Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Freedom of speech as an aid to certainty

by Sean Gabb

When I review the contents of my mind, nothing ever strikes me so forcibly as the fact of their insignificance. I am approaching the end of a long and expensive education. I have open access at my university to libraries which contain all human knowledge. I read quickly and retain what I have read. Nor is my reading confined to one language. And yet, the more I read and perhaps learn, I only become more aware of my own immense ignorance. There is so much that I not only do not know but that I never shall know, that what little knowledge I do have seems as nothing set against it.

The greater part of this ignorance is, of course, inevitable. I have at the most only another 70 years or so to live, and possibly much less. Ten times that long would be too short for me to know all that there is to be known. Let me therefore concentrate on knowing one or two small disciplines, and with that ambition let me be contented. No one - not even a great genius - could despise me on account of this.

Yet there is another side to my ignorance which, though equally inevitable, is not always so readily excused. For there was a time when I used to sneer at the credulity of past generations - at how people once accepted the wildest nonsense as infallible truth; at how when any ray of genuine truth entered their minds, their normal response was to shut it out again. Today, however, I feel rather less superior… and I know that, like any mediaeval man in church, I believe often without proof, and sometimes even without understanding.

I believe, for example, that the world is round. Yet how, on what I presently know, could I prove this if required? I have the evidence of my senses - from when I look at the horizon. But I know from other instances that my senses often deceive me - as when I look at a straight stick that appears bent when put half in water. Why should the horizon not equally be an optical illusion? I have the elegant little proof of Eratosthenes, who took simultaneous measurements at Alexandria and Syene, and found the intervening distance to form an arc of one great circle. But while I understand the reasoning behind his proof, I have never once felt inclined to demonstrate it. I believe that the world is round because I was told so at school, and because all my geographical books and informants tell me, or indicate, the same. I hold this truth, therefore, on authority and might well be embarrassed if ever seriously asked to justify it.

The same applies regarding the world’s place in the universe. I have no sensation of its doing other than stand still while objects in the sky rise and set. I have never personally watched the retrograde motion of Mars, nor looked through a telescope at the phases of Venus. As I write, I am absolutely unable to argue on a scientific basis that the earth orbits the sun and not otherwise. I found my cosmogony in books, and uncritically accepted it.

Elsewhere in physics, I learn of some particles which only exist for 10-^17 seconds, and of others which have no mass. Looking at the jumble of numbers and Greek letters which take up page after page in the more advanced textbooks, and at the peculiar names and terms in the main text - Quarks, Charmed Quarks, Anti-Charmed Quarks, Gypsy Particles, etc - I despair. I feel happier with the dogmas of the Hypostatic Union than with this mass of nonsense. Yet I would never dream of sneering at it. I can imagine no new Voltaire poking fun at these modern mysteries. Insofar as I have any opinion regarding them, I accept them without question. The men of science have spoken. Who am I to say against them?

Now, I accept opinions on authority, and confess that I do without shame. Yet I also accept that my authorities have not always a single voice. Indeed, like a path through a great forest, truth is often more easily seen by those who follow than by the pioneers. We return to the instance of cosmogony. When the evidence is examined rather than merely taken for granted, perhaps there is no question now that the Copernican improves on the Ptolemaic theory. Tycho Brahe, however, the most eminent astronomer of the 16th century, thought otherwise. On the one hand, Copernicus had assumed a circular orbit for the earth, and not, as Kepler did later, an elliptical one. Brahe, quite honestly on this account, found the new theory scarcely more reliable for prediction purposes than the old. On the other, he argued, if the earth truly were moving through space, this motion would have to be apparent to us from the shifting of the planets relative to the more distant stars. It was again only in the next century that astronomical distances were revealed, so allowing this parallactic shift to occur, but not perceptibly without sensitive measuring instruments. Quite possibly, much that I now accept on trust is mistaken, and much that I scorn by example is the truth. Bearing this in mind, what is it that separates me from the mediaeval man in church, who subscribed to or recited anathemas against doctrines which were to him strings of words without overall meaning? What is it that saves me from the charge of being an uninformed bigot?

The answer is simple: Free Speech. When I believe without proof, I do so confident that someone else has not believed without it - that someone will have conceived an idea, and published it for the inspection of other experts in the relevant fields of study. It may quietly be accepted as a useful advance, or pointedly ignored as not worth refuting. It may stir up the wildest and most prolonged controversy. Of one thing, however, I can be sure This is that the idea will have been examined by those whose chief immediate object is the finding of truth, and who, if drawn away from that search - by desire to flatter some prejudice, or gain some worldly advantage - will be quickly exposed as frauds by the more honest majority. Certainly, what emerges from this process may not always be the truth. Human reason is fallible, and does not become perfect when collected in a large mass. But, if not always the truth, what emerges will at least, in the opinion of those best qualified to know, have the balance of probability in its favour. There is, in the modern West, no question of one side using against the other the compelling arguments of the torture chamber and the auto da fe - nor, to come into the present, of the labour camp and the firing squad. The coercive authority of the State, whenever it extends into argument, can only destroy my confidence. For it turns a contest of reason against reason into one of reason against power. It allows me no longer to assume that what is written is probably right, but makes me wonder when I read what interest is being served by the writer.

Freedom in commercial matters encourages a division of labour. To be exact, it lets me have shoes without my being a cobbler. It does much the same in the realm of knowledge. It assures me whether the races really are equals in intellect without my being an anthropologist, what pollution is doing to my surroundings without my being a government scientist, whether cigarettes or heroin really are bad for me without my being a doctor. It gives all of us the confidence to believe more than we could ever have time or aptitude to find out with our own unaided intellects.

And, while I still live in a country that allows freedom of speech, I never need be ashamed of admitting to this kind of ignorance.


Apologists for these thugs should hang their heads in shame: A stinging rebuke from an inner-city youth worker

The riots in London over the past three days may have been shocking, but much of the response to these appalling events has been all too predictable.

As the smoke clears over the wrecked buildings and the torched vehicles, a growing army of apologists has indulged in an orgy of excuse-making for the widespread violence. We are told the rioters have been motivated by their rage at inequality, deprivation and unemployment. Some have blamed police brutality; others have wailed about ‘Tory cuts’ or the closure of youth clubs.

But such explanations are as misguided as they’re immoral. In reality, there is no justification for the outbreak of carnage that’s gripped the capital. What we witnessed was despicable. Far from representing a political act, it was nothing more than a mixture of mindless criminality and opportunistic materialism. There was no 'legitimate grievance' behind the mass thuggery, only feral mob rule which should have no place in a civilised society.

Those hand-wringing over today’s riots would have us believe the explosion of savage behaviour represents the modern cry of a disaffected people, struggling in the inner city under the yoke of economic and state oppression.

The shrill defence of the rioters is an affront to the thousands of people who live in straitened circumstances in the inner city, yet who did not loot or set vehicles ablaze or hurl missiles at the police.

Indeed, the biggest victims of the frenzied mayhem are the law-abiding, hard-working citizens — black, white and Asian — of the areas including Tottenham, Brixton, Hackney, Lewisham and Streatham (where I live) who have been made homeless, had their businesses destroyed or their livelihoods ruined in these senseless and disgusting attacks. They are the ones who have suffered the greatest injustice, not the bullying youths rampaging through the streets.

There are, of course, concerns about the incident in Tottenham which triggered the riot, when a man who had a reputation as a gang leader and drug dealer was shot dead in a clash with the police. An investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission is under way.

The anguish of the dead man’s family is understandable, but what is deplorable is that local speculation about the conduct of the police has spiralled so wildly out of control.

This combustible hysteria has no sense of proportion, no moral imperative. Why has the same fury not been displayed over the mounting catalogue of black-on-black knifings and shootings in our cities? Why were the police the target of loud demands for vengeance, while gangland killers are rarely the subject of such outrage?

Tragically, young black people are using guns to kill each other with alarming regularity, but very few people ‘in the community’ — save distraught relatives — kick up a fuss. Yet when the police kill an alleged crack-dealing gangster, the so-called ‘dispossessed’ of our inner cities go crazy.

This is by no means to downplay the tragedy for the dead man’s family, but the eagerness of community leaders to focus all indignation against the police, while ignoring the lethal realities of gang feuds, displays a warped double standard which is hindering the acceptance of moral responsibility.

In truth, the rioting has nothing to do with any concept of justice and everything to do with a twisted sense of power and spirit of brute materialism.

There is no rationale that can legitimise the desire to set a bus ablaze or smash in shop windows. The portrayal in some quarters of the rioters as idealistic heroes striving for the rights of their community, as though they were latter-day followers of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, is as preposterous as it is blatantly untrue.
Thuggery knows no colour. We have seen plenty of white youths joining in the looting, too.

These young people wholly buy into a shallow culture of instant gratification. Oblivious to traditional ideas of hard work and social obligation, they seek to grab what they want, whether it be a new set of trainers from JD Sports or a flat-screen TV from Currys.

For all such condemnation, however, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. The police may have made more than 100 arrests in the past couple of days, but most youths in the inner city have no involvement with violence whatsoever. The thuggery is confined to a hard-core minority.

In my spare time, I work as a volunteer mentor in Peckham, an even more deprived neighbourhood than Tottenham. Most of the young people in my scheme wear hoodies, but all are fine, upstanding citizens. Not one is in a gang or involved in criminal activity, and all are seeking to better their lives through education. Unlike the rioters and looters, all of them have a fully functioning moral compass.

We should also recognise that this kind of mindless aggression, masquerading as protest, is not confined to the world of inner-city black youths. Over the past year, we have witnessed disgraceful scenes on the streets of the capital, where the perpetrators have largely been white, privileged middle-class students.

Charlie Gilmour, son of a millionaire rock star, is a symbol of this pattern, having been jailed for 16 months following his conviction for violence during the tuition fees protest last December. Gilmour’s swinging from a Union Jack on the Cenotaph was just as great an insult to public decency as Saturday night’s looting in Tottenham.

Nor is vicious materialism by any means solely the preserve of black youth culture. Thuggery knows no colour. We have seen plenty of white youths joining in the looting, too.

In fact, we see this nasty, self-centred mentality all round us — reflected in the greed of bankers over their bonuses or MPs over their expenses. The pernicious spirit of instant gratification and ruthless entitlement transcends race and class, undermining the codes of morality that once built our civilisation.

That is why these riots are different to the unrest that gripped Britain in the early Eighties, epitomised by the flames of Toxteth and Brixton. Then, there were justified grievances about social exclusion and police heavy-handedness. But none of that applies today. Things have vastly improved for ethnic minorities since then. Job and educational opportunities are far greater. Contrary to what the Left claim, public resources have been poured into the inner cities.

After the Brixton riots in 1985 there were several regeneration schemes and today Peckham has a state-of-the-art library and new art gallery. The quality of the social housing stock has been transformed.

Attitudes among the police are also much better, as shown by Operation Trident, a highly successful community-driven initiative to combat gun crime within the black community.

But none of these changes will help if the worst aspects of youth culture are not tackled. Too many young people will never reach their potential if they are allowed to remain in their mental ghettoes. Education unequivocally provides the best path for young people out of the ghetto, both geographical and mental. That also means providing guidance and discipline, rather than pandering to their shallow teenage whims.

It is our own politically correct cowardice that has been the greatest force behind their marginalisation.


“In the public interest?” Yeah, right

A motley crew of left-wingers is using the fallout from recent scandals to grab a bit of influence for themselves

Taking advantage of Hackgate and the banking and MPs expenses crises, a section of liberal thinkers is vying for greater influence by launching a campaign against the straw man they dub the ‘feral elite’. Worst of all, they are doing it under the façade that they are representing the interests of the public, who it’s clear they hold in contempt.

They may call their campaign In the Public Interest. They may be calling for ‘a new jury of people to put the public interest first’. But it’s evident from the outset that In the Public Interest supporters have no interest in reflecting what the public is actually interested in. Because, surely, if you were going to randomly select a panel of 1,000 members of the public to act as a ‘jury’ of what’s in the public interest, the first, most glaringly obvious thing you would do is ask them what social and political issues concern them?

That’s far from obvious to this campaign, established by the left-wing pressure group Compass. After all, they already know what’s in the public’s interest. How could the issues that most concern the public be anything other than those In the Public Interest has already determined the public jury will examine? These are media ownership, the role of the financial sector in the crash, the selection and accountability of MPs and policing. Surely such a choice is self-evident given, in the words of the campaign’s founders, the ‘waves of extraordinary public horror’ in reaction to Hackgate and other incidents?

Far from it. In reality, there was no such collective sense of horror among the public after Hackgate. As Frank Furedi has observed previously on spiked, it was instead confined to a ‘narrow stratum’ of British society: ‘People in the pub or on the streets are not having animated debates about the News of the World’s heinous behaviour. Rather it is the Twitterati and those most directly influenced by the cultural elite and its lifestyle and identity who are emotionally drawn to the anti-Murdoch crusade.’

The same can broadly be said about the MPs’ expenses scandal and the financial crash, neither of which invoked the public outcry opportunist members of the media and political classes often claim it did. And, following the knockout blow the public gave to the electoral-reform lobby in the referendum on the Alternative Vote earlier in the year, how ‘selection of MPs’ is seen to be a burning issue among the populace is simply baffling. ‘Policing’ is simply added to the list without explanation, as if this was self-evident.

Not wanting to leave anything to the public to decide in this proposed jury, In the Public Interest has even helpfully pinpointed the cause of all this ‘horror’ the public are experiencing, something they dub the ‘feral elite’: the ‘politicians, bankers and media moguls [who] share a common culture in which greed is good, everyone takes their turn at the trough, and private interest takes precedence over the public good’.

They even go so far as to dictate the outcomes of their proposed initiative, which would be ‘a new public-interest test with ethical procedures for the corporate world… and the proper treatment of national assets, services and utilities; and the outlawing of excessive concentrations of elite power in places like banking or the media’. Offending members of the ‘feral elite’ would also be mandated to attend public hearings – just like the Murdochs did in parliament - where members of the public can grill them on issues that In the Public Interest has ordained are relevant.

Astoundingly, this clique of campaigners is actually attempting to masquerade as the public. In an open letter to the Guardian – where else? – a gaggle of luminaries claim: ‘Only we, the public, can hold power truly to account by testing whether what happens is in the public interest.’

‘We the public?’ There is not a single shred of evidence of a groundswell of public support or demand for such an initiative. In fact, if you click to see who their supporters are on their website, the only signatures you can view are figures deemed ‘influential’ enough. Either public support is lacking, or they don’t want to sully the petition with the names of insignificant, irrelevant plebs who might put their name to it. Or both.

In an article outlining their intentions, the campaign’s founders are at least a little more forthright, admitting: ‘There is an irony in that this call is coming from another group of the self-appointed and self-righteous. But in today’s celebrity world, this is the only way left to draw attention to an issue; and the issue is, letting the public decide.’

For people who claim to have faith in the public’s ability to decide, their complete disdain for the ability of the public to be able to draw attention to an issue of concern to them is simply breathtaking. The only way the interests of the feeble demos can be heard, it seems, is if a few celebrities bang the drum loud enough for the little people to be given a platform.

It is true, however, that it’s a bit ironic – and, many would likely add, more than a bit rich – that this campaign is being undertaken by ‘another group of the self-appointed and self-righteous’. What we have here is nothing more than a left-wing section of the liberal elite, emboldened to the point of atrocious arrogance, jockeying for greater power and influence as the hollowed-out condition of the right becomes apparent. They are, it should be noted, already making a complete hack job of it, managing to alienate swathes of groups and individuals who would, if the campaign had been approached differently, likely have proven enthusiastic bedfellows.

But this new self-appointed and self-righteous clique is actually far more insidious than even the most caricatured version of the coterie of ‘greed is good’, Gordon Gecko types they claim to be calling to account. Not just due to their slippery, underhand attempts to cloak their own special interests in democratic garb, but also because of their contempt for the idea that the public is capable of engaging in democratic activity without the help of a carefully-managed ‘public jury’. Individuals can make their own minds up without being spoon-fed about what their interests actually are and without having ‘celebrity’ campaigners getting their concerns heard for them.

In truth, the In the Public Interest campaign is about as far from being in the interests of the public as you can get.


Mining boss slams 'soft' Australians

A workforce dominated by soft, satisfied idealists is "pissing away" Australia's position of economic strength and taking the nation backwards, according to the head of a Chinese-controlled mining company with multiple projects in Australia.

Andrew Michelmore, the head of MMG, which has headquarters in Melbourne but is dominated by China, said Australia was suffering from "rich country's disease" and would devolve into a welfare state unless workers rediscovered a hunger for excellence.

Addressing the Australian-British Chamber of Commerce, Mr Michelmore, the former head of Western Mining Corporation, lamented the immobility of the Australian workforce and the resulting skills shortage in remote areas like Western Australia's Pilbara region.

"People can't be bothered moving 25 kilometres to get a job because they will live off social welfare instead, and it's a real worry for me watching Australia have a luxurious time at the benefit of our relationship with China," he said.

More older people and women should be returned to a workforce which was dominated by people with "airy fairy", "idealistic" and "altruistic" attitudes.

"We need to get the grey hairs back into industry and working, we need to get more women involved in work," he said. "We need to get some hunger and drive back into this country, we are becoming soft."

A lack of workers has long frustrated the resources sector as it tries to develop billions of dollars worth of projects over the next decade.

MMG has its headquarters and three mines in Australia, one each in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's national president, Tony Maher, rejected Mr Michelmore's comments. He said they were "a trojan horse for a Chinese labour debate".



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here or Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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