Narcissistic Cosmopolitanism

There’s an interesting blog article on the Economist website. It’s quite long article somewhat self-serving in the Economist world view but it does have a good section at the end on middle-class hypocrisy about globalisation.

I’ve always been sceptical about globalisation and global capital in particular because of exactly what the supposed Brexit backlash was about, although I tend to think that the Brexit backlash is in the imaginations of middle-class handwringers who can’t bring themselves to believe that their compatriots include rather a lot of, not to put too fine a point on it, xenophobes, if not racists.

It’s because, unless the Chinese model is followed, political power is still (no matter what misinformation Brexiters come out with about the EU superstate) vested in national institutions — and until you take the franchise away from the population then they will react when they realise they’ve been shafted. According to the article in The Economist that shafting is likely to happen to what they call the Narcissistic Cosmopolitans pretty soon.

To quote an interesting section from the end of the blog post: “Passing exams gives you an opportunity to enter a world that is protected from the downside of globalisation. You can get a job with a superstar company that has constructed moats and drawbridges to protect itself from global competition. You can get a position with a middle-class guild that has constructed a wall of licenses. You can get a berth in the upper-end of the state bureaucracy or a tenured job in a university. Exam passers combine a common ability to manage the downside of globalisation with a common outlook—narcissistic cosmopolitanism— that they pick up at university and that binds them to other members of their tribe. “


A Nutty Report

The BBC gave huge publicity today to a study in the Lancet that supposedly compared the harm done inflicted by various ‘drugs’. As it was co-authored by Professor David Nutt and his ‘Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’ it will be no surprise to anyone that alcohol is the worst drug by a long way.

It seems the BBC will jump in ecstasy to report any supposed scientific ‘facts’ about alcohol but most reasonable and scientifically literate observers should now realise that these neo-prohibitionists are overstating their case so much they’re now discrediting themselves.

How is it that they can  possibly equate the harm of alcohol usage with that of heroin and crack cocaine when the vast majority of the population of the UK use alcohol without inflicting any harm whatsoever on the rest of society? Because for the simple reason that more people use alcohol in aggregate.  What kind of scientific logic is this? When interviewed on Radio 2 today Nutt readily accepted the equivalent argument, based on his premise, that knives cause far more harm to society than guns — their ready availability might mean they are implicated in more crimes overall than guns but is that an argument for removing them from everyone’s kitchen?

There are valid points to be made about alcohol abuse and (proper) binge drinking but this study is such a lightweight piece of self-re-inforcing prejudice that it’s surprising that it ever got published in The Lancet. If I understand the BBC report correctly then it’s just a weighted model of the subjective opinions of a group of self-selected experts.

I wouldn’t like to live in a society where the numbers of people using crack cocaine and alcohol were reversed. It seems the last home secretary was right to dismiss Professor Nutt as he’s clearly a man with his own agenda. As a Daily Telegraph report from last year showed he is not without his own person interest in this debate — they report he’s working on a commercial alcohol substitute.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect the government to protest too much at shoddy statistical prejudice declaiming the evils of drink — they stand to cut a substantial amount of deficit by taxing our sin. It’s a shame that the actions of the likes of Nutt, by providing a supposed justification for higher duty, might cause responsible alcohol consumption in pubs to be endangered in favour of supermarket tinnies of wifebeater — but that’s what perhaps they’d like to see more of?

Is It All A Big Lie?

The controversy surrounding the allegations of match-fixing (well, not actually match fixing, more like no-ball fixing) in the test match between England and Pakistan strikes me as potentially more hypocritical and deceitful towards the sports spectating public than the alleged offences themselves.

The partisan nature of sport makes it ripe for corruption. Supporters are so desperate to will on their teams that they will celebrate the most unlikely and implausible of circumstances as elements of drama — the missed penalties, the ‘inexplicable’ refereeing decisions (which are very explicable if looked at from a more cynical perspective), peculiar substitutions and so on.

Commentators and pundits almost make their living by walking the line between applying the language and analysis of fiction to events and emphasising that these events are opposite of fiction — where you must NOT suspend your disbelief. For watching sport to make any sense you must believe it is true. How often do they say ‘That’s unbelievable’ or ‘I can’t believe he did that’ or ‘miraculous recovery’.

This is why the indignant self-righteousness of the sporting establishment towards any suspicion of lack of integrity in sport — match fixing, positive drugs tests and so on — is so nauseating in that it primarily serves to protect the sporting establishment’s self-interest. As I wrote in a piece after a diabolical refereeing display in the last world cup: ‘almost all football journalists [could be viewed as] part of a self-preserving conspiracy to maintain the illusion at all costs of results being determined solely by honest endeavour on the pitch.’

Their reaction is hysterically two-fold: firstly demand the most draconian treatment for those suddenly-discovered rotten apples who besmirch the reputation of the great game; secondly, deny that the corruption goes any deeper than the individuals whose misdeeds the newspapers are confident enough to report publicly. Basically it’s a case of hang those out to dry who got caught and pretend nothing else has happened.

A scenario that suggested that certain sports were riddled with corruption and cheating would not be welcomed by anyone who makes their living from sport and their reactions to such allegations need to be judged in this context.

In this case, it’s quite curious that it was the News of the World that broke the Pakistan cricketing story — as Sky Sports have paid a lot of money to broadcast the test that the NOTW brought into question. In a world where people cast aside their bigoted prejudices and self-interests one might expect journalists from the BBC or Guardian to be praising this piece of investigative journalism. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Charlie Brooker — A Little Bit of Politics

Interesting article from Charlie Brooker on his attitude to drugs and their reporting. It’s quite a good example of his style, which I saw critiqued a little unfairly in the Radio Times recently which said he tended to go after obvious targets and then pull his punches but that, sadly, he was about the best around at what he did.

What tends to be disappointing about Brooker is that while he sometimes seems to be on the brink of concluding something very idiosyncratic, his conclusions always seem to return to re-inforce the type of liberal orthodoxy that has atrophied in the values of his audience of Guardian readers for about the last 30 years (the big irony is they still see themselves as daring and progressive when, in fact, they now really represent the forces of inertia and conservatism). Maybe Brooker really shares these views — exemplified, for example, in the flawed logic that sees alcohol equated as an inherently more dangerous drug than many prohibited substances. (Of course it can be but most people don’t misuse it.) Yet even if he has leanings this way then his points would still be better made if he didn’t back so timidly away from questioning so many sacred cows — it’s almost like he has a little Ben Elton of the nauseous 80s sparking suit vintage (not the current sell-out Queen musical writer) barking inside his conscience.

Brooker seems pathologically scared of making general points that might offend these ingrained prejudices even when his real strength — his surreal self-deprecation — demolishes brutally many pompous,New Labour sensibilities. In this article he humorously describes his less-than-satisfactory experiences taking banned drugs and makes some very good points about the questionable motivations of the many people who still glorify a completely irrelevant and anachronistic 60s counter-culture (if it ever existed): ‘I don’t want to get out of my head: that’s where I live’.

All great stuff but then he diverts into safer territory by making an analogy about delusion peddled in newspapers which seems calculated to play to the Guardian reader gallery. Of course then his predictable targets are the tabloids who print pictures of Lady Ga Ga (though plenty supposed quality papers do too). It would be nice for a change if he took on the sort of mood-altering newspapers that print a diet of self-mythologising cant  which re-inforces the moral smugness of their readership — fulfilling similar fundamental psychological needs in the same sort of manner as those who are just satisfied by seeing whether Lady Ga Ga’s managed to keep her knockers from falling out of her dress today.

On Roads

Over Christmas and the New Year I read a really good book that I’d been saving for myself since the autumn as a Christmas present to myself.

It was ‘On Roads: A Hidden History’ by Joe Moran. (There are good reviews in the Guardian and Independent.) It’s a very good book — probably the sort of book the word ‘discursive’ was defined for. Moran takes roads, or more particularly, major roads built this century — from the Kingston Bypass in the 20s but mainly from the advent of motorways — and meanders around the subject, throwing in some fascinating facts and anecdotes.

Having watched the BBC4 series ‘Secret Life of the Motorway’ in 2008 (I think) I recognised some material on motorways that was a little familiar — but fascinating nonetheless. It includes the history of the signage used on motorway signs — and which spread to all road signs in the 60s. The debate on font choice (serif or sans serif) got incredibly ideological.

Part of the appeal of the book is its discussion of what is very familiar to most people who travel round the country on motorways but is rarely discussed — such as motorway services, design of signs and so on.

The author mentions parts of motorways, such as the M1 in Bedfordshire or the M62 over Windy Hill or the M40 (the last major motorway to be built — all of 19 years ago), as if recalling old friends, which to many readers they are. He also discusses the irrationality of much of the road system — mainly as the grand designs of the 50s and 60s were scaled back on a piecemeal basis due to lack of funding and, latterly, anti-road protests. The irony is that a half-finished road plan is probably worse for the environment than if it was properly finished — such as the infamous stretch of the A57 through Mottram where the M67 discharges 3 lanes of motorway traffic into what’s effectively the main street through the village — a place to be avoided during the day. There are also plenty of urban motorways that similarly funnel traffic into inappropriate areas or are hugely underused as they hardly go anywhere (like the old M41 that nowprincipally serves as a feeder road into the Westfield Shopping Centre). 

Moran gives the anti-road movement a lot of coverage. However, he points out many of their hypocrisies — such as how Winchester College was initially happy to sell the land through Twyford Down for the M3 extension but when the road came to be built the head (or however schools like that term the person in charge) was one of the prime protesters. He also mentions how the old A33, which the Twyford Down section replaced, has now been buried under much of the spoil taken from the M3 construction and has been very effectively reclaimed by nature. He argues that roads aren’t actually very permanent and neglected for a few years will start to be colonised by plants and trees — something that can well be believed seeing the way potholes emerged from under the melting snow recently.

He also argues that roads are no less destructive to the countryside than railways were and that many people are misled by the out-of-proportion markings of roads in an atlas (you need to get down to about 1:25,000 OS Explorer map scale before they’re anything like accurate). I’ve certainly noticed that, apart from big junctions, roads tend to be less visible from the air than railways. 

I’ve followed the impressive reconstruction of the M1 between junctions 6A and 10 with great interest since 2006 — I even went to a local consultation display at Slip End near Luton. I was therefore fascinated to read that Slip End and the nearby hamlet of Pepperstock have a legendary status in British motorway history as the first earth was moved for a British motorway at Slip End and the opening ceremony for the M1 was held at Pepperstock (junction 10 as it is now). (The M6 round Preston opened earlier but I think construction started later.) I’ve driven on or under that part of the M1 most days for the last four or five years.

At the end of the book he dwells on our generally hypocritical attitude to roads — popular imagination (as stoked by cliches perpetuated by the likes of the BBC) would suggest the British hate their roads but Moran suggests the relationship is far more benign and complex.