Thursday, 28 June 2018

Distinguishing between fact and opinion

Only a quarter of Americans can tell the difference between facts and opinions, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

My initial response to this finding was one of surprise. I was surprised that it was so high. Anyone who pays attention to the US political media elite will have come across countless examples of highly educated members of the American elite representing opinions as facts and pretending that facts are mere opinions. One even comes across American university professors who, with obvious sincerity, present opinions as though they were facts. In a society where even the best educated cannot apparently tell the difference between fact and opinion, it is amazing that Pew could find in a representative sample so many Americans who could. The implication would appear to be that the political media elite are deliberately eliding the distinction between fact and opinion.

There is another possibility, which is that because the study made it obvious that it was testing the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and defined the terms, and then immediately presented statements that were easily categorised, the study inevitably over estimates the ability of Americans to make the distinction. If this suggestion strikes you as overly cynical, I can only invite you to take the quiz for yourself.

This widespread inability to distinguish between fact and opinion probably helps to explain why the completely evidence-free, constantly changing, nonsense that is Russia-gate is apparently believed by so many Americans. Russia-gate is, of course, only the tip of a very large iceberg of supposedly factual narratives that are believed by millions of Americans despite a lack of evidential support. Such narratives are pushed daily by all the major news media (which in the US are owned and controlled by a mere handful of corporations). Daily readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post, viewers of CNN and MSNBC are fed a diet of false stories that present opinions as facts.

When the whole of the political media elite sees its role as propagandising, it is hardly surprising that people give up on facts and simply select the narratives that conform to their existing biases and interests, and decide their own opinions are fact, and the claims of others are mere opinions. This latter point is brought out in the statistical analysis of the Pew study. Republicans were likely to rate opinions they agreed with as facts, and opinions they disagreed with as opinions. Similarly they were likely to rate facts they agreed with as facts and facts they disagreed with as opinions. The same tendency was demonstrated by Democrats. These are deeply depressing findings, for they strongly suggest that it is impossible to persuade by the use of facts. And a society that no longer values facts is but a step away from deciding every issue by nothing other than force.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Emotion substitutes for evidence and logic

In the politics of postmodernist-neoliberalist-globalism emotion has taken the place of evidence and logic. The political media elite no longer even pretend to be concerned with facts. Examples of this truism can daily be seen in the debates that decorate the parliaments of the so called liberal democracies and the narratives that fill the endless content of the corporate news media.

Consider, for example, the treatment of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" of illegal aliens. Instead of a dispassionate analysis of the policy, it is presented in purely emotive terms. Rachel Maddow, the Russophobic MSNBC anchor, was apparently unable to articulate her report for the tears. And there was nothing exceptional about this. Other television anchors have been moved to tears over the plight of suffering children. The jihadi propaganda, dubbed, the Aleppo Boy, had the same effect.

But these are merely obvious examples of this preference for emotion. Day in and day out, the political media elite push their preferred narratives by privileging emotive rhetoric. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, specialises in emotive, moralising. She takes pictures of children into the UN Security Council and attempts to use them as proof. Yet when actual witnesses are presented, they are denounced. When actual evidence is presented, it is ignored or dismissed as propaganda.

This privileging of emotion does more than merely exclude facts and dispassionate analysis. It hides the real sources of power and influence, responsibility and accountability. Yesterday's report on the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of patients in Gosport Hospital was discussed in parliament. Everyone condemned the deaths and expressed their feelings and hoped things are now better. But the killings were not an aberration. They were the result of policies and institutionalised practices, put in place by the elite. The members of parliament, so fulsomely expressing their feelings, were wearing green hearts to show the world their solidarity with the victims of the Grenfell fire. Yet the people responsible for Grenfell fire were the same elite. The fire was a result of institutional policies and practices: policies and practices that have been developing for decades, ever since Thatcher imposed neoliberalism on the country.

In contemporary British society neoliberal imperatives are more than dominant; they are hegemonic. Neoliberalism is simply taken-for-granted, as though there were no alternative. But there are alternatives, which is why postmodernism is so essential. The postmodernist denial of objectivity and determinism, of evidence and logic; the notion that they are just narratives and that any narrative is no more valid that than any other, enables the political media elite to present whatever narrative it chooses as the narrative. But as the official narratives are all premised on the imperatives of neoliberalism, they cannot be honestly presented. Instead, they are wrapped in specious appeals of humanitarianism: "we" have to bomb Libya back to the middle ages to protect the people; "we" have to bomb Syria to uphold international law; "we" have to accept open borders and mass immigration for the sake of the children.

In these narratives, there is no room for the facts, no space for a cost benefit analysis, no opportunity for a consideration of alternative views. Postmodernism, whilst explicitly asserting that all views are equally valid, paradoxically collapses into totalitarianism, as when evidence and logic are excluded, the only way to arbitrate between differing views is power: and that power is neoliberalism. Everyone, and every institution, is required to accept the doctrines of neoliberalism, no matter how inappropriate or absurd or counterproductive. So health care becomes an industry, seeking to minimise costs and maximise profits and exacerbate inequalities. Regulations, purportedly in place to protect residents, are in fact remodelled to facilitate in the interests of corporations. Educational institutions are forced to compete to churn out ever more qualified people, who are ever less questioning or even capable of questioning. The senior ranks of police force are ever more skilled in parroting management speak and public relations spin, whilst violating the rights of the very people they are supposed to be protecting. And all this is hidden from view by a constant torrent of emoting and judging.

When emotion substitutes for evidence and logic, totalitarianism, increasing inequality and social dysfunction is the inevitable result.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Parliamentary theatre

It is a cliche to describe the set piece debates that pass for politics in the House of Commons as theatre. However, yesterday's performance certainly demands the appellation.

Prime Minister's Questions was hardly underway, when Mr Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists moved the that the House sit in private, causing the Speaker, Mr John Bercow, no little stress and forcing him to consult with his clerks (an archaic term for his expert assistants). Bercow denied Blackford's motion, suggesting that it could be dealt with after the session, which would have completely defeated Blackford's purpose. Instead of an argument about the procedural rules of the House, Bercow preferred to ensure that the televised coverage of the set piece debate continue uninterrupted. An outraged Blackford refused to cooperate and Bercow banned him for the rest of the day. Blackford, along with the rest of the Scottish Nationalist MPs, marched out of the House and declared their intention to use parliamentary procedures to sabotage parliament and the business of the government.

Later the House moved on to debate the Exiting the European Union bill. This too was pure theatre, and not merely for the obvious reason that no one's vote was going to be effected by the debate. Much more dramatic was the fact that the Remainers could not help but flaunt the antinomies that lie at the heart of all their rhetoric. Remainer after Remainer, all of whom are committed to maintaining the subordinate role of the British parliament to the unelected institutions of the European Union, insisted that parliamentary sovereignty gave parliament the right to micro-manage the executive's negotiations with the European Union (a position that no supporter of parliamentary sovereignty has ever held).

The drama was stepped up (or down depending on one's taste) to the level of soap opera by the Remainers throwing personal insults at those committed to leaving the European Union. Ken Clarke called his own party colleagues a group of "head-bangers". Implied accusations of racism were standard fare.

Hillary Benn, the self appointed leader of the New Labour MPs, decided to explain the options available to the country by resort to an analogy. In his Brexit for Dummies presentation, the European Union is an ocean liner and the Brexiters are wanting to get off. There is the option of jumping into the cold and dangerous sea, the "hard" Brexit or there is the option of a lifeboat, a "soft" Brexit, ie, pretending to leave, whilst actually remaining subject to all the rules of the European Union. According to Mr Benn, the government have done nothing but bicker about the colour and shape of the lifeboat and all that remains is for a minster to announce that no lifeboat is better than a bad lifeboat - the Remainers laughed and laughed. Politics as ridicule.

Nevertheless, there were some attempts to actually address issues, such as Chuka Umunna, who cited himself and his parents as proof that open immigration policies are good for the country. He told the House that people who were opposed to immigration were simply wrong: immigration was in their interests - who would have thought it, the problem wasn't the European Union, it was the ignorant electorate, who voted the wrong way. Perhaps, the Remainers should elect a new people.

And this is really the heart of the Remainers' position: they are still (two years later) unreconciled to the result of the referendum. They simply cannot accept that the people voted to leave the European Union. Unable to accept this reality, they resort to any contortion of logic and evidence, they descend to any rhetorical device, they steal the clothes of their adversaries, they invent facts, they replace evidenced argument with emotive pyrotechnics. Whilst it makes for terrible politics, it undeniably makes for entertaining theatre.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Corporate media's crimes against humanity

Eva Bartlett is an independent journalist. Her coverage of the war in Syria has been studiously ignored for the most part by the political media elite. The only exception to this is a few attempts by the corporate media to portray her as a propagandist, which is beyond ironic.

Bartlett's latest article published by RT ought to be compulsory reading for all the supporters of "the rebels" in Syria. It is based on the testimonies of Syrians in eastern Ghouta about what life (and death) was like under the so called rebels. These accounts are not for the squeamish or faint of heart. They speak of horrors of jihadist control - the preferred outcome for Syria of the promoters of the regime change operation. These testimonies also explode the Hollywood mythological representation of the White Helmets, showing them to be the propaganda arm of the jihadis.

The witnesses speak of the hoarding of food and aid by the jihadis. They tell of the torture and execution of people for such "crimes" as attempting to sell food cheaply or being suspected of supporting the government. They tell of the caging of people to use them as shields for the jihadis. They tell of the barbaric methods routinely employed by the "rebels".

The witnesses informed Bartlett about the activities of the "heroic" White Helmets. They told Bartlett that the White Helmets were foreigners with plenty of money. (The organisation was created by a "former" MI6 officer with funding from the United Kingdom Foreign Office.) They said that the White Helmets were partners with Jayish al Islam and the other terrorists. They spoke of how the White Helmets had staged atrocities, which they blamed on the Syrian government - fake stories the corporate enthusiastically retailed to the world.

Yet that same corporate media has ignored the people of eastern Ghouta since they were liberated by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies. This current lack of interest in the people of eastern Ghouta clearly reveals the fact that the corporate media isn't simply making mistakes in its reporting of the war in Syria (which is in fact a foreign regime change operation), it is deliberately engaging in propaganda to promote war crimes and crimes against humanity. As the Nuremberg Tribunal trial of Julius Streicher demonstrated, such propaganda constitutes crimes against humanity.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Russophobia compulsory

The Victoria Derbyshire show on the BBC is a pretend news programme, which makes a point of pushing a liberal, progressive agenda. It has campaigned for just about every liberal cause imaginable. It is especially vocal in its opposition to racism. The clever people at the BBC find this completely congruent with the corporation's duty to be completely impartial and disinterested.

This morning's edition of the show focused on the upcoming football world cup in Russia. The theme was the issue of whether or not it will be safe for England fans to attend the world cup. The presenter was especially worried about the safety of black and gay fans because, as everyone knows (at the BBC) Russians are racist homophobes. I wish this was mere hyperbole on my part, but it isn't. One of the (specially selected) guests even offered the example of Kiev football hooligans as proof of how terrible Russian football fans behave.

The notion that Russians are all racist homophobes was apparently so obvious as to need no support at all. This level of Russophobia is, of course, endemic in western "liberal" discourse. The same people who will denounce as "hate speech" any negative comment about Islam or Muslims or homosexuality or the mere questioning of whether someone can choose his or her gender; the same people who will denounce as ignorant racists anyone who voted Leave in the European Union referendum or fails to denounce Donald Trump; the same people who take it for granted that it is Terrible to say anything critical about another based on ascribed qualities are completely content to demonise anyone and everyone on the basis of being Russian (which might be citizenship, ethnicity, or language).

On the Victoria Derbyshire show, the invited Tory even went so far as to explicitly denote Russian as a race, which should, according to his and the BBC's own self avowed values, make critical comments about Russians and Russia racism. But racism against Russia and Russians is not only permissible, it is in fact a booming industry for the political media elite. Promoting negative, evidence free narratives about any other social group would result in a torrent of denunciations, howls of execration, and even criminal prosecution. Yet the invention of negative, evidence free narratives about Russia and Russians is met with praise and plaudits.

The BBC will not be receiving a visit from the police for broadcasting hate speech because Russophobia isn't just an acceptable form of "liberal" racism, it is compulsory.