what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

They always shoot the messenger!

Some people have been asking why Wikileaks Assange is being selected for attack rather than those responsible for the leaks in the first place – ie those who designed a system which distribuyed information to 2 million American civil servants let alone the single civil servant who actually downloaded the material onto a stick and sent it to Wikileaks. Why shoot the messenger they ask in an injured tone. But don’t they realize that it is ever so? This was brought home to me today when I happened to download a 2006 paper called The Cynical State by Colin Leys which examines the dishonesty at the heart of modern policy-making (the phrase “evidence-based policy-making” was clearly invented to conceal this trend!). The paper starts with the lying we saw in the run-up to the Iraq war -
Hoon (Defence Minister), Blair, and Blair’s chief press officer Alastair Campbell had all subsequently told further lies about the compilation of the dossier. Campbell told the Hutton Inquiry that he had had no input into the dossier. The evidence showed he had had extensive input. Hoon told the parliamentary committee on defence that he had had nothing to do with it either. The evidence showed he had been involved as much as anyone. Most famously, Blair told the House of Commons that it was ‘completely and totally untrue’ that there was disquiet in the intelligence community over the 45-minute claim, but a senior intelligence officer told the enquiry that he and one of his colleagues had submitted a written report about their disquiet.
Of course commentators who supported the attack on Iraq were willing to condone all this. But Lord Hutton condoned it absolutely too. The only behaviour he criticized in his final report was that of Andrew Gilligan, the BBC journalist who had broken the story, and the BBC director general and chairman who had backed him against furious attacks by the Prime Minister’s office. All of them were forced to resign, while Blair and Hoon were totally absolved. John Scarlett, the senior intelligence official who had agreed to ‘sex up’ the intelligence service’s original draft of the dossier at the behest of the Prime Minister’s office, was promoted to be head of the secret service. What is more, Hutton’s decision to put all the evidence on the internet, but then to condemn the whistleblowers and exonerate the liars, meant that members of parliament and the electorate were being asked to become complicit in official mendacity.
‘Transparent’ government, he seemed to say, just means that MPs and voters must accept being lied to and that no one should be penalized for doing so. Like Ă«vidence-based policy-making", another example of comforting bureaucratic (whether government or commercial) words and language being used to hide discomforting realities - as somone once said, "the more he talks about honesty, the more I count my silver teaspoons"!
I still have 6 vacant places for the 50 core books for my library. As I thought about my choice, I realised that it had been a bit pretentious to suggest that I had selected the others for „the light they threw on the European dilemmas of the last century”. This thought had actually occurred to me as I surveyed the list which had emerged! The list was actually a bit of a mix of books which had made an impact on me at my formative stage (Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies is certainly one to be added) and which I think still stand the test of time (where perhaps Popper now falls) and, on the other hand, more recent books which seem to me to capture well the dilemmas of modern life.
If a library is to be 50 books – rather than 5,000 – it would need to consist of encyclopaedias and voluminous Collected Works (eg Orwell's) to ensure its frequent use. And these are not the sorts of „real books” which you curl up in a corner with – lost in another world or with the scales falling from your eyes! So I’m not sure if this particular listing makes sense. For a start I think we need to distinguish the various types of writing – novels from tracts; poetry from essays; short stories from travelogues; etc
And we also need to distinguish the various motives for reading – understanding and insights; distraction of characters and good plots; good writing; flavour of new worlds; etc! As a good Presbyterean, I’ve generally felt some guilt when opening the pages of a novel – perhaps that explains why I tend to prefer short stories! And I’m one of these stupid people who has never shaken off the belief that, inside the cover of this latest book, lies an intellectual key to the social concerns which have had an unhealthy influence on me. And I have always taken a dubious pleasure from iconoclastic writing which exposes the deficiences of „conventional wisdom”. Ivan Illich came at a critical stage for me – and the little boy who dared to expose the Emperor’s nakedness has always been one of my heroes.
I am currently rereading Colin Leys Market Politics - neoliberal democracy and the public interest (2001) which, in many ways, brings Robert Michels 1911 Political Parties up to date - and which should therefore be considered for one of these 6 vacant places. It sets out in very clear terms (a) the dramatic changes in the British political system under the onslaught of globalisation and (b) the process of "commodifying" public services to which it has led. Sorry for the jargon - but, in this case, I think it's a justifiable term!
Certainly these remaining books have to be iconoclastic - daring to challenge and expose the conventional wisdom which is sustaining the corrosive politics and commercial (sharp) practices of the world's various elites (including the intellectuals who have so betrayed us). Another book deserving of consideration is Richard Douthwaite's Short Circuit from which I quoted recently. In a few simple pages it explains the critical events in the early 1970s which spun the world out of control - and then goes on to give numerous examples of how we might be able to bring the world back under our control. Of course this cannot be done through political parties - it can and is being done only through direct action. I don't necessarily mean by that term the street violence we are increasingly seeing. I rather mean that change will come from the decisions we take as individuals, families and neighbours in our life style and purchases, currency, and bank system. We can choose not to buy the products that are flown half way around the world (eg Chinese garlic!) when there are better local products. We can choose to put our money in cooperative banks which make loans available (at low interest rates) to local companies. We can even choose to create our own local currencies.

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