Newsnotes 2006 03

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M Williams

Cartoons and Satanic Verses [Muhammad Cartoons]

The spirit of Voltaire

Lords Of Muck & Misrule [Press Freedom]

The rise and rise of the Wikipedia

Cartoons and Satanic Verses [Muhammad Cartoons]

I supported Salman Rushdie back in the late 1980s, when he received death-threats over the Satanic Verses. In those days, Rushdie could be seen as part of a new wave of Muslim self-liberation. This didn’t happen, nor did the West want it. There was no support for Tony Benn’s modest proposal to remove existing British legislation against anti-Christian blasphemy. They might not be able to use it in the current intellectual climate, but they seem to be glad to have it in reserve. Intellectual climates do change.

Muslims carrying through self-liberation by toning down and modernising their religion could only have been successful if it was clear that the West respected the deeper cultural roots of civilisations outside of Latin-Christian parameters. But the West wanted no such things: the West wanted lackeys and would use liberal Islam or traditional Islam with no ideological qualms. It was all fine, for as long as Muslims as a whole were ‘SubAmericanised’, reduced to cultural and economic dependence on the Western order centred around the USA.

Everyone seems to have forgotten Rushdie. He might have been the start of something new, but he wasn’t.

[This was about the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy. The cartoons were offensive to Islam in general, but no one said that this was unacceptable. Many other forms of offence do get stamped on, including making jokes about rape and neo-Nazi stuff.

[Muslims remained unsatisfied. The talk about ‘Free Speech’ concealed a reality in which unimportant people could be insulted, but important people could not without heavy retaliation, and the West clearly classed Muslims other than oil sheiks as unimportant. Extremism spread, because moderate Muslims had not been treated with respect.]


The spirit of Voltaire

“Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. To Voltaire only an enlightened monarch, or Enlightened Absolutism, advised by philosophers like himself, could bring about change as it was in the king’s rational interest to improve the power and wealth of France in the world. Voltaire is quoted as saying that he ‘would rather obey one lion, than 200 rats of (his own) species’ Voltaire essentially believed monarchy to be the key to progress and change.” []

Voltaire in the 1730s wanted to make 18th century France more like 18th century Britain: he would have hated what England became 100 years later, or 200 years later. Britain then was very far from democratic; up until the 1832 reform the bulk of House Of Commons seats were controlled by a few rich men. Britain also discriminated against Roman Catholics, though not as harshly as France discriminated against Protestants.

Voltaire also said “Governments need to have both shepherds and butchers”. (Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). His idea was for an enlightened despotism that would rule as it saw fit, while allowing complete freedom of expression. Voltaire was out to destroy Christianity, supposing that ‘pure reason’ would substitute.

The French ‘Old Order’ that was overthrown in the French Revolution was broadly Voltairian. They did not believe the official creed, and also saw no need to share power or give up official privilege. Voltaire’s legacy was an empty self-indulgent culture that broke and had to be made again by people who cared.


Lords Of Muck & Misrule [Press Freedom]

Freedom means people like us doing what we want. Not people different from us and ignoring us. Not people doing things we dislike. That’s what ‘Freedom’ has meant in practice.

The Press has no trouble defending ‘freedom’ in this sense. Muslims with offensive slogans are insubordinate and should be crushed. It would take a new understanding of abstract death-threats to do this, of course. On anti-racist demos back in the 1970s, when Enoch Powell was the main enemy, chants of ‘Enoch, we want you – dead’ were quite normal and open. And while I am not a regular attendee of football matches, I understand that some unpleasant things get shouted there as well. But prosecution only gets suggested when Muslims do it, just as proposals to apply Treason Laws to British Muslims in Afghanistan do not match past practice, even in Ireland. Irish Catholics are still white and Christian and stand relatively high in the traditional English racial hierarchy, which has been officially rejected but always re-emerges under pressure.

So what should exist? Do we want the maximum possible freedom of expression?

Supposing that there were some small publisher called ‘McLunatic Books’, producing gems like

  • Steal Your Friends’ Personal Data
  • Sabotage Your Neighbours’ Cars
  • Handy Tips for Burglars
  • The Plain Man’s Guide to Committing Rape
  • Electronic Counter-Measures Against Noisy Neighbours
  • 101 Ways To Distract An Airline Pilot
  • A Quick Guide To Vulnerabilities In Aircraft Navigation Systems
  • Accountancy for Money Launderers
  • Build Your Own Nuclear Weapon.

Is that a good expression of ‘Freedom’?

In fact all societies suppress as much as they think necessary, and sometime suppress more than they need to suppress. The House of Commons is trying to re-impose the ban on ‘Glorification of Terrorism’ – thrown out by the House of Lords, and accepted by almost everyone as applying only to terrorism of an anti-British sort.


The rise and rise of the Wikipedia

The internet has housed many utopian projects, some of which collapsed pretty quickly, most of which stay small. One big exception has been the Wikipedia.

The idea of an ‘open source’ encyclopaedia that anyone can edit sounds unworkable. The original project was for something called the ‘Nupedia’, to be written and vetted by experts and then supplied free. As a sideline, they decided to allow a ‘wiki’, internet jargon for web pages that allows users to easily add and edit content. And it was this ‘wikipedia’ that took off, eventually absorbing what had been done for the ‘Nupedia’.

Beginning in 2001, the project has been doubling every year, both in numbers of articles and numbers of users. As of now (mid-February) there are nearly 980,000 pages and 950,000 registered users. (You can see charts of the rise at []. It has functional culture based around people who genuinely love knowledge and mostly take a polite attitude; don’t disrupt someone else’s work, improve it. It is also (so far) not been invaded by the advertising that burdens most ‘free’ works.

I ‘discovered’ the Wikipedia in 2005 – I may have encountered it in web searches before 2005, but only then did I notice that there was something on the web that was quite as good as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Since it was also ‘open source’, I registered back in October and began making contributions; adding or improving on a variety of topics. Things as diverse as Cronin’s The Stars Look Down, the Icelandic Grettis Saga, not previously mentioned under it’s most familiar English title, Grettir The Strong; and also making clear that Mao’s miliary methods distinguished Mobile Warfare from Guerrilla Warfare. I also added Wordsworth’s interesting comments on guerrilla warfare to the existing articles. A lot more besides.

I think 2005 was the ‘breakthrough’ year for the project. In May 2005, it first made the top 100 most-visited websites. It also began to get mentioned in the mainstream media, often with the intention of rubbishing it, but some independent scientists checked its science against the Britannica and found them about equal. If the Wikipedia can be wrong or can include unlikely notions, so too can the Britannica, which is deservedly rated the best of the old-style works.

By March 2006, there should be a million Wikipedia pages and a million registered users. Many more readers than that, some sites take simple copies and make them more widely available. Also you can read the Wikipedia and even amend articles without being a registered user. There are also translations into many languages, though the core of the project is English, as you’d expect. All in all, a thing to watch and a thing to join in on.

[Wikipedia has continued to rise, with nearly five million pages on the English edition as of April 2015.  But it has hit the limits encountered by all voluntary efforts. One problem is large numbers of members determined to delete data that they see as ‘not necessary’ even when it follows standard rules. And determined editors can and do introduce rubbish and eliminate awkward facts.]

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