Category Archives: Politics

Liberty in the Post-Industrial Society

“We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure.” —Karl Popper

Do the ideas of 19th century philosophers on ‘liberty’ have any relevance to society following the advent of the ‘technological revolution.’

“Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”(1) So speaks Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

The character Gradgrind expresses the Utilitarian view held by ‘philosophical radicals’ of the nineteenth century such as Jeremy Bentham, a friend and close political associate of one James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill.

What is particularly interesting about this admittedly loose connection is that Theodore Roszak in Cult of Information (1986) begins the chapter entitled ‘The Politics of Information'(2) with this same quote and lends weight to my argument that the ideas of 19th century philosophers, and John Stuart Mill in particular, have a direct relevance in today’s society and the society that we may find ourselves in tomorrow.

Allow me to elucidate. Roszak’s work, subtitled ‘The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking’ deals with the rise in the status of ‘information’ through three decades of rapid technological advancement and puts forward the view that “like the unfortunate emperor in the parable, the computer has been overdressed with false claims by those with something to gain by it-elements in our society who are making some of the most morally questionable uses of computer power”.

The abuse of technological power is rife in today’s society and there are many examples of computers being used as a tool to control the masses rather than as an aid to the advancement of society and the benefit of the individual. It is particularly sad that those who have set out to subvert the development of technology in an effort to bring it to the people have generally failed.

In 1984 with its Orwellian overtones a company started by two college ‘kids’ in a garage launched a new computer; “Apple announced the Macintosh’s arrival with the most famous advertisement in the history of the high tech industry. Into a dismal workhouse full of inmates with shaven heads, being harangued by the magnified face of Big Brother on an oversized screen, runs a brave young woman athelete who hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, shattering the image of Big Brother. The symbolism may seem overblown now but at the time it represented the way Jobs [Steve -, then head of Apple] fel about himself, Apple, and the Macintosh. IBM then seemed to be an unstoppable force, and Jobs saw himself and his computer as instruments of liberation and democracy”(3)

The two ‘kids’ were Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak. The computer was the Apple, it was built out of surplus chips from the aviation industry and along with the Altair was one of the first ‘personal computers’. But, I hear you cry, where is the argument concerning liberty? Liberty, in at leat one form at any rate, is concerned with freedom, and Jobs and Wozniak brought a stake in the computer revolution to the man on the street.

There is always the possibility for corruption unless society ceases to exist. Therefore, perhaps Jobs’ view that he was bringing ‘liberation and democracy’ to people was founed on the belief that the big corporations were treating their users as if they belonged to them and were under obligation to support them. This is typical of IBM’s attitude to business in the 1970s.

Generally speaking, most major technological developments are related to the military, usually through research grants etc. This means that a situation occurs that Marx would have attacted as strongly as he did capitalism. Technology is power. In capitalism the means of production are held by the few and the proletariate are shackled to the system. In a society where the military has all the computers it is not difficult to envisage a police state.

In Singapore today computers pervade every part of daily life. Any transaction that takes place, all the work of government and its services, including the police and military, is monitored and controlled by computer. Every citizen carries an electronic identification card. The possibilities are terrifying. The British government wants to introduce a similar identity card scheme. It has said it will not force people to carry them but once retailers start asking for them, then the police, they will become a requirement.

In the past there have been many views of liberty but there are two that arise on a regular basis; the negative and positive ideas. The positive holds that a man is unfree to do something when is prevented by his passions. However, in today’s society this is seldom the case. Governments have legislated against most known drugs with no other function than to induce good feelings and they the British government have made it clear that were alcohol introduced for the first time tomorrow they would ban it. This may sound like a good idea but then you are unfree to do as you wish, to ‘shoot up’ on heroin, ‘drop’ ecstasy, smoke ‘dope’ or just get plain old drunk.

It then becomes clear that we live in a society where the negative view of liberty becomes prevalent. This states that a man is unfree to do something if another preventing him from doing so. The government is preventing you from being free by introducing legislation. If freedom then is the specific liberty to ‘do as you please’ (Plato) then the government would probably rather stamp it out so that everything you do would be covered by some legislation. With the introduction of technology they now have the means to do this.

Did you know, for instance, that many of the automatic teller (cashpoint) machines that you use on a regular basis have hidden video cameras behind them? They are there to catch fraudulent card users but in a society that already has a declining level of freedom, some would argue, how far down the line is it until the government is using these cameras to monitor suspected dissidents etc.?

After the Hegelian period of thought follow Marx, Mill and Bakunin and others. Mill argues for absolute freedom of action. The freedom to do what you want, but with the proviso that no one else must come to harm because of your actions.

. Marx argues that liberty does not come from being free to do as you wish but from society.

In his lecture on Individual liberty J.P.Day points to the generally accepted view of liberty. Day is only concerned with individual liberty and he defines this by what it is not, i.e. collective liberty of religious organisations, individual liberties (as separate entities) etc. Individual liberty then is the freedom of the individual and it is this ‘moral right’ that he argues must be safeguarded. It may only be restrained, he argues, “if the moral obligation to respect the right is overborne by some stronger moral obligation”. By this he means that for example C1 is free to do X where X does not impinge on C2 and should C1 attempt to do X if it does then R has a moral obligation to prevent C1 from doing so (where C1 and C2 are subsets (individuals) of the group C (citizens), X is an act causing harm to any C (e.g.. murder) and R (Rex) is the government). Thus if I am free to do as I please I may choose to kill you but this would cause you harm and so the government has a moral obligation to restrict my freedom to prevent your harm.

Day starts out by defining two concepts of liberty, 1) the intrapersonal concept (A is unfree to do X because he is a slave to his passions), and 2) the negative or interpersonal concept (A is unfree to do X because A is restrained by X from doing B; as in the previous example). Day selects the latter definition as the more accurate and goes on at some length to explain it.

He argues for the right of liberty of tastes and pursuits pointing out “R injures each individual C if R deters or prevents him from his pursuit of happiness”. He carries on by essentially summing up the U.N. declaration of HUMAN RIGHTS;
liberty of association (to belong or not to any group of your choice) etc.

Finally he mentions the differences between moralistic, ‘good Samaritan’, and paternalistic legislation. For instance you can legislate to ensure a person’s right to live (moral) and this is acceptable to all, it is negative in that it prevents an ill action from taking place. Also you can legislate to ensure a person’s right to shelter (‘good Samaritan’) however where the person receiving is CN, the group that must support this right with their income is all C. Finally (this time I mean it) You may make paternalistic legislation designed to prevent C from self injury by doing activity X (Day gives the example of taking heroin). Through paternalistic instincts R can seek to protect C from himself based on a ‘moral’ right to do so. However where do you draw the line at self abuse – drinking is bad for you so therefore is not morally right to ban it and set up punishments for those doing so?

Quote from Alduos Huxley, “But if you want to be free, you’ve got to be a prisoner. It’s the condition of freedom – true freedom”. He also discusses ‘Freedom and Liberation’ by Benjamin Gibbs whose main conviction lies in the belief that a free society is “one that makes its people do what is right and good…[while also] making them desire to do it understanding it is right and good”. Again we get the subjective moral judgement of the majority over the minority (see other lectures).

Flew claims Gibbs is quite critical of Mill’s theories of liberty, almost a ‘mirror image’, but Gibbs responds to this claim in the following lecture. Flew criticises Gibbs’ terms of liberty but he does not give the whole picture. The main argument is over whether a person who sells himself into slavery is free because he has chosen to do so. Flew argues he is not, Gibbs that he is.

Gibbs states that Flew has made a ‘grotesque misrepresentation’ of ‘Freedom and Liberation’ and that he was misguided to couple his views of freedom with the phrase from ‘1984’.

Gibbs notes that freedom has different meanings and tries to correct the ‘damage done’. Gibbs’ work is concerned with the rights and wrongs of slavery (see above). He also argues that liberty is not necessarily violated when people are coerced to conform to a given set of moral standards, he raises the examples of life style , alcohol abuse etc.

In Liberty & Compulsory Education, P. Gardner presents the argument that we treat children as having fewer rights than adults and that this is the reason we treat them the way we do. He refers to Mill’s ‘Subjection of Women’ and likens it to our treatment of children. He also points out that it is not usual for unruly adults to be sent to corrective schools (while they remain inside the law), or for illiterate, inummerate and otherwise socially handicaped grown-ups to be sent to institutions to correst their problems. Why then, he asks, do we force our children to go to school.

He continues to argue that children have as many rights as any other group of individuals and it is only because society as a whole refuses to think in this way that the process of ‘subjecting’ children is legitimated. In other words the ‘moral’ majority has control over the minority (children) and while the intentions may be good the result is a restriction of freedom. This refers back to arguments for individual liberty (see previous lectures).

Shelly’s ‘Prometheus’ shows another idea of freedom, the stoic, as the man enchained by the ruler of the rulers and discusses the idea of ‘Promethean Freedom’ which I cannot claim to fully understand. He goes on to show that the true spirit of freedom that cannot be shackled (as in the quote) is that of inner sanctum. You still remain free to some degree until they take away your life.

He refers to Marx’s view that materialism reduces freedom. He also mentions Thomas Mann’s ‘Dr Faustus’, “Law, every law, has a chilling effect, and music has so much warmth anyhow, stable warmth, cow-warmth…that she can stand all sorts of regulated cooling off–she has even asked for it”

D. A. Lloyd Thomas discusses the relationship between property and liberty and Mill’s arguments about property rights and freedom. The simplest way to sum up Mill is to say ‘Do what you like’-Plato, ‘but don’t harm anyone’. First part fine, last part subjected to moral judgements (if you kill yourself do you harm your family?). One argument runs you are only free if you have the means to do what you want to do. I’m free to travel to Mars. No-one is stopping me from going. The problem is I am earthbound because space travel costs money. However, it could be argued that money itself is a restriction on freedom quid pro quo ‘all property is theft’-trad.

1) page 1 Hard Times by Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 1989)

2) page 180 The Cult of Information by Theodore Roszak (Paladin Books 1988)

3) ‘The Computer Wars’ – James Fallows, published in the New York Review of Books, Volume XLI, Number 6, March 24, 1994

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Politics, Society


Pressure Group Politics

“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” —Gore Vidal

Political parties seek the power of government whereas pressure groups merely seek to influence the exercise of that power. Is this still true or are pressure groups more powerful than that?

Since Thatcher’s depature as Prime Minister British Politics has shifted strongly towards a system based on pressure groups rather than party loyalty. There is evidence that the country was moving in this direction anyway, for example the poll tax riots, but as a charismatic leader Thatcher united the party and the voters in two consecutive elections behind her.

With the demise of the charasmatic leader and the Conservative party in such disarray that Major recently described himself as the “head of a coalition government” the opportunity for pressure groups to increase their support as political party membership declines are only just beginning to open up.

Pressure groups are also known as cause groups and it is important to remember that publicly minded individuals are not the only ones stalking the halls of Westminster. Companies exist with the sole purpose of lobbying MPs. If you want to stop a bill getting passed that would harm you or your company, usually financialy, then you can hire one of these lobbying companies to work on your behalf.

Not all of these companies are above board as demonstrated by recent scandals involving “cash for questions” and two public enquiries. There are still individuals, such as the Sultan of Brunai, who have the power to buy off individual politicians. Allegations about the sultan himself are false and his integrity is not in question but it is clear from a series of resignations that whoever is doing the purchasing – there are MPs who can be bought.

While we appear to have sidestepped the question here it is important to demonstrate that individuals now hold more power in British politics. This is a direct result of the lack of a unified strategy at the top. While many analysts lamented the passing of cabinet government in the 1980s it must be said that it did mean that individuals had to toe the line. The main result of this was funds going directly into Conservative Party coffers instead of to individuals but it kept the image of the party a little cleaner.

Labour of course is as corruptible as the Conservatives. Until the rejection of everythiung the party stood for by the Blair contingent the Unions had the power to control individual MPs although this was done through patronage rather than cash. A similar situation existed with the Democrats in the US in the ’70s who owed their dues to Big Labor and when McGovern became the Democratic nominee for President in the campaign of ’72 at one point it looked as if they would let him lose to Nixon to regain control of the party in time for ’76.

After a second detour we now return to the main question. There are two kinds of pressure groups often defined as Insider and Outsider. However we are at an intersting point where some of the Outsider groups are on the verge of becoming insider groups. I will elaborate. Insider groups are those accepted by the establishment, they may even have been set up by the establishment such as the RSPCA. These insider groups will generally be called to advise select committees and to give their views on new policy affecting their area of interest. They are respected by the establishment and their views are thought to correspond to the general populace.

On the other side of the fence are the outsider groups who are not recognised by the establishment. They me be proscribed (illegal) groups such as the IRA or animal rights terrorists such as the ALF but there are also groups whos views are considered too eccentric or out of kilter with the views of Joe Public to matter – The Hunnt Sabatoeurs Association a few years ago for example. What is interesting is that groups like the IRA have apparently abandoned their form of lobbying – para-military activities, because it was not effective and are moving into the political process while other groups are moving away from the party system and directly into lobbying.

Public pressure groups need not be affiliated to an indivdual party, usually they are not. But they work with the parties to find sympathetic MPs who will argue their cause in Parliament. Only insider groups can be successful in doing this but a recent list of active pressure groups included over 400 groups in areas as diverse as Community Action, Animal Welfare, Farming, Ethnic Minorities, Unemployed, Drugs/Addiction, Education, Families, Aged, Wildlife, Environment, Health, Disability, Counselling, Housing, Sexuality, Religious, and Women’s groups.

What was the question? Where do pressure groups end and parties begin in Britain today? Well something like that. The Green party is a one cause party – it aims to get elected to put together policy on one issue, its policy on everything except the environment is a curious mixture of Luddite/Communist thinking coupled with liberal values and harsh taxes. The two main one issue parties in Britain are Plaid Cymru and the SNP who want independence of some sort for Wales and Scotland respectively. None of these three parties ever get taken particularly seriously although the big three do steal policy from the Greens occasionaly. If they do get their MPs elected the only time they can influence the government is when it comes to cutting deals to get government policy passed. Therefore those who do not a have their own party have turned to lobbying.

One MP in reality holds much less power than a nationaly organised band of voters fanatically loyal to their cause. If exports of live animals are going to stop it is because of the attention that pressure groups have brought to the issue and this is where there power lies. Because they are not political party organisations they can dedicate their entire resources to accomplashing one goal and in turn this gives them a wider base of support htan the political parties. This explains why party membership is down and pressure group membership is up. There are only six parties in mainland Britain that have any chance of getting an MP into parliament and the Monster Raving “Liberal” Loonies are only on that list because people are eventually going to get so sick of politics that if they are going vote it will be for the anti-politicians.

So we have established that pressure groups have immense power, backed by numbers of people who, at least on a local level, vote on issues rather than party politics – except when expressing disgust with the national Tory government. How do they use that power? They mount massive media campaigns, hog air time by harranging decommisioned oil rigs in the North Sea, get beaten up by fox-hunters, appear on current affairs programs with inside views. Representing a body of experience and knowledge and with national and often international, sans frontiers, support they can direct the political agenda and the public policy making machine often with more success than the incumbent political party.

In summary pressure groups do not often seek to influence the excersise of power in Westminster, they represent that power themselves and in so doing have often knocked big business into a close second and the unions onto the back burner. This of course was made possible by Thatcher’s precision bombing of the unions’ foundations and giving business almost everything they wanted. Business will return to power when it comes to the crunch on the issue of a single currency for Europe – they wan’t it and they don’t care how they get it even if they have to support Labour. Until then pressure groups are the main-stay of British national politics and no media report on any political issue would be complete without the opinion of an analyst from the relevant group.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Politics


The Rights of Man

“All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.” —Edmund Burke

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was written for a number of reasons but one main one was as a reply to a speech that Edmund Burke made in Parliament against the French Revolution. This speech denounced the Revolution and at the same time praised the existing English system of government.

As Eric Foner says in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Rights of Man, “The Burke-Paine debate was the classic confrontation between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and equality, order and revolution.”

Paine and Burke had been acquaintances for some time before their divergence of ways. Burke had been an advocate of the American revolution and is acknowledged by Paine in his preface to the English edition of Rights of Man; “From the part Mr Burke took…it was natural that I should consider him a friend to mankind.”

It is over the French Revolution and the English government that the great divide came. Burke’s view was that change should come gradually and it should be carried out by the system. Paine saw that in some cases, most of Europe in fact, the system would not accommodate change and must thus be overthrown for the benefit of the ‘nation’ as a whole.

Here they differed again. Paine defined the ‘nation’ as the people who made up the country but Burke saw it in terms of its rulers – the monarchy. While Pained argued for the rights of a ‘nation’ to choose its own form of government, Burke saw government as an inheritance from the past; the right of Monarchs to govern the people, choose their ministers etc. Burke also saw all that which was written on the statute books as binding to all ‘citizens’ of the ‘nation’.

Paine attacks this argument, noting that laws are only valid as long as they are observed and that they may be repealed. While Burke talks at length of the importance of Authority and Religion, Paine uses the religious argument to say that as God created man there was no precedent for him to rule over his kin.

Paine continues this argument to ‘prove’ that democracy is the natural order of man. It is interesting to note how Burke and Paine often use similar arguments but draw very different conclusions. While Burke condemns the revolutionaries as murderous, immoral without respect for the law, Paine speaks of ‘natural law’. He says that when the old order is stagnant it is just to replace it by reasonable means. He points out that the violence was very limited considering its potential reach and where Burke would condemn he praises restraint.

The main difference in the two men’s thinking appears to be based on their view of the ‘masses’. As I have mentioned, Paine saw the nation and its people as one and the same. Burke on the other side of the argument once describes them as “the swinish multitude”. Burke lacks Paine’s compassion for the poor. He would disagree fervently with Paine’s proposals for social welfare through changes in tax, mentioned in Part 2 of Rights of Man.

The main element of disagreement remains the heredity principal and the class structure. As Paine illustrates, the French no longer have use for the titles of Duke and Duchess. In Burke’s mind these class structures in society are the very fabric of society itself, remove them and society will fall. Paine can see that it is man himself who makes society.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Politics, Society


State and Family

“The most important social welfare program in America is a job.” —Newt Gingrich

Before we look at whether or not and to what extent the welfare state has indeed taken over the functions of the family it is necessary to define what these functions were before the establishment of the welfare state and what they are today.

When we study families in Britain we can group them into three historical periods, that of pre-industrial, industrial and modern families. These again subdivide into nuclear and extended families.

It was believed that in pre–industrial Britain the extended family was the norm but it has since been shown that in fact the nuclear family was predominant. In many cases though “it was usual for the eldest and inheriting son and his family to remain in his parents’ home”-(Dr M.O’Donnel). This family provided these functions as defined by Murdoch; sexual – the limiting of the number of partners, reproductive – establishing a line of descent for the purpose of passing on property, economic – the offspring giving financial support to the parents in their old age but also saving costs by helping out with chores on the land, educational – the family would pass it’s trade down the line of descent and lay the foundation for any formal education that the kin might possibly recieve.

In addition to these functions the pre-industrial family provided a basis for the offspring to make their way in the world. Today’s industrial family in times of need can rely on the welfare state, the pre-industrial family had to get help from next of kin and neighbours and in the industrial families of today there is no longer this kin and community influence on the family.

Though we have seen how the pre-industrial family had these functions, even in the industrial family of Victorian times the old depended on the kin for help and companionship. The welfare state was not set up until after the Second World War by the Labour government of the time. This industrial family was in general, as the pre-industrial one, a nuclear family. However the family was slowly drawing away from the community and concentrating on protecting its own interests.

Today’s modern family is much smaller than that of Victorian times. A “typical” modern nuclear-family consits of the parents and two children. This is still a nuclear family but at the present time in Britain there is very little interest in the community and a much greater interest in personal gain; even the nuclear family is becoming fragmented. The family’s function have been reduced also by the introduction of the welfare state.

The welfare state provides many services that were previously provided by the family and some that the family could never adequately provide these services are documented overleaf. The welfare state’s aim is to look after the citizens of the country, to keep them both physicaly and mentaly fit. This translates as the payment of cash benefits and the provision of social services. The cash sums are as follows:

  • Unemployment Benefit
  • Sickness Benefit
  • Maternity Benfit
  • Guardian’s Allowance
  • Retirement Pensions
  • Widows Benefits
  • Industrial Injuries Benefits
  • Death Benefits & others

These are only available if you are in certain situations and the possible beneficeries are means tested. The other services provided are:

  • The National Health Service
  • Child Care
  • Welfare Centers
  • Maternity Care
  • Child Welfare
  • Health Visitors
  • Home Nursing
  • Domestic Help
  • Ambulance Service
  • Youth Organisations
  • Youth Employment Service
  • Housing & others

With the family no longer primarily concerned with the maintanence of the physical well being of its members it is left to give the human and emotional support that the welfare state cannot provide, though it does attempt to with the provision of councilors and social workers. The family is still the primary source of socialisation and emotional management (an emotional outlet).

In conclusion the evidence points towards the re-evaluation of the functions of the family over the periods discussed. During the industrialisation of Britain the family has become more self centred and relies less on the community and leans more heavily on the welfare state in times of need. The family with certain functions reduced is increasing its others. It is the main source of socialisation and character building and it is still the only major institution for the upbringing of children.

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Politics, Society


Profile: Tom Lehrer

“Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” —Tom Lehrer

Songs & More Songs by Tom Lehrer reissued on the Rhino Records label

In a monologue preceding one of his songs Tom Lehrer once said: “I wonder how many people here tonight remember Hubert Humphry, he used to be a senator. Every now and then you read something about him in one of those ‘where are they now’ columns. This became quite an issue last winter at the time of Winston Churchill’s funeral when President Johnson was too ill to go and somebody suggested that he send Hubert. And he said ‘Hubert who?’” Now it seems it is ‘Tom who?’

Lehrer was an American satirical song writer who recorded 37 songs between 1953 and 1965, many of which were considered unfit to be played on the radio. He was considered the epitome of satirical bad taste. However, his three albums are still available in the United States and have sold over 1.8 million copies in total. Yet in Britain he seems in danger of being forgotten though in the ’60s playing one of his records at a late night party was considered a sure sign of intellectual maturity.

Lehrer hates to give interviews, “unless I’ve got something to plug” and tells journalists: “Make it up, you do that anyway don’t you?” adding: “It’s okay, I won’t sue.” And he still has that smooth voice that lulls you into a false sense of calm. Though he grew up in Manhattan he has spent most of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has lived in his present house there for over 30 years.

With titles such as Poisoning Pigeons In The Park, a song about the joys of spring, Lehrer has always appealed to something of a select audience. The New York Times said: “Mr. Lehrer’s muse (is) not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste” and the Evening Standard called him “obvious, jejune, and remarkably unsophisticated.” Lehrer says he has not been spoiled by this critical acclaim. Indeed he once remarked: “If, after hearing my songs just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

Speaking years ago on BBC Radio 4, Lehrer recalls a performance of a song he wrote about the boy scouts called Be Prepared: “I sang it in a night club and this marine came up afterwards, and speaking in his native language, Neanderthal, he said, ‘You shouldn’t make fun of the boy scouts, they’re the marines of tomorrow.’ And he was perfectly right.”

Between 1946 and June 1953 Lehrer was a teaching fellow in mathematics as a graduate student at Harvard University. During that time, if you believe the album notes, he “supplemented his meagre income by regaling local degenerates with songs of his own devising.” Lehrer never received his PhD, and would be a graduate student today “if it wasn’t for those silly rules.”

After spending two years in the army as an enlisted man, in 1957 Lehrer returned to academic life. However, having already released his first record, he found he was in demand for engagements in “hot, fetid, smoky, and uncomfortable” night clubs. At this time he also performed a number of one-man show in concert halls and theatres.

In 1960, after a four-month concert tour of Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, he retired from performing and returned to academic life. Again he was brought out of musical retirement for NBC’s version of That Was The Week That Was, which he thought would be a perfect outlet for his musical work. He has since also appeared in Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark and Norway.

Lehrer gave up writing songs in the late ’60s saying: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. How do you top that?” But he was coaxed back to do some non-satirical songs for the Children’s Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street. That was in 1972 for a programme called the Electric Company which was designed to teach children to read. “It’s always exciting to do something quite different.” says Lehrer.

After this brief ‘come back’ Lehrer went through a further revival in the ’80s with the launch of the London West End production Tomfoolery, a collection of some of his best known numbers performed by an all English cast. That show has since gone on to see nearly 200 productions around the world.

Ask his health, and he replies: “Actually this is a recording, I passed away some time ago.” It sounds like the record and for half a second you believe him. In a 1994 article in Harvard Magazine he said: “The main thing is my mind has deteriorated,” adding “Twenty-two years in California have turned my mind to Jell-O, imitation flavour at that. And my attention span has atrophied. I used to have a long attention span but it was shot off in the war.”

His albums are still available on compact disc from Warner’s Reprise label. They are Tom Lehrer Revisited (originally Songs by Tom Lehrer), An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, and That Was The Year That Was.

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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in Entertainment, Politics, Profile


Free Hawai’i

“We, the Hawaiian people, who are born from the union of Papahanaumoku and Wakea, earth mother and sky father, and who have lived in these islands for over 100 generations, will always have the moral right to the lands of Hawai’i now and forever, no matter what any court says.” —Lilikalā K. Kame’eleihiwa

During his third voyage of discovery, Captain James Cook of the British Navy became the first European to visit the Hawaiian islands in 1778. He carried on up the west coast of America, but after finding the Berring Strait impassible, he returned to Hawai’i in 1779 landing at Kealakekua Bay. But on February 14, he was killed in a confrontation with some of the islanders who had taken one of the ship’s boats. Part of his legacy is that the state flag still contains the Union Flag, a carry over from Hawai’i’s time as a British protectorate.

There’s a nasty rumour going around that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and is therefore ineligible to hold the office of President of the United States. And in a sense it’s true. He’s certainly legally eligible to hold the office, since Hawai’i became the 50th state in 1959. However, Hawai’i was illegally annexed by the United States in 1893 and was on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories right up until it became a state.

After pressure from the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, in 1993 the US passed into law an acknowledgement and apology for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. The law accepts that the people of Hawai’i never relinquished their claims to sovereignty and explicitly states that its purpose is not to serve as a settlement of any claims against the US.


Posted by on March 12, 2011 in Politics, Society


Braver Newer World

“It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.” —Henry Ford

Year one of the calendar in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is 1908, the year Henry Ford introduced the Model-T. As expected the media duly noted the 100th anniversary of the event in October 2008, but they missed out on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Brave New World Revisited, in which Huxley concluded that far from being some 600 years away in the future, his dystopian society based on ‘Fordian’ principles of mass production, commercialization and consumerism, was just over the horizon.

Since my attempt at a 50th anniversary retracing of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries ended with me being beaten to the punch by an American who did it two years early, I should have learned my lesson about trying to sell time-critical articles. This time round I was beaten by Margaret Atwood owing to the 75th anniversary of Revisited having taken place in 2007.

“How close have we come, in real life, to the society of vapid consumers, idle pleasure-seekers, inner-space trippers and programmed conformists that it presents?” asked Atwood. Assuming for a moment that this is what we have become, though she believes there is hope for us yet, might the more challenging question be: “what has enabled us to become so?” The answer is technology. And technology affects everyone, even those who can’t afford to own it. So let us look at the areas of prediction identified by Huxley.

Over Population

It took most of human history for the population to reach 1 billion around the year 1800. It took a little over 100 years for it to double to 2 billion and a further 50 years to doubled again to 4 billion. But growth seems to have peaked. Although we are on our way to 7 billion we are probably not going to hit 8 billion by 2020, and even if we did that would mean the growth rate had remained constant for a century. In practice the world could sustain much larger populations than this, if it wasn’t for the fact that 1% of the population is consuming 99% of the resources.

Quantity, Quality, Morality

In 1958 technology hadn’t yet caught up with Huxley’s predictions, but by 2008 selective human breeding was common place. The first baby to be concieved by in vitro fertilisation was born in 1978 and the practice is now well established. Access to legal abortion has had a profound affect on women’s lives, but the ability to determine the gender of a child at the early stages of development using ultra sound has led to sex-selective abortion. The desire of parents to choose has also led to techniques being developed to pre-select the sex of their child. These could account for there being around 50 million more males than females on the planet. People are still arguing over the morality of it all.

Propaganda in a Democratic Society

As Neil Postman wrote: “Huxley feared those who would give us so much [information] that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” This has in fact happened.

Propaganda Under a Dictatorship

It has been written that the Internet is merely the passive observer of events in the Maghreb and the wider Arab world, and that these uprisings are the result of hungry mouths rather than technology. On the other hand, the Internet does make it a lot easier to organize a rally. And as Wikileaks has shown, while it’s hard to find the truth on the Internet, it’s much harder to prevent the lie from being exposed.

The Arts of Selling

We live in a world where everyone and their dog now has a least two iPods. My entire record collection fits on a 40GB hard disk with room to spare, and I don’t really see the need to upgrade, but Apple is still making money from iPods. Capitalism relies on built-in obsolescence. In the past this was achieved through lower build quality, but that could result in early failure and associated bad publicity. The solution was to convince people that they must have the latest greatest thing. In truth, a computer made a decade ago is perfectly adequate for the tasks most people perform on a daily basis. But the marketing people have got us suckered in, and even in an economic downturn Apple is posting record profits.


Pop Idol, X Factor, Dancing with the Stars, Justin Bieber.

Chemical Persuasion

Prozac and Ritalin are Soma.

Subconscious Persuasion

Subliminal advertising does not work, but product placement does.


While hypnotism may have cured the odd case of hiccups, the practise of playing audio to terror suspects while they are trying to sleep is well documented, although its effectiveness is not.

Education for Freedom

Education about freedom is now at such a low point in human history that the last British Labour government was able to revoke protection from double jeopardy, habeas corpus, the right to trial by jury, the remaining parts of Magna Carta including the right to due process, without so much as a murmur from most of the population. Some people even signed up for computer chip ID cards.

What Can be Done?

Huxley concludes: “Under a scientific dictator education will really work — with the result that most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.” And indeed, the modern social contract is that the government will protect you from the moral panics so long as you don’t question it, and in return you can have your escapism and be left alone. What indeed?

Ford Model T Facts


  • October 1, 1908 marks the anniversary of the first Model T built for sale.
  • The Model T was the first low-priced, mass-produced automobile with standard, interchangeable parts.
  • The Model T was equipped with a 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine with a top speed of about 45 miles per hour, weighed 1,200 pounds, and achieved 13-21 miles per gallon.
  • The moving assembly line for the Model T revolutionized manufacturing in 1913.
  • More than 15 Million Model Ts had been sold by May 26, 1927, when a ceremony marked the formal end of Model T production.
  • Henry Ford called the Model T “the universal car,” a low-cost, reliable vehicle that could be maintained easily and could successfully travel the poor roads of the era.
  • On Dec. 18, 1999, the Ford Model T was named “Car of the Century” by a panel of 133 automotive journalists and experts who began with a list of 700 candidates in 1996 and sequentially narrowed the nominees through seven rounds of balloting over three years.
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Posted by on February 18, 2011 in Politics, Society