Sunday, January 01, 2012

The year when the word ‘progressive’ lost all its meaning

After the events of 2011, radical humanists will have to fight hard to reclaim the p-word

After the experiences of the past 12 months, it is difficult to give meaning to the idea of a ‘progressive worldview’. Throughout history, progressives came in many shapes and sizes, but whatever their differences might have been, their convictions were similar - they were driven by a positive view of change, innovation and experimentation and by a belief that the world could be a better place tomorrow than today. Despite clashes of opinion over what progress would look like, they assumed that the future could be influenced by political action.

In 2011, the classical ideal of progressivism died, having been displaced by a zombie version that has little to do with the forward-looking, transformative outlook of progressives of the past. The only practical context in which the term progressive is used today is in relation to taxation. Progressive taxation makes sense, of course, because society is entitled to expect greater material contribution from those who earn more than others. But in recent times, progressive taxation has been transformed from a sensible fiscal policy into a naive instrument of social engineering. Historically, the aim of progressives was to realise a positive transformation, whereas today their objective is merely to rearrange the status quo through redistribution.

In recent years, the zombie version of progressivism has become closely linked with the idea of ‘social justice’. Social justice can be defined in many different ways, but in essence it expresses a worldview committed to avoiding uncertainty and risky change through demanding that the state provides us with economic and existential security. From this standpoint, progress is proportional to the expansion of legal and quasi-legal oversight into everyday life. From the perspective of those who demand social justice, the proliferation of ‘rights’ and redistribution of wealth are the main markers of a progressive society.

Paradoxically, the idea of social justice was historically associated with movements that were suspicious of and uncomfortable with progress. The term was coined by the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in 1840. His aim was to reconstitute theological ideals on a social foundation. In the century that followed, ‘social justice’ was upheld by movements that were fearful of the future and which sought to contain the dynamic towards progress. Probably one of the best known advocates of social justice was Father Charles Edward Coughlin. This remarkable American demagogue and populist xenophobe set up the National Union of Social Justice in 1934. Through his popular radio broadcasts, which regularly attracted audiences of 30million, he became one of the most influential political figures in the United States. Coughlin praised Hitler and Mussolini’s crusade against communism and denounced President Roosevelt for being in the pocket of Jewish bankers. Here, ‘social justice’ was about condemning crooked financiers and putting forward a narrow, defensive appeal for the redistribution of resources.

Today’s campaigners for social justice bear little resemblance to their ideological ancestors. They’re far more sophisticated and middle class than the followers of Fr Coughlin. But they remain wedded to the idea that the unsettling effects of progress are best contained through state intervention into society. They also maintain the simplistic notion that financiers and bankers are the personification of evil. The current Occupy movement would be horrified by Coughlin’s racist ramblings, yet they would find that some of the ideas expressed in his weekly newspaper, Social Justice, were not a million miles away from their own.

The confusion of social justice with progressivism is symptomatic of today’s implosion of classical political vocabulary. Although this trend transcends left-right political affiliations, its most striking manifestation is in the disintegration of the language of the progressive. Recently, Francis Fukuyama, in his essay ‘The Future of History’, remarked that ‘something strange is going on in the world today’ - which is that despite the intensification of the global crisis of capitalism, anger and frustration have not led to an ‘upsurge in left-wing alternatives’. This ‘lack of left-wing mobilisation’ is down to a ‘failure in the realm of ideas’, he argued.

What 2011 has confirmed is that the way in which the term progressive is used today has little to do with how it was used in the past. The most striking manifestation of this can be seen in the utter estrangement of the left from the idea of progress. The left, classically a movement that was associated with change and progress, has gradually lost its capacity to believe in the future. For most of its existence, the left looked upon the future as a place that would probably be significantly better than the present day. Social change was perceived to be, on balance, a positive thing, and the left tried to harness it towards the realisation of progressive objectives. The present was seen as something which had to be improved upon, reformed or transformed. Today, by contrast, what remains of the left is just as uncomfortable with the future as are other sections of the political class.

Sadly, the confused state of the political lexicon was turned into a virtue in 2011. Political illiteracy came to be celebrated as ‘the new radicalism’. This was the year when commentators extolled the strength of a movement that ‘defies simple characterisations’ - that is, the Occupy movement. Many claimed that the virtue of these occupations is that they refuse to communicate a distinct political message. Instead of serving as a reminder of contemporary disorientation and confusion, political illiteracy was rebranded as a new and subtle form of communication.

2011 was the year when Hal Ashby’s 1979 comedy-drama movie, Being There, provided the model script for political communication. The film follows Chance, a simpleton played by Peter Sellers, whose banal words are interpreted as wise insights springing from a powerful mind. Suddenly, through a series of accidental events, this former gardener becomes a celebrity whose confused musings are held up as a new brand of prophetic insight. Today, ‘being there’ forms the entire basis of the new radical politics. And it is those who question the incoherent ramblings of the characters of ‘Being There 2011’ who are dismissed as hopeless simpletons. ‘Those who deride [Occupy] for its lack of concrete demands simply don’t understand its strategic function’, lectures Gary Younge of the Guardian. Apparently, its strategic function is to ‘create new possibilities’. One can almost hear Chance wowing his audience with inane talk of ‘creating new possibilities’.

The tendency to dismiss clarity of purpose and objectives as old-fashioned and unnecessary represents an acquiescence to confusion and ignorance. It is one thing to lack the political and intellectual resources necessary to formulate a new visionary politics - it is quite another to depict this deficit as a positive thing. When the American political consultant George Lakoff said ‘I think it is a good thing that the Occupy movement is not making specific policy demands’, he gave expression to a zeitgeist that is pleased just to ‘be there’.

But of course, being there is not enough. Public life needs to be refocused around the future, and the reconstitution of progressive politics and ideals is the precondition for making this happen. In the end, what matters are not the words we use to describe ourselves; no, the differences that really matter today are where one stands in relation to the past and the future. Those who are interested in the reconstitution of progressive politics must help to free humanity from its fixation with the present. They need to reacquaint the younger generations with humanity’s history and the lessons of the past, and also adopt a more robust and active orientation towards the future. In 2012, let’s not just pass time being there…


British Labour Party is led by the privileged class

A close ally of Ed Miliband has attacked Labour’s leadership for being too elitist – meaning it fails to connect with working-class people. Lord Glasman, a leading academic and friend of the Labour leader, said senior politicians in the party were drawn from ‘too narrow’ a group of Oxbridge graduates. He warned that their privileged backgrounds had become a ‘crucial’ problem for the party.

Mr Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls both have degrees in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford.

Lord Glasman’s comments will add to Mr Miliband’s woes following a series of disastrous polls showing that his support is falling. A recent ICM survey gave the Conservatives a six-point lead over Labour, putting them on 40 per cent, up two points in two weeks.
Labour had fallen by two points to 34 per cent, meaning the Conservatives are enjoying one of their biggest poll leads since the 2010 General Election.

In an interview with the Labour Diversity Fund website, Lord Glasman said: ‘One of the crucial problems we have as a party is that we have brought our leadership in from much too narrow a group.

‘Basically Oxbridge graduates, in particular economics graduates, politics graduates, social scientists and lawyers. We need to reconnect to working-class communities, we have to reconnect to ethnic minority communities and bring up real leaders from within the people we represent.’

However, Labour sources hit back, pointing out that the Shadow Cabinet is more diverse in background than the Cabinet. More than half of the 23-strong coalition Cabinet went to Oxford or Cambridge and the majority were privately educated.

Eight members of the Shadow Cabinet had an Oxbridge education.
Maurice Glasman has been dubbed Mr Miliband’s ‘de facto chief of staff’ by party insiders and has written speeches for him.

But he has made a series of attacks on Labour, accusing the party earlier this year of having ‘lied’ to the British people about the extent of immigration.

His comments about the Oxbridge backgrounds of Labour’s leaders came after a leading Tory policy thinker warned that the working class is being excluded from politics. David Skelton, deputy director of the No 10-friendly thinktank Policy Exchange, said: ‘Politics today is notable for its absence of leaders and leading figures from working-class backgrounds. 'Working-class people are again being shut out from Parliament’s long corridors.’


Lessons from Dharavi, India

This long front-page report in today’s New York Times is fascinating. Here’s a list, in no particular order, of some of the lessons that careful readers take away from it:

- The relevant question to ask about any social situation – including that of the slum dwellers in Dharavi – is “compared to what?” By the standards that even the poorest of us in the 21st-century west are accustomed to, living and working conditions in Dharavi are worse than appalling; by the standards of the people living and working in Dharavi, their living and working conditions are better than their alternatives.

- Social order is spontaneous. The order – the complex and nuanced pattern of interactions – that prevails today in Dharavi was not designed by any overlord or sovereign; this order evolved and changes spontaneously. And again, while that order appears to western observers to be unacceptable, it is working for the people of Dharavi: that order and what it provides to Dharavians is superior to what Dharavians left behind – and, hence, to what would be available to these people if they were forced out of Dharavi and back into their villages.

- At least large numbers of people – at least at very low levels of income – care less about not lowering their relative economic standing and status than about raising their absolute level of material well-being. Better to be very poor in a city boasting nearby opulence than being very, very poor in a village where incomes are ‘distributed’ more equally.

- People peacefully and cooperatively, and with little or no encouragement or direction from the state, create and seize opportunities for mutually advanageous production and exchange.

- Even illiterate, dirt-poor parents will sacrifice to ensure that their children have better opportunities than they, the parents, have. Such parents even often pay for their children to attend private schools.

- (Following from the previous point:) The relevant time-horizon for judging the merits or demerits of any social arrangement is not just one generation. Mama and papa frequently are willing to endure risks that make their lives worse if the result of accepting those risks is a significant enough increase in the prospects for their children’s lives being made better. (This theme, btw, is beautifully woven throughout Russ’s book The Choice.)

- A great deal of recycling occurs when it is economically profitable.

- The greedy, crony-capitalist, rent-seeking itch that gave rise to the property seizure theft at issue in the odious Kelo decision is not unique to America or to the west; it is, sadly, universal.

- The familiar mantra “poverty causes crime” is far too simplistic; perhaps it’s incorrect.

- America’s unemployed poor people are vastly wealthier than are many employed, hard-working people in ‘developing’ countries such as India.

- Being desperately poor – poor to the point of being physically debilitated – does not necessarily cause people to surrender to the fates; to quit; to do nothing save beg either directly or indirectly (by pleading for government handouts). Even the poorest of poor people often find peaceful and productive ways to make themselves (and their children) less poor.

- To make the previous two observations is not at all or in any way to imply that current unemployment in America is acceptable or that unemployed or poor Americans should be grateful. To make these observation, though, is to highlight one of the many fruits of sustained economic growth. The ability to remain unemployed for long stretches of time without suffering genuinely severe economic hardships such as malnutrition and no access to indoor plumbing reflects the benefits of capitalist growth (which itself is possible only because of capitalist dynamism and change). Better to live in a society in which if you are a discouraged worker you remain unemployed for a long stretch of time than to live in a society in which any sustained period of unemployment means your death.

Meanwhile, India’s government throws another noose around the neck of that country’s formal economy – a noose that slows and shrinks the prospects for Dharavians to improve as much as possible their and their children’s lives – a noose that can serve as Exhibit A in the case for why Indians still have in their midst informal-economy slums such as Dharavi.

SOURCE (See the original for links)

Australian law does allow legal reprisal against online defamation and hate speech

But it is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. And the ultimate defendant may not be worth suing

Welcome to the world of hate blogging. A reported defamation payout of $13,000 by the TV book show celebrity Marieke Hardy gives us an inkling of the dark side of the blogosphere.

Hardy has been the victim of some poisonous blog posts for more than five years by someone assuming the name of "James Vincent McKenzie".

It's distressing stuff and naturally Hardy is offended. Her error was accusing, in one of her own blog posts, the wrong person as being the author of these "ranting, violent" attacks.

Under a naming and shaming exercise with the Twitter hashtag of #mencallmethings she pointed to her own blog, which said Joshua Meggitt was the person responsible.

Meggitt had posted critical remarks about the First Tuesday Book Club on ABC TV, where Hardy is a regular member of the panel, but he was not the author of the extraordinarily nasty "James Vincent McKenzie" blog. Hence, the payout and apology to Meggitt.

So who is James Vincent McKenzie? The comments on his blog make all sorts of helpful speculations - Kyle Sandilands, a jilted lover, Jack Marx, even Hardy herself.

The blog appears recently to have changed URLs, which adds to the trickiness of the enterprise. Presumably, if McKenzie's true identity could be revealed, Hardy might be on her way to getting back her $13,000. After all, she is just as much a victim as Meggitt.

What is alarming is the propensity for hateful and anonymous blogs to continue publishing after the online host would be aware of the content.

How safe can the identity of McKenzie remain? The site which he uses is operated by Google, based in California and registered in Delaware. It requires a Google account and gmail address.

One person posted an online comment about this yesterday, saying they had tried to report the McKenzie blog to Google, which replied that it is not responsible for any allegedly defamatory content and it does not remove defamatory, insulting, negative or distasteful material from US domains. It claims that under US law internet services, such as the blogger site, are republishers and not the publisher.

That's all very well, but increasingly Google finds it cannot hide behind these waivers of responsibility. In this country, republishers can be liable for defamation when they have notice that what they are republishing is actionable.

If she had the time, a small fortune and determination, Hardy could apply to bring discovery proceedings in a US court.

McKenzie is in breach of the blogspot terms and conditions, which require compliance with the laws of the country in which the blogging takes place. In any third-party proceedings, the offender also would be required to indemnify Google.

Proceedings overseas may not be necessary. In October, the Supreme Court of Queensland ordered Google Australia to cough-up the details of the identity behind a blog that called a Gold Coast self-help guru a "thieving scumbag".

Last year, a judge in Ireland gave permission to the Irish Red Cross to start proceedings against Google in California in order to obtain the identity of an anonymous blogger who had posted what the charity claimed was "distorted confidential" material. Italian and French courts have held Google liable for defamations that arose from "autocomplete" search requests.

In England, the Demon internet service provider was found to be liable for defamation after a judge held that the "innocent disseminator" defence didn't wash once an ISP had notice of the offensive content.

The principles of the Demon case got an airing in the Supreme Court of Western Australia in Ives v Lim. There, the material under consideration was published on a blog site owned somewhere in the Russian Federation. Justice Rene Le Miere said: "In principle, a person who creates a website that hosts an interactive blog may be liable for defamatory material posted by third parties."

Further, courts have ordered the identity be revealed of people who have made unpleasant comments on newspaper websites or on internet travel sites.

It may not be a real identity but at least the IP addresses of the computers used to post the comments can be located.

The NSW Supreme Court judge Robert Hulme in October found that Google and other global publishers, such as Facebook and Wikipedia, were not out of reach as far as internet take-down orders were concerned, in relation to a pending criminal trial.

In the Gutnick case, the High Court decided a defamation by an offshoot of The Wall Street Journal occurred where it was read, Melbourne, not where it was uploaded. [In the Gutnick case an Australian businessman who has been convicted of no crime was portrayed as "a schemer given to stock scams, money laundering and fraud", with no evidence adduced to support such a scurrilous accusation]

Despite the internet looking like a game of Twister, Hardy is not without a remedy. However, at the end of the rainbow she may find "James Vincent McKenzie" doesn't have a cracker to bless himself.



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 Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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