Quotes end up profound when you rearrange the words to make a second idea – yet ideas end up second when profound words are rearranged into quotes.

I remember seeing the comedian David O’Doherty in the Fringe a number of years back. He had a great number on how a lot of rhyming expressions that seem profound are really stupid if you think about them, but the rhyme somehow makes them seem true.

It’s a lesson for how easily we can be misled by sophistry into believing false arguments, and points to the dangers of charming and gifted rhetoritians who shill for powerful interests. They can be funny, they can be convincing, but that doesn’t make them right.

Lenten wishes – my 16th letter to you

My dear son,

We are in the final week of Lent, the period in the Christian calendar in which, according to the Gospel, Jesus crossed the desert to come to Jerusalem, where he would sacrifice himself for our salvation.

Lent is a time to reflect and look inwards. To pause and think about the journey we are on. When I do so, I always think about you Daniel. I think about the years we have not been able to spend together, all the things I would have taught you and the fun we never had together.

But more than anything, I reflect on the future. Lent will not last forever. One day, Jesus came out of the desert and walked into the city. People laid palms at his feet.

Maybe, one day, you and I will get a chance to meet and to know each other. You might find out that I am not such a bad guy after all.

I pray that it will be so.



The shift in geopolitics – why RRR matters

Empires do not fade in a day. If you asked a British citizen when exactly their empire collapsed, they might point to the 1947 announcement of withdrawal from India, the British Empire’s crown jewel, as the landmark moment. But in reality, this merely formalised a shift that had been underway since the 1919 Government of India Act, the granting of home rule to the Irish Free State a few years later, and a whole host of other concessions the island rulers were forced into making as their economic and military power declined. By the end of World War II, the Empire had ceased to exist in all but its name, and in the collective consciousness of those old colonels living in a run-down seaside hotels, telling tourists about the time they hunted the Bengali tiger.

A hundred years later, the same might be said of that Empire known by euphemisms like – ‘the Western World’, the ‘liberal world order’, or my personal favourite: ‘the International Community’ – but is, in reality, better called the American Empire.

Not without some irony, Lingchi, the Chinese death by a thousand cuts, best describes what has been happening to this Empire. Cultural narratives like critical race theory and transactivism are tearing apart the Empire’s collective sense of self. As counterculture movements they are divisive by design. On the economic front, the steady offshoring of manufacturing capacity and the overeducation of a whole generation of unproductive soy-infused urbanites has left the Empire economically reliant on its favourable global terms of trade in order to maintain high standards of living among its ruling classes in the Coastal USA and in Europe. The legacy financial architecture, in the form of the petrodollar and the Bretton Woods institutions, grows shakier with every passing bank bailout. The ill-advised choice to politicise the SWIFT global payment system further erodes those financial foundations. At the same time, the self-hating ideology of climate activisim not only undermines the Empire’s own energy supply, but also heralds a steady attack on its productive capacity. Europe is about to ban combustion engine cars, a technology in which it maintains a historic advantage, in favour of battery-powered ones where it is forced to compete with China on more level terms, and where it is completely dependent on imported raw materials.

What, then, remains of the Empire and its ability to enforce its system of goverance on its global dependents? There is still some measure of political and cultural good will. While not entirely guiltless, this Empire has been more benevolent that many that have come before it, and American cultural exports like McDonald’s and Hollywood have made the Empire’s mass culture seem both accessible and aspirational. But I would argue that this good will has largely dissipated. Since Covid at the latest, the Empire is no longer a good ambassador of its own liberal values, if indeed it ever was. Hollywood has eaten itself, and Wokeism is a singularly unattractive cultural export for those in the far reaches of the Empire who feel neither guilt for American slavery, nor a desire to blur the gender divide between men and women.

What the American Empire still has, of course, is the world’s mightiest military – effective control of international shipping lanes, satellite communication and a network of bases that neatly spans the globe. But the world is big, and as the map shows, there’s an important gap in the Empire’s coverage, right where it matters most. With the exception of volatile Pakistan, the withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the Empire with virtually no foothold on the biggest and most valuable continent: Asia.

In fact, on closer inspection the Empire’s military grip is tenuous. Sloth in the military industrial complex and avarice among the Empire’s European vassal states have hollowed out its real fighting capacity. For the most part, the Empire rests on its historical reputation and on the fact that its adversaries lack coordination. The fear of American power – rather than the reality of its execution – has, up until now, been enough to deter any meaningful resistance.

In this context, the breakthrough success of the Indian film RRR gains new significance. A smash commercial hit for Netflix, the three hour Tollywood blockbuster tale of friendship and revolution in 1920s occupied India enchanted audiences well outside of Hindustan. That the navel-gazing, ultra-woke Hollywood Insiders chose to shower Oscar recognition on it is less important than the fact that it was watched – and loved – by the Empire’s ordinary subjects, just as much as by the barbarians outside its borders.

Because RRR is not an Indian imitation of a Hollywood film. It is unwaveringly, unflinchingly and unashamedly not Western. With its cinematography, its over-the-top choreography and its Hindi-language in-jokes, this film makes no attempt to appeal to Western audiences. Its global success is the proof that today, that is not even a requirement.

Most shocking is the depiction of the Westerners. The British colonial occupiers in RRR are not just ‘bad guys’. They are depraved, morally bankrupt and palpably evil. The only redeeming Western character is Jenny (Olivia Morris), the white woman who falls in love with the dominant Indian protagonist, and who finishes as a happy bride, dancing in a sari and singing in Hindi, unphased by the brutal annihilation of her wicked family and loss of her Western way of life. The message is clear: we’ll take their women too.

Yet that is not the worst. Nor is it even exceptional – after all, unflattering depictions of the West have been common in Western media for decades. The truly shocking thing about the British villians in RRR is that they are weak. Physically, morally and intellectually weak. They recoil as cowards against the righteous outrage of the Hindi protagonists. They cannot shoot for beans and they lack the physical strength of Indian men.

Whether this is an historically accurate and fair depiction of the British Army during the Raj is entirely beside the point. What matters is that in a global blockbuster that out-eyeballed all but a handful of Western films last year, the Indian director feels empowered enough to depict the West as hopelessly weak. And barely anyone bats an eyelid. India’s foreign minister even used the representation as a barb, in conversation with the American Empire’s foremost disgraced lapdog, Tony Blair.

A few months later, the world witnessed the spectacle of Presidents Xi and Putin embracing each other during a state visit to Moscow with a display of friendship and complicity that left little doubt about their intentions with respect to the American Empire. Neutral spectators from Latin America to Africa, to the Indopacific are watching. And now, they are no longer sure the West can contain this new Asian Axis. With emergent Hindi nationalism as a tailwind, and given the subcontinent’s historic links to the USSR, there is no guarantee that India will heed the American Empire’s warnings not to slide too far into a Putin-Xi rebel alliance.

After all, as RRR has shown, the world may have less to fear from weak, evil Westerners than the US State Department would like them to believe.

Eye-catching, provocative headline, tangental to subject

Opening premise that is sweeping and, if you ponder it for any length of time, probably questionable. Next, a flurry of facts the reader already knows to be true which seem to support the premise, omitting the ones that refute it or provide nuance. An appeal to the reader’s desire to feel ‘included’ in the group by mocking someone outside the group, who is too stupid to get the point here.

Construction of false dichotomy, with one pole being the conclusion you want the reader to reach, and the other being a ridiculous straw man argument. Elaboration on this straw man in great detail, in order to make it clear how ridiculous it is. Shoved-in call-back reference to the idiots you already mocked in paragraph one, who of course would also make the straw man argument. Now steel man any real argument against your premise, before smacking these down with more hyperbole and carefully curated facts.

A paragraph’s worth of accepted and true statements that have little to do with your main point, but with which the reader and any reasonable person would agree. Implication that the outsider idiot from above would probably also disagree with all of this.

Concluding quote from a famous and long-dead person that fits the general direction of argumentation, adding to it the heft of history and tradition.

My review of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before starting Christie’s The ABC Murders, I made the mistake of opening another book, Win, by the much overrated Harlen Corben. I abandoned after only 20 pages, and frankly only got that far because I was intrigued to know if a bestselling author could sustain that incredibly low level of writing beyond one ill-conceived chapter. So it’s probable that my high opinion of The ABC Murders is somewhat flattered by this comparison.
Still, the contrast between what sells today and what sold 70 years ago could not have been more apparent. Both Christie’s and Corben’s protagonists are cliched and superficial. Yet whereas Hercule Poirot’s arrogant self-importance is tongue-in-cheek (the reader is in on the joke), Win is simply insufferable. Christie’s characters lack depth because they are clever and deliberate illustrations – line art that indicates form rather than creating true texture. Corben’s characters, on the other hand, lack depth because they are badly painted hyperreal portraits, a poor likeness of actual human beings.
But where Christie really shows her mastery is in the pacing of the plot. I’m curious to know if she mapped out the sequence of murders and events carefully, the way an animator plans his drawings from pose to pose. Or did she just let it flow – frame by frame – and was so adept at feeling her way that the result was perfect timing – landing on the beats without the aid of a metronome?
Whether deliberate and practiced; or innate and lucky, the effect is that the reader feels loved by every page. Christie knows how to write with her readers in mind. You cannot hear the pounding of her fingers on the typewriter. There are no painfully obvious sequences of the otherwise cynical title character funding a shelter for battered women, sardine-packed in there by an editor because someone felt the protagonist had to be made more ‘likeable’. With the Queen of Crime, there is a simple love of the story, and a flair for sketching human beings – not perhaps as they really are, but with enough truthful lines that we, the reader, can fill in the gritty details with our imagination.
Hercule Poirot remains in The ABC Murders as he always is – larger than life. Preposterous, even. A shared joke between Christie and the reader. And yet he is as alive as any hero.
Agatha Christie will never be the Rembrandt of literature. But she is perhaps the Norman Rockwell, and that is a wonderful thing in itself.

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Subliminal messaging – a novel conspiracy theory

A plandemic or a spamdemic?

I am still recovering from Covid. I think most of us are. By this, I certainly do not mean the effects of the SARS-2 virus on my body. That is not what ‘Covid’ is. Covid was and is a social construct. A state of mind that has variously been described by fellow critical thinkers as the result of mass psychosis, religious zealotry or the nefarious actions of a highly organised conspiracy.

Indeed, there is a lively debate in the community as to the extent to which many of the terrible outcomes were centrally planned, or were the result of an organic, systemic failure of our society to cope with a stress factor. Eugyppius, the German critical thinker whose substack is something of an authority on all matters covidian, flies the flag for system failure – pinning the blame squarely on the ineptitude of the technocratic managerial class that holds the real power in Western countries. Others point to damning evidence of the involvement of globalist elites, aligned to the World Economic Forum, in planning a so-called Great Reset.

Conspiracy theorists have more time on their hands than conspiracists

Personally, I have always aired closer to Eugyppius’ scepticism regarding the utility of tin foil hats. My own experience in proximity to ‘power’ has taught me that those who are thought to hold its reigns spend most of their time chasing after their own manic agendas. They barely have time to read the briefings that are shoved at them as they board airplanes – much less to craft the narratives that inform those briefings, in service of some conspiratorial purpose.

And yet, it cannot be denied that certain actors within the technocracy are motivated to play a key role in steering outcomes. Laura Dodsworth’s excellent ‘A State of Fear’ details how the UK government did exactly that, (though it stops short of providing a smoking gun motive for their actions – leaving open the possibility that the fear-inducing psy-ops perpetrated against the civilian populations were motivated by a misplaced yet well-intentioned belief in their necessity). Likewise, the Fauci emails and the Twitter Files clearly show deep and hidden linkages between the scientific
establishment, government and Big Tech, all acting in a way that shores up their respective power positions and bottom lines – the very essence of a conspiracy.

A novel conspiracy hypothesis

In this post, I would like to veer a little further away from Eugyppius’ position and down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theorising, with what I believe is a novel contribution to the saturated market of tin foil headwear. As the great Sherlock Holmes once remarked, we can sometimes learn more from a dog that does not bark in the night, than from listening to the ones who do. I say this because when I was a boy in the early 1980s, the talk was all about the use of subliminal messaging in advertising, spurred on by a 1970s book called Subliminal Seduction. Advertisers had discovered that they could splice in a single still frame into the middle of a video image – say, a nice refreshing bottle of Coke. The result would be that the conscious eye and mind did not perceive the embedded image or the ‘Drink Coke’ slogan. However, tests showed that when this was done, it had a very strong impact on the subconscious desires of those subjects exposed to the subliminal image. Those who had ‘seen’ the spliced-up video expressed a much greater preference for Coke.

The subliminal messaging was found to be so effective precisely because it did not register a conscious response. The subject’s usual mental defences against the effects of overt advertising did not kick in.

Naturally, there was no small degree of uproar. Advertisers rushed to assure a worried public that they would never engage in such underhand tactics, the FCC intervened in the public interest, and soon the story faded from the public eye. It was understood that whatever short term gains a product could achieve in this way would be more than undermined by the reputational damage of getting caught doing it. And because the same subliminal image would be diffused millions of times to TV sets across the country, it was sure that they would in fact get caught doing it.

Mind tricks in the digital age

That was then. Now imagine the same technology being used on tech platforms. Imagine the ability to splice in a single message into a gif or video clip on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or TikTok. Now imagine that the efficacy of that message was powered not just by generic 1980s Madison Ave advertising trickery, but by custom-generated user data and algorithms that allowed the messenger to craft ‘the perfect’ subliminal message for each and every user. For example, imagine the cute cat video you just watched had, cut into it, a 1:24 frame image of a Covid virus and the words ‘Stay home or you will die the way your mother died last August’, when in fact your mother had died last
August. What chances would you have of not being scared to death of Covid?

Big Brother isn’t watching you, you’re watching him

There is absolutely no doubt that this technology exists and that it could be deployed. Since the release of the Twitter Files, there is also little doubt that the government – or at least that part of it Glenn Greenwald refers to as the US Security State – has infiltrated Big Tech platforms to a sufficient degree to be able to undertake such an operation.

Of course, I will take my tin foil hat off long enough to admit that I have not a shred of evidence for any of this. But given how effective we knew it to be even without customisation, what are the chances that subliminal messaging is not being used in the Tech Age? And to return to Holmes’ dictum, if it is being used, why have we not heard more night-time barking from this particular dog?

My review of Harry Harrison’s ‘West of Eden’

West of Eden by Harry Harrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like many children from troubled, broken homes, at age 12 I sought refuge from trauma by seeking to escape from the world that surrounded me. It was my good fortune that my chosen escape was not into drugs or gangs, but rather into books. I devoured works of fiction like an opioid – for how important were the financial woes of my family compared to the danger facing Frodo and indeed all of Middle Earth? How could the feuds of embittered parents matter, pinned against the fate of the majestic Ringworlds?
It was then that I found Harry Harrison’s West of Eden, a book that spoke to me even more than Lord of the Rings or Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Because Harrison’s epic is also a coming-of-age story, and that is what I needed at the time. It might be too much to say West of Eden, on its own, saved me. But it certainly felt like that at the time.
I rarely re-read books, but when I saw it last month on the shelf of a neighbour’s house (ok, it’s true I bought it for them), I perused the first chapter out of wry nostalgia. How would a fantasy coming-of-age story hit a reader whose coming of age was three decades in the past? Were the things I loved so much about it a product of circumstance, like that cheap packaged hot dog you had that one time by the campfire, which tasted like nothing else on earth?
To my great surprise, in under a chapter I was hooked all over again. Like the resolution of an Ultra-HD television, the richness in the narrative is at first only felt. It comes from an untold backstory that exists only in Harrison’s head. It’s not until you get to the appendix that you realise he bothered to think out an entire language for both the Tanu (the tribe of hunter-gatherers flying the banner for warm-blooded civilisation) and the Yilane (the dino-humanoids flying the cold-blooded banner).
With all the sensitivity of a subtle thinker, Harrison invites the reader to sympathise with both sides in this clash of civilisations. And in doing so, he makes a strong statement about the meaning of right and wrong. Like the protagonist Kerrick, a part of us cheers when the Tanu hunters plunge their spears into the hideous reptilian beasts. And like Kerrick, another part of us weeps at the wanton savagery and destruction of a beautiful Yilane, cut down in her prime. We can glimpse how the reptilians might see us – stinking, half-fur covered beasts with low cunning and no real knowledge of science. Is not every war a question of perspective? Is the Ukrainian soldier lying dead in the frozen mud any different to the Russian one?
West of Eden deserves to be called an epic because it is more than a coming-of-age story. It is more than a clash-of-civilisations story. It is more than just escapism. In the same way as Lord of the Rings, it transcends its own genre and tells us something important about who we: Like Kerrick, we are all, somehow, the damaged children of broken homes. And we are all searching for the peace and comfort of a better life. We are all alone, surrounded by the other, caught between two worlds.

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Is ‘woke’ really a thing and if so, where did it come from?

The woke awakening

Whenever I use the term ‘woke’ in the company of my significant other, it sparks a rather intense and sometimes unpleasant exchange. Her principle contention is that the term is in itself divisive; a poorly defined throw-away dysphemism from right-wing pundits too lazy to engage on substance. For her, the use of the term ‘woke’ is part of a wider problem of social meltdown. It is an example of the very stuff that is causing rational debate and discussion in the middle to be drowned out by angry shouts, hurled from the fringes.

I wish that were so. I wish we could just stop saying ‘woke’ and the problems it causes would simply melt away as the identitarians associated with that concept slide quietly towards the centre. I once believed this was the case. Back in 2016, it seemed to me that the garbage identity politics infecting mainstream liberalism was a fad – the power of liberal values would, over time, prevail. Those who clung to things like critical race theory or radical feminism would remain in the intellectual corner of the room where they belonged.

It took Covid for me to realise just how wrong I was. It took wasted hours of online battles with impassioned virus zealots to realise the fundamentals of our intellectual tradition had been eroded. So far eroded that, yes, they would lock us up in our houses, force our children out of school and into face masks, and all but force us to take an experimental vaccine-like treatment for a disease with a QALY-adjusted fatality rate that barely rose above the seasonal flu. In the end I came to understand that the reality of SARS-2 didn’t matter – all that mattered was the subjectively understood dangerosity of Covid.

Postmoderism was one hell of a crappy parent

Because what my wife still fails to appreciate is that woke is a real thing. The culture war is not simply an artefact of a social-media fuelled communications breakdown. Like most wars, there is something at stake – namely the basis on which truth in our society is properly understood. Transactivism, critical race theory, body positivity or Covid zealotry all share a common root: they depend on an ability to suspend objective truth in favour of ‘felt experience’.

Trans athlete competing in the Tokyo olympics. He/she ‘feels’ like a woman.

This is the essence of postmoderism – the intellectual root of woke. Postmoderism is a philosophy that arose in 1960s France. It held that only the subjective experience mattered. It saw objective truth as part of a system of oppression. As Adam Vicari succinctly puts it, woke is the bastard child of postmoderism. I think this is exactly right, and I won’t plagarise Adam or others by repeating the points they have already made in this regard.

But to truly understand how an intellectual idea held by some bored French kids could one day mutate into something as absurd as male weightlifters claiming Olympic medals because they ‘feel’ they are women, you have to reflect on how postmodernism arose and why.

You can’t split a log with feelings

This takes me to my wood pile. As I look out my window now, I can see a triple-row of firewood – cut, seasoned, carefully stacked and covered with a blue tarp, on which is currently resting a layer of slushy snow. Next to the wood, a wheel barrow, which I use to bring the wood to the door and transfer to the log basket next to the stove. The logs are then set alight, warming my house to a comfortable temperature.

As you can probably guess from how I wrote the above paragraph, I feel some measure of pride in providing locally sourced home heat for myself and my family. And while I’m not going to pretend that we absolutely depend on this wood to avoid hypothermia (we have a backup central heating system and electric heaters in case of need), there is something philosophical about burning your own wood, just like eating your own hen’s eggs or your own garden tomatoes. Frankly, it reminds you that there is a physical world, with physical properties. One which imposes absolute constraints on us, and which is utterly indifferent to our subjective feelings.

Postmoderism was born in the languishing coffee shops and bars of Paris, Europe’s most sophisticated city, at a time in history when an increasing number of young people had been freed by the surplus of capitalism from these constraints of nature. And what was true in 1960, is truer today. Most middle class people who inhabit urban areas in northern latitudes don’t think about where their heat comes from. They know little about the complex supply chains, pipes and precision fittings that keep them at a comfortable 21 degrees, even as the snow cascades from the milky heavens and onto their window panes – and they frankly find the subject rather boring. Ditto for the food they eat, the cotton threaded into the clothes they wear, etc. Prosperity creates a buffer between nature and the lived experience of the rich. And inside that comfort zone, you are free to live your own truth.

Me no throw spear at mammoth. Me identify as woman now.

This is why woke culture didn’t take off among our ancestors. If the men of a tribe of hunter-gatherers had taken it into their heads to ‘feel’ like women, and sit around the fire attaching the birthing people’s babies to their useless male nipples, the tribe would have quickly died. If a tribe allowed a foreign ethnic group to claim their hunting grounds on the basis that the foreigners represented a less toxic culture than their own, they too would have died. And if, in early winter, one member of the tribe decided to stuff her face from the stockpile of nuts, roots and smoked meat to the point of morbid obesity, and be ‘body positive’ about it, the winter food supply would be inadequate, again resulting in death. In such a world, starvation, predation and cold are objective truths you must accept, or you will perish.

It is also why, when in March Volodymyr Zelennsky barred all men from leaving Ukraine and conscripted them into the army, very few of the media wokesters openly questioned the plight of Kiev’s penis possessors who ‘felt’ like women. The shock of Putin’s invasion drove the subjectivity of postmoderism’s bastard kids from their minds faster than a confused teenage girl can unwrap her chest binding. War, like hunger and cold, is impervious to all the finer arguments of people’s feelings.

Post-woke, they’ll still be wood to cut

In a sense, this should give us on the ‘conservative’ side of the culture war hope. It will not take very much for the woke edifice to fall apart. A little hard work in the fields, a house too cold to sit around and watch TikTok videos in, or any kind of violence more dangerous than dead-naming or body shaming. The blue will grow out of their hair and all that will remain will be the silly tatooes, distorted and warped as their skin reforms around leaner, hungrier bodies. And when I look around at the state of the economy, I have little doubt that this will come to pass.

But the damage has been done. And it will outlast the silliness of woke ideology. Woke ideologies have done a poor job building their own cultural edifice, that is true. But like the statues Black Lives Matter tore down, it is far easier to destroy than to create. And at tearing things down, the wokesters been very effective. The real work will begin when the Church of Woke lies in ashes. That will be the time to construct a new world, based on objective truth and on values strong enough to survive SARS-3. Strong enough to survive even a pandemic of prosperity.

The ‘pandemic’ of overeducation

You can never been overdressed or overeducated’

It is a widely held tenet of modern liberal thinking that there is a strictly positive relationship between the amount of education in a society, and the health of its politics and economy. When I say ‘widely held’, I mean to include my former self in that particular bubble of groupthink. I have a couple of masters degrees and a BA – achievements of which I have always been proud – and so perhaps it was out of pure ego that I always imagined that with more education, would come better public accountability for our representative democracies, greater labour productivity and a more effiicent use of public resources for the benefit of all. I must have thought: if more people were like me, how much better a world we would have!

Houston, we have a problem

Then along came SARS-2, wafting out of a wet market and certainly not the virology lab across the road (pay no attention to that bat lady behind the curtain!). In a flash of media madness, decades of established wisdom on public health was thrown out the window – on the efficacy of community masking to prevent respiratory virus transmission, on pandemic planning, and on the correct way to approve and make available novel pharmaceutical products. Basic facts that were immediately and publicly available were ignored and labelled misinformation or conspiracy-think – such as the fact that SARS-2 had an infection fatality rate of 0.3% (lower in age-adjusted terms), and was therefore not that deadly. Bizarre doctrines like Zero Covid emerged in the teeth of common sense and all available evidence. ‘Long Covid’ became an article of faith, a gospel reading in the Church of ‘The Science’.

Was it simply panic? Perhaps in the early weeks. But as the hysteria wore on and the masks literally muffled any dissenting voices, I noticed a strange pattern among the Covid Zealots I knew – they were, with few exceptions, those who had the most higher education. Whereas the received wisdom on the benefits of higher education suggested they should be most able to critically dissect what was happening and make sense of it, they in fact proved to be least able to do so.

Saving grandma and a nasty commute, both at the same time

Many critical thinkers I know attributed this to simple self-interest. The laptop class was, after all, able to comfortably telework throughout the lockdowns. Many even relished the reprieve from painful commutes into crowded office buildings. They were certainly not the waiters, shopkeepers or small business owners most immediately impacted by closures. To borrow a phrase – it’s hard to make a soy-infused Guardianista understand something, when continued enjoyment of they/their home office depends on them/they/they’re/their not understanding it.

But this doesn’t explain the more extreme manifestations of Covid Zealotry, such as the willingness to subject oneself and one’s own children to an experimental treatment with no obvious benefits and unknown risks. Data shows that higher education levels are correlated with higher ‘vaccine’ uptake. Likewise: mask wearing was nowhere as ubiquitous as in the ivy-clad enclaves of New England’s educational elites. There can be no doubt – the well-educated actually believed this worm-infested horse crap.

Some readers might shrug this off as an obvious conclusion. The fact that college-smarties lack common sense is nothing new to the working classes who fix their leaky roofs, service their cars and install their ergonomic workspaces.

I think I thought I saw you try…to think

But perhaps there is a deeper point to be made about the nature of cognition and how it has changed in the age of mass higher education. In general, when we learn something new, we go through an inductive process of reasoning. A leads to B leads to C … which leads to a result. For example, if I want to learn how to fix the clogged drain in my bathroom sink, I need to understand how the u-bend works, what seals are there to stop leaks. Where the water will flow when I open the plumbing, etc. then I can figure out what to do first. I create a mindmap of understanding.

Now imagine I attempt to ‘learn’ something that is complex beyond my ability to construct the relevant mindmap. Imagine, for example, that I simply cannot follow all the threads of thought that allow for a complete understanding of the quantitative theory of money. Of imagine I am unable to prove from first principles the power rule in differential calculus. What becomes of me?

In a world where these respective tenets of economics and mathematics are kept as the preserve of a true intellectual elite, the answer would be: I am told by my professor that I don’t grasp the thing, I am handed a failing note and I go back to unclogging u-bends under bathroom sinks.

The democatisation of education ensures we get the graduates we deserve

But in the age of mass higher education, this is very much not what happens. The greater the number of intellectually average people admitted into the halls of knowledge, the more fails a professor would have to hand out, and that isn’t good for business. And so instead, a short cut solution is provided. I might not ‘get’ monetary theory, but I can accept as dogma that M x V = P x T. I might not ‘get’ calculus, but I can accept as dogma that f'(x) = r*x^(r-1) and dumbly apply this rule to enough problems on my term exam to get a passing grade.

The problem isn’t just that I graduate with no real understanding of maths or economics. It’s that by trying to educate myself beyond the limits of my own cognitive capacity, my brain becomes trained to accept a dogmatic link between premise and conclusion. The only thing I have really learned from four (or nine!) years of this charade is that there exists this sacred black box in which intellectual ‘things’ happen, and that is not to be questioned. Forever after, because my status as an educated person depends on the sanctity of that black box, I become a militant defender of whatever it might output. In other words, I become a zealous believer in ‘The Science’. Follow it. Follow it right off a cliff.

I have also reduced my ability to create even those mindmaps that would otherwise be within my cognitive scope. University trains me not only to stupidly absorb the conclusions of others’ learning, but to deny myself the ability to engage in any of my own. I would be much better served by puzzling over how to put up fenceposts for free range chickens, at which I would succeed with my own two hands; rather than puzzling over, and ultimately failing, to understand fluid dynamics or molecular biology.

Then when a novel problem comes along, I am lost, for there is no equation for me to follow. Intellectually lost, I take to Twitter in a confused play for answers from the hashtags of authority I trust and identify with. How easy it becomes for they/them who wield these hashtags to guide me towards whatever dogma serves their/they’re interests. How stupidly will I cling to this dogma, with all the strength of my ‘education’. How heavily will I beat down dissent, with all the heft of my bourgeois status.

We need to stop educating people beyond their intellectual limits.

My review of Thackeray’s ‘The History of Henry Esmond, Esq.’

The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. by William Makepeace Thackeray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was motivated to read ‘The History of Henry Esmond, Esq.‘ by the back cover blurb, in which it was noted that contemporaries of Thackeray, as well as the author himself, considered this novel not only superior to Vanity Fair, but in fact the greatest English novel ever written.

How could it be, I wondered, that a book which at the time was considered peerless, could today be utterly forgotten? Esmond, after all, appears on no one’s secondary school reading list. And while not technically out of print (in the age of print-on-demand, this is no longer a meaningful concept) you will not see this book on the shelves of booksellers. What’s more, all currently available editions on Amazon have less than half the number of reviews and a lower rating than my own first novel, “The Hydra“. What grim fate, then, could have befallen the greatest novel ever written in the English language?

The answer is important because of what it might imply about the nature of cultural capital as it is passed down to us through history. We assume, perhaps naively, that the great filtre of time is effective in separating out the literary wheat from the chaff. In other words, that the novels that survive the test of time represent the best of their kind, and therefore with limited reading time at our disposal, the casual reader should never bother looking beyond the Penguin classics shelf at their local Barnes & Nobel. As I cracked open the pages of the tattered 1950s paperback that chance had thrown into my possession, I wondered whether the filtre did in fact work as it was supposed to. Or were there great novels, Henry Esmond perhaps being one, which history had simply forgotten?

The plot line is linear yet compelling – like a nice piece of meat that doesn’t need an elaborate sauce. It tells the story of the title character as he straddles the religious divide between catholicism and protestantism, as well as the political divide between the Whigs and the Tories following the successful protestant insurgency led by William of Orange and his wife, Mary Stuart in 1688. Born to a great house but as an illegitimate son, our protagonist is likeable and nuanced. Esmond is a devout protestant and an English patriot, yet also fiercely loyal to the exiled catholic king, James III & VIII.
His love for his flighty and vain cousin Beatrix Castlewood mirrors his devotion to the ill-fated Stuart regency. These personal and political threads are woven together with delicious ingenuity, leading to a satisfying conclusion to the novel, including with a refreshingly surprising and modern ‘plot reveal’, which I will of course not spoil.

Yet I can’t help shrinking back from asserting this novel is better than Thackeray’s acknowledged masterpiece, Vanity Fair, or a host of other 19th Century chart-topping classics. As a historical fiction, much of Henry Esmond’s appeal no doubt lies in the readers’ prior knowledge of the events Thackeray brings to life – and by all accounts the author was a legit scholar of the age. To the modern reader, for whom the infamous misdeeds of Lord Mohun mean nothing, this spice is lost. Indeed, religious sectarianism is the pulse-raising plot dynamic motivating much of the action. But that which tore 17th Century England apart fails to inspire in the modern reader any emotional response beyond mild curiosity, save perhaps in enclaves in Northern Ireland or insofar as we can imagine parallels to the Middle East.

On balance, therefore, I would say that the great filtre of time is not entirely broken, even if great novels do slip through the cracks and get washed into the gutters of literary oblivion – and Henry Esmond is arguably such a case.
One message to would-be writers is, if you want your story to have lasting historical impact, know that adorning it with the baubles of The Current Thing will not be enough to earn you a place on your great great grandchildren’s bookshelf. For that, you will need the timeless elements of a perfect story, outstanding characters, compelling and unpredictable plot turns – and the most important ingredient of all: luck.

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