Weapons of mass effort avoidance
Thoughts on ideological bons mots and intuitions as complexity-flattening tools
Apparently, you can't be what you can't see.
That's the latest one to come onto my radar.
I suppose it's a skill of sorts, to come up with ideological rhyming couplets.
Silence is violence. That’s my favourite and it wasn't even a couplet. Admirable economy.
You have to admire phrases like that. By circumventing reason with a proposition that feels truthy a lot of energy is conserved.
Energy that would otherwise have to be invested in exploring the complexity of an issue and maybe even recognising that people who don’t share your political intuitions perhaps aren’t monsters.
Probably because, on average, the leftish is more intelligent on standard measures, people there are the best at this.
They’ve mastered paring this approach down to minimum viable form by the use of 'ist' words - racist, sexist, fascist and so on.
Anyone who thinks about this sees that these phrases are gimmicks, designed to demonstrate participation rules and prevent meaningful discussion.
There's a meaningful discussion to be had about the benefits and costs of multiculturalism, for example. Even a cursory investigation of what happens in multicultural societies will reveal that there are benefits and costs, but there’s no slogan for that.
That fact is circumvented on one side with talk about resisting an ‘invasion’ or on the other by describing sceptics as racist and xenophobic.
These phrases provide useful heuristics to those of us for whom it's important to know where we stand because they save a lot of bother in thinking things through for ourselves.
The problems of multiculturalism are never out of the news, here in France, especially this year. An overwhelming proportion of the population thinks that current levels of immigration should be curbed. And that rules on family unification, once someone has arrived, should be tightened, alongside access to this country's generous welfare support.
A minority of French people think that these are racist sentiments, but they are the ones in authority or with the highest educational and therefore cultural cachet, and so the majority view is considered outlandish and dangerous. France's constitutional court just threw out most of the measures that French people favour when it reviewed a recent immigration bill designed to reassure the majority population.
Minority rule was once the preserve of colonialists but now it's a norm (which is largely why the losing side in Britain's Brexit debacle felt entitled to prevent the result being implemented if they could).
Minority rule, using minimal reasoning. No wonder the European right is on the rise, given that it often represents the cultural majority which is increasingly noticing that nothing it wants ever seems to happen.
This is driving some people so nuts that, although I understand their frustrations, I’ve had to stop reading them. Being exposed to ambient anxiety and anger all the time is wearing.
However, there are people with interesting things to say about the capture of institutions by a liberalism that is morphing into something quite authoritarian. Among these is British academic.
In his series on the inevitability of the State guiding every aspect of life in a certain direction (whether most people want it to or not) he explains how it as baked in to the very concept of a State.
Talking about the plans of (currently likely) Prime Minister-in-waiting Sir Kier Starmer to have teachers supervise children's teeth-brushing he writes:
"As soon, in other words, as you grant that the State should have responsibility for the economic well-being of the population, you grant that it should have responsibility for its health and mental well-being too - and ultimately of course even its biopolitical features: its demography, its sexual morality, immigration flows, and so on. And this sets the relationship between State and society more or less on rails, with every intervention on the part of the State creating yet more reliance upon it on the part of the population, so that indeed in the end the presence of a universal free healthcare system almost necessitates the absurd situation in which we find ourselves, with the role of the parent reduced to a kind of wage-earning sibling of the child, unequipped even for the most basic exercise of authority such as the requirement of teeth brushing."
For more, read The Scorpion State
Until reading McGrogan I rarely - if ever - asked where does the role of the State end, in a functional society? I just had a fixed intuition. We all do - pro or anti-State, welcoming 'help' or grumbling about 'meddling'.
There’s never a conversation addressing whose fault is tooth decay? If you're the kind of person who thinks that it's morally wrong not to prevent suffering, wherever possible, you'll say this kind of abstract question doesn't matter.
If the State can fix it, so it should.
Or you'll insist that this is to excuse parents from their bounden duty, thus encouraging them to be even worse at raising children.
We'll rarely ask ourselves if it's always good to make people safer from everything that they can be protected from.1 Probably because it's a can of worms. Heuristics and slogans save us from opening it.
But these are interesting questions and you might validly decide that - yes - the State should be the guarantor of all limitations on personal suffering. Or you might validly decide that greater emphasis on personal responsibility as the key to a more fulfilling life.
I guess I'm somewhere in the middle - increasingly bemused by official interference in ordinary people's lives, but not quite a full libertarian. Rarely certain, as usual.
In other words, I don't know whether Kier Starmer's educational teeth-brushing strategy is a 'good thing' or not. Having had toothache, I wouldn't wish it on anyone and that definitely includes the kids who can't help being saddled with feckless or ignorant parents. In fact, it doesn't seem to stretch my credulity to imagine feeling marginally happier if I eventually hear that Starmer's idea had measurably reduced tooth decay.
But it's still not obvious to me where the ideal boundary between State and the person ought to be. I mean, consider our relationship with the common staircase. Millions of people every year are injured or even die going up and down the stairs. (Honestly, the figures are alarming).
Doubtless, given the will and the money, the State could reduce that toll. But again it seems ridiculous to think about it doing so, beyond perhaps sensible building regulations that only an idiot would object to.
Having long ago abandoned the minutiae of British news I'm going to guess that many people will hate Kier Starmer's teeth-brushing strategy (it makes me smile even to type those words) and will be complaining about the 'nanny state' whereas the lovers of technocratic intervention will leap straight to the accusation that those people just don’t care about kids in pain.
Yes, those slogans and intuitions are great for conserving cerebral energy.
Subscribing to lots of newsletters soon adds up. I know, because I’ve just reluctantly cancelled some subscriptions to release budget of £60 a month for online historic research tools. Paid subscription is also a commitment to future articles you might not even enjoy, even if one or two inspired you to shell out. The button below is to say you enjoyed reading this one.
My policy is to treat ‘Buy me a coffee’ like a pro-rata subscription. So, depending on what you give, I comp you paid subscription privileges anyway. If you already pay, your subscription is extended pro rata. Thank you to the gratifying number of readers who have donated in this way over the past month.
Research is hard. Who knew?
Regular readers know that I'm researching to produce an eventual book on the unit that liberated my town, here in Normandy. See Searching for Troop “A” (and also behind last week’s paywall for a further update).
It's going OK, if painfully slowly.
Having next to no background knowledge of military matters I'm constantly confused by the nomenclature of military units.
My specific interest is in Troop "A" of the 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Mechanized, which was part of the VII Corps and ended up variously attached for different actions with all manner of units.
The Troop here is just 132 men, from a Squadron of 733 men, part of a support grouping for the US 4th Infantry Division that consisted of many infantry regiments, tank groups, engineer battalions and so on.
And because they're reconnaissance troops they're constantly flitting from one place to the next.
To give you a flavour, here's where they fitted in to Operation Cobra, a few weeks after they passed through my town.
Frustratingly, many accounts written at the time talk only of the 4th Cavalry, from which the 4th and 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadrons were spun. Sometimes I'll be reading for an hour about a 4th Cavalry Troop "A" who eventually turn out to belong to the wrong Squadron.
And, seemingly because it's cavalry and horses were being replaced with motorised vehicles, there was constant flux in terms of organisation. And because it's reconnaissance, not just an assault force, it gets deployed all over the place. So, from the nice and easy to remember 4th Cavalry you end up with this kind of thing to bear in mind.
"The regimental headquarters troop became Headquarters and Headquarters Troop (HHT), 4th Cavalry Group (Mechanized); the 1st Squadron became the 4th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized); and the 2nd Squadron was renumbered as the 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized). In principle these were all independent units, though in practice the two squadrons were attached back to the group and usually stayed with it. The cavalry group, like the cavalry regiment it replaced, was a nondivisional unit, assigned at corps level."
In the case of my guys, they were with VII Corps, which was part of the 21st Army Group and the US First Army.
You aren't meant to be enjoying this. I'm just illustrating the task. It's my job to make it understandable, eventually.
And, because I'm relying entirely on primary sources, I've already discovered one error in a book which incorrectly identifies the Troop that liberated another town not far from me. A timely reminder that it isn't just Harvard presidents that need to mind their plagiarist Ps and Qs.
Throw in the fact that a fire in 1973, in St Louis, Missouri, destroyed millions of relevant documents, many of which were pertaining to my guys, and there seem to be no short-cuts.
Not complaining. I'm loving it.
The book will doubtless disappoint traditional militaria fans.
For example, they'd probably want lots in it about the M8 Greyhound Armoured car, with all its strengths, foibles and weaknesses, because that was one of their primary vehicles.
Or they'll want details about the German bunkers that the 24th reconnoitred, because they are fascinating structures.
Militaria fans also love stuff about insignias and weapons.
I probably won’t be writing much about those things. My project is about the guys. Who they were, what they did, who got home again and who didn't. And those whose lives were forever altered by enlisting to come to Europe.
One of Troop “A”, whose grandchildren I'm tracking down, seems to have had two stints in hospital in December 1944. First for shell fragments in his leg. Then, very soon after, for more severe facial and other injuries which kept him confined until January when the army said enough was enough and he earned an honourable discharge. It's no surprise that he worked a lot with injured veterans until his death in 2003, at a reasonable 81. He's called Harry Hall. Harry Franklin Hall. Say his name!
There will be tales of make do and mend ingenuity, like when a 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop (not sure it's 'my' Troop yet) come across some crashed P-51 Mustang fighter planes, retrieve the wing-mounted .50 caliber machine guns and install them on their Jeeps. As you do. These are definitely men's men.
I’m also learning who many of those killed in action were and in some ways they seem the most important men of all.
The mission continues, every day, in every available moment.
Once I've triple-checked some of these stories you'll be seeing them here, before anyone else (although I'll probably reserve the the most substantive ones for full subscribers).
If you can afford it, please consider upgrading. If you really can’t, and you want to see all posts, just email a request and I’ll upgrade you anyway.
Good thinking is good
A useful newsletter that I subscribe to, from outside of Substackistan, is The Imperfectionist by Oliver Burkeman.
I don't know Oliver, although we once had a quick email exchange for quotes in an article I wrote for The New European, but I enjoy the freshness of his thinking on familiar but seemingly intractable everyday problems or ambient worries. Loosely I'd describe him as a non-irritating 'self-care' and clearer thinking advocate.
This week's piece was about the feeling of obligation that often leads us to anticipate and take on other people's feelings. Not doing this is a skill that I think of as 'individuation' and it isn’t always easy.
This section articulates something I've thought a few times, after feedback on Rarely Certain.
"...when someone gets in touch (as they do, every so often) to confidently inform me that my posts ought to be shorter, or different in some other basic way, I don’t think “Oh, my goodness, what if I’m doing it all wrong?!” I’ll take constructive suggestions on board. But also, when I weigh such remarks against all the positive feedback, it’s usually obvious that they should probably just be reading some different newsletter instead. I’ll keep doing what I do, and they can keep feeling how they feel. No harm, no foul."
Read the rest below.
The example that always personally springs to mind for minimising the risk of harm is when hikers object to the protection of wolves in Europe, because they worry about no longer being the apex predator. Fair play to the shepherds, who don't want them around on cost grounds (although I disagree), but walkers? Really?