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Where’s Herod when you need him?


Oscar Wilde’s line about the rage of Caliban not seeing himself in the mirror has been taken to heart in the last week or so by young people claiming to be suffering from profound emotional responses to the EU referendum result. We defy readers to read this thread at The Student Room without feeling like Eric Cartman rejoicing in the tears of Scot Tenorman. In person – overheard on public transport, for instance – they are even funnier, wearing expressions of virtuous sincerity and stoicism in the face of disaster, taking it in turns to say the same thing in ever so slightly different ways, shuddering deliciously at the dread name Farage like Harry Potter and his pals contemplating the word Voldemort, remorselessly reinforcing each other in their invincible certainty in their own goodness.

Amusing though they may be – and the ones claiming that they may fail their exams because of Brexit have surely attained to a comic genius on par with Charles Chaplin and Stan Laurel – it is when they begin to expatiate on the prospects and desirability of overturning the result through protests and phony petitions and political sleight-of-hand that it becomes clear just how dangerous is the prevalent world view amongst young people today. They would quite explicitly prefer to live in a kind of banana republic where plebiscites are overturned by an alliance between a self-righteous mob on the one hand, and the rich and powerful on the other (of whom more below), rather than accept what they see as the unpalatable outcome of a free election. Read more

Quote of the Day

It is easy to forget that we Whig-liberals and libertarians are the real socialists in the only meaningful sense of the word: we understand the nature of social relations and we want them to go on working, hence our opposition to the State’s gumming up of the works with its deranged schemes for perfecting them. It was a pleasure, therefore, to come across this passage in the Diary of a Pilgrimage, written in 1891 by Jerome K Jerome, the British humourist and accidental philosopher – and accidentally is the only way for a true-born Englishman to be a philosopher, since the English genius has always been to build institutions on insights derived from practical experience, rather than from abstract cogitation like a mere Frenchman. Jerome, musing on the nature of modern society while waiting for a train, shows an instinctive understanding of Adam Smith’s hidden hand and the self-organising character of complex systems:

“What a wonderful piece of Socialism modern civilisation has become! – not the Socialism of the so-called Socialists – a system modelled apparently upon the methods of the convict prison – a system under which each miserable sinner is to be compelled to labour, like a beast of burden, for no personal benefit to himself, but only for the good of the community – a world where there are to be no men, but only numbers – where there is to be no ambition and no hope and no fear, – but the Socialism of free men, working side by side in the common workshop, each one for the wage to which his skill and energy entitle him; the Socialism of responsible, thinking individuals, not of State-directed automata. Read more

The Croaking of a Boiled Frog

The European Union, an enormous and dysfunctional agglomeration of squabbling nations with less in common than the average cast of I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here, has a north-westerly sort of province called the United Kingdom. About this place the other provinces know little and care less, but they have a nebulous idea that it is inhabited by an uncooperative, usually inebriated and almost completely irrational collection of hideous-looking savages who apparently gave up on evolution after the invention of the deep fat fryer. Mysteriously, however, not only have these people somehow managed to be a bastion of freedom, pluralism and liberal democracy for centuries, but have even been responsible for either restoring or introducing those things to the rest of Europe, frequently after emerging victorious from yet another horrific war started by the other provinces themselves. Naturally, those other provinces chafe at any sense of obligation and relative failure vis-à-vis a people whom so many of them despise, but what appears to make some of them angriest of all is that many Brits seem to find the idea of living in a political union with other Europeans to be about as alluring as sharing a toilet cubicle with a rabid dog.

In fact, they are about to have a vote on whether or not to leave the Union! Just think of it, one imagines Guy Verhofstadt muttering to himself as he fiddles with the nightly dental floss: these greedy vulgarians are actually spurning us! Can you even conceive of the sauciness of a people like that deciding that they would be better off without being joined at the hip to Luxembourg and Bulgaria? In the interests of the eternal rightness of things, and also for their own good, they must be brought to see that they need to share a polity with the rest of the continent, through whatever trickery, bullying and bare-faced lies may be necessary. But fear not, Euro friends, for you have forgotten one important thing: these people are as insane as they are repulsive, and therefore will vote to remain in the EU even though they know perfectly well that it is a corrupt, undemocratic and remorselessly anti-British racket run by bungling nobodies whose institutional framework appears to have been designed by Coco the Clown. The JWC is here to reassure you about just how insane they really are. Read more

Quote of the Day, and some thoughts on events in Paris

“I can answer for myself, and I hope I may for others, that the liberty of communicating our sentiments to the public freely and honestly, shall not be tamely given up, nor, I trust, forced out of their hands. “ (The North Briton, No. 44)

So wrote John Wilkes on April 2nd, 1763, and a veritable tsunami of similar sentiments is at last moistening a political and media culture long left dry and barren by years of mawkish and feeble self-censorship and lazy conformity. Sadly, though, we expect no Damascene conversion from western politicians, who have spent the last decade cutting back free speech one slice at a time until we are no longer remotely surprised to read about the police collaring someone for making vaguely unkind remarks about Islam or Scots or fat people on Twitter. Nor are we particularly impressed by the respect for fearless satire which our newspapers have suddenly discovered: in their near-universal refusal to join Stéphane Charbonnier and the gang in maintaining the principle that free societies have no sacred cows, they left Charlie Hébdo almost completely isolated as a target for violent bigots.

We would all do far better to bear in mind how recently it was that anyone came to live in a free society. From the earliest barrow-digging tribal strongmen to the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Emperors of Rome, the mediaeval kings of Europe and Lord Bird Jaguar of the Maya, human history is a dreary litany of squalid little proto-Hitlers right down to the seventeenth century. Then, for the first time, people in a few countries – particularly France, England, Scotland and the Netherlands – began to think seriously about things like legitimacy and first principles, and in particular the claims of all these petty despots that their authority was divinely ordained.

It was explicitly by sweeping away superstition and the more extravagant claims of religion that we finally broke the power of arbitrary government and emerged as free peoples. Contemplating the killing of the king of France in 1790, the Bouche de Fer famously claimed that, “When the last king is hanged with the entrails of the last celibate priest, mankind may hope to be happy.” Following Diderot and the coterie holbachique, the idea was that superstition and tyranny were two sides of the same coin, and that the lies of one exposed the lies of the other.

A hundred and fifty years before – naturally, considerably in advance of France – England had struck the head off its own king in a similar fit of rationalism: the English republican John Milton (who, far from coincidentally, was the first to champion freedom of speech) had written in 1649,

“If men within themselves would be governed by reason, and not generally give up their understanding to a double tyranny, of custom from without, and blind affections within; they would discern better what it is to favour and uphold the tyrant of a nation.”

With the lies of religious charlatans swept aside, we found that the claims of our gilded tyrants rested on nothing at all – and consequently that the heads of our tyrants promptly found themselves in a similar situation. Since then, the power of state has derived from us as countless sovereign individuals who make up our own minds what to think and what to say. Those who would join us in what are still, just about, free countries, are courteously invited to leave their imaginary friends at the door, or to accept that it is Open Season on their more eccentric ideas.

The French, being a civilised people, can take it as well as dish it out.

The French, being a civilised people, can take it as well as dish it out.

Mars and Microbes

Excellent news: NASA is off to Jupiter’s moon Europa to scour beneath its icy surface for microscopic organisms. The United States, it seems, is determined to treat us to the most stylish insolvency in history: a country trillions of dollars in debt and yet prepared to borrow even more to maintain a generous budget for spaceships must surely convince a cynical world that Uncle Sam would, in contrast to the melancholy Victorian hymns of the British orchestra, have organised the greatest party in history on the listing deck of RMS Titanic. We are struck, though, by one line in particular from NASA’s press release: “spacecraft must meet planetary protection requirements…These requirements are very strict and involve ensuring that a viable Earth organism is not introduced into the Europa ocean.”

In spite of the unimaginable scale of the universe confounding even our ability to feel dwarfed, we are apparently concerned that some microscopic snowflake lost in the inky blackness might be in any way changed by the Hand of Man. Our ancestors dreamed of terraforming Mars; we have nightmares about distressing a Jovian bacterium. What changed, we suspect, is the way in which environmental or ecological history has been integrated into the historiography of colonialism, and the blending of the ethical with the scientific to the point that some people seriously contend that we have no right to interfere with some dead rock which only meaningfully exists in humanity’s ability to conceive of it. This, then, is a timely opportunity to consider how we came to be so psychologically traumatised by biogeographical change. Read more

Patent Nonsense

Since the first unlettered hominid used a twig to extract termites from a dry log, nervously yet inquisitively watched by another hominid who shrewdly discerned that using the same method would allow him to increase his own termite intake to a more satisfactory level, human innovation began to spread from individual to individual until we reached such a plane that even undergraduates can open tins of spaghetti hoops. Innovation without imitation is a fine motto for any intelligent species out there in the cosmos which is content to progress no further than nudity and raw termites.

Many people, however, now unquestioningly accept the relatively recent notion that an innovation is the intellectual property of the person who first devised it – or, rather, who first registered it with some bureaucrats and paid the government a fee, in exchange for which the state enforces a monopoly of the idea. Nevertheless, it remains controversial: after all, anything capable of inspiring the fanatical support of both Ayn Rand and the kind of corporatist rent-seekers whom she tore to pieces in Atlas Shrugged must logically be subject to some muddled thinking somewhere. We are grateful, therefore, to Elon Musk, whose announcement that he will not sue anyone who uses his electric automotive technology gives us this opportunity to consider the principles behind copyright and patent law. Read more