Monday, 22 August 2011

The Sound of Silence

While on holiday in France last week I visited three public libraries - in Annecy, Reims (pictured) and Troyes - and was struck by how quiet they were. And I mean really quiet; not in the English sense of ambient chatter frequently punctuated by an 'RnB' ring-tone, which you find in our better public libraries, but quiet to the point of a cathedral-like silence. It's probably the nearest I have had to a religious experience since I became an atheist.

What is it about the French that their libraries are so quiet? Well, on closer inspection everyone seemed to be reading, which can only help. What's more, there were no computers. None of the clicking of index fingers on mice that represents the thin end of the noise wedge. The French are clearly not worried about the 'digital divide' to the same extent as the British are. No People's Network for them. Maybe the divide doesn't really exist, or maybe it does and the French authorities just don't give a shit. "Can't get access to your local council's website to complain about a missed bin? Tant pis. Why don't you try reading a book or journal instead?" Makes sense. The French intellectual culture has always concerned itself with the bigger, transcendental issues, while the British equivalent tied itself in knots over trivial detail. (OK - I know a missed bin is never trivial when it happens to YOU, but I'm talking about the grand scheme of things...).

So maybe silent libraries are not for us? Opting for freeze-dried information rather than oak-matured knowledge we Brits have invited the computer terminals in, and it looks like they are here to stay. Also here to stay are the AV suites, the group-working areas, the bean bags, the coffee bars, the clowns with the sausage-dog balloons, not to mention the GP's clinics, Citizens' Advice Bureaux, and the one-stop council shops. You can almost see the sound waves bouncing around. Anyone hoping to read anything longer than a blog-post faces an uphill struggle in such an environment.

If it's any consolation, I should point out that absolute silence is also an uncomfortable aural background when reading. Enter a sound-proofed room and it suddenly seems like your ears are not working properly, as if they need to 'pop' because of a pressure differential across the ear drum. And it's not just a strange physical sensation; it psychical too. The lack of all ambient noise seems to remove you from the world more completely than would any sudden plunging into darkness, and experiencing absolute silence reminds you that life and change are experienced as much through hearing stuff as they are through seeing stuff: we do like to hear something when we read. Even when we are wholly immersed in a book there is a little part of our brain that likes to anchor itself to the here and now, while our eyes are otherwise occupied. So although we might like to think we are escaping into the past or future when we read, really we are dragging the book's author into the present to make his case anew.

Low ambient noise in libraries is therefore a usable silence. It's like a comfortable but upright seat; it allows the reader to root himself and at the same time reach further into that other world that has been fashioned from the written word. The problem here in Britain is that provincial public libraries just can't do ambient: they are too small and so every sound is pretty much in your face, round the side of your head, and down your lughole. Without your local authority having adopted a Gallic attitude towards books these libraries are impossible to read seriously in.

The newer, larger libraries that have opened up in British cities in the last decade show more promise. With good acoustic design their reading areas can be positioned so that only low ambient noise is heard, but even this can be monumentally buggered up by other considerations such as the need to create a 'community space' (a good article on how acoustics seemed to play second fiddle to a whole host of other priorities in the construction of Norwich Millennium Library can be found here:

A particularly good example is the British Museum Reading Room, which is fantastic for low ambient noise provided that users are quiet in the first place. But a well-positioned mobile phone conversation could wreak havoc in there. Good job it's only a tourist attraction and not the real thing! Ultimately, therefore, these great-to-be-in spaces are never going to be any good for reading in unless their users actually are reading. So even in the best library buildings it's not so much that we need silence in order to read, more that we need to read in order to create silence. Silence is not the condition for reading but the reward for our efforts. It is a validation of our decision to not accept the world at face value and to start digging for ideas.

I really envy the French their libraries. I also envy their ability to read French. If I were French I'd be back there in a trice, enjoying the peace and quiet of their intellectual labours. But in the English-thinking world the aural landscape inside the library is quite different. We might enter a library to borrow a book, but probably not to read one. As a society we have largely lost the desire to uncover the world and to use ideas to get beyond first appearances. And so we have lost our ability to achieve a collective silence.

The obvious solution for anyone who cares is to learn to read French and move to France. For those of us who can't or won't, the alternative is to complain loudly about the noise levels in our public libraries, and to start dragging some important authors off the shelves and into the here and now.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Furedi is wrong about First Past The Post

It looks like the confusion surrounding proportional representation is going to be with us right up until Thursday's referendum and beyond, with Frank Furedi now echoing the argument previously used by spiked editor Brendan O’Neill that “In principle, the most democratic form of voting is some variant of proportional representation” (see The democratic case against alternative voting, spiked, 3 May 2011).

It is confusing because, if PR is a principle that Furedi adheres to, he says very little to flesh it out as a concrete alternative to the Alternative Vote (AV), which might have enabled his readers to see exactly how the current voting system could be improved. Instead, after announcing his support for the principle of PR, he goes on to highlight a number of practical weaknesses associated with it, such as its tendency to produce hung-Parliaments, or for political representatives under PR-regimes to be selected rather than elected. So where does Furedi's argument leave us? Well, if not wholly confused we are left suspecting that PR is one of those ideas which is great in theory but fails in practice – an entirely unsophisticated view that has been applied to everything from Robert Owen’s nineteenth century socialist factories to current plans for mining Helium-3 on the Moon.

It was Immanuel Kant who first confronted this view head-on in his 1793 essay “On the Common Saying: This May Be True in Theory but it does not Apply in Practice”, wherein he argued that, far from being a sophisticated understanding of a situation, the great-in-theory maxim represented nothing more than a failure of theory. "This maxim", he wrote, "so very common in our sententious, inactive times, does very great harm if applied to matters of morality". Such matters, he argued, demand more theory and better theory, not its abandonment. I do not doubt that Furedi is well aware of this, which makes it all the more frustrating that his article leaves us hanging between the apparently admirable principle of PR and its unfortunately impractical applications. Wouldn’t it have been so much better had he elaborated his principled view of PR and worked out a practical application of it that might work, thereby giving his readers something to go on, instead of all but asking us at the end of his article to vote for “the second-best system” (namely, FPTP) in the referendum?

Of course, Furedi (and O'Neill before him) did no such thing because such a thing is not possible. Proportional Representation is not great in theory because EVEN IN THEORY it requires lists of candidates from which election 'winners' can be selected, leading necessarily to backroom bargaining over the selection process. This makes PR inherently anti-democratic, and in practice much less democratic than FPTP.

It might sound strange but even the idea of proportionality has anti-democratic tendencies. Okay, one-man-one-vote is both democratic and proportional but beyond this principle the two elements part company and go their separate ways. This is because the drive for proportionality leads to an inadequate understanding of the one-man who has the one-vote. He might be black or white, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight. He might belong to any number of categories that he himself thinks insignificant but which some statistician or sociologist considers significant. Even his preferred political party might be held against him as the decisive factor that characterises him. But it is just this sort of analysis that takes the initiative from the voter and hands it to the professionals and civil servants who frame the rules of proportionality in Parliament. In fact, under PR one could look at a general election not as a popular exercise in government of, by and for the people, but as something more like the decennial census which creates a valuable dataset around which future policies can be framed.

The only way to avoid people being side-lined and pigeon-holed like this is to allow them to vote - as they do now - for individuals under FPTP. I have said this before but I think it's worth repeating: a person can be represented politically only by another person. To preserve my autonomy in the political sphere I cannot allow myself to be represented by a set of socio-economic or demographic characteristics; I cannot even allow myself to be represented by a political party, no matter how much I may support that party. Only the process of placing trust in another gives your individuality the free-rein it needs in a democracy and provides a basis for collectivity. This relationship between a voter and his representative is the vibrating atom of political life, and it forms the basis for the chain molecules connecting the individual with the party and - ultimately - the government.

So, to anyone reading this blog prior to Thursday's referendum, go and vote NO to AV for all the reasons Furedi suggests, but knowing that FPTP is not some 'dirty little compromise' or 'the second-best system' that will have to do until public engagement picks up. Vote NO because FPTP is the only system that will allow the public to re-engage itself in politics.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Spiked-online - still pro PR

I cannot claim to have my finger on the pulse and know the will of the people but, whatever it is, I do not think it is something that can be measured accurately, as one would a probabilistic distribution. But this is what Brendan O'Neill concedes in this otherwise excellent article condemning the alternative vote system.

He says "Some variant of proportional representation...would more accurately reflect the will of the electorate overall, certainly more than FPTP does". But where are the crowds demanding PR, or even the rumblings in the workplaces and down the pubs about a lack of proportionality in Britain's voting system? The electorate overall hardly seems to be willing PR into existence.

I suspect what Brendan means is that PR would be a better tool than FPTP for gauging the will of the people, but would it? The people have a heck of a lot of views and opinions, not to mention the demographic characteristics that are supposed to influence these opinions; can these all be reflected proportionately? Or are some, for the sake of administering a general election, to be ignored? What happens if the body of MPs returned to Parliament by an election accurately reflects the people's views on Europe, but does not contain the correct number of women, or is grossly in favour of pulling out of Iraq? Should a commission tweak the results until it is broadly accurate?

Perhaps all this sounds facetious but the practice of accurately reflecting is best left to the statisticians. Democratic politics, on the other hand, is moved by weightier principles; for instance, the principle by which an elected Member represents even those of his electorate who didn't vote for him. There is more than magnanimity at stake here; implicit in this principle is a recognition by the 'disfranchised' that the weight of numbers matters, and that other things being equal a greater number of people is a more positive force and is to be respected more in the world of politics than a lesser number. And, on the other sdie of the relationship, any representative worth his salt will pay attention to all his electorate, especially if there is a sizable minority of non-supporters, if he wants to be re-elected.

To attempt to get around this political issue by allocating representatives to electoral minorities immediately calls into question the legitimacy of the majority, and says that other things being equal more people are not necessarily better than less people. Indeed, perhaps my personal views outweigh all yours because I have looked into such things and you're just going with your gut. Trust me, I'm a statistician.

The will of the people is not something that can be measured inertly, and so the desire for statistical accuracy should not apply. Rather, the will of the people can be experienced and known through engagement with it. And standing for Parliament in a FPTP election, asking the people to allow you to make decisions on their behalf, still remains one of the best means of engagement. Which is why, under certain political conditions in the past, some representatives have claimed not that they reflect the will but that they ARE the will of the people. Takes some Burkean balls to say that, but that is what we need; not some indifferent remarks about PR.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Why is 'spiked-online' pro PR?

Does Brendan O'Neill read this blog? It seems uncanny that his latest article on spiked almost feels like a direct response to my previous post "Not A PR Stunt". Avid readers will recall that in that post I railed against the PR threat to democracy that could undermine the unmediated relationship between the citizen and his or her political representative. In his article O'Neill echoes my feelings almost to the word. Under a system of proportional representation, he argues, "people’s ability to directly vote for the person whom they want to represent them – someone whose views, passion and flair they genuinely support – is diminished". But if this is the case, why on earth does he give PR one of its biggest endorsements by declaring that "spiked likes the idea of proportional representation"?

Why should even the idea of PR appeal to spiked? That's the one question that Brendan hasn't answered in either of his articles. In his previous article he referred to 'fairness' and this time he's given us a vague reference to 'clarifying political debate' and providing a better 'democratic snapshot', but no explantion of any specific problem or any specific solution. Has he really thought it through?

For a start, the 'fairness' argument is potentially anti-democratic. The key complaint levelled at majoritarianism is that it is unfair, that it does not give the minority voice its due. All of which is simply another way of saying that the views of the majority are suspect and that their weight should be moderated. OK, in many cases these views might not be right-on, but thence begins politics. The ideology underlying these ideas needs tackling by head-on argument; not by tacitly accepting but electorally sweeping aside. The annoying thing is that O'Neill totally accepts this argument which is what makes his article so confusing.

The whole idea of enforced fairness in politics should itself be treated with suspicion. There is nothing automatically democratic about the percentage of seats a party receives closely mirroring the percentage of votes it won. This is an especially empty view today when the dividing lines between the mainstream parties are more blurred than ever (and there is now no fundamental difference between Lib Dem and Conservative). But even, say, 25 years ago when divisions where clearer, the call to ensure proportionality in Parliament would have:
  • made MPs more accountable to their parties' ruling executives than to their electorates.
  • made it harder to get rid of an unpopular MP.
  • confused the issue of exactly who it is that represents me in Parliament, and who I need to be keeping on their toes.
  • destroyed the idea that the winner in a FPTP election actually represents those who didn't vote for him as well as those who did (yes - let's bring back magnanimity).
  • given party manifestos greater prominence than the records and statements of individual candidates (while at the same time making it less likely that any manifesto commitment would be adhered to because of the need to make coalition compromises).
  • thwarted the progressive development of political ideas from confused local ones to clearer national ones (PR promotes political ideas to office before they have run the gauntlet of seeking a mandate).
  • viewed the entire electorate as a specimen to be measured, not as a sleeping lion that ought to be feared.
Against all this is the view that PR is, well, fairer. But in a fight you don't want fair - you want to win. And if your first move is to complain that the fight isn't fair then you'll never win. Spiked should drop all its references to supporting even the idea of PR, and continue the noble art of politics with its gloves off.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Not A PR Stunt

Brendan O'Neill raises some very important points in a recent article on spiked-online about proportional representation. Anyone who feels the urge to defend democracy in the months to come must be on the look-out for coalition-government parties and their intellectual also-rans arguing for a form of PR to replace the first-past-the-post system for electing political representatives. Anything to moderate the 'madness of the majority'. Bang on, Brendan! But why have you moderated the impact of your article by giving proportional representation an unfair share of your word count?

All the strongest ideas in O'Neill's article relate to how everyone who campaigns for PR these days is really motivated by a fear of what ordinary people might think and do if allowed to come together, collectively, especially in a political forum. All that pissed-up, racist, paedophilophobic behaviour that the political class imagines originates in the (bare-chested) man in the (city centre) street would be writ large across the face of Britain, and a permanent state of Saturnalia would be declared. Rather than tackle anything they don't like with a political argument, our PR reformers would rather it not appear at all in the House, or at least confine it to the margins. O'Neill shows the clear parallels between today's view and those much less-constrained views of the scabrous 'multitude' that were around in Victorian and Edwardian times (before the same multitude were required to sacrifice themselves in their millions for the sake of Empire).

But our Brendan takes the wind out of his own sails by prefacing his blowing with the remark that "There is no doubting that Britain could do with electoral reform" and claiming that the campaign for proportional representation has been a force for good. You could have knocked me down with a Charter 88 petition when I read this. What exactly needs reforming? He explains technically..."As a result of Britain's peculiar voting system, if the three main parties got exactly 30 per cent of the vote each, still Labour would end up the winner". So what? That's as profound as saying that if I went to the pub with a couple of friends and we all drank the same amount, Dave over there would be asleep before closing time whereas Chas over here would still be jabberin' on about Margate wiv all ver famerlee. Lay a blanket over the country and you'll still see peaks and troughs.

Having provided a technical explanation it's a bit of a disappointment that O'Neill does not provide any historical explanation as to why reform might be needed (despite his referring to the "genuinely democratic" push for PR). The outlawing of gerrymandering and the abolition of rotten boroughs - if this is what he has in mind - were never campaigns for proportional representation. Where the masses were involved they were campaigns for political representation. The point needs to be made that political representation is not reducible to a form of arithmetic, according to which some expert can declare a person representative or not. I choose someone to represent me in Parliament (or rather I didn't this time) because I believe they will largely think, say, and do the right thing; not because they are from the same demographic or because they will express 30 per cent of a view that 30 per cent of the people believe. The political is personal; it cannot be expressed in a transferable vote.

I'm not saying that wider issues should not be taken into account, or that one should only vote for a candidate whom one knows personally (although I would not vote for anyone I had never actually seen). I am saying that political representation is an unmediated personal relationship that no third party can declare invalid, but in his article Brendan O'Neill seems to display a hint of that third-partyism. This is, of course, unsurprising when you consider how the main political parties are discussed, in terms of their official policies and particularly with regard to their leaders. No doubt countless voters entered the polling stations yesterday with only a political party in mind, not a Parliamentary representative as such. Of greater concern is that a more countable number of these representatives banked solely on their party credentials, avoiding any potentially embarrassing face-to-face showdowns with the 'bigoted' punters.

If any political party ever hopes to make contact with the great mass of people who actually live in Britain, then politics needs to begin with an unmediated personal relationship and widen out from there. For this to happen there needs to be a wholesale reform of political ideas, concerning economic crises, middle-east wars, school discipline, and everything else from Andrew Sachs to zero-tolerance policing. This is the reform we need; not electoral reform.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Ares I-X No-Go

Today's non-launch of NASA's Ares I-X rocket was the closest thing I've had to excitement for a while. I didn't realise that watching a stationary object remain stationary for about 4 hours could be so...tense. It wasn't quite up to the standards set by Ron Howard's Apollo 13, but it easily beat the episode of 'Murder, She Wrote' being broadcast simultaneously on terrestrial TV.

The drama was such that by the end I wanted to throttle (who didn't?) mission weather officer Kathy Winters - the villain of the piece who sounded like she didn't even care whether the Ares launched when she constantly flip-flopped between green (go) and red (no-go) weather forecasts.

OK - so it wasn't really her fault. She was only following the new "Triboelectrification" rule, which insists on a no-go if high-level static-electricity-causing cloud lies in the flight path, but we the viewers were ignorant of the weather conditions; all we could feel was the interpersonal tension growing between the messenger and Mission Control.

There were some light-hearted moments too. The eventual removal of the 'sock' covering the probe at the tip of the Ares was literally uplifting, and I think we all joined in the cheering at Mission Control when it was finally de-snagged. And then, right at the last, the surprise announcement of a 90 minute launch delay, caused by shipping freight suddenly appearing near the launch site, was surely someone's idea of a practical joke. Luckily the delay lasted only 10 minutes (during which we were waiting for the latest on the triboeletrification clouds anyway) but what a roller-coaster!

The launch is now scheduled for 8am EDT tomorrow. That's midday GMT (or Zee-time, as the mission controllers refer to it on NASA TV) for space-watchers. Good luck, Ares, in your "unsustainable" venture.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Priests

Poor Richard Dawkins. Despite all his efforts at undermining the influence of religion he's not been nominated for a Classical Brit award. Instead the panel have nominated The Priests (pictured left) for their debut album, which features hymns from the good old days when Sunday morning meant mass. Where is Dawkins going wrong?

One should really expect things to be different nowadays. The days of religion were numbered perhaps from the moment Blaise Pascal (in his mid-seventeenth century Pensées) sought to defend his belief in God by resorting to argument and abandoning revelation. Reasoned argument is a human device, not sacred but profane, and to rest God's existence on it puts God Himself on shaky ground. And the scientific revolution that paralleled Pascal's thinking further undermined the foundations of religion, as philosopher after philosopher showed that there was no area of nature that did not yield to human investigation. After Newton - and Alexander Pope's crushing "God said 'Let Newton be', and all was light" epitaph - God beat a retreat to heaven, and, under house arrest, was proscribed from ever again setting foot in the world of human affairs.

So how do The Priests get away with it? And get nominated for music awards for it? Is their album a precursor of a karate-suit-wearing comeback tour by God? Well, not quite. Most of the reviewers of The Priest's album on Amazon reveal their all too human motives behind their purchases: the need for easy listening and a glass of wine after a hard day, to chill out, etc, etc. And who could fault them? Forty years ago it was Mantovani. Twenty years ago it was Manilow. Today its Mass. Switch on and switch off.

It is a little bit worrying that today's easy-listening has an unmistakable God-fearing quality (in contrast to the liberating sound of Mantovani's cascading violin strings), but there's no accounting for musical taste. If The Priests hit the big time then good luck to them. What is more worrying, actually, is what all this says about the scientific revolution. If, in our quiet moments, we like to pretend we are back at Sunday mass or - worse - living the ascetic life in a monastery (witness the rise in sales of Gregorian chant), how serious is our commitment to the rational, godless universe in which we live?

That commitment is on the wane, but unlike Dawkins we must resist the urge to stamp about in frustration, blaming those who teach religion for the success of religion. Instead we must examine the scientific approach, adopted by Dawkins and many of the 'humanists' around today, that sees the world not only as godless but as virtually 'manless' too. In this scientistic view, man inhabits the world not as an independent thinker, capable of shaping the future on the strength of his own will, but only as a natural though admittedly complex by-product of evolution. Just read Dawkins's chapter on "The Roots of Religion" in The God Delusion to see what I mean: here man is placed in the petri dish while Dawkins (ironically adopting a God's eye view) marvels at his ignorance and susceptibility to events that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago.

There is an aspect of man that is rooted in the past, that is biological and the result of evolutionary adaptation. But the scientistic view sees this as the whole story. And so it's not surprising that, especially now when a lot of the political meaning has been drained from current events, Dawkins and Co. are unable to provide meaning to those experiences - love, community, creativity - which have an undeniable human quality to them. Enter religion and the religious chill-out experience.

I'm not proposing that Richard Dawkins approach his manager with a view to putting in some studio time and recording a cover of The Rolling Stones' Monkey Man. The Priests and the Church seem to have the music angle sewn up, and atheists' hymns don't work. Instead we need a new science of humanism, that seeks to explain historic and contemporary events in terms of human agency, a sense of which both Dawkins and The Priests seem to lack.