How to successfully predict major world events

Gavin Barwell, as Tory MP for Croydon Central, wrote a book called “How To Win A Marginal Seat” based on his experiences, an irony that didn’t get past more or less everyone who reported on him losing that marginal seat in the general election on Thursday. In the spirit of this fine example of guidance given by the unsuccessful, I have decided to give the world my own guide on successfully predicting major world events (whether the world wants it or not).

My qualifications for this are, I would humbly submit, impressive ones. I have failed to predict a range of major events in my lifetime. Leaving aside stuff like the 9/11 attacks, which (literally) came out of a clear blue sky and were expected by nobody:-

  1.  I never expected Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe to end. I just sort of assumed it would go on indefinitely.
  2. Similarly, I thought apartheid in South Africa would just keep on rolling, since there was no obvious military or economic reason compelling it to end, and people who benefit from political systems would never just give up on them without a fight.
  3. Although it was pretty obvious the Labour Party were going to win the 1997 general election, I was convinced Tony Blair and Co. were just pretending to be pro-business and Third Way and all that stuff, and would reveal themselves to be red-blooded lefties once they’d done what was necessary to win.
  4. I couldn’t see what the fuss was about e-commerce in the late 90s, because “those websites don’t do anything you can’t do with a catalogue.” (More or less my actual words).
  5. I strongly remember studying 19th century history in the early 90s, reading about Victorian banks collapsing after “a run on the bank” and thinking what a weird concept that was, and how glad I was that such events were now definitely a thing of the past. Even though I did have a general sense in the early 2000s that we were going through an economic boom that was clearly going to go bust sooner or later, seeing people queueing up outside the local branch of Northern Rock to get out all their savings in August 2007 still felt like watching something from fiction.
  6.  I thought the best result of the 2010 election would be a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. The Labour government had clearly run out of ideas, and a coalition would force them to introduce proportional representation, ensuring a thousand year reign for progressive values. I therefore voted Lib Dem. I lived in a safe Labour seat and in practice my vote made no difference either way, but I’m still annoyed with how completely wrong I turned out to be.
  7. I thought that the 2015 election would probably end up with another hung Parliament and another Lib Dem-someone else coalition.
  8. I never expected the Brexit referendum to go the way it did (see previous post on this).
  9. I was sure Trump would not win the US Presidency (see previous post on this).
  10. Last Thursday, I calmly informed my colleagues that I would definitely not be sitting up to watch the election results. This was mostly because I expected them to be some kind of triumph for the Conservative Party, and I didn’t want to spend another miserable night watching one of those unfold (see previous post on the 2015 general election – detecting a pattern here?).

You could call it a comedy of errors, if only it were more funny (not that Shakespeare let that put him off). In my defence, some of the early misjudgements were made when I was very young and quite a lot of them were shared by lots of other people, many of whom were supposed to be experts on whatever the subject was. But, other than, “James is an idiot and if you must bet on anything, bet on whoever or whatever he thinks will lose,” is there anything to be learned from my lifetime of prophetic failure?

1. Everyone knows much less than they think they do.

It’s easy to persuade yourself otherwise. Humans seem almost hard-wired to want certainty about the future, which we can’t have without an omnipotent level of knowledge. If we can’t have that certainty, we’ll try and get as close as we can to it by jumping to conclusions based on, often, very limited knowledge and responding to facts that don’t fit these by sticking our fingers in our ears and going, “La, la, la, I can’t hear you!” I was making predictions how the leaders of South Africa or Tony Blair and his advisers would act. I had never met them and knew nothing about what truly motivated them. I had never even been to some of the countries involved.

2. Big events often have really complicated causes.

Take the result of an election – that depends on the decisions of millions of people. Why do they decide to vote a particular way? Millions of different reasons, some of which they might not even be aware of at a conscious level or be prepared to admit to.

3. Our predictions are as driven by our emotions as by anything rational

Even a fairly inattentive reader (do I ever get any others?) will have noticed the large amount of wishful thinking in a lot of my predictions, alternating with excessive pessimism where the wishful thinking has become so obvious, even I’ve noticed it. That’s usually after a run of failed predictions. Both have more to do with how I feel about the situation than any kind of rational thinking.

4. Beware of relying on conventional wisdom

A lot of my mistakes derived from believing exactly the sort of things that “experts” in the media were telling me, in spite of being generally fairly cynical about what the mass media tends to say about things. This is the hardest part of it all for me to explain logically. I can only say that, whilst in theory, everyone wants to be the lone contrarian who turned out to be right, that’s a big risk to take and a lonely position to be in. Everyone tends to look around for people who agree with them  (and ignore those who don’t). I guess I’m no different.

5. I should get out more

Well, I write a blog, so QED. More seriously, the wider the range of people you know, the better you are likely to be able to predict events that a wide range of people have some influence over. If my contacts with Americans had involved more coal miners and steelworkers, and fewer internet nerds, die-hard liberals and die-hard liberal nerds, I’d probably have seen him coming a lot better.

And armed with this knowledge, I expect…that I will probably go on misjudging the world around me. If you could easily get rid of your flaws by knowing about them, life would be so much simpler than it actually is. Fortunately for me, it seems failure in this field needn’t be career limiting. Within a couple of days of losing his seat in Parliament, Gavin Barwell was appointed chief of staff to the Prime Minister. Anyone who’s made it this far will not be surprised to hear that I didn’t expect that to happen, either.

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Book Review: “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by Friedrich Nietzsche

DA-DA-DA…DA-DA !!! (BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM!!!)

Okay, before the fun (?) starts rolling (?) on this one, it’s confession time. The original book is four volumes long, so I read a boiled-down version in the “Penguin 60s Classics” series which comes in under 100 pages. I make no apologies about this. Firstly,  I don’t think I missed much of the “plot” by doing this (basically, the prophet Zarathustra comes down from the mountain he’s been living on for ten years, delivers speeches on various topics to various people and groups, wins over some disciples, then buggers off again), and as far as I can tell the editing process didn’t radically distort the author’s views.

Secondly, the Superman doesn’t make apologies.

So does a work by a late 19th century German philosopher count as any kind of MachoLit? Portrait_of_Friedrich_Nietzsche

Well, I think the moustache he sports in the portrait above answers that question in itself. And if you don’t think Herr Nietzsche’s facial hair was manly enough, there are his…er…retro views on women.”Man should be trained for war and woman for the recreation of the warrior: all else is folly.” “Are you visiting women? Do not forget your whip!” – both from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”  THE PROBLEMATICNESS!

Hell, there’s even a Mike Cernovich connection with the book. His website, Danger and Play, appears to be named after another of its aphorisms  – “The true man wants two things – danger and play.” I promise you, I had absolutely no idea about that before I started reading.

Really though, the rampant misogyny to be found in these pages is more or less by the way. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is basically “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Meaning of Life.” And that meaning can be summarised as follows: God is dead. He was only ever a creation of humanity anyway, and the Judeo-Christian God was the creation of a slave mentality, invented by the weak who despised their physical reality and longed for death. Christian virtues, and indeed all the modern secular ideals that are indebted to them, liberalism, socialism, democracy and so on, are thus life-detracting, obsessed with holding back any who would rise above the herd and ultimately creating in those who believe only a willingness to die.

Against this, Nietschze proposes The Superman, a solitary man (as the quotes on women above might suggest, this is pretty much a boy’s club), who is prepared to rise above the herd, keep pursuing the way upward and live by a life-enhancing morality that goes beyond good and evil as we understand them. Don’t love your neighbour, love the person most distant from you, and above all, love yourself.

As a vision of life, it has been an enormously influential one. Every edgy teen who posts a video on YouTube about his atheism and how much he hates everyone around him has Nietzsche among his spiritual ancestors (probably unknowingly on his part and unwillingly on Nietzsche’s – “the youth loves immaturely and immaturely too he hates man and the earth” is also from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”) The book inspired Richard Strauss to write his tone poem with the same title, and so, of course, to provide music for “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  The whole idea of superhuman beings, and so all of the comic book and film superheroes ever, also owes a debt to Nietzsche. It isn’t a coincidence that one of the most famous of them ended up with the same name as his ideal human.

This kind of wide popular influence is rare in a major philosopher. People often (rightly) quote Bertrand Russell’s unfavourable views on Nietzsche, but then no-one was ever inspired to turn Russell’s philosophy into a comic. There just isn’t as much inherent drama in “deriving the whole of arithmetic from pure logic” as there is in “The Superman.” Analytic philosophy, for long the dominant school in the English-speaking world, tends to be very sniffy about Nietzsche (and his European successors), but, face it guys – he sells more books than you.

Partly that’s because Nietzsche addresses topics non-philosophers actually care about – the “meaning of life” stuff as opposed to the “how does logic work?” stuff. Partly it’s in his style. I’ve already quoted from”Thus Spoke Zarathustra” several times, and that’s because it is deliberately written to be highly quotable. Nietzsche wrote in aphorisms – he actually defends doing this at one point – and the result is a book that, as the schoolboy said about “Hamlet”, is full of quotes. You can sneer at him posing as the prophet coming down from the mountain to preach wisdom all you like, but you can’t deny it’s an effective literary technique.

And yet, for all this cultural influence, you won’t find many people nowadays who would stand up and declare themselves a Nietzschean. You’d undoubtedly find more who were happy to say they were Marxists, even today. And a lot of that is due to the impact one group I didn’t mention as spiritual descendants of Nietzsche – the Nazi Party. A lot of my summary of Nietzsche’s views above probably sounded, well, kind of fascist, didn’t it? The weak holding back the strong…Christianity/liberalism/socialism, the religion of slaves…forget compassion and pity, you should go out and be about the biggest badass you can…women being inferior to men…supermen.

Well, the Nazis thought so too, and the perception that Nazi Germany was just Nietzsche made flesh had about the same effect on his credibility as the perception that Soviet Russia was just Karl Marx made flesh did for Marx’s. His modern defenders tend to put a lot of effort in trying to de-Nazify him. They point out, mostly correctly, that he was not anti-Semitic or interested making in racial distinctions generally and rather despised the German nationalism of his day, if not Germans in general. The sort of superman he had in mind was more one who had developed himself into a spiritually or intellectually superior being and could thereby give to mankind than a physically or militarily superior one who could conquer it.

There is truth in this. To me, the fascists who adopted Nietzsche as their hero fall into the same camp as some of the fundamentalists who claim Jesus as theirs. They both just go to show how wrong you can go on a literal interpretation. Nietzsche talks about warriors and supermen, and gets interpreted as calling for Germans to go out and wage war on those deemed racially inferior. Jesus makes some fairly vague comments about the end of the world and you end up with various sects of evangelical Protestants each with their own ludicrously detailed version of the End Times (and who don’t talk to the other guys with a slightly different version).

For all that, whilst he may not have been seeking to inspire fascism, Nietzsche did help do so, and you can’t label all the fandom as misaimed. It isn’t much of a step from “our culture’s belief in human equality leads to stifling mediocrity and its belief in fulfilment in a next world leads to a failure to truly live in the one we have” to “So yay for elitism and the pursuit of life through obtaining worldly power”, and Nietzsche cannot be entirely freed of blame for the actions of those who eventually took that step.

Nor is it really possible to water down his anti-religious views. You can reconcile Nietzsche and Christianity  to some extent by seeing him as a necessary corrective to versions of it (like the middle class 19th century Protestantism he was raised in) that really pile on the “never mind what happens to anyone in this life, just wait for pie in the sky when you die.” However, the whole idea of a next world of some kind is central enough to Christianity that in the end you really do have to either choose it or Nietzsche’s worldview.

Perhaps, as on Harry Hill’s TV show, the only solution is to make the two of them fight. Even ignoring the divine aspect, my money would be on Jesus. As Bertrand Russell also pointed out, for a man who advocated being a Superman, Nietzsche in person was a pretty weedy, sickly nerd (Russell did not use that exact word, but he certainly meant it). He did do lots of long Alpine hikes though, so you never know.

 

 

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Anastasia

This post is unashamedly inspired by YouTube reviewer Phelous, whose videos are always worth a watch. He’s recently reviewed The Secret of Anastasia, a particularly awful cartoon knock-off of the 1997 Don Bluth animated film Anastasia. Both are, of course, about the teenage Russian grand duchess of that name who, in real life, died in 1918 with her Romanov parents and siblings in a hail of gunfire from their Bolshevik guards. It was a messy death at the hands of a horribly inefficient group of murderers who seem to have struggled to shoot dead a small group of people in a cellar.

Given that neither of them address this rather important fact, you could call both films “a bit historically inaccurate,” in the same way as you could call the sky “a bit up.” So are all the various previous films, books and articles claiming that somehow this didn’t happen, and usually also suggesting that the crazy old Polish-American lady who spent 60 years claiming to be Anastasia might not be the crazy old Polish-American lady that DNA evidence has now proved she was.

Historically inaccurate movies, of course, are nothing new. Nor are people claiming to be dead royals; in early seventeenth century Russia, there were at least three men who falsely claimed to be the (murdered) Tsarevich Dmitri, and two of them were persuasive enough to mount serious efforts to conquer the country. False Dmitri I actually did conquer it, briefly. England had Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, who each claimed to be one or other of the two (also murdered; it’s a theme here) Princes in the Tower in the fifteenth century. Basically, pick a monarchy, any monarchy ,and at some point you’ll probably find there was someone who claimed to be a dead king, prince or princess, with varying degrees of success. There were several other False Anastasias.

What’s unusual about the Anastasia films is that:-

(a) They’re quite as made-up as they are (I mean, how many historical films start by ignoring the generally accepted death of their central character, and get more inaccurate from there?);

(b) They’re about fairly recent history. Generally, the further back you go, the more slack you’ll get cut on matters of historical accuracy. King Arthur and Robin Hood probably didn’t really exist, but who cares for movie purposes?

(c) They’re aimed at kids. Do you have nostalgic memories about all those cartoons you watched as a kid about the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and the JFK assassination? Well, of course not. They don’t exist, because Hollywood studios wouldn’t touch such controversial subject matter in films for children. But somehow a Russian princess who got shot by firing squad after a Communist revolution is just fine, as long as you flat out lie about the firing squad and the Communist revolution.

I think a lot of this is down to that magic word “princess.” As far as the people who make cartoons are concerned, all princesses live in fairy-tale worlds, with all the tropes of fairy tales, and absolutely no connection with nasty adult realities. Little girls love princesses and aspire to princess-dom (and if they don’t, they jolly well should). Animation studios certainly love princesses. Disney calls all the heroines of its better-known animated films “Disney Princesses” whether or not they actually are royal.  With that mind-set, you can see why having a main character who’s a princess can overcome any queasiness about the story.

The fact that most feature-length cartoons that become internationally successful come from the US probably has something to do with this mind set. Americans love their royalty, especially if British, but they love them because they see them as a sort of group of uber-celebrities with guaranteed classiness. This is partly true, especially nowadays, but even today, and in constitutional monarchies, royal families still have a political function that this leaves out. That gets truer the further back in history you go.

Go back far enough, and real princesses might be serious political players, big-deal patrons of culture and at the very least could bring the wrath of God down on you if you didn’t treat them with due respect. They might also end up dead themselves (or at least stuck in a convent) if they made a mess of things. Their lives were anything but suitable for children’s fiction. They mostly weren’t quite as messed-up as the average George R.R. Martin princess either, but then not many people’s lives are as messed-up as everyone’s in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones.

Of course, Disney has made an industry out of bowdlerising fairy-tales and the fictional princesses in them, let alone the real life ones, so all this isn’t much of a problem for them. Still, there are plenty of reasons beyond the usual feminist gripes why it might not be an entirely good idea to let your daughter run around wanting to be a princess. Apart from anything else, you’ll guarantee that if she gets married, the effort to be Princess for a Day will make the wedding even more financially painful than they usually are.

EDIT: This was in fact written months ago now and I actually thought I had lost it, because I am bad at internet. However, you aren’t getting away so lightly.

 

 

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The 2017 general election (and stuff)

It’s taken me quite a while to work out exactly what I want to say in response to this unexpected event. And it really was unexpected. The day the election was called, I was travelling to visit my parents; when I left the house at 10 am or so everything was normal, and by the time my parents picked me up from the station about 2pm, their car radio had gone into “OMG, major news event, we’d better throw a million reporters at this one”-mode .

Truth be told, my instinctive reaction to the election was and is – “Well, I don’t really want to dignify that with a response.” Next to a series of Big Brother, a general election is the least dignified spectacle you will ever have to watch, and you can avoid Big Brother a lot more easily. Basically, thousands of people, many of them otherwise intelligent, spend six weeks or so running around like toddlers on a sugar rush, desperately trying to get public attention of any kind by pulling stunts so embarrassing people collecting money for a telethon would reject them, whilst mouthing insultingly simplistic sales pitches that even they can’t quite believe they’re mouthing. It’s like one of those low-rent shop openings where they hire some poor mug to dance around in a costume outside whilst a cheap PA system blares at you about the many bargains to be found within, except low-rent shop openings aren’t generally thought worthy of round-the-clock media coverage.

However, that’s ultimately an emotional reaction. So I have a distaste for people behaving like prats in public? So what? Is there any sort of intellectual justification for having those kind of feelings about something which is, after all, a central institution of democracy?

George Orwell once wrote that “often there is a seeming truce between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and the next.” And the truth is that pretty much all of Britain’s political parties, in the modern age, are run by and for humanists on Orwell’s definition – people for whom the most important thing in life is, in practice, what happens in this world. Whether they actually formally wear that label or not (or even reject it), most politicians and political activists act as if this is true. Incidentally, I have no doubt that in doing that, they are representative of  most of the electorate; most people in general act as if this is true, including some who nominally have a religious faith.

Whilst it isn’t  remotely wrong to regard what happens in this life as important, once you start regarding it as the only important thing, it inevitably tends to lead politics in some unfortunate directions. The material well-being and economic prosperity of the electorate tends to become, not just an important thing in politics, but the only thing, because if all we have is this life, what is more important than our well-being during it? Having a wider vision for the future of society, having ideals, anything to do with the spiritual side of humanity, gets correspondingly downgraded.

And the result is elections where everything centres around “who gets the stuff?” Taxes, economic policy, health care, education, that’s what the debates about all those kinds of issues all really boil down to – “Old people? Kids? Poor people? The rich? Who should get the stuff?”. Even an issue like Brexit, which at root is a question of political principle about what kind of relationship the UK and the rest of Europe should be in, has become all about “who might lose some stuff when we leave?” and/or “was being in the EU really good for us? I mean, in terms of getting stuff? And did it stop us controlling immigrants, who might take our stuff?”

Hopefully, you’ve got the point: the overwhelming tone of general elections, just like that of politics in general, is both materialistic and all about voter self-interest. This has become the conventional wisdom; only the other day, I heard a BBC reporter say something to the effect of “well,what really determines elections is whether voters feel more prosperous as a result of the last X years”.

That’s something I’ve heard mentioned in more or less every election I can remember, and, if true, it’s a far more cynical view than anything I’ve expressed in this post. So is that all that matters in politics now – whether we think we’re getting adequate amounts of stuff? Incidentally, the same journalists who mention this are often the same ones who ponder on falling voter turnout and wonder “why people are increasingly disengaged from politics?” I dunno, maybe because you and the politicians treat us all like dumb cattle that only need to be provided with as much hay, straw and artificial food pellets as possible to stay content and supportive? Heaven forbid it, but maybe some of us are starting to get resentful about this, and, at heart, know what a limited view of humanity this is.

And is it surprising that, around the world, recent elections have led to success for fringe parties – populist right-wingers of various kinds, neo-Nazis and so on? After all, although they might use economic arguments (“Immigrants took our jobs!”), their fundamental appeal isn’t about material well-being, but feelings of national or cultural unity. Fascists have ideals (horrible ones) and understand the human spirit (its dark side). As someone once pointed out “I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, at least its an ethos.”

Conventional politics has become all about whether you, the voter, are better off with lower taxes and more money in your pocket or higher taxes and more schools. It’s stopped being an ethos and become a marketing exercise, and at root this is because, as a society, we’ve increasingly lost any religious beliefs we ever had, and so any belief in any ideals higher than material well-being.

One of the great ironies of this process is that the more militant opponents of organised religion in this country are invariably on the left in politics (conservative atheists tend to find it easier to accept religion as having value as a traditional institution whatever their personal views about it), and are often just the sort of people to bemoan the decline of the Labour Party or of socialism in general. My response to that would be “You cut down the tree you were sitting in: don’t blame anyone else when it falls and takes you down with it.”

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Book Review: Gung Ho!

It’s a 1998 book on management written in the form of fiction, by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles (Blanchard, with various collaborators, is behind the very successful One Minute Manager books). So how does this fit in with the whole idea of Macho Lit? Well:-

  1. It can’t be denied that, in spite of every effort to promote equality in the workplace, there’s still plenty of machismo in business.
  2. THE BOOK IS CALLED “GUNG HO!”! It even has an exclamation mark in the title!

To be fair to Blanchard and Bowles, they explicitly take their title from the original meaning of “gung ho”, the Chinese for “working together” adopted as a slogan in a unit of the US Marine Corps during World War II. Originally, the phrase didn’t have anything in particular to do with “bayonet charging the enemy whilst screaming “America!” at the top of your lungs”, which is more its association nowadays. I can only assume people decided everything the Marines did had to have something to do with fighting wars the Leeroy Jenkins way.

Anyway, “Gung Ho!” is the story of Peggy Sinclair, a rising star in an unnamed company who gets handed the poisoned chalice – being manager of Walton Works No. 2, its least efficient plant, which she soon realises she has to turn round in a matter of months to avoid closure. The one bright spot in the factory is the finishing department (what exactly they finish is never explained), headed by Native American Andy Longclaw. Unsurprisingly, Peggy asks Andy what he’s doing that everyone else isn’t, and the rest of the book is essentially Peggy learning Andy’s ideas on motivating your staff (the Gung Ho of the title) and applying them so successfully that after a few years everyone’s flying to Washington DC to get efficiency awards from the President. Then Andy dies, but fortunately the authors’ self-inserts are able to meet Peggy and get the untold story about the reason for all the success from her.

If this all sounds like rather a fairy tale, that’s because when you try to impart real world truths through fiction, fairy tales will tend to result. Fiction, in itself, isn’t evidence for anything. The writer decides in advance what he thinks the truth is and then makes the story show it to be true. Of course, there is a long history of using stories for educational purposes, and it has the advantage of keeping the audience interested and engaged. But at the end of the exercise, the writer still hasn’t proved his point; if you disagree, you’re probably one of those people who became an Objectivist solely because of reading “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead,” and I admire your perseverance if nothing else.

It is a general weakness of management texts, especially the more popular ones, to rely heavily on anecdotal evidence to support their theories, still worse on anonymous anecdotal evidence (“In one company I heard about, this thing happened, which totally supports my ideas!”). “Gung Ho!” goes one better, and produces basically no evidence for whether Blanchard and Bowles’ theories on staff motivation work. You have to take that on trust. My personal view on that, to adapt an old joke, is “In God we trust. All others should prove it.”

Actually, this education-through-fiction approach has negative consequences for the fiction as well. For the story to work, we have to believe that Andy’s department has been the only efficient one in this factory, and indeed the most efficient in the whole company, for years, and no-one before Peggy has bothered to investigate why. Basically, it’s one of those plots that only works through everyone but the heroine being an idiot. Blanchard and Bowles try to make this convincing by making Andy’s Divisional Manager a fairly blatant racist who won’t admit his “Indian” subordinate’s achieving anything. This isn’t impossible, but even at the time the story’s set (some point in the ’80s), it’s unlikely someone that senior would display overt racism in front of his new boss, which he does. And anyway, how come no-one else in senior management or at Head Office has shown any interest? Do they not want to run a successful company?

It is very much to the authors’ credit that they make the central characters of a business book a woman (and apparently a single, childless woman) and a Native American, and they do make sincere efforts to avoid turning Andy into the dreaded “magical Red Indian” stereotype. Andy’s very much a modern man, has an MBA, and having just predicted the likely course of the weather, adds that his source is the local TV weather forecaster rather than “heap big medicine” or something. Unfortunately, you can’t really get around the stereotype when you have your Native American protagonist dispensing wisdom supposedly derived from his grandfather and talking about The Spirit of the Squirrel, The Way of the Beaver (huh, huh, they said “beaver”!) and The Gift of the Goose.

They also rather dodge around the question of why a single woman and a widowed man, apparently compatible in every other way, clearly liking each other, and spending lengthy periods in each others’ company, don’t develop any kind of romantic relationship. There’s sort of an implication that the tragic death of Andy’s wife and only child in an accident might have something to do with this, but that’s supposed to have happened twenty years or so before they met. Whilst I understand the concept of loyalty to your dead spouse, it is stretching plausibility to show someone being quite that loyal, and really stretching it to not mention the firestorm of gossip that would undoubtedly be stirred up in a small town if a couple of fairly prominent locals acted like this.

OK, you might not really want a romantic sub-plot in your business book, but it would have only cost a few sentences. It’s also possible that Blanchard and Bowles wanted to show that a man and a woman could be “just friends” or mentor and mentee without anything sexual happening, but I think you’d need to give your characters more background than they are able to in the space available in order to make that work.

So, that’s “Gung Ho!” for you. Do the authors’ theories of staff motivation, which basically boil down to “don’t be the micro-managing autocrat of a crew of bored wage slaves” work? Well, they sound nice on paper, but I honestly have to say I have no idea – as I said, fiction proves nothing. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read “The One Minute Golfer”, which Blanchard apparently also wrote. Whether I like it or not, I think I’m going to have to waste at least one minute of my life on things relating to golf, and it’ll be nice to get it all done at once.

 

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Book Review: “Strike Back” by Chris Ryan

It would be easy to say that the mere act of reviewing a novel based around a kidnapping by Middle Eastern terrorists seems to carry more weight today than it would have done before the events of Wednesday on Westminster Bridge. Easy, but false. No-one reads Chris Ryan’s novels for their profound political insights, and anyone trying to use this one from 2007 as a peg on which to hang their thoughts on terrorism probably hasn’t got much worth saying on the subject either. It’s entertainment – the real question is, does it entertain?

The answer is, yes it does, but at the price of straining  your suspension of disbelief to the limit and beyond. I don’t believe for a minute that the events of this book could take place, and whilst the same is true of any James Bond film or anything starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name just two, at least they usually involve protagonists with charm and good one-liners. Ryan’s hero, John Porter, is a gruff, macho cardboard cut-out and you could throw a pint glass across the bar of your nearest pub and be sure of hitting someone wittier. (Just make sure you say “I’m adding a touch of glass!” with an Austrian accent as they crash to the ground with their head split open).

One advantage “Strike Back” does have over “Wildfire” is a plot that keeps the hero at the centre of events throughout. Porter is an ex-SAS trooper whose life went to hell when he was involved in a hostage rescue in Lebanon in which three of his colleagues were killed, deaths which were blamed on his refusal to kill a Hezbollah child-soldier in the process. Seventeen years later, he’s washed out of the Army as a result of the hostility he got, divorced, alcoholic, and living on the streets of London. Hanging around a hotel where he gets casual work, he sees a TV news story about Katie Dartmouth, a Sky News reporter who Hezbollah kidnapped a few days ago and are threatening to behead on a live internet feed unless the British Government agree to withdraw from Iraq. Incidentally, “Strike Back” later became a TV series broadcast on Sky, which I do not think was a coincidence.

Porter realises that Hezbollah’s spokesman is, in fact, the same guy he didn’t kill seventeen years before, and realises he has a chance to put right what previously went wrong, not to mention make a pile of money for his still-loyal daughter and so make up for being such a crap dad. So he walks up to MI6 Headquarters on the other side of the Thames and tells them – “I used to be in the SAS, me, and I know that Hezbollah bloke. Pay me a ton of dosh and I’ll go to Lebanon and rescue Katie Dartmouth!” And, of course, they all shout “Hoorah!” and agree.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by much. The British Government agree to let a homeless, middle-aged drunk go over to Lebanon to act as their one-man army. In theory, Porter is going to try and negotiate her release, but nobody who’s ever read this sort of novel would doubt that he’ll end up kicking arse. Given the fairly weak offer he’s sent to make (“Let her go – you’ve already had loads of publicity! And we could have peace talks. Or, you know, just pay you a few million bucks”), really no-one in the novel can doubt it either. This makes about as much sense as sending me, a middle-aged, overweight man with a bad knee, out to defeat ISIS single handed. On the down-side, I was never in the SAS. On the up-side, I haven’t been drinking a bottle of vodka every day and sleeping rough for years.

To be fair, the novel does try and show some effort being put into improving Porter’s pitiful physical condition in the few days they have available, but it’s just implausible that this would be enough. He seems to be able to (mostly) keep sober through sheer willpower too. I really don’t think alcoholism is that easy to shake off, and a real Porter would probably have got no further than the airport duty-free before shooting off on another bender.

The political background is also pretty unbelievable. Hezbollah, being a Shia Muslim group backed by Iran, is supposed to be doing this at the behest of the Iranians to get the British out of Shia-dominated southern Iraq, so the Iranians can become the dominant political force there, much as actually happened in reality after we did withdraw. But if they want to achieve that, why not get the Iraqi Shia militants, who in real life pulled off a string of kidnappings and murders of Westerners in Iraq during the years around the novel’s publication, to kidnap a well-known reporter? Why involve Hezbollah at all, given that the latter were kind of busy at the time? In 2006, they were involved in fighting along the Lebanese-Israeli border that led to a second Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and by 2008 they were deep into facing off with the then Lebanese Government. Was 2007 just not crisis-ridden enough for everyone’s favourite armed fundamentalists (Minority Tradition of a Major Religion category)?

There’s also a very weird moment, which is made a plot point, when Hassan, the former child-soldier, grateful to Porter for saving his life, calls him an “amiat al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun”, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and elsewhere. It is one of the oldest Islamist political and religious groups, and it does have a presence in Lebanon, but it’s a Sunni group and Hassan is (presumably) a Shia. No doubt they share many viewpoints, but then so do fundamentalist Protestant groups in the US and traditionalist Catholics, and you’d still think it was strange if some fictional right-wing militia guy started referring to the Society of Pius X like it was the gold standard of fundamentalist Christianity.

The novel is also no more accurate on British politics. The whole point of kidnapping Katie Dartmouth is the anti-Iraq War upsurge this causes in Britain. There are supposedly huge demonstrations in Trafalgar Square in favour of withdrawal if it saves her life, and the Government is at risk of falling. However:-

(a) Iraqi groups kidnapped and/or murdered a number of British people during the Iraq War, without causing Britain to withdraw from Iraq;

(b) Whilst there was an anti-war movement throughout the War, the real peak of popular mobilisation against it was before it started, in 2003 or so. And none of it stopped Tony Blair winning a third successive election victory in 2005.

(c) With all due respect to journalists, no journalist is quite famous enough to provoke that kind of public hysteria, especially not after only a few days of captivity. The one person in recent British history whose kidnapping would have been guaranteed to provoke this level of hysteria, Princess Diana, had been dead for 10 years by 2007.

Well, all plausibility be damned, Porter goes to Lebanon, and once the negotiations fail, he rescues Katie Dartmouth (from a secret underground base, too!). Again, in fairness to Ryan, he does at least make the inevitable one man army part more or less believable. It works out so in practice he only has to kill a few enemies, unlike Rambo mowing down hundreds. And he has help – although not much from Katie, who’s pretty much a damsel in distress with minimal characterisation. You’ll find it tough to care when she gets flogged with a rubber hose. Oh, and the big twist is that the obviously evil guy on the British side is as evil as you thought right from the start, nicely absolving Porter of responsibility for the mess in Lebanon.

Honestly, though, the most interesting thing about this novel might be what it shows you about Chris Ryan. John Porter more or less is Ryan, particularly with the back story of “involvement in a huge military cock-up in relation to which his account of things has been questioned.” And the main thing John Porter seems to show is that becoming an SAS trooper is a bit like signing up to a religious cult. You will keep the faith; no matter how badly they treat you, you will continue to believe in “the Regiment” as the greatest thing since sliced bread. You will hate junior officers, just because. In spite of being involved in complicated geo-political situations and actually being fairly well-informed about them, you won’t really reflect much on why they happen, or do much abstract thinking at all. Nor is there much worth doing outside the SAS. Once you fail there, you might as well end up on the streets. “Introverted and peculiar culture” hardly begins to describe it.

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Let’s go off-meds with Mike Cernovich!

I haven’t covered what’s going on in Mike Cernovich’s alt-reality for quite a while. This is partly because he is, like arsenic, best consumed in small doses, and partly also because, credit where credit’s due, he did turn out to be completely right about the American Presidential election. However, since that involves, for practical purposes, two parties, anyone has a fifty per cent chance of getting that right (and being American’s an advantage too), so I’m not getting impressed with his political punditry yet. If he’d correctly predicted the outcome of the Dutch election this week, I’d probably be asking him for racing tips and stock predictions right now.

Also, once his mission to get Trump elected was accomplished, his blog did seem to ease off a little on its signature epic bombast and outrageous inaccuracy. But, they do say you can’t keep a good man down, and here’s a link to one of his more recent posts.

“Everyone agrees that Trump is the most powerful man in world history.”

But of course. Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Genghis Khan, Philip II of Spain, Hitler, Stalin, all the forty-odd US Presidents before Trump, many of whom were more or less as powerful as he is – who the hell were all those guys compared to the Donald? Featherweights, says I.

“If you doubt this assertion, try reading a Twitter account omitting discussions of his latest doings.”

“You’ll probably find it doesn’t belong to one of the tediously opinionated airheads who dominate that social media platform, and hence is refreshingly readable! Or at least includes funny photos of cats. Also, Twitter is really important – because I’m all over it, of course!”

“People are gaining weight because of Trump. Jobs are being created.”

I will admit to having missed the speech in which the President declared “You know what the problem with America is? We’re all too damn skinny! What I want you people to do, like, right away, is get out there and start eating massive roast dinners three times a day!” A pity, really, but I’m going to have to suggest that this claim might just be total  bullshit.

The “jobs created” bit I assume refers to the mini-Stock Market boom since Trump’s election. However, once you’ve factored out the part of this that’s due to general economic conditions unconnected with anything he says he’ll do, taken into account the lag between “company becoming more valuable” and “company hiring more staff” and considered that a company’s share price increasing does not magically provide it with more real money with which to hire, I think you’d have a real problem proving Trump has created jobs. And Cernovich doesn’t even try proving it.

“These developments make complete sense to any student of philosophy.”

Well, they are bullshit, and the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt did write a book On Bullshit, so they probably make complete sense to him…

“In Reality, Trump has far less power than we imagine…Symbolism is why Trump has power over the world…We do not live in Reality. We live in a socially constructed reality.”

This is all true, but there’s nothing unique to Trump in that. American Presidents, even at the height of the post-war American imperial age, have never been quite as powerful as they look. The US Constitution was deliberately written to limit the Presidency.

And it’s not that shocking or new an idea that reality is to some extent what we agree it is. However, what Cernovich is going to, rather sneakily, go on to do is to use this idea to justify his (and Trump’s) favoured tactic of pumping out as much bullshit as possible in the hope that it confuses everyone so much they stop asking questions. Hey, we live in a socially constructed reality, this isn’t outrageous behaviour at all!

“It’s endlessly amusing watching English majors struggle with the rise of Trump or even the rise of me.”

“Me! Me! Me! I mean, just in case you forgot who the really important person here is.”

“How can “big gorillas” win, they exclaim in between bites of cream cheese frosted cup cakes.”

“Lol@ those people with their fancy English degrees and their girly cup cakes!” This is Cernovich blatantly pandering to the section of his fanbase that consists of nerdy basement dwellers with terrible jobs, but by God they got engineering degrees, and that makes them superior to nerdy basement dwellers with bad jobs who got English degrees. The phrase “two bald men fighting over a comb” springs to mind.

Also notice that oh so subtle plug for the whole idiotic “Gorilla Mindset” thing. Seriously, who talks like that in real life?

“While discussions of alpha and beta grow tiresome, status is all around us.”

I’ll just pause to remind everyone that before Mikey C turned Danger and Play into rahrahgotrump.net, it promoted his ideas about being a success in life for men, and it still contains plenty of just such discussions.

Anyway, he goes on to talk about how the “fake news” media, as he thinks of them, still have status as compared to outlets like his website, but not for much longer, because he and others in social media have shown how they can set the agenda, set the news cycle and force them to talk about what he wants, so removing their status. This is what I mean about weaselling in a justification for bullshit artistry under the heading of ” it’s a socially constructed reality.”

Unsurprisingly, he includes a ton of self-congratulation about his success in persuading some of the media to talk about Hillary Clinton’s alleged health problems (in a just world, Cernovich would now look like an idiot if she doesn’t die for another 20 years, but no doubt either he or his claims on this subject will be long forgotten by the time that event arrives). Oh, and his eleventy billion subscribers on Twitter or whatever it is.

“Have you noticed that my writing rarely elaborates its concepts in detail? That’s a sign of social status.”

“My English teacher used to say it was a sign of bad writing and laziness, but who’s laughing now, Cupcake Boy!”

“Status is the power to decline explaining yourself.”

“If you are a shameless asshole, that is. I stand as one with the shameless assholes of this world!”

“It takes a deep education to write sharply.”

But any idiot can post things on the Internet. (Just read the rest of my blog).

 

 

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