The Death of Expertise

Statler and Waldorf

You all think you’re right, but we know we’re right!

The recent media furore over sick child Charlie Gard was emblematic of one thing, the death of expertise. The desperate and easily-led parents argued with the Peadiatricians at the world-renowned Great Ormond Street Hospital that treatment for their terminally ill little boy should be extended. It duly went to court, the Doctors naturally won, being experts in the care of sick children, but a media storm was ignited by the usual subjects in the UK tabloid media. The extreme right wing NHS haters then fanned the flames, and were buoyed by US Clown-in-Chief Donald Trump who tweeted that America would help.

Mike’s a thick as pigshit knuckledragger

America couldn’t (the US Doctor hadn’t even looked at the boy’s brain scans and turned out to be a publicity seeker) , the kid’s still going to die, and the parents have now ungraciously admitted defeat. It would have been a suitable example for “The Death of Expertise” , a new book by Tom Nichols adjunct Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, bemoaning the arrogance and ignorance of the mob.

A good read about how far we have fallen

It’s mainly US-focused, but none the worse for that, and describes the “narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism” currently poisoning the polity, ultimately resulting in self-defeating disasters like Brexit and the Presidency of Donald Trump. The ground he covers isn’t exactly revelatory with the Dunning–Kruger effect, the internet/Facebook and ‘news as entertainment’ highlighted as causal factors. The chapter on higher education was interesting, and all in all, it is well-written and engaging.

I do think he’s left some things out though. In particular the spread of managerialism from the corporate sector to just about everywhere else, the standard of public/state education, the decline of reading fiction, and the infantile nature of popular culture, especially Hollywood.

Daily Mail readers comment on story about some new photos of Hitler that have recently been found. Sigh.

A population that doesn’t read stories can’t empathize with others. A population that can’t concentrate on a serious (non-action, non super-hero) film is unlikely to be able to show common-sense, and good judgement when faced with complex problems. How a mob of mawkish Daytime TV watchers can be so easily manipulated as in the Charlie Gard case is just another example of why public education needs a thorough overhaul and vastly increased investment in the UK and the US. This wouldn’t happen in Holland or Germany, or Canada.

It’s a depressing topic for sure, but this is not a depressing book. Like Statler & Waldorf it’s sometimes nice to wallow in righteousness and it’s a theraputic response to the tidal wave of knuckledragging ignorance crashing over the Anglo-American world.

A Whole Life

Simple and hypnotic

Simple and hypnotic

There aren’t many books I can read in one sitting, and “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler isn’t one of them. It took two sittings. Before I went to sleep and after I woke up. Probably 2 hours in total as it’s not a very long novel, but strangely hypnotic. There isn’t much of a plot – the novel just details the miserable childhood, moderately better coming-of-age, solitary maturity and relatively happy old age of an Austrian mountain man, Andreas Egger, through the twentieth century.

Egger is the definition of phlegmatic. Whatever life throw’s at him, including natural disasters, lost love, the eastern front, and the small-minded Alpine neighbours’ typical Austrian conservatism, he accepts.

Egger does not search for meaning, he just lives, without getting frustrated over events that he cannot control. The important things in his life are his and his alone, like the first time he meets his future wife. He doesn’t look for meaning, he accepts the small victories with gratitude, rather than trying to balance them on some imaginary scales against any amount of suffering or misfortune.

The book has been a best seller in Germany. I naturally read the English translation and to me, it was beautifully done. Highly recommended.

“Submission” – Best Novel of 2015

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Submission” by Michel Houllebecq is a triumph. It’s maybe the best novel he will ever write – with his familiar middle-aged male anti-hero finding redemption in the arms of Islam, rather than the destructive spiral down evident in his previous works. The plot has been much talked about in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and subsequently Paris. A middle-aged French academic, Francois, witnesses the Muslim Brotherhood ascend to power after the 2022 Presidential election, and the subsequent Islamization of France, including the Sorbonne where he teaches. The media have used the word “controversial” to describe the book, because they lazily assumed it was a critique of Islam. It is nothing of the sort, it’s a critique of modern consumer society, just like his other books. The depiction of Islam seems to be quite neutral and accurate – a patriarchal, illiberal cult with a political mission to control society via an exclusively male elite. I’m not clear what’s “controversial” about that. The reception to the book has been mixed. There are two camps – those who have read it (very positive reviews) and those who haven’t (he’s an Islamaphobe). In fact the book doesn’t cast any judgement on Islam – it’s just a scenario. A scenario that may suit some (middle aged sexually frustrated blokes) and not others (feminists, jews, gays, people with an education), but could lead to a more stable society, somewhat at peace with itself. Personally I don’t like the idea, but my opinion won’t matter. In the end ‘submission’ might be the easy option, which is exactly Houllebecq’s point.

Says it all

Says it all

Some critics have also poured scorn on Houllebecq’s predictive power, seemingly unaware that by deriding his imagined future, they are implicitly making predictions themselves. As far as I can see his portrayal of a gradual Muslim takeover via the current political process, given a hopelessly divided France, is the only way Islam can succeed. Terrorist attacks certainly help cow the population and encourage division, but the ultimate route to power is through co-opting the existing ruling class, not via violent revolution. The so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims in France, the UK and elsewhere realize that. Only last week Mr Establishment himself, Catholic UK Labour MP Keith Vaz, said that the reintroduction of blasphemy laws would be fine with him. How the mask slips! Houllebecq also has decent form on imagining society’s future. His 2001 novel “Platform” culminated in a Islamist terrorist attack on western tourists in Thailand. That prospect would have been considered far-fetched in mid-2001, ahead of 9/11 and ofcourse the Bali bombs in October 2002.

As with previous Houllebecq classics like “Whatever”, “Platform” and “Atomised”, the main character is a cynical, lecherous hedonist whose life is crumbling around him as he enters middle-age. His satire of modern French society, and modern academia is as savage, accurate and funny as ever. As an expert on nineteenth century French author Joris-Karl Huysmans, Francois retraces some of Huysman’s steps towards his (Huysman’s) eventual embrace of Catholicism, mirroring Francois’s own spiritual journey from despondency and nihilism, towards Islam. Francois comes to realize that the reinstatement of a patriarchal society will actually give men like him social status, and renewed purpose, through continued access to the the only thing that motivates him, sex with young women – via polygamist marriage.

The novel is definitely one to re-read, and somehow I found it uplifting. Well-written, poignant, funny, and a clear warning that simultaneous handwringing over terrorist attacks, while appeasing the nonsensities of “moderate” Islam will only yield one result. I would also recommend his earlier works, especially “Atomised” and “Platform”.
This very good interview with Houllebecq in the Paris Review is also worth checking out.

State of Origin: Haters will hate

The Melbourne Cricket Ground or MCG, looking magnificent.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground or MCG, looking magnificent. Pictures courtsey of the NRL.

The latest match in the 35 years of State of Origin was true to type. A ferocious physical confrontation, thrilling ball movement, repeated swings in momentum and a victory to the (marginal) underdog. The game was played in front of a record crowd of 91,500 at the AFL (Australian Rules Football) cathedral that is the MCG and was easily the most watched TV program in Australia in 2015. Highlights here

Contesting a bomb. The AFL loving Melbourne public might have appreciated this bit.

Contesting a bomb. The AFL loving Melbourne public might have appreciated this bit.

Despite the continued fascination with the annual three match series by the broader public, it still isn’t short of detractors both at home and abroad. The morning after the match the AFL dominated media in Melbourne weren’t keen to talk about the game’s excitement or huge audience, but instead became fixated with some disruption to the minutes silence for the late legendary Aussie Olympic runner, Ron Clarke. Hysterical headlines like “State of Origin overshadowed by minute’s silence disgrace” abounded and the AFL/soccer/rugby union fans joined in full force on Twitter.

Social media adds balance as always

Social media adds balance as always

Instead of blaming the 40 or 50 idiots out of 91,000 that couldn’t keep quiet, or tarring the people of Melbourne, the rugby league haters seized on the one negative aspect of the whole evening to bash the entire sport.

What’s curious about this is that it happens every time. Despite being a relatively niche sport, people actually feel threatened about any success rugby league does have. If it hadn’t have been the disrespect shown to Ron Clarke by a small minority of the crowd, they would have picked on something else.

When a young player is arrested for an off-field misdemeanor, it’s the game that is at fault. When a player is subject to a bad injury, it’s the game at fault. This standard is never applied to other sports, but both in the UK and Australia, negative publicity is magnified for rugby league, by a media that rarely wants to focus on the game itself, for fear rugby league might finally be taken seriously by casual sports fans, and not just aficionados like myself.

Michael Jennings, unlucky to not get Man of the Match was arrested for "obstructing police" on Friday morning, encouraging another torrent of handwringing.

Michael Jennings, unlucky to not get Man of the Match was arrested for “obstructing police” on Friday morning, encouraging another torrent of handrwinging.

In Australia the rivalry between AFL (the main sport in Victoria, South Australia, & western Australia, and rugby league (the main sport in New South Wales & Queensland), and latterly soccer (Association Football – beloved of recent immigrants and a growing section of the self-hating Australian upper-middle class) is the driver of this in the modern era, with the mullet headed boofheads of AFL and the polyglot sporting monculturists of soccer somehow feeling able to claim the moral highground.

AFL - 22 blokes with mullets chasing a seagull.

AFL – 22 blokes with mullets chasing a seagull.

That’s baffling given AFL is a drug riddled, and somewhat rigged sport, while as we all now know, soccer is corrupt from top to bottom.

Anyway, State of Origin game III 2015 takes place on July 8 at 8pm AEST, and no doubt it will be a sell out at Suncorp stadium in Brisbane, and attract another huge TV audience. Being unable to ignore the game, the anti-rugby league media will be sharpening its claws for a fight in the car park, a player’s marital dispute, a boozy night out by the Queensland kitman or some other distraction.

Jonathan Thurston - JT was superb behind a beaten pack in game II. He could be the decisive creative figure in game III.

Jonathan Thurston – JT was superb behind a beaten pack in game II. He could be the decisive creative figure in game III.

I’ll be focused on the game. Some of the world’s best rugby players are on show including the peerless Jonathan Thurston and the phenomenal Greg Inglis for Queensland. NSW have a tough, young forward pack led by the floppy haired youngster Aaron Woods and some talent in the backs including the great Morris brothers. Can’t wait.