June 16, 2007

Why isn't Matt Sinclair a Pornographer? Or alternatively how to create a society of Matt Sinclairs?

Why isn't Matt Sinclair a pornographer?

You might think that's a pretty stupid question to ask- Matt Sinclair for those that don't know is a very intelligent and extremely nice Conservative blogger- its almost inconceivable that he would commit any crime wilfully save for perhaps getting a parking ticket. For the purposes of today's article Matt is going to become the archetypal law abiding member of the community. Having said that why is it so inconceivable that Matt would commit a crime?

At first glance that question seems again odd- but think again. Chris Dillow has just written a very interesting article on his blog setting out the incentives behind some people committing crime in our society- he argues that there are major reasons why people would commit crime- financial independence, the opportunity to achieve large ammounts of money in a quick space of time and last and crucially the fact that social reward comes through committing crime. His post is here. Chris leaves us in no doubt that for many people within society committing a crime is a rational response to their situation.

Hence the question in my title- why isn't Matt Sinclair a criminal or a pornographer? Well Matt himself has stepped up to the plate and attempted his own answer to the question on his own blog here. Matt met recently a school contemporary of his that dropped out at GCSE level in order to become a pornographer and having sold his website for millions now lives in a palatial home in Chelsea. Matt with his LSE masters and his job as a policy analyst at a thinktank isn't really yet in the position to be retiring to Chelsea- but he felt no envy and he felt no envy he says because he knows that most of his friends and acquaintances would look down on his pornographer contemporary whereas they would respect Matt for what he is doing- and he is right. Matt therefore suggests that the solution to the question that I ask based on Chris Dillow's work is that a society needs a strong culture with a strong set of social mores which will deter people from committing crime- this is why Matt concludes he is a conservative.

Matt will be shocked because I agree with him about most of that. The reason say that I would not become a pornographer is that I would lose every female friend I have quicker than I can say the word pornographer and most of my male friends as well- their friendships mean something important to me and their future friendship and a future girlfriend mean more to me than a house in Chelsea. Social pressures do deter us from even considering various careers- they also mean that various careers- being a teacher say- become actually more valuable than their economic status might suggest. That's true of qualifications as well- a PhD is economically valueless but people do look up to it for what it represents.

The only problem with the argument that I have is that we need to be clear about what we are saying when we use the words- social mores. I think we need to just disect that phrase a little before agreeing wholeheartedly with Matt- what do we mean by it? Well firstly here is what we don't mean- we don't mean an articulated morality- what we are talking about is an unconscious reflex that career a is less preferable to career b- not something that is neccessarily thought out. What we are talking about is a kind of snobbery- and it can become real snobbery where people think that a carpenter is worth less than a lawyer- but ultimately when good its a snobbery based on what the law tells us is good, carpenters and lawyers and bad, criminals, and even based on what the law might tell us is equivocal but we think of as exploitation, pornography. That kind of sense is actually very widespread within society- liberals and conservatives feel it and Matt is right to say that it is ultimately a real disincentive to criminal activity.

However sentiments evolve. The problem with many conservatives is that they don't want to recognise this. For instance there are conservatives who want to make marital rape a different crime from rape- to diminish its status as a crime in the eyes of the law- but want us to condemn homosexuals as criminals. The problem with conservatism is that often conservatives really want to change the direction of our prejudices- that is what I object to within conservatism. The argument that says that a homosexual is the same as a paedophile- or the argument that suggests that marital rape isn't a serious crime. That attempt to hijack my prejudice against criminals for other ends is something to be resisted and is one of the principle reasons why I am not a conservative.

Conservatism in this regard seeks to extend principles further than they can go- conservatives defend anomalies in the law that make the law an ass- often an argument between a liberal and a conservative is an argument about whether to be prejudiced against someone. So in the case of abortion, the liberal is arguing that we ought to be sympathetic to the young girl who say has been raped and is confused, upset and wants an abortion, some conservatives argue that we ought to treat her as though she were a murderer. That's an argument about the scope of prejudice and the liberal feels so strongly about changing the law because they feel strongly that the law is allowing an innocent person, a person for whom we ought to show compassion, to be treated as though she were a murderer. In a sense liberals feel just as strongly about the moral stigma of doing an illegal action- which is why they quarrel with Conservatives when conservatives seek to extend that stigma.

There is another sense in which conservatism differs from liberalism though as I understand it. Conservatives are fixated upon using this prejudice outwardly- liberalism as I understand it is more in the tradition of English puritanism that you apply your prejudices first to yourself, that you berate yourself as the worst of sinners, like Gladstone whip yourself (perhaps not literally as Gladstone did) before condemning others to the scourge. Conservatives often seem too satisfied in their status, content not to self examine and condemn examples of what they call liberal guilt- that's where my problems tempramentally become quite uncontrollable with the conservative movement. A bit more Puritanism is required- a belief in the heart and not merely in the action outwardly.

How though ultimately do you create and promote the moral law? I personally think that the foundation of the moral law is, as Adam Smith argued hundreds of years ago, sympathy. It is in our sympathetic response to a victim of crime (say to a mugged old lady, an murdered child or even an aborted foetus) that you find the reason why we respond to criminals in the way that we do. A psychopathic personality is one that lacks empathy- a psychopathic community is one that as in ancient Rome or 19th Century America lacks empathy for a majority of its population (in those two cases the slaves). Politics is often a dispute about who to empathise with- and often a socialist for example will argue that a Tory encourages psychopathy for not empathising with the poor whereas a Tory will point to a socialist not empathising with a foetus. Creating that empathy though is something that is interesting- I suspect that a society which is educated and which has strong communities creates it better than an uneducated one (which tends to large exclusions from the bonds of empathy- see women, slaves) or one without any community at all- but that is a matter for further study.

Definitely Matt is right we should seek to promote social mores- but I think we have to be careful about extending them say to cover things which don't harm anyone like homosexuality- I think really what we need to do is extend education throughout society to encourage a universal empathy. We need to encourage community as well- quite how we do that I'm not sure- possibly encouraging relationships to stay together through the provision of counselling and other things like that. I'm not sure though that beleiving in the utility of social mores as I do pushes me into conservatism- I don't want to stigmatise homosexuals or people living together outside wedlock or even to exonnerrate marital rapists. But it does make me think hard about the way that our society functions and the way to encourage its further functioning.

This is an inconclusive post- vast issues are raised within it and I don't pretend to have many answers I'm looking forward to Matt's reply- but I think that the basic issue raised is one that everyone can agree on- why isn't Matt a pornographer? The real reason is that he looks down on pornography- the questions up for discussion though are to what does that prejudice apply, how should we encourage it and a further interesting one how should it effect our laws.

Football and Vampires

Yep those have been the topics of my last two articles on Bits of News- football and its corruption has recently come under scrutiny in the UK with the publication of the Stevens Report and it appears that the novel, the Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is going to be made into a film.

June 14, 2007

Literary Blogging

Every so often a dispute erupts about the nature of blogging and its power as a form to express certain thoughts: recently that precise question has arisen about literary blogging- an article in the New York Sun by Adam Kirsch questioned the degree to which a blogger, whose responses are immediate and often ephemeral can actually do what say an essayist in the New Yorker or Times Literary Supplement can do, which is provide his or her reader with a literary context, a way of approaching and evaluating the work in question.

Part of the problem with blogs lies in what is easy to express in a blog format. Its very easy to rant about the events of the day and be parasitic upon the mainstream media- and some of the best bloggers in the Uk do that exceptionally amusingly. Its also incredibly easy to spread gossip and to monitor candidates- American bloggers say ConnecticutBob have proved especially adept at it from the left and right- though in the Uk its a growing phenomenon as well (for a particularly depressing illustration of the way that gossip bloggers can think see this unpleasant comment by Guido Fawkes on a thread written by an analytical blogger.) Analysis though is more difficult- the problem is that many of the pieces say on this website require as James Higham put it more than three minutes of reading time. That doesn't make an analytical blog better but it does make it more difficult to keep going.

It makes it more difficult to keep going because the nature of blogging is such that it discourages analysis. Say I post five articles of a paragraph each- I actually get five times the visitors than if I publish one article of five paragraphs (because of the way that blogger itself works this is true), furthermore in order to bother reading one paragraph you don't have to be more than mildly interested- but for five paragraphs you have to really sustain your interest, especially if they are intellectual and challenging. That's why say a blog like Ashok Karra's will never leap to the top of the blogosphere- too much thinking is required. For instant news a Blog will beat a newspaper- it publishes earlier- but for analysis I'd trust a newspaper columnist who has at least been vetted in some way for writing and insight over a random blogger that I knew nothing about (I know plenty that are better than the newspaper men but there are also plenty that are worse).

Ashok himself has written about this area and his post is one that I mostly agree with- there are good blogs out there and intelligent blogs need to promote each other- I would heartily agree with all of that. What I think Ashok misses though and what the article misses too is that its the economics of the genre of blogging that really mean that analysis is hard to come by- in my view it will always be the blogs that publish short snappy posts or are affiliated with organisations that will be more popular, and analytical blogs though there are some very popular ones will always lag behind. But we shall see- the one thing that is true again about this medium is how much it changes and continues to change- so it may be my thinking is reversed- but at the moment given the way that the blogging world works- given that there are no costs to entry- it strikes me that the limited investment a reader makes in reading a short snappy but inconsequential piece from a poor gossip blogger is much easier lost than the investment made reading a poor long post from a poor analytical blogger.

June 13, 2007

Blogpower awards

Just thought I'd mention if anybody's been following it that the Blogpower awards have been published. Blogpower was a collective of small bloggers set up to hype each other up to a degree and to recognise merit. Some of these awards I disagree with violently- but there are some I am very happy with and personally think that a couple have gone to some of the nicest and best bloggers out there- personally I'd like to congratulate some people who have really deserved their awards and who haven't been recognised before, James Higham and I have frequent disagreements but I have to say that he is one of the most friendly and helpful people I have ever met on the blogosphere and thoroughly deserves his award for best contribution to blogging, Ruthie Zaftig is someone I have only just come across but combines the personal and political in a really brilliant way, Not Saussure is one of the best bloggers around and recently got a different award for it and deserves his award thoroughly as does Mr Eugenides a fearsome debater (Unity is equally an amazing blogger who thoroughly deserves his award) and Chris Dillow possibly the best intellectual political blogger in the UK would stand high in my list if I were ever giving out awards. And I doubt you could find a nicer person in all Sicily than Welshcakes Limoncello- reading her stuff always brings a smile to me- accept that is when I'm hungry and she has posted another picture of yet more delicious Italian food.

Yes there are some awards I disagree with, some very violently,- some blogs I don't know- but all in all I'm happy to see many people whose blogs I really admire get some recognition- if it keeps the Ruthies, Jameses, Welshcakeses and Not Saussures going through the dark nights of blogging then all the better! (Personally I doubt Mr Eugenides or Unity need encouraging given the zest they give to their fiskings- and as for Dillow well the man's mind is big enough that it would explode without his blog!)

Ocean's 13

Just thought people might be interested- I've posted a review of the latest blockbuster up at Bits of News.

Democracy's Hangover: Taiwan and the KMT

Across Eastern Europe and Russia, since the fall of communism, one of the most notable political features of the new democratic world has been that in different places and at different times, people have felt nostalgic for the old world. In some countries like the Baltic States the allure of communism seems particularly weak- in others like Belorussia and Russia itself politicians scrape and bow to the memory of those times. Even say in East Germany the communist party has revived and returned to receive votes if not power.

Many people think that this has something to do with the nature of the Communist past and Capitalist present- and there is obviously some truth in this- there were losers from the economic reforms of the 1990s however neccessary those reforms were for the longterm prosperity of the countries involved. There were also losers from political reform- people who found the transition to the often complicated and venal world of political accusation and openness difficult to harmonise with the ideal of a virtuous government- an issue which hasn't exactly evaporated in traditional democracies in the West either.

Andrew Leonard in Salon this week though provides details of a report which suggests that the nostalgia for dictatorship may not be a purely ex-communist phenomena. Taiwan made the transition from a nationalist dictatorship to a democracy in the late 1980s- since then there have been contested elections but it was only in 2000 that the ruling party since 1949, the KMT, were forced out of power and replaced by the Democratic Progressive Party whose candidate Chen Shui-bian was elected President.

As Leonard rightly describes the government of the DPP has not been entirely successful- though whether this is entirely their fault and not the responsibility of the KMT's obstruction of Chen at every step also is another question. Leonard though makes clear that there are some within Taiwan who feel nostalgic for the KMT's dictatorship and again its easy to imagine the losers from the DPP's emergance. The traditional clients of the KMT have lost out. But also one must recognise that in Taiwan the KMT are largely the party of the immigrants from 1949 who support reunification- consequently the DPP's rise to power is not just a rise to power of another party- its the rise to power of a party which seeks to redefine Taiwan from being the alternative capitalist China to being Taiwanese and not part of the Chinese story at all. That's a gross over simplification but it gives an indication of some of the issues at stake.

Perhaps one of the most pertinant issues though that this throws up and one say that if projects to democratise elsewhere succeed they will also throw up is that democratisation is not a simple process. It involves losers- and often highly influential and powerful losers- and those losers have a voice and are often upset. We tend to envisage the process of becoming a democracy as a painless one- rather I think we should imagine that becoming and sustaining a democracy is a very painful process. It requires party change (something that South Africa hasn't accomplished yet- the ANC needs there to lose power and be happy with losing power) and it requires people to realise that politics is messy- there is bound along the way to be regret and nostalgia for a more certain past- that doesn't invalidate democracy as a way to govern but perhaps its something that we should expect and plan for when countries become democratic.

June 10, 2007


The Britblog is a collaborative enterprise and is about supporting each other- seems like a good way to begin is to advertise some recent awards that include many British bloggers- including yours truly and are open to us all to vote in, the polls are open till Wednesday so go down there and vote in the Blogpower Blogging awards.

Ok that's done- so now let's move into the world of politics and see what the political guys have to say for themselves.

Well first the City Unslicker has cast his eyes over the economy- here are his suggestions for reform. Chris Dillow is also interested in the UK economy and posts a very interesting examination of that perrennial Daily Mail subject the Housing market here. Tim Worstall though turns to the Banking industry and what will replace Banking charges in making them money- tip watch those interest rates!. Pommygranate returns us to Gordon with some worrying charts from Standard and Poor.

The Norfolk blogger is also interested in the Chancellor's latest machinations- only for him its Anglican Church disestablishment and whether Gordon secretly is in favour that's in question, oh by the way our man in Norfolk is now apparantly famous in Bexley and will issue a range of merchandise soon! Our man from Norfolk may be happy with Gordon, but James Cleverly isn't- he is shocked by Brown's behaviour over security.

Of course all politics isn't Brown, there is the Labour Deputy Leadership election as well- Paul Linford has been campaigning for Hillary Benn, Kerron Cross is astonished how bad the campaigns are at campaigning, Harry Barnes has endorsed Peter Hain, the People's Commissar has a list of many reasons to Vote Cruddas and the Politaholic despite finding Alan Johnson an amiable chap declares he thinks that Benn and Harmon are the best of a bad bunch. (Incidentally if you are bored of any of this- feel pity for Tom Hamilton who liveblogged question time this week and wasn't impressed!)

But like Mr Benn, we want our issues- so lets turn to Council Housing- where Theo detects real improvements, Theo might be happy but Unity isn't and Partnership for Schools are getting it from him for announcing a redesign of school toilets. Dave Hill brings depressing news from Westfield about young people with nothing to do but drink. The Mainstream media comes in for a bit of criticism this week though- Not Saussure is not a fan of the way that Kirsty Wark interviewed Alex Salmond. It was about a Libyan prisoner in Scotland- Mr Eugenides thinks that its worth asking whether the Libyan government is more trustworthy than the British on whether negotiations about that prisoner did take place. Skipper wants though to support Ken Clarke's democracy task force but can it really restore our trust in politicians?.

Worldwide issues have also been receiving attention recently- Vino has some wonderful posts up- especially a two parter on Kashmir (here and here) and a more recent post on Indonesia. Well the biggest world wide issue of them all might well be global warming and on that the big beasts of the blogging jungle have been crossing antlers, first up Sunny Hundal, Devils Kitchen responds and Matt tries to sum up this skirmish- this one methinks is going to run on.

Ah well but you don't just want politics- and the British blogs don't just provide politics- we are much more sophisticated than that. We know like Tim Almond that if you send an email you can't trust that it has got to the person you wanted it to get to and like the Yorkshire soul, we know that OAPS mask behind an exterior of tradition the minds of ruthless drug dealers! Sally in Norfolk has been demonstrating her cannyness- picking food at a market in Cambridge. James Higham, a true friend to many blogs, has been under the cosh recently and written about it here. One of the saddest sights is seeing a great blogger losing enthusiasm- so can I just launch a personal appeal for the yellow duck to go back to his pond!

This is all getting a bit domestic- lets get cultural because there is a lot as ever going on in the cultural world. Over at the mad musings of me- the retirement of Darcy Bussell is hailed. If that's the end- Filmick has rumours of a new project in the pipeline, a fourth Beverly Hills Cop Film directed by Tarentino. Baroque in Hackney has done better than just think about new art, she's got two poems published! Time for a review, Interval Drinks saw Take Care of Baby and found it interesting if unsatisfying. Richard Brunton isn't focusing on particular films at the moment- rather he wonders which is the most terrifying serial killer. For scariness, Richard, fancy being buried alive in Kent- the early modern whale tells the story. From the scary to the sublime- the Periodic Englishman describes the almost religious feelings that music produces within him.

But that's not all for I have a wonderful series of posts to tell you about- James Hamilton on Brian Clough- a biography in six posts so far(and he has only just got to the end of Clough as a player) here, here, here, here, here and lastly here- his work is fascinating as a combination of sociology and sport. Black Right and Red all over sums up over here a traumatic month for Newcastle United. The Political Umpire ranges over slightly wider territory- musing on Michael Vaughan the England cricket captain- he ranges far and wide over the issue of sportsmen and the media.

Last things- Iain Dale wants bloggers to come and listen to Douglas Hurd talk about Robert Peel- so if you have a free afternoon- go along- I'll be there!

Right ok- that's it- next week there'll be yet another Britblog- to enter posts and please do send them to britblogatgmail.com.

Muhammad Sidique Khan

This article from Shiv Malik elucidates why British Muslims appear to be radicalising. Malik provides an interesting account of what turns people into bombers, explaining how the experience of being an immigrant disorientates young British Muslims, leaving them searching for their 'Muslim' identity and also coping with parents whose norms are often tribal. Its not a complete exploration- but its one of the better things I've seen published on the issue of why the attacks of July 7th happened and why some British Muslims seem to want to beleive in jihadi violence.

Don't call your child Apple

Chris Dillow discusses over at his blog the way that an unpopular name seems to influence a child's future life in negative ways- its an interesting finding- but leads me on to think about something else which is the whole nature of merit. We tend to think that we deserve things- conservatives tend to think that the market will allocate us things on the basis of desert, socialists that government should level out the iniquities of the market and often many of us say things like he shouldn't have had that he didn't deserve it or vice versa. Chris's point though seems to point to the whole concept of desert being a much more complicated phenomenon than it might be thought of as- in truth even when we are successes that's built on accidents that we have little to do with. It also illustrates the difficulty (though not the impossibility) of seperating an advantage in life which is unearned from part of the person that you are- a name is an unearned advantage but if you didn't have your name would you be you and consequently is that advantage/disadvantage inherent to the definition of who you are and are we discussing the thing before the name (ie that which is not you) or the thing after it (ie that which is you).

Its an interesting question.