Monday, February 19, 2018

The Problem with Young Men

The so-called #MeToo movement continues to accuse prominent men of various transgressions ranging from serious sexual assault to what can only be described as poor manners. I wrote here about the hypocrisy of Hollywood and its celebrities who lecture us on all manner of moral causes while providing a safe haven for the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski, so I am not going to dwell on my scepticism for the motives of the whole movement. Rather, I would like to discuss the flip side of the coin - Western society's treatment of young men.

It is undoubtedly true that men continue to assault women in our modern, liberal society despite the emancipation of women in every sphere of life. However, when discussing this issue with women I am often surprised by their ignorance of the equivalent issue for men. The greatest victims of violence by men are other men. I have been the victim of reasonably serious assault several times in my life and I am by no means atypical - if women do not believe this I am sure a straw poll of their male friends will convince them otherwise (although men, perhaps even more than women, are often ashamed to admit they have been victims of violence). Women complain that every time they go out on the town or walk alone at night they are at risk of assault, but the situation is no better for men. Women are at greater risk of sexual attack but even that form of assault is not unusual for men. 

However, that is not the biggest problem for young men in our society. More serious is the disaffection of young men today. Sex is ground zero for the identity wars. We teach young men that masculinity is toxic and that femininity is all good - that masculinity is something to be restrained rather than nurtured, and that men are 'privileged' and women are 'oppressed'. The messages are succeeding if the success of women in surpassing men in education and career outcomes in every field (with the exception of science and technology) are any indication. If the intent is to hamstring men, then other indicators such as the high suicide rates for young and middle-aged men also show the success of this grand social experiment.

Young men get mixed messages and are understandably confused. If masculinity is so bad, why are so many women looking for a man to 'look after them' (and if you don't believe that, have a trawl through the ads on any dating website or application). Women want strong men, not weak, neutered, beta males. And yet young men are told that venturing any opinion in the presence of women is 'mansplaining', sitting in what is the most comfortable position for the male hips is 'manspreading', and showing even the most tentative romantic interest in a woman is sexual harassment. 

The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, whose lectures have packed theatres throughout the world and reached millions on Youtube (and whom I have written about about here), believes young men are seeking meaning and significance as an antidote to the toxification of their sex. Peterson advocates a return to the archetypes of our cultural roots - particularly, but not only, those of the Judeo-Christian scriptures - to provide that meaning and significance. He preaches a message of self-responsibility, short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit, and treading a fine line between order and chaos to live a fulfilling life. He has been surprised that most of his audience is young men, who invariably say his message is life-changing. Peterson brutally tells them to get their act together - that the world needs strong and resourceful men and you are no use to anyone as a weak, neutered, beta male - and they lap it up. 

I am not entirely comfortable with everything Peterson preaches as I think there is another fine line that must be tread - between his archetypal messages and religious fundamentalism. His lectures may be changing the lives of young men but so too are the messages of religious fundamentalists. The reasons thousands flock to Peterson's lectures are the same reasons young Westerners flock to Islamic State. The more our society tells young men that they are (paradoxically) useless, undeservingly privileged and a menace to women, the more they will seek alternative messages. Peterson is the voice of reason and a safe haven for disaffected young men but few commentators understand his appeal and many seek to dismiss his views as "alt-right" (whatever that means). They would do better to listen to what he is saying and to try and understand his message, because I think he is a force for good and the alternative is far worse.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Walter Isaacson's Magnificent Leonardo

One of the books I have read over the summer is Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson is probably best known for his highly-acclaimed authorised biography of Steve Jobs (which I would strongly recommend even to those who have no particular interest in Apple or its products), and he has excelled once again.

This book traces Leonardo's life from his illegitimate birth in Vinci, his apprenticeship to the painter Verrocchio in Florence, and his productive years in Milan, Rome and eventually France. We all know Leonardo was a brilliant polymath but Isaacson presents a level of detail about the great man's discoveries - in the fields as diverse as geometry, biology, irrigation, military machines, flight and the human body - that is fascinating. I knew about Leonardo's prototype flying machines and submarine, but Isaacson reveals far more obscure discoveries of the great man, many of which were only rediscovered centuries later - the most astonishing being an accurate description of the functioning of the human aortic valve that was only conclusively validated in 2014!

The author doesn't just capture Leonardo's achievements, he tells us much about the great artist and inventor as a man. Leonardo was gay at a time and in a place that was almost as tolerant as our own and, with the help of generous patrons, he had the space to pursue his art and science relatively free from harassment. We learn about Salai, the companion and lover Leonardo had for much of his adult life (and the subject of so many of his drawings), his difficult relationship with his father and his legitimate brothers, his popularity in the social elites of the cities in which he lived, and his love for sartorial finery.

Isaacson captures the important elements of Leonardo's character - particularly his obsessional pursuit of knowledge - that drove his many discoveries but which meant he finished few projects, much to the frustration of his patrons. However, the projects he did complete benefited from his incredibly detailed knowledge across so many fields. His studies of human anatomy, light and perspective are what made his paintings, particularly his portraits such as the sublime Mona Lisa, some of the greatest works of art of all time. Indeed, Isaacson concludes the book with a section 'Learning from Leonardo' in which he compares the traits he identifies in Leonardo - such as relentless curiosity and the ability to 'see the unseen' - with those of Jobs and Einstein (about whom he has also written). 

This is a book you have to buy in hardcover. It is beautifully produced with more than 500 glossy pages interspersed with full colour prints of Leonardo's greatest paintings, drawings and manuscripts, and is well worth the price.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Nunes Memo and the Russia Investigation

We are witnessing the unfolding of the most fascinating scandal in the American political establishment since Watergate. I am referring, of course, to the revelations of the Nunes memo. Devin Nunes is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which last week released a memo prepared for him by his staff that summarised the evidence presented to the committee about the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign's collusion with Russia.

In the last few days I have read many of the news reports about the release of the memo, the memo itself (which you can read here), some excellent analysis including this commentary in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), and this long but detailed background from economist Ross McKitrick. It is particularly worth reading McKitrick's document because it goes back several years and links to earlier events such as the Hillary Clinton email scandal, and it accurately predicts what was in the Nunes document even though it was written before the release of the memo.

The key revelations of the Nunes memo are as follows:

  • The FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to carry out surveillance against Carter Page, a Trump campaign advisor, by presenting to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court evidence that was contained in a dossier written by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele. It is worth pointing out that FISA warrants usually allow "two hops", meaning that the entire Trump campaign staff including Donald Trump himself would have been subject to surveillance under this warrant.
  • In applying for the warrant, and in subsequent renewals, the FBI did not reveal to the court that Christopher Steele was working for FusionGPS, a British research firm that was engaged by the Hillary Clinton campaign to conduct "opposition research" on Trump. The Clinton campaign paid FusionGPS nearly $1m to conduct the research, hiding the payment through a New York law firm called Perkins Coie. The FBI also did not reveal that they had significant doubts about the accuracy of the dossier, with then FBI Director James Comey calling it "salacious and unverified." The FISA warrants also relied on corroborating information from Yahoo News concerning a visit Page made to Russia in July 2016, which the FBI failed to disclose (and actually denied) also came from Christopher Steele. 
  • FBI officers were clearly engaged in a campaign to discredit president-elect Donald Trump, with text communication between two officers who were involved in the investigation saying, "there’s no way [Trump] gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40."
The Democrats and much of the media have criticised the release of the Nunes memo but no one has denied the salient facts, which indicate that the investigation into the collusion of the Trump campaign with the Russians was initiated because of highly doubtful information commissioned by the Clinton campaign, and that the FBI misled the court to obtain warrants. The latter is a very serious matter and McKitrick speculates that it will result in criminal charges, at a minimum against the FBI officers involved (including deputy director Andrew McCabe who resigned suddenly last week), Clinton aides such as Cheryl Mill and Huma Abedin, and possibly Hillary Clinton herself. He goes so far as to point out that presidential immunity from prosecution does not apply after a president leaves office, implying that if Obama knew about all of this, then he may face prosecution.

Finally, it is worth looking back on how Donald Trump has handled these matters. He received a great deal of criticism for sacking James Comey last year and was painted as a paranoid idiot for claiming that the Obama administration was carrying out surveillance against his staff at Trump Tower. We know he was considering sacking special investigator Robert Muller but decided not to. With what we now know, it looks like he was justified in all these actions. But other than that, he has remained largely aloof from the Russian investigation. 

I think Trump has played a blinder. He has given the FBI, the special investigator, and Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, all the rope they wanted. It is now tightening around their own necks.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Jail for damaging trees is an indictment on New Zealand

Every now and then I come across a story that makes me despair at the extent to which our individual rights are being eroded beyond the point of redemption. Just such a story was in the New Zealand media last week reporting how an Auckland developer, Augustine Lau, has been sentenced to two and a half months in jail for damaging trees on his own property. This isn't the first case of its kind in this country but it is a new milestone on a path that leads to the situation that exists in Bolivia, where trees and bugs have rights but those of humans are ignored.

My own residence in Wellington has a large section that my wife and I have restored to native forest, with new kauri, rimu and totara established amongst a miriad of smaller trees. Prior to our ownership, the property had been neglected and had been used as a rubbish tip. Our land adjoins public reserve land, which remains in a similar or worse state to what our property was originally, despite our efforts to persuade the local council to take better care of it. I state this so that readers will understand that I am not a philistine where the environment is concerned and to demonstrate that public ownership and interference in property rights is no guarantee of protection of the environment - in fact, quite the opposite.

The trees that Lau damaged were mostly pohutakawa, which are very common and so readily self-seeded that they tend to be a nuisance. They are certainly no General Sherman. But even if they were, trees on private property belong to the property owner and other than in a few cases where their removal may directly affect a neighbouring property (which would be covered by tort), no one else should have a legal interest in them. The fact that the Auckland Council is prepared to use the full force of the state's legal monopoly on violence against Lau for dealing with his own trees is an indication on how disproportionate our public planning laws have become.

It seems from the new reports that Mr Lau is not the most cooperative fellow and he appears to have a track record of breaches of the planning laws are concerned. In fact he sounds like a rogue. But nothing he has done comes close to justifying the Auckland Council's use of the state's legal monopoly on violence to deprive him of his freedom. This is a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a obstinate nut, and it is an indictment on the status of property rights in New Zealand that such a disproportionate response is possible under our planning laws.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Pregnant with power

I visit a massage therapist regularly to treat the occupational overuse syndrome I suffer as a result of spending a great deal of time at the keyboard. I imagine massage therapists have two types of clients - those who remain silent throughout the treatment and those who like to talk. I fall into the latter category and we enjoy conversations on a variety of subjects, usually about our interests in music, literature and even philosophy. This week we strayed into politics, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake.

My therapist expressed her delight at learning that the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was expecting a baby. She asked whether I shared her joy at the announcement. I responded that I was 'blasé' and that while I wished the Prime Minister and her partner all the best, I felt it didn't justify all the media acclaim it had received. I said further that I thought it would be very difficult for her to manage being pregnant and having a baby and the demands of the job, and that her determination only to take six weeks off seemed optimistic, given that every woman I know in similar circumstances has ended up taking considerably more time off work than they had initially planned. My therapist's reaction was as if I had said that all pregnant women should be chained to their beds for the entirety of their term!

It got me thinking about this whole business of Ardern being pregnant and I realised there is something about it all that makes me a little uncomfortable, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what it is. I wrote in this blog back in December of my concerns about the secret coalition agreement (which still hasn't been released) between Ardern's Labour Party and coalition partner New Zealand First. There was speculation at the time that the agreement covered, inter alia, what would happen when Ardern took time off to have a baby (i.e. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, whose party won just 7% of the vote, would become acting prime minister). The news that Ardern was aware that she was pregnant at the time of negotiating that agreement bears this out.

So what makes me uncomfortable is that our governing coalition saw fit to negotiate control of the levers of government taking into account Ardern's personal circumstances, but didn't feel the public needed, or had a right, to know. Why didn't they trust us to reveal this information earlier?

The entire media has been doing its best to convince us that Ardern's pregnancy is a very great thing for women and for New Zealand, but I'm not so sure. I think Ardern has put her personal interests ahead of the country and the power-hungry politicians in her coalition have gone along with it because it benefited them to do so. It may well be that Ardern can manage having a baby while being prime minister but the voters of New Zealand should have been the ones to decide that - and whether Winston Peters should be prime minister - not Ardern and her political cronies.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Jordan Peterson's adamantine weapons

I have been following Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson for some time and I believe he is one of the most profound thinkers and philosophers in the world today. Peterson could be described as a conservative, if only because he thinks that several thousand years of civilisation (and specifically the archetypes that underpin human morality) shouldn't be abandoned lightly, but in many ways his views are a radical alternative to everything that is taught in the social sciences today. He is best known for his lectures on the psychological significance of the Bible stories, some of which have been viewed than a million times on YouTube, and also for his controversial opposition to Canada's Bill C-16 (which I wrote about here).

Peterson preaches a message of self-responsibility - that individuals have the potential and ability to improve their lives and to deal with the crises and chaos that are inevitable in every human life - and he has been surprised to discover his lectures appeal particularly to young men. He puts this down to a social crisis of confidence in masculinity, which is a consequence of the post-modernist philosophy that drives group identity and victim-mongering in Western societies today. We teach young men that masculinity is toxic and that it must be sublimated to more worthy feminine traits. Peterson defends masculinity, pointing out that it is also about courage, nobility and resolution, and questions whether women really want to emasculate men (and as an amusing aside, he wonders why the fastest selling paperback book of all time, purchased almost exclusively by women, is about a sado-masochistic relationship between a dominant man and a submissive woman).

Peterson has been in the news again this week, this time for an interview he did with television news presenter Cathy Newman on Britain's Channel 4. Newman is a typical contemporary journalist, who doesn't see her role as being a presenter of truth and balance, but rather as an advocate for victim groups and a warrior against their oppressors. The interview focused on Peterson's belief that women in Western countries are not, for the most part, still discriminated against in the workplace. He rebutted Newman's contention that the disparity of female representation in some highly paid but stressful jobs, such as chief executives of public companies, is largely due to discrimination, responding that in his considerable experience of counselling people at the top of their professions, women often make different (and in his view more sensible) choices about what is important to them.

Newman wanted to portray Peterson as a sexist, misogynist defender of the oppressive patriarchy but Peterson didn't respond as most interviewees would. He didn't apologise, concede or allow his views to be misrepresented. Instead, he stuck to his guns, challenged Newman's premises, corrected her misrepresentations, and supported his own claims with evidence from his years as a clinical psychologist. Most of all, he remained good-humoured throughout the interview. It worked spectacularly - without any apparent effort or intent, he made Newman seem ill-prepared, irrational and inarticulate.

I think the best thing that Peterson has done is to show how the post-modernist worldview that dominates so much of today's public discourse, and that seems so daunting to those of us who try to challenge it, is built on intellectual sand. Truth and logic are adamantine weapons that when wielded by a skilled master, will cut through even the most formidable casuistry and cant.

You can watch the interview here.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Niall Ferguson loses the plot

I have been a fan of the renowned economic historian Niall Ferguson for many years. The bookshelves in my office, where I am writing this, contain his works The Ascent of Money, Empire and Civilisation. I think he added a lot to our understanding of the extraordinary dominance of Western civilisation since the 15th Century with his identification of six 'killer apps' that drove the West's political, economic and military growth - competition, science, the property owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic. Therefore, I had high expectations of Ferguson's latest book, which I bought a few months ago but only got around to reading over the summer holidays.

The Square and the Tower is about networks and their ability to challenge established hierarchical political and social structures. Ferguson starts with the Illuminati, the secret society established in Munich in the 18th Century whose membership came to include princes, archdukes, clergymen and intellectuals, and which some people claim is still around, pulling the strings of power like some grand puppet master. Ferguson, to his credit, dismisses most of the conspiracy theories, for example pointing out that the Illuminati was shut down by the Bavarian government within a few years of its establishment. 

Most of the book is Ferguson's usual mix of facts, analysis and interesting connections, but where it parts ways with his earlier works is in its conclusions about current day events. Ferguson may dismiss conspiracy theories in the case of the Illuminati but is happy to embrace them in respect of Donald Trump, giving plenty of credence to the "Russia hacked the election" conspiracy and ironically blaming "fake news" for Trump's 2016 election victory and Brexit. 

He goes on to paint internet and social media giants such as Google and Facebook as the present day Illuminati and thinks they are "profoundly inegalitarian" because they are still largely owned by their founders. He seems to pine for a resurgence of totalitarianism when he says, "A generation mostly removed from conflict - the baby-boomers - had failed to learn the lesson that it is not unregulated networks that reduce inequality but wars, revolutions, hyperinflation and other forms of expropriation." This is reinforced when he claims equivalence between China and America, i.e. "both states are republics, with roughly comparable vertical structures of administration and not wholly dissimilar concentrations of power in the hands of the central government." Seriously, Niall?

In some of the later chapters he demonstrates his ignorance of the technologies on which he comments, for example when talking about digital currencies he says, "Bitcoin seems extraordinarily wasteful of computer resources because of the fact that it is 'mined' [on computers]." It is precisely because it involves the work of huge numbers of computers that gives Bitcoin its value, something I would have thought the author of "The Ascent of Money" would be able to appreciate. But, not to worry, if Ferguson is right, we'll all be using China's crypto-currency in future.