Sunday, 31 January 2016

Lessons from The Exaro Panel Debate - January 27th, 2016

Some were expecting, given the raw emotions and polarisation surrounding alleged VIP child abuse, that Exaro's Panel Debate last Wednesday would be stormy and hard to chair. In fact, it went off quite quietly because this was an audience that responded thoughtfully to some measured and evidence-based contributions from the panellists. It was extended in time considerably because the audience was evidently keen to continue an insightful discussion. 

Esther Baker, speaking for those who have 'survived', perhaps had least to say because she was constrained by the legal requirements of her own situation but she was a valuable corrective to the prejudiced idea that a 'survivor' had to be mentally wonky because of their experiences - far from it in her case. I met one or two other people in her position at the after party who struck me as being perfectly sane and rational after seriously troubling experiences. Robert Montagu, now an author and family therapist, spoke honestly about his own abuse by his 'VIP' father and how child abuse had been embedded as a tolerable norm unquestioned in British elite society. His testimony confirmed me in thinking that, while the particular cases are important, they may be less important than the cultural and public policy problem I have already identified - deferential authority and failure not only at the elite level but throughout our welfare society and within our institutional structures in general.

The two leading journalists, Meirion Jones (formerly a BBC investigative producer on both Newsnight and Panorama) and Paul Connew (a former senior tabloid editor) made it clear that, as experienced investigators, the British libel system and the intervention of big wigs into the law enforcement structure had halted serious investigation in the past. Indeed, what was offered was a picture of a hierarchical structure where those at the top could still undertake acts of impunity in the grey areas of the law and be protected by a legal system that placed the reputation of the few above the experience of the many. The level of historic police 'corruption' (if by corruption we do not mean money and benefits exchanging hands but influence being exerted) in this area was staggering. 

The Savile case was discussed at length. There was damning material - that he was protected as early as 1973, that he would be interviewed by police officers as if he was a minor deity, that he appeared to have had South Yorkshire Police in his pocket (it was claimed that they had even intervened to stop a Surrey Police investigation) and that the early media interest in VIP child abusers came as much from angry whistleblowers upset by the action of their superiors within the system as from victims themselves. The frustration of 'good coppers', contained by libel laws, fears about careers and pensions, undue influence and the misused Official Secrets Act, represent an opportunity for reform but also a problem in terms of their enforced silence that has almost certainly not gone away. This how the system works - using fear and persuasion to keep the 'goodfellas' in line.

The media were not so much complicit in this (though no doubt some at the 'posh end' were) but could not proceed because of lack of evidence. In one case, it was alleged, key files would be 'disappeared' so that a libel action would fail on attempts at disclosure. That was a lot of time and money for a newspaper which is not a charity. We may reasonably accuse newspapers of rank cowardice when faced by serious harms caused to children and teenagers but the libel system protected and protects (less so now) major figures with sufficient resources. At the end of the day, newspapers and broadcasters would have had their reputations damaged when claims would have to have been withdrawn because of lack of evidence with no help for the victims. 

There would have been 'questions in the house', a 'house' whose supine approach to criminality and the protection of its own has become clear with the Janner case. The Whip's Offices are second only to the Churches in remaining ring-fenced from scrutiny. The libel laws were certainly a major and costly deterrent but not the only means of stopping an investigation. Establishment figures (including, allegedly, an attorney general, in one case, writing an untruth to try and stop an investigation) would try to place direct pressure. I say allegedly throughout not out of fear of libel or defamation but because the nature of this system means that, despite the mounting circumstantial evidence of a system protecting itself at the expense of its charges, the way evidence can be managed and manipulated from the top means that it is always hard to say whether any particular claim is true or false. This is why the involvement of independent police investigators is vital - we cannot know what is right or wrong: it is a matter for claimants and those they make claims against and, in law, a police force that takes its job seriously and the DPP and then a court of law. What media pressure has done in recent years is merely help the police to do their job by getting the influence-peddlers off their back and, even then, not entirely. Detaching the police entirely from the political class and the security state should be the number one mission of all of us who care for justice.

So, I am not going to comment on specific cases, past or present. I am told that the entire Debate will be on YouTube eventually so you can make your own mind up (I hope to post the link as a note to this posting in due course) but some general comments can be made. My own conclusion is that this scandal, one that seems to go back deep into history and involve widespread abuse at every level of society, is not so much a case of some major organised paedophile conspiracy (though I am sure we do have self-assisting micro-networks of cruelty and abuse to deal with). What we see instead is a non-paedophile establishment covering up its bad eggs in order to preserve the mystique and power of their institutions and of a wider authoritarian culture in which elite figures (mostly males but also alpha females who have entered the system subsequently) could act with impunity by a form of assumed institutional 'divine right'. 

It is a cultural attitude to authority that is embedded in Judaeo-Christian and Roman values at the heart of our much vaunted but really rather second rate Western culture. Patriarchal is far too simple a term. It misdirects us into gender politics since female higher level executives within the system are just as likely as males to follow this culture of 'omerta' and defensiveness. The older term 'authoritarian' is good enough - not fascist and as liable to be taken up by people who claim to be Left as much as those who claim to be Right. Labour Administrations have behaved just as shoddily as Tory Administrations and we must not forget that the reforming impulse is coming under a post-New Labour Government. The point is that whenever individuals stepped over a moral line, they would have the system coalesce around them to protect the institution represented by the person. The persons in systems simply do not matter. What matters is the system and the person has status and reputation according to the function that he or she performs - the priest is honoured as the representative of God in the parish not as Father X with a penchant for little boys. The system that represents God in parishes across the civilised world will do what it can to protect the priest because that is what Father X has become. The Catholic Church did not come up on Wednesday but this authoritarian mentality derives from its ideology, derived in turn from its deal with the Roman Empire, ultimately translated into Western culture as a whole, into the traditional family and through the feudal prerogatives of the Crown.

It is all a matter of delegated authority being sacrosanct. The subjects of that authority are regarded as problems if they are not willing to accept being tools of authority or if they question authority when it exceeds its apparent moral bounds. Montagu claimed that a past Headmaster at a famous public school beat kids in the nude and that no one would have dreamt of challenging his right to do so. I cannot vouch for that but I do recall a 'master' (there we have it in a word!) at my perfectably respectable day grammar school beating up a 13 or 14 year old before the whole class (and my eyes) and there being no consequences. 'In loco parentis' meant the right to continue the abuse in family life (still, most abuse takes place within dysfunctional families, an intractable public policy issue) as abuse in institutional life - school, chapel, army, workplace bullying.  An elite's authoritarian education inculcated not only the normality of abuse but perpetuated it - no education on how to say no to authority, no commitment to the autonomy of the child and so the adult, no restraints on bad conduct, no one to listen to the victim, no means of redress. The welfare state too, administered by that same elite, was built on authoritarian principles derived from the culture as a whole. Child abuse (possibly endemic in society in any case) was based on an imperial cultural model that was not challenged by but was integrated into the new 'socialist' model as something to be 'covered up' as an inconvenient truth.

The good news is that, while the police were historically an often cowardly enforcement operation for this system in the past, it has since been transformed into a tough agent for independent evidence-based investigation. Other elite institutions, notably the public schools, are also slowly being transformed - the ones, that is, that are not stuck in managerialist targets. There was significant praise onthe panel for both the Staffordshire and Metropolitan Police operations into VIP child abuse currently being undertaken. The rage of the Old Establishment at losing the absolute and unquestioning protection of the police strikes me as at the very root of vicious and provenly false (in the case of Esther Baker) claims about 'survivors' and of the nasty campaigning against those seeking to find the truth (not prove a case) in a mainstream media that has gone into reverse trajectory to the police. The media are (in David Hencke's words) 'schizophrenic', simultaneously lapping up every sleazy tale about noted celebrities and sharing the public outrage at failures of the welfare system yet posturing in defence of individuals already well protected by their own status in society and targeting and diminishing claimants regardless of best legal practice and fairness.

Once we had an investigative media that was interested in exposing bad behaviour but constrained by libel laws and interventions. There was no other outlet (such as social media) at the time for allegations. Now this weak but still willing Press has been replaced by a media that has become supine in relation to the needs of the institutional structures on which it has become a parasite, easily manipulated by skilled establishment lobbyists as well as careless of evidence-based investigation and the needs of justice in regard to claimant protection. When this is all over, the most damaged element in society may not be the 'establishment' (which has the ability if it wills it to reform itself) or the police who may well come out of this with respect and trust renewed. The damaged elements will be those who have not acted or are still hiding in fear of their tattered 'reputations' - the churches (though for some reason, these are still treated with kid gloves) whose moral authority may never fully recover, the welfare system which has let down its most vulnerable charges and the mainstream media which may look increasingly foolish.

In the recent culture wars, the mainstream media required a supine law enforcement system to give way under pressure (as once the police did in the opposite direction), Unfortunately for the media establishment, the police are clearly no longer supine and have no intention of giving up on their investigation though the pressure is on, with the Police Commissioner being given only a year more of his term, partly to get the matter through the May Elections and partly perhaps to set the conditions for closing the thing down if it goes on too long. In fact, the Tory candidate in London Zac Goldsmith has shown interest in VIP child abuse and, though silent now, may prove to be minded to continue the investigation wherever it may lead as a Tory reformer. The position of the Labour candidate seems to be unclear. Indeed, the depressing conclusion may be that the future of the investigation may rest on a Tory reformer defending the rights of the abused over and against a Labour candidate from the Party that is supposed to be concerned about such things according to our political mythologies.

Meanwhile, we see signs that this issue is slowly being politicised as claimants begin to find their voice and may learn to organise. These people tend to be the least educated in society but not entirely - middle class educated victims like Montagu are emerging and there was a call from the floor of the debate for more political action. There is a legislative cause emerging in Compulsory Reporting of Child Abuse (though I remain a little cautious about the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of state intrusion into private life with an ideological agenda attached). It was also clear that the Parliamentary attempt to cover up for Janner, those who did so and (eventually) the role of the Whips Office in covering up vile behaviour amongst Parliamentarians in general is now on the agenda.

This has ceased to be like the Belgian Dutroux case - a worrying single case exposing a probable single network of vicious abusers inside the system - or about the PIE network or about Kincora and the security state in the 1970s and has become a simmering cultural confrontation between Power and those who have some basic moral concerns about the use of that Power, including significant parts of the Establishment itself. This is a classic split in the ruling order. The old guard are attempting very hard to stop discontent amongst the 'elite moralists' spreading into the general population, a population which is, to say the least, confused. Confused in part because some claims will be false and some individuals will be wrongly investigated on weak evidence.

The Establishment (which is simply to be defined as those with delegated state authority or who have the money or networks to influence the State) still has the power to appeal to authoritarian and trusting tendencies in the population, especially the authoritarian working class and the metropolitan 'liberal' middle class who tend to prefer social democratic order to justice for the vulnerable. The case of the BBC is becoming the type case - a case where a trusted institution comes to look frayed at its edges because it cannot understand that trying to delay reports for institutional reasons, trying to mitigate the reporting of its own behaviour and engaging in 'corrective' behaviours that contradict the wider evidence and challenge the process of justice are not things that any institution can get away with easily now. Much of the PR strategy used by the Corporation is out of time and out of place - 1990s strategies for the age when the Sunday Times actually mattered and a certain leading PR could define reputation as 'what they are saying in the dinner parties of London'. The BBC is badly wounded and it can only cling on to Woman's Hour, The Archers, Radio 3, Strictly Come Dancing, Tony Blackburn and Richard Attenborough as its fleet of old dreadnoughts against the inevitable - enforced reform. It actually needs a revolution at the top.

[Disclaimer: I am a Founding Director of Exaro News but one with no influence over editorial policy. The views above and the interpretation of the Panel Debate are entirely my own. When it appears, readers are recommended to watch the debate themselves and come to a view.] 

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Omniscience and Big Data as New Religion

One of the persistent delusions of humanity (taken as the default, though not the inevitable, position of most people who think that they are thinking) is that the universe is not only knowable but that knowability is a necessary good. It might be better for us to draw a distinction between knowing all that we can know and all that there is in our world. The drive to know all that we can reasonably know is the progressive mentality that expands our horizons through science and philosophy but the illusion that that we can know all that is in the world is the basis of religion and absurdity. Where reasonable knowledge intersects with the belief that all can be known or that what is known actually accords with reality is the point that divides the useful from the useless, even counter-productive.

The ancient method of dealing with the problem of total knowledge - the necessity for omniscience - was to displace this knowledge on to an invention - God. God knew everything. We could partake of this knowing indirectly by knowing Him. We, of course, did not and could not know everything but we 'knew' that He knew everything for us and so we felt comforted. The comfort came from believing that Something knew everything and if Something knew everything, then we were relieved of the pressure of absolute knowing but could yet believe that absolute knowing was possible. Belief in an omniscient God would bind the world into a coherent and safe whole no matter what happened to us as individuals. Our priests would know enough to interpret - to stand between Omniscience and our limited knowledge of the world. We could remain relatively ignorant knowing that we only had to strive to know ourselves, know our neighbours or know God through our priests or direct revelation.

If God is dead (though this proposition presumes that there was something there in the first place 'to die'), the inherent human demand that Absolute Knowing be present does not easily die with God. So how does it survive? It survives in sets of belief that have the cover of secular rationalism but which are no less absurd than the belief in a Knowing Subject outside of ourselves of which we can become a part directly or indirectly. Today's grand absurdity is the belief that the totality of information in the world (with all of materiality being presented conceptually and imaginatively as information) might be computed and understood ultimately in mathematical terms. Instead of us individual humans entering into a relationship with the Omniscient God, we are to be able to access this new evolving omniscience through our relationship with the potential total knowledge of 'cyberia', not just the internet and the accumulated knowledge of our current priestly class (the scientific community) but perhaps the evolved mind that will emerge out of the internet and quantum computers. In fact, few scientists would make these claims easily but that will not stop those who are ideologically committed to science and technology.

There has emerged an hysterical tendency in contemporary culture for God not to have been removed but merely to have been displaced into speculative science and fiction. These neo-religious believers, with their own texts, are often highly intelligent but only in the sense that Augustine and Aquinas were intelligent - formally capable of manipulating ideas and facts to come up with creative models of reality that suit their needs not advanced intellectually very far from the medieval scholastic. Just as the medieval scholastic could not critique the base belief whose proven inadequacy would undermine all the rest of his system - the belief in God - so the modern neo-scholastic of technologism cannot critique his belief in the relevance and 'reality' (for really existing humans) of the technological potential for total information. The theoretical constructs of God and Total Information, not being provable, stand together alongside many other absurd human beliefs, telling us that our species (in the mass) finds it difficult not to believe in something even when it purports to rationality.

This is closely related to magical thinking about numbers. That numbers are in themselves containers of meaning beyond quantity and inherently logical calculation is another ancient inheritance, the world of gematria, correspondences and Bible codes. Of course, the use of numbers in association with logic and reason has created an immensely valuable tool for the investigation of reality but that is very different from saying that it is reality or that the radical extension of calculation to its limits necessarily has any relation to any reality meaningful to humanity. If it works and it makes things of use to the human, it has value and may contribute to the manipulation of material reality and the construction of social reality. But meanings constructed out of numbers that are not usable are of no greater status than meanings constructed out of belief. Belief in God may not have had much effect on material reality but they certainly did on social reality - does that alone make God existent? That people believe in Him. For some, then, Thor and the Jedi are real if that is so.

A number that builds a spacecraft or calculates radiation levels in star systems has at least some potential use but a number that postulates an untestable belief about the death of the universe that relies solely on the logic of mathematics does not. Reality elides from Newton's dropping apple to the world of speculative science, the partner of speculative fiction. Exactly where the buck stops and the useful becomes the poetic or magical is always a matter for debate but it is important to know that the elision is taking place. Just because facts at one end of the scale are 'true' (useful and testable), this does not mean that the 'facts' (useless and untestable) at the other end should ever be accorded the same status. There are thus things ('facts') that are actually not formally knowable not only by us but by any total thinking machine since the very idea of a total thinking machine falls into the category of radical speculative science and the totality of all things is not knowable by a part of the whole unless it becomes the whole (the totality of knowledge).  Religion enters by the back door because this final postulated omniscient thing is ... God. God has become (as Tipler suggests) a thing of total information encompassing all things in all time.

But let us come down to earth since the social sciences are also chasing the ghost of total information, albeit not within the universe but within society. We have to ask now whether this particular Emperor has been naked for a very long time. The beginnings of social science are to be found in relatively simpler industrial societies working on data within fairly closed conservative societies that were also within bounded nation states. They told us things we did not before - or rather they revealed ourselves to ourselves in terms of simple narratives that might not tell us all but told us something more than no information would have given us. Today the social sciences continue to tell us something about ourselves but less and less with time because we have become more self-reflexive as subjects of research, societies have lost their conservative character and boundaries have collapsed. The volume of data required to make even simple statements has increased, is highly complex and its components will become redundant quite quickly in time. Yet the number of social scientists and their implicit claims on public policy have grown in proportion to the degree that they can no longer tell us anything decisive about ourselves.

What does the research into British working class life in the 1950s tell us now that is useful for public policy? What actually did it tell us then that was useful to society in the long run? Is working class life better today than it was in the 1950s because of social science research or are working people living in an entirely different world unpredicted by the academics and with unintended negative as well as intended positive consequences of their influence on public policy? Economics is notoriously slippery in telling us anything useful about reality as Paul Ormerod has repeatedly shown us. This is not to say that it is not useful only that it is contingently useful in a restricted way.

Policy that relies on the findings of social science is likely to be intrinsically flawed because it cannot aspire to total information (unless Big Data really does work), is quickly outdated by events, cannot take account of the many things that are going on outside the research and because the research itself is a factor affecting the actions of people themselves as well as those acting on people. Perhaps we can know some big things (more from observing history than from scientific method) and lots of little things (like the sub culture of Goths in Milwaukee over three years). Perhaps we can surmise something useful from meta-analysing lots of little things or contextualising our lives within the big things but the idea that we can know (rather than model inadequately) our actually existing social reality along any lines that are not closer to the traditional humanities rather than 'science' is becoming increasingly threadbare.

The massive interest in 'Big Data' as driver for social policy decisions strikes me as based on a belief system (that internet-based knowledge can provide a good and useful approximation of reality) that is no more reliable than any other belief system (that is, it sort of works when everyone believes nonsense but collapses when even a relatively few question the belief). And there is the self interest of those who propose it and of the social scientists, basically the interest in the system of those who expect to profit from it or, more negatively, fear that they will lose livelihoods and resources if they do not believe in the prevailing wisdom. In this, they will be true heirs to the Churchmen of the Late Middle Ages.

One suspects that we are about to go into another cycle where a plausible belief system has an apparent coherence because no one will critique the core assumptions (like a belief in God or the inevitable withering away other State or the inevitability of a struggle for survival between races). It will create the sea in which the fish of society can swim but which does not accord with reality and which must eventually collapse on its own internal contradictions. Above all, it must collapse eventually on the fact that the claims derived from the ostensible central fact (the core assumption) must collapse because the core assumptions are wrong, in this case that the accumulation of big data can be a true reflection of social reality and that the big data can be successfully analysed to provide meaning that is useful and not part of the problem that it is trying to resolve. This is not to say that Big Data may not have some use but we have to be careful to be critical of it and how it is used and especially how it is used by the new priests of technology - the political class, the academy, the security and policy bureaucracies and the marketeers and accountants - to dictate reality to us. Just because the numbers say the world is thus will not mean it is thus - we alone decide our own reality as self-reflexive humans. If we want to be sheep, we just have to sit back and allow ourselves to be defined as sheep. 

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Sherlock and the Kulturkampf in the West

Is it just me or are the establishment media somewhat overdoing the feminist, multicultural, 'green' and minority messaging in popular culture at the moment? The high (or is it low) point was the ridiculous drug-induced fantasy about a secret society of avenging put-upon women faced with Victorian patriarchy in BBC's flagship Sherlock on New Years Day.

The programme was saved by the excellent scripting, directing and action but, bluntly, it was intellectually ridiculous at so many levels (in retrospect, the idea that Holmes took so long to solve it in itself was absurd), a pandering to the sort of person who likes persecuting male scientists and actually is deluded enough to think that we live in a 'rape culture' in modern Britain. The worst aspect is the number of creative men who are colluding in the misrepresentation of history, the rewriting of our culture along ideological lines and the falsification of actually existing gender relations then (the Victorian age) and now.

Why do so many men so self-hate that they have to promote a false image of reality for ideological reasons? Do women or minorities really think that being pandered to in this way by the elite actually changes anything much in terms of power relations? Where is the analysis? Of course, one welcomes the new openness to black actors and I suppose it is decent to allow 'colour blindness' to have Olde England populated now with feisty women and gentlemen of colour where such things would be more than unlikely at the time.

Dickens' world was a largely white world as was King Arthur's though this is not to gainsay the too-easily forgotten contribution of black Britons to the creation of the 'nation'. But going to the next stage and re-inventing history, albeit as Sherlock's fantasy, to pander to parts of the audience is going too far, apart from the implicit approval of terrorism and murder in the plot which Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot (let alone Conan Doyle) would never have countenanced. It is part of a trend - the BBC's Merlin made a go of recreating an entertaining middle brow version of Arthurian Britain but its Atlantis not merely failed to be about the legend of Atlantis but presented the youth of Britain with a complete travesty of Graeco-Roman mythology, confusing names and attributes in the worst sort of mash up.

One suspects here that, across a wider front, a bunch of middle grade minds have just accessed the power to promote their academically-derived ideology (are they people who have come out of the cultural and creative studies departments of the New Labour era and now are in a position to undertake the commissioning of our lighter popular culture?). On the one hand, they want to 'message' us. On the other they want to be 'post-modern' and treat all the artefacts of culture as simply memes to be shuffled in a tombola. They seem intent on posturing their rectitude and their wide but shallow reading to each other and over us like children in a sweet shop with no supervision and far too much pocket money.

The rest of the population have long since already 'got it' certainly in relatively civilised and rather lazy Britain (the genders are equal, society is complex and should be tolerant and minorities are part of our national family). As the voting figures for the National Front have shown, Britons are genuinely far too easy-going and lazy to be seduced by continental fascisms. They are looking for nothing more than a bit of entertainment or some reliable information and not underhand cultural manipulation from third rate Gramscians who are creating a Ministry of Information out of thin air.

The real skill for modern creatives is to create a viable 'universe', one that is clearly fictional but can be endlessly reinvented and expanded (as Marvel has done repeatedly right up to Jennifer Jones and DC have done with the excellent Gotham) that still remains coherent and relates to some solid framework. The BBC has a problem with this. Even Dr Who is beginning to drift again (although the last series developed its intellectual cohesion for those who were patient with it).  The debate about having a black or a woman or black woman Dr. Who is part of the rot. Yes, 'he' could shift gender or skin colour (and why not? though he seems to be quite keen on being Scottish) but this should be because it works naturally and not because it is buggin's turn for another identity group. And better would be a strong female fantasy figure with their own franchise from the beginning instead of being given a hand-me-down to please those who get excited about having women on bank notes.

So long as the actual writing and performing is still good, these ideologues will get away with it but I suspect 2016 may be the year when the massive wave of 'creative' genre TV (much of it surging eastwards from the US) may finally crash into the shore as the right-on repetition of themes ebbs into public irritation. Since people just want to be entertained, many are just going to be switching off if the preaching becomes as unsubtle as New Year's Day's little performance ... worse, it actually fuels the populist revolt and there are signs of this in the US already.

With nowhere else to go, the irritated will be happy to have people like Trump offer a counter-ideology that is closer to their actual experience of life. I am a Leftie but my teeth start to grit now when I hear one of the left-wing wits on Radio 4 ceasing to be witty and just offering me a 'right on' and unfunny lecture from the circuit. Once again, an own goal results from metropolitan liberals being not quite so bright as they think they are and not seeing that the 'great unwashed' will only take so much cultural manipulation before they start getting angry. They do not need the Daily Mail to point it out to them. People generally hate to be lied to, patronised, preached at or treated like idiots - and the 'creatives' who dominate popular culture are getting close to being far too obvious about doing all of these.

The BBC is becoming a joke in this respect with intense messaging directed at the population from Radio 4 onwards. Woman's Hour seems particularly stuck in the past but BBC radio drama is becoming tiresome with its endless earnest problem plays and the Right does have a point with the leeway given to those 'comedians' (see above) who have moved from satire and humour to intense rants about the world. It is becoming a spoken version of the Guardian which is as bad as if our national broadcaster had become the spoken version of the Daily Mail or the Times.

The scripting of BBC television drama often falls into the same category. Much of this drama is superb. Stellan Skarsgard's visit to London for River was a message drama about tolerance for people who 'hear voices' set in a classic police procedural but the scripting, direction and acting (notably by Adeel Akhtar but by the whole crew) made it work. It was 'subtle'. Channel 4 seems to do things even better nowadays - Humans was full of ideas introducing the impact of AI and robotics to the general population. It did what good drama should do - raise questions and make people think for themselves rather than confirm prejudices and provide propaganda fuel.

The BBC loses credibility as soon as the messaging shifts beyond the decent business of giving strong roles to women and to non-white Britons (many of whom are superb actors worthy of playing more than Jane Austen heroines and Othello) and ceases to be subtle. Worse, it is insulting to those actors and actresses where it confuses their colour-blind talent in well crafted drama with the need to make points heavily and repeatedly about (say) global warming (yawn!) or equality (snore!) that are unsubtle. Remember Bob Peck in Edge of Darkness? Now that was well drawn messaging about an environmental issue that made you think because it was carefully contextualised in the politics of the day.

With American drama, we play a domestic game where we class a film or a series as a 'Democrat' or 'Republican' drama. We have rather enjoyed the arrival of entertaining patriotic democratic shows like Sleepy Hollow and Falling Skies despite the positioning of we Brits as exemplars of the enemy, a positioning which we do not take too seriously. But both are inferior to the more subtle and ideology-free but thought-provoking Fringe. This holiday the mash-up and creative Jekyll & Hyde from ITV was the high point simply because it played the interwar period dead straight with due homage to the pulp literature of the period and still gave strong and plausible roles to women.

Gender politics should be worn lightly, ethnic actors should not be patronised, messaging should be indirect and subtle and the historical context respected without being slavishly followed. We expect the BBC to respect us intellectually and culturally because we pay for it and not have it foist on us the plot nonsense of New Year's Day under cover of a fantasy that was out of character for Sherlock Holmes but in character for the cultural studies academics of the last thirty years. Enough already!

Saturday, 2 January 2016

On 'Original Sin'

There are four 'scientific' claims that original sin exists and they are worth noting [1]:-

* The Selfish Gene hypothesis states that "a predominant quality" in a successful surviving gene is "ruthless selfishness." ... "this gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior."

* Psychologists who find a "selfish" trait in children from birth, a trait that expresses itself in actions that are "blatantly selfish." [Horreur!]

* Sociologists who claim that "fraud, corruption, ignorance, selfishness, and all the other vices of human nature." One such, Sumner, enumerates "the vices and passions of human nature" as "cupidity, lust, vindictiveness, ambition, and vanity." He finds such human nature to be universal: in all people, in all places and in all stations in society.

* Then there is the psychiatrist Thomas Anthony Harris who observes that "sin, or badness, or evil, or 'human nature', whatever we call the flaw in our species, is apparent in every person." Harris calls this condition "intrinsic badness" or "original sin."

Well, think about the assumption at the root of this. It is that 'being selfish' is a bad thing and 'being self-sacrificing to the community' is a good thing but this does not stand up once you abstract yourself from the pre-set valuations of the Judaeo-Christian West.

On the contrary, a righteous self-centredness is the basis not of 'sin' but of 'virtue' (an older pagan idea). An intelligent self-centredness, however, understands that the self is served better by a well ordered society and by co-operation than it is either by solipsism (which simply results in isolation) or by submitting to the power relations of other selfish individuals who just happen to have seized the commanding heights of culture and society.

The Christian obsession with sin simply cuts the ground from under those who would challenge the order of things by asserting their own rights and being against the claims of those who are in control of the definitions of good and evil. Let us look at the absurd language of these scientists, psychologists, sociologists and psychiatrists - all representatives of the commanding order.

Is not gene 'selfishness' the evolutionary order of things that scientifically cannot be valued as good or bad in itself but simply as a fact on the ground. Evolution has contructed a being that can undertake compassionate and altruistic acts, define itself and do 'good' things because it chooses to do 'good things'. In other words, far from being 'original sin', the 'selfish gene' is the basis for all that is termed 'good' in the world as well as 'bad'. Its existence requires no attempt to derive the good from outside materiality and the evolutionary process.

And that children are 'blatantly selfish'?! Excellent! So they should be. They have to struggle for their existence as the future. They cannot rely on the competence or concentration of 'nice' parents or other kids. They learn by doing and usually learn co-operation and 'goodness' in doing so. We should worry if they were not starting out as selfish little beasts. An unselfish small child is an evolutionary dead-end.

As for our sociologist, he speaks only of the variation in our evolutionary state that includes examples of all these things that are apparently 'bad' but also examples of everything that is apparently 'good'. There is no flaw in our species that is not a flaw in materiality itself. That materiality is flawed is the most absurd of essentialist propositions once you have eliminated the magical thinking of absolute idealism. The whole language of flaws is sloppy thinking, an external imaginative imposition on the complexity of material reality.

What we see is not original sin against which we must struggle to create some idealistic perfection but a complex and fluid evolutionary reality with maximum variation in which we all have to struggle and live. It contains neither good nor evil in itself or better, given our human perspective, contains all forms of good and evil now and in the future.

This is not 'sin' unless all reality is 'sin. While it is perfectly permissible to take that Gnostic line, any analysis that sees reality and materiality as merely 'sin-based' and our magical thinking as somehow redemption from 'sin' is sending us way up the garden path of anxiety-driven and cowardly evasion.

We are not intrinsically bad or intrinsically good. The desperation in certain personality types to define our species in these terms speaks more to personal neuroses and fears than it does to our reality. The point is that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people not because of original sin but because we are disordered and have not ordered ourselves internally and externally.We have not progressed rather than that we have 'fallen'.

Instead of understanding our nature and creating systems of order that are based on diminishing harms from a close observation of 'what works' (a technology of living in the world), we think that the exhortations of the propertied and powerful on the frightened will somehow change reality itself into something better. When it does not do this, we whine and moan that it is all 'not fair' instead of doing something about it or recognising an occasional truth - that we cannot do anything about it. It is not good or evil but just life. We alone are responsible for our own failures in managing the technology of power to protect ourselves and those we care about. And protecting ourselves and those we love is not 'original sin' but who and what we are.

So, away with this talk of 'original sin' and the attempt to find 'scientific proofs' for our intrinsic 'badness' or 'goodness'. We are neither. We are what we are. In general, it is best for us to do what we will as a balanced self-centredness and harm no one because we have no need to do so. The bulk of us can then organise ourselves to deal with those whose nature is to do harm and perhaps, equally usefully, restrain those who are under the illusion that it is their task, because of their nature, to go around doing unwanted 'good'. 
[1] The original citations for these views are at