Some Thoughts on the Use of Statistics in Ethical Matters

Some months ago, I was discussing Donald Trump’s election chances with a couple of friends, and I happened to mention a voter I had read about somewhere, a young man in California, who described himself as a feminist. He was concerned about the power of false rape allegations to destroy the lives of men, and was on that account leaning towards a vote for Trump. I said that while I didn’t sympathise with the vote, I certainly understood and sympathised with the concern behind it. One friend responded that such false accusations were surely statistically far less significant than real cases of the crime itself that go unpunished. The other friend agreed, and that seemed to settle the matter, at least for the two of them.

For me, well, it got me thinking. I have since found myself noticing how arguments that proceed by means of statistics are often used as though they provide a sort of final knock-down in ethical matters, unanswerable and definitive – and yet this is something they can almost never provide.

To see why, let’s indulge for a moment in a bit of philosophy. Most undergraduates who have done a philosophy course should have some idea about what utilitarianism is. We can define it as the principle that the greatest good should be done for the greatest number of people possible. Our undergraduates should also have some idea of a potential problem with utilitarianism: it is compatible with an acceptance of radical evil, provided, of course, that the evil is done to a minority. You could literally exterminate people while achieving the greatest good for the greatest number. (The responses of major utilitarian philosophers to this problem is something we can leave aside here.)

Now here’s why I bring this up: it seems to me that the sort of claims you can make with statistics are precisely the sort made by utilitarianism. Statistics give us a coarse overview of a subject; they tell us that something is the case on the whole, and for the most part. And to the extent that we confine ourselves to this view, we open up the possibility of radical evil, so long as it is done to a relatively small number of people. So if we’re going to commit ourselves to statistical state of affairs as a desirable aim of policy or activity, we should think quite clearly about what we’re actually advocating.

In the case I began with, we are indeed dealing with a readiness to do real evil to innocent people in the name of achieving what is taken to be a statistically desirable result. Feminist activists often speak as if the purpose of the justice system is to bring about a certain proportion of convictions relative to the number of complaints made. That is, they claim that only a very small fraction of rape accusations result in convictions, and that this small proportion indicates a failure on the part of the justice system. The implicit aim is a system that produces convictions in some much larger proportion, say, 50% or 98% (though I have never seen an actual number given). There is no room in such calculations for the possibility that the lives of innocents might be utterly destroyed by baseless accusations. Indeed, that a callous indifference to the possibility of crushing innocent people is in fact at work here is confirmed by such well-known cases as the Duke lacrosse team rape trial, or the travesty of reporting about another such supposed crime that Rolling Stone committed. If we were to follow the statistical point of view to its logical endpoint, the proper question to ask is not about the guilt or innocence of the accused at all, but simply whether or not the appropriate number of guilty verdicts have been delivered so far relative to the overall number of accusations.

The purpose of a justice system worthy of the name, however, is not to produce a statistical result, but rather to answer a specific question: what is the truth of the matter in this particular case? Such an approach is not likely to produce the most pleasing proportion of guilty and innocent verdicts, and is likely to fall short of its goal regularly, but it allows the rights of accuser and accused to be balanced against one another. Perhaps most importantly, it keeps the justice system, as much as possible, from the active commission of injustice. The words primum nil nocere – “first, do no harm” – are supposed to apply to doctors, but they should be a principle of the justice system no less.

Certainly statistics might inform and guide us in subsidiary ways, but only to the extent that we observe the more important principle of a system that does not itself do active harm to the innocent. When discussing ethical matters, then, we should always be cautious when confronted by arguments that proceed only on the basis of statistics.

Statistics are dangerous in other ways, too. They can give a seductive, but misleading impression of being simply factual; they can seem to clothe a particular view in the robes of science, giving it an apparently insuperable status in comparison with non-statistical arguments. (I’m reading a book right now that seems to suffer from this very failing; a blog post reviewing it will probably follow in the weeks to come.)

Of course, statistics can be massaged, and where crime is concerned it is clear that they often are massaged. Consider Rainer Wendt, federal head of the German Police Union: “if I, as a senior officer, want narcotics-related crime to go down in my city, then I send the officers responsible for it out to police [vehicle] traffic infringements. Then I promise you, that narcotics crime will go down – at least statistically.”

In fact, things may be far worse than Wendt’s words suggest. There is reason to believe that the arrival of statistics-based crime fighting has corrupted our justice system in a most fundamental manner. Here I will allow Theodore Dalrymple to speak, as he relates his wife’s attempt to report a crime:

She noticed some youths setting fire to the contents of a dumpster just outside our house, a fire that could easily have spread to cars parked nearby. She called the police.

“What do you expect us to do about it?” they asked.

“I expect you to come and arrest them,” she said.

The police regarded this as a bizarre and unreasonable expectation. They refused point-blank to send anyone. Of course, if they had promised to make every effort to come quickly but had arrived too late, or even not at all, my wife would have understood and been satisfied. But she was not satisfied with the idea that youths could set dangerous fires without arousing even the minimal interest of the police. Surely, some or all of the youths would conclude that they could do anything they liked, and move on to more serious crimes.

My wife then insisted that the police should at least place the crime on their records. Again, they refused. She remonstrated with them at length, and at considerable cost to her equanimity. At last, and with the greatest reluctance, they recorded the crime and gave her a reference number for it.

This was not the end of the matter. About 15 minutes later, a more senior policeman telephoned to upbraid her and tell her she had been wasting police time with her insistence on satisfaction in so trivial a matter. The police, apparently, had more important things to do than suppress arson. …

It is not difficult to guess the reason for the senior policeman’s anger. My wife had forced his men to record a crime that they had no intention whatever of even trying to solve (though, with due expedition, it was eminently soluble), and this record in turn meant the introduction of an unwanted breath of reality into the bogus statistics, the manufacture of which is now every British senior policeman’s principal task.

Once the job of the police is to fight crime statistics rather than crime, the possibility of almost infinite corruption has been opened up – indeed, a motivation for corruption has been provided.

As one reads other Dalrymple essays, one encounters similar episodes: police refusing to respond to crime, or even to record it – or, alternately, responding to minor infractions, committed by individuals likely to respond to the authority of the police, rather than to violent crimes committed by people likely to respond in a violent manner (e.g., here or here or here).

Statistics, then, will not only fail in most cases to provide a decisive argument when considering ethical matters, they can also be the cause of great harm. Any insight they provide has to be balanced against direct contact with the problem in question. Localism – taking power away form massive bureaucracies and putting it in the hands of smaller communities – would no doubt be helpful. The more I read Dalrymple, and the more I read of the views of police officers in England, America and in Germany, the more I think that policy on criminal matters should never be allowed to be made on the basis of statistics alone, and that there should be a requirement that people who deal directly with crime are given some substantive power in the production of that policy.

And while I’m dreaming, I’d also like a private jet.


Did the EU Cause the Last 70 Years of European Peace?

Somehow I’ve gotten in the habit of listening to Sam Harris’ podcasts. He seems to have a gift for finding just the right words to express difficult thoughts, and he never fails to cover interesting topics, often joined by interesting people. So if I have to do some boring manual task – chopping vegetables or cleaning the living room – then Sam Harris it is.

One recent podcast had journalist James Kirchick as a guest, and the matter of the EU came up. Kirchick makes the case for the importance of the EU to European peace about as powerfully as one could (from about 51:55): “I talk to a lot of Europeans, and a lot of them who are Eurosceptics, who want to dissolve the EU. And I just ask them simply, ‘What’s your alternative? What period in European history was more prosperous or peaceful than the, basically, seventy years of European integration that you’ve had? Why would you want to risk that? Knowing what the alternative has been, why would you want to risk that by getting rid of this institution? And I agree, the EU has lots of problems… it’s too bureaucratic… I could go on and on. But to scrap it entirely, and to go off in this other direction when we know what’s happened historically, we know what’s happened… when all the European countries have pursued their national agendas at the expense of cooperation.”

This is, I think, a bad argument, but the basic idea behind it is treated by Europhiles as if it were a self-evident truth. I can remember roaming the streets of Brussels in 2015; I happened upon a music festival at which some EU dignitary soon gave a speech. “The EU gave you peace,” she declared. She did not try to argue or show how the EU produced peace; rather she felt able to take it as obvious.

I think there’s a need to push back against this, not only because it’s wrong, but also because the mistake can be dangerous. Certainly I’m willing to admit that the EU has made certain limited contributions to peace, but it has also undermined the basis of peace in Europe, and I’m inclined to think the latter effect is more significant than the former.

Before I say why, let me begin with a concession: the EU has made some contribution to peace. This past summer I was talking with a fellow from Portugal who told me that back in the days of Franco, the Portuguese had real fears of a Spanish invasion. That’s now over. Assuming this is true (I admit I hadn’t known this before), I think it’s reasonable to attribute some credit for this change to the European Union: by creating a focus for political activity over and above that national border, a situation was created in which local tensions could tend naturally to relax and disappear. Northern Ireland provides another example; there may well be other regional tensions that have been allowed to dissolve in a similar manner: the EU has, in certain local situations, been helpful.

But let’s not kid ourselves: in neither of the examples I’ve just given can anyone pretend that the EU has provided 70 years of peace. And neither the founders of the EU nor most of its present-day advocates were thinking of Ireland or the Iberian peninsula when they talked about peace. No, they were (and are) focused on The Big One: the Franco-German fault and the prevention of another general war. Here it should be obvious that the EU has been largely irrelevant.

There are many reasons we haven’t had another Franco-German conflict. For example, Germany has become an essentially pacifist country (I think this is no longer a good thing, but that’s another post). Of course it’s a good thing that the French and the Germans have turned to the path of reconciliation, and the EU was downstream from those efforts. But even if that had not happened, even if Germany had become an angry, hate-filled, militaristic country after 1945, and even if Germany had managed to put a new Hitler in command, still there would not have been another war: France had acquired nuclear weapons. I’ve explained elsewhere why I think Hitler was very far indeed from a military genius, but even Hitler would not have attacked a nuclear-armed France.

And of course, even absent that consideration, there is another reason that there was no third major war in Europe: after 1945, the world was suddenly a very different place, with very different concerns. Western European countries, above all the Germans, were focused on the east; on either side of the iron curtain, countries shared a common danger, and this inclined them towards a common peace with others on their side. Lessons learned from WWII meant that countries came together (in NATO) for common security. The atom bomb and the Americans were sufficient to keep the Russians from rolling the dice. After 1989, peace had become a habit, and anyway, the presence of overwhelming American power presented a significant deterrent.

Where, in all of this, did the EU play any role at all? If there had never been any move at all towards a European Union, at what point exactly, or in what respect, would its absence have been likely to bring about a major war? Looking at the actual situation since 1945, I can see reasons to give credit for seven decades of peace to the United States and to nuclear weapons. Certainly there were plenty of other factors that helped, but none were nearly so important as these two.

Let’s return to Kirchick’s questions: “What period in European history was more prosperous or peaceful than the, basically, seventy years of European integration that you’ve had? Why would you want to risk that?” Yes, we’ve had decades of gradual European integration, and these have coincided with seven decades of common peace, but it does not follow that the integration caused the peace. On the contrary, I think I’ve just outlined the major causes of that peace, and the EU isn’t one of them.

But I don’t think that people who give the EU credit for European peace have a specific scenario in mind. Rather, there’s a more general thesis at work: for the duration of its history as a plurality of countries, Europe has known constant wars; a different result requires a fundamental change; and a single European state would provide that by eliminating the plurality of interests that go along with a plurality of states. I suspect Kirchick is getting at something like this when he says “we know what’s happened… when all the European countries have pursued their national agendas at the expense of cooperation.”

But it is not the case that all wars are the result of conflicting national interests, nor that having one country produces peace, while having many leads to war. Canada and the US are two separate countries, not one, and they have been at peace for two centuries. In that time, the US, which is one country, not many, has had a civil war. So too has Switzerland, which is also one country, not many. So replacing many countries with a single country is very far from a guarantee of an end to war.

All this should suffice to show why I don’t think the EU deserves credit for seventy years of European peace. But in fact, I think the situation is rather worse than that: there are reasons to fear that the EU has made conflict more, rather than less, likely as we look to the future.

Above all, the fact is that bad thinking about the causes of war and peace is a very dangerous thing indeed. The thirties, in which the western democracies indulged in pacifist fantasies when they ought to have been focused on military power, give an example of the danger here. I find myself increasingly inclined to make a connection between the claim that the EU has caused peace and the general European indifference to NATO (an indifference manifested in the tiny number of EU members that reach the 2% of GDP obligation for military spending). That is, by repeating the mantra that the EU has been the cause of peace, one makes it easy to discount the importance of NATO (or, alternately, hard to see its importance). There is a widespread tendency towards a one-sided belief in the value of soft power here; to the extent that the US moves towards isolationism (we will have to see what President Trump does), that could leave Europe, particularly its eastern fringe, dangerously exposed, the very sort of situation that made WWII possible.

But there is a second, perhaps more important regard in which the EU has promoted the possibility of conflict: by the lack of wisdom in its actions and in its founding idea. The euro crisis and austerity has not been a cause of great love for Germany, particularly in Greece, and we haven’t seen the end of it yet. The attempt at forced migration quotas was similarly unfortunate, and could hardly have been better calculated to give fresh impetus to nationalist movements. Above all, the notion of a top-down replacement of national identities with a common European one was not wisdom. Yes, the last few major European wars were caused by excessive or extreme forms of nationalism, but it does not follow that the answer is to rush to the opposing extreme. Pride in local culture and achievements is an altogether natural thing, and identities built around this can be altogether benign. Attempts to impose an identity that ignores the natural attachments of most people greatly increase the risks of encountering the malignant forms of those attachments, in a backlash. The answer that the EU provides to question of peace in Europe is altogether too simple – indeed, it seems to me to refuse really to confront the problem. I do admit that simple solutions to complex problems may work in the short term.

This notion that there is at the very heart of the European project a source of danger, is one that the great English essayist, Theodore Dalrymple, has addressed on a number of occasions, often in a highly diverting manner. Consider, for example, the following: “The journalist … asked whether I thought that nationalism was dangerous. The question implied that the choice before Europe was between the European Union and fascism: that all that stood between us and the ascension to power of new Mussolinis, Francos, and Hitlers were the free lunches of senior Eurocrats. I replied that dangerous forms of nationalism existed, of course, but that in the present circumstances, supranationalism represented by far the greater danger. Not only was such supranationalism undemocratic, for it reflected no widespread demand or sentiment among the population; it also risked provoking the very kind of nationalism against which it was to stand as the bulwark. Further, the breakup of supranational polities in Europe tends to be messy, as history demonstrates.” (see also here)

I don’t mean to say that the EU has done no good in any regard, but surely it’s time to put this one to rest: the EU has not been the cause of peace in Europe in the last seventy years, nor has it been anything like one of the most important causes.

What’s Left by Nick Cohen

This is an important book. It deserves a far wider readership than it will get. It is an introduction to the phenomenon of the regressive left, a recent arrival in left-wing politics that casts aside the proudest traditions of that part of the political spectrum, abandoning the universality that used to come with ideas like human rights, and making its peace with fascism and other illiberal ideas that used to be the exclusive property of the far-right. First printed in 2007, What’s Left has recently come back into print, and has been enjoying a flurry of sales because of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour party in Britain. Certainly Cohen was prescient, and his book can be profitably read to increase one’s understanding of British politics, but I think its significance goes far beyond that. For me, the book is important for the insight it gives into the philosophical school known as postmodernism: the regressive left is what happens when postmodern ideas take root in political life. Cohen covers some difficult intellectual ground with magnificent clarity. The result is a book that reads like a novel and will greatly deepen your understanding of ideas that are coming to define the times we live in (and with the arrival of president Trump, postmodernism has come to have a terrible relevance to American political life as well; I’ll say a word about that at the end).

I’ve long had an interest in how certain seemingly esoteric ideas – that is, ideas that you would assume were of interest only to a few professors in ivory towers – are in fact critically important to everyday life. Cohen’s book shows how ideas that have been peddled by academics for the last half-century or so have trickled down into everyday life, with deeply troubling effects in political life across the West.

The book is not, however, a philosophical tome. What’s Left focuses on recent history, reaching its climax in the second Iraq war. Cohen experience of this time is what brought about the book: as a friend of certain Iraqi exiles, he found himself occupying different ground than many of his fellow leftists, and the perspective proved fruitful. He tells us he didn’t join protests against the first Iraq war because he saw Arabs carrying signs saying things like “Free Kuwait.” He supported the second Iraq war because of Iraqis who vehemently supported it, and because he was all too aware that the line about Saddam Hussein being a brutal dictator who ought to be removed was, well, true (you’ll learn a thing or two about Hussein’s Iraq along the way). But a key insight clearly came as Cohen reflected on the distance the rest of the left had travelled without him since the 80’s. Back then, on the basis of its support for universal human rights, the left was against Hussein and in favour of Iraqi democracy. By the time of the second Iraq war, it was the right that was against Hussein and in favour of Iraqi democracy, while the left was at best confused. Actually, Cohen makes clear that ‘confused’ is too generous, for it becomes clear that many left-wingers had simply abandoned their previous commitment to universal human rights.

Iraq, then, is one of the book’s central threads. If, like me, you were against the Iraq war from the start and have on that account felt rather pleased with yourself ever since, the book can be uncomfortable reading – and all the more valuable for that. This is far the most thought-provoking thing I have read on Iraq.

But I think the book’s real value lies in the ideas that it treats, ideas relevant far beyond a particular conflict. One idea central to the book (and to postmodernism) is relativism. You have probably encountered the doctrine in the form of cultural relativism – i.e., the idea that no culture’s practices are better than any others. So, for example, in some cultures, it’s appropriate to eat with a knife and fork, in others, with chopsticks, in others still, with your hands. The cultural relativist reminds us that no one of these approaches is better than any other – indeed, that it would be deeply wrong and even evil to take any one of them as absolute and to try to impose it on others. In theory, this sounds great, and many of the doctrine’s advocates see it as necessary to sustain or to further develop the left-wing movements of the 20th century, in that they think it the only foundation on which real tolerance and coexistence are possible. Cohen, however, deals with the way the doctrine actually plays out in the real world, and there it proves to have disastrous potential.

One relatively recent application of relativism involves a sharper and more exclusive focus on minority groups. So, for example, Cohen tells us how “the idea that a homosexual black woman should have the same rights as a heterosexual white man was replaced by a relativism which took the original and hopeful challenge of the early feminist, gay and anti-racist movements and flipped it over. Homosexuality, blackness and womanhood became separate cultures that couldn’t be criticized or understood by outsiders applying universal criteria.” This refusal of criticism involving universal criteria was applied above all to the foreign cultures found in other countries.

Consider, for example, Michel Foucault, celebrated among many academics as one of the great minds of the 20th century, and often taken to be a particularly progressive thinker. In the  early 80’s he became enamoured of the Ayatollah’s new regime in Iran, and warned against criticising it – Iranian culture has a different “regime of truth,” he said. That is, they have their own culture with its own practices, and we have no right to try to criticise it in terms proper to our own culture. But what was at issue in this case was not merely matters like how we eat our food, but questions such as whether or not people who protest against the government should be tortured, or questions concerning the rights of women. Cohen brings the heart of the matter out clearly: “if the bishops of the French Catholic Church had achieved the theocratic power of the ayatollahs and used it to prescribe what Foucault and his colleagues could teach at the College du France in Paris, I’m sure Foucault and all his admirers in Anglo-American academe would have gone ape and shouted ‘fascism.’ As it was, the victims of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy had brown skins and lived in a faraway country.” Far from being a progressive thinker, Foucault supported tyranny and the crushing of human rights – not in his own country and for himself, mind you, but for other people born elsewhere. More than that, he effectively brought the weight of his academic reputation to bear against those in the West who would criticise the Iranian regime and who would support Iranians who wanted something better.

Cohen shows how Foucault is far from an isolated example. There is no shortage of other instances of the same phenomenon, such as the academic we encounter who objects (in almost incomprehensible prose) to the fact that certain people in the West are criticising the practice of burning women to death. To be quite clear: the complaint is not that women are being burned to death, but that people are criticising the practice of burning them. After all, what right do westerners have to criticise another culture?

A major theme of the book, then, is the abandonment of universal values for a view of the world that understands people to be fundamentally different from one another on the basis of some favoured category (gender, race, culture, etc.). People are effectively put into silos, on this view, and told they cannot understand or criticise those who occupy other silos. Spend a little time with this idea and you’ll start to see it all over the place. Consider, for example, how England’s Guardian newspaper produced a fawning puff-piece about the local leader of the extremist Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. I can’t remember ever having seen a similar treatment of, say, Tommy Robinson in those pages: he’s a western right-wing extremist, and as such is to be subject to severe censure. More telling still, a few days later, the same Guardian published a considerably less flattering piece on Majid Nawaz, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir who has turned into a crusader for a liberal order. The Guardian has internalised the idea that the appropriate relation to culturally foreign ideas (even if they’re now on the streets on England) is to be one of understanding, not criticism, and this is now so deeply rooted that even a reformer of Pakistani heritage gets treated with hostility. (The phenomenon was remarked on at the time; see also this post by David Paxton on a related issue).

Angela Merkel gave another example when she responded to the US presidential election by saying that Germany was prepared to continue to work with the US, but only on the basis of the liberal values both countries had long held dear. Laudable, yes, though a colleague at work pointed out that she had made no such statement concerning president Erdogan in Turkey. For those who have not been paying attention, Erdogan has not merely run a campaign that was beyond the pale, but has recently used his office to do things like close down newspapers and lock up dissenters in their thousands.

But I digress. There is another idea that crops up repeatedly: relativists will tend not to think ideas through to their logical consequences – indeed, the doctrine makes this impossible in some circumstances – and so we encounter people who adopt doctrines in a merely partial fashion, unwilling really to commit to anything and failing to confront the full reality of what they are advocating. This brings about what I call mere criticism – that is, we end up with people who focus all their energy on being against something, often coming up with effective critiques of it, but never offering solutions, never being for anything. So, for example, Cohen points to the oft-repeated claim that the war against Saddam Hussein was ‘illegal:’ “logically, they should then have followed through and demanded that the Americans release Saddam Hussein from prison and restore him to the presidency that the invading forces had ‘illegally’ stolen from him. But, as the theorists of the Eighties and Nineties had anticipated, there wasn’t much call for logic in a post-modern world that welcomed self-righteous fury without positive commitments.”

Noam Chomsky (“the boy at the edge of the gang”) as he appears in the book provides an example of this phenomenon that gives it focus: he is seen to be very much against mass killing, so long as the blame can be pinned on America. If it’s America’s enemies who are to blame – well, let’s just say that chapter Six, together with Chapter 5, contains an utterly devastating, crushing attack on Chomsky, in particular on his moral authority. I can remember people gushing about him in Vancouver in the 90’s, talking about his upcoming talk as though it were the chance of a lifetime to stand in the shadow of one of the greatest intellectual lights of our time. I couldn’t make it; I now feel rather glad not to have been involved. Cohen’s criticism is a knock-out blow: I can no longer take Chomsky seriously as a moral authority, and I will feel forced in the future to question the judgment of those who do.

Chomsky’s one-sided anti-Americanism points to a reality about the regressive left that Cohen has brought out more clearly elsewhere (for example here): they tend often simply to be against the West, or against America, rather than for the universal values that the West (or America) ought to stand for, and sometimes fails to live up to. This notion of mere criticism is also worth keeping in mind as you watch current events, because it is the difference between the regressive left and the left that has integrity.

It is in relation to Iraq, however, that the bad ideas from academia really go mainstream, as the great mass of people opposed to the war fail to make important distinctions, and wind up effectively – and sometimes explicitly and actively – opposing democracy and supporting a brutal dictatorship for the people of Iraq. An ethical approach would have been to oppose the rash activity of Bush and his followers while supporting Iraqis who wanted democracy by all possible means. Instead, we read of occasions on which Westerners actually shouted down left-wing Iraqis who were trying to achieve for their own country the same rights we enjoy in our own. Being against Bush was more important than allowing any kind of help for democratic Iraqis. Thus the German government refused to allow its own officials who had experience in dealing with the legacy of the GDR and Third Reich in Germany to go to Iraq to advise on how to approach the same sort of issues there.

But perhaps the best example in the book of how postmodern thought such as that of Foucault had filtered down to the mainstream comes in the following exchange:

Tony Blair: There is global struggle in which we need a policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justice –

John Humphrys (a BBC presenter): Our idea of democracy…

Blair: I didn’t know that there was another idea of democracy.

Humphrys: If I may say so, that’s naïve.

Blair: The one basic fact about democracy, surely, is that you can get rid of your government if you don’t like them.

Humphrys: The Iranians elected their own government, and we’re now telling them –

Blair: Hold on John, something like 60 per cent of the candidates were excluded.

(BBC Radio 4, Feb. 2007)

I’ve always hated Blair, but there’s no disagreeing with him in this exchange. I’d like to hear if Humphrys made an apology to all those young Iranians who in 2009 proved willing to be imprisoned and tortured because they wanted “our idea of democracy.”

Cohen lands some decisive blows on other leftists I had previously admired (or at least not despised). I can’t pass up the chance to quote Cohen on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: Moore “brushed aside the millions forced into exile and the mass graves and torture chambers and decided instead to present life in one of the worst tyrannies of the late twentieth century as sweet… Presented with propaganda which might have come from the studios of the dictators of the Thirties, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and audiences in art house cinemas on every continent did not protest at the whitewash of totalitarianism, but rose to their feet and shouted themselves hoarse.”

(And I’d just like to say that I find it extremely pleasing to hear Jean Baudrillard described as “an overrated French theorist.”)

As I said at the start, What’s Left is currently enjoying good sales in Britain because of its relevance to current political events there. But the ideas it treats – bad ideas whose progress Cohen follows from relative obscurity among top academics and fringe movements to subsequent ubiquity in mass street protests and mainstream politics – have come in no small way to define the nature of our times. The book is thus relevant far beyond Britain. As a former humanities academic, I think it should be required reading for all students of postmodernism: it gives a look at what this intellectual movement actually means in practice, something we rarely hear about. There’s more insight into postmodernism in this easy-to-read book than in many pounds of incomprehensible academic prose.

Unfortunately, What’s Left is likely to be relevant for a long time to come, because all levels of our society have been marinated in these bad ideas to the extent that they’ve come to seem self-evident to many. They’re still being taught at every university; read the book and you’ll start to see them everywhere. And because they have the imprimatur of many of the supposed great minds of our times, those who speak against them can often seem like unintelligent cranks. Cohen’s book is a reminder of the importance of good theoretical thinking, and a reminder of the importance of speaking up against bad ideas like these.

A final thought, and one that goes beyond the book: perhaps the most fundamental idea in postmodernism is the denial that there is any reality beyond particular, limited perspectives. I can remember when I was a postmodernist (I was about 18), I would deny that there was any such thing as truth at all. One particularly worrying aspect of both the Brexit campaign in Britain and the US presidential campaign is that both campaigns could legitimately be described as “post-truth:” claims that were simply false were able to take on a life of their own, and the fact of having spoken falsely does not seem to have carried a penalty. Indeed, in the case of Trump, his falsehoods and self-contradictions were so numerous that reporters simply couldn’t keep up. It has not always been like this, and with the arrival of this post-truth reality, our politics have become genuinely postmodern. We can only hope that we can find a way out of this postmodern condition before we’re subject to the most devastating consequences.

What’s Left is a first-rate, readable book that will not only make you think hard about Iraq, but also provides an introduction to some of the defining ideas of our time. A must-read for anyone interested in politics or the deeper intellectual currents that drive things. Books this good are rare indeed.

(also, if you want an idea of what Cohen’s all about, try here or here)


How Not to Criticise Big Ideas

I want to try to get clear about a faulty line of reasoning that I seem to encounter regularly. When people are confronted with an idea that is supposed to explain some large-scale historical or social phenomena, they often seem to think that by giving a single counter-example, they have refuted the idea in question, or at least shown it to be too simple. The thinking behind this is wrong, but before I get into why, let me give a recent example of the sort of thing I’m talking about.

A few days ago I came across this interesting article on how Richard Rorty saw the shape of things to come way back in 1998. Here’re the paragraphs that brought it all home:

“… something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

I think Rorty goes too far with the words “wiped out” – here’s hoping I’m right! – but there’s no doubt the passage is extraordinarily prescient. What struck me about the article, however, was the criticism the author made of Rorty:

Is his analysis a bit oversimple? Yes. Even within universities, there have always been optimistic champions of America, those who ever-passionately believe in the moral arc bending toward justice and work ever-diligently on formulating concrete, actionable policies that would make the country more just.

By focusing only on his own environment, academia, Mr. Rorty’s arguments also seem strangely parochial. During the 1960s, the academic left may have started to turn its back on poverty, but actual politicians on the left were still thinking a great deal about it: Robert F. Kennedy was visiting poor white families in Appalachia; Lyndon B. Johnson was building the Great Society.

Right through the ’90s and into the 2000s, we had left-of-center politicians singing the praises of hope, rather than the hopelessness that Mr. Rorty decries.

I should start with the qualifier that I haven’t read the book in question, so my response to this criticism of Rorty should be taken with a large grain of salt (though knowing what I do of Rorty, I doubt he would have been knocked over by what I’ve just quoted). But defending Rorty is not the real issue here. Rather, we have an example of a specific kind of criticism of explanations that seek to explain large-scale human phenomena.

To say that Rorty’s analysis is “a bit oversimple” is to import a heavily loaded assumption into the conversation about what we should expect from an adequate explanation. Clearly the idea is that a less ‘simple,’ and thus more adequate, explanation would not have failed to account for certain pertinent facts (e.g., optimistic champions of America in universities and beyond). The fact that these things are not covered by Rorty’s analysis is thus considered a failure, so that the demand that lies behind this line of thought must be that a fully adequate analysis would include every single detail you could think up.

A more severe variety of this criticism would replace “a bit oversimple” with ‘wrong.’ Some months ago I was telling some friends about a man I’d read about who, having had two children by a woman, not only decided against marrying her, but also decided against playing any substantial role in the lives of his children beyond financial. This was an expression, I claimed, of the lack of regard for the family and its attendant duties in our time. No!, came the response, and an example was given of parents who dote excessively on their children, the very opposite of what I had been suggesting. The same assumption was at work in this criticism: a single counter-example is sufficient to refute the theory, or at least to show its overly simple nature.

If Rorty or I had been trying to set out a law of math or physics, which must apply to every conceivable case, the counter-example criticism would be justified. There are, however, other ways to think about these things.

The comparison of the body politic to a human body goes back a long way indeed. Plato’s analogy of city and soul is well-known, and many have seen in Thucydides an analogy between the progress of an idea in a city or in Greece to the progress of a disease in a body. So let’s think this analogy through.

Imagine if you’re told you have pancreatic cancer, and that you’ll likely be dead in six months. If I were to respond to this diagnosis by saying that your body has a vast number of entirely healthy cells – the great majority of them, even in the pancreas – that wouldn’t show that the diagnosis is wrong. A cancer diagnosis does not assert that every single cell in the body has cancer – and this is true of pretty much all sickness. What matters is that cancer is present, and that there is a logic inherent in the body that means that we can predict, from something that is present in a tiny fraction of the body’s cells, that the whole body will be dead in a matter of months.

With this in mind, look back at Rorty and the criticism made of him. What if the phenomenon he’s pointing to is like a disease in a body? Just as there are healthy cells in a body that’s fatally ill, so too can there be people in academia and beyond who don’t fit Rorty’s case, but that need not affect his analysis. What’s important is that he has identified something that can determine the future of American politics, just as pancreatic cancer can determine the future of the body it’s found in (and before you go getting too upset about the analogy, remember that many diseases are not fatal).

That this manner of thinking can possess genuine foresight should be clear enough from the fact that Rorty saw something the shape of our current politics back in 1998. Not only that, but the sort of foresight at issue here is, in certain contexts, far superior to anything empirical-scientific. No number crunching, data-driven analysis could possibly have seen what Rorty did, and certainly not so far back.

This is not to say that the analogy of a disease to ideas that are said to be driving society is always appropriate. Many ideas are merely partial, though even here, alternate cases can present complementary phenomena – e.g., I’m inclined to see both economic factors and a backlash against political correctness as important to the presidential election result, but not as conflicting phenomena, but instead like two streams running into a river. (And in the case of the example from my conversation with a friend, I’m inclined to see two sides of the same phenomenon: the breakdown of the conventional idea of the family can find expression both in a lack of regard for children and for an excessively sentimental relation to them.)

There is a potential problem with this disease-analogy, of course: how do you criticise it if counter-examples are not necessarily refutations? I’d be inclined to find the answer by pursuing the disease-analogy further, but I think I’ve written enough for now.

Haffner and Hitler

I’ve had Sebastian Haffner on the brain lately, so I’m going to post something I wrote a little while ago on him…

The beginning of 2016 saw a significant passing: the Bavarian government lost control of the copyright to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This means that it is now legal to print a new edition of the work in Germany. A massive 2000-page scholarly edition has arrived, and it will include the 800 or so pages of the original text with ample commentary pointing out every factual error and self-contradiction. There has been some commentary suggesting that a way ought to be found to keep it illegal to produce new editions, but I don’t really see the point. Not only is the book freely available online, but it’s not like it’s a work of any real intellectual power – I have a hard time believing that anyone who’s read it has suddenly found himself converted to Nazism by the sheer force of the arguments.

I’ve never read Mein Kampf. From what I’ve heard, it’s long and terribly boring. My own contribution to this particular anniversary will be this post, on by far the best author I’ve encountered who has treated Hitler.

I have read a fair bit on the Third Reich. Many know far more than me, but I’ve read many thousands of pages. However, it’s not the heavy tomes by Shirer or Kershaw or Bullock that have contributed the most to my understanding of the subject, but rather what are probably the two shortest relevant books I’ve read, both by Sebastian Haffner. (admittedly, you probably have to go through a few of the 800-pagers to really get the most out of Haffner.)

The first of these books is Geschichte eines Deutschen, available in English under the cringe-worthy title, Defying Hitler. (It seems publishers will do anything to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a title.) The second is Anmerkungen zu Hitler (“Remarks on Hitler,” though sold in English as The Meaning of Hitler, a translation disliked by the author.) You should read both.

Since I’ve already done a couple posts touching on the former book, I’ll focus on the latter here. Part of the book’s genius is the writing itself. Short, simple sentences, no big words, no massive accretion of footnotes with a vast bibliography at the end, no vast accumulation of facts in the manner of the 800-page tomes that historians today typically produce. Haffner feels no need to impress us with this sort of thing; what does impress is his thought itself. Psychological insight, thoughts on the significance of the last eight months of the war, on Hitler’s decision to declare war on America, on the meaning of the Battle of the Bulge: there is a great deal to mull over in this book, and I think most of it is correct (Haffner does try to argue that Hitler would not have been remembered as a great man if he had died in 1939, which I don’t find so convincing: with genocide and war, the difference between talking and doing is an important one).

One central thesis of the book is altogether compelling. Winston Churchill, in his memoires of the Second World War, declared himself content to be judged on his results. Haffner applies this criterion to Hitler, and comes to the conclusion that Hitler was a total failure, one of the greatest failures in history.

People look to the fact that Hitler got control of so much of Europe, and feel that he must therefore have been some sort of genius – an evil genius, but a genius nonetheless. In fact, insofar as he did enjoy some kind of success, he did so where there was no substantial resistance to him, but he wasn’t really all that successful: virtually everywhere, he achieved virtually the opposite of what he aimed at.

One of his major aims was a war against Russia and Marxism; his actual accomplishment was to bring both into the heart of Europe, and even of Berlin. He tried to destroy Poland, and the Poles ended up with an awful lot of German land. He set out to destroy the Jews, and instead created conditions in which the creation of a Jewish state was all but inevitable (ohne Hitler kein Israel, he says: without Hitler, no Israel). He did not set out at the start to harm Great Britain, but his war had the effect of radically reducing that country’s place in the world. Certainly Hitler did succeed in killing large numbers of people, including his enemies, but he was interested in the fate of nations, not of particular individuals.

The Russian campaign was the most fateful, and here Haffner remarks that Hitler might have won if he’d come as a liberator. This is exactly right but there’s a fair bit to unpack. I’m going to go into it because it’s an excellent illustration of the importance of the moral aspect in international relations – and a recognition of the importance of this aspect may prove useful in the coming era. Hitler practised an extreme form of power politics that absolutely discounted the importance of morality, and ended up a particularly potent example of the power of the moral element to determine events.

The thing that has to be kept in mind with regard to Hitler’s attack on Russia was that Germany had beaten Russia in World War One, and had done so at the same time as fighting the major democratic powers to the west in another land campaign. In 1941 Russia’s military (and Russia more generally) was greatly weakened by Stalin’s recent purges, and Russians after two decades of Marxism had rather more reason to rebel against their government than they’d had in the days of the Tsar. How was it that Russia surrendered to Germany in 1917, but Hitler lost in the 40’s?

The answer lies in Hitler’s peculiar genius, which found a way to make defeat all but certain. By waging an unprovoked war of annihilation and enslavement, he gave the people of Russia a reason – even a need – to fight to the death, calling forth in them tremendous reserves of determination and hatred, and further, bestowing a legitimacy to Stalin’s government that it would never have achieved on its own. None of this was true in the First World War. In 1917, an end to the war against Germany, even though the terms might be highly disadvantageous to Russia, might have seemed an attractive option to many average Russians; from late 1941, it was not an option at all. If, on the other hand, Hitler’s attack on Russia had been preceded by a propaganda campaign about the iniquities of the Marxist system and the sufferings it had brought to the Russian people, and if Hitler had invaded making it clear in word and deed that he was a friend of the Russian people and an enemy only of its oppressors – well, in that case it’s difficult for me to see how he might have lost. But of course, if he’d taken that route, he would have been somebody else.

Thus it seems to me that the moral element was decisive on the eastern front in WWII. One of Hitler’s (numerous) failings as a thinker was his inability to see the significance of this element. If you push out to the extremes, they push back; in this case, by denying that justice had any power, Hitler made himself utterly subject to that power. He said that once the campaign had been won, nobody would worry about how it started; no remark could have been more blind. (Hitler was looking to Friedrich the Great, who made an unprovoked grab for Silesia, but he ignored the fact that Friedrich did not wage wars of annihilation against whole peoples, but rather campaigns against foreign monarchs. Anyway, it is instructive that even here the hatred aroused by an unprovoked attack never dissipated: Maria Theresa of Austria never forgave Friedrich and remained his implacable enemy for life.)

Above all, Hitler claimed to be acting on behalf of the German nation and people, and here the gulf between aim and achievement is extraordinary. Nobody in human history has ever done his own country so much harm. In a speech in the 20’s, he declared “it cannot be that two million Germans died in vain;” in his own war, seven million would. The cities and towns in the more western part of Germany were largely bombed to rubble, but they got off easily in comparison to East Prussia and Silesia, which simply ceased to exist.

The fate of these two territories is something of which there’s very little consciousness in the English-speaking world – in the histories I’ve read, it’s covered in a few sentences or (more often) not at all – so it’s worth going into a bit of detail at this point. Before the Second World War, Germany extended hundreds of kilometers to the East of its current border; Germans had been living there since the middle ages. After the war, the population was expelled. Before the war, nobody would even have imagined trying to dislodge the people of East Prussia and Silesia from their ancestral homes, and still less would anybody have been able to do so. Even if someone had somehow managed it, the idea that the people of those territories had a right to that land would have remained – and not only in Germany – making an attempt at taking them back all but inevitable (I think it was Foch who said of Versailles, “this isn’t a peace, it’s an armistice for twenty years”).

The unique genius of Hitler proved capable of overcoming all of these obstacles. Not only did he gradually get Germany into an unwinnable war, but he made sure it was waged with such brutality that he gave Germany’s enemies a terribly compelling reason to want to expel the eastern German population from their homes and force them to resettle as far as possible towards the west. That is, the further to the west the German population was, the safer Russians could feel in the future. And because Germany had by her actions aroused such hatred virtually everywhere in Europe, when the time came to redraw the map of Europe, not only did the Germans not have an advocate present, but nobody who was present was likely to have any sympathy for them.

I have a large book of photos from Silesia. A City Hall built in the 14th century, churches, houses, monuments, Breslau (then among the six largest cities in Germany) – a world that looks very much like the Germany I’ve visited myself. It’s hard to imagine the disbelief and horror with which people would have reacted to the news: all Germans were to leave, on pain of death. That couldn’t possibly be true, could it? But it was, and whole cities were driven onto the roads, bringing with them what they could, never to return. A world simply disappeared, and none of it could possibly have happened if not for Hitler. It was a condition of the acceptance of German reunification by the major foreign powers in 1990 that Germany would give up its claim to these territories, settling this Hitlerian achievement for good. (In Görlitz, a Silesian city that remains part of Germany, there’s a Silesian museum which is worth a visit; among the exhibits are house keys that people took with them.)

More than five hundred kilometers to the east of Berlin was Königsberg, the city where Immanual Kant lived (and never left); it’s now Kalingrad, inhabited by Russians (with short-range nuclear missiles that can reach Berlin).

In his youth, Hitler had admired the Teutonic knights, who over centuries pushed German territory east; he himself would undo their work almost literally overnight. He also admired Friedrich the Great, who had added the (then German-speaking) region of Silesia to Prussia. Thanks to Hitler, not only was Silesia detached from Prussia, but its population was expelled. Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, Romania – all had had significant German minorities for centuries, but Hitler taught all these countries that they’d be much safer without these minorities, so all those Germans were expelled. There had even been Germans living along the Volga in Russia; they were resettled to the far east of Russia. (I met one of the Volga-Deutschen in the US some years ago. He came from a town now in Kyrgistan, called Kant.)

But Hitler achieved even more than this, for he waged the most effective assault imaginable on the very idea of being German: after him, many would say they felt ashamed to be German. This continues even today, when some in Germany support the European project so that they can abandon their German identity for a European one. Hitler and his Nazis actually were what they declared the Jews to be: an utterly negative and essentially destructive force.

This idea of failure, which I’ve now supplemented with my own thoughts, is a central idea of the book, but it’s not the only one. If you want to understand Hitler and the Third Reich, you won’t do better than Sebastian Haffner.

Crying Wolf? Trump and Racism

I have long thought I might write something pointing out that while it is important to call out bigotry, it’s also important to call out false claims of bigotry. As of the election last week, this theme has become partly superfluous, as we’re now knee-deep in commentary saying that the left has gone too far and created a backlash. And strangely enough, I’ve just come across a piece that does an admirable job of calling out some false claims of bigotry, and yet I feel moved to answer it.


Is Donald Trump racist? Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex, thinks not: “there is no evidence that Donald Trump is more racist than any past Republican candidate (or any other 70 year old white guy, for that matter). All this stuff about how he’s ‘the candidate of the KKK’ and ‘the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement’ is made up. It’s a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump that could have convinced voters to abandon him. That it came to dominate the election cycle should be considered a horrifying indictment of our political discourse, in the same way that it would be a horrifying indictment of our political discourse if the entire Republican campaign had been based around the theory that Hillary Clinton was a secret Satanist. Yes, calling Romney a racist was crying wolf. But you are still crying wolf.”


It’s a well-argued piece, providing a much-needed dose of sober and critical thought on a subject that often tends towards hysteria. In general, I agree with the points made, but I think the thesis (just quoted) goes too far. That is, at the end of the day, I don’t see that we are still crying wolf, and the reason is this: what about the birther movement?


I think the word ‘racist’ is tossed around far too frequently these days, but I can’t see any other explanation for the birther movement. No president before Obama ever had to put up with the charge that he wasn’t born in America – what a coincidence that the first black president is also the first who has to refute this particular claim that he doesn’t have the right to be president! I’m sure it was just a coincidence, right?


Okay, actually I’m not at all sure. What I found significant (and particularly pernicious) about the whole birther thing is that it provided a means by which the notion that Obama was not a legitimate president could be aired in public and at length. In fact, given that I never heard any reason at all to doubt Obama’s place of birth, I’m inclined to think that the conclusion-tail was wagging the evidence-dog – that is, that people who started with the idea that Obama, the first black president, had no business at all being president, then came up with a line of thought that provided evidence for that view. People who were thinking “this guy has no business being president” could hardly just say that out loud.


I found the whole thing quite disturbing. No, more than that, I found it vile. As much as I think it’s far too easy to get called ‘racist’ these days, I do think the birther movement was racist, racist, racist.


Donald Trump kept the whole thing going longer than almost anyone. Maybe he was moved by a sincere concern regarding the president’s place of birth. Maybe he just wanted to be the guy who was able to force the president’s hand by making him produce the birth certificate. Certainly Trump did declare in September 2016 that Obama was born in America – though of course, at that point it was extremely politically expedient to say that. The fact is that whatever Trump’s motivations, he chose to spend time in the sewer of birtherism. An apology, an expression of regret, might have washed off some of the filth, but without having done even that, he can hardly complain if people think he stinks.


I certainly don’t agree with Obama on everything, and I do think there’s something to be said about the fact that eight years of Obama will end in a Trump presidency, but all that’s for another time. Watching Obama have to sit next to Trump in the White House last week made me ache. Of all the people in America to have to hand over power to, that man. No wonder Obama looked like he couldn’t believe this was happening. (Or perhaps he’d just realised how little Trump knows about his new job – it was reported that Trump didn’t even know that a new presidential administration hires so many people (several thousand), something I, who have never run for president, have known for about two decades.)


Scott Alexander does show that people have been rather over-eager and incautious in their attempts to attribute racial prejudice to Trump, and that accusations have been made that are not justified. But maybe there was a reason for all that.

More Haffner: Irrefutably Clear

In my last post, I wrote around a passage from Sebastian Haffner’s Geschichte eines Deutschen. The book is still on my mind, so I’m going to do the same tonight.

I’m in Europe. This means that tonight, election night in America, I will not be staying up to see the results as they come in. Instead, I will get up tomorrow, not long after midnight New York time, and find out what happened. I find myself thinking of Haffner’s description of the tense situation the night before World War One was declared, when he, as a child, was on vacation with his family in the country:

“Downstairs, in the hall, with its hunting trophies on the walls and a row of pewter jugs and bright earthenware plates ranged along a high shelf, I found my father and our host, the owner of the estate, seated in deep armchairs, solemnly and weightily discussing the situation. Of course I did not understand much of what they were saying and I can recall no details. But I have not forgotten how calm and consoling their voices sounded, my father’s higher tones against the deep bass of our host; how reassuring the sight of their leisurely manner was, the fragrant smoke of their cigars rising above them in slender columns; and how, the longer they talked, the clearer, the better and the more comforting everything became. Until, finally, it was irrefutably clear that war was quite impossible and, therefore, we would not let panic chase us back to town. Instead, as in all previous years, we would stay on to the end of the holidays….

When I was awakened next morning, packing was in full swing. At first, I did not understand what had happened. The word ‘mobilisation,’ which they had sought to explain a few days previously, conveyed nothing to me. Anyway there was little time to explain anything…”

I don’t think this is an election like any other. You could fill an encyclopedia with substantive objections to Trump, but for me, the worst are his statements concerning the use of nuclear weapons, which exhibit an ignorance of the (non-humanitarian) reasons they are never used, and point to a willingness to use them. For example, watch this.

So I don’t think the comparison to WWI is overblown. Since the Comey intervention I have been genuinely nervous. I have literally lost sleep. This is real, and it could happen. Thus I, too, seek comforting thoughts.

Friends remind me that Hillary has a far better ground game, and this is true. They remind me that it’s not entirely clear where Trump’s necessary voters will come from – he’ll win much of what Romney got in 2012, some people who don’t usually vote, and he’ll lose big-time among minorities. It now looks like Nevada and Florida should be blue, and that should surely do it.

And yet… This has felt wrong for a long time. Trump has been riding a wave (and anyway, read this or this).

So I go through everything again and again, until, finally, it is irrefutably clear that a Trump victory is quite impossible.

Hope I don’t wake to something quite different tomorrow.