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The skills of ordinary men

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I recently read two articles that actually cover some of the same ground, even though their topics could not be more different.

The first is from 2003, Electric Heroes, and it’s written by a lawyer looking back at one of his early cases where a woman sued an American power company over the death of her husband, who was a linemen.

They clambered up narrow steel ladders and then inched across four-inch-wide “angle-iron” girders made slippery with rain or morning dew, and when they reached out, they touched either the open sky or heavy steel cables whose purpose was to carry enough electricity to power the nation’s fourth largest city.

Because they were so well trained, they were able to work safely, routinely, under conditions that would terrify you or me.

The writer points out that these men (in those days they were all men) were also very careful, which made the case a little strange since this particular linemen had fallen 120 feet to his death or possibly had jumped. Not even his workmates could figure out what had gone wrong.

As the young workhorse lawyer gathering two years of information for the trial, he got to know these men very well.

They had a strong sense of duty, and they had a natural dignity that was boundless.  They were modest men, but they had quiet pride by the mile.  Amongst each other, they were very, very funny.  They cussed a lot, and after work they’d go out together for a beer, or to hunt or play poker or catch an Astros game.  And they stuck up for one another.  You’d think twice about crossing any one of them.

They took the case seriously from the beginning because one of their own had died in their midst, for reasons they couldn’t quite explain or grasp, and they were being accused of having caused his death by their indifference. 

In the end the case was settled out of court and the jury dismissed. The young lawyer had become so bonded with these men that he was incandescent with rage at what he felt his senior lawyers had done to them: as much as admitting that they had been indifferent to their workmate, their friend. But the young partner took him to lunch and, as he saw in hindsight, helped him grow up a bit:

“In the greater scheme of life, are you really furious that Mrs X is getting the fairly modest amount of money that will be left to her after her lawyers’ fees and expenses are extracted?  She’s not getting a huge windfall.  Our client can afford it.  It all goes into the rate-base, and ultimately it will be paid in tiny, tiny increments by all the families for whom Mr X helped keep the lights on during his twelve years with the company. Can you not see the justice in that result, even if it wasn’t the harsh and total victory you were gunning for?”

The second article is very recent and is written by a Captain Charlie Anderson of the Minnesota National Guard, describing their recent expedition to Kabul to extract American and Afghan civilians before the Taliban took over: A few good ‘Bastards’.

It’s a fascinating look at those events from a soldier’s view, but it’s also a good look at a component of the US military that’s often overlooked or disparaged, The National Guard. They’re part-time soldiers although equipped with the same stuff as the regular forces including, in this case, Bradley’s and Abrams tanks. Having said that I was surprised a few years ago to find out from a mate in the NZDF that the Hawaiian Air National Guard flies F-22’s!

But what shows here is that the training is also right up with the regular forces:

We’d practiced and trained for the past two years. The task force did a combat training rotation exercise at Fort Hood, Texas in 2019 and executed a successful rotation (the first post-Covid) at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California in 2020. While drilling at Camp Ripley, Minnesota we completed numerous tabletop exercises and worked the Military Decision Making Process repeatedly until it became muscle memory.

We had executed multiple iterations of gunnery tables and were continuing ongoing missions in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. We were confident that as the CENTCOM Regional Response Force we’d be poised and prepared to project military power wherever it was needed to accomplish tactical and strategic goals.

When the time came to move out they were ready to go and got to Kabul promptly. Even so such units still endure scepticism from the regulars:

One captain I met from their brigade intelligence section told me he was under the impression that a senator had pulled some strings and got us deployed from Minnesota. When I told him about our task force and that we were already in the Middle East, postured for such a crisis event, he was speechless. Initially, there was an air of distrust, but we proved ourselves worthy partners, dispelling the myth about the perceived capability gap between the active duty and guard/reserve components. 

It was this paragraph that caught my attention in relation to the first article, as the commander of the unit, Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad, described:

He underscored the life skills the National Guard brought to the 82nd Airborne. “We provided capabilities to the fight beyond trigger-pullers that 1/82 never would’ve been able to — engineers, plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics, heavy machinery operators – we enabled advanced operations that directly impacted the military’s ability to get people out.” 

No need to call up the US Army Corp of Engineers to build barricades and reinforce walls when you’ve got a bunch of people who do that in their everyday lives.

The article is lengthy but well written and packed with a lot of coal-face detail about what they dealt with in a horrific and rapidly deteriorating situation. Well worth your reading time.

Written by Tom Hunter

January 17, 2022 at 3:39 pm

A belated and wonderful Christmas present

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If you love books, in that you don’t just love reading them but their physical nature, that you love casting your eye across the titles as they sit on a shelf, or admiring the cover art, or just the act of of turning the pages – then you’re also likely to be the sort of person who does not lend them to other people.

They’ll be returned to you scuffed, bent, twisted, mangled and stained with drops of wine and coffee.

Or perhaps they won’t be returned at all.

Thus it was sometime in the 1990’s that a good friend of mine, Monique, the American daughter of Polish & French immigrants, spotted three slim little volumes I had recently acquired, written by a Polish journalist while working in the Communist times of that nation in the 1970’s and 1980’s: Ryszard Kapuściński.

Monique is a smart lady (accepted into medical school she went for architecture instead) with a grounded sense of living – and reliable.

So I lent her the three books.

Months passed before I asked her if she had finished reading them (she had) and if she could return them (silence).

This silence extended to a couple of years. Then we left the USA for New Zealand. By then I’d given up on ever getting them back and had stopped asking. Obviously she’d lost them. 🤬🤬🤬🤬🤬🤬🤬 Of all people, she had lost them!

My occasional story-telling of this became well-known to my family, and is likely the reason my eldest expresses his annoyance at the steadily-decaying condition of the occasional book he lends me (his hard-cover, leather-bound edition of Lord Of The Rings is absolutely off-limits).

We exchanged Christmas gifts this year with her family, but with delivery systems as they are, Monique’s was a little late in getting to us. I was sitting at the dinner table the other night when wife and daughter presented me with a wrapped package. My first guess was that it was a Bible! 😃

Nope.

I could not believe it. Lost for a quarter of a century, here they were, and in excellent condition.

The story was that several years ago her elderly mother died in Chicago, but it was only recently that the family house was reluctantly sold. In doing so the place had to be emptied of decades worth of stuff and voila, the mystery was solved.

Fantastic, a wonderful addition to my summer hammock reading sessions. Kapuściński was always more the novelist than the historian in his poetic writing and had to be cagey of what he wrote with censors looking to pounce back home. So for example, Another Day of Life finishes just as the war was really cranking up – with the USSR heavily involved on one side. Similarly don’t expect a blow-by-blow analysis of the last days of Haile Selassie and the Shah. But what you do get is a vivid evocation of what it felt like to live in those countries, in those often surreal times, and observing those events. It’s why he was raved about by the likes of Salman Rushdie, John Updike and many other such writers.

I’ll leave this with just one example in which he describes the vast wooden city crafted by the inhabitants of the capital city Luanda, as the fighting approaches:

I don’t know if there had ever been an instance of a whole city sailing across the ocean, but that is exactly what happened. The city sailed out into the world, in search of its inhabitants. These were the former residents of Angola, the Portugese, who had scattered throughout Europe and America. A part of them reached South Africa. All fled Angola in haste, escaping before the conflagration of war, convinced that in this country there would be no more life and only the cemeteries would remain. But before they left they had still managed to build the wooden city in Luanda, into which they packed everything that had been in the stone city. On the streets now there were only thousands of cars, rusting and covered with dust. The walls also remained, the roofs, the asphalt on the roads, and the iron benches along the boulevards.

Written by Tom Hunter

January 9, 2022 at 9:38 am

A perfect example of the USSR

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Let’s have a big round of applause for government incompetence.

Had I been aware of it I would have included the following essay in my post a few days ago, Karl Marx’s Christmas Present, on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union.

The essay is a review of a recently published book, Collapse: The Fall Of The Soviet Union by Vladislav M. Zubok. That book tries to explain why the USSR collapsed so fast and argues that although the nation was in a lot of trouble and its leaders had known that for at least a decade, the collapse was not foreordained and the final result depended on a lot of turning points and personalities.

However the essay (Russian Bear Market), while praising the book’s details and accepting the main argument that collapse was not inevitable, argues that even had the 1991 coup against Gorbachev succeeded the new leaders would have faced all the same problems that could no longer be solved by Stalinist bloodshed alone, even had that been possible in the late USSR.

There’s some juicy stuff here in the details but this opening paragraph cracked me up and reminded me very much of the final confrontation between the Chief of the KGB and Professor Legasov in the TV mini-series Chernobyl:

When the KGB chief Yuri Andropov became the Soviet leader in 1982, candidates for office besieged him. Whenever someone began, “Let me tell you about myself,” Andropov replied: “What makes you think you know more about yourself than I know about you?”

Brilliant. The whole shitty system in a nutshell. If we know everything about everybody (and everything) we can run this system.

Other interesting bits include this on Ukraine.

Yeltsin soon discovered that republics demanding the right to separate would not consider giving the same right to their own provinces. Reading Zubok’s account, I was struck by the fact that Crimea, which President Putin invaded in 2014, already posed an issue as the USSR was falling apart. With a population overwhelmingly Russian, it had been ceded to Ukraine by the Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. The Donbass, the predominantly Russian area of Eastern Ukraine that is now the scene of armed conflict, also posed an issue as the country was breaking up. Would Ukraine have been better off had it not insisted on retaining these undigestible parts?

I’ve got a fair amount of time for Gorbachev so the following nugget is disappointing, even if it had been typical of such leaders for decades:

Even those familiar with the opulence in which the leaders of the world’s first socialist state lived will be shocked by Zubok’s description of the vacation villa Gorbachev had built in 1988. It cost one billion rubles at a time when the Soviet defense budget, which Zubok believes was fifteen per cent of gdp, was seventy-seven billion rubles. Today, the U.S. defense budget is about $750 billion, which would make the cost of an equivalent villa $9.75 billion. That doesn’t include the upkeep and endless staff, such as the scuba divers making sure no one could infiltrate by water. Given the country’s fiscal crisis, one can’t help but recall the extravagance of Louis XVI.

I recall that the coup seemed very incompetent, a result of a degrading system producing degraded and mediocre leaders, but I had no idea how incompetent they were:

It was a Keystone coup. Right after the organizing meeting of the plotters’ Emergency Committee, Zubok explains, “some members went home and succumbed to various illnesses. Boldin was already suffering from high blood pressure; he went to a hospital. Pavlov . . . tried to control his emotions and stress with a disastrous mixture of sedatives and alcohol. At daybreak, his bodyguard summoned medical help, as Pavlov was incapable of functioning.” Pavlov later took some more medicine to control his nerves and “had a second breakdown that incapacitated him for days.”

So incompetent were they that they did not bother to turn off Yeltsin’s phone or prevent him from organizing opposition. One of Yeltsin’s supporters was able to fly to Paris, denounce the coup, and prepare, if necessary, to set up a government in exile. Opposition news sources, who knew what was happening better than the coup leaders themselves, continued their broadcasts to the West. “The situation was unbelievable,” one KGB general recalled. KGB analysts were learning about a crisis “in the capital of our Motherland from American sources.” When Margaret Thatcher accepted advice to telephone Yeltsin, she recalled, “to my astonishment I was put through.”

Let’s have a big round of applause for government incompetence.

Written by Tom Hunter

January 4, 2022 at 11:36 am

Bureaucracy vs. Robber Barrons

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“When propaganda is the goal, accuracy is the victim.”

I recently came across two articles from past years that I’ve had bookmarked and which I’ve enjoyed reading again over this summer.

First up is some humour that author J K Rowling may be treating more seriously in her ongoing fight with the Trans community, especially after getting her name removed from the Harry Potter movie franchise by Warner Brothers as they launch a 20th anniversary celebration of the first HP movie.

The humour comes from an essay written in 2006 for the Michigan Law Review, which analyses what Rowling is effectively saying in her HP books about bureaucracy, government and the media, Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy:

The critique is even more devastating because the governmental actors and actions in the book look and feel so authentic and familiar. Cornelius Fudge, the original Minister of Magic, perfectly fits our notion of a bumbling politician just trying to hang onto his job. Delores Umbridge is the classic small-minded bureaucrat who only cares about rules, discipline, and her own power… The Ministry itself is made up of various sub-ministries with goofy names (e.g., The Goblin Liaison Office or the Ludicrous Patents Office) enforcing silly sounding regulations (e.g., The Decree for the Treatment of Non-Wizard Part-Humans or The Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery).

Rowling even eliminates the free press as a check on government power. The wizarding newspaper, The Daily Prophet, is depicted as a puppet to the whims of Ministry of Magic.

Sounds appropriate for our times. I don’t know how many of you have read the series, likely to your kids or even grandkids, or perhaps a guilty pleasure for yourself, but you may recognise some of this from the abstract.

I did not have to re-read the books to see all this, as it had jumped out at me when I read them originally, even if it went over the heads of my kids. I was hardly the only parent who speculated on what Rowling’s experience with government and bureaucrats had been in real life as she wrote her novels in poverty. Having said that it seems that Gen Z kids themselves continue to re-read the books now as they age into their twenties and thirties, where they likely also draw similar parallels:

it seems likely that we will see a continuing uptick in distrust of government and libertarianism as the Harry Potter generation reaches adulthood.

One can only hope. Which brings me to the next article, about a world almost completely at odds with the first, the Gilded Age of America, otherwise known as the time of The Robber Barrons.

More accurately The Myth of the ‘Robber Barons’. It turns out that it was created less at the time (despite cartoons such as the one above) than in the 1930’s, just when it was needed by the US Left, as described by historian Burton W. Folsom in his book about the subject.

It will surprise nobody to find that Far Lefters were behind it and that they were very ignorant about economics – and many other things. The main culprit was one Matthew Josephson, who quite literally wrote the best-selling book, The Robber Barons, after being inspired by Charles Beard, America’s foremost progressive historian, first at varsity and then years later during the Great Depression:

Josephson, the son of a Jewish banker, grew up in New York and graduated from Columbia University, where he was inspired in the classroom by Charles Beard, America’s foremost progressive historian—and a man sympathetic to socialism…“Oh! those respectable ones,” Beard said of America’s capitalists, “oh! their temples of respectability—how I detest them, how I would love to pull them all down!” Happily for Beard, Josephson was handy to do the job for him. Josephson dedicated The Robber Barons to Beard, the historian most responsible for the book’s contents.

Writing in the inspiring times of 1932 Josephson reached back fifty years in time to explain it all, but the following comments provide a clear idea of the quality of “analysis” he brought to the subject:

In a written interview for Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, Josephson said he enjoyed watching “the breakdown of our cult of business success and optimism.” He added, “The freedom of the U.S.S.R. from our cycles of insanity is the strongest argument in the world for the reconstruction of our society in a new form that is as highly centralized as Russia’s. . . .”

One is tempted to snigger but today we live with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Occasional-Cortex, who believe the same shite about socialism and its Siamese Twin, giant centralised government.

He did little research and mainly used secondary sources that supported his Marxist viewpoint. As he had written in the New Republic, “Far from shunning propaganda, we must use it more nobly, more skillfully than our predecessors, and speak through it in the local language and slogans.” Thus he wrote The Robber Barons with dramatic stories, anecdotes, and innuendos that demeaned corporate America and made the case for massive government intervention.

Ah yes. As with today’s “journalists” the Narrative is everything and is best supported by dramatic stories. As Folsom points out in the article, that means there are lots of mistakes: “On page 14 alone, Josephson makes at least a dozen errors in his account of Vanderbilt and the steamships.” As Folsom says, “When propaganda is the goal, accuracy is the victim.”

But the main error – actually showing up on that page – is that Josephson never differentiated between market entrepreneurs like Vanderbilt, Hill, and Rockefeller and political entrepreneurs (i.e. government subsidy harvesters) like Collins, Villard, and Gould, even as he was honest enough to praise aspects of the former and lash the latter:

He quotes “one authority” on the railroads as saying, “The Federal government seems . . . to have assumed the major portion of the risk and the Associates seem to have derived the profits”—but Josephson never pursues the implication of that passage.

While the book hit the best-seller lists for six months Josephson was running around Russia praising bloody Stalin and his system. He missed the gulags, the farm collectivisations and all their horrors, especially in the Ukraine, and saw only the factories and other “glamorous” things:

He attended official dinners and even talked with select Russian writers and artists. He was ecstatic. The Soviet Union, Josephson said, “seemed like the hope of the world—the only large nation run by men of reason.” … Josephson also never realized that the Soviet factories he saw were often directly copied from Western capitalist factories—and were funded by Stalin’s confiscatory taxation. Instead, Josephson thought he had stumbled into a workers’ paradise, the logical result of central planning and superior leaders.

This book would go on to be more than just a best-seller: it had huge influence in the worlds of high schools, academia and journalism for decades:

Historian Thomas Brewer, who in 1970 edited The Robber Barons: Saints or Sinners? observed that the majority of writers “still adhere to the ‘robber baron’ interpretation.” Historian David Shi agrees: “For well over a generation, The Robber Barons remained the standard work in its field.” For many textbook writers, it still is. In the main study guide for the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam for 2015, the writers say:

America [1877-1900] looked to have entered a period of prosperity with a handful of families having amassed unprecedented wealth, but the affluence of the few was built on the poverty of many.

2015 FFS? It’s a wonder that Silicon Valley exists at all with this sort of high school education, though perhaps it wasn’t as bad when the likes of Zuckerburg, Gates, Bezos and Steve Jobs were passing through it, and of course Musk was educated in South Africa.

Folsom explains that this success, despite all the sloppy errors in the book, comes down to two reasons.

First, it was tailor-made for the Progressives of the 1930’s eager to blame the new generation of robber barons for the Great Depression. I always laugh at those Lefties who claim that Righties pined for President Herbert Hoover: it’s even in the opening song for All In The Family because of course it is. See how this cultural shit works? In fact:

Those harmful federal policies include the Federal Reserve’s untimely raising of interest rates, making it harder to borrow money; President Hoover’s blundering Farm Board; his signing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, the highest in U.S. history; and his disastrous Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which dispensed massive corporate bailouts to political entrepreneurs. Finally, Hoover muzzled investment by repealing the Mellon tax cuts and promoting a huge tax hike.

Including income tax rates that went up to 70%, which FDR criticised, but which he cunningly kept after getting elected. Oh yeah, we Righties love that Herbert Hoover. Actually the admiration is for “Silent Cal” Coolidge, his predecessor, who could have run for office again in 1928 and would have handled all of the above very differently (of Hoover he said, “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.”)

The second reason is that a bunch of Marxist historians who influenced a lot of the post-WWII historical profession, loved the book and made sure it was embedded in the curriculums of their students, starting with Richard Hofstadter:

“My fundamental reason for joining [the Communist Party],” Hofstadter said, “is that I don’t like capitalism and want to get rid of it.”

He still desired that after quitting the Party. He’s also the guy who wrote the nasty little polemic about the US Right-Wing, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Great guys communists, whatever profession they are they’re still communists, with all the toxic nastiness and fanaticism involved.

Folsum’s book, The Myth of The Robber Barrons
Also, The Forgotten Man

Written by Tom Hunter

January 4, 2022 at 6:00 am

Dead Civilisation Walking

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Confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers. Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilisations have had a weight of energy behind them. – Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, 1969

As is sometimes the case I’ve paraphrased the heading from someone who is a far better writer than me, in this case Mark Steyn.

Having written a couple of posts about the domestic situation in the USA, a potential American Civil War 2.0 or perhaps a Civil Breakup (there’s some overlap here with the post on Angelo Codevilla and his takes on America’s ruling classes) – it’s worth looking back a few months to the collapse of the great American project in Afghanistan for what deeper meanings might be drawn from the event.

Steyn bookends the start and end of the War On Terror:

Contrast our spokesmen with theirs: in the White House, Jen Psaki picked the weekend to take a vacation, possibly to film her scenes in another hilariously viral Mr Non-Binary Goes To Washington video; at Foggy Bottom, Buffoon McStriped Pants III issued a stern warning on the need for the firebreathing mullahs to include more female deputy-assistant-undersecretaries; 

[Meanwhile] Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid says ‘We have defeated a great power.’

He has an interesting piece on the early days after the fall of the Taliban in 2001:

Ahead of the 2002 loya jirga to select a new head of state, over eight hundred delegates announced that they wanted the old sovereign, Zahir Shah, returned to his throne as a constitutional monarch. That’s eight hundred out of 1,450 – so he would have won on the first ballot. Buffoon McStripedpants III from Foggy Bottom was not in favor of that, so the Yanks delayed the start of the loya jirga in order to lean on the King to back off. Washington wanted Karzai because he was the kind they can do business with – a corrupt grifter just like them.

One of the depressing aspects of the Swamp is that everything becomes a racket – including even your armed forces. Look at that buffoon at top right, the guy who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Thoroughly Modern Milley: that’s an awful lot of chest ribbonry for a nation that hasn’t won a war in three-quarters of a century. 

America is not “too big to fail”: It’s failing by almost every metric right now. The world-record brokey-brokey-brokeness manifested by the current spending bills is only possible because the US dollar is the global currency. When that ends, we’re Weimar with smartphones. Clearly, Chairman Xi and his allies occasionally muse on the best moment to yank the dollar out from under. If you were in Beijing watching telly today, would you perhaps be considering advancing those plans?

I’d forgotten that Steyn had visited Afghanistan back in 2012, where he wrote that America’s longest war would leave no trace:

So we have a convenient label for what’s happening; what we don’t have is a strategy to stop it – other than more money, more “hearts and minds” for people who seem notably lacking in both, and more bulk orders of the bestselling book “Three Cups Of Tea,” an Oprahfied heap of drivel extensively exposed as an utter fraud but which a delusional Washington insists on sticking in the kit bag of its Afghan-bound officer class.

Don’t fancy the tea? A U.S. base in southern Afghanistan was recently stricken by food poisoning due to mysteriously high amounts of chlorine in the coffee. As Navy Capt. John Kirby explained, “We don’t know if it was deliberate or something in the cleaning process.”

Oh, dear. You could chisel that on the tombstones of any number of expeditionary forces over the centuries: “Afghanistan. It’s something in the cleaning process.”

The Rumsfeld strategy that toppled the Taliban over a decade ago was brilliant and innovative: special forces on horseback using GPS to call in unmanned drones. They will analyze it in staff colleges around the world for decades. But what we ought to be analyzing instead is the sad, aimless, bloated, arthritic, transnationalized folly of what followed

I also appreciated this comment on from the recently returned Stromata blog:

The ultimate source of feeble protection of American national interests is feeble attachment to the America that actually is, as opposed to the America that anti-Americans wish to substitute for it. If you believed that your country was founded to foster slavery, expanded its territory through genocide, imposed its will on the rest of the world in a greedy quest for profits, and today subjugates half its population under the yoke of White Supremacy, how much effort would you put into rescuing the agents of its imperialistic enterprise in a distant Asian land?

Or you could read, We are no longer a serious people:

If you fight demons, they’re entirely demons of your own creation, whether Cambridge Analytica or QAnon or the ‘insurrection’ or supposed electoral fraud or any of a host of bogeymen, and you get to tweet #resist while not dangling from the side of an airplane or risking your life on a raft to escape.

This might seem flip and ‘too soon’, but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.

Of all these essays it is this one that I think is the best examination of our post-Afghanistan world, mainly because – much as I enjoy Steyn’s foamy acidness – this guy puts in the context of a deeper, wider history of the entire Western world, Farewell to Bourgeois Kings. There are many great passages and I strongly recommend that you read it all, but I’ll pick this one:

Though it didn’t start out that way, the war in Afghanistan morphed over time into a sort of modern Verdun for the liberal world order, a Verdun in a very ideological sense. For the French in the first world war, the name Verdun was made into the symbol of the French national spirit and willingness to win. It was the battle that defined the spirit of the entire war. Afghanistan, almost a century later, came to take on a similar ideological life of its own, now as the focal point of an entire worldview and historical epoch. It was in Afghanistan more than anywhere else, that the rubber hit the road for the post-Soviet, hegemonically liberal, ”end of history” era of human flourishing that Francis Fukuyama so famously (and somewhat ambivalently) christened just as the Soviet Union was rattling its final death throes.

There was so much money sloshing around at the fingertips of these educated technocrats that it became nearly impossible to spend it all fast enough; they simply took all of those countless billions of dollars straight from the hands of ordinary Americans, because they believed they had a right to do so.

Their spectacular failure on every conceivable level now brings us to the true heart of the matter. Western society today is openly ruled by a managerial class.

Kings ruled in the epoch of monarchies, because only kings could rule, or at least so they all claimed. Technocrats rule our post-Soviet era for very much the same reason; they are, according to the legitimating narrative of our age, the only ones that can rule. 

I’ve lost track of the number of smart Lefties I’ve read (meaning not the screamers) who have pushed this argument about our modern, immensely complex societies. The problem is not just the failure to address the idea that Friedrich Hayek put forward in The Road to Serfdom, that our societies are too complex to manage centrally, but that these people who think so highly of themselves and their credentials, simply are not up to doing what they claim they can do, even in far smaller settings:

It is not just that the elite class is incompetent – even kings could be incompetent without undermining belief in monarchy as a system – it is that they are so grossly, spectacularly incompetent that they walk around among us as living rebuttals of meritocracy itself. It is that their application of managerial logic to whatever field they get their grubby mitts on – from homelessness in California to industrial policy to running a war – makes that thing ten times more expensive and a hundred times more dysfunctional. 

I guess in all of this I have increasingly been reminded of this commentary from the first episode of Kenneth Clark’s great 1969 TV documentary series, Civilisation:

Civilisation does require a modicum of material prosperity — enough to provide a little leisure. But it requires confidence far more. Confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers. Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilisations have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These may be among the agreeable results of civilisation, but they are not what make a civilisation, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.

I hate to say this, but I think the USA is now at that point.

Written by Tom Hunter

December 20, 2021 at 6:00 am

Kafkatrapping

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I’d used this term a number of times in the past few years but it was not until the other day that I found out its origin, which was when it was named and defined by Eric Raymond in a post on his blog Armed and Dangerous, in 2010.

The definition given by Wiktionary is concise:

A sophistical rhetorical device in which any denial by an accused person serves as evidence of guilt.

But I think this, from the original post, is required reading if you’re going to understand the term, especially since it’s become so common now.

The kafkatrap is a form of argument that is so fallacious and manipulative that those subjected to it are entitled to reject it based entirely on the form of the argument, without reference to whatever particular sin or thoughtcrime is being alleged. I will also attempt to show that kafkatrapping is so self-destructive to the causes that employ it that change activists should root it out of their own speech and thoughts.

My reference, of course, is to Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”, in which the protagonist Josef K. is accused of crimes the nature of which are never actually specified, and enmeshed in a process designed to degrade, humiliate, and destroy him whether or not he has in fact committed any crime at all. The only way out of the trap is for him to acquiesce in his own destruction; indeed, forcing him to that point of acquiescence and the collapse of his will to live as a free human being seems to be the only point of the process, if it has one at all.

This is almost exactly the way the kafkatrap operates in religious and political argument. Real crimes – actual transgressions against flesh-and-blood individuals – are generally not specified. The aim of the kafkatrap is to produce a kind of free-floating guilt in the subject, a conviction of sinfulness that can be manipulated by the operator to make the subject say and do things that are convenient to the operator’s personal, political, or religious goals. Ideally, the subject will then internalize these demands, and then become complicit in the kafkatrapping of others.

There is much more, presented in a beautifully coherent way.

Since this essay was published we’ve seen the growth of literally an entire industry – led by racist charlatans like Ibram “X” Kendi (real name Henry Rogers) and Robin DeAngelo – that have this as the primary method used in “anti-racist” training. It’s just amazing how many standards of civilized communication they can destroy!

The latest outfit that has fallen prey to this nonsense is, of all places, The Salvation Army.

No one can ever be innocent. Well, except the leaders of course.

A warning from the recent past

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I admit that I don’t have a lot of time for Jordan Petersen, the Canadian professor of psychology who has gained quite a bit of media fame in recent years since his famous interview on BBC TV about the fight between free speech and the growing constraints on words that are “permitted” for use. In that case the interview was over his objection to being forced to use “gender-neutral” words in Canada and he rather made a fool of the interviewer and her “So what you’re saying” schtick! It’s worth watching.

But I’d read his first book, Maps of Meaning, years before and found it to be such unreadable wank that I quit just two chapters in. To me it actually seemed to have been influenced by the very obscurantist clap-trap of post-modernism that feeds so much of the Politically Correct (now “Woke”) and Identity Politics bullshit we’re being fed.

Still, this would hardly be the the first time that a person I consider wrong on some issues gets other things right, and the following is one of them. It’s actually from a few years ago and is an interview on the Joe Rogan Show where he talks about how people get slowly manipulated in the modern era with small-scale propaganda and efforts rather than the vast, revolutionary leaps used in the past.

“If I encroach on you and I’m sophisticated about it, I’m going to encroach right to the point where you start to protest. Then I’m going to stop. Then I’m going to wait. Then you’re going to calm down, and I’m going to encroach again right to the point where you protest.”

“Then I’m going to stop, then I’m going to wait. I’m just going to do this forever,” explained Peterson. “Before you know it, I’m going to be back three miles from where you started, and I’ll have done this one step at a time. Then you’ll go, ‘how did I get here?’ and the answer was, well, I pushed you a little further than you should’ve gone.

The Joe Rogan Show itself is an example of pushback as the former actor has turned himself into a “radio” personality. Or more accurately I should say an Internet personality via his podcasts that have numbers of viewers and listeners that traditional MSM sources would kill for. Rogan himself appears to be getting increasingly red-pilled away from his traditional Hollywood “liberal” beliefs on various issues.

Incidentally the process described by Petersen here is merely a version of “Nudge Theory”, which got a big public push in 2008 with the book Nudge:

The book draws on research in psychology and behavioral economics to defend libertarian paternalism and active engineering of choice architecture. The book also popularised the concept of nudge theory. A nudge, according to Thaler and Sunstein is any form of choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without restricting options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must require minimal intervention and must be cheap.

Without restricting options or changing economic incentives! Hahahaahhaahah.

A “nudge unit” is already inside the current British Government, as described by Brian Easton in this Pundit article, and the head of that unit has visited New Zealand several times, so it is not a surprise to find on the website for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, a section on Behavioural insights.

As one critic noted of the whole theory:

If the “nudgee” can’t be depended on to recognize his own best interests, why stop at a nudge? Why not offer a “push,” or perhaps even a “shove”? And if people can’t be trusted to make the right choices for themselves how can they possibly be trusted to make the right decisions for the rest of us?[31]

Well if they’re credentialed enough then the assumption is that they can be. Whether credentialed equals educated, let alone wise is a larger, often unasked question.

Naturally Brian wonders if we’re “nudging enough” and I expect he’s fully in favour of many a “shove”.

Crystallization, Madness and Tyranny

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.

There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as
protection against political despotism.


On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

That famous quote actually came about because Mill – the son of a famous economist who also contributed to the somewhat crude theory of utilitarianism (as did his son), which I must admit increasingly dominates our world, especially now – was in the end influenced and changed by that close observer of democracy, Tocqueville, and his notion of the tyranny of the majority, who pointed out that the tyranny unique to democracy gave rise to “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion” in the social sphere, in our so-called free societies. It moved Mill to write his great plea for free speech.

The reason this came up in my reading was due to a lengthy (38 pages) and very thoughtful article published in Tablet magazine, Needle Points, which attempts to explore the world of “vaccine hesitancy” from an intellectual medical standpoint rather than the crude and simple-minded abuse that fills the screens of the MSM and more than a little of FaceTwit (full PDF version here). The author, Norman Doidge, is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing.

He writes of one insight into vaccination from his days at medical school:

At times modern science and modern medicine seem based on a fantasy that imagines the role of medicine is to conquer nature, as though we can wage a war against all microbes with “antimicrobials” to create a world where we will no longer suffer from infectious disease. Vaccination is not based on that sterile vision but its opposite; it works with our educable immune system, which evolved millions of years ago to deal with the fact that we must always coexist with microbes; it helps us to use our own resources to protect ourselves. Doing so is in accord with the essential insight of Hippocrates, who understood that the major part of healing comes from within, that it is best to work with nature and not against it.

It is an unusual aspect of modern medicine, which can seem overly “cold and clinical”, the stereotype of that term in fact. He writes of the two sides of what he calls the behavioral immune system:

… ever since they were made available, vaccines have been controversial, and it has almost always been difficult to have a nonemotionally charged discussion about them. One reason is that in humans (and other animals), any infection can trigger an archaic brain circuit in most of us called the behavioral immune system (BIS). It’s a circuit that is triggered when we sense we may be near a potential carrier of disease, causing disgust, fear, and avoidance. It is involuntary, and not easy to shut off once it’s been turned on.

It’s useful, but:

One of the reasons our discussions of vaccination are so emotionally radioactive, inconsistent, and harsh, is that the BIS is turned on in people on both sides of the debate. Those who favor vaccination are focused on the danger of the virus, and that triggers their system. Those who don’t are focused on the fact that the vaccines inject into them a virus or a virus surrogate or even a chemical they think may be poisonous, and that turns on their system. Thus both sides are firing alarms (including many false-positive alarms) that put them in a state of panic, fear, loathing, and disgust of the other.

And now these two sides of the vaccination debate are tearing America apart. . .

America? The world.

We see it firing every day now, when someone drives alone wearing a mask, or goes for a walk by themselves in an empty forest masked, or when someone—say with good health and no previous known adverse reactions to vaccines—hears that a vaccine can in one in 500,000 cases cause death, but can’t take any comfort that they have a 99.999% chance of it not happening because it potentially can. Before advanced brain areas are turned on and probabilities are factored in, the BIS is off and running.

Meh. The human brain is not equipped to understand probability. But the aspect of a mass of numbers is not just about probability but something more viciously concrete:

It seems to me especially vital that we broaden our understanding of the history and current state of vaccines because, over the summer, many who chose vaccination for themselves concluded that it is acceptable to mandate vaccines for others, including those who are reluctant to get them. That majority entered a state of “crystallization”–a term I borrow from the French novelist Stendhal, who applied it to the moment when a person first falls in love: Feelings that may have been fluid become solid, clear, and absolute, leading to all-or-nothing thinking, such that even the beloved’s blemishes become signs of their perfection.

Crystallization, as I’m using it here, happens within a group that has been involved in a major dispute. For a while there is an awareness that some disagreement is in play, and people are free to have different opinions. But at a certain point–often hard to predict and impossible to measure because it is happening in the wider culture and not necessarily at the ballot box–both sides of the dispute become aware that, within this mass of human beings, there is now a winner. One might say that a consensus arises that there is now a majority consensus. Suddenly, certain ideas and actions must be applauded, voiced, obeyed, and acted on, while others are off limits.

It sounds like witch burning, or perhaps in a less damaging form, a version of the focus of the famous book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. But Doidge brings us back to Tocqueville:

One person who understood how this works intuitively was Alexis de Tocqueville. In democracies, as long as there is not yet a majority opinion, a range of views can be expressed, and it appears there is a great “liberty of opinion,” to use his phrase.

But once a majority opinion forms, it acquires a sudden social power, and it brings with it pressure to end dissent. A powerful new kind of censorship and coercion begins in everyday life (at work, school, choir, church, hospitals, in all institutions) as the majority turns on the minority, demanding it comply. Tocqueville, like James Madison, was concerned about this “the tyranny of the majority,” which he saw as the Achilles’ heel of democracy.

It isn’t only because divisiveness created a minority faction steeped in lingering resentment; it’s also because minorities can sometimes be more right than majorities (indeed, emerging ideas are, by definition, minority ideas to start with). The majority overtaking the minority could mean stamping out thoughts and actions that would otherwise generate progress and forward movement.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson made that point about Western societies, especially democracies, many times in his book Carnage and Culture. I think we’re losing that in our technocratic age, dominated by giant monopoly IT companies that increasingly control our discourse.

It is a fascinating moment when this sort of crystallization happens in a mass culture like America’s, because seemingly overnight even the definition of legitimate speech (or thought or action) also changes. Tocqueville observed that quite abruptly a person can no longer express opinions or raise questions that only days before were acceptable, even though no facts of the matter have changed. At an individual level, people who were within the bounds can be surprised to find themselves “tormented by the slights and persecutions of daily obloquy.” Once this occurs, he wrote, “your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being, and those who are most persuaded of your innocence will abandon you too, lest they should be shunned in their turn.”

We are so close to this here in New Zealand. Far closer than in the federated world of the USA, where actual states, almost nations in themselves, can chart different courses. But in a nation state such as ours there is only one course, that determined by Parliamentary Supremacy, boosted by a majority government not anticipated by the supporters if MMP. The only reason I voted for National in 2002 was precisely to prevent Helen Clark, competent as she was, getting FPP control.

And so…

A June 2021 Gallup poll found that, among the vaccinated, 53% now worry most about those choosing not to get vaccinated, “surpassing concerns about lack of social distancing in their area (27%), availability of local hospital resources and supplies (11%), and availability of coronavirus tests in their area (5%).” True to the BIS’s impulses, this fear is metastasizing into disgust, even hatred, of those who–because they believe or act differently–are now perceived as threats: On Aug. 26, in a front-page story in the Toronto Star, my local newspaper, a resident was quoted as saying: “I have no empathy left for the willfully unvaccinated. Let them die.”

Heh. I have seen much the same on FaceTwit from (now former) friends and acquaintances. You can read the rest of the analysis in these sections.

CHAPTER II: The kernel brilliance of vaccines

CHAPTER III: A new plague descends

CHAPTER IV: Getting out

But one aspect of the crystallization that amuses/bemuses me is summarised very well by the following point from the article:

As of a September 2019 Gallup poll, only a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic, Big Pharma was the least trusted of America’s 25 top industry sectors, No. 25 of 25. In the eyes of ordinary Americans, it had both the highest negatives and the lowest positives of all industries.

At No. 24 was the federal government, and at No. 23 was the health care industry. These three industries form a neat troika (though at No. 22 was the advertising and public relations industry, which facilitates the work of the other three.)

Those inside the troika often characterize the vaccine hesitant as broadly fringe and paranoid. But there are plenty of industries and sectors that Americans do trust. Of the top 25 U.S. industry sectors, 21 enjoy net positive views from American voters. Only pharma, government, health care, and PR are seen as net negative: precisely the sectors involved in the rollout of the COVID vaccines. This set the conditions, in a way, for a perfect storm.

You know who probably were the dominant members of those untrusting American souls on “Big Pharma” and the “Health Care” industry pre-Covid-19?

The Left. In the USA, the Democrats. Here, Labour and the Greens.

Politics and the madness of crowds can work miracles in changing people’s minds. As the Joker said in The Dark Knight:

Madness, as you know, is like gravity.
All it takes is a little push”

Written by Tom Hunter

November 25, 2021 at 11:13 pm

Friday Night Dance

I don’t know but I think that we all need to dance, especially in Auckland, even if Freedom Day (told you they’d start talking this way) is still a month away.

And so…

My kids have assured me that “happy” songs have not been around for a decade so…. (with a little respect to Emma Goldman)… here’s Sophie Ellis-Bextor. I’ve always laughed at how much my American wife loved Counting The Beat and its refrain that “There’s no place I’d raaaather be”, which means she also loved this dance song. It kills me that Bextor never did a video for this, but between getting married and having five kids I guess she didn’t have the time.

One video she did do was the more famous one, Murder on the Dance Floor. Yes, that eye makeup is very 2000’s. You can also watch her perform it live in Edinburgh in 2019.

A hit from a decade ago done with old movies..

In a non-dance mode here’s Swedish Group called First Aid Kit with two of the greatest covers I’ve ever heard. First up is a cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. To have the guts to try and cover that song – live.

And here they are doing a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s song, America. Who’s in the audience? Paul Simon. Watch to the end.

Back to dancing. I was one of those kids who soured badly on the whole disco scene at the end of the 70’s and went full Punk. But I have to admit that the reaction led to me making some pretty stupid assessments of the genre, like ABBA – and this…

Finally I will leave you with a Rabbit Hole special. Which is to say something that (again) my kids found. As it happens this song was written in New Zealand for the whalers in the South Island, pre-1840. There have been many versions of The Wellerman but this, done earlier this year, is probably the best. You can read the history at the link.

Written by Tom Hunter

November 19, 2021 at 6:55 pm

Hollywood’s ugly cost of catering to China

Come On Hollywood. Put Taiwan & Japan back
on Maverick’s Jacket for Top Gun II 

A terrific article about Hollywood’s pathetic sucking up to China over the last few years.

There’s plenty of evidence in terms of reporting on all the machinations that have been pulled between China and Hollywood over the years at the management level.

But it can be seen on the screen itself: things like modifying Maverick’s jacket to remove the patches for Taiwan and Japan, or Disney’s removal of the Black guy in their Star Wars billboards for China.

The ultimate joke is that it’s started to fail Hollywood anyway as the returns on all this “investment” begin to dry up:

Just two years ago, Disney’s “Avengers Endgame” earned a whopping $629 million at Chinese theaters during its theatrical run.

The far-Left Hollywood Reporter says “Jungle Cruise,” a splashy Disney film with a massive budget, bombed during its opening weekend in China. The film earned a mere $3.3 million during its initial release.

That’s part of a new pattern for U.S.-made films, notes Breitbart News. Other 2021 U.S. titles which significantly under-performed in China include “Snake Eyes,” “Luca” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”

Meanwhile, many films that expected to earn serious coin in China have yet to snag an official release in the country, including “Black Widow,” “The Eternals” and “Shang-Chi,” all Disney titles.

Also aiding this fail is that China has started to get pretty good at churning out big blockbuster movies themselves – and they’re patriotic about China. As a result they’re making a lot of the money Hollywood used to make from Chinese audiences.

The article also links to a short documentary about this, The Iron (Movie) Curtain. As the old Russian soviets once said: The West will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.


See also:

Disney Bombs

Die Hollywood, Die

Burn Baby, Burn: Hollywood edition

Trump was right about China

Written by Tom Hunter

November 18, 2021 at 10:37 am