THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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April 2008

The decline of the pub

A pub is an easygoing place; a microcosm of English society. Bores and eccentrics are (more or less) cheerfully tolerated. The cut and thrust of repartee results in an occasional failed witticism, but no consequence need be feared but derision. The combination of testosterone and alchohol might occasionally lead to fisticuffs outside, but even combatants are expected to hold no continuing grudge.

So why are pubs in decline? Perhaps because this all now seems a Tolkien-like vision of a lost past. Such are the consequences of political incorrectness (real or perceived) that it is a brave person who will attempt wit among strangers. In ethnically-mixed company, a word out of place (or perceived by the hearer as such) can lead to social death. A jocular remark of my own that heterosexuals felt rather left out of modern Britain led to uneasy silence and a whispered warning that the colleague next to me (as I knew perfectly well) was gay. Years later I have been "forgiven" but I confess to finding that forgiveness an insult. All I said (and with a smile at that) was that his sexuality was more fashionable than mine. Had I said as much about his suit, he would have thanked me.

Even before, preposterously, the health-fascists succeeded in making public smoking illegal, smokers (a far more substantial minority than that which voted for the present government) were likely to be harangued by intolerant busybodies. Now the law of unintended consequences (the one that  kicks in whenever we tinker with the iron law of supply and demand) is exposing the delicate young lungs of infants at home to "secondary smoke" which would previously have been inhaled by consenting adults. O tempora, o mores.

Years ago, I discussed life under communism with my venerable Polish teacher. Her husband had been a prominent academic; invited to international conferences and therefore an object of suspicious surveillance. He was always accompanied on his trips by an informant who would try to get him drunk. At work in his own university, there were always such people about and they were always ready to buy drinks in the hope of indiscretions. In consequence, he never drank alcohol in public. He only partook within his own four walls in the company of his wife and blood relatives. Such an approach (combined with a dry, apolitical field of study) allowed him to live his life in peace - if not in freedom.

I fear that the decline of the British pub may have as much to do with political correctness (aka embryonic totalitarianism) as with the price of alcohol or the cigarette ban. A society which has spies monitoring smoking in bars and which uses anti-terrorist powers to spy on middle-class families suspected of lying to get their toddler into a better kindergarten is not one in which it is safe to lubricate the vocal chords in public.

Blogs in Virtual Worlds

I first became seriously involved in Second Life for blogging purposes. Hence my SL avatar's name; "LastDitch Writer". But while our Blogpower Awards Ceremony was a qualified success in bringing in bloggers,  there has been little scope to bring blogs themselves into the Metaverse. The latest SL software, however, has limited capabilities to feature web pages in-world (as opposed to mere links to the conventional web).

Screen_shot_001Here is yesterday's post at The Last Ditch on the screen of my avatar's in-world MacBook Pro. That is no imported screen-shot. It will change automatically as my blog updates. Given that you can only have one webpage at a time per plot of land owned and that hyperlinks (which are rather the point of the internet) don't function yet, this is all rather limited at present. Still, it's fun to be in at the beginning.

Personally, although it's easy to mock at the moment, I think SL (or something like it) is the future shape of the internet. Shopping online will make much more sense when you can "handle" your purchases in 3D, try them on for size on a true-to-scale photo-realistic avatar and so forth. Significantly, SL is the only online community where the majority of users are female. Many seem to spend much of their SL time shopping. It's a short step from buying clothes for your avatar to buying clothes for yourself (although most are going to have to be a little more honest about their avatar's shape if it comes to that!)

All other kinds of online interaction make more sense if they can be conducted in a natural human way. Although everyone there looks young (except me - I have made serious efforts to resemble my RL self) there are a lot of mature adults in SL. Most of my friends there are my age or older. Once you can move around and communicate with text or voice, there is nothing else you need to learn. How true is that of most online activity? At any rate, if we old fogeys can cope with it, anyone can.

One of the steadiest learners in SL history must be JMB of Nobody Important. She caught the tail end of the festivities last year and has occasionally returned. A friend and I gave her some tuition a couple of days ago and sent her off to explore. I hear she may be reporting her adventures and I await her post with interest.

PS: JMB's SL post is here.

A pitiful substitute for thought

Link: Zoe Williams: Bulletproof but loaded | Comment is free | The Guardian.

We laughed at the obsessives on our University campus who could explain everything in terms of race, class or sexual orientation. University was such an exhilarating experience after the squalid anti-intellectualism of our comprehensive schools that we could not take seriously those who preferred such formulae to thought. Most hilarious of all were leftist students from privileged backgrounds who, on any logical application of their own formulae, were the enemy. They simply decided that holding with greater intensity the views that cast them as such would exonerate them. Indeed, in a classic piece of doublethink, heterosexual whites from wealthy backgrounds seemed to think themselves more virtuous for being leftist witch-hunters of racists and homophobes.

How we chortled at the way such people saw such issues where there were patently none. How we chuckled at the way losers cast themselves as heroes for possessing random attributes, rather than for the content of their characters. They were no different from their "enemies" who were supposed to believe themselves superior for possessing other random attributes. They were perpetrators of identical fallacies; walking refutations of their own pretended logic.

My favourite University moment was the impassioned declaration by a Trotskyite at a Union meeting that there would be "no real sex" until the Revolution. What a wonderfully transparent descent from the abstract to the personal. I wonder if he still blushes at the memory of his inadvertent revelation?

We should not have laughed. While those of us who were there to learn left University to get on with our lives, the class/race/sex retards stayed on as academics or left to go into politics, journalism or both. They would do anything to escape the need to think, it seems. Zoe Williams' piece on the Guardian "Comment is Free" site today is a case in point. I can honestly say that I had never considered "hoody" a codeword for black youth. Any mental images I had formed when I heard the word had involved the sort of pizza-faced yob who constitutes the main threat when walking the streets of my home town. In her warped view of the universe however, Zoe has scored bonus points for "discovering" concealed racism in public discourse. Sadly, she has more influence in the world than those of us who can see her for the obsessive thought-avoider that she is.

VictimLionCompare and contrast this little article by Theodore Dalrymple. Isn't it remarkable how little press the chocolate bar killing has had? I don't know the races of the accused. In British journalism, that usually means they are from a background which would contradict the standard formula of "ethnic minority = victim". Try googling "Dejon Thompson Patrick Rowe images" and you will get a picture of the victim and of the Lion bar featured in the fatal affair, but no pictures of the named killers. Maybe that is because they were minors at the time of the crime, but why is their ethnicity never stated, while that of the victim is mentioned everywhere? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are allowed to know he was Turkish, because that fits the formula. After all, we always know that the perpetrator is white or heterosexual in a so-called "hate crime". Indeed the concept of "hate crime" only serves the purpose of reinforcing such thought-free formulae. As the wonderful DCI Gene Hunt character played by Philip Glenister in Life on Mars asked, when introduced to the concept; "As opposed to what; a love crime?"

Behaviours that are consistently rewarded, increase. Behaviours that are consistently punished, decrease. This is because people have free will and are capable of controlling their own behaviours. That is true of all classes, sexes and races and the people who really demean minority groups are those who formulaically explain human behaviour by reference to such matters. A crime is a crime, regardless of the perpetrator and all should be equal before the law. Those who use sex, race and class as factors in social formulae threaten the future well-being of us all, as well as insulting the humans they categorise.

Il est interdit d'interdire

Link: Olympic torch extinguished amid Paris protests - Telegraph.

It seems the spirit of 1968 lives on and that French protesters remain both more stylish and more effective than their British counterparts. Despite the protective and (disgracefully) protected presence of hireling thugs of foreign powers in both London and Paris, our French cousins managed to extinguish the Olympic flame not once, but twice.

I do love to see the pomposity of authority punctured. Within hours of their head announcing - with an implied sneer at London - that his officers would guard the flame "like a visiting Head of State", the Paris police saw it snuffed out on their watch. You have to smile. I wish our Head of State no harm, but I do hope they guard our Head of Government to the same standard next time he is in Paris.

Olympic torch relay nearly abandoned

Link: Olympic torch relay nearly abandoned - Telegraph.

The_balloon_goes_upListening to the Today programme this morning I was struck forcibly by how far the debate on civil liberties has moved on. The presenter noted that those welcoming the Olympic torch needed no permission to be there while those protesting against China's policies needed police consent. However, the police officer being interviewed saw no problem. He said those cheering the torch were "celebrating" like football supporters and should not be under restriction. The protesters however, were properly subject to control. "We are just enforcing the law," he said, which used to be a valid point before politicised senior officers campaigned actively for greater police powers.

The debate was entirely on the ground defined by the current government. No-one questioned whether police should have the power to determine who should protest. No-one argued that it was their job to intervene only if those expressing public views actually threatened life, limb or property. No-one suggested that policing judgements based on intention - essentially on the thoughts of those involved - might be inherently wrong. No-one queried the right of police officers to determine that T-shirts bearing particular slogans are a threat to public order.

The whole concept of  "public order" offences empowers those who offer a violent response when provoked. If we who find Che Guevara T-shirts offensive were to assault anyone we found wearing one, then it would be a public order offence to go out with that murderer's face on your chest. As we - quite rightly - don't offer violence, it is not. Yet yesterday those wearing t-shirts with anti-Chinese slogans were ordered to remove them or cover them up.

For some time we classical liberals have been trying to make the point that repeatedly splitting the difference between liberty and oppression does not constitute a valid political debate. Sadly, that has been the essence of our public dialogue for some time. Now, like true soviets, we debate only the propriety of policing judgements, rather than question the state's right to make them.

Some days restore your faith

Dscn0957Yesterday was my last night in China - for a while. I have learned a lot about business prospects here and not all of it was good. Still, I hope to come again. Shanghai is a great city. I visited professional colleagues to discuss business. Then I went shopping for Mrs Paine's present. I have never checked the original text, but she assures me it is law she must have a gift from a new city. Who am I to argue?

Then, in the evening, I had an excellent time. The young American who helped me out when I was stranded the other night had invited me out. First we went to the opening of a new apartment complex. I think his plan was to show me how good life in his adopted city could be. He succeeded. The first of my photos is of the view from the penthouse (which is 650 square metres and costs no more than my 200 square metre apartment in Russia). The second is of an upmarket shopping mall near my firm's offices.

Dscn0954Later we visited his fiancee's gallery. Formerly a journalist with the PRC's Xinhua News Agency, she has now become an art dealer. Her gallery features both contemporary Chinese and European art and was most impressive. I had promised to show them my own art gallery in Second Life. While the software downloaded, they took me to a neighbourhood restaurant. This was the sort of place no businessman staying in a 5 star hotel would find. It was a Cantonese "hot pot" restaurant. A hot plate was sunk into the table on which cooked throughout the evening something that started as a kind of chicken broth but morphed (as more and more ingredients were added) into a never-ending succession of flavours. As we talked, the people of Shanghai enjoyed themselves around us in the most affable, sociable and (at one point) musical way.

We chatted. We exchanged life stories. I ended up sending my best regards to her father (whom of course I have never met) who seems to have been a convinced Maoist at about the same time as me. In a sense, he still is, as he will still hear nothing negative of the Great Helmsman. Nonetheless, he is apparently very happy with the present economic reforms.

Jokes and stories were told; food was enjoyed and the world seemed - briefly - a much better place. I was not able to show them my gallery afterwards because, while I can access Second Life from my hotel room, it cannot be entered from a Chinese home. You can ignore all my previous comments about accessibility of websites from China - the hotels frequented by foreigners are on a different network. This would be an issue for me if I were ever to move there. I would miss my digital existence.

GalleryTonight though, was not about barriers. It was a moment for a cynical, grumpy, middle-aged man to acknowledge that - while the arguments he may have with other grumpies of his vintage are important - the young are already building the world anew. As they do, every generation. As our generation did, so badly in many ways. Maybe they will get it right this time. Let's hope so. After all, who could have imagined such good things in our own time as the fall of the Soviet Union or the economic liberalisation of China? As a Cold War teenager, so many things have happened to me that I would have then regarded as ridiculously optimistic to hope for.

Hope is never foolish. Tonight reminded me of that. My new young friends are getting married on April 18th. Their cultural backgrounds are irrelevant. They are just two intelligent, cultured young people in love. I wish them well.

Second impressions of China

Dscn0946I am enjoying my visit to China. Unfortunately my ignorance of the language makes it difficult to escape the protective bubble in which I am living. The organisers of the conference I am attending bussed us to a way-too-cool for me night club last night. It will probably never recover its reputation after being taken over for an evening by real estate "suits".  I also had my first experience of being trapped by the Chinese language when they failed to provide transport back to the hotel. I could have found my way back to the hotel on foot, I guess. I could see it on the other side of a rather wide river. Or I could have swum the river. But I could more readily have performed heart surgery than obtained  a taxi home.

I didn't feel in any danger. I don't have that impression of Shanghai at all. My heart merely sank at the thought of a long walk home in the dark with the aid of an hotel concierge's freebie map.

Dscn0941Fortunately I had been chatting to a nice young bi-lingual American who provides commercial P.R. services to the Chinese Government.   I have always relied, dear reader, on the kindness of strangers. He placed the all-important call for me and gave instructions to the taxi driver who duly arrived.

While we were waiting, he performed similar services for a group of young expatriate ladies who had been invited to join a friend in the club, but could not get past the monoglot bouncer. When employers back home baulk at funding drivers for expatriate employees and their families, these are the sorts of thing they are failing to imagine.

I am dining in the hotel tonight rather than taking the river cruise. Sadly, I was engrossed in work and missed the bus. What a shame. There are few better ways of seeing most cities than from their river; London being a spectacular case in point.

I have not learned that much about the real estate business in China at my conference. I follow the industry press quite closely and have talked to clients who are active here. Frankly, I could have given most of the speeches myself. It's as well I didn't, however, as I always like to inject some humour and business is a deadly serious matter here. The occasional Brit who ventured a joke walked off to the sound of his own footsteps.

Chinese people are clearly not without humour. On Sunday I heard family groups uproariously enjoy themselves over food and drink. Last night I witnessed a strangely relentless enjoyment of dancing and music. In my 16 years abroad, I had already learned that few nations share the English compulsion not to "take themselves too seriously." Often, in fact, others take it as an invitation not to take us seriously either, though those who know us best (the French) will wincingly acknowledge what we are up to. An Austrian audience will smile politely if a Brit cracks a joke at a conference podium; even if they would never do it themselves. The assembled Chinese, Singaporeans etc. simply didn't react at all. Is this where the inscrutability myth comes from?

To be continued...

Dr Crippen is unwell

Link: NHS Blog Doctor: Dr Crippen is unwell.

How strange. At least one blogspot blog can be accessed from Shanghai. Is the Great Firewall breached, or do the censors favour NHS blogs?

The NHS Blog Doctor - Doctor Crippen - is feeling a little peeky today. Having lambasted the Taxpayers' Alliance for criticising the high pay of public servants - notably County Council Chief Executives - he researched the background of some of the highest paid such mandarins (presumably in order to find evidence that they were worth every penny). What did he find? The Chief Executive of Kent is a former nurse-quacktitioner. Regular readers of his blog will know precisely how highly Doctor Crippen rates those.

Delicious. All credit to the good doctor, however, for having the honesty to post about it.

UPDATE: Today it seems that all Blogspot blogs are accessible. Hmmm.