We cannot win on social media

Social media belongs to the angry, the malicious, the conspiracists, the unreasoning corner of the brain. There is no point in discussing how to convert it to rationality any more than to moderate a rabid dog. Rage beyond the edge of sanity is fundamental to its nature.

Nutters will dominate social media because they are less likely to have settled jobs and responsibilities.  They have the time and presumably little sense or they would have jobs (or they are academics, which comes to much the same thing).

There is no need to recite yet again the ills of social media; the slanders, the wounding insults, the depersonalising expressions of hatred, the incitements to hatred or to violence (which are not the same thing), the threats. The conspiracy theories, well, those are a whole new topic. We know all this. There are articles aplenty on it, electronic jeremiads, bewailing the contents of YouTwitFace or whatever.

The big players of social media take the overwhelming bulk of traffic, though a discussion board or social exchange medium may turn up anywhere, for local groups. Where it is among friends, they will write rationally because they are known and judged by their peers; or there is the wilder tavern gossip we love which goes far beyond any moderation, because we are liberated from talking sense, and we know we do not mean a word. The internet takes it beyond even this. An anonymous board is licence for every explosion of the brain, and that dominates – be it on Twitter, Facebook, the BBC HYS columns, and many more.

This does not apply to profession fora where contributions are from those who putting their professional reputations and those of their companies on line in front of their potential customers and suppliers. You won’t get ‘Q’ trying to whip up crowds on LinkedIn, There is the distinction: the constraint of enforced respectability against the liberating sense given by anonymity.

There are many articles asking what can be done to clean up social media. My answer is ‘little or nothing’. We know what goes on, and what we also know, but do not want to admit is that all this is just a reflection of humanity. It Twitter is a sewer, it is simply because it reflects mankind.

Nutters will dominate because they are less likely to have settled jobs and responsibilities. The Devil makes work for idle hands: so does ‘Q’ apparently. Things said online have no consequences so there is no limit to what can be said, whether you believe it or not, and it could become addictive. Actions without consequences can be a dizzying liberation, as they were to the Washington crowd last week, right up to the moment that a shot rang out and Ashli Babbitt fell dead. That moment marked a sudden change in their dynamic, as it was the first time that a real world consequence struck, and with deadly force.

A way then to moderate, control or even eliminate the abuse of social media? There is none, while it lasts in its current form. The platforms might try to become active publishers, picking and choosing contributions, and they know that would kill their customer base and their business model.

Regulation of some sort would be barely different, and drawing the distinction between vigorous free speech and dangerous incitement is not something which I would entrust to any politician, frightened official or social media magnate.

(You must also ask yourself what sort of person would volunteer to be ‘Controller of the Internet’, and whether you would allow a person of those characteristics anywhere near the levers of power.)

If anyone wants to start fighting falsehood and conspiracy theories on social media, go ahead, if you have the time and resilience. Do not start though with things like QAnon, which is just too ridiculous, but with the most pernicious and commonplace conspiracy theory; the one which preaches that all your misfortunes are caused by rich people hoarding all the wealth to keep you down. Sometimes there is a racial slur added to it, and we all know where that leads. Can the champion of truth react to every post or tweet about ‘fat-cats’ and ‘Tories’, and who should do it? What fact-checker sites can be established to direct those caught in the delusion? It is a political issue, for politicians, and that is how they should be working.

Social media will continue though to belong to those who have too much time on their hands and no responsibilities. Bringing calm reason to bear with the aim of creating a space for respectful collaborative development of ideas is an impossible dream.

See also

Books

The new challenges for 2021

Happy New Year to all; and now we roll our sleeves up to achieve what the opportunities of the year put before us.

Few were sad to see the end of 2020. It has been a bad year, which is one reason for not doing a jaunty end-of-year round-up yesterday.

There have been happy things: Britain came out of the European Union at last on 31 January 2020 and the hang-over transition period ended as the new year fireworks were bursting, and with a good, new trade treaty agreed, not a cliff-edge. However the dominant theme of the year has been the plague from Wuhan.

The worst thing has not been the disease but the lockdown imposed to try to control it, which failed, lengthening pain. I found it hard to celebrate the New Year – when they end the lockdown, then I can celebrate.

In the meantime, we look ahead. There is work to be done.

For all of us, the priority is to work, and work hard, at whatever we do that is economically active, or social. The lockdown has trashed the economy and bankrupted many, but the overall structure is sound, when allowed to work, and hard work will revive the engines of prosperity. Work is there, fundamentally, to create value, as Adam Smith explains. There can be forms of work which are valuable in one sense but create no lasting value, such as the work of civil servants, judges, stage actors and the like: the priority is value-creation as all prosperity depends on it. (If that means sending unnecessary civil servants out to work in factories and shopfloors, I am all for it.)

Society too has taken a body-blow: we have got unused to congregating together, attending church, organising social gatherings and attending and organising the clubs and societies which form the sinews of active society, and it will take an effort to convince anyone to come off the computer screen, stop watching daft YouTube videos (guilty as charged) and to step outside the house and into those social groups. It has even got to the basic level of decay that many have found they do not have to give a friendly greeting or to smile.

Within government too, action is needed, and it must not be driven by professors on a power-trip. Indeed after this period of utter negation of liberty, we need to see a major drive to boost individual freedom. Politically it will be important to be seen to champion freedom and personal responsibility, but then any politician can make the right noises: Tony Blair was hailed as a champion of civil liberty but in the event was an enemy to it. Society suffers and the economy suffers when its members are not free. We can thrive economically and in our mental state when we have personal responsibility and the freedom to pursue our personal goals. I feel more specific articles coming on.

In a few days’ time the country with the world’s biggest national debt will have a new President, and we must see how he swings America’s weight around.

Liz Truss for one will be busy, signing even more trade deals across the globe. Fascinatingly, her bouncy confidence and speed of action have driven even the glacially slow European Union to up their game in signing deals in the wider world. They are being overtaken though.

Then the loneliest man of them all is Rishi Sunak, with an empty Treasury and knowing that he if he raises taxes to fill the gap, it would bring no more cash in anyway, and would put another wrecking ball into the economy.

There is a lot to look forward to in 2021, but it is not going to be easy. We cab look for politicians to acct wisely, but really the hard work is for the rest of us. We must all work hard.

Surrendering on the playing fields of Eton

The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but would be surrendered if the relics of the Blairzeit now in command had their way. If they remain, the school’s reputation will not. The school famed worldwide for bringing boys up into the best of men is now committed to turning them into pathetic milksops. The boys may have other ideas of course.

I have always enjoyed the metaphor. The officers at Waterloo and at many battles over our long imperial history have been solid men, wedded to hardship and duty. A background of wealth might have dried up the manly qualities in ease and dissipation, as it did in many disgraced dukes, but places like Eton ensured the inculcation of those qualities of understanding and character on which a nation could be built, and those are the qualities which cool-headedly shepherded thousands in precision at Waterloo through hours of cannon, musket and lance, and drove the French back to Paris.

(There is actually room to fit a major battle on the playing-fields of Eton, if not one the size of Waterloo: so extensive are the collage’s lands that you can walk for an hour and still not be at the end of them.)

The character of a man is wrought through endeavour and experience, and more endeavour, but the seeds may be sown in his first experience of organised society, amongst his school-chums, and where he learns that there is more than himself in the world

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat.
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

The actual scandal at Eton now has been reported in enough fora, erupting from a pretty unexceptional video put up as part of the College’s ‘Perspectives’ course, and the Headmaster’s desire to suppress it (with the result naturally that thousands more people have seen it in just a few days than were ever supposed to be aware of it).

The Tribunal hearing which must come will turn on dull legal grounds rather than the worthiness of the video in question – it would have been interesting to see a tribunal’s terrified chairman trying to consider socio-political doctrine opposed to truth, but a way will be found around that; that the master in question, Will Knowland, was dismissed for the fashionable ‘gross misconduct’ presumably for refusing an order, but behind it is a deeper conflict.

The Headmaster (so I read) has framed his reasoning along the lines of avoiding embarrassing the College, but the infamy of his intemperate action has dragged the College’s name through the mud publicly, and publicised the very material he sought to suppress. With such maladroit strategic insight, it is as well that his sort were not commanding at Waterloo. The boys are not so daft.

The outrage, or perhaps confected outrage, is that the video, “The Patriarchy Paradox”, has a straightforward denial of two concepts in cultural Marxist theory: the idea that the only differences between men and women are culturally determined, and secondly the concept of the oppressive ‘patriarchy’. Both those ideas are so comprehensively wrong that it should take upholding them is generally a sign of idiocy, blind ignorance, malice or (most common of all) fear. Granted the ‘patriarchy’ concept is a matter of perspective and emphasis: its root failing is that it is a development of the Marxist class-struggle narrative and clings to the same pseudo-science. However that is a minor subject. The main issue of the video is the differing characteristics of women and men.

That men and women are (as statistical averages) different psychologically is practically universally accepted by all serious experts in the field. There was a book out recently by a feminist denying it by claiming all the countless experiments and mountains of data had inherent flaws, but this libel upon the scientific community is not a serious study, and was politely torn apart by Simon Baron-Cohen soon after publication.

Essentially, to proclaim the idea that there is no gender dimorphism in psychology and that apparent differences are culturally imposed is as ludicrous as teaching such past pseudo-scientific ideas as “scientific racialism” or phrenology or astrology: to do so make you a laughing-stock.

Yet the Headmaster (apparently) took the view that the law requires that specific doctrines, blatantly false though they are, must be taught in what used to be the country’s most prestigious school. I have read the Regulations cited, and there is no such idea, not even hinted at. Does the Headmaster of Eton, of all places, really think that the law is so stupid? Who has advised him?

Let us be fair: the Headmaster of what was until his time the most respected school in the land is no fool: he is an intelligent, educated and no doubt erudite man. Many are who seem to bow to the fakeries arising from cultural Marxism, but the most common reason is fear: fear of being ostracised and removed by unseen hands whom no one has elected and who has not been given such authority. Yet either those hands have names, allowing us to judge their reliability, or they are phantasms of the fearful mind which a good, Etonian mind should dismiss. The Headmaster should in that case have thanked Mr Knowland for leading resistance, and shown some Eton spirit himself.

Maybe we will hear more in the tribunal, if the Chairman indulges the claimant with allowing him to put his case. Perhaps we will hear an attempt at justification of the Headmaster’s position: I would love to hear it. If the tribunal corrects a misconception of the law, all the better for the rest of us. If they decide that falsehood is indeed the law, then there is an opportunity to change the law, and remove those who try to change it back again behind the scenes, and those who try to intimidate Headmasters.

There is more than one master at Eton, and the boys may know more than a distant manager. It is vital for boys to learn robustness and duty, and if they have then this idiocy will wash over them: a middle aged trying to tell a boy what it is to be a boy is like a snail teaching a hare how to run. That Eton spirit is not so easily lost.

The ideologues talk of ‘toxic masculinity’ which is an insult to all men; anyone who talked of ‘toxic femininity’ should be horsewhipped as a fool and no gentleman, but somehow half of humanity has to be insulted (in revenge perhaps for the misdeeds of some men in past generations). If that ‘toxic masculinity’ consists in the qualities for which Eton was once famed, for courage, steadfastness, duty, perseverance, the instinct of the warrior and of the gentleman, then let the world be wrapped in its toxins, for those are half of the qualities which the world needs; the other half are the characteristics of womanhood, which men are less able to achieve. The two together, equal and complementary, are needed to make a world.

See also

Books

Build Back Britain, Boris

I worried about the new slogan, ‘Build Back Better’, looking out over the (so far still) green fields, but in the context, there is more to it than the sick-in-the-stomach vision of concrete and bricks: the whole underpinning of the nation’s political and social structure needs to be rebuilt. This afternoon, up stood Boris with a vision for that task. Let us hope his team are up to the task.

It has been 10 years since Gordon Brown was hurled out of Downing Street, and it has sometimes seemed like a wasted 10 years, but that is not so: David Cameron and George Osborne in their six years worked hard to mend the financial mess left by the Blair and Brown years, and to reverse much of Tony Blair’s egregious imprecations upon the liberty of the subject. They neglected to overturn the leftists’ stranglehold on the levers of state though and left the sprawling edifice largely intact; then on the Brexit issue they brought the party members’ ignominy upon themselves, but they deserve credit where it is due. Theresa May, though a likeable individual, was unequal to the immense divisions riven through the nation and was given little opportunity in her three years. Boris has been in for over a year but still seems only just to have begun.

In that time, Boris has only made one noticeable political mistake: the Lockdown, and it is an overwhelming mistake, that has wrought in a few months more damage then the whole of the Blair-Brown years. He can’t very well pull out of it now out of embarrassment, and so we are stuck in the mire for more months yet, and we descend further, maybe not as deep as Atlee territory, but deep and damaging. Maybe we are coming out. Now we must build back better; build Britain as she should be.

we human beings will not simply content ourselves with a repair job.

Now there is a truth. It is ludicrous to compare the Wuhan flu with the Black Death, but after the latter shock society was transformed, building itself back better, sloughing off the restraints of feudalism and even seeing the first daystar of the Reformation that was to rise over the lands nearly two hundred years later. This is not the Black Death, but it is a shock that has felled the economy and society in such a way that new normality much change to look for resilience, and to climb high enough that new shocks “the next cosmic spanner may be hurtling towards us in the dark” as Boris put it, can be ridden, without the temptation for another devastating lockdown of life and liberty.

Resilience does not fit the modern sentiment. Many are infantilised because we can be: there has been no active war for generations, which is an introduction to real life like no other, and the state has grown so as to smother all discomforts, which is exactly how it should not be. Immediately taking offence at trivia is a symptom of infantilised discourse (though more likely to be a bid for power).

This is not a luxury but basic survival necessity. This is a hard world, and has been since man first left Eden, and those who are ready for it will thrive, but at the moment we are the ones also made to carry the others. The problems of those others are real and heart-rending in their consequence: I have been in case briefings, told repeated stories of individuals who simply cannot cope with anything in life unless all their wants are brought to their plate by others, and who drift into crime and madness as an unavoidable consequence. Throwing money at the issue does not help if there is no training to resilience and independence, and any build-back must assume the necessity for individual resilience, or no other measure will work, or at least not reach those at the bottom of society.

What we heard from Boris Johnson today were ideas and inspiring ones. Behind it I could hear unspoken numbers, cash to be taxed on my children and their eventual children; or could it be done another way? Most government spending is on health and the welfare state (though goodness knows what the health spending goes on, because doctors have been refusing to see patients for months) and it may be that efficiencies can be made in this colossus of a budget, keeping effective spending up while reducing the amount actually consumed in the system. Outside that sector, there are many efficiencies that could be made in everyday government without affecting what it actually does, and much of what it does do it need not. That was a theme of David Cameron’s early years, but not one which really took off as it should have. At that time of course Dominic Cummings was not deployed to his full capacity.

The implied road-building programme then struck a theme I have often worried about. Roads are needed outside the South-East, although at the same time I believe would be better to let some roads rot for a few years as there is no money left to mend them; as long as they are not the roads I race down. The subject hovering over the project was the North. This is important for a proper Build Back Better: the Northern towns are not actually ignored by the government, but they can appear neglected – a drive through the leafy villages of the Home Counties, or up the millionaire’s row that is the Thames will look a world apart from a drive through the ex-industrial towns north of the Trent. The missing element to prosperity is not government but commerce. There is no inherent reason why Worksop should not shine like Guildford, but that economic buzz of the one stutters in the other. The thing is that this is not a zero-sum game between towns: if Nottinghamshire takes wing, that does not beggar Surrey. The nation is the poorer for having wealth-creation in too small a sphere, and if part of the fault is poor infrastructure, then putting some in may bring in the medium term a tax-take to repay it – maybe. On the other hand, that could be the wrong way round – the broad roads came to the Home Counties because they prosper, not to make them so.

(It feels like the Matthew Effect: For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.)

I am suspicious of government interference, and the spending of my money on projects that would be better done by those who know what they are doing, which is to say commercial entrepreneurs. That said, the south is awash with gold at the moment and can be left to fester for a bit while the North is under the spotlight, to encourage the private investment which could be its due. What the North needs more than grands projets though is less government; for the state, often local government, to get out of the way and let enterprising men and women do their magic (and not to blunder in with well-meaning subsidies to unfair competition).

If the left-behind areas can have the yoke taken off so that they thrive, that is more prosperity to the nation as a whole. That would really be building back better.

See also

Books

Fill(et)ing the Lords – 2

The House of Lords is the largest parliamentary chamber in the world apart from China’s rubber-stamp assembly, but few attend at any given time, and no wonder. Stoppard (the most British playwright ever to come out of Czechoslovakia) had it right: “The House of Lords, an illusion to which I have never been able to subscribe – responsibility without power, the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages.”

There is frequent talk of cutting the numbers down, but those in the seats hold their position for life, and Prime Ministers do insist on sticking more cut-price peers in the House than leave it in the natural way. There should be a moratorium, except that it would leave in place those elevated in the last lot’s packing-the-benches exercise.

In the absence of the French solution (which is both illegal and immoral), the House of Lords can only be shrunk by stripping the rights from existing peers.

Not every Lord has a right to sit, but only those who receive at the opening of each session a writ of summons. Since Blair’s constitutional games, the hereditary peers (most of whom would be fitter on those benches than the rejected politicos who have been shoved in there) may not receive a summons unless given a life peerage. A peer otherwise entitled may request leave not to be summoned, and so must stay out unless he withdraws that request. Furthermore, certain lords are excluded by law, including holders of judicial office, those under 18, bankrupts, foreigners, those convicted of treason or those who have not attended for six months. It would be but a little stretch to add more reasons to withdraw a summons.

What of those who cease to provide substantial public service outside the House? They are the nominal nobility of the land, and noblesse oblige: a true nobleman (if not the paper noblemen of the current House of Lords) recognise that with the privilege of the title and wealth comes a duty to public service. Many a Lord serves as a magistrate or in the Army, or commands a local TA unit. Some sit for little reward on committees of national or local import, or for no reward as charity trustees (and those charities may be worthy ones, not the fake charities which besmirch the name).

On the other hand, some of this generation of pound-shop peers have got there simply for sitting on quangos, without necessarily doing a good job or making the quango actually worthwhile in its existence. Once such a person might have received an OM or MBE as a thank-you: now honour-inflation gives them a peerage. Such service if it is a career should not be enough and might be better as a disqualification. The army, the justices’ bench and public service for duty not for career are noble. If the ermine is just for show or to give a leg-up in a career drinking taxpayers’ money, it should be stripped off their backs.

Come to that, it would be a good exercise to keep out of the Lords any whose main income is derived from taxpayers’ money, apart from an army officer’s salary.

The rules also exclude a peer from sitting if he or she is a member of the European Parliament. That one is by the board now, but what of others who are in the pay of foreign powers, or in thrall to them? What of peers who conspire with foreign powers, which is easy for a susceptible man to slip into? They should not be in Parliament. They know who they are.

Maybe some of the less worthy lords could be bribed to go away. If that sounds underhand, it is no more dishonest that living the high-hog on taxpayers’ money.

New conditions on the writ of summons would be valuable. The lurking danger is that wokeists will hijack the idea, and force exclusion for imagined transgressions and a careless word here or there, or they could take over the approval panels and impose those rules where there are no rules. Quis judicat ipsa judices? This needs careful work.

It may be that in these ways so many would be hurled from the benches that the House shrinks to manageable size. It may be that so many are sent away that more peers are needed. Appointing peers – that is another challenge.

See also