The French can drive you crazy

Before I say nasty things about the French on the road, I must say nice things about their off-road behaviour. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, it compares favourably to the British equivalent.

It would of course be spurious to compare the mores of central London, where I spend half the year, to those of rural Burgundy where I spend the other half. People in large cities everywhere take shortcuts through the maze of daily civilities one takes for granted in the country. A Yorkshire girl I know, who moved to London some 15 years ago, says it took her a year to stop saying hello to strangers — and people who move from Tula to Moscow or from Charleston to New York can tell you similar stories galore.

But, comparing like with like, a friend of mine, a Cambridgeshire man born and bred, retired some three years ago to a village near Cambridge, where he had spent his working life. So far he still hasn’t exchanged two words with any of his neighbours, and he is a gregarious chap. The locals clearly perceive him as an undesirable foreigner, which is understandable, considering that he grew up at least three miles away. Another friend has had a house in Norfolk for 30 years, and he claims it took the locals 10 years to start reciprocating his greetings, and another 10 to agree to a taciturn dialogue of some 30 seconds.

Well, my experience in France is different — and we really are foreigners there. When we moved into our house 11 years ago, many neighbours immediately rang our doorbell, introduced themselves and told us to knock on their door, day or night, if we needed anything — and they were as good as their word. In the first couple of months in France I made more friends than I did in 15 years in America, and I haven’t changed all that much.

In short, I think that the traditional British stereotypes of the French as rude, haughty and xenophobic are way off the mark even in Paris, let alone rural France. Comparatively speaking, the French are affable, forthcoming and well-mannered. But all that changes the moment one hits the road.

The British these days are much less civil than the French when they are on foot — and much more so behind the wheel of a car. In broad strokes, the French would rather stay French than alive.

When one is stuck on a single carriageway, inhaling the black smoke coming out of a 40-year-old Peugeot in front, the natural urge is to overtake, especially if the other car is proceeding at 20 miles below the speed limit. The gap in the incoming lane being large enough, one pulls out and accelerates. That very instant, the Peugeot driver accelerates as well, perhaps to 10 miles over the limit. That leaves two options: either to crank it up to 100 mph in a 55 mph zone, risking a head-on collision, or hitting the brakes and swerving back behind the smoke-belcher. In the latter case, he’d slow down again.

Enlightened self-interest, never mind good manners, are nowhere in evidence. It’s clear that, given the choice between hitting an oncoming vehicle and sideswiping the car on one’s right, any sensible driver would choose the second option. So the French chap I described — and, trust me, he is typical — is endangering his own life. Why? You tell me.

Turning without indicating, coming out of a side street onto the main road without looking, driving heaps that are clearly not roadworthy, the same car unpredictably and unjustifiably going too slow one minute and too fast the next, people prepared to die defending their right of way while impinging on yours — all these are the norm, not exceptions.

And speaking of roadworthiness, in Britain we have the first MOT when the car is three years old, and one every year thereafter. In France, it’s four and two, meaning that, while a six-year-old car in Britain would have had at least three MOTs, a similar car in France could have had just one. The AA has shown, figures in hand, that this is a major factor in road accidents, and yet our federastic government is soon to adopt the French system. We can’t be different from Europeans even in areas where we are better.

And the lorries — don’t get me going on those. Everyone who drives on French motorways knows that their lorry drivers do veritable impersonations of homicidal maniacs, swerving in and out of the slow lane in a haphazard fashion. A recent report in the Figaro explained why, or at least partly why.

Long-distance driving being a tedious business, French lorry drivers have found creative ways of relieving boredom. They keep their offside wheels on the roadside cats’ eyes, counting on the resultant noise to obviate the need to focus on the road. Thus liberated, they watch films on portable TV sets or cook their lunch on battery-powered hotplates in the other seat. It’s not only with nuclear bombs and unmanned drones that modern technology kills.

As a result of all that, the death rate on French roads is more than twice ours — this considering that they have 10 times the number of road miles per car, 2.5 times the territory, and much better road surfaces and markings. Where we are, one can drive for half an hour without encountering a single car going either way — and yet people get killed all the time. Last summer, we saw an abandoned car perched on top of a 6-foot hedge 10 feet away from an absolutely straight and usually empty road. How did it get there? C’est un mystère.

The British are, in my experience, by far the most skillful and courteous drivers in the world. And the French? Well, I much prefer Italian drivers. They may be deranged, but at least their madness is predictable.


Sarko goes it alone. Or does he?

Sarkozy and I have one thing in common: neither of us will be elected President of France in April. The difference is that I don’t mind this in the least, and he does (his own unelectability, that is, not mine). That’s why Sarko has gone for the last throw of the dice, and he doesn’t even notice that the dice have rolled off the table of elementary common sense.

First, he announced a 1.6 percent increase in France’s VAT, a measure he claims will solve most of the country’s economic ills without increasing the price of goods. I must be a bit daft because I don’t get it.

As someone who spends a great deal of time in France, I buy quite a few things there. Until Sarko’s announcement I paid a 19.6 percent VAT on those things. Now I’ll be paying 21.2 percent, which to me looks like a higher number, though admittedly arithmetic never was my choice of school subjects.

Sarkozy bases his counterintuitive calculation on the example of Germany, where the same measure had the effect he expects to duplicate in France. Alas, he misses the point, the salient difference between Germany and France.

In the former they know how to reduce unit costs by increasing productivity; in the latter they don’t. Britain doesn’t either, not any longer, which is why, according to Sarko, she ‘has no industry’. If he compared the proportion of manufacturing in Britain’s and France’s GDP, he wouldn’t be as hasty to throw stones out of his own glass house, but — I know this from experience — when a Frenchman gets on his high horse about the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, nothing will make him dismount. Anyway, he has a point in absolute, if not in comparative, terms.

That brings me to the next bit of news: France’s decision to introduce the ‘Tobin’ tax unilaterally, which means that from next August every financial transaction in France will be taxed at 0.1%. That doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re talking billions this fraction of one percent may add up to serious money.

If the first bit of news affects me as an occasional resident of France, the second, I fear, may affect me as a subject of Her Majesty, coming as it does on the eve of yet another Save-the-Euro telethon. Dave Cameron’s much-vaunted fortitude to resist the ‘Tobin’ tax at the previous such event will now be severely tested, and — call me a sceptic or a cynic, your choice — I doubt he’ll pass the test.

On the surface of it, Sarko’s decision sounds downright crazy, the cutting off of his proverbial nose to spite his proverbial (and increasingly shifty-looking) face. After all, if France goes it alone, it’s a safe bet that, whenever possible, people will now transact their business elsewhere, making the Bourse (France’s stock exchange) even more marginalised than it is already. That would have detrimental, possibly catastrophic, consequences for the French economy, and even Sarko must realise this. He may be in his political death throes, but he isn’t quite brain-dead yet.

‘We want to set an example for all of Europe to follow,’ he claims, and I have that stinking feeling he means what he says. The ‘Tobin’ tax would hurt every European country, but it wouldn’t penalise France more than the others only if the others followed suit. Sarko must be confident that he and his morganatic wife Angela will be able to browbeat every EU member, including Britain who stands to lose the most, into bending over and submitting to this destructive tax.

I do hope Sarko’s confidence is misplaced; I fear it may not be. One way or the other, the plot sickens.

What upsets me no end is when he is called a conservative. First, there is no such thing in France — their political spectrum goes from what we’d describe as centrist to what we’d describe as lunatic left. The former finds its mouthpiece in Le Figaro; the latter in La Liberation and a raft of lesser Trotskyist sheets. His rhetoric aside, Sarko falls somewhere between the two, and, as his grasp of economics shows, he is certainly at odds with Figaro readers. Here is a typical letter to the editor (28 January):

‘As head of my own company, I always observe these simple rules: don’t spend more than you earn; borrow only to invest, not to cover current expenses or, even worse, service existing debts; look out for your employees’s benefits before your own. If only our governments could understand such simple principles!’

Yes, if only. That Sarko doesn’t share this philosophy follows from what he does, if not always from what he says. That no other European government, emphatically including ours, doesn’t follow it either is also clear. The question remains: will Dave now go further out on the euro-limb? Hold your breath.


We already have temples to atheism, Mr de Botton

The atheist ‘philosopher’ Alain de Botton has undertaken a (literally) monumental project: he wants to create in the City a 150-foot-high temple to ‘new atheism’. This is to distinguish it from old, aggressive atheism, as preached by Richard Dawkins. The two chaps seem to disagree on tactics, for one struggles to find any difference of substance.

‘Why should religious people have the most beautiful buildings in the land?’ Botton asks. ‘It’s time atheists had their own version of the great churches and cathedrals’.

Before I comment on this deranged project, or answer this ignorant question, I must say that some of my closest friends are atheists, and they are among the cleverest people I’ve ever known. In fact, they are so wise that they usually steer clear of matters philosophical, concentrating instead on things like politics, art, law or social commentary.

Perhaps they tacitly agree with me, though they’ll never admit this, that ‘atheist philosopher’ is an oxymoron. One can be either an atheist or a philosopher, not both. For anyone trying to understand the complexity of life at ground level only will inevitably travel a maze of blind alleys, eventually finding himself at an intellectual dead end.

I know you can give me a long list of famous atheist philosophers, making me transgress against logic by stating that I don’t regard them as real philosophers. My argument would be circular and thus rhetorically unsound — until I’ve gone over atheist philosophers one by one, showing where I find them wanting. With some, such an undertaking would have to be of book length (I’ve written one like that, on Tolstoy). But with Alain de Botton, the task is risibly easy.

The Latin inscription on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s says, ‘Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.’ I suggest Mr de Botton do the same just about anywhere in the West — he’ll find temples to atheism aplenty. They are the eyesores that disfigure our cities’ skylines, the pickled animals in our art museums, the nasty warrens of our council estates, the gangs of empty-eyed youths harassing our neighbourhoods.

These are the churches in which one can worship the moral and aesthetic achievements of atheist modernity. These are the reminders of the fact, seen as such by anyone not blinded by atheist rage, that the choice of cultures available to the West isn’t Christian or atheist. It’s Christian or none.

Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals are the most beautiful and awe-inspiring buildings in the West, Mr Botton, precisely because they were animated by the most beautiful and awe-inspiring idea. Remove this inspiration, and you can still coast on the original propelling force — provided you gratefully acknowledge its nature. An artist or an architect doesn’t have to be a practising Christian to create a masterpiece — as long as he realises that every Western masterpiece is at least residually Christian.

The choice between beauty and ugliness in aesthetics exactly parallels the one between good and evil in morality. The soulless brutalism of 20th-century architecture parallels the soulless brutality of that century, in which more people were killed than in all other centuries of recorded history combined. The concrete ugliness of the South Bank or Barbican is the aesthetic equivalent of Lubianka cellars and Auschwitz ovens. They are all reminders of the abyss awating those who worship at the altar of secular gods.

All those physical disasters spring from the disastrous metaphysical idea that man sits at the centre of his own universe, rather than at the periphery of God’s. Looking for God only inside himself, man finds only himself there. Usually, he is terrified by what he sees, and this terror colours and distorts everything he creates. Ugly becomes new beautiful, virtual new real, vulgar new profound.

That’s why all my atheist friends I mentioned earlier regret their atheism. They realise that society not held together by the adhesive of a moral ideal infinitely superior to man will fall apart. They know that a drastic departure from Christian culture will create nothing but nothingness. They sense that a generation from now people will look at modern architecture not in awe but in horror.

Alain de Botton doesn’t understand any of this. That’s why his project will be an aesthetic and spiritual failure, even though I’m sure it’ll succeed on its own puny terms. The ‘philosopher’ has already raised half the money needed, and there’s no reason to believe the Corporation of London will deny planning permission: they have form in encouraging architectural perversions.

Construction can begin next year, and the City of London is bracing itself. De Botton thinks this is the appropriate site because the City is where people have lost sight of life’s priorities. Ignoring that someone who inherited £200 million is in a weak position to despise money, one may still wonder what he thinks life’s priorities should be. If it’s not the pleasures and comforts that can be bought with money, then what else, Mr de Botton? It has to be something physical, for, according to you and your putative adversary Dawkins, nothing else exists.

How much easier life would be for de Botton if he followed the example of my atheist friends and stayed away from problems for which there are no materialist answers. He’d then be spared uncomfortable questions coming from the likes of me.









Do we really deserve a better government?

‘Every nation gets the kind of government it deserves’ is one of those sayings everyone knows, but whose source few can identify.

Well, it was Joseph de Maistre, the brilliant if quirky political thinker whose views on the French Revolution made Edmund Burke sound like a Jacobin. From 1803 to 1817 de Maistre served as Sardinian envoy to the court of the Russian tsar Alexander I, and it’s at that country that he aimed his aphorism.

What was true about an absolute monarchy is even truer about a democracy, and truer still about the modern version of it. People cast their votes for parties that tell them something they want to hear. And what people want to hear is greatly affected by the kind of education imposed upon them by the same elite from which the candidates are drawn. There’s a circle there, and it can only be vicious.

Keep running inside that circle for a generation or two, and you get not democracy but spivocracy — the rule of those only out to feather their own nest. If by chance they drop a few feathers into others’ nests, then so be it. If not, that’s fine too. They are highly specialised creatures, our politicians, designed to do one thing only: get reelected. Bono publico be damned; it’s their own bono they pursue.

Just look at the way they handle the economy. First one set of spivs spend the country into an economic disaster — all in the name of looking after the less fortunate. This is the shorthand for robbing the more fortunate, which is to say most of us, but we don’t mind. We’ve been taught to accept virtual language as real. We don’t really deserve anything better.

And then the next set of spivs pretend to be doing something about it, whereas in fact they are just papering over the cracks until the next election they hope to win. We accept that too, and some of us, those who write for the Telegraph, seem to believe the wet tissue paper over the cracks is actually rock-solid. Others, those who write for the Guardian, don’t want any tissue paper at all; they want wider cracks. They also want us to join the euro, it’s never too late. That way it’ll be the EU’s headache, on top of the migraine, not to say brain cancer, it has already.

Underneath it all, there are enough spivs out there who know exactly what needs to be done to solve the problem, rather than just pretend to be solving it. Economic science isn’t rocket science, and even some politicians are bright enough to come up with the right things to do.

One, cut public spending in half, for openers. Two, eliminate the welfare state that’s as corrupting morally as it’s ruinous economically. Three, cut income tax to a level at which success is rewarded, rather than punished. Four, to reduce unemployment, cut the cost of hiring by reducing the National Insurance tax — pardon me, contributions — by two thirds at least. Five, eliminate inheritance tax, encouraging people to work for future generations, not just their own. Six, leave the EU with immediate effect, thus eliminating a whole raft of stifling regulations. Seven, find a better way of financing medical care than taxing people into penury and them killing them in NHS hospitals (just about every other Western country has found such a way). Eight, pass a law prohibiting peacetime spending financed by either the printing press or debt… Nine, well, you get the picture. So do quite a few of our politicians, including some actually in government.

And are they going to do any of these things? Are they at least going to consider them? Discuss them? Weigh the pros and cons, on merit? Ask you what you think? Are they hell.

You see, if they as much as hint at any such measures, they’ll never get elected again. And why not? Because we the people have been corrupted over several generations to recoil instinctively away from any roll-back of socialism. We’ve been taught there’s nothing better, so we won’t vote for any candidate, or any party, that fights the hydra of socialism, rather than rapping it gently on one of its heads.

As a result we get the kind of economy we deserve, the kind of life we deserve — and the kind of government we deserve. Joseph de Maistre, ring your office.



The state’s war on gold

Two of the Republican candidates, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, have come out in favour of the gold standard, the former (who hopes to win) obliquely, the latter (who knows he won’t) in earnest. Both probably realise that a currency pegged to the country’s gold reserves would put paid to the rampant statism of modern politics. That’s why it’ll never happen, in America or anywhere else. So our politicians can continue to play their little power games with impunity.

It’s a given that politicians have always sought power. However, in the past, when Christianity still provided a unifying moral force in the West, many of them (though of course far from all) saw power only as a way of achieving some desirable ends. When that was still the case, the gold standard was the norm. Britain adopted it in 1717, the USA in 1834 (de facto), Germany in 1871 (immediately after her formal unification) and so forth.

Modern politicians, on the other hand, see power as an end in itself. When this became commonplace, they had to look for ways of increasing their power, and the choice was limited, what with violent coercion being out of fashion in the West. That left control of the money supply as the clear winner, and the gold standard as the loser.

Those opposed to the gold standard argued, justifiably, that it would limit the country’s ability to climb out of recessions by increasing the money supply (this is called ‘quantitative easing’ these days, presumably ‘queasing’ for short). However, Joseph Schumpeter and other eminent economists showed convincingly that, unless a country gets out of a recession organically, it’ll show not so much recovery as remission. In any case, limiting the state’s flexibility in economic matters is no bad thing.

For state control over the money supply is always inflationary, and inflation is in fact a tax that requires no legislative approval. The state uses inflation to control how much we earn in real, rather than bogus, terms, and the difference is staggering. For example, £100 in 1850, when the gold standard was in force, became £110 in 1900 — a negligible inflation of 10 percent over 50 years. However, £100 in 1950, when the gold standard was but a fond memory, became £2,000 in 2000 — a soul-destroying, economy-busting inflation of 2,000 percent.

Money losing value at that rate turns everyone into either a spendthrift or a gambler, including those who are by nature neither. If they don’t want to see their money melt away, people have to turn it into something tangible, which explains the huge inflation of assets, especially property, everywhere in the West. This urge to convert cash into bricks and mortar no matter what was a principal cause of the 2008 debt crisis, and it’s Western governments that created the urge.

By operating the money-printing presses the state effectively turns us all into its dependants — either directly, by pushing people onto welfare rolls, or indirectly, by controlling our real income. That’s why the gold standard, and gold in general, is anathema to modern statists.

Gordon Brown drove this point home when he was still Chancellor. In a series of auctions between 1999 and 2002 he sold off more than half of Britain’s gold reserves at a rock-bottom price that represented a 20-year low. That stands to reason: as gold in the country’s coffers represented a potential loss of power for him and his ilk, the pernicious yellow stuff had to go. The immediate cost to the taxpayer was £2 billion, but the long-term consequence is even more dire: with our gold reserves slipping down to 17th place in the world, Britain can never go back to the gold standard.

Neither, really, can anyone else. For the total amount of gold that has ever been mined in the world is estimated at around 142,000 tonnes. At $2,000 an ounce, all the gold that Egyptian, Soviet and South African slaves, American forty-niners, Inca and Aztec Indians or our contemporary miners have ever extracted out of the ground would today be worth about $9 trillion. This is approximately the value of the inflated paper money currently circulating in the USA alone, never mind the rest of the world.

Thus, barring a catastrophe of a magnitude we dare not imagine, a return to the gold standard would be impossible even in the unlikely event that the state would show willing. Like death and taxes, our brave new world never relinquishes what it claims.

But one can understand a nostalgic longing for the gold standard, especially in those who regard as repugnant the growing power of the state. And it’s not just dyed-in-the-wool conservatives who have reasons to pine for a reliably hard currency. It’s also people who value economic stability above instant gratification, those who’d rather not devote their whole lives to the feverish pursuit of what Americans call happiness (money to you).

They simply want to have decent, not opulent, lives for themselves and their families. But with money worth less and less, even such a moderate expectation requires an immoderate effort to realise. We can no longer trade a bit of wealth for a bit of freedom — it’s all or nothing.

State control over money supply thus leads to what is in effect economic totalitarianism. Admittedly, totalitarianism that relies on money is on balance still preferable to the kind that relies on guns. But it’s totalitarianism nonetheless, and the only way of fighting it would be to deprive the state of its financial instrument of control by reintroducing the gold standard. Alas, this option is no longer on the table. Our power-hungry statists have seen to that.


Obama seems to be confident of victory — run for the hills

President Obama’s State of the Union address set the stall for the November election and confirmed, if any confirmation was necessary, his socialist credentials.

Of course the word ‘socialist’ is seldom used in the US, and then only to describe Europeans. Americans are never socialist; they are ‘liberal’, a misnomer if I ever heard one. A US liberal is someone who believes that the big state should increase its power at the expense of the small individual, which is about as illiberal as one can get this side of concentration camps (actually, our LibDems are liberal in exactly the same sense — something to ponder there).

Yet even when an American ‘liberal’ himself insists he’s actually a socialist, he’ll still be called a liberal by everyone else. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote a whole book explaining why he was proud to be a socialist, but every review still described him as a liberal.

At the heart of such a liberal’s understanding of economics lies egalitarianism, which for reasons of subterfuge masquerades as ‘fairness’. This Obama illustrated by using the word ‘fair’ three times in the same ungrammatical sentence (everyone should do his ‘fair share’, Mr President, not their — laws of grammar shouldn’t be repealed for the sake of political correctness) and by calling for an ‘economy that works for everyone’.

Whenever this abortion of an idea is put into practice anywhere in the world, we find out the hard way that an attempt to create an economy that works for everyone only ever succeeds in creating an economy that works for no one. Fair, as defined in this way, is most unfair. But never mind the thought; it’s the word that counts.

A sure way of putting clamps on an economy is to overtax the rich, thus trying to equalise down (the only possible direction). That’s precisely what Obama wants: ‘if you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.’ What if you reinvest $900,000 into your job-creating business? Do you still pay 30 percent on a million? But then you’ll simply take those jobs elsewhere, which would be a shame in a country where over 13 million people are officially unemployed already, and God only knows how many more unofficially.

In the USA over 50 percent of all taxes are paid by the wealthiest three percent of households; 90 percent are paid by the wealthiest 10 percent — how much fairer does Obama want to get? And how much more damage is he prepared to do in the name of this pseudo-fairness?

On his watch the US government debt has increased by 50 percent, from $10.6 to $15.2 trillion, dwarfing in per capita terms our own mere £1 trillion and a bit, though the gap is closing. This millstone around the economy’s neck will continue to pull it down, no matter how good other indicators seem to look.

Obama’s address exudes self-confidence, which belies his approval rating of less than 50 percent. But then he’ll probably win the next election anyway, considering the sideshow that the Republican primaries are turning out to be. Obama will continue to downplay the debt and the unemployment, while overplaying those indicators that are edging northwards. At the same time, whether the Republican contender will be Romney or Gingrich, Obama has a clear line of personal attack.

With Romney, it’ll be his taxes first and his Mormon religion second. In fact, it was probably Romney’s revelation that he pays taxes at only 13-odd percent that made Obama rediscover his affection for fairness. Never mind that Romney pays millions of tax-deductible dollars to charities, which lowers his taxable income. To a socialist, charity is the state’s business (hence the $15.2 trillion of government debt), whereas demagogic populism is the domain of a presidential candidate. If you want to be charitable, Mr Romney, give money to the government, not the needy.

And with Mormonism, as November draws nearer, Romney will be made to come clean on whether he does share some of the Mormons’ more bizarre beliefs, such as only Anglophone people being saved (on a remote planet) or Jesus having already come to America. If he confirms he shares such beliefs, American evangelical fundamentalists will cut him to shreds, and they’ll get a lot of secular helpers. If he repudiates the views he is known to hold, he’ll be accused of hypocrisy. Damned if he does; damned if he doesn’t.

With Gingrich, his colourful sexual past will make even an easier target: Americans expect their presidents to be monastically pristine. Someone like Mitterrand or Berlusconi or even our own Paddy Ashdown wouldn’t be elected proverbial dog catcher there — unless the press were willing to hush a few indiscretions down, as it did with JFK. Republicans, however, tend not to receive the same compassionate understanding in the predominantly ‘liberal’ press.

Neither Romney nor Gingrich gives one much grounds for optimism. It’s not immediately clear how either will make a better president than old Dubya, who said all the right things while campaigning and then turned out rather disastrous in office. And yet either man would be preferable to a second term of an unabashedly socialist president.

If Obama managed to add 50 percent to the already staggering public debt while keeping an eye on possible reelection, just imagine what he’ll do when he has nothing to lose. The 2008 crisis in the US economy brought the global economy to the brink of disaster — a repeat performance could push it over the edge. And make no mistake about it: the main culprit in the ongoing crisis is governments wasting billions to promote ‘fairness’.

If Obama doesn’t feel he even has to disguise his socialist, which is to say big-spending and high-taxing, intentions, the reality will be worse. Since the US hugely affects the whole world, this kind of reality doesn’t bear thinking about. 


Genocides, deniable and otherwise

France’s new law, making it illegal to deny the Turks’ genocide of Armenians, raises all sorts of questions, and not just among the Turks.

First, what is genocide? If we define the word rigorously, it means massacre of an ethnic or racial group specifically because of its ethnicity or race. However, in our semantically loose times, the term is often misleadingly applied to any mass murder. This distinction may be a fine point, but intellectual and legal integrity is balanced on fine points. All else confusion, as Lord Tennyson would say.

For instance, the Nazi holocaust of 6,000,000 Jews definitely was genocide, but the Bolshevik murder of some 60,000,000 Soviet citizens wasn’t: they weren’t killed for their race. However, there were aspects of genocide within Bolshevik atrocities, such as the artificial famine in the Ukraine that killed about 5,000,000 in the 1930s, or the mass deportation of the Chechen, Ingush and Balkar in the 1940s, during which these populations were reduced by half.

There is absolutely no denying that many ethnic groups suffered persecution in the Ottoman empire, not just Armenians, but also Bulgarians, Greeks and other Christians. Mostly, this didn’t qualify as genocide: those people suffered for their religion, not race. Nor were all victims killed: the Turks would frequently kidnap Christian boys, mostly Bulgarians, and place them with Turkish families who would raise them as fanatical Muslims. When they grew up, the boys would join the elite Janissary corps and often conduct murderous raids against their own ethnic group, including their kin.

For such reasons, the term ‘Armenian genocide’ is usually used in the narrower sense to describe the atrocities perpetrated by the Young Turks government during the First World War. The number of victims is variously estimated to fall between 300,000 and 2,000,000, with the low-enders and high-enders tending to split the difference to arrive at 1.5 million. Those people were killed — but were they killed specifically because they were Armenians?

In the 1920s the post-Ottoman nationalist government of Turkey held two trials that settled the issue. In one, on the basis of much evidence, the Young Turks government was found guilty of genocide. In the other, a young Armenian’s assassination of the wartime Interior Minister Talaat was ruled to be justifiable homicide.

Of the many pieces of juicy evidence presented in both trials, one stands out: Talaat’s wartime telegram stating the Young Turks’ intent with lucid clarity: ‘…the government by the order of the Assembly (Jemiet) has decided to exterminate entirely all the Armenians living in Turkey [about 2,000,000 at the time]. Those who oppose this order can no longer function as part of the government. With regard to women, children and invalids, however tragic may be the means of transportation, an end must be put to their existence.’ If there’s a difference between this document and the Wansee Protocol, it escapes me.

Actually, there is one difference. Germany, the nation that issued the Protocol and faithfully carried out its prescriptions, has since repented its crimes and compensated the victims’ families as best it could. Too little, too late and all that, but at least it’s something. On the other hand, Turkey responds to accusations of genocide with the ‘who, me?’ indignation of wounded innocence — as demonstrated by her reaction to the ruling by the French Senate yesterday.

Turkey is about to recall her ambassador to France, a measure that’s certain to be reciprocated, and trade relations between the two countries will suffer somewhat. The amount of suffering can’t go beyond ‘somewhat’, as Turkey is locked into a customs union agreement with the EU and a military union within NATO.

For the time being, it’s mostly rhetoric, with Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan overstating the case in the heat of righteous wrath. According to him, the measure represents a ‘murdered freedom of thought’. He also accused France of pandering to ‘considerations of political agenda’ — that is, presumably mollifying the 500,000 Armenians living in France. This last accusation is nonsensical, considering that the new law is likely to enrage many of the 10 million French Muslims. But the first charge merits discussion.

Erdogan probably meant freedom of expression, not thought. For such matters ought to be governed by hard facts, not free thinking. A reasonable person must be free to think that Christianity is a more sound religion than Islam, or vice versa. But, on pain of no longer being considered reasonable, he isn’t free to think that the earth is flat — this freedom has been abrogated by facts.

Thus, though some debate is still possible about the precise number of victims, facts make the case against the genocide of Armenians unarguable this side of reason. Similarly, it’s valid to argue on the basis of facts that the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis during the holocaust was lower than 6,000,000, or that the number of Soviets murdered by the Bolsheviks didn’t quite reach 60,000,000. Khrushchev, for example, only owned up to 20,000,000 but then he meant just those murdered by Stalin in the 1930s — all others were presumably fair game. In general, criminal regimes aren’t known for actuarial accuracy in their body count. They are, however, known for their tendency to suppress incriminating evidence.

But Erdogan would in my view be right had he said that the new French law strikes a blow against the freedom of expression. For this freedom to have any meaning at all, it must cover the expression of ideas we find repugnant. After all, allowing people to say only things we agree with wouldn’t be much hardship. I do think that denying malignant idiots the right to express malignantly idiotic ideas — provided they fall short of inciting violence — does more harm than they themselves could ever do by speaking up.

Do let’s allow the likes of David Irving to claim that the Nazis didn’t murder that many Jews — he, along with other neo-Nazis, will only hang himself with his own intellectual rope. Do let’s allow Russian communists, who still poll second in most Russian elections, aver that Stalin never murdered anyone — even though, given the political innocence of most Russians, such permissiveness may backfire. And do let’s allow the Turks to be as provincially defensive as they like. Our own institutions and traditional liberties will only be the stronger for it.

I am, however, aware that many people would disagree with me — and they would do so not just on the basis of emotions, but also with the facts in hand. Well, they too ought to be allowed to speak they minds.




Bishops on a crusade

These days our politicians are driven by neither their conscience nor their reason, what with both faculties being demonstrably under strength. Instead they rely on focus groups and polls, those guides to potential success in the next elections.

When they proposed to cap benefits at £26,000 a year per family, they knew they were on a winning wicket: 76 percent of the people, including 69 percent of Labour voters, supported the measure.

As someone who believes that, for most families on the dole, such benefits ought to be capped at £0, I’m happy that this once the polls at least pointed in the right direction. It does, however, have to be said that the very existence of payouts of that magnitude represents an egregious insult to anyone with a modicum of intelligence and moral sense.

That large group doesn’t seem to include our bishops who, egged on by that font of intelligence and moral sense Paddy Ashdown, are trying to block the measure in the Lords. Allow me to remind you that these are the people who have devoted their careers to vulgarising the liturgy to a point where we’re expected to believe that ‘this ring is a symbol of our marriage’ sounds more mellifluous and Godly than ‘with this ring I thee wed’. Their destructive weapons thus honed, their Lordships have now decided to turn their attention away from the area about which they ought to know next to everything towards one about which they know next to nothing.

I’m not talking here about the nitty-gritty of economics — the bishops’ ignorance of that field would be understandable and perhaps even commendable. They may not grasp the depth of the precipice to which suicidal government spending has already pushed not just our economy, but indeed our society. However, even their tin ears, deaf to the majesty of traditional scriptural language, ought to be attuned to the moral damage wreaked by the welfare state.

They should realise that by extorting money from families who earn an average of £26,000 a year and giving more than that to families who earn nothing, the government is spurning not just economic wisdom but moral probity. By robbing Peter to pay Paul, it debauches the latter more than it impoverishes the former.

The bishops may confuse welfare with Christian charity. In fact, the two are more nearly opposite than alike: it was St Francis who was a model of Christian behaviour, not Robin Hood.

A Christian works in the sweat of his brow to earn the money he then charitably offers to the poor. He doesn’t, as our state does, hold a gun to somebody’s head to make him give away the money he has earned to someone who hasn’t. The former transaction improves morally both the generous giver and the grateful taker. The latter corrupts both the state and its clients, who are more likely to demand more than to be grateful.

That’s why one won’t find any glorification of welfare in the New Testament, and the concept was far from unknown in the Roman empire. Instead, one finds calls to hard work. These come across in the Lord’s Prayer (‘give us this day our daily bread’), in Jesus the carpenter talking about ‘the labourer worthy of his hire’ and in St Paul the tent maker stating categorically that ‘if any would not work, neither shall he eat.’ As a Roman citizen, incidentally, Paul could have qualified for the dole. He chose to make tents instead.

Having already displayed their ineptitude in their area of immediate expertise, the bishops now come up with a truly pathetic rationale for their attempts to torpedo the so-called cuts (if that’s what £26,000 a year is, I’d like to see the uncut benefits). For example, the Archdruid of Canterbury remarked that ‘no one voted’ for this new government policy.

That’s true, no one did. By the same token, no one voted for the gradual build-up of welfare to the level where £26,000 a year represents a cut. As someone who sits in a House of Parliament, Dr Williams should be aware that we have a representative, not plebiscitarian, democracy. The people don’t vote for bills; they select representatives whom they trust to do that for them. Really, it’s always best to think before speaking — that way one’s ignorance can be less glaringly obvious.

Lord Ashdown adds to these episcopal musings his deft lay touch (no pun intended). ‘I am president of Unicef and… the effect on children across the country of a cap… will be in my view completely unacceptable.’ He obviously regards as acceptable the state breeding en masse little brutalised Mowglis, trapped for life in the jungle of welfare-supported sloth. Deprived of education, devoid of pride, divorced from civilisation, what chance do they have of ever leading dignified lives? I’d say their chances of dying from stab wounds are much higher.

One shudders to think what would happen if the government really tried to put forth a responsible economic policy, rather than these risibly derisory ‘cuts’ and ‘caps’. Why, the Bishop of London wouldn’t just extol the dwellers of tents at St Paul’s; he’d move into one himself. Always provided he could pop over to his nearby palace to use the facilities.






Capitalism — what’s in a name?

Last week all three party leaders made speeches on capitalism in which they attached different modifiers to the word. Mr Clegg trumpeted ‘responsible’ capitalism based on employee ownership. Mr — or should it be Comrade? — Miliband decried ‘predatory’ capitalism. Mr Cameron came out in favour of ‘socially responsible and popular capitalism’. None of the three identified the fundamental problem of capitalism, as it has become.

Actually, the problem starts with the very word ‘capitalism’. Show me someone who uses it often, and I’ll show you someone in need of a remedial course in both political economics and elementary logic.

The word has largely negative connotations, and that’s how it was understood by those who first put it into general vocabulary. ‘Capitalism’ was first used in its modern meaning by the French socialists Blanc and Proudhon, and it became a common term of abuse courtesy of Marx and Engels. In other words, ‘capitalism’ is a pejorative term used by socialists and anyone else wishing to disparage the underlying concept.

As such people have difficulty defining the concept positively, they define it negatively — not as something it is (free enterprise fuelled by capital), but as something it isn’t (socialism). Logically, they should talk about ‘non-socialism’ instead, for that’s what they really mean. Implicitly then, ‘capitalism’ is a swear word.

Understood negatively as non-socialism, ‘capitalism’ will appeal or repel depending on one’s attitude to what it isn’t. And one’s attitude to socialism depends on whether one proceeds from common sense or ideological bias. Leaving the theory aside, simple empirical observation will suggest that the amount of economic misery in a country is directly proportionate to the amount of socialism in it. To this simple equation there are no known exceptions.

In the economic game, socialism is broadly characterised by the state being a major player, rather than merely the referee. In Stalin’s Russia, for example, the state owned 85 percent of the economy, whereas in Britain it’s still only about 50 percent (closer to 75 in the north of England and the Celtic fringe), so there’s room for growth in that direction.

Cameron is to be complimented for his judicious use of ‘capitalism’. In his speech he mostly used positive terms like ‘free market’ or ‘free enterprise’, which he described correctly as ‘the best imaginable force for improving human wealth and happiness’. Now happiness is a nebulous notion, and one that America’s Founding Fathers ill-advisedly inserted into their Declaration of Independence. When later pressed for a precise definition, they explained that happiness equated to what Cameron called ‘human wealth’. The add-on ‘…and happiness’ is therefore tautological.

Now, only someone who is as feeble of mind as he is strong of leftie animus (e.g. Ed Miliband) will deny that this kind of happiness is always much greater and more evenly spread in conditions of free enterprise. Moreover, free enterprise generally presupposes a reasonably free society, although China has added numerous qualifiers to this presupposition.

However, both the defenders of free markets and their detractors reduce a very complex issue to the simplistic binary proposition first popularised by Orwell’s animals: ‘Capitalism good, socialism bad’ or vice versa. Their frame of reference is identical; they just disagree on the number of legs.

Both regard the economy as a panacea, a cure-all treatment of every social ill. If that’s what’s expected of the economy, it’ll invariably fail. No -ism can live up to such a lofty expectation.

Leading the party that’s still nominally called Conservative, Cameron understands this better than his colleagues, which is why he’s calling for a capitalism ‘in which the power of the market and the obligations of responsibility come together’. Suddenly the desire to compliment Dave, which is seldom close to the top of my aspirations, fades away. For he is mixing up the proverbial apples and oranges.

Free markets are there to make a few people rich, most reasonably comfortable and a few poor. Responsibility comes into it only inasmuch as it’s a pragmatic tool for controlling social unrest animated by the sixth deadly sin: envy. That’s why, while it was always understood that a competitive free market would, like any other competition, produce its winners and losers, even the early winners had to make sure that others didn’t lose too badly. Thus a social safety net was put in place under the economic summit to catch those falling down to the flinty ground below.

As free markets were gradually ousted by modern corporatism, the capitalist, the owner of capital, disappeared as the pivotal figure. That distinction has passed on to the bureaucratic manager who disposes of the capital he doesn’t own. This figure lacks a face — can you name offhand the current CEO of Ford or Marks & Spencer? The names are still on the door, but they are now attached to impersonal entities, not to any particular capitalists (which term, incidentally, predates ‘capitalism’ by a good 700 years).

As markets are now largely controlled by increasingly globalised corporations converging with increasingly globalised governments, ‘responsibility’ has become a meaningless shibboleth. If before it meant softening the plight of those who fought the good fight and lost, it has now come to mean breeding and fostering a class of those who have neither fought any fight nor have the slightest intention of ever doing so. As such, it’s a device for the self-perpetuation of the corporatist elite made up of both corporate and governmental managers. By paying off those who could potentially unseat them, they buy themselves a few more years of corporate power, while reducing ever greater numbers to being just that: numbers, not men and women.

Britain has neither capitalist nor indeed free markets any longer. It has a largely dysfunctional population corrupted by what Cameron calls ‘responsibility’ into apathy, ignorance and sloth. The problem with our economy in particular and society in general isn’t too little ‘responsibility’ but too much.

And the problem of which all three party leaders are painfully aware is that free, capitalist production can no longer pay for controlled, socialist distribution, otherwise known as ‘responsibility’. The will is there, but the money has run out. All three respond in the only way that comes naturally: instead of making responsible, but hard, choices, they make irresponsible, but easy, speeches. They aren’t trying to improve the economy; they are trying to improve their own electability.

Regarded in that light, perhaps Cameron did a bit better than the other two. There are still enough voters out there for whom ‘capitalism’ doesn’t sound as negative as it did originally. Whether they’ll consent to be tricked… sorry, I meant governed by the wielders of the word and negators of its meaning remains to be seen.





Who should or shouldn’t be let in?

Three crimes currently adorning the newspapers’ front pages were all committed by Eastern Europeans. One Lithuanian raped and disfigured a woman in Kent. Another bludgeoned a Birmingham couple to death with a lump hammer. Moldovan squatters took over a house in East London.

And these aren’t isolated events: a disproportionate number of crimes are perpetrated by recent arrivals from that region. Various mafias from Kosovo to Moscow and everywhere in between are mentioned almost every day.

Naturally whenever an immigrant, especially one from a manifestly un-English country, commits a newsworthy crime, BNP types are up in arms. Partly because of that, civilised people shy away from the issue of immigration altogether, or else mumble sweet nothings when it comes up. Makes one wish BNP types kept quiet for a while, to make a serious discussion possible.

Some time ago I chatted on that subject with your quintessential Anglican, a church-goer who doesn’t believe in God. He was opposed to too many immigrants from alien cultures being admitted to the UK. I agreed. ‘But what about all those Poles and Russians?’ I asked, secure in the knowledge that my own background made me immune to the felony charge of Little-Englanderism. ‘I’ve no problem with those,’ replied the non-believing Christian. ‘They come from a kindred culture.’

That’s where our paths diverged. You see, I don’t think the Christian past of Eastern Europe means its present culture is similar to ours. It used to be, give or take. But after a few generations of communism it no longer is — and it’ll take a long time to make it so.

To paraphrase Lord Acton ever so slightly, socialism corrupts, communism corrupts absolutely. A child growing up under a communist regime learns as he emerges from his pram that he must think one thing, say another and do a third.

He’s trained to believe that all morality is relative — that is, relative to the current Party line, which alone is absolute. He’ll lie not because he is a compulsive liar, but because he doesn’t know the difference between a truth and a lie.

All Eastern European children were taught to worship Lenin and his fellow mass murderers. All Soviet children were also taught to worship Pavlik Morozov, a young pioneer who betrayed his own father to Cheka executioners. Survival is a day-to-day proposition to them, and even those who’ve never seen the inside of a concentration camp are imbued with the mentality of that provenance: You croak today, mate, as long as I don’t croak until tomorrow.

A couple of generations of this Walpurgisnacht, and a new psychocultural type emerges, Homo Communisticus, whose links with his country’s pre-Communist history are at best tenuous, at worst nonexistent. This cultural genocide is rarely mentioned whenever the numbers of Communist victims are calculated. And yet the lasting effect of cultural mass murder makes it an even more heinous crime than the physical murder of millions.

That’s not to say that all, or even most, people from Communist countries are fervent believers in that perversion. Far from it. In fact, most of them aren’t fervent believers in anything except survival at any cost. Where they come from survival was understood in purely physical terms: having enough food to eat and staying out of concentration camps. When they find themselves in the West, survival takes on new dimensions, mostly dealing with newly available creature comforts. The goals change immediately, but it’ll take many generations to change these people’s nature.

They have no more respect for the laws of their new country than for those of the old. Legal is anything they can get away with; moral is anything that pays an immediate dividend. Upon arrival in England they discover in short order that, though the police are less corruptible than in the old country, they are also less efficient and much less ruthless. And, in the absence of an in-built moral imperative, why not bend the law if the chances of getting caught are small and the punishment often derisory?

There are of course exceptions, people endowed with the mind, courage and moral sense to reject the spiritual poison of Communism. Many of such people find themselves in the West, where they become law-abiding, hard-working citizens. By the same token, there are many Chinese, Arabs, Indians or Africans who make a successful transition to Western civilisation. But that doesn’t negate the fact that they come from a culture different from, and often alien to, ours. So do the Eastern Europeans.

More than two million Russians have emigrated just in the last decade, and many of them have ended up in the UK. London alone has about 300,000 such new arrivals, and God knows how many more from other republics of what’s now called the former USSR. Some of those republics, such as Lithuania, are now ‘independent’ parts of the EU, which means their denizens can settle here as they wish. Add to these other Eastern members of the EU, plus those Ukranians and Byelorussians who can easily obtain Polish or Hungarian, which is to say EU, passports, and the influx of cultural aliens becomes staggering and unmanageable.

In the spirit of English pragmatism, a virtue to which I’m privy only vicariously, one has to ask the perennial question: So what are we going to do about it? The answer is, whatever would work. Leaving the EU would be a good start, but that’s a separate issue. Introducing tougher border controls would be another step, and also tightening entry requirements, whether EU laws allow this or not.

But all such measures would be futile in the absence of a fundamental understanding of the underlying problem. People who come from Eastern Europe may look like us, seemingly act like us and sometimes even sound like us. But most of them aren’t really like us.