Friday, May 26, 2017

Truth in the 21st Century

There has been much made of 'fake news' recently and it is certainly true that we live in an era where there is a Newspeak-like inversion - truth is lies and lies are truth. However, the claims about what is fake news are themselves inverted with the accusations coming mostly from those who are greatest purveyors of fake news - the left-leaning mainstream media.

The fake news phenomenon is just the latest iteration of a culture war that has its origins in Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci's ideas about cultural hegemony. Gramsci believed there was no reality outside of human experience and he believed that only way to establish a Marxist world order was to undermine the existing cultural institutions and to impose a new reality that was conducive to Marxian thought. He cited the Catholic Church as an example of an institution that had so dominated European society that it had defined the way people perceived reality.

This is what George Orwell imagined so well in his novel 1984. The government in that story developed propaganda into such a science that it could change recorded history and nobody could imagine a world where the propaganda wasn't true. The aim was to make people incapable of questioning the apparent reality, such as 'we have always been at war with Eurasia', because every trace of evidence that it wasn't true has been erased. The fake news becomes reality.

We have seen this is in real life with the 97% scientific consensus on climate change. Hardly anyone knows where that claim came from (it was a study by Cook et al, which was been thoroughly debunked) and yet it has gained such currency that it doesn't matter that no one can cite the source and no one questions it. This is classic Gramsci - it is irrelevant that the claim is false because there is no objectively true or false state, and in any event established science is simply part of the cultural hegemony of capitalism. Impose a new cultural hegemony and, hey presto, whatever you want to claim can become true!

Of course there is an objective reality - one plus one does equal two, the Earth does orbit the Sun, and Donald Trump is the duly-elected president of the United States. No one has yet proved the Catholic Church's doctrine of the transubstantiation to be true, so that is not objective reality, however much the faithful might believe it to be so. Neither is much of what passes for news in the mainstream media, such as a rape crisis in US universities, an increase in racial violence under Trump, or that recent terrorist attacks have nothing to do with Islam.

The fact that Gramsci's philosophy is nonsense does not diminish how dangerous it is. It underpins so much of the left-wing's influence on accepted thought in modern Western societies and if it is not understood, it cannot be effectively opposed. The good news is that voters around the world seem to be pretty good at distilling reality from the fake news and making electoral choices in their own interests.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The problem isn't Islam, it is us.

Another day, another terrorist attack, this time at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. I have the deepest sympathy for those who have lost loved ones and others who will have to nurse broken and maimed bodies back into some semblance of a normal life. 

The Islamic State has claimed credit for the bombing, which was carried out by a 'Briton of Libyan descent', but unlike others I am not going to blame the Islamic faith, even though I have written before about my concerns about the tenets of that religion. The fact that so many of these terrorists are home-grown, often second or third generation descendants of immigrants who came to the West in search of a better life, should tell us something about the roots of the violence. These killers are not the advance guard of an external enemy, they are fifth columnists who want to destroy their own societies from within. The problem is not Islam, the problem is us.

I believe we in the West have incited this wave of Islamic terrorism in our midst at least in part because we have become cringing apologists for our own way of life. We teach our children that Western nations are the cause of every grievance of non-Western people all over the world. We maintain we were responsible for slavery, even though slavery was a universal fact of pre-Enlightenment human society and it was Britain that led the world in stopping the slave trade. We maintain we are racists and misogynists, despite the fact that we have built our modern societies on equal rights for all and have emancipated minorities throughout the world. We maintain that we entrench inequality, despite the fact that it is the Western values of free enterprise, property rights and the rule of law that are responsible for the vast majority of the world's population being lifted out of poverty over the last century.

A few days ago I listened to an excellent interview by Mark Steyn of Hollywood screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd that shed some light on the nature of the problem. Chetwynd served in the Black Watch regiment of the Canadian Army before going on to write dozens of scripts for films and television series and he talked about Hollywood's need to internalise the enemy. Thus, Tom Clancy's novel The Sum of All Fears, which was about Palestinian terrorists getting hold of an atomic weapon, became a film in which the bad guys were neo-Nazis. If you are watching the current Netflix series, Designated Survivor, you'll see a similar transformation. Hollywood is a magnifying lens for our culture and the fact that it always makes us the bad guys simply reflects our societal self-hatred.

If we keep telling ourselves that our society is the root of all the world's evil, is it any wonder that a few of the children and grandchildren of those to whom we are supposed to have done evil will nurture those grievances to the point where they want to destroy us? If we don't believe our society is worth defending, how can we possibly expect them to value it?

I don't think I have ever listened to an Ariana Grande song and I dare say I would find her music a little too saccharine for my tastes, but her concerts are very much part of the culture I value and want to defend. She would never be allowed on a stage in Riyadh or Khartoum and that is an indictment of those societies, not ours. The fact that millions of people from Islamic nations want to come and live in our countries, but not the reverse, is all the proof we need that our society is better than theirs. 

We need to stand up and defend Western society and values. We need to say that Islamic State and the like will never drag us down to their level and will never defeat us. Doing so won't necessarily stop the terrorist attacks, but at least it will make the battle lines clear and people will know what we are paying the price of terrorist attacks to defend. And it might just help a few of those second and third generation potential terrorists figure out who are really the good guys.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Climate of Change

It looks increasingly like Donald Trump will withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord and in my opinion that will be a very good thing. I have written numerous times on this blog about anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) global warming but will restate my conclusions and some of the evidence below to explain why I support Trump's position on climate change.

1. The earth has been warming since the 1600s, when we experienced what is known as the Little Ice Age, and has warmed about 0.85ºC since the mid-19th Century. Temperatures today are similar to those in what is known at the Medieval Warm Period, as shown in the following temperature reconstruction graph.

Reconstructed global temperature past 2,000 years (Loehe and UKMO data)

2. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It makes the Earth habitable for life, and life would not exist on Earth if there was no CO2 in the atmosphere. An increase in atmospheric CO2, all other things being equal, would be expected to lead to an increase in average global temperatures but with a diminishing effect (the physics behind this is explained in the "Into the Laboratory" section of this article). 

3. Mankind's carbon emissions, mostly generated through the burning of fossil fuels, contribute to the CO2 in the atmosphere. The exact extent of mankind's contribution to the increase in CO2 is unknown because we don't know the net natural contribution, but in recent years mankind's total emissions has been roughly equal to the increase in CO2 so many scientists just assume that human emissions account for all of the increase. If this was true then CO2 levels would have been constant prior to the development of human civilisation, which is patently not true as the following graph shows.

Reconstructed atmospheric CO2 levels (100PPM) from various sources

4. Carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant. To claim that is to say that all life on Earth pollutes the environment merely by living, which is patently ridiculous. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from around 250ppm to 400ppm since the 18th Century but current CO2 levels are not dangerous. In fact, we are still only a little above the minimum levels of atmospheric CO2 necessary to sustain life on Earth and scientists now accept that rising CO2 levels have led to increased greening of the world, including a net increase in rainforest and a receding Sahara Desert.

5. The current increase in global temperature levels are NOT dangerous to life. Human civilisation flourished in warm periods and geographical areas (such as the Middle East and Mediterranean) rather than in cooler periods and climes precisely because less resources needed to be spent creating shelter and growing food in warmer areas, leaving more resources to be devoted to civilisational advancement.

6. Dangerous weather events are NOT increasing around the world. In fact, the last decade has seen fewer hurricanes and storms than any other decade since modern records began. Total deaths attributed to all extreme weather events globally declined by more than 90% since the 1920s, in spite of a four-fold rise in population and much more complete reporting of such events (source: Goklany). Many more people die each year from extreme cold than from heat and therefore an increase in global temperatures is likely to further lower climate deaths. Millions die in the third world every year from toxic heating fuels such as dung and biomass, deaths that would be prevented if they converted to natural gas or other clean fossil fuels.

So what is the point of the international political consensus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? We know that human carbon dioxide emissions won't lead to runaway global warming and that further CO2 increases won't be harmful to life. On the other hand, we can say with certainty that policies that reduce the ability of people in cooler climates to heat their houses will lead to more deaths, and likewise any policies that reduce the ability for people in the third world to shift to less toxic energy sources than they currently use.

I accept, as do almost all scientists, that human activity contributes to changes in the climate, but I think the evidence does not support the proposition that mankind's carbon emissions are the dominant factor in recent increases in global average temperatures. But what about the argument that prudent risk management means we should cut our emissions anyway? Well, a prudent risk management strategy always considers the costs of mitigation and at the moment the costs of mitigation far outweigh the costs of the risk. Eliminating human carbon emissions to stop global warming is akin to amputating your leg to get rid of a muscle ache.

This is why the Paris Accord is bad policy and why I hope Trump' sticks to his guns and withdraws from it.

Friday, May 12, 2017

When the Government legitimises violence

There has been a spate of violent robberies of dairies* in Auckland targeting cigarettes. The store owners blame the huge increases in taxes on cigarettes that have pushed the price to nearly $30 for a pack of twenty. This has made cigarettes almost the equivalent of illegal drugs and predictably has seen the rise of a black market and an increase in robberies and violent crime to supply that market.

The worst thing about this escalation of crime is the Government's reaction to it. National Government MP Nicky Wagner, who holds the post of Associate Health Minister, responded by saying the store owners should stop selling cigarettes "if they feel too threatened" by robbers.

Let us consider the implications of what Wagner is saying. She is implying that the store owners are fair game for violent robberies - if they didn't sell cigarettes, they wouldn't be attacked - and that the Government won't protect them. In other words, the Government is willing to let violence against New Zealanders carrying out a perfectly legal commercial activity continue if it serves some other policy objective, i.e. reducing smoking.

This is disgraceful and something I never thought I would hear from a Government minister in New Zealand. Does Nicky Wagner and her Government not understand the potential consequences of this? When the government is unwilling to protect you against violent crime, and in fact legitimises that violent crime, you are left with no choice - to take the law into your own hands. It is an abrogation of the most basic responsibility of government - to protect citizens against violence - and a recipe for anarchy.

Perhaps Nicky Wagner did not intend to say what she said or was misquoted - if so, she needs to make that clear because this is an incredibly dangerous path she has set us upon.

* Convenience stores in New Zealand are commonly called 'dairies' because they traditionally sold dairy products.

[Hat-tip to blogger Lindsay Mitchell for bringing this to my attention.]

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why Comey had to go

I almost feel sorry for James Comey. He found himself in a no-win situation, having managed to alienate both Democrats and Republicans and his old and new bosses. I say 'almost' because the situation was largely of his own making. His experience is precisely why law enforcement officers, and public servants in general, should remain politically neutral in their jobs.

Comey began to dig himself a hole with his investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for classified information. He closed the investigation and then reopened it right in the final stages of the presidential campaign, and then promptly closed it again. Those decisions stunk of political interference, or at least influence.

Then it was revealed that the FBI had been investigating the Trump team's connections to the Russians during the election campaign. I have written before about how I think the accusation of a Trump-Putin conspiracy is baseless, if for no other reason than Putin had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a Trump election. In any event, Clinton also had contact with the Russians during the campaign, and there is nothing wrong with a presidential candidate establishing links with important foreign leaders prior to taking office. Even if it is proven that the Russians acted to help Trump win, that is not illegal or even unusual - after all, President Obama tried to influence the outcome of the Brexit vote and did his best in the last Israeli election to stop Netanyahu being re-elected. Besides, nothing the Trump team might have done with the Russians could compare with the dealings Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation had with Russian and Kazakhstani interests while she as Secretary of State was approving their takeover of American uranium mines.

Leaving aside the merits of the cases, I think the fact that the FBI was investigating both of the major candidates during the presidential election campaign - and in the case of the Clinton investigation, discussing it publicly - is a very unhealthy state of affairs for U.S. democracy. They say J. Edgar Hoover had an enormous influence on politics during his 37 years as FBI director but at least he had the good sense to play his cards close to his chest. Comey came to believe he was the most important player on the stage rather than someone who should stay in the background. Clearly, the job had got a bit much for him, or he had become a bit much for the job. 

Trump has done the right thing sacking Comey and I am sure Hillary Clinton would have done the same thing had she made it to the Oval Office. The President and the American public need to have confidence in their FBI director and clearly that was no longer the case.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Left-wing view of democracy should not surprise

Yesterday, I participated in an interesting discussion on Chris Trotter's Bowalley Road blog about the health of democracy in the Western world. Chris, who I am sure wouldn't object to being described as an old leftie, wrote in response to a New Zealand Herald columnist who was bemoaning the death of democracy, as indicated by the election of Donald Trump in America, Theresa May in Britain and Bill English here in New Zealand.

I said that democracy was doing just fine and made the point that left-wingers always blame the state of democracy - or some other factor such as 'deplorables', Russian hackers or 'fake news' - for their failures rather than themselves and their philosophy. The fellow who responded to my point said that 'democracy has a bad time whenever bad guys get elected.'

This comment speaks volumes about the real view of many on the left about democracy. They believe, like President Recep Erdoğan of Turkey, that 'democracy is like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination.' In other words, democracy should be allowed to produce only one result - victory for their 'good guy'.

Democracy is by definition a pluralistic system and if there can be only one result, then that is not democracy but a dictatorship. Of course, the worst left-wing dictatorships have always styled themselves in Orwellian fashion as 'democratic republics', so perhaps we should not be surprised when left-wingers in Western democracies reveal that this is also their interpretation of what it means to be a democracy.

Someone in America once said, 'scratch a liberal (in American terms a left-winger) and a fascist bleeds'. So true.