delivers the goods

It's almost disappointing when a much-predicted event happens on cue.

But there is still much pleasure in seeing UKIP proving to be as foolish as many had thought.

As I'm on the subject, I'm surprised not to have read anything about UKIP's housing policy. I'd be interested to know how they plan to house the countless thousands, if not millions, of Brits (including me) currently enjoying the good life on the continent who would have to return to the UK if it left the EU. Any ideas?

I'm anti-war: advice for those who would like to change my mind

I'm not a pacifist. Part of me would like to be - the same part that would like there to be no prisons, no policemen and unlimited free opera tickets. But reality requires me to temper my idealism.

I should, therefore, be persuadable on the war in Iraq. I am a keen reader of the more left-leaning pro-war UK blogs, notably Oliver Kamm, Harry's Place and normblog, together with the occasional glance at Stephen Pollard. I remain unconvinced, and have come up with the following modest list of suggestions for those wishing to change the minds of people like me.

1. Don't accuse me of being 'pro-Saddam'
This argument is facile and insulting. I am no more 'pro-Saddam' than Churchill was 'pro-Stalin' because he did not advocate the invasion of the Soviet Union. 
The call to war in Iraq involves judgement. It is my judgement that the consequences of starting the war are worse than the alternative. Most of my pro-war friends would come to the same conclusion on North Korea, Iran, Burma or Saudi Arabia. So why is coming to this conclusion on Iraq tantamount to supporting torture? Worse, according to Oliver Kamm:

The supporters of war have a monopoly of morality on the subject. There is no reputable anti-war position.
If there is a reputable anti-war position on North Korea or Saudi Arabia (as Mr Kamm tacitly acknowledges), then there must exist a reputable anti-war position on Iraq.

2. Don't dismiss the lack of WMDs 

It seems now to be the accepted wisdom on  much of the pro-war side that the absence of WMDs is a non-issue. Even if Saddam didn't have them, the argument goes, he wanted them and would have got them at some point. So we were still right to get him and those who carp on about WMDs are hair-splitters. I can see the attractiveness of this line of reasoning, but its flaw is that it ignores political realities.
In the UK, the entire case for war was based on WMDs. Blair was careful to state that the war was not based on humanitarian considerations (this being a desirable side-effect). The damage that their non-appearance has caused is immense. It has made it almost inconceivable that such a war could ever be waged again. Does this not worry the pro-war side? No matter how much it might be needed in future, any future 'just' war has been made more or less impossible by Iraq. To me, this is the biggest internal flaw in the pro-war argument.

3. Attack the arguments, not those making them

The various sins of Michael Moore, George Galloway, Robin Cook, Douglas Hurd, Respect, et al, are interesting and worthy of discussion. However, they have nothing whatever to do with the justification of the war on Iraq and are completely irrelevant to my forming an opinion on that war.

4. Make your mind up on the UN

Had the UN taken a specific vote on the war, it would undoubtedly have voted against (Chirac had seen to that). I cannot therefore see how it can be argued that the war had UN support. So I am bemused by those who argue that the war was waged to uphold UN resolutions. Had the UN voted against starting a war, would these arguments have been no longer valid? I fear UN approval is a bit of a fig-leaf for pro-war arguments - only to be used when it goes in your favour (I admit that the same often applies to anti-war arguments, and I would criticise them for the same reasons). 

5. Keep going

The Iraq war is one of the most important issues of our time. Both sides of the argument need to be tested continuously. So let's make sure the debate continues. 

July 14, 2004

Super Size USA

Just been to see the other big US documentary doing the rounds, Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me. Great film, vastly superior to Fahrenheit 9/11. I got none of the feeling that I was being manipulated, and Spurlock was happy to show one man who ate huge amounts of Big Mac and was still slim and healthy.

For a sceptical libertarian such as me, the film posed some serious question. I usually have little sympathy for those who choose to eat themselves to an early death, but I was left speechless by the way in which the food industry has targeted US schools. I don't have an answer to it, but the problem is real and, as they say, growing.

Don't miss it.

July 12, 2004

There's something about Michael II

I have already written about my puzzlement at the pro-war left's reaction to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Having now seen the film, my despondency increases.

It is extremely curious that a film that many anti-war proponents view with disdain, and from which mainstream anti-war politicians are at pains to distance themselves, should have provoked such venom. Re-reading Christopher Hitchens' polemic against it, I find myself at something of a loss. It is ironic that I found the anti-war Mark Kermode, writing in the Observer, much more effective in performing a demolition job.

Melanie Phillips cites an article by Dave Kopel (a man who, believe it or not, voted for Ralph Nader in 2000), which she claims 'pulverises' the film. I'm afraid the slap that Kopel actually inflicts would not fall foul of even the most stringent anti-smacking legislation. As a means of convincing sceptics, it leaves a lot to be desired. Even though the article is entitled Fifty-nine deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11, it contains the rather astonishing admission that:

Like several other deceits identified in this report, the September 11 deceit is not part of the film itself.

So, the fifty-nine deceits in the film are not all in the film. I see. Isn't that like saying that one of the problems with Hamlet is the weakness of characterisation in Measure for Measure? Kopel is making the same error as many of the pro-war left, including Hitchens. They see their target as Moore (or George Galloway, or the Stop the War coalition, or Respect), not the arguments he puts forward in the film. So their aim is to discredit him by quoting things he has said elsewhere, as if those who were against the war were all his devotees. I have no problem with attacks on Moore (or Galloway et al), but such attacks are quite separate from defending a pro-war position or attacking Fahrenheit 9/11.

Take just two examples of what Kopel cites as Moore's 'deceits'. The first is the undue influence of the Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar. He sums up his attack thus:

What is misleading is for Moore to look at the web of Saudi influence in Washington only in regard to the Republican Bushes, and to ignore the fact that Saudi influence and money are widespread in both parties.

So, Kopel's argument seems to be that because Saudi influence is actually greater than Moore suggests, we should be less worried. Really? Isn't there a flaw in the logic here? Kopel assumes that all anti-war people are, by definition, Clinton supporters, and therefore you exonerate Bush if you can convict Clinton of the same sin. Again, this misses the point rather badly.

The second example is the portrayal of Bush's conduct in the elementary school on the morning of 11 September (which Moore's film is rather successful in poking fun at). Kopel's line of argument is asinine (again, the anti-war Kermode is much more impressive). He cites the school's principal defending Bush (in June 2004) - and thus exposing Moore's 'deceit'. Have supporters of the war really come to this? It is only a short step from here to saying 'I'm going to vote Labour when I grow up because that nice Mr Blair came to our school and gave me a sweetie'. The principal is entitled to her opinion, but then so am I, so is Moore and so is everyone else. Her views cannot trump others', and to suggest that they make those who disagree with her 'deceitful' is disturbing. It is a logic that Moore himself might well use, but I thought we were above this.

The problem that the pro-war left has, and which Kopel's article exemplifies, is that it has equated the pro-war movement with Bush as an individual, and therefore cannot understand or tolerate any criticism of him, however well founded. What I would hope for from the likes of Kopel and Hitchens is a debate that focuses solely on the issues, not on the personality flaws of Michael Moore. Whether we were right to go to war does not change if we discover that Bush is in fact satan incarnate, or Moore is the angel Gabriel. The pro-war lobby should not be in the position of defending Bush or attacking Moore at all costs. It has forgotten where the debate should really lie and has become so hyper-sensitive that it is in danger of replying to someone who expresses a dislike for Bush's taste in ties by saying, 'so, you'd rather have kept Saddam Hussein in power'.

I remain of the view that I expressed in my previous posting: the pro-war left has only itself to blame for the success of Fahrenheit 9/11. It has conflated the war on terror with the person of George W Bush, and the anti-war arguments with Michael Moore, George Galloway and the rest. Moore's film is thus happily occupying an empty space in the debate. A debate which others should already have filled.

July 09, 2004

Conservative theatre

Having railed against some of the nonsense we see on the modern stage below, I feel the need to defend contemporary productions against some 'conservative' criticism, this time on Brian's Culture Blog, which quotes from a Kenneth Minogue article on Much Ado About Nothing at London's Globe. Minogue says that:

Thespians in Britain have long since taken up a moral doctrine in which the identities of actors must be subordinated to a generic humanity. By something like a kind of brainwashing, we are to be trained barely to notice and certainly not to respond to the physical identity of the actors. This may be politically admirable, but it makes for terrible Shakespeare, and often for feebly spoken verse.

The photograph below this quote shows that Minogue is rather coyly referring to the fact that some of the actors in the production were black.

There is never any excuse for feebly spoken verse, but Minogue is overstating his case when he says that 'political correctness' is training us to 'barely notice and certainly not to respond to the physical identity of the actors'.

It is not 'political correctness' that is doing this. It is theatre. It is what it has always done. In Shakespeare's time, audiences were much more relaxed about this. Beatrice and Hero, after all, would both have been played by young men. As recently as the 1960s, our most celebrated Othello was white.

In truth, modern theatre is on the whole no more or less sensitive to the physical identity of actors than in previous generations. A white Othello or male Desdemona would now be considered either grotesque or a historical curiosity, while we are indeed more open to black actors in plays where race plays no part. And why not? I do not expect Much Ado About Nothing to be populated solely with olive-skinned Italians, although the setting of the play would, in Minogue's world, demand this.

Theatre is a glorious expression of the human imagination. It requires us to separate ourselves from the real world, in order then to see it more clearly. To put it in a straitjacket of literal-mindedness is the opposite of 'conservative'. It is actually to change radically its purpose.

The Diana Myth III

This is positively the last Diana posting for the forseeable future, but a story in today's Telegraph made me smile.

The Diana, Princess of Wales museum at her childhood home of Althorp is to close due to falling visitor numbers.

A royal insider said: "Lord Spencer has not taken the decision lightly but he realises things have moved on."

Yes, they've moved on to good sense. The great British public really does have taste.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the Telegraph is now backpeddling on this story. Still, let's hope it's only a matter of time before it comes true.

July 08, 2004

The Diana myth II

The Today programme informs us that Sir John Stevens, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, is stepping down at the end of the year. However, he will still continue on two projects. Investigating the alleged collusion between the security forces and paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and, I kid you not, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The sublime and the ridiculous.

July 07, 2004

I'm an opera goer - I must be thick

A small extract from a conversation between a modern opera director and his assistants, overheard recently before a performance of Verdi's Otello:

'Look guys, we've got 2500 people in the audience. The thing you must remember is that they are all devoid of any intelligence and must be spoon-fed throughout the performance. So, we're putting on Otello. You can't expect these thickies to realise that bad things are afoot just because the libretto and the score make that clear - no, we must have Iago wandering around with a skull in his hands the entire time. Skull - death, you get it? God, I'm so clever it hurts.

'Of course, at no point must we let the audience alone with a singer. It won't do. They'll fall asleep, bless their tiny philistine brains. So while Desdemona sings her Ave Maria in Act IV, we must have Iago stalking menacingly around her bedroom. What do you mean: it makes no sense? What do you mean: it's an unnecessary distraction from the music? Listen, mateys, I've got 2500 people to impress. I'm not having them think that just because some of the most sublime music in the canon is being played, I haven't got something clever to show them. This opera is about me, don't forget, I'm not having that pesky Verdi get in the way.'

And so on, and so on. More of this transcript may follow...

Animal rites

A beautiful scene from Spain - the running of the bulls at Pamplona. There's something I find deeply moving about this. It's the combination of tradition, the element of danger, and pleasure for its own sake that touches me. Long may it last.

Of course, there will be those out there who complain that it is against the bulls' animal rights. Animal rights - now there's an interesting little can of worms.

How can any decent human being object to, for example, an animal's right not to be tortured? On the face of it, surely we must support such a right. But hang on a second. What are we going to do about cats that torment mice? Or spiders that tie up their prey to await a slow death? How do we apply rights here? Animal rights tribunals at which cats are sentenced to time in prison? It is of no comfort to the victim that it is another animal doing the torturing.

The problem with the concept of animal rights is that they are really nothing to do with animals - and everything to do with humans. Animals cannot have rights, only humans can have responsibilities towards them.

By all means, let's debate what these responsibilities should be. But don't let's kid ourselves that animal have rights. They simply don't.

The Diana myth

An entertainingly provocative piece today by the ever-stimulating Stephen Pollard on the unveiling of the Diana fountain.

I rather fear that it might not prove as contentious as Mr Pollard hopes, however. I have a strong suspicion that the Diana hysteria of 1997 was something of a fiction. My own experience of the time bears this out. I had just returned to the UK after spending some seven years living abroad. The reaction of the British public, as depicted across the media, astounded and depressed me. True, I didn’t know anyone who had had what I saw as an abnormal emotional reaction to the death, nor did I know anyone who knew anyone who had. But I surmised that this was some exceptional coincidence.

By the time of the funeral, I felt a strong need to find some of my fellow countrymen who had succumbed to this madness. So I headed off to the Mall and got a prime position. In reassuringly British fashion, a jokey camaraderie soon got going amongst the crowd. I began to ask why people had come, and was amazed, shocked and mightily relieved to discover that all, yes all, the people around me had come for the same reason as me. They were all just intrigued by the phenomenon. Not one felt any personal sadness.

It was one of the most uplifting moments I have experienced. Britain had not gone mad. Parts of the media may have done, but all was well in the real world.

July 06, 2004

There's something about Michael

What is it about Michael Moore? Why is it that a film that around 99% of the US population will not see has aroused such passions?

I deeply distrust Moore’s style of politics – his crude populism and posturing. I therefore looked forward to reading the counterblasts to his film from the luminaries of the pro-war left. What I found has left me disappointed and unsettled.

Let’s take Christopher Hitchens, much admired on the pro-war blogsites, as an example. He has written an oft-cited article entitled Unfairenheit 9/11. But instead of providing us with a consistent critique of the film, Hitchens embarks on what, for the most part, I can only describe as a very Moore-ish rant.

Much of the article is merely an attack on Moore’s personality or personal history – very entertaining, but dubious as a debating position. Hitchens also attacks Moore for not providing an alternative to Bush’s policy. But Moore is making a film, however execrable it might be. Is he under any obligation to provide an alternative? Hichens tells us repeatedly that the film is completely dreadful. Fine, why worry then? Nobody will want to see it, and nobody that does see it will be persuaded. No? And why waste your time writing such a long article about it? The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Hitchens also spends much energy creating straw men. Take this as an example:

Either the Saudis run U.S. policy (through family ties or overwhelming economic interest), or they do not.

This is no kind of argument, however. The pertinent question is not whether the Saudis are in charge; rather, it is whether the influence they wield is too great. To present it as an all-or-nothing position is simply dishonest. Bernie Ecclestone undoubtedly had too much influence on one part of the Labour government at one point. No-one suggests that he was running the country. The baneful influence of money in politics was once the bread and butter of left-wing journalism. Hitchens’ response to the issue here is deeply dispiriting. If this is the best rebuttal on offer, then it makes me very concerned about the Saudi link.

Hitchens makes the same mistake when discussing the ‘My Pet Goat’ incident – the non-reaction of the president to the news that the US was under attack. He says that the choice was between Bush continuing to read, or declaring immediate war. Again, this is simply not the case. There were many sensible and mature ways in which he could have reacted. Bush’s behaviour in the school does cast doubt on his judgement and leadership skills. My question to those in the UK who support the war would be: could they imagine Blair behaving in this way in the same circumstances? Why is it beyond the pale to raise the issue of Bush’s reaction?

My favourite line of the article has to be:

At no point does Michael Moore make the smallest effort to be objective.

On first reading this, it crossed my mind that it might be a spoof. I guess, though, that it isn’t. But in that case, what will Hitchens’ next article be about: ‘Smithfield market makes no attempt to appeal to vegetarians’? Or ‘The shameful lack of skiing facilities in the Maldives’? Does anyone go to a Moore movie expecting objectivity?

I hold no truck with Moore’s politics. But the near hysterical response that his film has produced, and the personal attacks on Moore, are curious (so curious in fact, that I’m sure there’s a conspiracy theory out there suggesting that Hitchens et al are in fact in league with Moore to boost the film’s ratings).

To me, what Fahrenheit 9/11 shows is that there is a vacuum in the public sphere for a critique of the Bush regime from the liberal left. A vacuum that should have been filled by the likes of Christopher Hitchens.

How is it that the pro-war left finds it beyond the pale to criticise Bush-Saudi links? Isn’t it shameful that such links, which should be the grist to the mill of journalists such as Hitchens, are now left to Moore and his ilk to investigate? Why should supporters of the war be so hypersensitive to any criticism of Bush’s conduct?

The film, however risible it may be, has rushed in to fill the vacuum that others have created.