Rafe’s Roundup Sept 17

Gerard Henderson’s Media Watchdog. The Spectator. Charles Murray on the culture wars and the social divisions in the US.

Judith Curry’s week of political pieces. Challenging a doctor of philosophy for his demand that Malcolm Roberts should follow the so-called consensus of experts in climate science. Can you bear it, the University of Queensland has a lecturer in critical thinking who describes Malcolm Roberts as a climate denialist, motivated by politics more than science! Apparently we are supposed to accept that the science is settled in favour of alarmism. In contrast, consider Karl Popper’s view on the purpose of university education.

I want to begin by telling you what I think is the real aim of a university education. I will try to be brief about this, though I must warn you from the beginning that many people think very differently from the way I do. I believe that someone is well educated only if he realizes in great detail how little he knows. And I think that this is really very important. I think that a man who has the feeling that he knows a lot is somehow badly educated. Yes, one can know a lot, namely, about all the problems and theories that have arisen owing to the growth of our knowledge. And one cannot really live in our world today without realizing how quickly our knowledge, and especially our technological knowledge, has grown. But there is a difference between pure knowledge and applied knowledge. And the main point, at least with regard to pure knowledge, is to recognize the many open problems that lurk in all the knowledge that we have achieved. Without that l would say that you are not really educated.

The aim of pure knowledge is to understand: to understand the world in which we live, to understand society, to understand ourselves, and to understand this great miracle of human
knowledge…The more we know about it the more we realize that this is a very huge task—that it is, in fact, an infinite task. And the more we know and the more our knowledge grows, the more modest we should become about all those things that we don’t know.

Compare with Richard Feynman on badly written textbooks which do not convey any impression of gaps in our knowledge. “Thats very bad education. The lesson you learn as you grow older in physics is that what we can do is a very small fraction of what there is. Our theories are really very limited”. From The Pleasure of Finding Things Out page 202.

The situation with nuclear power worldwide. How the campaign against nuclear power enabled the radical left to capture the environmental movement.

The Germans struggle with the attempt to reduce emissions without nuclear power.

Despite the expenditure of many billions of dollars it has failed to achieve any visible reduction in Germany’s emissions or to make a meaningful difference to Germany’s energy mix (renewables still supply only 14% of Germany’s total energy). Its only demonstrable impact has been skyrocketing electricity bills.

The serious decline in economic freedom in the US since the Bush years. Escalating under the Obama administration.

The London Review of Books, like the New York counterpart, is practically unreadable due to left-wing bias but they have a decent piece this week on free speech.

Violent threats like the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and violent acts like the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo remind us that a militant religion is a dangerous carrier of the demand for the purification of words and images. Meanwhile, since the fall of Soviet communism, liberal bureaucrats in the North Atlantic democracies have kept busy constructing speech codes and guidelines on civility to soften the impact of unpleasant ideas. Is there a connection?

Sadly the piece is unreadably long, unless you are stuck on a long flight without in-flight entertainment.

The heroic picture of the individual heretic standing against the church, the dissenter against the state, the artist against the mass culture, has been fading for a while and we have not yet found anything to put in its place. Asked in a late interview how he fell away from his belief in Catholic doctrine, Graham Greene said he had been converted by arguments and he had forgotten the arguments. Something like this has happened to left liberals where freedom of speech is concerned. The last two generations were brought to see its value by arguments, and they have forgotten the arguments. Few have felt oppressed by the rigours of censorship; more have been interested in censoring harmful speech by politicians or members of the ‘dominant culture’ (which includes white people of humble means). Taking note of the recent protests that forced the ‘disinviting’ of commencement speakers at Brown, Johns Hopkins, Williams and Haverford, the censorious monitoring at Brandeis University of a teacher who said that Mexican labourers were once called ‘wetbacks’, and many similar incidents over the last three years, the sociologist Jonathan Cole pointed out in the Atlantic that the students at these elite establishments, including the most vigilant of the speech monitors, have followed all their lives ‘a straight and narrow path’. They have never deviated into ‘a passion unrelated to school work, and have not been allowed, therefore, to live what many would consider a normal childhood – to play, to learn by doing, to challenge their teachers, to make mistakes’. They have always been on good behaviour; and they don’t regret it. They are therefore ill-equipped to defend anything the authorities or their activist classmates tell them should count as bad behaviour. These people have grown up, Cole adds, in the years since 2001 when the schools and the popular culture, in America above all, kept up an incessant drone about personal safety, the danger of terrorist attacks, and the opacity of every culture to every other culture. It is a generation in which the word ‘fragile’ is routinely applied to daily shifts of mood.

Peter Coleman, surely a national treasure, wrote a much more readable piece about political correctness some years ago. He identified three chapters in the story. Firsts the original useful idiots or fellow travellers with the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ’30s. Second the New Left and the Counter Culture of the 1960s and ’70s. Thirdly the new wave of modern political correctness.

It is time to define Political Correctness a little more closely. Its first and preeminent characteristic is that it calls for the politicisation – one might say the transformation – of life. It wants political direction of all departments from, say, children’s fiction to judicial judgments. No profession is exempt. All must meet a political test – of correct thinking and progress. Lawyers, accountants, doctors, scientists, novelists, journalists and businessmen must all pass it.

Secondly, the Politically Correct are more intolerant of dissent than traditional liberals or even conservatives. Liberals of earlier generations accepted unorthodoxy as normal. Indeed the right to differ was a datum of classical liberalism. The Politically Correctors do not give that right a high priority. It distresses their programmed minds. Those who do not conform should be ignore, silenced or vilified. There is a kind of soft totalitarianism about Political Correctness.

Thirdly, the Politically Correct are self-righteous in a quasi-religious spirit.. A sort of vanguard of enlightenment, they do not accept the judgment of voters (unenlightened) or consumers (selfish) and are prepared to impose reforms against the public will, You can’t make an omelette’, as someone used to say,’ without breaking eggs.’

Fourthly, Political Correctness aims to achieve its objectives without violence, It is not ruled out entirely. It is tolerated or even encouraged in certain circumstances. But it is not necessary or fundamental.

Fifthly, the Politically Correct are less interested in business and the economy than in the culture and the guiding ideas of a society. They know that they will never win the economic argument in open debate. Indeed they have lost it. The Market has triumphed over the Plan. So they will leave the economy to business provided they control the culture, the guiding ideas of the society. In Britain it is called the Third Way : a Thatcherite economy combined with the Rebranding of Britain.

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13 Responses to Rafe’s Roundup Sept 17

  1. stackja

    Peter Coleman, surely a national treasure, wrote a much more readable piece about political correctness some years ago.

    This article appeared in three magazines in England, South Africa and Australia. Mr. Peter Coleman sent it to us as he has referred to Freedom First in his article. Peter Coleman is an eminent Australian Liberal and was Governor General of Australia.

  2. handjive

    Good round up.

  3. ken n

    Huh? I don’t think Peter Coleman was ever Governor General.
    And I hope he would not accept the title “Living National Treasure” which is a side activity of the National Trust (NSW). It came about as a kind of mission creep from its work protecting dull old buildings.

  4. ken n

    Rafe – great stuff, as usual. On the nuclear nonsense, I came across this website recently.

  5. ella

    I’m on board, today, to declare the eminent philosopher, Karl Popper’s view on the purpose of a university education valid (she said, modestly.)

    Rafe- I was born in Christchurch, New Zealand. One of my immediate family was taught by
    Karl Popper at the University of Canterbury. If I recall correctly, he told me that Professor Popper was writing The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism while at the University of Canterbury. He told me that Karl Popper was a wonderful man, a great, testing, and inspiring teacher, and highly respected by his students; an unexpected bonus for the students at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand – young at the time, I believe.

    For my part, I did not do any of my university education in New Zealand or Australia.

    Before reading the work of the two Australian philosophers Rafe mentions perhaps ask this question:
    Can logical consistency ever be a value for two philosophers for whom truth is not a value?

    Logical consistency is defined in terms of truth.

  6. gabrianga

    How strange? Marcia Langton named (and shamed?) as an anti nuke whilst working or consulting for the Aboriginal Land Councils which had the power to veto exploration and mining of uranium in the N.T.?

  7. nerblnob

    I read that LRB and was also surprised to see such an uncompromising view of Free Speech in that journal.

    It is long and wordy, so I’ll attempt to summarise:
    The author argues against defending Charlie Hebdo or Satanic Verses etc on cultural merit and deplores the tendency of free speech arguments to slide into this elitist view. Free speech is free speech even if it’s shit.

  8. johanna

    Excellent Roundup, Rafe.

    Peter Coleman is indeed a national treasure, not least because of his concise and precise writing.

    If Sinc is having a quiet period for new posts, there are plenty of Coleman articles which are as fresh as the day they were published and which are worth bringing to a (possibly) new audience.

  9. Rafe Champion

    Thanks for value adding comments. Will use the Heroshima piece in another Roundup. Popper was indeed a windfall for Christchurch and NZ. He was invited to Sydney Uni after the war but was desperate to get back to the big league. Thanks Johanna, I have posted heaps of Peter Coleman in the Guest Room of my website and will run a separate post to promote them. We have been close friends for many years.

  10. cohenite

    I rate Coleman’s piece on the left; but I think Peter Baldwin’s piece on the ‘new’ left and PC is as good: Baldwin says:

    The de facto alliance that has developed between the Left and militant Islam, the most reactionary force in the world today, is the strangest and most disconcerting political development in my lifetime. If identity politics is the substantive part of this mutant ideology, the compliance and enforcement arm is the system of thought control we nowadays term political correctness.

    According to the PC mindset, someone who openly or even privately challenges core tenets of identity politics is not just wrong but morally depraved. Such a person is not to be engaged with argumentatively, but must be vilified, censored and, where possible, pursued legally using instruments such as the iniquitous section 18C of our Racial Discrimination Act and equivalents in other countries.

  11. cohenite

    Baldwin also says:

    I think of regressive leftism as a mind virus, a paralytic disease that is severely inhibiting the ability of Western societies to properly debate some of the most important issues they face. It is suffused with civilisational self-loathing — severely condemnatory of “white” post-Enlightenment Western societies yet prepared to overlook or apologise for the most egregious defects in other kinds of society.

    To see what can result from this paralysis, look at Europe as it grapples with the consequences of its leaders’ decision to effectively dissolve its external borders with North Africa and the Middle East.

    Consider the enormity of the transformation Europe is undergoing and imagine how it will look in several decades if this continues. Yet Europe’s elites seem incapable of conducting an honest debate about the implications of this, since this would involve asking some tough questions about whether Islam, with its undoubted violent and supremacist aspects, is ultimately compatible with liberal societies. Some of Europe’s leaders actually seem to have become reconciled to the prospect of large parts of Europe becoming Islamised. After all, what could be worse than the existing civilisation that is nothing but a sorry litany of racism, colonialism and oppression? And the biggest losers from this will be the self-styled progressives. What prospect for gay rights under the new dispensation?

    This fecklessness and intellectual paralysis would be far less serious if it were confined to the Left proper, but it is not, as exemplified by Angela Merkel’s extraordinarily naive actions in the past year. The impulse to censor and anathematise anyone who challenges the prevailing zeitgeist can be found in parties regarded as centrist or even right-wing. This has created space for the emergence of new political forces throughout the Western world including Australia, with a surge in support for Pauline Hanson at the recent elections.

    I believe the time has come for a fundamental rethinking of the lines of political division. At this his­torical juncture decent leftists must drop the masochistic obsession with denigrating post-Enlightenment Western civilisation and join with liberals, conservatives and others in a concerted effort to defend it against the unprecedented threats it now faces.

  12. Muddy

    The anti-nuclear book review was interesting reading thanks Rafe. While my analytical brain sometimes struggles to understand science and economics, that was an easy summary to get through, and dovetails nicely with my interest in how and why such narratives have been so successful in the past.

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