Why we should fear a world Empire

Universalists dream of a world empire in which a world government works to solve global problems, enforcing the same law all over the world.

There are many different ideologies that envision a world government, ranging from international socialism, to the brotherhood of Islam, to universal humanism. They squabble about what a world government would do or how it would justify its powers, but they share a dream of one world.

There are many different scenarios for how a world government would arise that truly has the power to force all other entities to abide by a single law. Some envision a collapse in ecosystems to force to a moment of enlightenment and contrition, leading to one government. Others have visions of conquest, either by arms or by divine persuasion. Others envisage a world government emerging in the aftermaths of some huge catastrophe, like a nuclear war, whereupon the survivors combine into one government. Yet others think it will emerge gradually from increased connectivity between nations and increased roles for existing international institutions.

I fear such a world government. I believe it would enslave the vast majority and lead to dreadful abuse, no matter how it arises. I have difficulties imagining it capable of remaining intact too, but that is another point.

My fear is based on the forces that disappear with the end of competing nation states.

A major force that disappears with a single governments is individuals voting with their feet, which currently forces countries to compete to attract talent and avoid losing talent. Countries do this because the individual elites in those countries benefit from having smart populations under their care. With a single world government, power is centralised and hence what matters to any local elite is their relation to the central governing system. What migrating populations do or think is then, at best, of indirect concern.

Another force that disappears is the pressure on a local elite to have the support of their population, simply because that is their power base. At present the need for that support leads the elites of countries to want to grow and to look after their populations, at least to some extent. With a centralised world system, that pressure no longer exists.

The loss of any interest in anything local is even worse at the central level, where the only pressure that remains is control of the single system and survival within it. We know from history exactly what that leads to: the centre becomes an Empire that absorbs all independent sources of power. Everything will be brought under central control. Businesses, villages, households, sports entities, culture, etc. Without the pressure to limit its power, the world will move to a Chine-style single Imperial system, but much worse because China always had some foreign pressures and its leadership could be taken over when it started to atrophy too much. When there is but one centralised government, we would get absolute control by an Imperial court.

We also know from centralised Empires what happens if some group wins absolute power and is practically without competitors: everyone gets enslaved and does the bidding of the Emperor, who becomes a god. The whole population then gets pressed into service to God. Previously that included building the Pyramids and the Terracotta armies.

Indeed, we know from human history that the move to absolutism is very rapid in a world empire: in the generation under which power is truly centralised, the deification of the leader(s) already emerges. The monstrous projects of the Chinese emperors began with the very first emperor, he of the Terracotta armies.

I have an even deeper fear, which is that enslavement might be the best future humanity can hope for. This fear comes from the realisation that in a world political system where you have lots of competing blocks that each have the weaponry to wipe out most of humanity, sooner or later most of us will get wiped out, either by accident or malice.

Would a single world empire under the rule of a human elite safeguard us from this though? I fear not. The history of empires has shown us that the fight for control simply shifts from open camps to hidden camps. Competition between the children of the emperor emerges. Different ministries compete. Army generals dream of revolt. Such tensions lead to assassinations and shadow societies at the top. When there is pressure on the whole system, due to climate disasters or a running out of food, the empire cracks and huge civil wars emerge. With devastating technology, the civil wars would be devastating, and perhaps exceedingly quick.

So I fear a world empire lead by humans and expect nothing good from it. My fleeting hope is the end of human control over world politics. A world empire lead by gods might just be workable.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, History, Philosophy, Politics - international, Politics - national, Society | 26 Comments

Is it the duty of the state to police a positive national history story?

Something very odd happens when people get told a story of how other people with some shared characteristic have behaved in the past: they take it personal and see themselves in those ‘ancestors’, even if they share no actual family relationship to those people and even though they were of course not involved anyway. When a group of people who see themselves as Polish now get told a story of how other people described as Polish behaved 300 years ago, that story becomes part of the self-image of the listeners, making them proud when they hear something that sounds good about those previous Poles. When hearing something bad or shameful, they feel bad about their own ‘Polishness’.

People thus cannot help but ascribe historical continuity in their story of how they relate to the history of their country. Honesty dictates they shouldn’t, but they do and that has enormous consequences for the telling of the history of groups. It makes history politically contentious and a potential reason to go to war, to break up a country, or to work towards a positive shared future. The history story of groups should not be treated lightly.

The inevitability that people see themselves in the story told about ‘the history of their country’ forces a country that wishes to remain united and strong to police the story of its own history. A unified country needs to punish those who put something too negative for the living into the story of that history. The alternative is a recipe for civil war and break-up into smaller bits that then are prepared to police their national story.

Poland shows you how that policing is done. Spain and the UK show you what happens if you don’t.

The Polish government, newly reelected in October 2019 with a majority in parliament, passed a law punishing anyone from mentioning Polish complicity in the Holocaust, despite ample evidence of enthousiastic complicity in WWII. After all, how could a thousand years of Catholicism in that area not lead to complicity? It is now illegal to bring up that evidence in Poland in a public forum.

The government also sacked the director of the national history museum and put a new one in place who ironed out any negative stories about Poles over the ages. The fault of any misdeeds in the past, like, say, the mass murder of the population of Gdansk by the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages, is now described as due to someone non-Polish, which means one must avert ones eyes when one looks at just who made up the rank and file in that army of the Teutonic knights.

Intellectuals are of course up in arms about this in Poland, but what the Polish government is doing can also be seen elsewhere in the world for the same underlying reason of needing a positive story for the population to buy into now.

[Added due to persistent misunderstandings:] One should of course not confuse the need for a positive history with blind adherence to the history telling of today, or that one should abide by the history telling of a large dominant group in a society. On the contrary, the logic of needing a positive story for the population to go forward leads one to advocate additional elements and changes in emphasis to the existing history telling to accommodate new migrants and marginalised groups in society. Rather than accepting a particular story and not revisiting history, one is then continuously updating one’s view of history to ensure (almost) no-one is depicted as having an evil history. What we are now seeing in the world is many countries re-defining their history, some indeed accommodating groups not previously catered for, but sometimes not accommodating the whole population but merely a large part of them. The history re-writing is inevitable, leaving out large minorities is not.

In India, a similar historic cleansing is underway to generate a continuous narrative from the Veddas to ‘modern’ Hinduism. In China, the government facilitated the creation of a story of 2,000 years of the Han Chinese nation, falling due to outsiders and rising again due to its innate greatness. We see similar processes in Turkey, Japan, South Korea, and much of Eastern Europe. In each case the new national history story is in a literal sense a made up story, concocted in committees and overseen by politicians, a fabrication that falls apart if you look too close.

It is not necessary that the actual events and interpretations in the favoured national history story are completely made up, though that is rather normal. What is necessary is that certain things are accentuated and others not, ie the perspective is always selective. Hence the new Polish national story does not have to pretend that the murder of the population of Gdansk did not happen, but it does require downplaying the role of anyone described as Polish as perpetrators.

We see stirrings of new history fabrications in the UK and Western Europe, usually in response to the failure to police or update old fabrications. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Geeky Musings, History, Politics - international, Politics - national, Religion, Society | 12 Comments

Academia: from inefficient effectiveness to efficient ineffectiveness

If, as I think, academia has gone from being inefficient but effective to being efficient but ineffective (a proposition I won’t defend here), the mechanism for making the switch was going from embodied cognition to abstract Cartesian cognition, or to be more precise from a rich to a shallow and superficial form of embodied cognition. Along the way a God’s eye view of the sector replaced a system in which the thinking and doing was deeply embedded in and emergent from the system.

The most important thing an academic system must do is determine relative academic merit. Alas, it’s also the hardest thing to do. Here we are at the forefront of human knowledge where literally every next step, if it’s worthwhile, is two things. It’s at the forefront of its field – which may require a substantial amount of learning and specialisation even to understand. And it’s uncertain as to its its outcome – as a rule radically so.

In this situation, the academic system we had in the 1950s was built around a centuries-old institution – the university. At least in its idealised form expressed by the conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshot, a university was “a corporate body of scholars … a home of learning, a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended”. Oakeshot’s description of the nature of scientific endeavour within universities helps clarify how potentially momentous our reform might have been:

Scientific activity is not the pursuit of a premeditated end; nobody knows or can imagine where it will reach. There is no perfection, prefigured in our minds, which we can set up as a standard by which to judge current achievements. What holds science together and gives it impetus and direction is not a known purpose to be achieved, but the knowledge scientists have of how to conduct a scientific investigation. Their particular pursuits and purposes are not superimposed upon that knowledge, but emerge within it. 

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Posted in Economics and public policy, Education | 8 Comments

Pedantry is not its own reward – and it’s certainly not ours!

Pedant 1Pedantry is alluring. Especially if one gets some aesthetic satisfaction from the way words are used. Take “begs the question” for instance. I love this term because it is such a simple, chummy way of naming something that’s maddening in is subtlety. To beg the question in its traditional meaning is to mistake the form of answering a question for its substance. One ‘answers’ the question by simply asking it again in another guise.

This can be the product of deliberate deception. But in my experience, and in some ways more maddeningly questions are begged more often by people deceiving themselves. They conclude their ‘explanation’ with great satisfaction, blissfully unaware that their explanation is no explanation at all. Here’s an example of begging the question – which involves answering a question by asserting its premise in different words.  From Wikipedia.

To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments.

Today, ‘begs the question’ is much more often used to mean ‘prompts the question’. “The minister says he wasn’t at the lunch, which begs the question ‘Where was he?'” This was a mistake a few decades ago. It pisses me off that it’s not still a mistake. But there you go. Language moves on. A small aesthetic diminishment of the language and that’s it. I don’t use ‘begs the question’ in this way that I dislike but I don’t pull people up on it either. Language is a socially given thing.

I recall a friend of my father’s objecting to the world ‘hopefully’ as in ‘hopefully nothing bad will happen to us’. If you think about it, other than its familiarity, this usage is a bit odd. Because it’s an adverb with an absent verb [I’m no great shakes at grammar so I won’t be surprised if someone corrects anything in this last sentence]. The more logical way to put it is “we are hopeful that nothing bad will happen to us”. But here’s the thing – well two things really:

  1. These horses have bolted so we need to get on with our lives
  2. Their cost can be almost entirely restricted to the aesthetic

But there’s a long tradition of schoolmarmish finger-wagging about precisely this kind of thing as occurred in this Age column by Stephen Downes. The author takes exception to people using the word ‘multiple’ to mean ‘many’. Like ‘hopefully’, I can see the logic in his point, but so what? I use the word in the way he deplores. With him having pointed it out, I might take to the aesthetic of being more pernickety about it. But so what? Others certainly won’t so it’s a lost battle already and, much more to the point a battle that’s hardly worth anything. Continue reading

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The British Film Festival

Top Picks

Trailer Icon 03 Military Wives (Opening Night)
The life of a military wife can be thankless. Separated from loved ones, their suffering and sacrifice go unnoticed while they live with the dread of a fateful knock on the door. But Kate finds freedom in song and persuades a ragtag group of women on the base to form the Military Wives Choir. Finding their voice together, the misfit choir put two fingers up to stuffy military tradition, anti-war protestors and their own personal differences. As friendships flourish, even the sceptical rebel and rocker Lisa is transformed by the choir’s friendship, humour and courage.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
☆☆☆☆☆ In The Seats

Grace and Edward have been married thirty-three years. When their son Jamie comes home to visit them in the fading seaside town where he grew up, Edward makes the shocking announcement that he intends to leave Grace. As the lives of the family unit begin to unravel through stages of shock, disbelief and anger, Jamie desperately tries to save the situation, while Grace is forced to face the possibility of spending the rest of her life alone.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
☆☆☆☆☆ The Upcoming

Ricky is a former construction worker in Newcastle, who lost both his building work and his chance of a mortgage after the economic crash of 2008. Easily impassioned, with a liking for the drink, he is nevertheless proudly hardworking and loves his two kids and wife Abby, an overworked contract nurse, and in-home carer. When Ricky takes a golden opportunity to buy a van, start his own business, and become a freelance deliveryman, things don’t quite work out as planned, and his already dire situation takes a turn for the worse. As the impossible demands of the job edge him further into debt and push his family’s relationship to the brink of collapse, we can only watch as his and Abby’s hopes turn from to confusion and despair.
☆☆☆☆ Cine Vue
☆☆☆☆ Eye For Film
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Mick Travis is a determined young man. Starting off as a coffee salesman, Mick is soon promoted within his company. But then a series of bizarre obstacles occur, all threatening Mick’s trajectory toward success. As Mick becomes smitten with the gorgeous Patricia, he winds up working for her father, the sinister executive Sir James Burgess, where things progressively get stranger.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the richest men in Russia, began a ten-year sentence for tax evasion. Many believed his downfall was challenging the newly elected president Vladimir Putin. During his decade in a Siberian prison, Khodorkovsky became a world-famous dissident. Today, exiled in London, he continues to battle Putin’s 19-year hold on power. With this exquisite cinematic portrait of Khodorkovsky, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney utilises more than 20 hours of interviews with the man himself, as well as conversations with Khodorkovsky’s friends and enemies.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

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Greek film festival

Top Picks

Trailer Icon 03 1968 (Opening Night)
April 4th, 1968: Greece is under right-wing military rule. In Athens, 80,000 people have gathered at the stadium, while millions are glued to their radios — like the tram driver who witnesses a miracle, the widow visiting the cemetery, the girl dreaming of her wedding day and the political prisoner cheering from his jail cell. Meanwhile, at a betting shop, old and new wounds resurface.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

The first film to tell the life story of the legendary Greek-American opera singer completely in her own words. Told through performances, TV interviews, home movies, family photographs, private letters and memoirs, the film reveals the essence of an extraordinary woman who rose from humble beginnings to become a glamorous international superstar and one of the greatest artists of all time. Callas believed that two different women lived in her: Maria, the woman who longed for a normal life, and Callas, the public figure and icon, from which an adoring public expected a transcendent experience every time she stepped onstage.
☆☆☆☆ Eye For Film
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
☆☆☆☆☆ UK Film Review

Trailer Icon 03 Perfect Strangers (*No Subtitles)
In this adaptation of an Italian box-office hit, during a dinner party, seven friends place their mobile phones on the table and agree to make all texts and calls public, in an attempt to prove that they have nothing to hide. Over the course of the evening secrets are revealed and lies are exposed.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Trailer Icon 03 Perimenontas Ti Nona (*No Subtitles)
In this light-hearted comedy, fun-loving, 40-something, best friends Hercules and Alexandros arrive in Naxos so Hercules can visit his gravely ill godmother one last time. On the island they meet Fotini, aka Phaidra, a Greek girl visiting from Germany, who quickly realises something about Alexandros’ identity. Along with Fotini’s German boyfriend Alex, she, Alexandros and Hercules form a tight bond before Alexandros finally learns the truth.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfil her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.
☆☆☆☆☆ Cine Vue
☆☆☆☆☆ Eye For Film
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB
☆☆☆☆ Slant Magazine

A blackly comedic drama about an overworked and repressed Cypriot housewife who – once she hits menopause – dreams of violent rebellion against her sexist husband.
☆☆☆☆ Eye For Film
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

A retrospective special selection of Greek-Australian shorts and award winners from the last nine years in two fabulous events. From documentaries about amazing grandmothers, to sharply satirical animations. From comedies in the kafenio to experimental spoken word pieces, dance films, music videos and award-winning dramas – the festival has endeavoured to bring an eclectic mix to audiences.

A film about a woman’s empowerment through employment, during the Greek financial crisis. Panayota is a 37-year-old mum who leads a quiet, modest life with her unemployed, domineering gambler husband Kostas, their rebellious daughter and their sensitive son. To ease the burden on her family, Panayota gets a job for the first time in her life, as a cleaning lady at a large DIY store. She becomes a model employee, gains financial independence and friendships but also faces a ruthless system of exploitation and competition. Meanwhile, her family life improves and she gains the respect and appreciation she never had. But how will a series of lay-offs at work affect her?
☆☆☆☆ Festival Reviews
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Set in a Greek community of sponge-divers in Florida, the film tells the story of Luka, a troubled teen who is grieving the loss of her aunt and is desperate to connect with her negligent father. While also struggling in her relationship with her pill-addicted uncle Peter, Luka befriends an older man and slowly uncovers her family’s mysterious past.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

A retrospective special selection of Greek-Australian shorts and award winners from the last nine years in two fabulous events. From documentaries about amazing grandmothers, to sharply satirical animations. From comedies in the kafenio to experimental spoken word pieces, dance films, music videos and award-winning dramas – the festival has endeavoured to bring an eclectic mix to audiences.
01. Adult
02. Anna
03. Athena
06. Hit
07. Maiden

Trailer Icon 03 The Taverna (Closing Night)
In this black comedy, Kostas, the owner of a Melbourne Greek restaurant, has employed Jamila, a single mother going through a bitter custody battle, as a belly dancer to entertain customers. When her ex-husband Arman and his new girlfriend Rebecca show up for dinner, she refuses to dance, prompting quirky waitress Sally to take her place. During Sally’s performance all hell breaks loose. Rebecca is abducted and Kostas learns that his son left the scene of an accident, fearing he’d killed the other driver and would fail a drug test. By the time the police arrive, there’s forgiveness in the air. But will this evening have a happy ending?
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB

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Is Trump a blessing in disguise for world peace?

Let’s first agree that if Trump is a blessing in disguise for world peace, he makes an exceptionally good disguise.

Trump’s bark is probably the worst of any US president in living memory. He has threatened the total destruction of North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and probably a few other countries. He has made belligerent and antagonistic statements towards nearly all the closest US allies in Europe and the rest of the world, with the possible exception of Israel. He has started trade wars with China, Canada, the EU, and lots of other countries. For private gain, it seems he drew back American support for the Ukraine government in the hope that this would get them to do his political bidding at home. He has similarly trashed the Iran nuclear deal that was the main hope of diffusing tensions in that region, and don’t even get me started on his management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or his stance towards climate change.

In terms of openly flouting the normal rules of international politics and diplomacy, Trump is the worst major leader I have encountered in my life-time, and I am old enough to remember Reagan and what the CIA was up to under his watch!

And yet, and yet. His bite is remarkably soft. Though his rhetoric and flouting is that of a bull in a China shop, there is a reasonable argument to be made that he has made the shop a lot safer because of his personal behaviour. Everything in the shop has been tightened up out of fear of disruption by the bull. Blessings can come in odd disguises!

Look for instance at his cosy relationships with several dictators of countries the US used to be close to war with. Putin of Russia, Kim of NK and even Xi of China. He gets on remarkably well with these characters, perhaps because they channel a bit of business towards his hotels, or he just enjoys the company of politically strong men. Whatever the reason for this though, this is basically very good news and has reduced tensions a lot. No-one in their right minds would have wanted the alternative of continued or even increasing hostility by a US president towards these characters.

Also look at the lack of new wars started by the US in his time in office. Perhaps because of his need for praise and self-confirmation, he seems to have destroyed the ability of the US State Department and the Pentagon to operate efficiently. As soon as a National Security Adviser gets too comfortable and starts getting things done, Trump fires that person so that someone else has to start again. This has reduced the ability to plan forward, including for new wars.

What is not to like about this? Anyone who, like me, believes the US in previous decades has been too gung-ho in starting new wars should see this internal disruption of the US security establishment as a huge blessing. On his watch, the US have not gone into any new combat zone that I know of, unlike for instance Saint Obama whose bite was worse than his bark. Continue reading

Posted in Death and taxes, Environment, Geeky Musings, History, Humour, Immigration and refugees, Politics - international, Society | 13 Comments