Scott Alexander on Malcolm Muggeridge
Many people whom I respect have highly recommended the blog slatestarcodex by “Scott Alexander.” The quotation marks are there because the name is a pseudonym. I have taken longer to warm up to him. But he had me at Malcolm Muggeridge. His review of Chronicles of Wasted Time, Muggeridge’s autobiography, is a home run. It’s funny and informative at the same time.
A few highlights follow.
First, a hilarious quote from the book that shows the rediscovery of the importance of property rights by some members of a British commune whom Muggeridge’s parents knew. (Muggeridge’s parents were committed Fabian socialists):
The land was cheap in those days, and they acquired it by purchase; then, to demonstrate their abhorrence of the institution of property, ceremonially burnt the title deeds. It must have been a touching scene – the bonfire, the documents consigned to the flames, their exalted sentiments. Unfortunately, a neighboring farmer heard of their noble gesture and began to encroach on their land. To have resorted to the police, even if it had been practicable, was unthinkable. So after much deliberation, they decided to use physical force to expel the intruder; which they did on the basis of a theory of detached action, whereby it is permissible to infringe a principle for the purpose of a single isolated act without thereby invalidating it. The intruding farmer was, in fact, thrown over the hedge in the presence of the assembled Colonists. There were many such tragi-comic incidents in the years that followed; as well as quarrels, departures, jealousies, betrayals, and domestic upsets. In the end, the Colonists found it necessary to reestablish their title to the land by means of squatters’ rights, and then proceeded to bicker amongst themselves as to who should have which portion.
Next, Muggeridge’s becomes a journalist in Britain and engages in the kind of journalism that George Orwell was so good at criticizing in the 1930s and 1940s. How does Muggeridge react to the absurdities of journalism that he practiced in Britain? Alexander writes:
But Malcolm Muggeridge isn’t going to take this lying down! Malcolm Muggeridge has a plan! Malcolm Muggeridge is going to escape this duplicitous charade of lies and petty propaganda. Malcolm Muggeridge is going to move to Stalin’s USSR.
Then follow a lot of paragraphs in which there is virtually nothing hilarious: the lies told to cover up Stalin’s murders are just sickening.
Well, OK, this next, from Muggeridge, is kind of hilarious, but in a sickening way:
We [Western journalists in the Soviet Union] used to run a little contest among ourselves to see who could produce the most striking example of credulity among this fine flower of our western intelligentsia. Persuading church dignitaries to feel at home in an anti-God museum was too easy to count. So was taking lawyers into the people´s courts. I got an honourable mention by persuading Lord Marley that the queueing at food shops was permitted by the authorities because it provided a means of inducing the workers to take a rest when otherwise their zeal for completing the five-year plan in record time was such that they would keep at it all the time, but no marks for floating a story that Soviet citizens were being asked to send in human hair – any sort – for making of felt boots. It seemed that this had actually happened.
Next, Scott Alexander on where Muggeridge goes after the Soviet Union:
Muggeridge, on the other hand, penurious from lack of interest in his stories, fearing for his safety from the Soviet government, and generally disgusted with everything – even more so than usual for a world infested with maggots – decides to get the hell out of Dodge. He’s had enough of Russia, enough of Communism, enough of that entire part of the world. He’s going somewhere safe, somewhere decent. He’s going somewhere that will renew his crumbling faith in humanity. He’s going to Nazi Germany right as the anti-Jewish pogroms are starting.
Then follows some hilarity during World War II as the British government wastes resources on tracking down German spies without any good guidance to Muggeridge and his colleagues about how to do so.
Finally, a beautiful paragraph by Alexander about Type I and Type II errors:
But Type 1 errors trade off against Type 2 errors. Make absolutely sure you’re the sort of person who never misses a Stalinist gulag, and you become the type of person who’s easy prey for the FEMA internment camp theory. Make absolutely sure you don’t believe in FEMA internment camps, and you’re liable to miss a Stalinist gulag as soon as the Soviet government gets Duranty to print “Oh, don’t worry, that’s just an Amtrak station”. Use the heuristic of “just trust expert consensus, experts always know what they’re talking about”, and you are now one of the tens of thousands of grateful readers who helped make Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation into a best-seller.