January 05, 2008

The rising tide of hatred

The 90s and 00s have been the years of vitriol. Whether its Anne Coulter accusing Democrats of 'treason' or its Michael Moore accusing George Bush of being a Saudi puppet, whether its the mad bloggers of the right rounding on appeasers or its the mad bloggers of the left rounding on chickenhawks, its open season on the internet and in the newspapers. There is perhaps something peculiar about the times that we live in: George Bush has been a uniquely divisive President in US history partly because he has been so ambitious. In the UK, the parties have begun to alternate for much longer periods of time in and out of office- the stakes are therefore higher in any election. Though we shouldn't overrate it: Nye Bevan afterall said in the 1940s that Tories were lower than vermin and fights in the House of Commons are not de rigeur as they were when Hugh Cecil confronted the Irish MPs in the 1900 and 1906 Parliaments. In the US, duelling politicians contend on the airwaves- not as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton did at sixty paces. Nobody at this election looks like doing what Lee Attwater did or even repeating Karl Rove's antics in 2000. Its easy to get overexcited and assume that today's events are novel- when they are merely repetition.

So why then are such notable bloggers as Ashok and Ruthie worried about the state of conversation on the internet? Are they wrong? The real answer to that question is that they aren't wrong. Because something has changed and its brought more of the gutter out into public view than ever before- that is the invention of the internet. Effectively whether its Guido in the UK or Drudge in the US or those commenters making death threats against Dick Cheney or those columnists who revel in the facile comparison of George Bush to Adolf Hitler, they are only out there because of the creation of this medium. Blogging can do many good things- but it can also do some things to retard political conversation and even education. If academics can use it to hold virtual conferences in which someone from Utah can speak to someone from the Ukraine about their research, then so too can nutcases and fascists, conspiracy theorists and loons. Imagine the joy that you get when you suddenly discover that someone else is interested in the mating habits of the millipede- and then imagine the joy you get when you realise that you aren't the only one who feels that Bush is Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin rolled into one and multiplied together. Lunacy is profitable on the internet because the lunatics can gather into communities and support each other, reinforce each other, leave comments on each others' posts telling themselves they are all great and be happily ignorant of the fact that they are morons.

In a broader sense- one of the key and best insights of conservative thinkers down the years has been the power of convention. Convention not law moulds the way that we think and behave and the ways that society is generated. Convention exists in regular life- so that for instance certain things are conventionally rude, if you say them you are shunned. It is conventional not to think in most communities about assacinating the President of the United States: but on the internet you have more choice. You can shape your community to reflect your prejudices and thus the prejudices of the community become its conventions. Weird behaviour like over exuberrant political hatred or unthoughtful vitriol can become conventional habits. The internet ressembles thus nothing so much as a vast student union societies fair, where you chose your society and end up singing about Stalin in the Labour society and Hitler in the Tories. Most people grow out of university though and realise that they have to fit into the conventions of wider society which preclude talking about how 'they' control the world (in language reminiscent of the third reich) and about how liberals or conservatives are evil- but on the blogs they can loose those aspects of themselves, they can regress to the student hack hurling hate and use the fact they have an audience as validation. Just look at some of the worst blogs and how they use their stats as an alibi for instance.

And they do it in public. As a blogger you put forward your most objectionable side to the world. Lets take another simple example. Readers of this blog will know Matt Sinclair. Matt Sinclair is a really good friend of mine- yet we often disagree about politics. On our blogs the disagreement about politics is the central thing about our relationship- though we both try to keep it civil- in real life its not the central thing at all. And that goes for many of the regular commenters who I actually know here. Writing about politics is not the be all and end all of anyone's life and most bloggers to exist in society have to have friends with other opinions, workmates etc. And yet on the net we are reduced to argument- so consequently we sometimes look and sound much worse than we are. Allow as well for the fact that whereas when in conversation with someone I can say with a wry smile, oh you just are interested in fleecing the poor to pay for the lusts of the rich- with a blog you don't have the luxury of tone or the ability to catch someone as they listen to you and moderate your thoughts to their sensitivity. All you have is the brutality of the written word- a word which is sometimes more stark than you want it to be and consequently more offensive. As Ruthie says there is also the fact that anonymity liberates us to become much nastier- I wouldn't dream of saying to someone's face that they are an idiot, I might say it on a blog though.

All those things combine and they drag the traditional media with them- afterall the traditional media always want to sell papers. That and the increasing popularity of tabloids leads to a perceptive coarsening of public debate- a coarsening that Ashok and Ruthie have spotted. In my view there is some coarsening going on, but there is also a lot of stuff that is happening because of technological change- because the gatekeepers have gone away, the long tail is triumphant and therefore the conventions that hold society together have less force. On the internet I have no need to socialise with those I disagree with- unlike in real life!

January 04, 2008

Iowa Tealeaves

It is difficult to read the results of the Iowa Caucuses last night with any precision. On the Democratic side Obama has been strengthened, on the Republican side Romney has been weakened. It may be that Obama is heading now to New Hampshire, a possible win in South Carolina and the nomination- but there are many slips ahead. As for Mike Huckabee- it should never be forgotten that in 1988 Iowa was won by Pat Robertson and that Huckabee will be significantly weaker in New Hampshire than he was in the midwest. Having said all of that, I do think that the results in Iowa are interesting- in particular four results are interesting, firstly the fact that Obama and Edwards beat Clinton, secondly that Huckabee beat Romney, thirdly that Ron Paul got double the vote of Rudi Giuliani and fourthly that on the Democratic side of the aisle the minor candidates were not merely blasted away, they were wiped out.

What does that mean? Well the last piece of information tells us something very interesting- personal charisma mattered in Iowa more than personal politics did. A good communicator with a good CV like Biden or Dodd was flattened as the Democratic caucus goers sought the established candidates. Furthermore the large turnout in the Democratic party meant that the minnows were effectively destroyed and flung out of the race- in the Democratic party established figures lost to media figures- something that you would expect in a race largely driven by independents (who voted overwhelmingly for Obama) and young people (ditto). Media momentum must lie behind Ron Paul's 10% as well- which ecclipsed Mr Giuliani's 4%- but behind that lies the other and perhaps more interesting story of the primary.

The victors of this primary were the populists. On both sides of the aisle, populists triumphed over establishment candidates. On the Democratic side, John Edwards had a good showing- though possibly not enough to keep him alive. On the Republican side though we saw something fascinating. Because there was no perfect conservative candidate running- none of the alternatives looks particularly appetising to most conservatives- you saw the conservative coalition splinter. Huckabee's victory reinforces the old historical trend that the Midwest supports populists and actually reinforces to me the idea that this could become a new battleground in American politics- where the politics of John Edwards and the politics of Mike Huckabee contest states like Iowa and Montana and all the rest. In a sense the lesson of Iowa is a lesson about the retreat of Republican orthodoxy into the south. But its also a lesson about the functioning of American politics- part of what drives the Huckabee campaign is class. Huckabee appeals on the basis of class and social morality- in that sense he is a warning shot to both parties because he undercuts both of their traditional coalitions. Ron Paul likewise is in the position of mounting an insurgency particularly against the war in Iraq- again the isolationist impulse in American politics should never be underrated.

Not all states will be as populist as Iowa. I'd reckon now if Super Tuesday comes up and Obama maintains this level of support- he is odds on for the nomination. As for the Republican race, its still wide open. But the hint of populism reemerging is an interesting one and perhaps the longest lasting lesson of these events.

January 03, 2008

Dizzy thinks about the internet

Having myself written about the comparison of UK and US blogs- I was interested to see that Dizzy had looked at the issue- and more interesting than that he has a really good article about it. I don't have much to add- save that I think the institutional distinctions are more important than funding limits because of the potential for out of campaign spending by inexplicitly politically aligned groups- but the article is well worth reading and I reccomend it.

January 02, 2008

The NHS and lifestyle choice

Matt Sinclair thinks that the NHS reduces the sphere of private accountability to a minimum because all risk is pooled together in one pot. If your healthcare is not something which costs me any money, I don't feel interested, in Matt's view as to whether you smoke or not or take drugs or not or do whatever you wish to do. If your healthcare is something that costs me money, then in a Millite sense (that any action which is other regarding we should have the ability to regulate) I have the right to regulate your conduct. Its a worthy argument- I think though that its wrong- partly because it overestimates the actual strength of the Millite position on liberty.

Let me explain with the use of a couple of empirical points:

a. It is true that the age of healthcare has been the age of increased regulation of what we put into our bodies- opium in the form of laudanum was legal in the nineteenth century but isn't today. But there isn't much evidence to connect the fact that drugs are illegal with the survival of the NHS. Those who support the NHS and support drug legalisation today often overlap. Whereas those who want to privatise the NHS and support drugs being illegal often overlap as well. Homosexuality is not under threat from those worried about STDs, its under threat from those worried about the Bible. The 'yuck' factor and not the abstract Millite argument is what really motivates bans. Look at the distinction between the discussions about banning fatty food and stressful jobs- there is a discussion in the one case for aesthetic reasons, there isn't in the other because an overworked lawyer is more attractive than a fat slob.

b. Matt misunderstands wilfully Mill's argument and consequently misinterprets the zone of Mill's freedom. Mill's concept of freedom is very tricky to understand- but if it were as Matt suggests inclusive of all actions that affected others in any way, the area of free rights would be tiny. Afterall all our actions in some ways effect others- even actions taken in complete privacy- a choice of job afterall effects others sometimes more than a choice of lifestyle does (even in a system with an NHS). This brings me to another point, what Matt neglects is that of course other regarding actions don't require a state to be other regarding- my health has more profound implications for many than those required to pay for it. It has ramifications for my family and for my friends (including Matt) which go far beyond its ramifications for the state. Matt states that public healthcare makes everyone's health a 'public good'- sorry my friend actually everyone's health is a 'public good' whether you have a healthcare system or not.

c. Matt's preferred solution is that,

individuals, rather than taxpayers, are paying for their health insurance it should be possible to allow adjustments in their premiums for healthy behaviours.
His preferred solution though creates many other problems. Genes matter as much as environmental factors- would Matt accept a system in which companies were allowed access to our genetic code and set different premiums based on that for various people, sometimes prohibitive premiums. What about such premiums actively discouraging people for example from performing various important jobs- take for example those who volunteer to be part of the royal lifeboat association (something that involves them in great risk for a real public good and for free)- that would incur them a higher premium is that fair- the same thing might be said about special constables. The concept of splitting the insurance pool for healthcare could take us down some very dodgy paths.

Healthcare isn't an easy issue- but splitting up the insurance pool doesn't seem to me to be a good way forward in tackling it. Nor does a strict adherance to a particular concept of Mill's argument for liberty. Matt Sinclair is one of the most intelligent bloggers on the right and raises an interesting issue- but I don't think he manages to provide a good answer to his question nor to frame his question in an appropriate way.

The Children's Crusade and Media

I have written an over academic article over at the Liberal Conspiracy on the way that the Children's crusade worked and what it tells us about the way that we react to information. I think its interesting-noone else does which is why noone else has commented but I think it probably was too academic for that forum- and should have been posted here. So that's an encouragement to regular readers- get across and take a look! I think it also comes out as too postmodernist- I don't endorse the fully relativistic position on this!

January 01, 2008

Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone- especially Welshcakes who got in to comment before I could put this post up. I really enjoy writing this blog so thanks for reading it- I hope its as enjoyable to read as it is to write it. And I hope everyone who reads this blog has a great 2008 and had a great time last night whether curled up watching a DVD in bed or out on the town somewhere or anywhere in between!