On false hope

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.


Well, here we are in 2023, and maybe some of you have been making New Year’s resolutions, and maybe you’re even still sticking to at least some of them. I’ve written before about the dangers of hope, at least when not accompanied by effective action. The most pernicious form of that is false hope: the mistaken belief that not only will they think of something, they already have thought of something. Isn’t that just fine and dandy?

Naturally, this putative solution will be a technology of some sort, because we always seem to suppose that new technology is the answer, even though it is technological hypertrophy that has landed in out current mess. The topical example right now is that evergreen favourite, nuclear fusion.

Of course life on this planet has been pretty much dependent on nuclear fusion for the last 3.7 billion years or so, courtesy of the sun, which is itself an immense fusion reactor. That’s not the kind we’re talking about here, though. Usable fusion energy down here needs to be contained – we wouldn’t last long in the heart of the sun, after all – and the energy needed to provide that containment plus the energy to set off the fusion reaction in the first place has a tendency to exceed the amount of energy we can get out of the process as a whole. Obviously, this is not terribly useful in itself.

Recently there have been many articles claiming that this barrier has been breached. Well, an experiment has been performed that seems to show that we can actually get more energy out than we put in, if we don’t count some of the energy that we put in.

But experts have stressed that while the results would be an important proof of principle, the technology is a long way from being a mainstay of the energy landscape. To start with, 0.4MJ is about 0.1kWh – about enough energy to boil a kettle….

Prof Justin Wark, professor of physics at the University of Oxford, added that while, in principle, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory could produce such a result about once a day, a fusion power plant would need to do it 10 times a second.

And there is another point: the positive energy gain reported ignores the 500MJ of energy that was put into the lasers themselves.

The Guardian, 13th December 2022

But let’s not be nay-sayers. Let’s just imagine for a moment that this time the researchers have finally cracked it. Indeed, let’s imagine that somehow every power-station in the industrialised world had been magically transformed into a fusion-powered generator overnight. What would that actually achieve?

Would it fix our transportation issues? Not unless we invent some sort of battery technology that doesn’t spontaneously burst into flame and is not so heavy and bulky as to preclude the development of the electric truck or the electric container ship. (In case you hadn’t noticed, neither of those things is available right now.) Nor will it conjure uo the physical resources need to build these things out of thin air. I’ve already waved my magic wand twice; three times seems excessive.

Would it fix our food issues? Well, we don’t have electric tractors or combine harvesters yet, and of course abundant free electricity would have zero impact on issues such as soil erosion or the declining nutritional value of our food or the depletion of water sources. (Look up fossil water if you want to be depressed.) Nor would it do anything to improve the grotesque maldistribution of food and water which we find today.

Would it fix the biodiversity crisis? Again, it’s hard to see how cheap, abundant electricity would help. If anything, it would merely empower capitalists in their quest to exterminate all other life on the planet, in the finest Dalek tradition.

Indeed it’s hard to see how it would do anything, really, beyond allowing the current Business As Usual™ scenario to stagger on for a few more decades, doing even more harm to the vast majority of people, so say nothing of other living beings. That’s not really a future to be very hopeful about, when you look at it.

That’s not to say that we can’t build a liveable future. Plenty of people across the globe are doing that right now, and at least some of them are going to succeed, at least to some extent. The future is not going to contain electricity too cheap to meter – that promise is older than I am, and I ain’t no spring chicken. It won’t contain iPhones or data-centres or plastics or inverted GM corn syrup. We can do without those things, and better without those things.

But you – yes, you, the person reading these words – you are going to have to make that happen. It won’t come from scientists in white coats, and it sure as hell isn’t going to come from whichever government you happen to live under. Whether or not Gandhi actually said it, be the change you want to see in the world. Seriously, that’s what it comes down to. Change doesn’t happen because you hope it will. Change happens because you make it happen.

Have a great year. Surprise yourself.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Predictions for 2023

Predictions are a mug’s game.

Nigel Farage

So another year draws to a close, and as is my custom I’ll be looking back on my predictions for 2022 and having another bash for the year to come.

So this what my crystal ball showed last time:

(1) Russia to invade or annexe Ukraine but not start World War III

Well, Russia did indeed invade Ukraine, and despite a lot of hyperventilating from various politicians World War III has not ensued. The jury is still out on whether this will end well or ill for the Russians, but I’m going to claim a hit.

(2) China not to invade Taiwan and not start World War III either

If I can quote myself: “My prediction is for tension to keep on ratcheting up but without any actual explosion, at least in 2022.” Pretty much sums it up. If anyone, it’s been the US trying to stir up trouble rather than China, which has quite enough on its plate at the moment.

(3) Donald J. Trump to announce his candidature for the US Presidency

And so he has. Not that it has caused too much excitement yet.

(4) Scotland to demand another referendum on independence

Quoting myself again: “It is likely the courts will be involved. But my prediction is that there will be a serious official request to hold such a thing.” The Scottish government did indeed bring legal proceedings to try and establish if an independence referendum could be held in 2023 without Westminster’s approval. The Supreme Court said no, although that surely won’t be the end of the matter.

(5) Global supply-chains to deteriorate to the point of causing serious shortages

This has not happened on quite the scale I was expecting, I will admit. There are shortages of this and that – antibiotics, some other medications, specific foods (eggs, for example, at least in the UK) – but nothing apocalyptic. Then again we are entering a major recession, so there’s less demand for stuff and hence less strain on supply-chains.

Still, as Meat Loaf might have said, four out of five ain’t bad. So, what about 2023?

(1) The government of a major industrialised nation to face a serious popular uprising

I almost discarded this one when I heard about the recent shenanigans in Germany featuring an alleged plot to mount a coup as well as large-scale anti-government demonstrations, but I don’t think either of those things would quite count. I’m talking about something large-scale, well-organised, and threatening enough to provoke a substantial reaction from the government; something along the lines of the 1926 General Strike, say. It’s possible that the Canadian Truckers’ Convoy might already have been such a thing, but I don’t feel that I have sufficiently reliable information to say – I live a very long way away from Canada, and have no contacts there.

It doesn’t have to be successful, by the way; it probably won’t be. I’m just saying it’s likely to be tried. However, I’m not going to guess at which nation (or nations) will kick off, because there are too many plausible candidates.

(2) A resolution to the Ukraine conflict which is less unfavourable to Russia than the West would like

I am not saying that Russia will “win,” whatever winning might mean in the context. There may well not be a permanent settlement, at least not next year. What I predict is that (a) the active fighting will stop, and (b) Russian will get a reasonable measure of security on her western border, whatever that looks like.

If this happens, I would also predict that the mainstream will quickly forget that Ukraine exists and will start obsessing about something else, as they have (for example) with the wars in Syria, Yemen, various parts of Africa, et cetera. But that’s rather like predicting that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning.

(3) A major corporation will declare bankruptcy

And no, I’m not thinking about Twitter. (Or the fairy gold cryptocurrency sector, come to that.) But I reckon at least one “household name” company will be revealed to be deep in the manure over the course of the next year. There are too many dubious business models being propped up by dubious money for this not to happen. Quite a few banks probably fall into that category, for one thing.

By the way, I’m still going to claim a partial hit if the corporation in question is acquired for a song by a rival and/or bailed out by the relevant government. That’s just more dubious money sloshing around.

(4) A country to leave/be expelled from the European Union

Again there are multiple candidates for exactly which country we’re talking about for this one. Hungary, Poland, and Italy are all possibilities. Leaving voluntarily is more likely than expulsion, as the good old UK has provided a precedent, if not an especially encouraging one.

I would probably admit that this is a fairly long shot for 2023, and is included here mostly because of my ghoulish curiosity to see exactly what the fallout might be. But it’s not impossible.

(5) A war to break out for control of one or more of the metals required to build EVs

This is going to be a tricky one to adjudicate, because of course the ostensible justification for the war will be something else. I remember a sardonic comment by a US General around the time of the First Gulf War to the effect that he wouldn’t be there if Kuwait’s principal export were carrots. I don’t expect to see that level of honesty in the future.

As for the specifics, I would expect either cobalt or lithium to be the metal in question, although there are plenty of others. Although many of these minerals are largely mined in China, of course it won’t be China on the receiving end. The picture is further complicated by the fact that some of the candidates for “liberation” already have wars going on – the Democratic Republic of Congo comes to mind.

But I am pretty sure something along these lines will be tried as it becomes clear that the ambitions expressed by several major(ish) industrialised nations to transition to EVs will require a lot in the way of physical resources. More, indeed, than are actually available, although you won’t hear that admitted publicly until it can be blamed on the reluctance of the evil [insert name of bad guys here] to roll over and just let us have their stuff.

So there you have it. If you’d like to chip in with your own predictions, or tell me why you think one or more of these won’t happen – well, feel free to leave a comment below!

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On death and rebirth

Nothing can dwindle to nothing, as Nature restores one thing from the stuff of another, nor does she allow a birth, without a corresponding death.

Titus Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura, Book I.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to write a post at each of the four quarters of the year concerning what each of them represents. It’s a useful exercise, if only because it reminds us of our physical connection to, and dependence on, the natural world. It actually does matter whether or not the sun shines, as solar-energy enthusiasts are now belatedly (re)discovering.

The particular turning-point we are approaching now – at least in the Northern Hemisphere – is the winter solstice. It’s the shortest day of the year, and the moment at which the long pendulum of the seasons begins to swing back around towards spring, even as winter is just getting going.

That’s a thought that many of us will need to cling onto this winter, at least in the UK and Europe. Times are already hard for many of us: short of money, short of energy, and short of ideas. There are so many strikes going on right now that I can’t even list them all. Teachers, rail workers, postal workers, even nurses for heaven’s sake. In a completely unsurprising development, UK house prices are dropping like a rock as most people are struggling to pay their existing mortgage/rent, let alone take on a new one. There’s a shortage of eggs. There’s a shortage of turkeys (just in time for Christmas). Some supermarkets are putting security tags on cheese in case those who can no longer afford it are tempted to nick the stuff.

I don’t know how bad it’s going to get over the course of this winter, but it will be pretty bad. I’m old enough to remember the grim times of the 1980s, when we had rioting in the streets, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it got worse than that. The safety-nets have been fraying for years, and I doubt if the welfare system will cope, not that it is even intended to cope these days.

The British people are notoriously phlegmatic; “Mustn’t grumble” is practically the national motto. But it’s as if the government is trying to see how far they can push it before people actually kick off. And they’ll have to kick off, because public protest is now illegal for all practical purposes, and I don’t think too many people believe that Sir Keir Starmer KCB KC, a.k.a. “The Worker’s Friend,” is the political messiah who will fix any of this, even though he will probably win the next general election on the anybody-but-these-idiots platform. (I almost said he would probably be our next Prime Minister, but the on current form the Conservatives could still get in a couple more changes of leadership before 2024 rolls around.)

I’m not especially reassured by the news that the German government has apparently just thwarted a plot for a coup d’ḗtat. Given how badly the last right-wing takeover worked out for them, there must be a significant measure of desperation amongst the people at large for this to have struck anyone as plausible. I’ve heard similar rumours about France, although it’s always hard to distinguish genuine revolutionary fervour from the normal background level of French rambunctiousness.

Not so long ago, Mrs Thatcher came to power in Britain on the back of the so-called “Winter of Discontent.” We can surely look forward to plenty of discontent this winter, and we’ll be lucky if nobody takes political advantage of it in the same way she did. If we ever get anything that calls itself a Government of National Unity we’ll be in deep, deep trouble.

But this, too, will pass. Let’s remember that our species has survived an entire Ice Age. It’s not always fun to live through a time of what the economist and Nosferatu look-alike Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” (the Thatcher years being but one example), but sometime it really is creative. We are, after all, going to have to find new ways in which to live – new to us, if not new under the sun. We will have to unlearn a lot of what we think we know, and learn a great deal that may seem strange, if not repugnant. That’s not going to be unalloyed fun, although it might not be as grim as you imagine.

And there’s something real to be gained at the end of all this. As the saying goes, you should never waste a good crisis. (This one has been attributed to everyone from Churchill to Machiavelli, so there’s probably some truth in it.) We may run short of eggs, but we aren’t going to run short of crises. Despite all the management-speak baloney about every crisis being an opportunity – these are the sort of people who, had they been captain of the Titanic, would have described striking the iceberg as “challenging” – when things fall apart, there is a genuine opportunity to put them back together in new and better ways.

Now is a good time to start imagining what some of those ways might be. What might a future world you want to live in actually look like? How are people’s basic needs met? How are the decisions that affect your life taken? What skills do you need to live, and how did you acquire them? How will your children acquire them?

We think we know the answers to those questions, but as events are proving, we really don’t. You can see that as terrifying or see it as exciting, and the reality is it’s probably going to be a bit of both. To answer them, we need to start having many conversations with one another that aren’t happening yet, or only happening in pockets. Join in one of those conversations if you can find one, or start your own.

Winter is here. Spring is coming.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the Vast Machine

We are being watched, but who is in charge of the watching? Although some of us freely offer up our private lives to the Vast Machine, we have no knowledge of how the information is being used and who is using it. Criminals can duplicate our identities. Corporations can manipulate our spending behavior [sic]. Governments can manufacture opinions and crush dissent. We are seen, but they are faceless. We are asked to live in a transparent house, while the forces of power are concealed.

John Twelve Hawks, The Golden City

I could have done this as a book review, either of this volume or (more likely) of the whole Fourth Realm trilogy (The Traveller, The Black River, and The Golden City, in case you don’t know). Instead I thought I’d pick out one of the major themes of that trilogy for discussion. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t read the books – they’re terrific, fast-paced, and contain plenty of other interesting things.

The Vast Machine is also referred to in the books as the Panopticon. The original Panopticon, whose name is the Greek for “everything [being] seen” was a design for a prison – never built – devised by the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The idea behind the design of the Panopticon is that a single guard stationed in a central tower can potentially observe any inmate at any time, without that inmate’s knowledge. Bentham’s key insight is that from the inmate’s point of view, this is effectively the same thing as 24/7 monitoring, because they can never be sure that they are not under observation at any given moment. Therefore all the inmates will be well-behaved all the time. If you’re running a prison, this is pretty much the perfect outcome, especially as you only need one member of staff on duty – say three guards working eight-hour shifts – plus, presumably, a few goons on hand to punish any infractions, at least until the inmates get the message.

By the Vast Machine, a.k.a. the Panopticon, the author means the immense network of (mostly automated) systems which monitor the lucky denizens of industrial civilisation in every aspect of our lives. On a literal level, there are numberless cameras watching our public spaces, especially in the UK. Some of those cameras are connected to various artificial intelligences, such as the ANPR systems which track vehicles by their registration numbers (license plates, for US readers). But of course there are even more watchers in the cyber realm: whenever you pay on your card, visit a website, post on social media, or even move around while carrying a mobile phone, you leave a digital trail that is stored and analysed by entities which you cannot even put a name to, let alone control. And that data will persist indefinitely, and is even a traded commodity.

Utilitarianism, which was more or less the intellectual creation of Bentham and his good friend James Mill, is an ethical system whose influence is still very pervasive. We don’t think of it that way, any more than fish think of water as being very pervasive, but it is. It is often characterised as seeking “the greatest good of the greatest number,” which, like a lot of formulae, sounds terrific until you think about it.

The huge question this formula begs is, of course, what is good? There are plenty of answers to that, but the “easy” answer is simply material well-being. It isn’t hard to see the appeal of that to people who want to sell you things. After all, in order to be happy, don’t you need this season’s must-have eyebrow pencil? It also isn’t hard to see the appeal to people who simply want to control you. And there has never been any shortage of people like that. Even in a social group as small and innocuous as a bridge club or a scout troop one can usually spot a potential Pol Pot.

Now it is true that living in a village is not unlike living in a Panopticon, except that the prison guards are your neighbours, The sanctions are likely to be less drastic, though, and the rules are on the whole less arbitrary. You may even have some input into them yourself. Communities based around survival – and that’s what a village is, when you get down to it – have two sets of norms: one set which lays down the kind of behaviour needed to go on surviving, and another set which, in the finest traditions of social primates, determines whether you are One Of Us – that is, the sort of person likely to go along with the first set.

But a lot of the time this is going to come down to basic common sense. If you live in a fishing community, you can expect to get the cold shoulder if you devote your life to developing an effective torpedo, and rightly so. Even a Utilitarian could see the sense in that. And the rules of the average village are likely to be somewhat more liberal than those of the average prison. Plus it’s usually possible to leave a village and go and live somewhere else, a practice that prisons typically frown upon.

Is it possible, though, to leave the Vast Machine? It gets harder all the time. There are suggestions, for example, that we should move to a cashless society – that is to say, a society in which every single transaction can be monitored and recorded and assessed in real time. (That will be the last time you chuck a few coins into a busker’s hat.) There is endless scrutiny of travel. I remember reading somewhere in Bertrand Russell that when he was young it was considered a mark of how oppressive Tsarist Russian was that in order to go there you had to get a passport. Today there are few international boundaries where a passport (or other officially-recognised ID) is not the minimum requirement to enter; certainly none that I know of amongst the soi-disant developed nations – by which we mean the industrialised nations.

This trick has been tried before. It is, indeed, as old as civilisation, if by civilisation we mean the practice of living in, or under the domination of, cities. It was tried all the way back in the third millennium BC by the Third Dynasty of Ur; over in China, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang gave it the old college try in the third century BC; “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1) – and so it goes on.

Will it work this time? After all, Qin Shi Huang didn’t have computers or CCTV. For myself, much of my hope rests on my first-hand knowledge of how fragile and chaotic a lot of this stuff is; those who have not peered behind the curtain, as most of us have not, probably imagine things are much better-organised than they in fact are.

But the mere fact that an immense amount of effort and expense would be required to turn today’s rather Heath Robinson IT infrastructure into the smooth glowing thing of techno-fantasy is no guarantee that it will never happen. Certainly the motivation to make it happen is there. Consider that the Great Pyramid was built, so far as we know, by people without iron tools, let alone sophisticated. machinery. And their motivation is far less obvious.

If you don’t want to be chipped and barcoded as if you were a box of paperclips, what are your options? Well, there are plenty of things you can do, although you should be prepared to be treated as a weirdo by many of your family and friends and also to find that your life will become slightly more difficult in small and mysterious ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get off social media, in all of its forms. All of those sites exists primarily in order to harvest your personal data; that’s why they don’t need to charge money. (As the saying goes, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”) As a side benefit, you won’t waste any more of your time and energy being swept up in the Two Minutes Hate du jour, and you might even find something useful outside your echo-chamber.
  • While you’re at it, ditch your smartphone. By all means have a phone; I’m not suggesting you should stop speaking to people, quite the reverse. But smartphones have become the Telescreens of the21st century. They do not exist primarily for the benefit of the person holding them in their hand. If you need one to find your way around, learn to read a map. It isn’t hard; people have been doing it for centuries. Or maybe even ask an actual person for directions.
  • Pay cash. There’s nothing wrong with paying cash. Businesses pay a fee to accept credit or debit card payments; you’re actually doing them a favour by paying cash. If the payee decides not to put that payment through the books, that’s between them, God, and the tax authorities. You’re just paying for your stuff.
  • And make sure you pay some of that cash to local food producers. After all, you’re going to have to deal with these people sooner or later, so you may as well make friends while times are relatively good, You’ll get to eat fresh, healthy food, and if you end up learning to cook from scratch that’s a bonus. After all, skills are better than money in the bank: they can freeze your bank account, but they can’t confiscate your recipe for chili con carne.
  • Read things printed on paper – books, newspapers, magazines – rather than the on-line equivalents. The battery won’t go flat, and you aren’t reliant on wi-fi. Nobody is tracking your eye movements while you’re reading a book, which they may be if you’re reading a website. And you are much less likely to end up on a list of Bad People. By the way, don’t fall for any guilt-trip about “dead trees” – the amount of ecological damage caused by data centres is untold, and you can easily compost a newspaper.
  • While I’m on the subject of reading, read widely, both in space and in time. By which I mean, read writers from other times and places. Stephen King says in his book On Writing that writing is like telepathy. We can access the thoughts of other people in other times: the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, has been pushing up the daises for the thick end of two millennia, but we can still read his Meditations, without even having to master the classical Greek in which he wrote them. Give it a go. You might get some perspective on your current circumstances, or even learn something new.

None of these things will cost you much money; some of them will even save you money. All of them will, in different ways, give you a bit more autonomy as an individual. Moreover, they’ll make it a bit harder for the guard in the central tower to see exactly what you’re up to.

Of course, if you’ve read this far they’ll already know about it. Welcome to the Vast Machine.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On education

In George Orwell’s prophetic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the various government ministries are named for the opposite of what they actually do: the Ministry of Peace is responsible for the perpetual state of war, the Ministry of Plenty is in charge of rationing, and so on. (I will admit that I was a little worried in 2007 when the UK government created a Ministry of Justice.) Is the Department of Education really that different?

Education is rather like prison, in that nobody is quite sure exactly what it is for. But everyone is quite sure what education – and prison – are supposed to prevent. It’s more explicit with prisons, because there are people that most of us can agree should be locked away to prevent them from doing more harm. My Uncle Raymond is a case in point. I have only the vaguest memory of him as a person, but I’m quite glad he was prevented from carrying on the stuff he was doing.

In theory, education is the “drawing-out” (Latin educare, e(x) (out) ducare (lead or draw, as in conduct), that is to say the drawing out of a child’s innate potential. Those of us with a classical bent – even more bent than having a tendency to reference Latin etymologies – might even be thinking of the passage in Plato’s Meno where Socrates elicits a geometrical proof from a slave-boy, thereboy showing that the slave-boy knew it all along without realising.

In practice, of course, none of this high-mindedness applies. I imagine, dear reader, you passed through at least some fraction of the official educational system in an industrialised nation, as I did. There was not a great deal of drawing-out to be seen. There was, on the other hand, a good deal of putting-in, or at least an attempt at putting-in.

It was the Prussians, God bless them, who laid the foundations of our modern school systems. For various historical reasons, Prussia was very much oriented towards the military, and a key objective of their system was therefore to produce people who would do what they were told. It’s entirely understandable that they should do this. The initial impulse came with Frederick the Great’s Generallandschulreglement at the end of the Seven Years’ War, a conflict in which Prussia was almost annihilated by the combined forces of France, Austria and Russia.

The main features of this regime are: segregating pupils by age, as opposed to (say) aptitude; having a standardised curriculum; and making teaching a profession, rather than something that certain people simply do as a matter of course. In many societies, those people are known as elders. I’d just like to take a moment to point out that industrial civilisation seems to be mysteriously elder-free. Ask yourself if that is a good or healthy thing.

As it turns out, having a general population that will do what you tell it is extraordinarily convenient if you happen to be running a factory. There are, of course, bonus points if those people happen to be drilled in those particular skills that you require. And, of course, the Prussian model has education be a function of the state, so the factory-owner is only paying a relatively small part of the cost. What’s not to like?

I was an exceptionally fortunate child. For one thing, my mother was an infant-school teacher, so I knew how to read before I ever went to school, as did both my siblings. (This caused much consternation when I got there, as it violated the rule that children of age X must know exactly Y, neither more nor less.) For another thing, my father had grown up in a family imbued with the spirit of working-class self-improvement that produced institutions like the Workers’ Educational Association and Ruskin College. The house I grew up in was therefore filled with books, and while we never had much money I always knew as a child that I could rely on my Dad to spring for an interesting book (always second-hand).

In many ways, therefore, my actual education occurred outside the official system. I regarded that as merely a system of hoops through which I needed to jump in order to obtain the various totemic pieces of paper which it can provide and to access the promised land of university. I did that, and I can’t complain too much about the results, but as a system of education it was not impressive.

Here’s the thing. Nobody emerges from the womb exactly the same as anyone else. Even identical twins have their differences (ask one if you don’t believe me). Therefore treating every child as if they were a lump of pig-iron is never going to bring out the best in them. There are kids who are ready to learn to read at the age of three. There are kids who aren’t ready to learn to read until the age of seven. Maybe there are even kids who never need to learn to read at all. (After all, nobody did until we came up with writing just a few short millennia ago.) To decree some arbitrary standard for all children is to guarantee that many will fail.

When I first went to school, I could already read to a reasonable standard. In a system designed to draw out the pupil’s talents, this would have been a cause for celebration. Of course, it was a complete disaster. I was taught to read a second time using a thing called the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which I’d like to think has died in a fire now, and with excellent reason. If that had any educational value at all, which I doubt, it prepared me slightly for the study of Greek, which also has a phonetic alphabet. Although their only shared character ɷ is pronounced differently, so go figure. Even at the time, the whole thing seemed like an attempt to retard my education, not advance it.

In every human society – in all places and at all times – there has been some process to convert a newborn infant into a functioning adult who can participate fully in that society. That process will be different where different results are required; it is one thing to be an Inuit hunter and quite another to be a Roman senator or a Javascript developer in California. But there will be some process there, and that, in the broadest sense, is education.

One of the oddest things about our civilisation, compared to the way most human societies seem to have managed this throughout history, is the way this process has been formalised. Nobody amongst the !Kung bushmen holds a diploma in the gathering of mongongo nuts. It’s just something you learn how to do when you live in the Kalahari.

It may be that in a couple of generations’ time the fetish for certification will have been abandoned. I’d like to think people could once again arrive at a way of living fitting to the challenges of their actual lives. But in order to get there, we will need to rediscover a kind of creativity and flexibility that our ancestors knew but which is utterly foreign to the kind of education we are foisting on our children today. If I had school-age children today, I think I’d want them to be home-schooled. After all, in most respects, I was.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On free speech

Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.

Benjamin Franklin, On Freedom of Speech and the Press (1737)

Let me begin by stating frankly that I am not, personally, at all bothered about Twitter. I do not have, and have never had, a Twitter account. (Or Facebook Meta, Instagram, Pinterest, or [insert name of social media thing here].) If Twitter disappeared in a puff of smoke tomorrow, it would have essentially zero impact on my life. Indeed, if Twitter had never existed in the first place, it would also have had essentially zero impact on my life.

I speak, therefore, as a non-Twitting member of the general populace. What interests me about it – far more than the not especially interesting face that a billionaire has been bought out by another billionaire; plus ça change and all that – is that a poll was recently conducted to determine whether to re-admit Donald Trump to its hallowed virtual turf. Apparently, 52% of those who expressed a preference said that he should be so re-admitted, which presumably means 48% said he shouldn’t.

Now I am not especially keen to hear more from Mr Trump, although (1) as a non-Twit I won’t have to and (2) as a non-US citizen I don’t suppose he cares what I think. What is interesting here is that it is such a controversial proposition that someone so prominent in American public life – after all, in case anyone has forgotten, he used to be the gosh-darned President – should be denied a platform from which to express his views. After all, isn’t the First Amendment to the US Constitution supposed to guarantee free speech?

Well, apparently free speech is like democracy. You can say whatever you like, so long as we agree with it, just as you can elect whichever government you choose, so long as we approve of it. (Hard luck, Salvador Allende; no mandate for you!) It is, of course, so different for those unfortunate people groaning under the heel of, say, the Chinese Communist Party, who can only say things approved of by some different value of “we”.

But who exactly is this “we” that determines what can be said, or who can be voted in? How did they get to be in such a position of authority? Is there, indeed, only One Truth that everyone must accept, One True Answer to every question that can be asked? I don’t think it’s just me and Ben Franklin that would answer that with a resounding No.

I hear things all the time that I find deeply offensive. People in positions of authority routinely say things that I consider wrong, stupid, and frankly dangerous. (Very few of them, of course, would care much even if they knew about that (see above, under “democracy”).) There are certainly times when I wish that chorus of idiots would just shut the hell up. Then again, it’s entirely in my gift what measure of my attention I choose to give to them. There are plenty of other people, both alive and dead, who deserve it a whole lot more.

It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with the late Mao Zedong, but: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” After all, isn’t that what liberalism is meant to be about? Although, having said that, I may have missed the news that John Stuart Mill has now been cancelled, possibly due to having been the wrong sort of feminist. But I digress.

Free speech is necessary for free thought, and free thought is necessary for intelligent thought. It’s hardly controversial to suggest that we need as much intelligent thought as we can get to deal with all the stuff that’s in store for is in the near term, not to mention the medium and long term. I dare say even Mr Musk would agree with that proposition, although his notion of intelligent thought is perhaps not quite the same as mine.

Whether or not Einstein said so, we really can’t solve our problems using the same thinking by which we created them. If, however, the only thinking allowed is the One True Way, then surely we never will. And we see this everywhere. The One True Way, for example, is endless growth and endless consumption of more stuff, regardless of how much stuff there is. The One True way is endless growth of the human population, regardless of the impacts on the non-human population or how grim the lives of most of the human population will be. The One True Way is happy motoring, in EVs if necessary, even if we can’t generate the electricity, let alone manufacture all the necessary batteries and electronics, to make that happen. And so on.

It is a still rarer occurrence for me to find myself in agreement with David Icke than with Chairman Mao, but really, it doesn’t have to be like this. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have existed on this planet, after all, it has not been like this. Indeed, it hasn’t been remotely like this, and there’s a decent case to argue that human societies have often chosen otherwise. From where I’m sitting, that looks like a smart call. Why wouldn’t you choose to live in a way that gives you personal autonomy and your community every prospect of future prosperity?

An obvious answer to that question would be that the question could never be asked. That, after all, would be wrongthink. A really well-educated population – that is to say, one that had been trained never to think critically – would never even be able to form such an idea. (Why yes, I am considering a post on the education system, now that you mention it.) If you have been taught to drive a car on the assumption that the steering-wheel is merely decorative and that the accelerator pedal must always be flat to the metal, you are going to crash hard at some point. Right now, we are all driving in that car, and most of us are passengers.

It’s time to start thinking freely, and that means speaking freely. Some people are going to find some of those things hard to hear, and that’s okay. Shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre if the theatre is in fact on fire has some merit, after all. But we can’t go on as we are. You don’t want to be in that car when it hits the wall, whichever wall that turns out to be.

Of course, that’s just my two penn’orth. You’re free to disagree.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the suppression of agriculture

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution,

Warning: Contains book recommendations. Proceed at your peril.

Only a complete idiot, of course, would want to suppress agriculture. But apparently we now have complete idiots in charge of our food supply. Consider this video by a UK poultry farmer, explaining the shortage of eggs: not the result of avian flu, but of the refusal of supermarkets to pay farmers enough to cover their increasing costs. The same is equally true for dairy farmers, and has been for a long time now. Likewise small-scale pork producers. Costs go up, prices stay the same, and eventually farmers stop farming.

Increasingly, the only way for farmers to survive is become a large-scale industrial producer. But this means they are completely in hock to the supermarkets, which are becoming the only distribution channel unless the farmer is lucky enough to be able to sell directly to the public. They are also hugely vulnerable to price increases in their inputs, If you have a million commercial laying fowl in barns, you are going to be spending a lot of money to feed those birds and to heat those barns. When those costs go up – and they have gone up a lot recently – you’re in trouble, unless the supermarkets are kind enough to pass on the price increases which they are imposing on the buying public to their suppliers. Which they aren’t.

None of this is especially new. Joanna Blythman‘s excellent book Shopped, which I have recommended here before, had all of it well-documented back in 2004, and none of it was especially surprising news even then. But it is now reaching a point where farming, in any meaningful sense of that word, is becoming almost impossible. For those of us who like to eat food – which I imagine includes you, dear reader – this is an issue.

Sweeping decisions about agriculture are now being made by people who apparently can’t tell a pig from a pitchfork. Consider the Dutch government’s edict to close down their livestock farmers, with the results pictured above, or the Sri Lankan government’s catastrophic decision to move over to 100% organic agriculture overnight. It’s not that organic agriculture is a bad thing, but the fact that those in power apparently thought it could be achieved at the press of a button.

On the other hand, your organic farming methods need to be the officially blessed ones, or you could end up in deep trouble. If you don’t believe me, ask Amos Miller, who is looking at a $250,000 fine for producing organic food in what the authorities deem to be the Wrong Way. As farmer Joel Salatin put in the title of his 2007 book, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.

I certainly don’t dispute the fact that industrial agriculture needs to go away and be replaced by something that can actually be sustained, not to mention providing the people with adequate nutrition. Frankly, it is becoming embarrassingly obvious that it is going to go away, whether we plan for that transition or not. But the transition can be eased tremendously by well-informed and judicious policies. There seems to be little sign of these breaking out.

Small farmers are, of course, anathema to the sort of “big-picture” morons who are calling the shots these days. This has been the trend for a long time. “Get big or get out,” said US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz back in the 1970s, earning himself a particularly scathing chapter in Wendell Berry‘s magisterial The Unsettling of America (1978). Arguably, in England this goes back as far as the Enclosure Acts.

Why is this? For a long time, after all, the yeoman or small farmer was considered to be the backbone of the nation, not only supplying us with food but also playing a vital military role. (It was just the same in the Roman Republic before there was a standing army, so this not a parochial point, either in time or in space.) Why would anyone object to that?

Well, there may be a clue in the fact that the Russian for yeoman is kulak. Stalin was prepared to risk a major famine to stamp out the kulaks, in which he was ultimately successful – both in stamping out the kulaks, and bringing about a major famine. The farms were collectivised; that is to say, the kulaks were made to get big or get out (in this case, to Siberia). This event, incidentally, is ingrained so deeply in the collective memory of the Ukrainians as to be a major contributory factor to the present war. But we digress,

Stalin was a totalitarian, and so is Tesco. That may sound like an extreme assertion, but really, Tesco would like to have a monopoly on all food sales in the UK, and collectively the UK supermarket sector is not far away from achieving that goal. At that point, they will have a complete stranglehold not only on British farmers but on the British people in general.

After all, how is it possible to coerce a yeoman? The yeoman is able to provide not just food but other necessaries such as clothes (ever wonder about the term “homespun”?) and medicines. Before formal schooling, people learned the skills they needed by doing, under instruction from experienced adults. Basically, between them and their neighbours they had pretty much everything they needed to live, and to live reasonably well. Yeomen only tend to get shirty when outsiders – overlords, for example, or governments – try to oppress them. And they are well-placed to resist oppression.

It is a good deal easier to oppress people who are in no position to resist. This includes farmers just as much as the rest of us. The kulaks put up quite a fight against Stalin, and although Stalin won in the end it was at immense cost and hardly a cause for celebration. If you are in charge – and it doesn’t matter if your intentions are good or ill – what you want is a docile population that will go along with whatever your prescription happens to be for the earthly paradise.

It would be extraordinarily convenient if those people only knew food that came from a shop, water that came from a tap, and value that flowed from the state-issued currency (ideally in a cashless society so that all expenditures can be monitored and controlled). The last thing you want is people who are to any degree self-reliant. After all, such people may not do what you tell them, and then where will you be?

One last book for your consideration: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott (Yale University Press, 1999). Even if you are deeply convinced that Tesco is your friend, this may perhaps convince you that this may not help as much as you might suppose in terms of outcomes.

Of course, we don’t actually need food, do we? We can just eat this stuff instead. It’ll be fine. Right.

This is what the buffet will look like at the next Davos forum. Definitely.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the atomisation of society

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Mediation xvii, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624)

You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to have noticed that the official response to the Covid-19 pandemic tended to accentuate a trend that has been developing across industrial society for the past few decades: the tendency to separate people from one another. During the height of the pandemic, people were forcibly isolated in large numbers. Physical proximity, let alone actual contact, was explicitly forbidden. People died alone because their nearest and dearest were excluded. It was forbidden even to look upon the face of another.

The economic damage is well-known, but not enough attention, it seems to me, has been paid to the psychological damage. What long-term harm has been done to children who have been taught to regard other people as dangers to be avoided? Will they be able to form normal relationships with others as they grow up?

The so-called “Partygate” scandal in the UK, which contributed to the departure of Boris Johnson from office, showed that those supposedly in charge of managing the pandemic response didn’t really believe their own propaganda. Much was said of Johnson’s disregard for his own laws, which I agree was bad enough, but more significant is the (further) damage done to public trust in official pronouncements. This is not going to help, for instance, with the government’s response to climate change, assuming there ever is one of any substance.

“[W]ho is society?” Margaret Thatcher famously asked, “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families….” Forty years on from the Thatcherite revolution, she would seem to be right; and there are barely even families any more. Even the camaraderie of the workplace, such as it is, was denied to many people during the lockdowns. All you could do, really, was sit at home and consume.

This process had already been well-documented in the US in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, published back in 2000. Putnam was specifically concerned with the decline in democratic participation, but he located the causes for this firmly in the factors contributing to the atomisation of US society. The institutions that used to bring people together he found to be in widespread decay; I can’t help feeling the echo of this in the widespread collapse of the British pub, already underway before Covid and more recently the hikes in energy costs threatened the precious few that remain

It may be a coincidence, although I doubt it, but all this is eerily reminiscent of the grim dystopian vision of mainstream economics. I have discussed elsewhere the many shortcomings of the conventional economic world-view. This transformation from a world of collectives to a world of pure individualism almost looks as if economists, unable to build a model that adequately reflects social reality, are reshaping society so that it will be a better fit for their models.

It’s certainly a very convenient trend if your wish is to manipulate people into doing what you want. If everyone is more or less paranoid about those around them, they will find it impossible to unite against whichever thing you wish to impose upon them. During the Industrial Revolution, laws designed to prevent this sort of thing were quite explicitly titled: “An Act to prevent Unlawful Combinations of Workmen” (39 Geo. III, c. 81) passed in 1799, and others followed.

As someone who lived through the 1970s, it is interesting to see the renaissance of the British trades union movement. We’re now seeing union leaders who sound uncannily like the men we used to hear daily on the news back in the day, leading organisations with names like UNISON and Unite. To be sure, this is driven primarily by economics; in a harsher environment, people necessarily group together to defend their mutual interests. The members of the Bilderberg Group are doing much the same thing, after all, just in a better class of hotel.

But I think there’s more to this than economics. In the UK, and I would think across much of the industrialised world, the mass of people are getting very close to the edge. Those who are employed have little or no security of employment, and their employers increasingly treat them as if they were expendable, interchangeable resources. Despite having a job (or jobs) they are dependent on state benefits, which can be arbitrarily withheld at any time. Typically they are massively in debt, as this is their only access to any kind of material capital such as a home, a car, or even a washing-machine, and they are therefore extremely vulnerable to rising interest rates, which again are outside their control. Consequently they have little or no discretionary income and effectively no chance to save any significant amount to give themselves a hedge against the future.

This isn’t just the lower orders I’m talking about here. The middle class is feeling the squeeze as well. They may have larger and more impressive houses, but that’s not much consolation when they get repossessed. The professions are often not unionised, or are represented by historically non-militant bodies. But even the Royal College of Nurses has voted to take industrial action to improve pay and staffing levels, a step it had never even contemplated since its foundation in 1916.

As I have pointed out many times, we are social primates. Being social, living in groups, is hard-wired into who we are. Aristotle already knew this; his well-known saying that “man is by nature a political animal” (Politics, Book I, §1253a) clearly implies it. This is not to say that the natural state of affairs is for everyone to be one big happy family. On the contrary, as Aristotle’s observation also recognises, to be human is also to be part of a clique. But there exists a sociological equivalent of the strong nuclear force which makes us tend to clump together.

For this reason, I don’t believe that this project, if we can call it that, to uproot and disrupt and as it were colonialise society at all levels, can succeed in the long term or even be sustained for much longer. That is the upside. The downside, however… well, to continue my analogy with physics, consider the effects of nuclear fission. You don’t want to be standing too close if that kicks off.

Society cannot and will not be reduced to individuals, however convenient that might be for some parties. But as individuals, we can help de-atomise our world. Get to know your neighbours, if you don’t already. Join clubs – actual, physical clubs where you go to some location and mix with other human beings who share an interest, whatever it might be. If you can’t find one, start one.

It takes a village to raise a child, the saying goes. But actually it takes a village to do a great many things. Whatever the future brings, it will be easier to deal with if you aren’t facing it alone.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On amnesia

The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

In my more paranoid moments – and which of us isn’t prey to a few of those nowadays? – I sometimes wonder if there aren’t some people who take Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as their template for the ideal future of our civilisation. It certainly seems to be working out that way sometimes.

Consider the telescreen. In the novel, these are in every home, and serve two purposes: they are a vehicle for Party propaganda, but they also allow surveillance by the Thought Police. Aren’t these functions perfectly served by social media, especially when consumed via smartphone? The modern world has gone one better than Orwell; we carry ours around with us everywhere, and moreover pay good money for the privilege.

Social media is also the home of another Orwellian institution, the Two Minutes Hate. I think we can all recognise this description:

Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

But the thing I want to draw attention to this week is the way in which what was true or important yesterday magically ceases to be true or important today. This has always happened, of course, but it seems to me that it happens more often and more blatantly than it used to, even over my lifetime.

Seen much in the news lately about the Syrian civil war? Probably not. Is this because the Syrian civil war is over? Nope. It’s still going strong. People are still dying, there’s still a huge refugee crisis, all that stuff that used to be all over the headlines is still happening. It’s just been dropped from the news agenda. A cynic might suggest that this is because the evil Assad regime (they must be evil because they’re clients of the evil Russians) has not been swept away by the heroic freedom fighters (a.k.a. the clients of the USA) as was supposed to happen, and it’s all a bit of a mess.

All propaganda needs a nice clear story-line. You need to be able to see who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. But as Orwell points out, these roles can be reassigned as required. Consider the career of the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein. He was installed as dictator of Iraq by the USA in order to oppose the evil Iranians (you can tell they’re evil because they have oil and prefer to dispose of it on their own terms rather than the ones America would prefer). So long as he performed this role, Saddam was one of the good guys, and he could do what the hell he liked to the Marsh Arabs or anyone else he didn’t like. Only when he decided to start thinking for himself and maybe selling his oil in a currency other than the US Dollar did his white stetson mysteriously become black.

An even more striking example of this mutability of virtue is the late Colonel Gaddafi. By a spooky coincidence, he also controlled substantial oil reserves. Gaddafi enjoyed a long and colourful career as the Libyan Antichrist. He was blamed for pretty much any and every terrorist attack for many years; indeed he seems to have embraced this, and claimed responsibility for things he had nothing to do with. At his peak, he was almost as ubiquitous a scapegoat as Covid-19 or Vladimir Putin.

Yet even he was brought back to the fold when he denounced the 9/11 attacks, and for a time he was the blue-eyed boy, best mates with Tony Blair, removed from the official list of bad guys by the US, and even paid a subsidy by the EU for helping to curb illegal immigration from North Africa. Despite this, however, his new friends in the West shed no tears when he was deposed and killed, providing air cover for rebel forces.

It’s not just recent history that’s getting the Orwell treatment. Hollywood has of course always played fast and loose with the facts, and many of us already know that “Inspired by true events” usually means “Mostly made up” – although perhaps not enough of us. But the recent film The Woman King is quite spectacularly mendacious even by Hollywood standards. While the female warriors it depicts did exist, they were by no means anti-slavery; the historical Kingdom of Dahomey was heavily dependent on the slave trade, and those women took an active part in slave-raids. It’s almost as if they’d remade Schindler’s List with an SS officer as the hero.

The most impressive attempt to rewrite recent history going on at the moment, though, has to be the campaign to pretend that the claims made for the various Covid vaccines were never in fact made, either by the manufacturers, public health authorities, or politicians, and even that there were never any lockdowns. It was claimed, as we remember, that vaccinated people would not catch the disease and would not pass it on to others. It was also claimed that the vaccines were safe. Those claims may or may not have been made in good faith, but they aren’t looking so robust now.

I can only assume that the people trying to deny all this are either so detached from reality that they think people will actually believe this tripe over their own lived experience, or so desperate to avoid the likely backlash that they’ll try anything. The public health policies of many nations were founded on these claims, and it’s far from clear that those policies did more good than harm.

Who knows, maybe they’ll get away with it. They may need to expunge quite a few criminal records, and they’re certainly going to have to delete an awful lot of video footage. And it wouldn’t be the first time Joe Biden put his foot in it – just ask the State Department. Perhaps one day the pandemic which was supposedly the worst thing since the Black Death will be quietly forgotten, just like the Syrian civil war.

But I hope not. I hope Lincoln was right about the impossibility of fooling all of the people all of the time. Winter is almost here, and naked emperors may find it less than comfortable. Will enough people buy into the Party line du jour to maintain business as usual? Maybe for a while, but certainly not forever. Keep a journal. The history of the next few years may be interesting, and it can’t hurt to have an independent record.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the Day of the Dead

Life is wasted on the living.

Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the \Galaxy

This post appears on the first of November: All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows (hence Hallowe’en for the previous evening). In Celtic tradition it is Samhain, the mid-point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. In Latin countries it is the Day of the Dead, a time to remember and honour the dead, and also to celebrate life. It’s a family occasion, a time to visit graves and to familiarise the new generation with those who went before.

I have discussed elsewhere my view that one of the great failings of our present-day civilisation is our inability to accept, or even acknowledge, the fact of death. It leads us into such ludicrous displays of hubris as to try and stop the outbreak of a novel coronavirus by ineffective and profoundly counter-productive measures, including the quasi-compulsory rollout of inadequately-tested vaccines that, it is now apparent, did not prevent the virus from spreading, as we were assured they would. (I know everyone is now claiming that no such assurances were given, but anyone with a longer memory than a goldfish knows that they were, quite apart from the abundant video footage of everyone from Joe Biden down saying so quite unequivocally.) Apparently we couldn’t handle the idea that anyone might die.

More generally, we end up having a dysfunctional relationship with our own history. We aren’t quite at the level of the Incas, who treated their dead as if they were still alive, going so far as to ask their opinion in political debates, but we very much want to imagine that the dead were in all respects the same as us, and answerable to our standards. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to occur to people who think this way that one day they will die and future generations may not agree with how they lived. Driving cars may well seem to them as appalling as widespread chattel slavery does to us.

The Day of the Dead is an opportunity for us to acknowledge that we are a part of the larger current of human history. The dead are still a part of us; without them, we wouldn’t even be here. Our language, our food, our customs are all bequests to us from the dead. Without a connection to the past – which implies a connection to the dead – the world is bizarre, arbitrary and incomprehensible. It’s like being one of those people who wakes up with total amnesia.

These days we are much exercised by colonialism. One of its distinguishing features, it seems to me, is the desire to eradicate the traditions of the colonialised and replace them with one’s own. In this sense, the Roman Empire was not a colonial empire, because the Romans didn’t really care what you got up to so long as you kept the peace and paid your taxes. Consider, for example, what the British did to the last Sikh Maharajah, Duleep Singh, when they conquered liberated his kingdom in 1849. He was converted to Christianity, made to cut off his hair – which is a big deal for a Sikh – and ended up living like a country gentleman in a castle in Perthshire. To take another example, the Spanish invested a lot of effort in destroying the manuscripts of various central and south American civilisation, without for the most part knowing or caring what they contained. And so on.

In a perverse way, it seems to me that we are now engaged in colonialising ourselves, at least in this sense. Many of our ancestors thought, spoke and acted in ways that are repugnant to us. This has certainly been the case for many of the dead themselves: the subjects of Queen Victoria, for instance, were horrified by the loose morals of their Regency predecessors, a point of view which was reversed by their more permissive successors, and so it goes.

Let us take a moment to remember The Family Shakespeare, an edition of Shakespeare’s plays with all the naughty bits removed by a lady named Henrietta Maria Bowdler and her brother Thomas. (Do follow the link to Wikipedia; some of the example edits are hilarious.) In so far as this is remembered at all, it is in the word “bowdlerise,” which is not usually meant as a compliment. But we can only afford to be amused by this because we still have the unexpurgated texts. If The Family Shakespeare was the only version we had, we would be much the poorer.

(Of course the Bowdlers weren’t the first people to muck about with the Bard. For many years, King Lear was performed in a version that had a happy ending, which it’s fair to say is not quite what the author intended.)

If we cannot acknowledge the dead, if we cannot accept that they still live in us, then we will lose everything they have to give to us. We will turn ourselves spiritual, social, cultural and intellectual orphans. This would be foolish at any time, but in an age of profound and multi-dimensional crisis such as we now confront it verges on the suicidal. Just because Marcus Aurelius owned slaves doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything of value to tell us about dealing with loss, for instance.

At this time of year, according to tradition, the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead becomes thin and permeable. The dead can appear to us; perhaps speak to us. I for one will take good advice wherever I can find it.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.