Liberties and the freedom to bang on and on about them.

Just read a good, solid article by Julian Baggini in the online Guardian, on freedom and the role of government (here). I think he gets to the heart of how a social democratic viewpoint maintains its liberalism precisely by allowing the state to act rather than attempting to erode its influence. A tiny selection (it’s not very long, so go read the rest)

To maximise our freedom, therefore, we should be interested in creating a society in which we have the maximum power to make choices for ourselves. That may require us to limit the extent to which influences that are corrosive to freedom are allowed to operate.


Of course, governments can go too far. Mill was right that no actions that harm only ourselves should be illegal. But there is a difference between regulation and banning outright. That is why there is no mixed message in calling for a lift on absolute prohibitions on illegal drugs, while at the same time legislating to encourage responsible drinking and coming down hard on those whose intoxication risks harm to others. Nor is the proposed increase in the number and size of casinos necessarily a bad thing, if it is matched by much stricter regulation of gambling, as promised.

I like Baggini – he contributes to B&W and there is a very nice article on their front page by him, on the fissure between postmodern thinkers and other intellectuals, where he sidesteps the cheap route of playing up the differences and grasps at their commonality – a fundamental shared notion of rationality (he argues this may be a thin one, but it is shared in this form by both these groups) that pits them against fundamentalists and other fanatics. His Guardian piece made me go back to a site I’ve relegated from ‘regular read’ to ‘rarely bother with’ – and confirm my preference shift. For if there were ever a peddler of the ‘intrusive state’ thesis, Spiked is it.

Spiked (“online, off-message”) pitches itself as the web-zine for rational people who didn’t care what other people thought. It took a different view, criticised the media as well as the government, was pro-science and critical of the anti-GM lobby, and in many senses suited well someone evacuating the Usenet atheism and evolution newsgroups where argumentative beatdowns were thrown at the lazy of thought and the deliberatively illogical.

And they had a view on everything! How impressive, I thought, to have an angle on every event that happened. Given time it became apparent that the angle was more or less the same angle every time – a libertarian none-of-your-business attitude. First disappointed (it’s a less impressive output when you discover it’s based around templates), I became disillusioned when it became clear that this limited the topics to get coverage, and promoted a bias as heavy as any I’d find in any print paper. If there is any government initiative, we are going to hear about how it is a bad thing, decided a priori to its actual content and aim. The environmental only gets covered from an impossibly skeptical perspective – either focused pieces from experts downplaying the threat or using new claims about the environment as an excuse to wheel out … the same experts and their same old arguments. Just another example of an institution committing itself to a position, and as a consequence removing itself from objective evaluation of the true situation. Despite its claims, it’s less rational than a novice beginning each issue with an “I’m not sure” and taking it from their.

If there is any doubt that Baggini’s article speaks to them (intentionally or otherwise), here are a few choice quotes from a few seconds of trawling their archives – first

in danger of handing the state that very right….busy-body coppers laying down the law (link)

and here, where they do their bit to finesse the issue

Though government intervention is more coercive and intrusive than in the past, it is mediated through a range of ‘caring’ professionals and its authoritarian character is obscured. Nanny is a straw person, the counsellor is the personification of the therapeutic state.(link)

And what’s all this? On reading this scolding article about the Tory party giving in to PC, it seems like even tolerance is a bridge too far:

Meanwhile, the Tory Party has bent over backwards to show respect to those diverse lifestyles that are deemed acceptable today. The party staged a gay and lesbian summit for young people on 28 March 2003 that discussed issues such as tackling homophobic bullying and promoting health…. [Michael Howard] gave his support to ‘sensible measures to combat race, disability and sex discrimination’, which were apparently not ‘political correctness’ but ‘plain common sense, decency, humanity’ ….This reinforces today’s censorious climate.

‘deemed acceptable’? combatting discrimination “apparently not” (with sarcasm clearly on) PC? Dear or dear. My search has convinced me that they have jumped the shark into a pool of genuine unpleasantness.

A curious thing is that they seem to concede that no-one feels the same way:

The most striking contrast between today’s therapeutic state and the nanny state of the past is the absence of popular opposition. On the contrary, opinion polls reveal substantial majorities in favour of measures currently under discussion, such as bans on smoking in public places and restrictions on advertising of ‘junk food’. Where is the campaign to uphold the rights of smokers in pubs and restaurants? Have we seen demonstrations demanding the right to eat junk food or indulge in binge drinking?

One must wonder where the issue is – we live in a society where people agree that the government is right to exercise its powers to protect us from the actions of others, including regulation of unwelcome behaviour. End of story, surely? Perhaps not – perhaps there is a layer of ‘false consciousness’ occluding the poor proletariat, that only Mick Hulme and his noble band can see through. Given that their position on the state is largely predicated on the notion that people know what is good for them and should be left alone, even this flimsy defence is self-defeating.

Even now, I readily concede the readability of Spiked – its articles go down like flat Coke. But the sheer tendentiousness of its writing makes it tiresome and utterly predictable. Seems to me that Spiked are less off-message than off-base.

UPDATE: A commentator draws attention to this story revealing the colourful and somewhat worrying ideological history of the Spiked, nee Living Marxism crowd, and just how many pies their tentacles have got into. One thing that resonates strongly with me is the assertion that

the scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network.

I don’t know that science (as a human body) is always naive, but it could use better, more positive PR, and must have found it reassuring to discover organisations of hardline technophiliacs saying “it’s alright Jack, I’ve got your back”. But to me, this is the worst possible outcome, simply deepening fault lines between the factions and trying to isolate science as compatible only with an atomistic, individualistic world view. It’s akin to what Pinker is achieving with The Blank Slate – to push opposition onto a fork, where either they accept ‘the scientific case’ for womens inequality or are forced to reject the scientific worldview entirely. One way or another, trying to shrink the ranks and perceived weight of the rational, systematic left. It’s as smart as it is shitty, and they need to be sorted out.

4 Replies to “Liberties and the freedom to bang on and on about them.”

  1. that is most interesting about Spiked and SAS being descended from the RCP. I haven’t quite got my head around what this means yet, but I don’t like the idea.

  2. It is weird isn’t it. I really was a big Spiked/ InstituteofIdeas fan for quite a time – I went to several symposia they organised, read and digested a lot of their stuff. But they are much more ideologically driven than they declare, as it were: it purports to be contrarian but its just driving its narrow boat on. What that final article I linked to has really coalesced in my mind is just how much the whole thing is a snake feeding on itself: Hulme reviews Furedi, who claims society is in dire need of intellectual enterprises, such as the Institute of Ideas, which is run by Short, who hosts seminars guesting Furedi, and is touted by Spiked, run by Hulme, and on and on. It really does feel like an ideological run for power. To what end? Dunno – I know very little about living marxism, and in any case if they have had a damascene conversion then it’s pretty likely that they’ve dropped the perspective and just kept the machinery. They are certainly very effective at what they do – always seem to turn up on the Moral Maze, Newsnight etc.

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