The cat i' the adage

"The growth of knowledge depends entirely on disagreement" Karl Popper (1902 - 1994)

Monday, January 31, 2005

Grasping democracy

Among the accounts of many Iraqi bloggers, I particularly enjoyed this from Ali in Baghdad:

The voting center that was chosen in our district is a high school in the middle of the Neighborhood . This was the same place I went in 1996 to cast my vote in a poll asking if we wanted to have Saddam as a president for life or not. I had to go at that time. The threats for anyone who refused to take that poll were no less than the death penalty...

This time we went by choice and the threat was exactly the opposite.


I hope those who have been lecturing us on how Islam and democracy are opposing concepts feel ashamed of themselves. Little chance of that I suspect.

But won't democracy just lead to Shia domination of the Sunni minority? Well the Shia form the majority population so in a democracy you would expect them to have a majority. As far as memory serves, nobody on the left thought it a good argument against free elections in South Africa that they would lead to the dominance of the ANC and the marginalisation of the Afrikaaner minority. In short, this is a plausible sounding argument of convenience to those who would deny liberty to Iraqis on the grounds that anything "imposed" by the US must be worse than what they had before. And if the "sophisticates" think that the Shia are going to institute a theocracy on the Iranian model, it is clear that they have not been listening to the political debate that has been going on in Iraq.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

"Imposing" democracy?

I spent a nervous weekend worrying about the Iraqi elections, hoping that the electorate would show their contempt for the enemies of democracy by turning out in force, regardless of personal risk. The provisional turnout is 72%, rather higher than the US or UK can muster in national elections, so it seems that those who have claimed that democracy was being "imposed" on a people who had no interest in determining their own government have been exposed as fantasists, completely out of touch with Iraqi opinion.

Strangely, the only support for Mr Bush that I came across all weekend was from a charming young Iranian working in this country who I have met a couple of times. He hopes that a functioning democracy over the border from Iran will prove a great encouragement to the Iranian population who have had enough of theocracy. Other despots in the region will also be looking over their shoulders.

Meanwhile I share the joy of Omar and Mohammed at Iraq the Model, and wish Iraqis peaceful self-determination.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Apocalypse No

John Brignell's notes on the one day conference organised by the Scientific Alliance in London yesterday make interesting reading.

Should we, I wonder, be as pessimistic as Professor Lindzen who is quoted as saying

If the funding is all on one side, there will inevitably soon be no scientists on the other side.?


I think that truth will always be of interest to the dissident minority, and unfunded non-standard climate science research will continue, if necessary, behind locked doors. Unless the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis is broadly correct (which I doubt), exceptions and anomalies will pile up and ultimately the consensus will crumble, no matter how well-funded. Let's hope this happens before politicians, ever eager to intervene, have embarked on a ruinous programme.

Passive or active smoking?

Researchers have "told" the British Medical Association that they have found a significant link between lung cancer and passive smoking.

In a study of 123,000 volunteers it transpired that children from homes where parents smoked were three times more likely to contract lung cancer than children with non-smoking parents.

It will be interesting to read the paper when it appears to see how they deal with the obvious confounding factor that the children with smoking parents were more likely to smoke themselves than the children brought up by non-smokers. Have they established that the additional cancers were caused by their parents' smoking rather than by their own? I wonder. I expect the NumberWatcher to be looking closely at this one.

Note also that although 123,000 seems a very large sample, the number of lung cancer incidents was only 97, so expect confidence intervals to be pretty wide.

UPDATE

Here it says that none of the sample had ever smoked, but in the BBC account we learn:

The researchers tracked 123,479 volunteers - some of whom had never smoked, others had stopped smoking, but all had been exposed to second-hand smoke in their childhoods.

How the "hockey stick" came into being

In 1998 Mann et al. published an article in Nature which introduced the idea that the world's temperature history was shaped like a hockey stick and that current temperatures were the highest for a thousand years. This was enthusiastically adopted by the IPCC despite plenty of evidence that the Earth was considerably warmer in medieval times.

Now the methodology of the article is coming under attack in a paper by Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick which has been accepted by Geophysical Research Letters:

McIntyre & McKitrick found that the Mann et al. methodology included a data pre-processing step, one which was not reported in the original study, that essentially guaranteed that a hockey stick curve would result from their analysis. They demonstrated this by applying the same methodology to many synthetic temperature records that were constructed with random noise. In almost every case, a hockey stick curve resulted. The claim of unprecedented warmth and the hockey stick shape appear to hinge on the treatment of one species of tree, the bristlecone pine, from North America in the 1400's. Further statistical tests showed that this critical signal in the early 15th century lacked statistical significance. This suggests that the results of Mann et al. were simply a statistical fluke, which greatly exaggerated a characteristic of the bristlecone pines, which may or may not be related to global temperatures.


In pseudo-science many results presented as empirical are actually included in the assumptions. Logicians used to call this "begging the question" or petitio principii. When the assumptions themselves are undeclared, fallacious reasoning becomes fraudulent. However, I wouldn't expect politicians, even as percipient as Stephen Byers, to be able to recognize that this affects the validity of any conclusions drawn.

Blair lays down the law with Sinn Fein

Stop robbing banks or I'll get cross.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Listen to the children

Jackie Ashley again:

Yet there are reasons to hope that Tony Blair will do more than make a few high-minded speeches. Some of those reasons are direct and personal: his son Euan has apparently been badgering his father on the issue, and Blair Senior made coded references to the fact in a speech last year, saying that "on climate change, it is parents who should listen to their children".

The formation of the Hitler Youth movement was based on the same idea.

Bring back Byers: Save the Planet

Desperate times require desperate measures. The Guardian calls for disgraced former cabinet minsister Stephen Byers to be brought back to champion the cause of the environment.

It is certainly true that with New Labour it has become harder than ever to keep a bad man down, but Tony Blair should have learned by now, since pushing Mandelson in as EU Commissioner, that he cannot manipulate the public mood on an issue by associating it with a sleazy and unpopular hack, no matter how committed.

Submission

Organisers of the Rotterdam International Film Festival have cancelled a screening of "Submission Part I" by the murdered director Theo van Gogh because of security concerns.

The 10-minute short, a critical look at the way Muslim women are treated, was to be shown Sunday as part of a debate about filmmakers' freedom of speech.

The debate can go ahead, but the issue is settled decisively.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Climate Science: the Marxism of our age

Steven Hayward on the embarrassing way in which the Global Warming brigade tried to get mileage out of the tsunami disaster:

Although a few environmental activists have attempted to back away from these ludicrous and embarrassing statements, the predictability with which climate change was linked to a geological event shows the difficulty of taking climate change seriously. Climate change is a legitimate issue, but between the shabby way environmentalists and the Left exploit it, and the faulty record of so many past predictions of the eco-apocalypse, deep skepticism remains the sensible default position.

For climate alarmists, climate change has become what logicians call a "non-falsifiable hypothesis." Every weather anomaly is said to be a sign of climate change.


In his brilliant and influential article, "Conjectures and Refutations", Karl Popper recalled his experience of the fashions for psychoanalysis and the Marxist theory of history:

A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation-which revealed the class bias of the paper-and especially of course in what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their "clinical observations." As for Adler, I was much impressed by a personal experience. Once, in 1919, 1 reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analysing in terms ofhis theory of inferiority feelings, although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. "Because of my thousandfold experience," he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: "And with this newcase, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold."


To Popper, this attitude to possibly refractory experience, this treating of a treasured hypothesis as if it could not be falsified, was what distinguished the pseudo-scientist from the true scientist.

Every "good" scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.


I have yet to hear of any climatic phenomenon that the Global Warming theory prohibits.

The climate scientist is the Marxist of our own age: finding confirmation for his theory whatever the weather brings and whatever it fails to bring.

EU Constitution: A lot of influence or a little control?

The question to be asked in a referendum on the EU consitution is unveiled.

"If we reject this treaty, Britain will be isolated and weak in Europe," said Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who along with the rest of the Cabinet, will back a "yes" vote.

Patriots by definition wanted the UK to be prosperous at home and strong and influential abroad, Mr Straw said.


But many of us would be quite happy to give up some of our influence abroad for a bit more influence at home, especially now we learn that the Blair government has signed away our country's rights to determine its own policy on asylum seekers.

In any case, "influence" is a very nebulous thing whose value is often overstated by politicians. It is "control" that matters in the world of politics - this is what wars are fought over - and it would certainly be perverse to claim that adopting a constitution for the EU would extend our national control.

Go easy on the fruit juice

The Telegraph reports an astonishing shift from tea and coffee to supposedly "healthy" fruit juices.

Britain now drinks 2.2 billion litres of juice drinks each year, the equivalent of more than 36 litres for every man, woman and child.

However, diet experts say fruit juices are not as healthy as many people believe and that their high sugar content could outweigh any benefits if consumed to excess.


I wonder how much of the current obesity epidemic is caused by people changing their diets in an attempt to make them more "healthy".

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Does the Muslim Council of Britain represent British Muslims?

British Muslims to miss Holocaust ceremony

British Muslim leaders are unwilling to attend this week's commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, arguing that Holocaust Memorial Day should honour victims of genocide everywhere.

Britain's main Islamic group said it should be called Genocide Memorial Day and commemorate all mass killings, including Bosnia, Rwanda and in Palestinian territories where up to 3.6 million Palestinians live under Israeli occupation.

"Israel has also committed mass killings," said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain.

"It is undeniable," he told Reuters. "It has dispossessed a Palestinian nation. It is an insult to them if we don't recognise their deaths. The cry 'Never Again' should be for all people."


Somehow I doubt that Mr Bunglawala will be criticised for having failed to learn the lessons of the Holocaust...

Now it's Global Shrinking

The Chinese are remeasuring Mount Everest to see if it's shrinking.

Why should it be shrinking? What else but our old friend Global Warming?

The State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, working with the Chinese national women's mountaineering expedition, will use radar and global positioning system equipment to remeasure the peak, known in Chinese as Mount Qomolangma, the state-run newspaper China Daily reported.

China last conducted such research in 1975, it said.

Everest is now said to be 8,848 meters (29,035 feet) high.

The newspaper said a recent survey found the peak of Everest had dropped by 1.3 meters (slightly more than 4 feet) due to melting of glaciers resulting from global warming.


Amazing how those glaciers cling to the peaks of mountains!

Mass suicide bid at Guantanamo Bay

According to the Times:

TWENTY-THREE terror suspects tried to hang or strangle themselves at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay in a mass protest in 2003, the military confirmed yesterday.

Distressing news. How they must have suffered to consider harming themselves as opposed to others! How we rejoice that none of the attempts was successful!

International Scaremongering

"Meeting the Challenge", the report of International Climate Change Taskforce paints an unbearably gloomy picture of what will happen to the world if we don't mend our ways.

We need to keep CO2 concentrations below 400 parts per million (current level 379 - perilously close) to make it probable that temperatures will rise only 2 degrees C above 1850 levels. If we fail, all kinds of things could go wrong. It is the "tipping point". We risk the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) melting and global sea-levels rising by 10 metres. How inconvenient!

How are things going at the moment in Antarctica? Last time I heard the WAIS was thickening. No doubt this has its own attendant dangers but exactly opposite to those highlighted by the taskforce.


I am aware that the global climate is a vastly complex non-linear system, which allows for the possiblity of chaotic change, but its very complexity makes it difficult to predict the tipping points (if any). The "400 parts per million" and the "2 degrees C" may be useful figures to grab headlines, especially as they seem very close, but, though they have the distinguished imprimatur of the Rt Hon Stephen Byers (no less), it would surely be wise to treat them as highly conjectural and to look for more concrete evidence of disastrous man-made climate change before disrupting the global economy.

UPDATE

For the record, and to calm any fears about the imminent melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, here is the mean annual temperature record at the South Pole since 1957.

This is more like it.

More of the Antarctic temperature record courtesty of the Junkman.

Monday, January 24, 2005

George Galloway on Iraq

I know that we must assume that George Galloway's views on Iraq stem from the most altruistic of motives, but I can't help feeling queasy.

Actually, the Iraqi Resistance does not target its own civilians, but the people that are being fought by the Resistance in Iraq are the people who are working for the occupation (..) Our county in 1941 stood alone when the Americans were watching the war on newsreel. Hitler was at the Channel Ports and might have crossed. If he had crossed he might have occupied our country. If he had occupied our country there would have been a British Resistance. And no matter how hard up a family was the idea that they should join Hitler's occupying police force and not become a target of us, the British Resistance, is preposterous.


I suppose that when you have swallowed the idea that there is nothing ethically to choose between Hitler and Bush, much else follows, and, if you are not careful, you find yourself condoning attacks on Iraqi civilians on the grounds that they are collaborators with the occupying power, so not "true" Iraqi civilians.

This man was elected to the British parliament as a member of the governing party, so I doubt these contemptible views are that uncommon.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Plant diets ward off cancer?

Rounding up a number of recent articles from the Journal of the American Medical Association, the BBC feels it can claim that plant diets ward off cancer.

An expert is duly found to urge us to eat more fruit and vegetables, but what of the research itself?

One paper is about a slender association between eating red and processed meat and contracting colorectal cancer. Fair enough, though I noted that the increased risk ratios were barely significant.

The second paper concerned the disposition of people with high blood sugar levels to contract cancer. How this is supposed to support the "five pieces of fruit" theory is quite beyond me, since most fruit is packed full of sugar.

The third paper interested me greatly when I looked at the abstract a week or two ago, for it established that there was no protection from breast cancer to be gained by eating lots of fruit and vegetables, despite popular mythology.

It is interesting to note that not one of these papers shows any beneficial effects of eating large quantities of fruit and vegetables, but why let that small fact get in the way of the BBC's clear duty to promote orthodoxy?

UPDATE 24/01/05

The Junkman has taken a closer look at the red meat/ cancer paper and is not impressed.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Intelligence and Suicide

Serious-looking research shows that young men are less likely to commit suicide if they score highly in intelligence tests. The BBC report states the conclusion thus:

Intelligent young men are less likely to take their own lives than others, researchers suggest.

However, Sarah Nelson of the Samaritans, though welcoming the research, had this to say:

"It would be wrong to interpret this to mean if you are less intelligent then you are more likely to take your own life.


Huh? Well, she explains, if you're bad at intelligence tests, you may be bad at solving problems and that "might be a factor" (presumably in the likelihood of taking one's own life). But wouldn't your failure to solve problems be evidence of your lack of intelligence, Sarah? In fact, isn't this pretty well what we mean by lack of intelligence?

Did rising sea levels make the tsunami damage worse?

No

In the period from 1955 to 1996, the observed rise in sea levels in the Indian Ocean is 1.75 inches. The maximum onshore height of the recent tsunami appears to have been around 40 feet.

10 Myths of the Modern Age

After the Enlightenment and the revolt from religious dogma we have descended into a new superstitious age. It appears scientific, because it likes to quantify things, but it lacks true scientific rigour. The major tenets of the new faith are not open to question: dissent is put down, contradictory evidence suppressed and corroborative evidence trumpeted. Dissidents are pilloried: they are not just wrong, they are evil.

The new myths have accumulated around two central ideas: man is responsible for the state of the planet; and man is responsible for his own health. To a certain extent these are uncontroversial, but, taken to the extreme, they lead us massively to overestimate our effect on the environment and the environment’s effect on us, and we are drawn to an anthropocentric world view with a quasi-religious content: most of us no longer believe that we can achieve eternal salvation, but we stick tenaciously to the idea that if only we behave well we can avoid disease and natural disaster.

The following is my initial list of 10 myths of the modern age. In listing them as “myths” I do not mean to say that I know them to be false - there may be elements of truth in many of them - but that the quality of evidence in favour of them cannot account for how fervently they are believed.


(1) Eating at least 5 pieces of fruit a day protects against disease;

(2) High-fat foods raise blood cholesterol;

(3) High cholesterol causes heart disease by clogging the coronary arteries;

(4) Passive smoking is harmful to health;

(5) More than 21 units of alcohol per week is harmful to health;

(6) Environmental pollution is a significant factor in childhood disease;

(7) Increased carbon dioxide emissions have substantially changed the levels of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere;

(8) Global temperatures are rising;

(9) Sea levels are rising;

(10) Global warming is causing increased hurricane activity.


UPDATE

First reserve: A diet low in salt is good for you

Miserable day, miserable research

An academic at Cardiff University has identified the most miserable day of the year using a formula which takes into account such factors as time since Christmas, extent of personal debt and likely weather. I'll spare you the quantitative details because, obviously, this is a bit technical, but the long and the short of it is that January 24th is the worst of days. In a striking personal confirmation of this theory I note that January 24th is a Monday, and therefore an alcohol-free day in the Rexie household, and also that I have an appointment at the dentist.

It certainly is a miserable time of year for most of us, but for academics it can be a good time to get research, dreamed up over a few pints at a Christmas party and sketched on the back of a cigarette packet, into the media.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Distrust the health fascists especially when they agree

I wrote the following piece a year and a half ago. I reproduce it here because its main theme is consensus in science, an issue raised in comments by Jorgen.

For years we have been told of the health benefits of a low fat diet high in carbohydrates; not just told really, but ordered by finger-wagging, po-faced health fascists - humourless souls who, we may charitably presume, have our best interests at heart but who will brook no opposition in their battle with fatty foods. The Nazis were good at this sort of thing. Their slogans such as "Your body belongs to the nation!", "You have the duty to be healthy!" and "Food is not a private matter!" may state things a bit more starkly than their modern counterparts but the similarity of the obsession is striking.

A few heretics like Robert Atkins continued to argue for a high fat, high protein, low carb diet as the best way to lose weight and promote health, but these were just mavericks to be sneered at and dismissed as ill-informed and dangerous.

Well, Atkins has been at least partially vindicated in two studies published in the prestigious peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine. What’s more, I learn that there never was any solid evidence of the long-term health benefits of the hair-shirt low-fat diet favoured by the medical establishment. That was news to me, as was the fact, learned a couple of weeks back, that no single study of the effects of passive smoking had ever produced a statistically significant increase in the incidence of heart disease or cancer in non-smokers subjected over decades to the passive smoke of their partners. In consequence of these revelations I find myself sick of the half-truths and spin performed in the service of government by the medical establishment, and I shall be unwilling to believe another “simple” health message from the government and its medical troops. I feel the same sense of betrayal and anger towards government that many have experienced in the light of the Iraqi WMD intelligence fiasco.

As a general rule it is wise to be distrustful of consensus. Truth is no respecter of numbers; no statement is made the more true by the fact that it is believed by a large majority. In scientific enquiry, consensus is primarily a sociological phenomenon with little relevance to the truth or falsity of the beliefs in question. In Nazi Germany, for instance, the theory that everything was made out of ice (Welt Eis Lehrer or World Ice Theory) became the scientific consensus while “Jewish” physics was derided, but I’m sure you will not be too surprised to hear that the World Ice Theory is a farrago of bilge. Consensus is an unreliable guide to truth as history shows on countless occasions like this.

Furthermore, suppressing dissent is extremely dangerous. Progress towards truth in science is facilitated by a willingness to entertain revolutionary ideas totally at variance with the prevailing orthodoxy: electromagnetism, quantum theory and evolutionary biology have all required fundamental shifts in the intellectual landscape. Science progresses better and serves man best if the conjectures of all scientists, including mavericks, are exposed to the proper critical scrutiny of their peers and assessed with as objective an eye as possible for their agreement with the empirical facts. There should be no room for Alastair Campbell-style rubbishings, neither should there be a closing of ranks by interested parties. When these occur I caution considerable scepticism.

As a layman in the dispute about dietary regimes I cannot say that I know where the truth lies, but the recent studies have encouraged me to give the low carb approach a go. So now I’m eating fat to get thin: to date I’ve lost 5lbs in a week and am feeling good. Who knows, in a few months, I might have a chest like Atkins advocate Brad Pitt. That would certainly be worth all the cheese, butter, eggs, bacon and shellfish I’m forced to eat in the mean time.


For the record, my weight has fallen by 30 pounds with improvements in all indicative health measures. I hope the references to Nazi science and health attitudes don't give offence.

The Politics of Global Warming

It has been apparent for some time that the evidence for disruptive climate change is being subjected to massive overstatement. Today, the resignation of Chris Landsea from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear the extent to which facts are being made subservient to a political agenda. Landsea, who has worked on the IPCC since 1995, is an expert in hurricane activity, resigned after Kevin Trenberth, the lead author of the forthcoming IPCC assessment report gave a press conference in which he asserted a connection between global warming and recent severe hurricane activity.

Commonsense and Wonder has Landsea's resignation letter, from which I quote:

I found it a bit perplexing that the participants in the Harvard press conference had come to the conclusion that global warming was impacting hurricane activity today. To my knowledge, none of the participants in that press conference had performed any research on hurricane variability, nor were they reporting on any new work in the field. All previous and current research in the area of hurricane variability has shown no reliable, long-term trend up in the frequency or intensity of tropical cyclones, either in the Atlantic or any other basin. The IPCC assessments in 1995 and 2001 also concluded that there was no global warming signal found in the hurricane record.

Moreover, the evidence is quite strong and supported by the most recent credible studies that any impact in the future from global warming upon hurricane will likely be quite small.

It is beyond me why my colleagues would utilize the media to push an unsupported agenda that recent hurricane activity has been due to global warming. Given Dr. Trenberth’s role as the IPCC’s Lead Author responsible for preparing the text on hurricanes, his public statements so far outside of current scientific understanding led me to concern that it would be very difficult for the IPCC process to proceed objectively with regards to the assessment on hurricane activity. My view is that when people identify themselves as being associated with the IPCC and then make pronouncements far outside current scientific understandings that this will harm the credibility of climate change science and will in the longer term diminish our role in public policy.

I personally cannot in good faith continue to contribute to a process that I view as both being motivated by pre-conceived agendas and being scientifically unsound.


One to cut out and keep for use the next time someone claims that science has shown that man is responsible for bad weather.

Has Tony Blair had a facelift?

My antennae are twitching with the speculation that Tony Blair has had a facelift, but I can't find anything on the internet. One to watch...

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Are women worse at mathematics?

Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, has caused a stir by claiming in a conference speech that women are innately disposed to be poorer than men at mathematics and science.

This is surely an empirical matter that cannot be settled by the strength of feminist grievance. Walking out of the lecture, as many did, is not a suitable response.

It wouldn't surprise me if the sexes had different cognitive strengths and weaknesses as a result of the different roles determined for them by nature and, ultimately, reproductive advantage. We are accustomed to differences in physical stature and prowess, and also differences in temperament which are less controversial, so why should it be deemed outside the realm of reasonable enquiry to suggest intellectual differences? The hunter male probably had greater need of high quality spatial reasoning than his female gatherer counterpart. It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, the process of natural selection favouring the development of certain mathematical aptitudes in the male over the female human being.

As social factors which historically have stood in the way of women become less pronounced, it becomes more difficult to account for their underrepresentation in the fields of mathematics and science without bringing innate disposition into the argument, though, as I have already said, this is not a matter to be settled without empirical evidence.

My old logic tutor, John Lucas, used to claim that anyone could follow a logical argument except women and politicians. That caused a walkout of females students, but I have always imagined that this was what he had wanted.

Iraqi elections: a grey day for the BBC?

USS Neverdock has been keeping an eye on the BBC's treatment of the forthcoming Iraqi elections.

The organization has so much invested in the elections' turning out a fiasco, it is blind to anything but bad news.

Steyn has last word

Mark Steyn in coruscating form.

If I understand the concern of the sporting world correctly, being a totalitarian state that's killed millions is no obstacle to hosting the Olympics, but going to a costume party wearing the uniform of a defunct totalitarian state that's no longer around to kill millions is completely unacceptable.

and

One reason why the English-speaking democracies were just about the only advanced nations not to fall for Nazism or Fascism is that they simply found it too ridiculous. Bertie Wooster's famous riposte to the Mosleyesque Sir Roderick Spode could speak for the entire anglosphere: "The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting, 'Heil, Spode!' and you imagine it is the Voice of the People.

"That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: 'Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?'" That's why British party stores stock Nazi outfits - because they're a joke, and we made them one. So when prissy Krauts want to ban Prince Harry's party gear they should go suck an old bratwurst.


I attempted to make this point myself, but for The cat i' the adage to be trumped by a reference from The Code of the Woosters (the funniest novel in the English language) would be particularly galling were it not for my humble admiration for Steyn's imagery and use of language.


Monday, January 17, 2005

Harry blunder could cost London the Olympic Games

Oh please!

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell was hoping to draw a line under Prince Harry's blunder, which she described as "extremely foolish" and which another senior minister warned would "damage London's chances".


I have long argued that the Royal Family is Britain's greatest asset.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Harrygate: Whole country to blame

Day 2 of Harrygate, and things getting ever more out of proportion. The Daily Mail wonders why Charles and Camilla haven't cut their holiday short while the BBC talks of an international furore.

The Israeli press has been relatively guarded, though there is this from Yediot Aharonot:

"Prince Harry's foolish deed, no matter how repulsive, abhorrent and infuriating, is not the root of the problem. The root of the problem, or indeed the whole problem, is the fact that in a public opinion poll more than half the respondents believed no fuss should be made of the story," the paper says.

It argues that "if most respondents in Britain are not exercised by this", then they have not learned the lesson of the Holocaust.



I was quite gratified to see the BBC poll showing a majority takes the view that no further apology is required from the Prince. Judging by the hyperbolic reaction of most newspapers and the BBC you would have thought that the Prince had expressed a personal interest in genocide, and it was some comfort to discover that my view of the matter - as concerning merely an unfortunate choice of fancy dress costume rather than as a deliberate insult to murdered Jewry - was widely held. But now I learn that my country and I are to blame. The problem is with those of us who think too much fuss is being made. We have not learned the lesson of the Holocaust, and this sickness pervades our entire country.

In Britain we have always laughed at Nazis and other jumped-up despots. When we do so we are not making light of their terrible crimes but we are showing that we find their pretensions risible. This is one reason why our country proved so resistant to the totalitarian fashion that swept most of Europe in the 20th Century. The other reason was our constitutional monarchy.

UPDATE 16/01/05

My far from obtuse partner asks "what is the lesson of the holocaust?" Not as obvious as it seems.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Giving and taking offence

Prince Harry is photographed wearing a Nazi armband at a friend's fancy dress party. So what? As I write, London is showing a musical (The Producers) in which characters dress as Nazis, and everybody thinks that a lot of fun. You or I could dress as Hitler for a party and no one would imagine that we were endorsing the holocaust, so why not Harry? Yet Conservative leader Michael Howard has called for him to apologise in person and the former armed forces minister Doug Henderson has said that the incident shows that Harry is unsuitable for Sandhurst. Piffle! Is anybody actually offended by this? If they were, would it matter much or even at all? Would they deserve an apology or should they be pitied for their lack of proportion and their oversensitivity?

Poor Harry. Being a prince used to be a lot of fun, I imagine, but now it is a curse.

UPDATE

I'm seriously out of step on this one.

"This was a shameful act displaying insensitivity for the victims, not just for those soldiers of his own country who gave their lives to defeat Nazism but to the victims of the Holocaust who were the principal victims of the Nazis," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the U.S-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

Is it? I'm pretty hot on the holocaust myself and cannot see this as anything more than an ill-judged choice of party costume.

Robert Rozett, an official at Yad Vashem, Israel's national memorial to Jews killed during the Holocaust, said Harry's actions trivialised the history of the Holocaust. "When a British prince wears the uniform of a Nazi soldier at a party it indicates that the lessons of the Holocaust have not really entered deeply within his understanding and consciousness," he said.

I don't think it indicates anything of the sort. Does Mel Brooks show that he has failed to understand the enormity of the Holocaust because of his propensity to make jokes about it? If the prince had opted for a Russian soldier's uniform, would it be claimed that he was insensitive to the fate of the millions of kulaks massacred under Stalin?

The Prince could be forgiven for believing that his wearing a Nazi uniform to a private fancy dress party would not be understood as indicating his attitude (positive, negative or indifferent) towards Hitler's genocidal ambitions, but it seems that few people want to forgive him unless he makes an abject apology in person. He should disappoint them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The futitity of human pretensions

In Robert Harris's "Pompeii", Pliny the Elder, confronted by the fires of Vesuvius, has an insight of contemporary relevance into man and his position in nature:

Men mistook measurement for understanding. And they always put themselves at the centre of everything. That was their greatest conceit. The earth is becoming warmer - it must be our fault! The mountain is destroying us - we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little - a comfort to think that these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded. But here was Nature, sweeping toward him - unknowable, all-conquering, indifferent - and he saw in Her fires the futitity of human pretensions.


Thursday, January 06, 2005

Three weeks' silence

Since the Indian Ocean tidal wave I have observed a discreet silence on current affairs. Disasters are a poor subject for irony, and almost anything I might say would have sounded glib or unfeeling.

Yesterday, the EU observed a three minute silence for the victims. I do not know who decided that two minutes was not enough. When we remember our war dead annually this suffices, and then we are thinking of the sacrifices that they made for us to be free. Just as pop stars now take it as an insult when they are not awarded knighthoods and have to make do with OBEs, I can imagine that the day is not long off when a simple two minute silence will be regarded as a derisory tribute.

In an age suffering from grief inflation, no one wishes to be thought insufficiently concerned so I'd better shut up.