Posts Tagged ‘Middle Ages’

Radio 4 Programme on Science in the Dark Ages

November 15, 2017

Radio 4 are also broadcasting a programme next week, which intends to challenge the view that the Dark Ages were a period of intellectual decline with very little interest in science. The new series of Science Stories kicks off next Wednesday, 22nd November 2017, with ‘A Wold, a Goat and a Cabbage’. The blurb for this in the Radio Times on page 135 reads

Philip Ball looks at how the Dark Ages was a far more intellectually vibrant era than is often perceived-and the monk who was the prsumed author of mathematical puzzles.

I’ve written several pieces on this blog about how the Middle Ages in the West were a period of scientific and mathematical invention and discovery, far more so than is generally recognised. Scientists have been rediscovering and re-evaluating scientific progress in the Middle Ages science Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine. The previous view, which most people of my age were brought up with, that the Middle Ages were intellectually backward until the Humanists appeared in the Renaissance, has now been overturned.

James Hannam, a scientist of Christian faith, did a Ph.D. on medieval science about ten years ago, and his book, God’s Philosophers, shows how the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern Western science. These writers, who were largely Christian clergy, were very much aware of the faults of Aristotelian science. While they did not break with it, they did try to modify it so that it conformed more to what actually existed in nature, or offered a more intellectually plausible cause.

And rather than creating modern science, the Renaissance Humanists were actually a threat to its emergence. The Humanists insisted on a far more faithful return to the ideas as well as literary style of the great classical authors. Which meant a far more literal and dogmatic approach to Aristotle. In his Dialogue on the Two World Systems, Galileo spoofed the Humanists by making the character, who represented them, appear as stupid as possible. In one episode, a physician invites the Humanist to come to his house one evening and see him dissect a body. The physician intends to show him that it must be the brain, not the heart, that is the seat of intelligence. Pointing to the dissected corpse, the physician shows the far greater number of nerves passing into the brain, in contrast to the single, thin nerve running to the heart. This, he says, shows that the brain must be the centre of thought and reason. The Humanist replies that he would believe him, if the great Aristotle also agreed.

The Christian medieval authors were also aware of the debt they owed to the Arab and Muslim world for editions of classical works that had previously been lost to the West. One medieval poem describes how scholars headed to Toledo and other areas in Spain to consult the Arab scholars, who were masters of these new intellectual frontiers. One of the French chroniclers of the Crusades, either Joinville or Froissart, described how, during negotiations between King Louis and one of the Arab potentates, one of Louis’ nobles trod on his foot under the table. It was intended as a secret warning. The negotiations involved maths in some way, and the nobleman wanted to warn his liege to beware, as the ‘saracens’ were much better calculators than they were.

As for the reliability of science, the poem I quoted above also remarked of one scientific phenomenon, that its existence couldn’t be doubted as ‘it was proved by SCIENCE’.

Clearly, science and the investigation of the natural world was very much in its infancy in the Middle Ages, and ideas were subject to censorship if they conflicted with Christian dogma. But the Middle Ages were also a period of scientific investigation and were far more rationalistic than is often believed. For example, the theologian William of Auvergne, described the supposed appearance of a great of demons in one of the French monasteries. These devils proceeded down the corridor, until they disappeared into the privies, from which came a horrible stench. William was not surprised. He put visions like this down to poor digestion interfering with proper sleep. After too full a meal, the stomach hung heavy on the nerves, preventing the proper circulation of the humours and nervous fluids, and so creating nightmarish visions like the one above. Other writers seriously doubted the abilities of cunningmen and scryers to find lost or stolen objects. When they did claim that an article had been stolen by a particular person, it was far more likely that the individual was a known thief than that they had been shown it by the spirits.

I’ve been annoyed before now at the way the media has continued to present the Middle Ages as a period of dark superstition, with a few notable exceptions. One of these was Terry Gilliam and his TV series, Medieval Lives, which has appeared as a book, and his radio series, The Anti-Renaissance Show, both of which were broadcast by the Beeb. Now it seems that the Corporation is once more showing the other side of intellectual life in the Middle Ages.

Advertisements

‘Florence’ Suggests I should Compile a Book about British & American Support for Fascist Dictators

November 12, 2017

Yesterday I put up a piece commenting on a video from the Aussie left-wing blogger, Democratic Socialist. This showed the Tory media’s double standard in reviling Jeremy Corbyn as a supporter of terrorism, Iran, and an anti-Semite, when he is none of those things. But the hacks of the Telegraph definitely did not make those accusations against their Tory molten idol, Maggie Thatcher, when she by association supported all of the above through her friendship with General Pinochet.

Corbyn’s support for Iran was based on an interview he made to an Iranian group, the Mossadeq Project. Mohammed Mossadeq was the last, democratically elected prime minister of that ancient and extremely cultured nation. He was no theocrat, but a secular liberal. He was also a Baha’i, a post-Islamic, syncretistic faith which embraces human equality, including that of men and women. The Shi’a Muslim establishment have hated them since the faith first emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and there have been terrible pogroms against them. This hatred is not shared by all Iranian Muslims, and I have personally known Iranian Muslims, who are heartily sick of the way their Baha’i friends are treated.

Mossadeq’s crime was that he dared nationalise the Iranian oil industry, then dominated by the British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil, which became BP. This resulted in us and the Americans organising a coup, which toppled Mossadeq, and began the long process by which the Shah gradually assumed absolute power, ruling through terror and a secret police force, SAVAK.

‘Florence’, one of the many great commenters on this blog, commented

In the early 70s I volunteered to help type up translation transcriptions of reports from torture victims of the “Shit” of Iran, as Private eye called him. (It was as evidence for Amnesty.) Its not something you can ever forget. When the revolution happened, it was simply new bosses at the same slaughter houses. This is another lesson learned; the violence required by a state to terrorise its own people seeps into the culture, and remains for generations (maybe longer, its too early to tell in most of the cases you cover in this interesting and evocative piece). The violence of the state becomes symmetrical in the revolution in many countries, Iran, Iraq, etc. that follows such repression.

(For this reason I also worry that, for example, the almost visceral hatred of the disabled (and other poor) in the UK bred by the eugenics of neoliberalism for decades will not be so easily dislodged with a change in government. )

I see that the experience of having lived through those times is no longer part of the wider political education of the younger members of the left. In Labour the excesses of the neoliberals all but wiped out that generation and the links. I talk sometimes to our younger members in the Labour party and they are fascinated – but totally clueless. I do try to point them at this blog for this very reason. They are oblivious to who Pinochet was, why it mattered to us then and now, the refuge given to that butcher by Thatcher, the entire history of the Chicago school etc. The traditional passing in of this history, personal history too, through social groups in the Labour party has all but broken down.

As a suggestion, perhaps you could edit your blogs into a book we could use in discussion groups? You would help us be that collective memory board for the newer (not just younger) activists. It would help tease out the older members stories of their personal part in the struggles at home and abroad, but more than that your pieces on the collision of religious and political also show the rich complexities of life.

I am really honoured that my blog is so highly regarded and useful. While talking to Mike earlier today, I mentioned the idea to him. He was enthusiastic and supportive, making a few suggestions on how I should go about it. I told him I have had problems finding a mainstream publisher for some of my other books I have written. He suggested I should try Lulu again, and have the cover done by a professional artist. This would be a great help to actually selling the book, and he could put me in touch with some of the great comics artists he’s worked with.

I am therefore definitely going to look into this.

Now for the other points ‘Florence’ has raised in her comment.

As for the point about how a whole generation in the Left and the Labour party having an awareness and opposition to the various Fascist leaders run riot around the world thanks to British and American support as part of their political education, I think that’s how very many people got involved in politics. Private Eye covered these issues, as it still does, and there was the series of comedy reviews put on in support of Amnesty in the 1980s called The Secret Policeman’s Ball. These featured some of the greatest comedy talents of the day, such as the Pythons and the languid, caustic wit of Peter Cook. I don’t think you had to be particularly left-wing to be a fan, only a supporter of democracy and civil liberties. Very many of the other kids in my Sixth Form were into it, including those, who could be described as working-class Tories.

But come to think about it, we haven’t seen anything like that on our screens for many, many years. The series was becoming long and drawn out towards the end, but nevertheless there’s no reason something else like it, which could be launched. And I don’t doubt that there are young, angry, talented comedians out there, who are perfectly capable of stepping up to the mike and doing it.

And some of the absence of comment and criticism of the monsters, who ran amok across the globe thanks to British and American support does come from the victory of neoliberalism. Including its adoption by New Labour. Blair was an Atlanticist, and an alumni of the Reagan-founded British-American Project for the Successor Generation, or BAP for short. This was a group that trained up future British political leaders, sending them on free jaunts to the US, so that on return to Britain they would be enthusiastic supporters of the ‘Special Relationship’. And they did a superb job on Blair. Before he went on one jaunt, he was a supporter of unilateral disarmament. When he returned, after meeting the American nuclear lobby, he was fully on board with us supporting America’s siting of nukes in Britain, as well as our own, independent nuclear deterrent.

Much of the activism against these thugs came out, it seems to me, of the campaigns against the Vietnam War. This inspired the radical young people of the time to look more closely at what America and the West were doing in the Cold War, and the people we supported as the bulwark of ‘freedom’ – which really meant ‘capitalism’ and western big business – against the Soviets. And the brutal realities of Pinochet’s regime, and that of the Shah of Iran, and very many others, were extensively reported. Clive James in one of his TV reviews written for the Observer, acidly commented on an interview on British TV with some high level thug from the Shah’s Iran. This torturer was asked about the brutal methods of interrogation employed by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police. There was no problem, said the thug. They were improving all the time. Oh yes, commented James, or something similar.

Incidentally, an Iranian friend of mine told me had some experience of the activities of the Shah’s secret police himself. Back in Iran, he’d been a footie fan. But he noticed that several of his mates kept disappearing. He then found out that one of his friends was a snitch for the secret police, and had been informing on them. It’s when you hear these experiences from the people, who observed what was happening, that really begin to understand why so much of the world is less than enthusiastic about western imperialism. And why so many Iranians were taken in by that other thug, Khomeini. When he returned to Iran, he promised freedom to all Iranians. That didn’t last long, as it was back to normal with the rapists and torturers in Evin prison under his regime.

I was also part of a British medieval re-enactment group. One of the great peeps I met in that was an American chap, whose ancestry was South American. He was proud of his Incan heritage, and in America he’d been part of a similar group, that recreated the warrior traditions of this Andean people. He’d also been a translator for one of the human rights organisations, translating documents on abuses from Spanish.

There is indeed a whole generation out there, with personal experience of the dictatorship supported by the West, people whose wealth of knowledge and experience should be passed on.

But part of the problem is the supposed break with dictatorship and the entry of neoliberalism into the Labour party. The Fall of Communism was meant to be the End of History, as heralded by Francis Fukuyama. From now on, Western liberal democracy and capitalism would reign unchallenged. And with the threat of Communism gone, the Americans decided to cut their losses and move against the Fascist dictators they’d been propping up. Hence their ouster of General Noriega.

This gave the impression that the world was going to be nicely democratic, with the unspoken assumption that western, Euro-American culture would remain dominant and unchallenged.

But the old culture of lies, coups and regime change when the dominated countries in the developing world get too uppity is still there. As are the Cold Warriors. We didn’t invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to free its peoples. We invaded because the Neocons wanted their state industries for American multinationals, and the Saudi-American oil industry wanted their oil fields. And Israel wanted to stop Hussein from aiding the Palestinians. Human rights was just a convenient pretext. And it’s been like this for the last 14 years.

Just like we’re also being told lies about the situation in Ukraine. The Maidan Revolution was not spontaneous. It was staged by the CIA, National Endowment for Democracy, George Soros, and Victoria Nuland in Obama’s state department. It was to stop Ukraine becoming too close to Putin’s Russia. Ukraine has always had strong links to its eastern neighbour. Indeed, Kiev was one of the earliest and most powerful of the Russian states to emerge in the Middle Ages. Trying to sever the links between the two is similar, as someone put it, to Canada moving away from America to side with the Communist bloc.

But we aren’t being told any of that. Nor are we told that real, unreconstructed Nazis from the Pravy Sektor are in the ruling coalition, and that there is credible evidence that human rights abuses have been visited on the Russian minority and Russian speaking Ukrainians.

We are just being told that Putin is a thug – which is true – and that he’s ready to invade the former Soviet satellites. Which probably isn’t.

There is also a further problem, in that some of the countries, whose Fascist leaders Britain and America supported, are very remote. I’d guess that many people really wouldn’t be able to find them on a map, let alone know much about their history. And so we face the same problem the Czechs faced, when Chamberlain sacrificed their country to Hitler at Munich. They are faraway countries, of which we know nothing.

And this is a problem with British imperial history generally. Salman Rushdie once said that the British don’t know their own history, because so much of it happened abroad. This is true. British capitalism was stimulated through the colonisation of the West Indies, the slave trade and the sugar industry. How much is a matter of debate. Black and West Indian scholars have suggested that it was the prime stimulus behind the emergence of capitalism and the industrial revolution in Britain. Others have argued instead that it added only 5 per cent to the economy. But that it did have an effect is undeniable, especially on its colonised peoples. In the West Indies, this meant the virtual extermination of the indigenous Amerindian peoples and their replacement with enslaved Africans.

Well, the Empire has gone, and been replaced by the Commonwealth. But western domination of these countries’ economies still remains through the various tariff barriers that the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal called Neocolonialism. As well as the domination of their industries by western multinationals.

There are book available on the British Empire, some of them critical. Like John Newsinger’s The Blood Never Dried, and a recent book about the internment, torture and mutilation of the indigenous Kenyans during the Mao Mao crisis, Africa’s Secret Gulags. But the people, who appear on TV to talk about imperialism tend to be those on the right, like Niall Ferguson, who will admit that the British Empire was seriously flawed, but on balance did more good. Which might be true, but still glosses over some of the horrors we perpetrated.

And many of these are still kept from us. The public documents supporting the allegations of the victims of British torture in Kenya only came to light because they fought a long and hard battle in the British courts to get them released. I honestly don’t know what other nasty little secrets are being kept from us, in case it embarrasses senior ministers or industrialists.

So if you want to see the brutal reality behinds the West’s foreign policy, you have to read specialist magazines, many of them small press. Like Robin Ramsay’s Lobster, which has been going since the 1980s, and which is now online, and Counterpunch, an American radical magazine and website, which has been digging the sordid truth up about the American Empire and the rapacity of capitalism and the global elite. I also recommend William Blum’s The Anti-Empire Report, and his books, as well as Greg Palast’s dissection of the real reasons we invaded Iraq, Armed Madhouse.

More material on the rapacity of western imperialism is coming to light through the internet, and especially the emergence of alternative news sites. And there is a growing audience for it, as young and older people from across the world are brought together through international links. This isn’t just business, but also through the foreign students coming to Britain, as well as Brits living, working and studying elsewhere in the world.

The problem is getting it out there, and moving it from the sidelines so that it becomes a major topic that can be used to challenge our leaders and hold them to account, without being written off as ‘loony radical lefties’ spouting about things no-one else wants to know about or even hear. About other ‘faraway places, of which we know nothing’.

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.

History Book on Working Class Gardens

July 2, 2017

Gardening is one of Britain’s favourite pastimes, with programmes like Gardener’s World one of the long-running staples of BBC 2. The Beeb also devotes week-long coverage to the annual Chelsea Flower Show. A few years ago, one of the gardening programmes told a bit of the history behind popular gardening in Britain. It was deliberately started by the Victorians, with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves as the patrons, as a way of encouraging the labouring poor to be respectable. Among the other virtues gardening would foster in them was neatness, from what I remember of the programme.

Looking through a copy of the Oxbow Book Catalogue for autumn 2015, I found a blurb for a book, The Gardens of the Working Class, by Margaret Willes, published by Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300212358. The price of it in paperback was £12.99. The blurb ran

This magnificently illustrated people’s history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted and loved was not their own. Spanning more than four centuries, from the earliest records of the labouring classes in the country to today, Margaret Willes’ research unearths lush gardens nurtured outside rough workers’ cottages and horticultural miracles performed in blackened yards, and reveals the ingenious sometimes devious, methods employed by determined, obsessive, and eccentric workers to make their drab surroundings bloom. She also explores the stories of the great philanthropic industrialists who provided gardens for their workforces, the fashionable rich stealing the gardening ideas of the poor, alehouse syndicates and fierce rivalries between vegetable growers, flower-fanciers cultivating exotic blooms on their city windowsills, and the rich lore handed down from gardener to gardener through generations.

Garden history is taught in some universities in their archaeology departments, and the archaeology of gardens is also part of the wider field of landscape archaeology. Much of what is known about gardens in history comes from those of the rich, the great parks and gardens of royalty and the aristocracy, and the work of the great landscape gardeners like Inigo Jones and Capability Brown. They were also an important part of the lodges constructed by the medieval and early modern mercantile elite just outside town limits, to which they went at weekends to escape the cares of weekday, working life.

This book looks like it attempts to complete this picture, by showing that the working class were also keen gardeners. And its particularly interesting that the rich were nicking ideas from them.

Radio Programme Tonight on Bishop Grosseteste’s Medieval Big Bang Theory

June 14, 2017

Science Stories on Radio 4 tonight, `14th June 2017, at 9.00 pm is on ‘The Medieval Bishop’s Big Bang Theory’. According to the short description about it in the Radio Times, the programme’s presenter, ‘Philip Ball tells the tale of a medieval Big Bang Theory forged by Bishop Robert Grosseteste in the 12th century’.

Grosseteste was the 12th century bishop of Lincoln, and was one of the leading figures of the 12th century renaissance. As well as leading English churchman, Grosseteste was a pioneering natural philosopher. In his Hexaemeron, a theological and philosophical meditation on the first six days of creation, according to the story in Genesis, he worked out a theory that is surprisingly close to that of the modern ‘Big Bang’. In Genesis, the creation of the world begins when God separates the light from the darkness. Grosseteste believed that God had created the world beginning with a tiny point of light, which exploded outwards. Its expansion created ‘extension’, or space, and the material from which God subsequently created the material universe over the next five days.

A.C. Crombie, in his Science in the Middle Ages, Vol. 1: Augustine to Galileo (London: Mercury Books 1952) writes

The first important medieval writer to take up the study of optics was Grosseteste, and he set the direction for future developments. Grossetest gave particular importance to the study of optics because of his belief that light was the first ‘corporeal form’ of material things and was not only responsible for their dimensions in space but also was the first principle of motion and efficient causation. According to Grosseteste, all changes in the universe could be attributed ultimately to the activity of this fundamental corporeal form, and the action at a distance of one thing on another was brought about by the propagation of rays of force or, as he called it, the ‘multiplication of species’ or ‘virtue’. By this he meant the transmission of any form of efficient causality through a medium, the influence emanating from the source of the causality corresponding to a quality of the source, as, for instance, light emanated from a luminous body as a ‘species’ which multiplied itself from point to point through the medium in a movement that went in straight lines. All forms of efficient causality, as for instance, heat, astrological influence and mechanical action, Grosseteste held to be due to this propagation of ‘species’, though the most convenient form in which to study it5 was through visible light. (99-100).

This makes it sound very close to the modern theory that all the forces – gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces – were united at the Big Bang, and subsequently separated out from this primal Superforce.

Grosseteste was also one of the medieval writers, who first posited the Moon as the causes of the tides. The association between the Moon and the tides had first been made by the Stoic philosopher, Posidonius, who was born c. 135 BC. Crombie writes

Grossetest in the next century [following Giraldus Cambrensus in the 12th] attributed the tides to attraction by the moon’s ‘virtue’, which went in straight lines with its light. He said that the ebb and flow of the tides was caused by the moon drawing up from the sea floor mist, which pushed up the water when the moon was rising and was not yet strong enough to pull the mist through the water. When the moon had reached its highest point the mist was pulled through and the tide fell. The second, smaller monthly tide he attributed to lunar rays reflected from the crystalline sphere back to the opposite side of the earth, these being weaker than the direct rays. (126-7). It’s not quite right. The tides are simply caused by the Moon’s gravity acting on the oceans as a whole. Mist isn’t involved. Nevertheless, he was right in pointing to the Moon as the cause of the tides.

Which is more than can be said of Bill O’Reilly. Until recently, O’Reilly was the lead anchor on Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing news network over in America. The host of the ‘O’Reilly Factor’, he specialised in right-wing harangues which occasionally ended with him insulting and screaming at his guests if they dared to disagree with him. He did this to the son of one of the firefighters, who lost his life in 9/11. The lad committed the unpardonable offence of saying that his father would not have blamed all Muslims for the attack, and would not have wanted America to go to war over it. This was too much for the veteran newsman, who screamed at the lad that he was a disgrace to his father, and then had him thrown off the show.

He also showed himself massively ignorant scientifically in an interview with the head of American Atheists, the atheist movement, which I think was set up and headed for years by Madalain Murray O’Hair. Trying to refute whatever point the man was making, O’Reilly seized on the notion of the tides as something that was scientifically inexplicable. There are clips on Kyle Kulinski’s Secular Talk and other left-wing news programmes of O’Reilly repeating, ‘Tides go in, tides go out, you can’t explain it’. All the while the lad looks at O’Reilly with a bemused expression on his face, and simply comments, ‘Perhaps its the mighty Thor’. O’Reilly, however, didn’t get the hint that he was being justifiably mocked, and so simply carried on with his daft refrain.

O’Reilly’s comments and use of the tides shows that O’Reilly knew precious little science, and that Grosseteste had a better idea of what caused it 900 or so years ago, in an age when books had to be copied out by hand and western science was beginning the recovery of ancient Greek and Latin scientific and mathematical texts and learning from the great natural scientists and mathematicians of the Muslim world.

Given O’Reilly’s massive ignorance on something I can remember being discussed in some of the text books we had at school, it’s no wonder that American scientists, educationalists and the general public are seriously worried by Trump’s attack on science education in America, and particular in his attempts to cover up climate change.

As for O’Reilly, he was sacked from Fox News a few months ago after his sordid and vile attitude towards women finally caught up with him. Like the head of the network, Roger Ailes, O’Reilly used his position to try to exploit women sexually. In the early part of this century he was forced to settle a case brought against him by a female colleague to whom O’Reilly had made an uninvited and very unwelcome sexually explicit phone call. This was followed by a series of allegations by other female journalists at Fox News of sexual harassment. This got to the point where the advertisers on the network got fed up, and started taking their custom elsewhere, at which point the veteran reporter lost his job.

Bishop Grosseteste, however, remains one of great figures in the history of western science. While many scientists would not share his religious beliefs, and would question the grounding of his scientific views in them, he is nevertheless important as one of the leading medieval scientists, who contributed to the foundation of modern science through his study of optics, mathematics and the natural world.

TYT Politics on the Historic Unitarian Church Determined to Defend Trump’s Victims

November 17, 2016

This is really heartening. In this video, The Young Turks’ Eric Byler interviews the Rev. Dr. Robert Hardies, the minister of All Souls Unitarian church in Washington DC, on his determination to offer his church as sanctuary to all the groups, who are going to be attacked by Trump now he’s in office – the gays, Latinos, Muslims, Blacks and others. There’s footage of the reverend gentleman preaching, in which he talks about how God, before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, were told to set up cities of refuge, to which persecuted individuals could flee. He describes how in the Middle Ages the church also offered sanctuary for those fleeing secular justice, and so his decision to make his church protect those now threatened with persecution from Trump is part of this tradition. He also talks about his historic church’s own individual tradition of sounding its bell during times of national crisis and celebration, including the ending of the American Civil War.

The Turks, in their blurb for this video, state:

“This congregation will provide sanctuary to all who are vulnerable and oppressed by the incoming administration.”

Rev. Dr. Robert M. Hardies, addressed his congregation at the historic All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington DC on the Sunday following the election of Donald J. Trump to be the United States’ 45th president. TYT reporter Eric Byler ( http://Twitter.com/EricByler ) sat down with Rev. Hardies, who is one of the nation’s most respected gay ministers as well as a leader in the national fight for racial justice, to ask whether his advice to his church would be the same he would offer to the nation. Hardies spoke both of reconciliation and resolve to fight injustice and defend the oppressed.

Our response to a comment saying churches should stay out of politics:

“The reality is we are going to be governed either by (a) corporatists plus religious people blinded by partisanship and “white racial identity” or (b) corporatists and people of conscience and compassion whether their inspiration be secular or nonsecular. One of these two coalitions will govern us better. It won’t harm anything to learn about, and have dialogue with religious communities, and, perhaps even learn how to tell the difference.” — @EricByler

Our response to comments from viewers marvelling at the existence of progessive people of faith:

“There have always been progressive and regressive churches. As the abolitionist movement began to take root, circa 1830, many of the churches split over slavery. This is why we have Southern Methodist vs. Methodist, Southern Baptist vs. Baptist, for instance Other churches, like the one seen in this report, were formed for the PURPOSE of fighting slavery and other forms of oppression. The reason why we are SO MUCH MORE familiar with regressive churches in today’s America is that plutocratic interests have worked very hard to annex the churches as amplifiers of their political agendas. They did so in the 1830’s (slave owners) and they did so in the 1970’s and 1980’s (white nationalist corporatists), both times with great success. The progressive churches have continued to exist, but they have not been put in the lime light of corporate media, with the intermittent exception of progressive Black churches, especially during the Civil Rights movement. But they do exist. Two of the best known progressive evangelicals are Rev. Dr. William Barber (whom you probably know) and Rev. Jim Wallis ( http://Twitter.com/jimwallis ) Here is info on Wallis: https://sojo.net/biography/jim-wallis

Their comment about the greater attention given to the regressive churches due to their annexation by the plutocracy is exactly right. A few years ago, a pair of sociologists published a book The Truth About Evangelical Christians, which presented the real picture of the nature of American theologically conservative Christians. They found that, in contrast to the picture presented by the Televangelists like Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson and his appalling 700 Hundred Club and the rest of the religious Right, about half, or over half of American Evangelicals were actually left-wing. In fact, many were even further left than American Roman Catholics.

This is part of submerged, left-wing America, the America of the unseen, ignored masses of liberals and progressives, coming together to challenge the quasi-Fascist beast now squatting in the White House. It’s part of the movement that saw Americans in cities across the US get on to the streets to march together against Trump’s election, and the political and corporate corruption that put him there. Amen to all this.

West World and the Original Robots of R.U.R.

October 23, 2016

A few weeks ago H.B.O. launched the latest SF blockbuster show, West World. It’s a TV series based on the 1970s film of the same name, written by Michael Crichton. Like Crichton’s Jurassic Park nearly twenty years or so later, West World is about a fantasy amusement, presided over by a sinister inventor played by Anthony Hopkins, the man who scared audiences witless as the cannibalistic murderer Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs and its sequel, Hannibal. While Jurassic Park was about scientific attempts to recreate the dinosaurs for popular amusement, in West World the amusement park was a resort which attempted to recreate past eras for fun. This included the Middle Ages, and a section devoted to the old West. Like Jurassic Park, things go disastrously wrong. A computer malfunction makes the robots break the inbuilt restrictions on their behaviour, so that they gain autonomy and independence. In the medieval part of the resort, a man, who is used to getting his way with the female androids has his advances rebuffed with the curt answer, ‘Methinks Sir forgets himself’. But the real action of the story is the attempts by the movie’s hero over in the West World part of the resort to overcome the black-garbed, robot gunfighter, played by Yul Brynner. Like Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films, the gunslinger is an implacable, unstoppable killing machine, and the hero has to destroy it before it kills him, just like it gunned down his friend.

The TV series has adapted and altered the story. The gunman is now human, rather than robotic, and the focus seems to have shifted more to the robots than the humans. They are the victims of the humans enjoying the resort, who come to act out terrible fantasies of rape and killing that they would never dare consider doing in the real world to other human beings. The robot hosts they use – and abuse – are repaired and have their memories wiped ready for the next set of visitors to do the same, all over again. But attempts to give the machines consciousness have had an effect. The machines are beginning to remember. The press releases to the series state that its premise is not about machines developing consciousness and intelligence, but what they will make of us when they do.

The artificial humans in West World are less robots in the sense of mechanical people, than artificial humans. The titles show artificial tendons and muscles being placed on synthetic skeletons by robotic arms in a more developed version of 3D printing.

This conception of artificial humans shows the influence of Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film changed Dick’s androids to ‘replicants’, artificial men and women created through sophisticated genetic engineering for use as slave soldiers and sex workers. Produced by the Tyrell Corporation under the slogan ‘More Human Than Human’, these genetic constructs have a desire for freedom and longevity. In order to stop them overthrowing humanity, they only have a lifespan of six years or so. They are also becoming increasingly sophisticated psychologically and emotionally. In the book and film, they can only be distinguished from natural people through the Voight-Comp Test. This is a complex psychological test in which the subjects have to answer a series of questions. Part of this is to measure their capacity for empathy. Replicants generally are unable to sympathise or understand others’ suffering. The test asks those undergoing its questions to imagine their in a desert. They see a tortoise lying on its back, dying in the hot sun. The animal is clearly in pain and dying, but they don’t help it. Why not? At the end of the movie, Deckard, the film’s hero, a Blade Runner – the special policemen charged with catching and ‘retiring’ replicants that have made it down to Earth, is in serious danger. In his battle with Roy Batty, the replicants’ leader and now their only survivor after he has tracked them all down, Deckard has failed to make a jump across two of the buried skyscrapers underneath the sprawling future LA. He is hanging from a girder, about to fall to his death. Until Batty, before his own programmed obsolescence kills him, pulls him to safety. Batty has developed genuine sympathy for another stricken creature. He has triumphantly passed the Voight-Comp test, and shown more humanity than the humans who made him and who enslave his kind.

It’s a very old theme, which goes all the way back to one of the very first Science Fiction plays, if not the very first SF play, to deal with a robot revolt, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Written by the Czech playwright Karel Capek, this was the play that introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. The word comes from the Czech for ‘serf’ or ‘slave’. It’s set in a company producing these artificial people, which are used for everything from factory workers to domestic servants. They have also been stripped of complex emotional responses to make them suitable servants. But as with the synthetic hosts of West World, this is breaking down. Instead of simply performing their tasks, the robots are increasingly stopping and refusing to work. They simply stand there, grinding their teeth. Eventually their growing dissatisfaction turns from simple recalcitrance to outright revolt. The machines rebel, exterminating humanity and leaving the company’s accountant, Alquist, as the only survivor.

Like Blade Runner’s replicants and the synthetic hosts of West World, Capek’s robots were not machine so much as creatures produced through a kind of artificial biology. In the first act, the company’s general manager, Domain, explains the origins of the robots in the biological researches of the biologist, Rossum, to Helena Glory, the daughter of an Oxbridge prof.

‘It was in the year 1922’, informs Domain, ‘that old Rossum the great physiologist, who was then quite a young scientist, betook himself to this distant island for the purpose of studying the ocean fauna, full stop. On this occasion he attempted by chemical synthesis to imitate the living matter known as protoplasm, until he suddenly discovered a substance which behaved exactly like living matter, although its chemical composition was different; that was in the year 1932, exactly four hundred years after the discovery of America, whew!’ (The Brothers Capek, R.U.R. and The Insect Play(Oxford: OUP 1961) p. 5). Later Domain tells Helena a little about the industrial processes in which the robots are manufactured:

Domain: … Midday. The Robots don’t know when to stop work. In two hours I’ll show you the kneading-trough.

Helena: What kneading-trough?

Domain. [Dryly] The pestles and mortar as it were for beating up the paste. In each one we mix the ingredients for a thousand Robots at one operation. Then there are the vats for the preparation of liver, brains, and so on. They you’ll see the bone factory. After that I’ll show you the spinning-mill.

Helena: What spinning-mill?

Domain: For weaving nerves and veins. Miles and miles of digestive tubes pass through it at a stretch. Then there’s the fitting shed, where all the parts are put together, like motor-cars. Next comes the drying-kiln and the warehouse in which the new products work. (p. 15).

Like Blade Runner, the robots of R.U.R. end by becoming human emotionally. Just as the replicants in Blade Runner have a severely limited lifetime, so Capek’s Robots, as beings created purely for work, are sterile. After their victory, they approach Alquist requesting that more of them be created as their numbers of falling. Despite their entreaties, Alquist can’t. He is not a scientist, and the last of the company’s management destroyed the manuscript describing how they were made before they themselves were killed. Radius, the leader of the robots, requests Alquist to find out by dissecting living robots. When Primus, one of the male robots, and Helena, a female robot, each defend the other, refusing to let Alquist take them for experimentation, the old accountant realises that the mystery of their reproduction has been solved. The play ends with him reciting the text of Genesis describing God’s creation of Man. The last lines are him reciting the Nunc Dimissit : ‘Now, Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy will, for mine eye have seen Thy salvation.’

This last marks the major difference between R.U.R. and modern treatments of the rise of robots and their possible replacement of humanity: R.U.R. is explicitly Christian in its underlying tone. It’s stated very clearly that Rossum was a militant atheist, who wanted to play God in order to show that God is unnecessary for the emergence of life. The ending, however, is ambiguous. Rossum was an anti-theist, but his artificial creations, which are based on a chemistry not found in nature, clearly work, and in turn become genuine, self-perpetuating, authentic men and women with intelligence, emotions and morality.

Some critics have said that R.U.R. really isn’t SF so much as a technological parable about the threat of Communism. It was written in 1920, a few years after the Russian Revolution and similar outbreaks of working class militancy across Europe, including Germany, Austria and Hungary. But other works, that are undoubtedly considered Science Fiction, are also veiled comments on events and issues of the time. Much of the SF of the former Soviet Union, like that of the Strugatsky brothers, who wrote the classic Stalker, was written in the ‘Aesopian Mode’. They were intended as parables to say in veiled form truths and comments that could not be overtly made under Soviet censorship.

And the conception of robots as a form of genuine artificial life does seem to be based on some of the scientific speculation of the time. Russian scientists, such as Oparin, were acutely interested in the emergence of life on the prehistoric Earth, and devised several experiments to suggest how the chemicals necessary for life may have been formed. And the Communists, as militant atheists, were keen supporters of Darwinian evolution, though I think they viewed it as proceeding through a form of dialectal materialism, and so bearing that theory out, rather than some of the more sophisticated, non-Marxist conceptions that have occurred later. Russian Cosmists, like the Transhumanists today, wished to develop scientific methods of resurrecting the dead and then colonising space as a suitable habitat for the new, perfected humanity.

Furthermore, some experiments and speculation in robotics has moved away from simple, mechanical processes. Human muscles operate biochemically. Messages from nerves changes the shape of the molecules composing muscles, which in turn makes those same muscles contract or expand, moving the organism’s limbs. Some scientists have therefore worked on trying to mimic this process of movement using artificial substances, rather than existing electrical or petrol-driven motors. This brings the construction of robots very close the type of 3D printing shown in West World’s titles.

My own feeling is that it will be a very long time, if ever, before humanity produces anything like the sentient robots of SF. As I mentioned in my previous article, one of the scientists interviewed by the science magazine, Frontiers, in 1998 stated that he didn’t think we’d see genuinely conscious, intelligent robots in his lifetime. Anthony Hopkins in an interview in this week’s Radio Times makes the same point, stating that we haven’t created anything as simply as a single cell. This does not mean that humanity won’t, or detract from stories about robots as entertainment, or as the means by which philosophical issues about creation, the nature of life and humanity, consciousness and intelligence, can be explored. West World in this sense is part of a trend in recent screen SF attempting to explore these issues intelligently, such as Automata and The Machine. These new treatments are far more secular, but as philosophical treatments of the underlying issues, rather than simple stories about warfare between humanity and its creations, like the Terminator, they also follow in a long line that goes all the way back to Capek.

Lobster Review of John Strafford’s Book on Un-Democratic Britain

September 24, 2016

Anthony Frewin wrote a review of a fascinating political history in Lobster 59. This was Our Fight for Democracy: A History of Democracy in the United Kingdom, by John Strafford, and published by the author. A history of the development of democracy in Britain from the Romans and Anglo-Saxons onwards, Frewin praised the book for its readability and the fact that it was able to say something new in area which has been extensively covered by other historians. For example, unlike the conventional Whig narrative, which sees the emergence of democracy and representative government as a smooth progress from the middle ages to today, Strafford is quite clear that not only was this process not inevitable, it had to be actively fought for. Frewin quotes him in an introductory chapter as saying that ‘riot and revolution are the mother and father of democracy’ and ‘Our history shows that nearly all the advances towards democracy were accompanied by violence.’ He notes that Strafford’s is a critical history, and so does not automatically greet the great milestones in the development of democracy, like Magna Carta, the Great Reform Act and votes for women with uncritical admiration. And the book also contains much information on how un- and indeed anti-democratic political structures and institutions have survived into the present day.

Like the business vote. Under the old political system, business leaders were also granted a number of extra votes in local elections. This was not abolished with the Great Reform Act of 1833, but survived for another 136 years before finally being removed in 1969 from all of Britain with one exception: the City of London. Indeed, 14 years ago in 2002 16,000 new business votes were created.
Strafford states that the justification for non-resident voting in the centre of the metropolis is that the real population of the City is the 45,000 people who just work there in the daytime, and not just the mere 9,500 who permanently live there. A Private Act of Parliament passed the same year doubled the number of voters to 32,000. The actual captains of industry don’t even have to vote personally. They can nominate employees to do so, and the number of votes businesses receive depends on their size. He makes the point that wealth shouldn’t be allowed to buy votes, and that non-residents of the City of London should be deprived of the franchise in the City. If that means that the City’s electorate then becomes too small to be practical, the City should either be amalgamated with another borough or split up.

Lobster is profoundly Eurosceptic, and so Frewin’s reviews discusses the sheer absence of anything like democracy in the European parliament, where the MEPs’ power is severely limited and the Union governed instead by the unelected commissioners. An example of this complete absence of democracy is the career of Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who rose spectacularly from relative obscurity to become British High Commissioner in Brussels through appointment by Tony Blair and others, without once going through an election. This is an example of the way the government has increasingly adopted the practice of co-opting outsiders. One example of this was Gordon Brown’s elevation to the peerage of ten such people, who became government ministers. These included three businessmen, a surgeon, a former head of the RN, and an ex-diplomat. Frewin also makes the point that this also exemplifies the rise of Yes-men and -women, whose government preferment depends on political patronage.

The review also states that Strafford gives a list of 69 recommendations for reforms that would make the country more democratic, and includes a sample. These are:

1: Power should be devolved from central government and the higher levels of local government to the lowest practical level.
2: For all electoral purposes the City of London should be
amalgamated with the City of Westminster.
3: The Regional Development Agencies should be abolished and their functions transferred to local Councils.
10: The oath of allegiance should either be abolished or it should be changed to ‘I swear that I will bear true allegiance to the people, Parliament and democracy according to law.’
14: The whole House of Commons should elect Select Committee chairmen by secret ballot, thus ending de facto appointment of chairmen by the party whips.
18: The people should directly elect the Prime Minister. He could be removed by majorities in both Houses of Parliament or by referendum.
25: Our entire legal system should be disentangled from the nonsense that justice is dispensed in the name of the Queen. It should be dispensed in the name of the people.
28: The people should directly elect the House of Lords.
31: The European Council of Ministers should meet in public.
32: The European Scrutiny Committee of the House of
Commons should meet in public.
39: Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party should reform themselves to become democratic bodies answerable to their membership so that members can change the Constitution of their party on the basis of One Member One
Vote.
46: Party Political Broadcasts (PPBs) should be abolished.
59: Within one month of the monarch’s death a ballot should be held of all the people to endorse the successor. Should such endorsement not be given a ballot should be held on the successor’s eldest child becoming monarch. Should
endorsement once again not be forthcoming the monarchy
would be abolished.

Frewin comments ‘Some pretty radical proposals here.’ Yes, indeed. We’ve seen how bitterly anti-democratic the Blairites in the Labour party have been about letting the membership vote in radical leaders and changes in policy that they dislike with their purges of the membership and constant campaigning against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

One of the fascinating features of the book is that Strafford himself is not a left-winger. He founded a campaigning group in the Tories, the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, who have a website at http://www.copov.org.uk/. He was also one of those marching against the Iraq invasion, where he and his wife held a banner, ‘Conservatives Against the War’.

The review is at the magazine’s website on their books pages. This is at http://www.lobster-magazine.co.uk. Pick the issue from the selection at the page, and then scroll down till you get to the relevant review. This also provides the details how you can order the book from Strafford himself.

Vox Political on Clem Atlee’s Great Nephew’s Suspension for Satirical Cameron Meme

September 15, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political has posted a piece commenting on the real reason behind the suspension of John MacDonald, Clement Atlee’s great-nephew, by the ‘Compliance Unit’. They told MacDonald that he’d been suspended because of a piece he put up on the 8th August. The trouble is, he hadn’t put up any post on social media on the 8th of August this year. He had, however, posted up a piece on the 9th, with Cath Atlee, urging everyone to vote for Corbyn as the only surviving relatives of Labour’s greatest prime minister, and one of the very greatest premiers this country has ever produced.

Now it appears that the real reason Mr MacDonald was purged was because of a meme he put up of Cameron as Adolf Hitler, along with a quote from the Fuhrer stating that the way you deprive a people of their freedoms is to take it away a little at a time, so that they don’t know you’re doing it. The New Labour apparatchiks in the Compliance Unit claimed that the meme was ‘abusive’. Mike puts them right by showing that it isn’t. It’s satire. It makes a very strong point, but in a humorous manner. He also points out that it doesn’t attack other members of the Labour party, and that the Tories are fair game for such comments, otherwise noted enemies of the Tories, like Dennis Skinner, would have been purged a long time ago. He also points out that rummaging around social media to support punishing someone for breaking a rule that is only a month old is insupportable. Mike concludes

The best outcome Labour’s NEC – in charge of the ‘compliance unit’ – can hope for is to restore Mr Macdonald’s vote to the count and issue an apology so grovelingly abject that we’ll all become so distracted by it that we won’t remember what it’s for. Good luck with that, folks!

Meanwhile, the rest of us can look forward to the day – not far away – when an inquiry is launched into the activities of this ‘compliance unit’, and action taken over the behaviour of its absurdly-overpaid members.

The article can be read at: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/09/14/suspension-of-attlees-nephew-proves-labours-compliance-team-does-not-understand-satire/

There’s a lot more that can be said about this. Firstly, the meme makes a fair point. It isn’t abusive. If you want a real example of abuse, one of the instances that comes to mind was way back when William Hague was leader of the Tory party, and one of the Labour MPs sneered at him and compared him to a fetus. This shocked many people, and the MP had to apology. That’s abuse.

But Cameron has taken away people’s freedoms, gradually, all the while claiming to be protecting democracy, in a manner very much like that recommended by Hitler. Cameron and Nick Clegg passed legislation providing for secret courts from which the press and public are excluded in cases involving national security. In these cases, the accused may not know who his accuser is, or the evidence on which he is being tried, nor even what his crime is. These are all breaches of the fundamental principles of justice laid down in Magna Carta. Even in the Middle Ages, a criminal could only be tried if someone actually stood up in open court to accuse them. There were known malefactors, who the sheriffs, as the crown’s administrator and agent in the shires, had to arrest. Once they had them under lock and key in their dungeons, they then frequently appealed to a member of the public to accuse them of a crime so that they could be properly tried. It’s a peculiar situation when the Middle Ages starts to appear far more just than a piece of modern legislation passed by a supposedly democratic regime.

On a related point, one of the fundament principles of justice is that legislation cannot act retrospectively. You cannot arrest someone for doing something before it was made a crime. But this is what the Compliance Unit have done in this case, as in so many others. As Mike has pointed out.

Cameron, as part of the Tories’ ongoing attempts to destroy the unions, also wanted to pass legislation compelling strikers on a picket line to give their names to the rozzers. This was condemned as ‘Francoist’ by David Davis, one of the most right-wing of the Tories. Not that it’s particularly different from legislation the Tories briefly passed to stop strike action in the 1970s. Ted Heath also passed a law that would have banned strikes and seen wage claims passed to an industrial court. This was similar to legislation proposed a few years earlier by Barbara Castle in her paper, In Place of Strife. Heath went further, however, and included a clause, that would have allowed the authorities to identify who was responsible for calling the strike. As for the system of labour courts, that was introduced by Mussolini as part of his ‘Charter of Labour’ in Fascist Italy. The revival of similar legislation in supposedly democratic Britain convinced many political theorists that we were seeing the appearance of ‘Fascism with a human face’. That meant, Fascism without the strutting militarism and brutality of the archetypal right-wing dictatorships.

And Cameron was also very keen on expanding state surveillance, to keep us all safe from Muslim terrorists, or whoever. Again, very similar to the massive secret police and surveillance in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Franco’s Spain. Nazi Germany justified itself constitutionally as a response to political crisis, such as the attack on Germany by leftists in acts like the Reichstag fire. Every four years or so, Adolf Hitler had to go back to the Reichstag and pass a law stating that the crisis was not over, thus allowing him the constitutional power to go on ruling without the Reichstag for another four years. Again, like Cameron, the Fascist leaders claimed they were doing so to protect the public.

So the meme, while undoubtedly emotive, was perfectly justified. Cameron was, and Theresa May is, extremely authoritarian, and determined to chip away hard-won British freedoms in the manner described by Adolf. He’s also like another Nazi in his former profession. Cameron worked in PR, a profession not known for objective truth. Goebbels, Hitler’s ‘Minister for Public Enlightenment’ was a former adman, if I recall correctly.

The meme’s fair comment. Also, it’s pretty much to be expected that a politician, who is perceived to be dictatorial will be compared to Adolf Hitler. Just like they were compared to Napoleon before he arose. Such comparisons are so common, that unless they’re very unfair and say something monstrously untrue, they’re hardly worth censure. Those who do tend to make themselves look ridiculous, and furthermore seem to bear out the comparison.

And Mike’s right about other members of the Labour party having made similar comparisons. The classic example of such invective was Nye Bevan’s comment that ‘Tories are vermin’. It’s been used against the Labour party from time to time ever since. But that didn’t mean that Bevan didn’t have a right to say it. Bevan was Welsh coalminer, when there was grinding poverty in the Welsh coalfields. The Conservative government under Baldwin called in the British army to shoot strikers during one of the disputes in the 1920s. It might even have been during the 1926 General Strike. Accounts of the strike say that many of the miners were dressed in rags. In a situation like that, when men, who are starving are being shot down for daring to demand a higher wage, Bevan had an absolute right to hate the party that impoverished and killed them with all the venom that he did. Especially as the Tories in the First World War had demanded legislation that, in the words of one right-wing, would allow them to beat the unions like jelly.

I also wonder why the Compliance Unit should be so upset about a meme attacking David Cameron. Surely any decent opposition party should be attacking Cameron’s government for its assault on precious British freedoms. But not so those Blairites in the Compliance Unit. Perhaps they’re afraid it’ll bring back memories of similar legislation, also providing for secret courts, introduced by Blair and Jack Straw. Or perhaps they’re afraid it’ll offend all the Tory voters, whose votes they hope to steal by copying everything the Tories do, but promising New Labour will do it all better.

Either way, Mike’s right. It’s time the Compliance Unit and its bloated apparatchiks were wound up and investigated for their role in disrupting Labour party democracy and bringing the party into disrepute.

George Galloway on Nicky Campbell’s Show: Everything Ken Livingstone Said Was True

August 24, 2016

I’ve put up several pieces this week from YouTube of George Galloway speaking. As I’ve said, I’m not a fan, but I do believe that he is right about many of the issues he discusses. And he’s absolutely right about the Iraq War. This is a clip of him talking to Nicky Campbell on the Radio about Ken Livingstone, Naz Shah and the anti-Semitism allegations.

In answer to Campbell’s question, Galloway explains the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Anti-Semitism, as he explains, is something of a misnomer, as the Palestinians are also Semites. It is hatred of the Jews as Jews. He points out that it has a long history, going back to the Middle Ages, and has resulted in pogroms, persecution and the Holocaust, which he declares to be the most terrible crime against humanity. Anti-Zionism is simply opposition to the state of Israel.

He answers a question from a Jewish caller from Liverpool, who states that as a Zionist, he has no problem criticising Israel for its crimes, but wonders why Galloway doesn’t criticise the Palestinians, such as Hamas, for the terrorism they commit. Galloway states that he is not just opposed to the state of Israel, but also to all the artificial countries created exactly 100 years ago in the Middle East by the Picot-Sykes agreement. He also makes the point that no system has a right to exist. Communism did not have a right to exist. To oppose Communism did not mean that you hated Russians. Rather, the anti-Communists stated that they wanted to liberate Russians.

He states that everything Ken Livingstone said about the Nazis and the Zionists was correct. There was an agreement between Hitler and the Zionist leaders to have Jews shipped to the emerging state of Israel. This was the Haavara agreement. This was because both the Zionists and Nazis believed that Jews were not Europeans: German Jews were not Germans, French Jews not French, and so on. It was ridiculous that Ken Livingstone should have been suspended for speaking the truth.

When asked about Naz Shah and her comments, he says that it was foolish, but it was a stupid, teenage joke she posted on Facebook months before she became an MP. On the other hand, the 800,000 people ‘displaced’ she mentioned, did not only occur on Facebook. They were real people, forced out of their homes.

Campbell asks about Ken Livingstone’s apparent obsession with the Second World War, the Jews, the Nazis and the Holocaust. Galloway states that he’s also been accused of anti-Semitism, and suspended from the Labour party, although that was under a different leader. He says Livingstone’s older than him, and he would not have mentioned the Nazis. But it’s because the Second World War and its legacy was a larger issue to people of Livingstone’s generation than his.

Galloway here is right, though I don’t think he convincingly answered the Liverpudlian caller’s question about his refusal to condemn Palestinian terrorism. As for Livingstone’s apparent obsession with the Nazis, I think this is part of the background of veteran Socialist of a certain age. Red Ken was head of the GLC in the 1980s, when racism was just becoming a real issue and many of the accepted attitudes towards race were being challenged. It was also a period when the National Front was active and very much carrying out attacks on non-Whites, Jews and Leftists. It was also a period dominated by the Second World War. Many of the films in the ’70s were war films, there were a number of comics and comic strips set in the Second World War, such as Battle, ‘Hellmann of Hammerforce’ in Action, Warlord and so on. It was also in the ’80s that the groundbreaking documentary, The World at War, was broadcast. For the anti-racist Left, the threat of Fascism was very real, and the Holocaust was the most horrific case of genocide, a terrible example of the horrific carnage racism can lead to.