New York Red

While I was emerging from a subway station on Manhattan’s upper West side last week, I was hollered at by a chap in his mid-to-late twenties sporting a black t-shirt and ginger beard who was standing on a corner handing out newspapers.

“Hey man,” he said “you have a red shirt on, you should read this!”  He thrust a newspaper in front of me that was some Commie publication and had as its headline a call to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act.  I have read that reinstating Glass-Steagall wouldn’t solve much despite its repeal being blamed for the Global Financial Crisis, but I was in no position to argue this particular technicality.

“Where are you from?” he asked me.

“Britain” I said.

“Oh man, with Barclays!  Those assholes have screwed everything!”

“Yes”, I said “they are assholes.”

“So what are we gonna do about it, man?” he asked, thrusting the newspaper at me.

I thought about a response.  What are we going to do about it?  I was going to suggest hanging politicians and lawyers, but I guessed his victim list would differ from mine and I didn’t want to encourage him.  As I was pondering the question he chimed in with “And no, war with Russia isn’t the answer.”

“Ah Russia,” I said “I know the place well.  Lived there for a bit. No, going to war with Russia won’t help much.”

“You were in Russia?  I heard St. Petersburg is beautiful!”

“It is.  It’s a shame everything over there is built on a few million corpses, though.”

“Corpses?” he asked, looking doubtful.  “Which corpses?  Nazis?”

“No.  Ordinary people.  And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  Which way is Central Park?”

“That way,” he said “but you gotta read this…” His voice trailed off as I walked away.

I hope he somehow gets to read this.

Chesterton’s Fence and Carrier Bags

As with seemingly a good portion of my newly-acquired knowledge, I first heard about Chesterton’s Fence over at Tim Worstall’s blog.  Chesterton’s Fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood:

[L]et us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

I’d actually forgotten about this until it was mentioned again more recently in the comments at Tim Worstall’s, and it reminded me of something I saw in Avignon the weekend before last, which in turn reminded me of something I had been thinking for a while.

While in Avignon, I was walking down a busy shopping street when I saw a young lady carrying a large paper bag full of groceries in her arms.  As I walked past her, the bottom of the bag fell out and the groceries went everywhere.  I commented to my companion that there are very good reasons why plastic carrier bags were invented and became extremely popular, and that I’d often thought these reasons were not properly considered when France banned them at the beginning of July (my local supermarket stopped providing them sometime last year, and they don’t even give you the option of buying them like you can in British supermarkets).

The American practice of using paper bags doesn’t really work in any place where you have to walk any distance with groceries, let alone use public transport.  The American-style paper bags are designed to be packed by a former convict and wheeled to your car in a trolley, not carted down the street by hand.  They don’t even have handles for a start, and the young lady who I saw in Avignon was carrying hers in her arms as if it were a child.

I think the behaviour that governments and the lobbyists want the citizens to adopt is one whereby they turn up to the supermarket with one or more robust, reusable grocery bags but this only really works when the shopping trip is planned.  What somebody is supposed to do if they pop into the supermarket to buy more than two items on the way home is anyone’s guess, unless they fancy forking out a fiver for one of those robust, reusable grocery bags.  I expect what we’ll find is people taking up the habit of carrying around a small, compact bag in case they need to do some unscheduled grocery shopping at some point in the day.  During the good old days of the Soviet Union, the happy citizens would routinely carry around a string bag called an avoska, which roughly translates as “perhaps bag”, on the off-chance they would stumble across a store selling something worth buying and would be able to carry it home (before swapping it with a neighbour or friend in return for something they might actually want).

For some people, particularly middle-class environmentalists, forcing the masses to adopt practices common in the Soviet Union is probably seen as progress.

There Was Once a Road Through the Woods

Perry de Havilland at Samizdata has linked to a piece in the Christian Post written by somebody apologising for being an ardent defender of Islam in recent times, somebody who now feels the critics of Islam were right all along.  This paragraph in particular nudged me into writing a post I’ve been meaning to for a while:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone. We make the cowardly lion look like Churchill.

Principles are strange things in the sense that they do not necessarily have to be pleasant to be attractive, and that even appalling principles can be more attractive (to some) than none at all.  I recall a section in David Hackworth’s book About Face where during the Vietnam War he interviewed an NVA prisoner to try to understand what made them fight.  Once the prisoner realised Hackworth wasn’t going to torture him, and in fact wasn’t after military information at all, he opened up.  It transpired that the prisoner was four-square behind the idea of Communism and the principles that the leadership in Hanoi was preaching and practising.  Hackworth remarked that although he didn’t agree with the cause the man was fighting for, he could not help but admire the fact that his prisoner was willing to endure extreme hardship in order to do so, and noted that he had a fist-sized hole somewhere on his person (I forget where) that was a result of some battlefield injury incurred earlier in the war.  Hackworth contrasted his prisoner’s dedication with those of the feckless ARVN who generally lacked the motivation to fight, were happy to dodge the action and let the Americans do the (literal) grunt work, and represented a regime that was morally bankrupt, corrupt, brutal and stood for nothing whatsoever other than not being Communist.  He concluded that unless the South Vietnamese get off their arses and start fighting in the way his prisoner was, they would ultimately lose the war.  And he was right.

I am about as far from a Communist as it is possible to get, yet there is no denying the ideas and principles attracted – and continue to attract – millions of people.  I have read enough Cold War history to know that the Chinese fought with fanatical, suicidal dedication to the Communist cause in North Korea, that millions of Russian soldiers died with Stalin’s name on their lips, and that a huge percentage of the Soviet people worked willingly in support of the Socialist cause for decades.  These people might be brainwashed, and they might be complete idiots, but the fact is that having been presented with a set of principles – however warped both in theory and practice – millions of them followed with unflappable dedication.

So how come the Commies lost the Cold War?  Theories vary, but one crucial element in the Western victory was the upholding of certain principles which the Communist Bloc didn’t recognise: free speech, liberty, property rights, the right to a fair trial, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of artistic expression, etc.  Granted most, if not all, Western countries upheld these principles imperfectly at various times but this does not equate to an absence of principles any more than the largesse of the Politburo meant an absence of collectivist principles in the Soviet Union.

By upholding these principles that were alien to the Communists, the West was able to achieve two things:

1. Demonstrate how they were fundamentally different from the Communists in a positive way, i.e. better than them.

2. Provide an alternative set of principles for those in the enemy camp who wished to reject the Communist principles.

Convinced of its own superior system of government, the West thought nothing of blasting the populations trapped behind the Iron Curtain with propaganda, urging them to convert to its own way of thinking.  An American president – the leader of the free world – called the Soviet Union an evil empire not only because it was, but also because he knew those living under its rule against their will would take great heart from his words and continue to struggle.  The conviction of the West in shamelessly and incessantly promoting its own principles over the Communists’ likely did as much to inspire internal resentment over the Soviet leadership as their own degeneracy: without the former, against what standard could the Soviet leaders and their own circumstances be measured?

This brings me onto what I want to talk about, which is a thought that first started churning in my head in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  That is, the question as to why moderate Muslims don’t speak out and condemn the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.  It is tempting to say that many probably agree with the atrocities, leading one to question just how many moderates there actually are.  But shortly afterwards I read a comment in a blog by somebody who suggested putting yourself in the shoes of a moderate Muslim and asking whether you yourself would speak out.

And in doing so it became a lot clearer why they don’t.  What we are asking moderate Muslims to do is speak out against those whose actions are incompatible with our way of life.  But what we really want is confirmation that moderate Muslims have themselves accepted our way of life and the principles that underpin it, and will therefore reject the extremists in their ranks.  In theory, this isn’t much different than hoping citizens of Communist countries would accept our way of life and make things difficult for their overlords by seeking change.  But whereas during the Cold War we had clearly defined principles that we genuinely believed were superior and were not afraid to advertise them, what principles are we supposed to be waving in front of Muslims?

And that’s a question I can’t answer.  Whatever free speech we currently enjoy is fast being eroded: when citizens can be jailed for offensive Tweets or nasty Facebook comments, and homophobic remarks are grounds for arrest as a matter of course, then we can probably say that this isn’t solid ground on which we can fight a battle of ideas.  Individual freedom is rapidly disappearing as a concept now that refusing to bake a wedding cake is a matter in which the full force of the law is brought to ensure conformity: I’d not fancy my chances arguing that individual freedoms in the West are nowadays sancrosanct in a way that they are not in the Muslim world.  The state is becoming ever more intrusive, particularly into family matters: with Scotland now setting up a truly Stalinist system of shadow parenting by state officials (H/T Samizdata) it would take a brave soul to try to win over a Muslim by pointing to our superior methods of running a family.

That’s not to say the West has nothing to offer Muslims, because it clearly does.  But the differentiator which enabled them to offer all people – not just Muslims – something better was the society that resulted from first fighting for, and then upholding, the principles on which it was based.  The West appears to have forgotten that it was these principles that made its society attractive in the first place, and it doesn’t seem to realise that if it abandons those principles then it won’t be the same society; and if it’s not the same society, who is to say it will be an improvement on any other, particularly one that’s been aroud awhile?

To repeat what I quoted from the Christian Post:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone.

If our leadership – and I use that term loosely – lacks the conviction to uphold the principles which supposedly define the West, why the hell should we expect Muslims to come out in support of them?  I suspect for many, faced with a choice between leaning towards Islamic principles and Western principles, many moderate Muslims are choosing the former because they are unconvinced that the latter even exist.  Hell, I’m not convinced they exist in any meaningful sense any more, so why should somebody who comes from a culture where they have been historically absent?

As the aforementioned blog commenter asked, if you were a young Muslim living in Britain over the last few years, which way would you lean?  Which way is the wind blowing?  When you have elected officials condemning the publication of blasphemous cartoons, and newspaper columnists suggesting Charlie Hebdo was probably at fault, would you stick your head above the parapet and argue that insulting the Prophet is a fundamental right?  When any atrocity is immediately followed by politicians mumbling vague approximations of supposed bedrock principles which they contradict in the very same sentence through use of the word “but”, and fall over themselves to assure you – a Muslim – that this is nothing to do with your own principles and faith, and then an utter headcase is invited for an interview on the state-owned TV channel where he defends the bloodshed and nobody says a peep: which way are you going to jump?

As the Christian Post article goes on to say:

In reality, those who criticize Islam, especially reform minded Muslims, are the bravest of the brave. They are literally putting their lives at risk by the simple act of criticizing the Quran, Muhammad, and Sharia.

It’s hard enough as it is to get Muslims to question aspects of their faith they might find distasteful and risk the opprobrium of their family, friends, and community.  But it was equally hard to get Russian citizens to criticise their own people and system as well.  Back then, we realised the importance in upholding our own convictions and demonstrating our principles in the struggle to convert people away from Communism and to adopt our way of life.

But today we have abandoned our principles, yet at the same time we expect Muslims to start questioning theirs.  Somebody with principles will not abandon them – even if they are appalling – unless there are alternatives on offer.  And although I see much merit in the principles on which Western society was based, the past decade or two has seen them eroded to such an extent that their function as an alternative which others can adopt has diminished to the point that few appear to be taking them up any more.  What’s more worrying, as David Hackworth’s prisoner demonstrated, those with principles – regardless of what they are – tend to prevail over those who are operating with none.

If the West wants its way of life to continue its citizenry had better rediscover the principles on which it developed and not only start upholding them, but demanding their leaders do the same.  They’d be wise to consider that the Muslims they are hoping to convert already have principles, they’ve been following them faithfully for hundreds of years, and there is very little they would have seen in recent years which would make them do otherwise.

Fools and their Futile Appeals

In all the books I have read about Stalin and the Great Terror (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4), there is a discussion on the reaction of middle and upper echelon Communists when they are first arrested by the NKVD.  Consistently, and to the point that one must assume this was typical, they report reactions of utter surprise and bewilderment, followed rapidly by the conclusion that it must be some kind of terrible mistake.  Those of more senior rank implored their captors and families to inform Stalin in person and beg him to intervene; whilst those from the middle ranks – sometimes even after they’d been tortured, processed, and shipped off to the camps – would labour under the delusion that Stalin was entirely unaware of what was going on, and they were caught up in some kind of rogue operation of which he would never approve.  It dawned on them very, very late – and sometimes not at all – that Stalin personally oversaw this apparatus of terror and in many instances had ordered the arrest of the individual in person.

Reading these books gave me a new, and as far as I know, somewhat unusual (in the sense that I don’t know anyone else who shares it) view on the victims of the Great Terror: that their innocence cannot automatically be assumed.  For sure, the crimes for which they were actually charged were dreamed up out of nowhere, and there were undoubtedly a very great many who perished or suffered who were entirely innocent in all respects.  But many of the victims of the second wave of terror were those who took part in the first wave: thousands of NKVD thugs who were happy to sign the orders, knock on the doors, dish out the beatings, and pull the triggers found themselves up against a wall alongside thousands of Communists who had cheered them on earlier.  Similarly, the third wave incorporated thousands of those who actively participated in the first and second waves, and thousands more of those who, up until their own arrest, thought it was all fine and dandy.  For these individuals, it is difficult to feel much sympathy.

Mark Holland, of the now sadly defunct Blognor Regis, put this brilliantly in a post which is no longer online in response to this obituary of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn:

Meanwhile, [Solzhenitsyn] switched faiths, throwing out Christianity in favour of Marxism, by which he professed himself “absolutely sincerely enthralled” – and this in spite of the fact that, at 14, he had witnessed his substitute father, an engineer friend of the family, being dragged off in the first spate of purges, and some of his father’s relatives, too, denounced as kulaks and exiled to Siberia.

At university Solzhenitsyn was awarded a Stalinist scholarship for his keen work in the Communist youth league … in 1939 he was reported to have attended more to his copy of Marx’s Das Kapital, than to his young bride.

It therefore came as a terrible shock when he was arrested, in January 1945, by Smersh.

The astonished young Marxist was shipped back to Moscow, where he was sentenced without trial to eight years in labour camps, and exile in perpetuity – apparently for having criticised Stalin’s policies in a letter to a friend on another part of the front.

To paraphrase Mark: Solzhenitsyn, a die-hard Marxist and supporter of the Communist regime, was down with the violence until some of it came his way.  Round up some kulaks and shoot them, that’s all fine and dandy.  But arrest me, a young intellectual?  Why, that’s astonishing!  Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of the Gulag system are brilliant and harrowing in equal measure, but I think Mark’s point stands nonetheless.

And this brings me onto this blog post I came across almost at random today:

San Francisco architect Lee Hammack says he and his wife, JoEllen Brothers, are “cradle Democrats.” They have donated to the liberal group Organizing for America and worked the phone banks a year ago for President Obama’s re-election.

Since 1995, Hammack and Brothers have received their health coverage from Kaiser Permanente, where Brothers worked until 2009 as a dietitian and diabetes educator. “We’ve both been in very good health all of our lives – exercise, don’t smoke, drink lightly, healthy weight, no health issues, and so on,” Hammack told me.

The couple — Lee, 60, and JoEllen, 59 — have been paying $550 a month for their health coverage — a plan that offers solid coverage, not one of the skimpy plans Obama has criticized. But recently, Kaiser informed them the plan would be canceled at the end of the year because it did not meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The couple would need to find another one. The cost would be around double what they pay now, but the benefits would be worse.

And suddenly we’re back in Moscow in 1936:

Hammack recalled his reaction when he and his wife received a letters from Kaiser in September informing him their coverage was being canceled. “I work downstairs and my wife had a clear look of shock on her face,” he said. “Our first reaction was clearly there’s got to be some mistake. This was before the exchanges opened up. We quickly calmed down. We were confident that this would all be straightened out. But it wasn’t.”

Time to appeal to the vozhd:

He’s written to California’s senators and his representative, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asking for help.

As did all those poor unfortunates who ended up sawing logs along the Kolyma river in winter.  Let’s see how much your masters care about you, eh?

Here’s my take on their situation: tough shit.  You campaigned for this, you voted for this, you wanted this.  For other people.  Now you’ve been squashed under the steamroller you created for them.  Sorry, but my sympathy for you is in the low zeroes.

And they’ve still not caught on:

“We believe that the Act is good for health care, the economy, & the future of our nation. However, ACA options for middle income individuals ages 59 & 60 are unaffordable. We’re learning that many others are similarly affected. In that spirit we ask that you fix this, for all of our sakes,” he and Brothers wrote.

Oh, so it’s good for health care, the economy, and the future of our nation.  Only please intervene so that we personally don’t have to take part, as it is seriously detrimental to our well-being.

Solzhenitsyn might have found some common ground with them at one time.  I wonder if these two “cradle Democrats” might one day be motivated by their own experiences to write a three volume masterpiece on the cruelness and damage inflicted on ordinary people by Obamacare?

USSR in 100 Photos

My wife sent me a link to this webpage, which contains 100 photos from the Soviet Union, many of which speak volumes about the life and times in the USSR.

Funnily enough, in many ways life in the USSR didn’t look much different from life in West Wales in the early 80s.  In fact, I think the Soviet clothes were more fashionable than what my mother used to make me wear.

What’s Left of the Pioneers at Vostok Camp

Today I had occasion, not for the first time, to go to the childrens’ summer camp just south of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk called Vostok (East) camp.  In the winter, the place is used by companies as accommodation for some of the thousands of third country nationals who are working on the Sakhalin II LNG facility at Prigorodnoye.  Hopefully these companies will all have their men out by the summer when the children arrive, unlike last summer when a hundred construction workers were found to be living amongst three hundred kids.

Nowadays the camp is decorated with lots of brightly coloured cartoon drawings of very uncontroversial scenes as would be found in any childrens’ centre worldwide, but there are still one or two of the murals dating from the Soviet times when this would have been a Pioneer camp.

Soviet Mural, Vostok Camp, Sakhalin Island

The words beneath Lenin’s profile are Vsegda Gotov! (Always Ready!) which was the motto of the Young Pioneers, who can be seen on the left giving their salute and on the right doing, erm, something with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Soviet Mural, Vostok Camp, Sakhalin Island

This one, badly in need of refurbishment, depicts Pioneers sat around a large campfire, which relates to the Pioneer song Vzveites’ Kostrami, which I wrote about hereVzveites’ Kostrami roughly translates to “Higher Rise Our Campfire”, and was one of the most popular Pioneer songs of the Soviet times (it can be heard being sung here).

Да здравствует Первое Мая!

(Long Live the First of May!)

Sing along, Comrades!

Утро красит нежным светом
Стены древнего Кремля,    
Просыпается с рассветом
Вся Советская земля.     

Холодок бежит за ворот,
Шум на улицах сильней.
С добрым утром, милый город,
Сердце Родины моей!

Никем непобедимая
Страна моя,
Москва моя, —
Ты самая любимая!

Солнце майское, светлее
Небо синее освети.
Чтоб до вышки мавзолея
Нашу радость донести.

Чтобы ярче заблистали
Наши лозунги побед,
Чтобы руку поднял Сталин,
Посылая нам привет. 


Разгорелся день веселый,
Морем улицы шумят,
Из открытых окон школы
Слышны крики октябрят.

Май течет рекой нарядной
По широкой мостовой,
Льется песней необъятной
Над красавицей Москвой. 


День уходит, и прохлада
Освежает и бодрит.   
Отдохнувши от парада,
Город праздничный гудит.

Вот когда встречаться парам!
Говорлива и жива,
По садам и по бульварам
Растекается Москва.    


Стала ночь на день похожей,
Море света над толпой.
Эй, товарищ! Эй, прохожий,
С нами вместе песню пой!

Погляди! Поет и пляшет
Вся Советская страна…
Нет тебя светлей и краше,
Наша красная весна!


Голубой рассвет глядится
В тишину Москвы-реки, 
И поют ночные птицы —
Паровозные гудки.       

Бьют часы Кремлевской башни,
Гаснут звезды, тает тень…
До свиданья, день вчерашний,
Здравствуй, новый, светлый день!


Chernobyl and Nuclear Power

Normally I agree with Sean Guillory when he writes about Russian and ex-Soviet affairs, but I must take issue with the penultimate paragraph of his latest post:

In addition, what is more disconcerting is that the lesson of Chernobyl and the dangers of nuclear power have fallen on deaf ears. Nuclear power is considered acceptable again, not only in Russia, but the US, and of course in Iran. Unfortunately, nuclear power, whether it be fore energy or in its weaponized form is still with us.

This view of nuclear power is common, but mistaken.  A lesson of Chernobyl is not that nuclear power generation is too dangerous to be considered an option, and the risks incurred are too great. For what happened in Chernobyl was a consequence of combining nuclear power with operating procedures, designs, state interference, and umpteen other factors which do not and will not be allowed by any responsible nuclear power operators now or in the future.  For instance:

1.  The design of the Soviet nuclear reactor was fundamentally flawed, and this was a huge factor in the resulting explosion.  Even at the time of the accident, Western reactor designs were fundamentally different, and therefore the chain of events which led to the initial explosion in Chernobyl would be impossible to replicate in a Western reactor.

2.  The Chernobyl plant operators and engineers were not suitably qualified, experienced, or trained to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant.  They were also deliberately not fully informed about the known design flaws and potential hazards associated with operating the reactor, specifically at low power levels.  This degree of incompetence and mismanagment is thankfully absent from Western nuclear power plants.

3.  The operators at Chernobyl were able to disable multiple safety systems and conduct an unauthorised experiment which disregarded all the operating procedures and requirements therein, an experiment which lead directly to the explosion in the Chernobyl reactor.  Recklessness of this kind is very easy to eradicate, and is absent from Western power plants.

4.  In order to cut costs, the reactor housing was able to offer only partial containment in an emergency, rather than full containment as in Western power stations.

There is more than enough evidence to demonstrate that nuclear power generation when carried out properly and responsibly is extremely safe, and accidents such as the one in Chernobyl are entirely avoidable.  For example, the two major users of nuclear power, France and Japan, use vastly different reactor designs from the one in Chernobyl, they ensure their operators are dedicated professionals who have the required support and training, and they do not allow their operators to throw the operating manual in the bin and start experimenting.  It is of little surprise that neither country has experienced an accident which resulted in a release of radioactive material, and it is also of little surprise that no similar accident has occurred anywhere in the past 20 years.

There are many lessons to be learned from Chernobyl, and having started my engineering career in the nuclear industry, I am fairly convinced that nearly all of them have been well learned by those in the West responsible for the operations and maintenance of nuclear power stations.  As lessons were learned when several Comet aircraft unzipped their fuselages and fell from the sky, so engineers learned from the accident at Chernobyl; or, more accurately, had their initial ideas confirmed:  that nuclear power plants must be designed correctly, installed and commissioned correctly, and operated correctly by experienced professionals.  The greatest lesson to take from the Chernobyl disaster is that these basics cannot be circumvented at any time, and thankfully those in the West responsible for operating nuclear reactors safely knew these lessons well before 1986 and haven’t forgotten them in the 20 years since.

To use Chernobyl as a reason to abandon nuclear power is like using the Titanic  as a reason to discontinue all shipping.  It is of utmost importance to ensure that accidents similar to Chernobyl do not occur again, but this is not to be achieved by throwing out the baby with the bathwater by abandoning nuclear power altogether.