Month: November 2004


Human Nature

25th November 2004

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Via Belmont Club, the sad story of large scale sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and aid workers.

It is well known that rape is a near universal feature of war. What this shows, I think is that it is not the experience of war that produces this effect in men, rather it is the opportunities offered by war.

The modern development of sociobiology has triggered many arguments: sociobiologists will suggest that some human behaviour has been selected by evolution. Opponents will pop up screaming that the sociobiologists are fascists and supporters of genocide. The sociobiologist will, while drying the jugfull of water off his head, attempt to explain that he’s not making statements of morality, and that what is natural is not the same as what is good.

The essential point that is often glossed over is that what is natural for one human to want to do, is often also natural for another human to want to prevent. As a simple example, it is natural for a man with an established sexual partner to want to mate with other females, but it is natural for his partner to want to stop him, and it is natural for the other females’ partners to want to stop them.

It is not controversial that one biological feature of humans is to live in large societies: larger at least than those of chimpanzees. The nature of these societies varies somewhat, but, as Stephen Pinker points out, there are more universals than might be expected.

If you take a man out of his society, give him a gun or a bodyguard, and put him in the middle of a lot of people not of his society, who are starving and helpless, what might happen could be described as biology taking over, but would be better described as one aspect of biology finding itself unbalanced by other aspects of biology which normally balance it.

The result of this reasoning is that the UNHCR/Save the Children report is not shocking. Personally, I am not shocked. The people implicated in this investigation are not monsters. That does not mean they should be let off: deterrence is a better reason for punishment than moral outrage, not a worse one.

Conversely, if you are putting people in positions of power over foreigners, either as invaders, peacekeepers, aid workers, missionaries, or local business managers, and you do not hear that they are abusing their power in this way, you should not believe that this is to be expected from the good people you are using. You should either congratulate yourself on the unusually effective systems you have put in place to prevent it, or you should assume it is going on and you just haven’t found out.

The UN, of course, is one of the least likely organisations to exert effective control and supervision of its agents.

There are two possible approaches to preventing the abuse. Either the agents should be genuinely part of the society they are helping, so that they are subject to the restraints of that society, or they must be maintained in the society that they came from, and be under the restraints of that society. The latter approach seems easier. Rotating staff in and out fairly quickly might help. The key point is that, just as with invading armies, it needs substantial active measures to prevent peacekeepers or aid workers taking advantage of their position.

Update: Another story that I think is related to my general point:
New Scientist — Everyone is a potential torturer

Update: Via a new news report, I gather that UN peacekeeping troops who commit crimes can only be tried back in their home country, which of course makes them that much less controlled.

New Party II

22nd November 2004

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Follow up to “A New Party?

“stoatman” commenting at Samizdata points to The New Party. I’ve never heard of them, but their web site hides their platform under a mass of something-for-everyone waffle. Digging down, the only policies that aren’t a total fudge are withdrawl from the EU, and tax cuts funded by social security cuts. Not bad policies, to be fair, but not practical in an electoral sense.

A large majority of the electorate has a firm positive commitment to the current welfare state. We’re stuck with it until there’s a major fiscal crisis making it obviously unsustainable, or until there’s a real revolution in attitude among the population, which I cannot see happening in the near future.

A fringe party cannot attack on that front. It can only gain influence by using an issue or group of issues where the majority are either opposed or indifferent to the positions of the major parties. UKIP has done that. Greens have done it in the past.

I don’t think there’s a large positive commitment by voters to the removal of the individual freedoms that were normal thirty or forty years ago. A party that made its main platform the reversing of all the pointless restrictions on individual freedom that have come in during the last decades might draw a large enough vote to encourage other parties to take on the agenda.

Of course, many of us would want to go a lot further, but once we get as far as, say repeal of drug prohibition, the influence of the party would wane. Every vote gained by a major party taking that policy would lose them one. The same goes for much of the economic liberalisation we would like to see. A policy of allowing people to smoke in pubs would not be a vote-loser with the electorate at large in the same way. Every political issue outside the core “freedom” policies would have to be fudged in the normal way: adopt the same positions as Labour and Conservative (they’re mainly the same).

To come from nowhere to challenging for worthwhile numbers of votes there has to be a very clear core platform, not a broad bit-of-everything manifesto. A few clear slogans pushing basic freedoms, and a name to match (“The Civil Liberties Party”?).

There are arguments against taking this approach. It would cannibalise the UKIP vote to some extent, and UKIP is doing a good job — in the long run EU membership is a bigger issue than foxhunting or email interception. The party could not become explicitly pro-withdrawl without alienating a large proportion of its potential support.

Another argument against is that if we as activists devote our effort towards this compromise platform of relatively popular freedoms, it could weaken the struggle at an intellectual level for a full and logically consistent level of freedom.


A new party

22nd November 2004

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The utter failure of the Conservative Party to challenge the Civil Contingencies Act, ID Cards, denial of the right to self-defence, arbritary bans on smoking, etc., leaves the population politically helpless.

The Liberal Party has traditionally been the party most associated with civil liberties, but while the modern Liberal Democrat party nominally hangs on to its beliefs, it does not inspire confidence that civil rights are a high priority, nor are they a major campaigning subject. A Liberal Democrat party with a share in power would seem more likely to push its European, Welfarist and (in the current context) pacifist policy directions much harder than civil liberties.

Some have optimistically suggested that UKIP might force the Conservative party to be replaced, somehow producing a party with more sympathy for the liberty of the individual. UKIP’s organisational problems apart, one must bear in mind that UKIP’s membership and core support are likely to be just as sympathetic to authoritarianism as Howard’s party.

UKIP has shown, however, that in the modern world of narrow-based parties, it is possible for a new party to have an effect on the national politics, and, most of all, on the public agenda.

Is it time for a new party to take up the cause of freedom against the totalitarian tendencies of the current political class? It could not be a Libertarian Party; to get votes it would have to accept the status quo of the current bloated state, and it would be unwise to take the hunting ban as a central issue; and it would have to oppose specific EU abuses without explaining how they could be prevented without leaving the EU, but if a party could grab 10% of the vote on a platform of rolling back the Nanny State and the Surveillance State, it would at least bring the topics into the political mainstream.

Update: Added another post on the subject.


Terrorism and Morale

22nd November 2004

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Chrenkoff continues his series of good news from Iraq.

It’s all worth reading, but the part that caught my eye was this:

We generally tend to hear about the bombs that go off or acts of sabotage that succeed in destroying infrastructure, but almost never about successful prevention; for example, soldiers from the 208th Iraqi National Guard battalion who defused explosive devices attached to oil facilities in the Dibbis area; or a company of the 206th Iraqi National Guard battalion, which prevented an attack near Jalula. Some of other recent security successes of the Coalition and the Iraqi forces include: Iraqi Security Forces and elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit rounding up 41 insurgents in various operations south of Baghdad; smashing of a bomb making cell in Mosul; and the rescue of a kidnapped Iraqi by the Iraqi SWAT team, backed by elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, in a raid in northern Babil.

The reason why this is so important I explained a year ago in my article on the Structure of Terrorist Movements. In brief, while a terrorist group can endure decades of political failure and defeat, it needs to strike effective blows to maintain itself as a movement:

Lack of operational success, however, has a much more immediate impact. Leaders and Soldiers who are incapable of striking effectively at the oppressors are not deserving of loyalty and sacrifice, and the humiliation of aquiescence is less unthinkable when set against the humiliation of losing in the field. Failed operations are acceptable when other operations bring successes to be celebrated, and one spectacular coup can balance a large number of embarrassing damp squibs, but a long series of symbolic defeats will sap at every level of the movement.

The terrorist army in Iraq is still achieving enough operational successes to avoid total defeat, but not, I think, by a large margin, and Chrenkoff’s list shows that they are only doing so by means of a frenetic rate of more or less reckless attacks, most of which fail.

The question of the effects on the terrorist movement of attempting to maintain this rate of activity deserves some attention. I cannot think of a precedent, even among the most similar movements such as Hamas or the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.


A Case Study


In my first article, I wrote that:

… there are many political battles in various European countries which appear to be between “native” Europeans and Muslim immigrants. In fact, these political issues are argued between left and right within the native political community, with the immigrants themselves as interested but largely powerless bystanders.

As a case in point, Wretchard at Belmont Club today picks up the story of Islington Council in London wanting a school to change its name to remove the word “saint”.

At first glance, this backs up Wretchard’s point about Europe abandoning its Christian roots, but there is more to the story than meets the eye.

First, Islington Council is about as representative of European culture as the UC Berkely Student Government is of America. James Kempton, the “children spokesman” who was quoted in the story, was elected to the council with 1129 votes, on a turnout of 29%. Local government in Britain is a complete joke; with virtually no powers, elections are treated purely as opinion polls on the national government, and corruption and incompetence are rife. The current Islington council is moderate compared to its predecessors, who declared Islington a “nuclear free zone”, and were notable mainly for running children’s homes in which the children were routinely sexually abused by staff. (In a sick twist, the leader of the council at the time is now “Minster for Children” in Tony Blair’s government).

Second, this story is really about the state education system in Britain. The government does such an appalling job of running schools that atheist parents all over the country are turning up to church to qualify their children for church-run schools. The ideal for a parent is a school that is paid for by the state (so they don’t have to pay), but run by the church, to protect it from the malign influence of the state system. The school in question is one of those. Because it is a decent school, the local authority wants to claim it as theirs, whereas the Church of England, which has made it a decent school, doesn’t see why it shouldn’t get the credit. Hence the argument over the name. The people who would supposedly be “offended” by the school being called the “St Mary Magdalene Church of England Primary School” are nowhere to be seen.

Update: Of course, this sort of thing is not seen here as “typically European”, it is rather seen as importation of American-style political correctness. There is some truth in this, as this post The War On Christmas on Chigago Boyz shows.


Quick Links

20th November 2004

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Three quick news items:

BBC News:

British Pakistanis should integrate more into UK society, Pakistan’s high commissioner to Britain has said.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi said people cannot expect others to listen to their grievances if they isolate themselves.

She told the Yorkshire Post: “Nobody is asking you to give up your religion, your culture, your traditions.”

According to the Wall Street Journal today, French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has claimed that the EU has ambitions to extend its military forces so as to be capable of sending a large combat force comprising tens of thousands of troops to fight their way into hostile territory.

According to a survey cited in World Net Daily, one third of Americans think France is a military enemy.

(Last two via EU Referendum)

Legitimacy, America and the World

19th November 2004

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Superb lecture by Robert Kagan (via Dr. Frank). It just oozes quotes:

Samuel Huntington warned about the “arrogance” and “unilateralism” of U.S. policies when Bush was still governor of Texas.

Europeans do not fear that the United States will seek to control them; they fear that they have lost control over the United States, and, by extension, over the direction of world affairs.

The EU, most of its members believe, enjoys a natural legitimacy, simply by virtue of being a collective body.

[The UN Security Council] has never been accepted as the sole source of international legitimacy, not even by Europeans. Europe’s recent demand that the United States seek UN authorization for the Iraq war… was a novel — even revolutionary — proposition.

The core thesis, though, does not really stand up. Under the title “The Importance of Being Legitimate”, Kagan says:

Europe matters because it and the United States form the heart of the liberal, democratic world. The United States’ liberal, democratic sensibilities make it difficult, if not impossible, for Americans to ignore the fears, concerns, interests, and demands of their fellows in liberal democracies

That ignores the role of dissent within the USA and within Europe. The fact of the invasion of Iraq was that it was always controversial, opposed from the start by a substantial minority in America and a majority in Europe. The (spurious) issue of “legitimacy” was used tactically by opponents in Europe. They did not decide publicly that the legitimacy of military action would from now on always depend on specific Security Council authorisation; a clique in the media just chose to pretend it had always been that way, and a majority of the population believed them.Similarly, the anti-war faction in the US did not oppose the war because it was “unilateral”; they cried out for “multilateralism” because they were against the war. If the invasion had been overwhelmingly popular with the US population, on its merits, nobody would have cared whether Jaques Chirac agreed or not, just as, when action in Yugoslavia was generally desired by Europeans, no-one saw any need to bother the Security Council for permission.


Europe’s Future

18th November 2004

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When I wrote the first article here, my main subject was Europe and Islam, but to explain that I had to say more about Europe’s attitude to America, and that’s what has caught people’s attention.

Something I seem not to have made clear is the diversity of views in Europe. The position I described — that Europe must become a superpower to challenge American hegemony and halt the intrusion of an American-style market economy — is by no means unchallenged.

As I wrote, it appears to be the dominant view in France and Germany. The Transatlantic Intelligencer blog is much better-informed than I am and seems to bear that out. Here in Britain, the same faction does exist, but it is relatively small. In the new EU members to the East, it seems not to exist. (I would imagine there would be a few who would be nostalgic for the Warsaw Pact, but they are not visible from here).

What I want to emphasise is the extent to which this is an active and debated issue. Tony Blair, obviously, is not opposed to the US exercising its power. He does not carry his whole party with him by any means, but his likely successor, Finance Minister Gordon Brown is not likely to change course drastically. Looking at today’s paper, the lead article starts “Leading pro-European businessmen and politicians have berated Gordon Brown over his long-running scepticism about the EU economy.”

Opposition leader Michael Howard was also quoted in the FT today, saying”One of my worries is that for some people, the main motive for greater political union in Europe is to establish a rival to the US. I don’t want rivalry, I want partnership.”

Last month, the Dutch Minister of the Economy, Jan Brinkhorst, gave this speech (pdf) as the Rousseau Lecture. this article gives a brief summary:

‘I will argue that the updated European social model should differ distinctly from the current one’ explained Mr Brinkhorst. ‘It will inevitably resemble the US model more than is the case today.

So, the Europe’s future is, as the film said, not set. The EU project is seen in some circles as the way to overthrow American hegemony, but other members are in it for diffent outcomes. France and Germany have traditionally dominated, but their influence, in Europe and in the world, is diminishing.

We live in interesting times.


French Diplomacy

17th November 2004

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Richard at EU Referendum has a go at Jaques Chirac, for complaining that the invasion of Iraq made the world “more dangerous”, but not doing anything to make the world safer, like joining in.

Now there are reasonable arguments that invading Iraq made the world more dangerous, and also reasonable arguments that it made the world safer. Personally I’m in the John Kerry camp: I think it was right. Then again, perhaps it was wrong. Well, maybe it was right. Hmmm, actually I’m not sure.

(Strangely, Kerry’s views, despite being so closely aligned with my own, failed to impress me).

But enough dithering, I’m talking about Chirac. The point is that Chirac did try to make the world safer. He tried to stop the invasion. The interesting point is that he thought he could stop it. He really believes in this Diplomacy stuff. I call it “Diplomacy” with a capital D, because to me, diplomacy is just making deals: what do you want, what have you got to offer, what threats can you make. Chirac, and, descending into generalisation, the French, seem to believe in Diplomacy, a force independent of economies and armies, by which France can influence the rest of the world.

Of course, there is one way in which a nation can gain what it wants by negotiation without offering rewards or punishments: it can trick other countries into doing what it wants. If there is such as thing as Diplomacy, it is another word for trickery. One would think that governments would be fairly immune to being deceived into acting against their interests, but then again, the history of the EU would tend to contradict such an assumption.

The irony in this case, of course, is that Chirac not only believed he could prevent the invasion, he also seems to have convinced his friend Saddam Hussein of the same thing. The result of Diplomacy was to give him the confidence to defy George Bush and the U.N., something that even I am sure made the world a more dangerous place.


Jargon


Language, again

Just came across this piece by John Humphrys in the Sunday Times. I’ve read him on the subject before, and it’s very irritating. All the points he makes about language are absolutely correct, and so well put that I’m cheering him on.

Then come his examples. They’re poor examples. This time, he takes a document from some investment bank, describing a particular team’s role:

The structuring team sits within the Equity Derivatives Group. Its main roles are: i. Product innovation: define and write new payoffs with sales, traders and quants (pro-active and reactive), participate to the study of the risk management of the new payoffs. The objective is to increase sharply the amount of pro-active business . .

It is in fairly obscure jargon; the nature of the business is that different companies, or even different divisions within the same company, develop their own, different terms for the same thing. As a result, while the passage makes sense to me, working in the same field, I am not quite sure I am not misinterpreting it. “Pro-active” is a danger word, often used as a meaningless buzzword, but here it has a quite obvious and well-defined meaning.

It’s certainly not well written. Participate to?. This is just the sort of thing he has been talking about, but here the writer gets away with it, in that it doesn’t obscure his meaning. Next time he uses the wrong preposition he might not be so lucky. There are criticisms of style that could be made too: the last (incompletely quoted) sentence is ugly. But as the whole passage is likely to be obscure to people who are not familiar with the details of the derivatives business, it is impossible for Humphrys to separate the essential obscurity from the avoidable errors. He just calls it “meaningless drivel”.

Private Eye’s “Pseuds’ Corner” makes similar false steps. In amongst the execrable mounds of advertising, management and political mumbo-jumbo, there are odd extracts from technical journals covering particular specialties. To me, many of them might as well be Swahili, and some of them are as clear as the speaking clock.

Humphrys is conflating several issues. One is the general sloppiness of language, which the bulk of his article describes excellently. It is a major problem, as it leads to ambiguities, and, in some cases deliberately, to statements which appear to mean something, but on closer inspection state no actual identifiable facts, but convey only a vague impression or emotion. Another is that jargon, which is necessary, but in some cases seems to be intentionally less accessible than it could be, in order to exclude outsiders from a clique. A third is that when those within a particular jargon-using culture need to communicate to outsiders, they frequently are unable to do so effectively because they have forgotten the non-jargon terms they need. A fourth is that most of us, unlike Mr Humphrys, are not professional communicators. We have other work to do, and writing down a description of our work, when requested, is often an unwelcome chore to be dispensed with with as little time and attention as possible. A fifth is the desire of some to show off by indulging in some fashionable cliche or phrase which they don’t really understand, in preference to the perfectly simple and ordinary way of saying what they want. (That is probably to blame for the “sits within” of the example).

I am not sure even that the claim that jargon is deliberately intended to obscure and exclude is true. It often seems that way because specialists completely exclude the normal words for their subjects from their vocabulary. You will never hear a computer specialist talk about a “computer”, or a telephone engineer talk about an “exchange”. That, however, has a reasonable explanation. The common-usage words are just not precise enough for technical use: does a “computer” include the monitor? Is an “exchange” all the switches on a site, or is each one an “exchange”? It is clearer for the specialist to avoid these words.

Humphrys claims that his example could not be understood even by those it was intended for. Frankly, I don’t believe him. It is more likely that, in an example of another modern bad habit, it has been sent to far too long an email list, including a bunch of people who have no reason to know what the role of the equity derivatives “structure team” is.

When selecting targets to attack for bad English, force must be concentrated on those who ought to be making themselves clear to a wide audience: journalists, politicians, teachers and people selling products.

Here is a classic, from Oracle, highlighted by Bruce Schneier, when the product they advertised widely as “unbreakable” turned out to be full of security holes:

Oracle’s security chief, Mary Ann Davidson, claims that the campaign “speaks to” fourteen independent security evaluations that Oracle’s database server passed.

What does “speaks to” mean? In English, it means that the security evaluations were the target of the campaign, which is obviously rubbish.

What is actually means in the context is “is a lie inspired by”, which is not what Ms Davidson wants to be caught saying in so many words.

Instead, a meaningless phrase has been used in attempt to hide the gap between the facts at the base of the campaign (some researchers had looked for security holes and not found any), and the claims made by the campaign (there were definitely no security holes). To anyone at all familiar with software, that’s a yawning great gap, but the spokesperson attempts to bridge it by saying that the claims “spoke to” the facts, which doesn’t mean anything at all and leaves the gap unbridged.

There is another modern curse and obstacle to communication: the spell-checker, but that’s off the point and I’ll rant about that on another occassion.





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