A Stronger Man than I

Further to this post about the mental disintegration of Australians, I see fellow blogger Adam has succumbed to the same weakness.  Having posted a review of this article, we learn from the comments that:

I didn’t make it through. I skimmed and cherry-picked and had everything I needed about a quarter of the way in. I have no idea as to the rest of it.

I confess, I couldn’t even make it past the first five paragraphs.  I’d rather open the batting against Dale Steyn than wade through that.  Adam’s scored the equivalent of a half-century under trying conditions.

Blogging like it’s 2003

I never used to read USS Clueless, a blog that was big back in the days of the medium’s infancy in the early ’00s, but I knew about it and saw it referenced a lot.  I also used to see the blog owner’s name, Stephen DenBeste, appearing quite often among the blogs I did read.  I read yesterday over at Samizdata that Stephen had died, which is causing a lot of sadness among the bloggers of that era who used to interact with him.

The first blog I ever encountered was Peter Briffa’s long gone and much missed Public Interest.  I read a Thunderer column he’d written in The Times in spring 2003 about the Stephen Lawrence murder and followed the address at the bottom.  Having not seen a blog before and expecting a regular website it took me a day or two to figure out what I was looking at.  I remember the blogroll causing me a lot of confusion: most websites back then had very few outgoing links, almost all were internal.  Or maybe I was just dense.

Anyway, once I’d gotten my head around the concept I launched my own blog in March or April 2003.  This was when British blogging was in its early days with most of us using Blogger software with awful, buggy templates, before Moveable Type and WordPress came along and things improved a lot.  The big American blogs were well established by then, particularly Instapundit and Little Green Footballs.  Probably the largest in the UK I knew about would have been Samizdata.  That spring/summer/autumn of 2003 was a wonderful time to be blogging in the UK because the number of bloggers was tiny: everyone knew one another and it felt like we were at the start of something big.  Very few of those who were around at that time are still blogging, but a few are.  Last night somebody asked me how long I’d been running a blog for and I said over thirteen years.  That’s quite a long time, particularly given I’ve been doing it while in Middle Eastern theocracies and Putin’s Russia.  It’s why I laughed once when somebody, who hadn’t even known what a blog was before reading mine, saw fit to give me stern advice on how I should conduct myself online.  Yes, thanks for that.

Perry de Havilland refers in his post about Stephen DenBeste to “the early days when we were all known as “warblogs””.  British blogging took off in 2003 as the Iraq War was being waged, and this is no coincidence: ordinary people were getting so fed up with the poor and/or obviously biased coverage of the war in the mainstream media that they got online and started adding their own voices to the noise.  As the sadly departed Norman Geras said in July 2003: I’m joining the conversation.  And oh boy, he did.

Blogging then became the next Big Thing and by 2005 seemingly everyone had a blog and companies were touting them as a vital way of sharing information.  People then discovered blogging required some talent either by way of style, ideas, or merely having something to say, and the numbers levelled off and then started to fall.  Facebook came along, and then Twitter, and now my guess would be we’re left with the hardcore bloggers who probably number around 10% of what there were at the format’s peak.  That’s just a guess, mind.  LiveJournal got huge in Russia, and I have no idea if they sustained their numbers.

Anyway, my point is that it was the dissatisfaction of a large number of people with the mainstream media’s coverage of a major global event that drove the growth of blogging, both in the US and Britain.  We are now in a period where people’s dissatisfaction with the mainstream media is plumbing new depths as it behaves abominably over issues such as the US election, immigration, and a whole load of others which people care deeply about.  Twitter and Facebook have already shown they are prepared to censor unwelcome opinions, which has left more than a few people voiceless (at least until Gab picks up and develops a smartphone app.).  Indeed, I’ve always been surprised how many bloggers – who had full control of their own hosting platform and content – switched to Twitter, where they had none of the former and now, we discover, not so much of the latter either.  The beauty of blogging for me was always that I run the site and its content is wholly mine and subject to nobody’s approval.  There is no “report inappropriate content” on this blog.

This period in the runup to the US Presidential Election is starting to feel a lot like the spring of 2003: plenty of angry voices and a feeling nobody is listening.  If Trump loses, the opposite side will try to silence them.  One way of making themselves heard is via a blog, leading me to believe that we might see a renaissance of blogging in 2017.

Either way, I’ll still be here.  Hopefully.

Gab

After Twitter dropped all pretence to impartiality by banning prominent right-wingers while giving free reign to those whose politics they approved of, a new service launched itself called Gab which hopes to be the same thing only with no censorship.

I never joined Twitter mainly because I couldn’t for the life of me see why anyone would want to write something in 140 characters instead of penning War and Peace on a blog, but there you go.  I also signed up only to find “desertsun” was already taken as a username, and so threw my toys out of the pram.

Anyway, I’ve signed up with Gab mainly to get the username I wanted on Twitter.  Maybe Twitter will collapse or disappear up its own arse and Gab will take over, I don’t know.  I won’t be writing anything substantial over there, but I might make comments on other’s posts.  So if anyone is interested, I am here.

Virtue Signalling in Disguise

I’ve noticed recently that something keeps happening to me that perhaps didn’t happen so much before.

I get asked my opinion on something and the person asking me doesn’t much like the answer I give.  Usually the question is on a topic which is controversial – Brexit, Donald Trump, the Iraq War, George W. Bush, Gun Control, Barack Obama – but only in the global sense.  What I mean by that is within a certain demographic – European, middle-class, degree educated – these topics are not controversial at all, and everyone is in lock-step agreement on each.

Which is where I think I’m surprising people.  I get asked my opinion on Brexit (let’s use that as an example) and I basically say what I said here: I would have been happy enough with a Remain victory for personal reasons, but on principle I am not unhappy to have seen the Leave campaign win because I think major reforms of the EU are long overdue and these would never happen without some cataclysmic event like Brexit forcing the issue.  This is hardly an extreme view but it causes a shock reaction nonetheless.

The immediate effect is for the person to challenge what I’ve said using the first response that comes into their head (“But the British economy will collapse, all the banks will move to Frankfurt!”).  My response in turn is to refute them using the same information, statistics, facts, and arguments I’ve seen presented elsewhere to the same objection.  The thing is, what my interlocutor has not realised, quite understandably, is that I take a keen interest in certain things and read and re-read dozens of lengthy arguments on these subjects which take place on the Internet.  I also have copious amounts of time on my hands.  A lot of the time I then post my own opinions on this here blog, having taken the time to consider each angle and argument carefully so that my stance can be both clearly presented and defended if necessary.  So when I am challenged on my opinion my responses are effectively prepared in advance and rehearsed, and for somebody who has just dipped their toe into the subject without such preparation they find themselves neck deep in an argument they stand almost no chance of winning.

Which makes me appear a bit of an asshole.  I have been accused of being defensive, aggressive, unfriendly, argumentative, and a whole load of other things basically because I can defend a slightly controversial opinion with quick-fire, eloquent responses which I’ve thought through in advance.  And also, probably, because I am a bit of an asshole.

For a while I thought about softening my stance, but I’ve decided against it.  The reason for this is because I figured out a lot of people who ask my opinion on such matters are not asking my opinion at all, they are looking to confirm their own.  As I said earlier in the post, the educated, European, middle-classes agree almost wholeheartedly on these issues: Brexit is bad and Britain’s economy will be fucked and the people who campaigned for it are stupid cowards and the people who voted for it are thick racists.  If you stated that over lunch in any European white-collar office not a single peep of protest would result.

Unless I was sat there.  Okay sure, I like an argument.  I’d start an argument in a coffin, as somebody once said.  But I get annoyed when people ask my opinion only for the purposes of confirming their own, which would allow them to say that they are informed on current affairs without making the effort to hear solid counter-arguments which challenged their own preconceptions and forced them to perhaps modify their views.  I wouldn’t mind if somebody wants a proper discussion on an issue, but most of the time they want a quick agreement of their own position, not a discussion.  And this is nothing more than cheap virtue signalling, and I hate that in any form.

So my advice is:

1. Don’t ask for somebody’s opinion on something if he writes about it on a blog unless you are prepared to hear something you might not like.

2. When you hear an opinion you don’t like from somebody who writes about it on a blog, be prepared for a pretty robust argument should you challenge it.

3. Pay particular attention to points 1 and 2 if the person writing the blog happens to be a bit of an asshole who likes arguing.

Altered Carbon

Following a thread over at Chez Worstall on sci-fi novels, I acted upon the recommendation of two commenters to take a look at Altered Carbon, a 2002 novel by Richard Morgan.  I’m not a huge sci-fi fan and when I tried reading some of the classics I found them too dated.  Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was an exception, but I couldn’t finish Stranger in a Strange Land.  However, I enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but that might be because I could visualise it better thanks to Blade Runner.

But one of the chaps who recommended Altered Carbon described it as “a sort of blade runner crossed with Sam Spade”, which was enough for me and so I bought it for my Kindle.  I found to my delight that the description was absolutely spot on, and I was hooked immediately.  I am rarely very impressed with modern fiction, with the last book that really held my attention being Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for which I shunned all in-flight entertainment on a long-haul trip between Nigeria and somewhere.  Altered Carbon had the same effect, and then some.  I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I am looking forward to reading the sequals.  I was also excited to hear that Netflix is making a TV series of it, which if done properly ought to be brilliant.

That’s why the Worstall Arms is the most popular pub in town.  Come for the economics, stay for the comments.

Calumny

Chicago Boyz has put up a post about calumny, which is a word you don’t hear much these days but appears to have been in common use historically.  According to the Webster’s, calumny is:

1:  a misrepresentation intended to harm another’s reputation

2:  the act of uttering false charges or misrepresentations maliciously calculated to harm another’s reputation

The Chicago Boyz post was brought to my attention by Samizdata commenter DOuglas2, who mentioned it in the context of the recent (but seemingly temporary) banning of Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit from Twitter.  I can think of numerous examples – the hounding of Tim Hunt being the one that immediately springs to mind – of calumny being alive and well in the modern world, assuming it ever went away.

I’ve known this word, and what it means, since I was about 20 purely because I was, and am, a fan of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville.  Act I Scene II provides probably the best description of calumny there is in an aria – La Calunnia – sung in bass.  It’s worth a listen.

Maintenance

I’ve had a few readers telling me they’ve gotten malicious code warnings and seen other signs of mischievous intent on the part of some script or other, so I decided to give the server space a clean-out and reinstall everything afresh.

While doing so I also decided to update the theme and change the header image.  For anyone that’s interested, the photo was taken in November 2008 at Borocay’s White Beach as the sun was setting.  The full version can be seen here.

Norman Geras: 1943-2013

It is with considerable sadness that this blog marks the passing of Norm Geras, of Normblog fame.

Norm started blogging back in 2003, just shy of ten years ago, when the British blogging scene was relatively new and a handful of high-quality blogs stood out from the rest.  Normblog quickly joined their ranks, and with a relentlessness matched possibly only by Tim Worstall for a single-author blog, provided us with high-quality, thoughtful posts on near enough a daily basis since.

One word springs to mind whenever I think of Norm, and it is unsurprising that this word is used in several of the tributes to him around the blogosphere: decent.  Norm was a thoroughly decent person, a man from a different time and era from a lot of us bloggers, and perhaps as a result a gentleman who never resorted to vulgarity or insults.  Despite his being firmly of the political left and a Marxist to boot, he gained the respect and affection from right wingers (such as myself) for being thoroughly polite in the face of disagreement, and for readily admitting the shortcomings of his own side.  In addition, his love of cricket, football, literature, and music brought bloggers from all around the world to his place, and being featured in the famous Normblog profiles was a sign that a blogger had truly arrived on the scene.

I once had lunch in Norm’s house in West Didsbury with his wife Adele, and in person he was as much a gentleman as his blog suggested.  Occasionally we used to exchange short emails on points of interest in his blog, and I am proud to say that I considered him my friend.

The blogosphere has lost a major organ with his passing.  He will be missed.

RIP Norm.

On Unreasonable Expectations

There is a reoccurring theme which you come across in expat life whereby one is expected to refrain from saying anything negative about the country you’re living in.  It is worth looking at this in more detail.

It strikes me as odd the idea that a condition of entry into a country is adopting a positive opinion of it.  I think the argument runs along the lines of “you have come here out of choice and for your own benefit, and therefore you should be grateful”.  But this applies equally to people working anywhere.  Are you forced to come to the office every day?  No.  You have the option of posting videos of you singing “Little Red Caboose” on the internet and trying to live on the ad revenue, but instead you’ve chosen to come to the office.  Is coming to the office for your own benefit?  Most surely, or you wouldn’t come, would you?

So should all office workers be expected to adopt a positive opinion of the workplace?  What about factory workers?  What about factory workers in China or Bangladesh?  Can their employers demand their workers only hold positive opinions about the conditions of work on the grounds that if they don’t like it they can f*ck off elsewhere?

Let’s expand it a little.  If a bloke from Twickenham takes a job in Mile End, is he thereafter expected to express no negative opinions about London’s East End?  Does he forfeit that right by virtue of his taking a job there, when he had the option of working locally?

Let’s expand it a little more.  If our chap from Twickenham takes a job in Liverpool, does he have to like it?  Or does a Scouser working in London have to like the place?

I know dozens of people who don’t like London, but that’s where the work is and so that’s where they stay.  They get out when they can, and they look forward to the day they leave.  Is this an insult to Londoners?  Should such people be banned from working in London, if they have the temerity to opine that London is a bit of an overpriced shithole?

Of course not.  But cross a national border, and all of a sudden one is expected to like it or leave.  Well, the world is a bit more complicated than that.  Where you live is just one factor in one’s overall happiness: family, future, health, wealth, job satisfaction, friendships all contribute too.  It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that being happy with your overall lot does not in itself mean you have to like where you’re living right now.  It helps if you do, but it’s not a precondition.

It is interesting to note that some people think that you should be positive about a country if you are paid to be there, and the more you are paid the more you should be grateful.  Which is an interesting concept.  I generally find the more I am paid to be somewhere, the less I like it.  Nobody paid me to go to Thailand, Germany, or Lithuania.  I have friends who were paid to fight in Afghanistan with the Royal Marines.  They said it was a shithole.  Should they have consulted their pay-packets and said it wasn’t?  I can understand if somebody has moved somewhere permanently to live, independent of work, and then complains he doesn’t like it.  At the very least, you could question why they went there.  But paying somebody to go somewhere or do something and then demanding they enjoy it?  I hope these people don’t ever visit a prostitute.

The thing is, in my line of work the pay increases in line with the hardship or difficulty of the location (in theory, anyway).  So the happiness/compensation ratio remains roughly the same wherever you are.  People in a nice place will complain about their meagre salary, people paid well will complain about the place being a dump.  If the former is acceptable, why not the latter?

Yes, people who go to hardship locations go for the money.  I presume you don’t go to the office simply because daytime TV is crap?  But in most hardship locations it’s less a case of going there because the money is good than being persuaded to go there because that’s where somebody (supposedly) needs you, and here’s a load of money to make you say yes.  Chances are, if foreigners are paid a lot of money to work in your country, few of them really want to be there.  If they did, you wouldn’t need to pay them so much.

Then there’s the “When in Rome…” argument, which is valid – to a point.  Firstly, foreigners are often employed in Rome for the precise reason they are not Romans.  If I was expected to adopt wholesale the working practices of Kuwaitis, Russians, and Nigerians in my respective overseas postings, then my employers neglected to tell me.  I rather suspect I wasn’t.  Secondly, beyond complying with the law, being reasonably well-mannered to individuals in a face-to-face situation, and not causing embarrassment or awkwardness on the part of the locals you meet in person, I don’t see foreigners as having any obligation to behave in any particular manner.

Wherever I am in the world, I generally try not to embarrass people or make them feel awkward by breaching etiquette, trampling roughshod over cultures and customs, and broaching taboo subjects.  But there is a world of difference between avoiding upsetting somebody in your immediate vicinity – who often has a situation thrust upon him – and avoiding making remarks in a general context where there is no individual present who doesn’t have the option of ignoring you.  For example, I don’t criticise religion in front of Nigerians, I’d not discuss the concept of hereditary monarchy with a Thai, I go along with the superstitions of the Russians, and I’d not bring up politics with an American work colleague.  Unless the individual has made it known that he’s up for some robust discussion, then I avoid making them feel awkward or that they need to defend themselves, their country, or their culture.

But on a blog?  Sorry, it’s fair game.  If you feel awkward, then close the browser.  You feel offended?  Tough shit.  Read something else.  Argue your case in the comments or elsewhere to your heart’s content, but nobody has any right to demand I adjust my opinions in order to make strangers in an altogether different location feel less uncomfortable.  Respect is something earned, not demanded, and it certainly isn’t earned by making somebody jump through umpteen bureaucratic hoops at great expense before grudgingly issuing him a visa.

Robust discussion.  I mentioned it before.  Some nationalities have thicker skins than others, and it’s interesting to see who has what in this regard.  There are some nationalities who tolerate almost no criticism of any aspect of their country from foreigners, even if they happen to be in agreement.  It is an interesting measure of how comfortable a nation is with themselves, and the results aren’t always what you’d expect.  Take France, for example.  Fiercely patriotic, see themselves as an alternative to the hegemonic Anglo-Saxons, convinced France is the best country on earth.  But.  As a Brit, I can complain to any Frenchman about the shoddy state of Air France, and he’ll nod in agreement and respond with an anecdote of his own.  I can roll my eyes at the bureaucracy you encounter trying to carry out simple tasks in France – such as open a bank account – and a Frenchman will agree completely.  You can make jokes about the strikes on SNCF and the RER, and they will laugh.  There’s no spluttering outrage and screams of “f*ck off home”.  They accept certain aspects of France are worthy of criticism, and don’t feel the need to defend them.  But what’s more interesting is when you criticise something closer to the heart of a Frenchman: the wine or the food.  Even then, you’re more likely to get a dismissive wave of the hand and a “Pah!  He eez Breeteesh, what would he know about food and wine, furking feesh and cheeps!” than a foaming-at-the-mouth xenophobic rant.  The French are comfortable enough with themselves and their culture that, on an individual level, they don’t feel the need to defend it when some ignorant foreigner comes along.  Who the hell cares what he thinks?

There are few countries like this, and most are large, old, and have an established identity going back centuries.  For all of Australia’s rough-and-ready “harden the f*ck up” stance, they often don’t seem comfortable in their own skin.  The Aussies love to call us Whinging Poms, but its overuse speaks volumes.  Okay, if a Brit moves here to seek a better life and spends the whole time complaining about how shit it is, then the term is apt (and I suspect this is where it originated).  But I see it used more often to avoid acknowledging that this foreigner might actually have a point.  Somebody called me a Whinging Pom when I complained that the internet in the hotel cost A$27.50 for 24hrs (which was capped, and they take care not to advertise the rate on their website), again when I pointed out that supermarket wine is 4 times the price it is in Paris, and once more for not showing sufficient enthusiasm for the notion that Melbourne is a fantastic city.  Now if the Aussies are happy being fleeced at every point and turn and genuinely think that everyone should fall in love with their cities then fair enough.  But an Aussie complaining about London’s parking charges, the cost of petrol, and declaring Manchester to fall somewhat short of fantastic wouldn’t find himself accused by Brits of being…well, anything.  They’d probably agree.

Indeed, the Whinging Pom epithet thing seems have turned into a parody of Australians more than a criticism of Brits.  This post – which was quite obviously a joke – was seized upon in the comments by a semi-literate Australian whose first remark was that he and his countrymen would be happy to see me on the boat back home.  Can you see the French saying that?  Or the Germans?  Me neither.

(Incidentally, one day somebody will write a book on how a nation made up almost entirely of immigrants managed within a few generations to create a society where “fuck off back on the boat you came in on” was considered acceptable mainstream opinion.  In the UK it’s thankfully confined to knuckle-dragging skinheads wearing swastikas.)

So here’s the thing.  Life is complicated folks, and opinions vary.  Some people think cricket – which I love – is a boring, waste of time, and I think they are ignorant fools.  But it doesn’t bother me, and I would not expect a waitress serving the gins at Lords to refrain from saying that it’s a silly game and anyway Cook can’t bat for shit since he assumed the captaincy when she’s posting on Facebook in the evening.  Not everything need be taken as a personal insult, you know.