Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘UK’

Confidence game: Growth mindset for the secret police

Powers that give MI5, MI6 and GCHQ a “dizzying” range of electronic surveillance capabilities will be laid out in the investigatory powers bill next month, in a move that will bolster the confidence of the intelligence agencies but pave the way for a row with privacy campaigners.

According to one headline announcing this report in the Times, the security services will get the “legal right” to hack into people’s computers and other electronic devices. Under must circumstances, “legal right” might be seen as redundant, but not here. They already do these things, they have the power to do these things, but what they lack, apparently, is confidence in their abilities.

Cue the Growth Mindset (TM). I suppose it was only a matter of time before education fads started sloshing over into spying: After all, aren’t GCHQ and the others supposed to be “learning things”? What they need is confidence. The standard critiques apply:

Confidence and motivation are crucial, but confidence without competence is simply hot air.

Divorce or start a world war?

I recently read Christopher Clark’s celebrated book on the initiation of the First World War, The Sleepwalkers. There was a lot in it that was new to me. I’ve never seen an account — even a German account — that portrayed Germany as such a passive, almost innocent and peace-seeking, participant in the events of 1914. Although Clark disclaims an attention to fix blame, I felt very clearly that his account put the blame on French and Russian scheming, with Serbians playing a devious supporting role, and the Austro-Hungarians hapless bunglers.

I was struck by his portrayal of the alliance system as reasonably haphazard and fluid, kind of a square dance where nations just stayed with the partners they happened to be with when the music stopped. In particular, the alliance between Russia and the UK seemed to reflect a common pathology in personal relations:

In the light of continuing Russian pressure on Persia and other peripheral imperial territories, there had been talk of abandoning the Anglo-Russian Convention in favour of a more open-ended policy that would not necessarily exclude a rapprochement of some kind with Germany. This never became Foreign Office policy, but the news that Russian mobilization had just triggered German counter-measures at least temporarily foregrounded the Russian aspect of the growing crisis. British policy-makers had no particular interest in or sympathy for Serbia. This was a war from the east, sparked by concerns remote from the official mind of Whitehall.

We’ve all known couples like this. They’ve been together for years, comfortable but never quite committed. Then a crisis comes, and they have to decide: Do we get married or split up. And often they marry, because splitting just seems too frightening. It usually doesn’t end well.

Old-time Darwinism

I’ve just been reading Adam Tooze’s book on WWI and its aftermath. I see Tooze as the great Marxist historian that never was — I don’t know anything about him other than his two books, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like the comparison — since the grandest human affairs, in his accounts, end up in orbit around the black hole of capital. Anyway, I came upon an interesting quote there that reminded me of why some people of good will found themselves repulsed by Darwinism, particularly by Darwinian hangers-on who try to cite the “lessons” of Darwinism for human affairs.

The Japanese delegation to the founding conference of the League of Nations sought to have a ban on racial discrimination written in to the League covenant. (Not that they opposed racial discrimination in general, but they often enough found themselves on the unpleasant end of it.) Colonel House, a senior American diplomat and advisor to President Wilson, suggested to British foreign minister Arthur Balfour splicing the line from the US Declaration of Independence “All men are created equal” into the Covenant preamble. Balfour rejected this out of hand.

The claim that all men were created equal, Balfour objected, “was an eighteenth-century proposition which he did not believe was true.” The Darwinian revolution of the nineteenth century had taught other lessons. It might be asserted that “in a certain sense… all men of a particular nation were created equal”. Bot to assert that “a man in Central Africa was created equal to a European” was, to Balfour, patent nonsense.

Of course, one needn’t look far to find scientifically-interested chatterers — and occasionally scientists themselves — citing Darwin-themed research to prove that all the prejudices they ever had (these days they tend to emphasise difference between sexes rather than between races) are not only true, but indisputable because they have been proved by science.

I suppose it’s also worth reminding oneself what kind of racist colonialist swamp early Zionism got its start in.

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