24 September 2016

Poverty and servants in The Railway Children

In Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, when the family becomes worse off and leaves their salubrious house in a London suburb, the life which they are leaving behind is referred to as a ‘pretty’ life.
You will think that they ought to have been very happy. And so they were, but they did not know how happy till the pretty life in the Red Villa was over and done with [...]
This may seem to imply that nothing serious had been lost. Having servants mattered, not because the family needed things to be done for them, but because there was an aesthetic advantage to being surrounded by women in pastel-coloured uniforms.

In fact, the losses included those of a spacious and well-appointed house, several servants, and (no doubt) social interactions with wealthy neighbours.

The children presumably lost attendance at private schools. There was apparently no suggestion that they should attend state-funded schools instead.

At that time, far less importance was attached to ‘schooling’ than there is now. The railway children went to live in the country and did not go to school at all. Their mother gave them lessons at home.

But at that time (c. 1905) even a family such as theirs, which had come seriously down in the world, still had a full-time (though not a live-in) cook-housekeeper in their relatively primitive country cottage.

Times have changed since The Railway Children was written. Nowadays there is a strong feeling that everyone must go to school, and that nobody should have servants.

* E. Nesbit, The Railway Children, 1906, Chapter I.

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29 July 2016

Revolutionaries at the BBC

Bush House in London
Paul Kriwaczek’s book In Search of Zarathustra, about the prophet Zoroaster, refers to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and to the role of the BBC’s World Service in the machinations which led up to it.

This is his description of the goings-on at Bush House, where the World Service was then located.
In the early 1970s, Bush House, the headquarters of the BBC External Services in London’s Strand, was a very unusual place. Developed, designed and decorated by Americans and dedicated to the ‘friendship of the English-speaking peoples’, its imposing pillared portico sheltered dozens of groups of intelligent, articulate, often politically motivated expatriates and refugees from positively non-English-speaking peoples, who sat before the microphones of the BBC, representing to the world in dozens of languages the face of British post-colonial even-handedness and fair play.

At the same time, and in the same serious spirit, many plotted and planned among themselves the confusion, if not the outright overthrow, of their governments. It was said that no other building on earth housed as large a number of would-be — and actual — revolutionaries and insurrectionists at the same time. Meeting in the canteen, and debating and arguing for hour upon hour, day after day, they often seemed to be balanced just on the edge of action. Eventually plucking up the courage to jump after many false starts, they mostly came to a sad end. *
The extract may be taken to illustrate how the BBC (at least parts of it) has for many decades been promoting socialism as the preferred ideology.

* In Search of Zarathustra, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2002, p.9

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17 July 2016

H.G. Wells, Hayek and the ‘rights of man’

H.G. Wells included a ‘Declaration on the Rights of Man’ in his book The New World Order, published in 1940. This contains, for example, the assertion that every man
shall have the right to buy or sell without any discriminatory restrictions anything which may be lawfully bought or sold, in such quantities and with such reservations as are compatible with the common welfare. *
As Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, a ‘right’ of this kind, limited to what is lawful and compatible with the ‘common welfare’, does not amount to much.
It is pathetic, but characteristic of the muddle into which many of our intellectuals have been led by the conflicting ideals in which they believe, that a leading advocate of the most comprehensive central planning like Mr. H. G. Wells should at the same time write an ardent defence of the Rights of Man.

The individual rights which Mr. Wells hopes to preserve would inevitably obstruct the planning which he desires. [...] we find therefore the provisions of his proposed ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ so hedged about with qualifications that they lose all significance. **

* H.G. Wells, The New World Order, Secker & Warburg 1940, chapter 10.
** F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, Ark Books 1986, p.63.

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10 July 2016

Merlin and the servant problem

In C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the druid Merlin, having been woken from over a thousand years of suspended animation, is talking to the Director of a community of people, and commenting on the hospitality he has received in their house, and on the way the Director lives.
‘Sir’, said Merlin in answer to the question which the Director had just asked him. ‘I give you great thanks. I cannot indeed understand the way you live and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it; a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal [...] but I lie in it alone with no more honour than a prisoner in a dungeon. [...]

You seem to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit.’ *
Merlin’s comments may have been Lewis’s oblique way of referring to the modern intellectual’s difficulty of finding people willing to save him from having to do everything for himself — already a significant issue in 1945 when That Hideous Strength was published.

* C.S. Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy, Bodley Head 1989, p.649.

10 March 2016

Taxation and freedom

Herbert Spencer on the idea that tax erodes freedom, from his Principles of Ethics:
Money taken from the citizen, not to pay the costs of guarding from injury his person, property and liberty, but to pay the costs of other actions to which he has given no assent, inflicts injury instead of preventing it.
Names and customs veil so much the facts, that we do not commonly see in a tax a diminution of freedom; and yet it clearly is one.
The money taken represents so much labor gone through, and the product of that labor being taken away either leaves the individual to go without such benefit as was achieved by it or else to go through more labor. *

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* The Principles of Ethics, volume 2, 1879, chapter 26 ‘The limits of state duties’, section 366, my emphasis.

29 February 2016

Sir Michael Marmot, genetics and health

Were we to find a chemical in the water, or in food, that was damaging children’s growth and their brains worldwide, and thus their intellectual development and control of emotions, we would clamour for immediate action. […] Yet, unwittingly perhaps, we do tolerate such an unjust state of affairs with seemingly little clamour for change. The pollutant is called social disadvantage and it has profound effects on developing brains and limits children’s intellectual and social development. […]

I have spent my research life showing that the key determinants of health lie outside the health care system in the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age; and inequities in power, money and resources that give rise to these inequities in conditions of daily life. […]

As doctors we cannot stand idly by while our patients suffer from the way our societies are organised. Inequality of social and economic conditions is at the heart of it. […] I invite you to: [quoting Pablo Neruda] Rise up with me … Against the organisation of misery.

(Professor Sir Michael Marmot, inaugural Presidential speech to the World Medical Association)
In the speech by Michael Marmot from which the above extracts are taken, there is no reference to statistical differences in IQ or to other possible genetic influences. This is almost universally the case in modern analyses of any situation. Differences between various sections of the population are taken to be caused by the different circumstances of their members, and not by genetic differences between individuals.

10 February 2016

Herbert Spencer: socialism and slavery

Herbert Spencer’s essay ‘From freedom to bondage’ contains the following reflections on socialism.
[Compulsory co-operation], still exemplified in an army, has in days gone by been the form of co-operation throughout the civil population …

Having by long struggles emancipated itself from the hard discipline of the ancient régime, and having discovered that the new régime into which it has grown, though relatively easy, is not without stresses and pains, [humanity’s] impatience with these prompts the wish to try another system; which other system is, in principle if not in appearance, the same as that which during past generations was escaped from with much rejoicing.

… As fast as voluntary co-operation is abandoned compulsory co-operation must be substituted. Some kind of organization labour must have; and if it is not that which arises by agreement under free competition, it must be that which is imposed by authority.

Unlike in appearance and names as it may be to the old order of slaves and serfs, working under masters, who were coerced by barons, who were themselves vassals of dukes or kings, the new order wished for, constituted by workers under foremen of small groups, overlooked by superintendents, who are subject to higher local managers, who are controlled by superiors of districts, themselves under a central government, must be essentially the same in principle.  … This is a truth which the communist or the socialist does not dwell upon.

(in Thomas Mackay (ed.), A Plea for Liberty, 1891, pp.8-11)
Spencer points out that the ‘progress’ ostensibly aimed at by socialism actually takes one back to a former position, in which cooperation was compulsory rather than voluntary. However, the tone of Spencer’s comments, published in 1891, suggests a rearguard action, rather than a warning of something avoidable.

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25 January 2016

Oxford and Cecil Rhodes

Oriel College’s Rhodes Building,
with statue of Cecil Rhodes
Speaking at the ceremony to swear in Professor Louise Richardson as [Oxford University’s] new vice-chancellor, Lord Patten of Barnes made a thinly-disguised attack on the campaign to remove the statue [of Cecil Rhodes] from Oriel College, which students say promotes racism.

… Chancellor Patten said: ‘Our history is not a blank page on which we can write our own version of what it should have been, according to our contemporary views and prejudices. We work, study and sleep in great buildings, many of which were constructed with the proceeds of activities that would be rightly condemned today.’ …

Cecil Rhodes died in 1902 and left two per cent of his fortune to Oriel College, which funded a new building on High Street. But students have demanded the college’s statue of him be removed, describing the former mining magnate and politician in South Africa as a ‘racist and murderous colonialist’.
(Oxford Times, 14 January 2016)
Lord Patten of Barnes refers to certain activities, presumably including those of Cecil Rhodes, as being ‘rightly condemned today’.

The activities of Cecil Rhodes were in accordance with the ideology and laws of their time. Lord Patten seems to be implying that they would not be in accordance with the ideology and laws of the present time. His comments suggest a belief that the current ideology and laws are more ‘right’ than those of a century ago.

Many things happening in the world today are in accordance with the prevailing ideology of their environment. It often seems to be considered inappropriate to condemn such things, possibly on account of egalitarian principles.

At some future time, attitudes might have changed in such a way that Chancellor Patten could be condemned for having condemned the activities of Cecil Rhodes.

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15 January 2016

Rudyard Kipling: heredity and exceptionality

There was a feast by the blazing campfires in front of the lines of picketed elephants, and Little Toomai was the hero of it all.

And the big brown elephant catchers, the trackers and drivers and ropers, and the men who know all the secrets of breaking the wildest elephants, passed him from one to the other …

Machua Appa, the head of all the drivers of all the Keddahs* … leaped to his feet, with Little Toomai held high in the air above his head, and shouted: ‘Listen, my brothers. Listen, too, you my lords in the lines there [addressing the elephants], for I, Machua Appa, am speaking! This little one shall no more be called Little Toomai, but Toomai of the Elephants, as his great-grandfather was called before him.

What never man has seen he has seen through the long night, and the favour of the elephant-folk and of the Gods of the Jungles is with him. He shall become a great tracker. He shall become greater than I, even I, Machua Appa! … Aihai! my lords in the chains,’ — he whirled up the line of pickets — ‘here is the little one that has seen your dances in your hidden places — the sight that never man saw! … Make your salute to Toomai of the Elephants! … Aihai!’

And at that last wild yell the whole line flung up their trunks till the tips touched their foreheads, and broke out into the full salute — the crashing trumpet-peal that only the Viceroy of India hears …

But it was all for the sake of Little Toomai, who had seen what never man had seen before — the dance of the elephants at night and alone in the heart of the Garo hills!
Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘Toomai of the Elephants’, from which the above extract is taken, was originally published in 1893, and then reprinted in The Jungle Book published in 1894. It provides an illustration of the fact that ideas of heredity and exceptionality were current, and generally accepted, at the end of the nineteenth century.

* Keddah = enclosure to trap wild elephants

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04 January 2016

Mensa: debasing the idea of ‘genius’

The parents of a child genius with an IQ similar to Einstein’s have said she is ‘perfectly ordinary’. Ophelia Spracklen, 12, scored a stunning 157 on her Mensa test – only three points lower than Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

More than 121,000 people worldwide are members of Mensa, an elite society that boasts some of the smartest brains on the planet. Its tests gauge Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, using problem-solving tests. ... Ophelia’s results put her into the genius category of 145 to 159.

... Chief executive of Mensa John Stevenage said Ophelia’s score put her in the top one per cent of the population.
(Oxford Times, 31 December 2015)
They appear still further to have debased the concept of ‘genius’. Havelock Ellis defined it by reference to a person having an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. More recently, it has been defined by performance in socially recognised IQ tests.

When my IQ was tested in 1945, I was told that it was 180. At that time, I was given to understand that there was a population of people with an IQ between 180 and 200, and also a population of people with IQs over 200 who were ‘geniuses’. Now, it appears, a testable IQ of over 145 qualifies its possessor to be described as a ‘genius’. This seems to imply that about 1% of the population of this country are geniuses.

In my school days in the 1940s, I used to think that an IQ of 140 or more would usually enable you to be top of your class in a grammar school.

Using the new definition, it would seem that these days, one is never more than a mile away from a ‘genius’.