Monday, 30 November 2009

Shadow of the minaret

You're allowed to be racist against the Swiss. Just as you're allowed to be racist against the Israelis, or the Serbs, or the Ulster protestants, or the white working class in Britain (and the United States). Making generalised slurs about the national character of the varied and polyglot cantons whose primitive democracy somehow survived the various tidying-up exercises of history is a way of demonstrating your own liberal allegiances. The Swiss are, after all, xenophobic, small-minded, dissimulating, money-obsessed yodellers. Their trains may run on time, but we all know what that means.

The Swiss are insular and clannish: that's why they've managed to rub along together for centuries with several languages and very little in the way of central administration. They are reactionary and bigoted: that explains why the Red Cross was a Swiss invention, why for decades Geneva was the centre of the human rights industry. They are, in the worst sense of the word, conservative: why, they even believe in direct democracy and universal gun-ownership. And, of course, they were only neutral during the War so they could get their greedy Niebelungisch hands on all that Nazi gold.

It's always pleasant to discover a dark side to the antiseptic prosperity and clockwork efficiency of the Swiss, and yesterday's vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland has allowed anti-Swiss bigotry free reign. They have done a Bad Thing by objecting to the visible spread of Islam - a decision that, to judge by some of the coverage, is tantamount to deporting the country's Muslims to concentration camps. The Guardian was typical (but then the Guardian always is). The Swiss, the leader column notes, (as though it were relevant) "give shelter to wealthy migrants seeking to escape taxes" but have now "pulled aside their veneer of internationalism" to display an "Alpine distrust of outsiders". Referring to the poster used to encourage a Yes vote, the Guardian notes "the provocative nature of a campaign fought in the Nazi colours of red, black and white."

Stereotyping the Swiss is just one avenue of explanation available. There's also the Thick Public line. The anti-mosque campaigners (which included some high-profile feminists as well as the more obvious xenophobes) exploited deep-seated but mistaken fears - "particularly among rural communities" writes the BBC's Imogen Foulkes - of Islamic expansionism. Or as the Guardian put it, "voters were really being lured to express their views on religion and race." The subtext here is that democracy is dangerous because it gives power to the ignorant and the bigoted. Joan Smith, for example, finds it "cheering" that the vote - one among many hundreds held each year - "demonstrates the idiocy of referendums". That's no different from saying that Tony Blair's repeated election victories demonstrated the idiocy of general elections. Which, in a sense, they did.

"Can we be sure" asks the Guardian, "that the people of Austria, France, Britain or the Netherlands would have voted differently, if given the chance?" Fortunately, they'll never have the opportunity. Indeed, Foulkes reports that the Swiss Justice Minister "apparently told her advisers there ought to be some restrictions on what the general public can actually vote on." The Swiss tradition of direct democracy has not led to a noticeably less liberal society than exists in the rest of Europe - the very opposite, in some respects - but the people do have a habit of voting in ways uncongenial to politicians (not wanting to join the European Union, for example). It was perhaps only a matter of time before Swiss leaders began to adopt the suspicion of popular opinion that has become second nature to most members of the European elite.

Another common response to the vote has been the usual elitist Islamophobia: i.e. the fear that there will be an uncontrollable backlash from Muslims comparable with the Danish cartoons crisis. Le Temps, described as Geneva's" establishment" newspaper, warned of the "spectacular" backlash that awaited. "Vengeance, boycotts, retaliation ... this clash with Islam could cost dearly." Among Swiss politicians there is said to be "an expectation" that the economy will suffer (money, you see, it's all these Swiss really care about) and the "traditionally good trade relations" with the Arab world take a hit. Other tax havens, after all, are available for the Gulf sheikhs to put their oil-money; and where else would they get their luxury watches? So far, there have been few signs of a violent backlash, either, among the non-Rolex wearing rentamobs. Egypt's Grand Mufti called it "an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland", but that's about it.

Given that there's no actual blasphemy involved, I don't expect there will be too many negative repercussions. After all, Saudi Arabia bans all Christian churches, not just those with bell-towers, while in Egypt religiously-motivated planning rules have made it virtually impossible for the Coptic community to repair their existing churches, let alone build any new ones. When it comes to religious pluralism, few Muslim countries are in much position to complain.

Of course, it's hard to describe the vote as a victory for tolerance or liberal attitudes. But it would be equally wrong to assume that the enemies of the prayer-towers were all frothing xenophobes. There were also secularists and feminists in the mix. A feminist quoted in the Guardian claimed that minarets were "male power symbols" and "a visible signal of the state's acceptance of the oppression of women." She is described as a psychologist, which may be a clue. In fact, minarets are no more phallic in appearance than many church spires or the skyline of Dubai. Architecture is, however, often an expression of confidence, expansionism and arrogance: you don't have to be an out-and-out Islamophobe to feel queasy about the proposed construction of a 70,000 capacity "mega-mosque" in East London. The referendum result was symbolic and at first sight seems rather absurd. The absence of minarets will not prevent the spread of radical Islam, after all. But it will prevent the spread of Islamic architecture, and perhaps that's the point. As minarets sprout all over Europe, Swiss Islam will remain quiet and unobtrusive. How very Swiss.
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Saturday, 28 November 2009

Gary McKinnon: the backlash

Gary McKinnon the autistic-spectrum computer hacker now looks set to be handed over to a vengeful US justice system. The increasingly disappointing home secretary Alan Johnson has concluded, as he wrote to McKinnon's tirelessly campaigning mother Janis Sharp, that McKinnon's human rights would not be violated by extradition. So that - barring an unlikely intervention from the courts - is that.

Of course, Alan Johnson could save McKinnon if he wanted to. Johnson has continually claimed that he has minimal discretion, that his hands are tied, that the law allows him no leeway, that there is nothing he can do. His hand-wringing and expressions of regret, though, carry all the conviction of the tears shed by Lewis Carroll's Walrus on behalf of the oysters he had just eaten. That decision was his (or at least rubber-stamped by him). The new evidence he was invited to consider included a compelling psychological assessment that McKinnon was a high suicide risk. That alone, had Johnson wished it, would have been enough.

In any case, a decision of the balance of legal arguments need only have been provisional. Even if he had been advised that a decision to stay McKinnon's extradition was dubious - under the terms, let it be remembered, of the treaty that his own party had forced through Parliament, against strong and principled opposition on all sides - there was nothing to prevent him from making it.

The worst that might have happened (though it seems doubtful) is that the decision would have been overturned by the courts - in which case Johnson would have had the consolation of having tried his best, not to mention a good deal of positive press coverage. Recent Home Secretaries have not been shy of making legally questionable decisions that stand the risk of being overturned on appeal. It happens all the time - especially under this government. Think Geert Wilders - or the latest Strasbourg-baiting proposals on DNA retention. The job of Home Office lawyers is to produce justifications for political decisions that are at least arguable in court. The Home Secretary's decision, whatever the theory may say, is invariably a political one. The decision to extradite Gary McKinnon is self-evidently a political one. Those who argue that the law left Johnson with no option are being either naive or mischievous.

This fact does, however, raise problems of its own. Gary McKinnon's case is a famous one. It has powerful backing from human rights groups, from Opposition politicians, from the Labour-led home affairs select committee and from most of the press. He has benefited from a skilful PR campaign, fronted by Janis Sharp but joined by numerous celebrities and campaigners. He has a large measure of public sympathy. The basest political calculation ought to impel Alan Johnson to block the extradition - or at least to hold it up till after the election, when perhaps another politician will be responsible for it. To stand up to the American bully - which is how the case has been presented, accurately or not - would be popular. It would help restore his battered image. It would be cheap, effective publicity. In political terms, a no-brainer.

It's not surprising to find a politician making a popular but immoral decision, nor even an unpopular but correct one. But to see a politician set his face against both popularity and justice is very odd indeed - so odd that a special explanation seems to be required. The commonest points to intense US pressure, and the supposedly supine attitude of the British authorities in the face of it. McKinnon was arrested - and confessed to his actions - as early as March 2002, well before the "unequal" extradition treaty was ratified, but that the Americans (with possible British encouragement) held back until requesting his extradition. No satisfactory explanation has ever been offered as to why a trial in Britain was impossible. It may well be that, for technical reasons, an American trial could be considered more "appropriate", but that is a rather different question. Geoffrey Robertson QC, writing in the Independent, recalls defending, some years ago, "a young man whose hacking was alleged to be even more serious that McKinnon's". The trial, however, took place in Britain. The prosecution claimed he had "caused more damage to the Pentagon than the KGB"; yet he received a non-custodial sentence. Robertson sees no reason that could not have been the case with Gary McKinnon.

Some have even suggested that McKinnon is being offered up as a way of soothing American anger over the release of the supposed Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al Megrahi. That wouldn't of course explain why the process against him was begun; but it might explain why the present Home Secretary has been so reluctant to take a risk for justice.

An entirely different explanation has been gaining ground in recent days, especially on parts of the Left: that Johnson is right, the McKinnon deserves to be extradited to face long years in a tough US jail, and that those who think differently have been hoodwinked by a clever PR campaign. The Labour MP and blogger Tom Harris has become the most prominent member of this camp. Andy Newman, writing at Socialist Unity, has however set out the most detailed case. Newman makes a number of points worthy of consideration. His principal objection, though, seems to be to the fact that McKinnon's cause has been adopted by (absit omen) the Daily Mail. (My own prejudice, needless to say, impels me to an equal aversion to any message being put over at a far-left site like SU.)

For some on the Left, even their suspicion of the USA would seem to be dwarfed by their hatred of the Daily Mail. They might be felt to have a natural sympathy for someone who, in addition to his interest in UFOs, also left remarks sharply critical of American foreign policy on the servers he hacked. But the warmth with which the Mail has supported him undermines his credibility. And it's not just the Mail, either. Newman complains that "his case has been taken up because of reactionary British nationalism, and assumptions of our superiority over the Americans" - a remarkable claim for which he produces no evidence. Newman also thinks that "there is something very wrong in the way Gary McKinnon’s campaign has sought to mobilise public opinion through tabloid sensationalism to avoid a trial for a criminal offence." But given the failure of the legal system to prevent McKinnon's extradition, his backers can scarcely be criticised for their use of whatever weapons they are able to deploy. And even if, in this particular case, the savagery of American justice has been exaggerated, suspicions are not entirely without foundation. Guantanamo Bay, anyone?

Newman is also anxious to rebut suggestions that there is anything objectionable or unequal about the 2003 Extradition Act or the Treaty with the USA which it brought into law. He claims, indeed, that the Act was passed primarily because of the difficulty that had been experienced in extraditing General Pinochet. Pinochet, he maintains, "exploited" the need to prove a prima facie case before agreeing to extradition requests by "dragging out the process". As a result, the 2003 Act "was designed to streamline the process to make high profile cases less susceptible to political and diplomatic pressure." I've no idea whether this is true. If it is, I find it extremely disturbing. Pinochet's was a single, unrepresentative case. That it proved impossible to pack him off to Spain, where he was the subject of an opportunistic arrest warrant, may have disappointed some old Lefties; but that does not mean that 60 million British citizens should therefore have been stripped of their rights. As for political and diplomatic pressure being a bad thing: sometimes it's all that stands between a manifestly innocent person and an oppressive prosecution.

An example of the good workings of the prima facie rule prior to 2003 is the case of Lotfi Raissi, an innocent Algerian who as a result of a number of unfortunate coincidences was suspected by US investigators of involvement in the 9/11 plot. He was held for months in the harsh conditions of Belmarsh while the courts generously granted the Americans time to present any evidence they might have against him. They had none, and eventually Raissi was released. Had the current treaty been in force, there would have been nothing to prevent his transportation to the US, where he would have disappeared into the vaults where high-security terror suspects are held, perhaps not to emerge for years.

In McKinnon's case, of course, the prima facie rule would not apply: he has confessed to most of what he has been accused of. It is indeed probably better not to become too bogged down in technicalities. In any case, it is not the inequality of the extradition treaty that is its most objectionable feature, but the lack of protection it gives to British citizens when faced with demands from foreign courts (many of the same objections apply, with force, to the avowedly "equal" European Arrest Warrant). It is not the Americans' fault that they have inherited the protections afforded by their constitution, it is merely their good fortune in the wisdom of their founding fathers. Would that we had such protections. Instead, Gary McKinnon finds himself in the position of an inverted Don Pacifico, discovering that the blind eye and feeble arm of England will do nothing to protect him, even if he never leaves these shores. The contrast with France's protection of Roman Polanski is striking.

Nor I am comfortable with the manner in which the coverage has infantilised a 42-year old man who, whatever compulsion drove him, was responsible for his own decisions. But the case is actually quite straightforward. It is a good general rule that the punishment should fit the crime. McKinnon's crime was to have caused a certain amount of damage to the security systems of the US military's IT (a sum large by most people's personal standards - enough to buy a fairly decent house, perhaps - but utterly negligible when set against the gargantuan budget of the Pentagon). But mainly he caused embarrassment. He exposed weaknesses in the Pentagon's defences at a time when fear of terrorism was at its post-9/11 height. He probably did them a favour. The punishment he is facing, given his personal circumstances, is manifestly disproportionate, indeed unjust. Alan Johnson could have intervened. He chose not to. And that really is all there is to it.
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Friday, 27 November 2009

The abuse of Catholicism

Damian Thompson fears that the latest revelations about clerical sex-abuse - and the church's blatant, cynical and long-lasting attempts to cover it up - "could finish off Catholic Ireland". It will, he predicts, "make the Catholic Church even more loathed in Ireland than it already is."

Let's hope so.

Thompson puts the problem down to the "arrogance" of bishops who "believe that almost anything can be kept secret from the laity if it might 'damage the good name of the Church'." But it's more than just arrogance. What is described in the report is full-scale criminal complicity. No fewer than four archbishops of Dublin protected known paedophiles, allowed them to move to new parishes to find new victims and refused to inform the police of serious crimes, instead locking up damning evidence inside "a secret vault" in Dublin. They also cultivated "inappropriately close relations with senior police officers", who were persuaded to ignore complaints of molestation and rape. As good Catholics, they too were concerned with the good name of the Church.

That was all decades ago. But even this year the Vatican was obstructing the investigation. The report's author, Judge Yvonne Murphy, wrote repeatedly to Rome and to the papal nuncio in Ireland seeking information, and received no reply. They are still seeking to protect their "good name", even though they no longer have one.

The present head of the church in Ireland has belatedly apologised - to God. Obviously, the worst crimes were committed by individuals. But as the report notes, it was "the structures and rules of the Catholic Church" that facilitated the cover-up. It was the whole rotten edifice - the whole idea of the church as an organisation set up by God, with the divine right to decide what is true and false, right and wrong, to tell people how to live their lives - that enabled the situation to develop. It wasn't just the arrogance of particular bishops. It was the arrogance inherent in an institution that believes itself to be literally infallible.

If these people had any shame they would close their doors tomorrow, sell off all the churches to fund homes for the poor and compensation for the victims, admit that an organisation that is capable of such manifest corruption simply has no moral right to continue in being. Any other institution, revealed to have had, over decades, an official policy of covering up such vile crimes would be disbanded, its leaders put on trial, its assets seized. No decent person would want anything to do with it. Yet this Sunday, as every Sunday, its official representatives will dress up in their fancy vestments, deliver their sermons, dish out their bread and wine, as though nothing has changed, as though the behaviour of the messengers in no way detracts from the truth of the message.

How can they?

For Catholics, the truth of Christianity is bound up with the institution of the church. Jesus, they believe, gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and Herr Ratzinger still has them clutched tightly in his crabbed little hands. The church is more than the community of believers: it is itself a large part of the belief. Individual priests, bishops, even popes (when they are not being infallible, that is) may err, but the church itself embodies Truth and Rightness, and its followers are meant to accept (in the words of the Catechism) "with docility" what the leadership tells them. For many decades, in Ireland, this was taken for granted. The extravagant, absurd, domineering claims of the church were a natural part of life. Sadists and child molesters had only to get themselves ordained and they received carte blanche to do whatever they liked. They were, after all, working for God. If you believe that the church is God's chosen mechanism for salvation, it stands to reason that its "good name" counts for more than justice, or the law, or the suffering of individuals in its care.

Throughout its history, the Catholic church has behaved atrociously: persecuting heretics, launching crusades, stoking up antisemitism, retarding scientific progress, propping up fascist dictatorships, promoting fake miracles and fraudulent relics, selling indulgences, instilling sexual guilt. Even its leaders admit that not everything the church has done has been good. Yet they don't draw the obvious conclusion, that when an organisation is guilty of sustained wickedness there must be something profoundly wrong with it as such. Of course, it has been responsible for some good things. Palestrina wrote nice music for its services, Michelangelo decorated the Sistine Chapel tolerably well, there's even a case to be made for a few of its saints. But for all that it is a preposterous, anachronistic and fundamentally abusive institution. Neither its antiquity, the fact that it boasts a billion members, nor its status as a religion should protect it from collapse. It has lost all moral legitimacy. It should be wound up.

Last week at the Vatican, Ratzinger snubbed the Church of England's saintly but muddled Rowan Williams by according him just twenty minutes of his precious time. Next year, he will be in Britain. It would be appropriate, would it not, if Williams were to find himself urgently called away on business?
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Thursday, 26 November 2009

Going round in circles

A bizarre story in the Telegraph left me suspecting some sort of hoax. A senior space scientist associated with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, we are told, claims to be in touch with extraterrestrials. Lachezar Filipov announced the other day that "aliens are currently all around us, and are watching us all the time". They were not hostile, though they did have concerns about what human beings were doing to the environment (little Green men, I suppose), and hoped to establish communication with us "through the power of thought". In the meantime, Filipov and his colleagues are analysing crop circles, which he believes contain messages from the aliens.

An earlier source for the story, the Sofia Echo, adds some further details. It states that that Filipov - deputy director of the Space Research Institute - "claimed that some alien species were present" (at the press conference?) and had answered more than 30 questions put forward by the scientists. As to the extraterrestrials' message, "They say that global warming is attributed mainly to infrastructural engineering. Additionally, they are very skeptical of our use of cosmetics, and artificial insemination because this is 'unnatural.'" There's also a convenient explanation as to why other scientists haven't discovered their existence:

Filipov reckons that it will be impossible to try and track extraterrestrial life with our current radar equipment, or through the usage of radio telescopes. Apparently, the aliens were "categorical" that any future means of contact between us and them would be conducted through mental power and telepathy.

So has Filipov - a genuine astrophysicist with a fairly impressive CV - been contacted by extraterrestrials? Not exactly. The background to the story doesn't appear in any of the press or newswire coverage, but isn't hard to track down. Filipov's name appears along with several other Bulgarian scientists (presumably the members of his team) on a website called Our Planet, the avowed aim of which is to provide a communication tool between "the science" and the aliens supposedly responsible for creating crop circles. It also demonstrates the still powerful overlap between committed environmentalism and woo-woo.

The site appears to be the brainchild of Mariana Vezneva, a Bulgarian writer described as "an expert in the cosmic language of symbols and allegories called Cenzar" and "a truly remarkable person with powers to unlock the secrets of the crop circles formations." She is "not a medium", we are told, but rather "a supersensory explorer who has been trained in the cosmic language of symbols for more than 20 years." Her "incredible discoveries" include (in addition to her crop circles breakthrough) "the code of symbols in the Cyrillic alphabet; the enigma of the natural numbers (1-10)". One of her aims in embarking on this project with Filipov is "to strengthen the links between the science and the invisible world by using this extraordinary communication tool for tackling the global earth crisis."

There's a lengthy report of a meeting held on 1st June of this year at which the scientists reported the results of their experiment. It explains the mysterious process by which the alien intelligence behind the crop circles answered the scientists' queries. First, the scientists posed their questions, which were put up on the website. Here are some typical examples:

Are we to expect a contact with extraterrestrial intelligence as part of the SETI projects in the nearest future?

What is the symbolic meaning of the Sphinx of Giza and is the Sphinx older than the pyramids?

The energy sources will be exhausted in the future, the global warming will lead to draught and war for water and food supply. How we can manage the energy crises? (this is one of Filipov's own questions)

Is the human species a product of the evolution process or it has been transported to Earth from another planet?

Then everyone sat back and waited for the crop circles to form spontaneously (because, of course, they cannot possibly be man-made) in southern England. The formations were then interpreted by Mariana using her "telepathic skills". "The communication with crop circles intelligence was described as 'mental pictogram dialogue'." The picture shown above represents the extraterrestrials' answer to Filipov's question, for example. Not all the scientists' questions received a satisfactory answer: of the 16 posed, only 8 have been resolved. Perhaps the aliens didn't consider the unanswered questions interesting enough.

Nevertheless, the experiment was declared a success - at least as an important first stage in human-circlemaker dialogue:

It has been acknowledged that a unique dialogue between scientists and the creating force behind the crop circles has been successfully established. An agreement has been reached as below:

A. More efforts need to be put in making the experiment and the unique communication tool with crop circles intelligence popular to a wider audience and authorities;
B. It was suggested for a scientific center for crop circles communication to be established;
C. A second meeting to be organized for those unable to attend the present one on which to be discussed a detailed plan for actions.

The meeting was closed in uplifting spirit and rallying thoughts.

It's nice to know that the spirit of unfettered scientific inquiry is alive and well in eastern Europe.
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Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Saudis' zero-tolerance approach to fake psychics

Witchcraft in Saudi Arabia is back in the news again. Human Rights Watch has taken up the cause of Ali Sabit, who is described as a Lebanese television personality (albeit on a satellite channel so obscure I was unable to find out any details about it) who has apparently been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for sorcery as a result of his broadcasts. Sibat was sentenced on November 9, but he has been in detention for the past 18 months. HRW states:

Religious police arrested Ali Sibat in his hotel room in Medina on May 7, 2008, where he was on pilgrimage before returning to his native Lebanon. Before his arrest, Sibat frequently gave advice on general life questions and predictions about the future on the Lebanese satellite television station Sheherazade, according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar and the French newspaper Le Monde. These appearances are said to be the only evidence against Sibat.

I've been unable to discover any further details about this case, but I did find a report from last September that may shed light on the background to it. This quoted Sheikh Saleh al-Foza, a senior cleric, as demanding the death penalty for "sorcerers who appear on satellite channels". The report asserted that "many of the hundreds" of Arab-language satellite stations "specialise in horoscopes and other advice to callers on solving problems that is seen as 'sorcery'." TV astrologers weren't the only target: another cleric had demanded the death penalty for producers of "indecent" soap-operas beamed into the country during the month of Ramadan. It's likely, then, that Sibat is the victim of a moral panic about the corrupting influence of satellite TV. The campaign against witchcraft, though, is a broader one.

HRW is using the Sibat case to highlight the growing number of arrests and convictions for occult practices in that topsy-turvy kingdom. Sarah Leah Whitson, who leads their Middle East section, complained that "Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police. The crime of ‘witchcraft' is being used against all sorts of behavior, with the cruel threat of state-sanctioned executions." The press release notes two other cases in the past month alone. It also revisits the case of Fawza Falih, an elderly woman who was sentenced to death in February of last year following what HRW calls her "arbitrary arrest, coerced confession, unfair trial, and wrongful conviction." Despite widespread international condemnation, and an internet campaign to free her, she is apparently still on death row.

There have been actual executions. In 2007, for example, an Egyptian man, Mustafa Ibrahim, was executed for sorcery after paraphernalia including "foul smelling herbs" and books of magic spells were found in his home. However, since he also "confessed to adultery with a woman and desecrating the Koran by placing it in the bathroom" he no doubt deserved everything he got. But whatever view you take on capital punishment, few would deny that there is a genuine problem with witchcraft and sorcery in Saudi Arabia. The facts speak for themselves. Take, for example, this report from Arab News from this September, in which Laura Bashraheel wrote that "hardly a day passes without a local newspaper reporting the arrest of a sorcerer in the Kingdom".

Bashraheel believes that the high incidence of judicial activity is"indicative of the widespread meddling in sorcery". Sorcerers and others who profess magical powers are "rolling in dollars", she maintains, because "some weak-hearted people end up resorting to sorcerers to mend troubled marriages, ensure husbands remain faithful or cause harm to adversaries." She tells the cautionary tale of 28-year old Sara, who visited the house of an African witch-doctor - a “rotten place with a terrible stench”; he told her that her ex-financé had put a spell on her - and offered to remove it for a large sum of money. Another woman, Abeer Saleh "said some members of her family are so infatuated with magic that they act strange and perform nonsensical rituals." Bashraheel concludes that "people underestimate how serious a sin magic actually is."

Sin or not, it's undoubtedly nonsense. I can even - up to a point - sympathise with the austere guardians of the kingdom's Islamic purity when faced with the growing popularity of wizards, astrologers and faith-healers, many of whom are charlatans exploiting the vulnerable. Bashraheel's report gives several more examples of practices which combine (sacrilegiously, from the point of view of the religious authorities) Islamic traditions with occult and pagan survivals. For example, there are "sheikhs who cure those afflicted with magic by reciting verses of the Qur’an over Zamzam water, olive oil or honey which they then administer to those affected." Some of these people make a good living: they are, perhaps, the respectable face of sorcery, happily promoting bogus remedies for which there is not a jot of evidence.

Fortunately, the authorities are doing their best to combat the problem. As I reported in January, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice - the body which oversees the religious police and ensures conformity with Wahhabi standards in the country - has introduced a new anti-witch strategy. Previous cases had "revealed the spread of witchcraft and magic throughout the country" and thus the inadequacy of the current laws. The new plans were intended to produce a more coherent approach "by making legal and regulatory determinations, as well as clarify the burden of evidence for magic and witchcraft cases as being scientific and practical, while also increasing the number of those involved in combating such cases".

They sought, among other things, "a scientific definition to magical practices, and a model in order to help uncover such practices." A joint task-force was set up embracing the religious police and security agencies, encouraging them to work more closely together in the campaign against sorcery.

The experts were anxious "to protect the public from communication and television channels that promote magic" - partly through a publicity campaign warning about the dangers - and also expressed concerns about the Internet. As I noted at the time, if you ignore the supernatural dimension the plan sounds remarkably like the sort of government initiative we're used to hearing from New Labour: the same concerns with public protection, setting targets and the inherent dangers of new technology were all there, along with the usual rhetoric of getting tough and adopting an evidence-based approach.

Obviously, the priorities of the Saudi religious police are not our priorities: it is the un-Islamic nature of the sorcery that they object to, rather than its scientific impossibility. The penalties being imposed, obviously, are outrageous, the judicial process is open to widespread abuse and there have been cases of manifest injustice like that of Fawza Falih. I wouldn't want to detract from HRW's campaign. Nevertheless the non-existence of occult powers does not mean that there are no self-professed sorcerers claiming to possess such powers - there would seem to be many - or that they do not deserve to be shut down.

A campaign against witchcraft is not, of itself, proof that Saudi Arabia is stuck in "the middle ages". It may in fact be something like the opposite. The kind of people being targeted are, after all, not unique to Saudi Arabia or the Arab world in general. We have our own equivalents. Some of them, like Sibat, even have their own slots on TV, where they claim to contact the dead and invite viewers to call premium-rate phone lines. Fortune-tellers and psychics are a modern plague. But while the Saudis can set the fearsome religious police on them, we have to make do with Chris French and Derren Brown.
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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

DNA: looking for the evidence

Today's report (pdf) into the national DNA database by the Human Genetics Commission - the indepedent body charged with advising the government in such matters - is a very worthwhile document. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a thorough grounding in the history of the database and the current debate surrounding it. News coverage this morning focussed on two striking findings - suggestions (not exactly new) that the police were arresting people for no better reason than to give them an excuse to take their DNA, the claim that three quarters of all black men were now on the database. These are important issues, but there's much more.

The authors make a number of recommendations that, from my point of view, are disappointingly lame. They call for more regulation (has any report ever called for less regulation?) and they have little to say about the government's proposals to circumvent the Strasbourg ruling in S and Marper. But they also frame the debate in unusually clear terms, laying out precisely how it came about that Britain (or rather England) now has, per capita, by far the largest such database anywhere in the world.

Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear? makes plain just how piecemeal and uninformed by either principle or evidence the growth of the database has been. Set up almost 15 years ago - under pre-existing legislation passed before DNA fingerprinting was even thought of - it has grown by steady accretion without ever having been debated properly in Parliament. One consequence of this is an "ambivalence" about what the main purpose of the database actually is. There's a distinct lack of evidence as to its "forensic utility" - how efficient is it when it comes to solving crimes or eliminating the innocent - or whether the rapid extension of the database has helped, or hindered, its usefulness. There has been "little concerted opposition" to the growth of the DNA database, not necessarily because of widespread enthusiasm, but because there has been surprisingly little discussion of any kind.

The result has been "function creep", and the growth of the database has become an end in itself. And all this, the report repeatedly stresses, has come about with very little in the way of informed public discussion. There are, moreover, "significant concerns that have never been fully addressed".

No-one doubts that having a DNA database containing records of habitual criminals is a valuable tool for fingering the guilty. Even I wouldn't want to dismantle it entirely. Nevertheless, concentration on a few high-profile and thus unusual cases distorts the public's perception of the issues. Not least, it tends to obscure the fact that, by and large, the police used to manage perfectly well before DNA fingerprinting was ever thought of. It's far from obvious, in any event, that a large database, containing the details of everyone who has ever been arrested, is more effective than one narrowly focussed on those who have actually been convicted. It will help to solve some extra crimes, but the cost in storage and administration is far from negligible - and these resources might have been spent on other crime-detection or prevention initiatives. The argument for an arrest-based system only makes sense if you believe that there are a large number of lifestyle criminals who consistently manage to avoid being convicted. There's also an argument that the database is a deterrent, but that case is rarely made in public, and (as the report notes) there is as yet no evidence to support it.

Attachment to a mega-database distorts police practice and fundamentally alters the relationship between the citizen and the state. That this is so emerges clearly from this passage:

A retired senior police officer ... described his own early training, which emphasised the seriousness of depriving a citizen of their liberty by using the common law or statutory powers of arrest, and the preference, in the light of this, for alternative measures, such as reporting a suspect for summons by a magistrate, unless the offence was very serious or the suspect likely to abscond. Then he continued:

“It is obvious … that the system I have described no longer prevails. It is now the norm to arrest offenders for everything if there is a power to do so … It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the change in practice is so that the DNA of the offender can be obtained: samples can be obtained after arrest but not if there is a report for summons. It matters not, of course, whether the arrest leads to no action, a caution or a charge, because the DNA is kept on the database anyway.”

It's a remarkable statement, not just because of what it says about the DNA database, but of what it says about how things have changed in the past couple of decades. We are all suspects now.

But there are more subtle forces at work, too. The report suggests that "by shaping the context in which it is used, DNA-based forensic policing produces the conditions for establishing acceptance of its own legitimacy and for increasing the criminal justice system’s dependence upon it." A ratchet effect is introduced, making each subsequent extension more difficult to resist. And it has a distorting effect on other parts of the criminal justice system. "A challenging finding," it argues,

would be not merely that DNA analysis has entered the context of crime management and investigation but that its introduction has been able to shape the legal, operational and political context itself: the way that a decision to create a national DNA database can result in changes to police practice, to the likelihood and procedure of arrest, to decisions about which crimes are investigated, to the way crimes are committed and even to the sorts of crimes that are committed.

Pandora's Box, when opened, often turns out to contain Schrödinger's Cat.

In other words, the feedback between technological development, policing practice and ethico-legal acceptability creates the conditions for further developments that, as we become committed to them in turn, take us progressively further away from the alternative approaches that were equally possible at an earlier stage.

Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) told us that it was "aware of anecdotal evidence that police may drop investigations if DNA evidence is not found at the crime scene."

A potential scandal, if true. A lot of the evidence, both for and against the NDNAD, is anecdotal. Hard evidence is hard to come by.

Here's an interesting quote from Dr Ruth McNally :

People whose profiles are on the database are the ‘pre-suspects’ … the first to be suspected (and eliminated) whenever a new crime scene profile is entered onto the database. In this respect they occupy a different space within the criminal justice system from the rest of the population; they are under greater surveillance and, with the advent of familial searching, this differential status can be extended to their relatives too.

I was quite alarmed by one of the recommendations in the report - that members of the police, and anyone else professionally involved in crime investigations, should have their DNA taken and stored on the database "as a condition of employment". This is presented as the police living up to the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" soundbite they so often trot out in defence of whatever measure of surveillance or security they are justifying or seeking - and the reluctance of the police to take this step, noted by the authors, is certainly interesting. But the idea strikes me as profoundly dangerous. Firstly, it would represent a further extension of the database at a time when we should be trying to reduce it. Second, once the principle of DNA sampling as a condition of employment, it would surely be extended - initially to all those working with children and "vulnerable adults", or in other sensitive occupations (including, no doubt, private security). It would be the first step towards a universal database.

Worst of all, the move would undermine the idea - already under pressure, and more honoured in the breach - that the national DNA database is a tool of criminal investigation, rather than a vague and blanket monitoring of the population.

In a mildly entertaining passage towards the end, the report's authors try to anatomise the debate surrounding DNA. They identify five broad positions. "Forensic utilitarians" are mainly interested in the database's effectiveness - they are "evidence-based". "Negative libertarians" believe as a matter of principle that the database should be as circumscribed as possible. By contrast, "securitarians" (a great word) believe that the more powers the police have, the better. "Proportionalists" think in terms of a delicate balancing act between privacy and public protection, while "personalists" keep changing their mind. (Putting it more politely, the report notes that "this group recognises, and may themselves demonstrate, how abstract arguments and scientific evidence can be influenced by people’s beliefs and emotions.")

No prizes for guessing which group the Heresiarch belongs to.
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Monday, 23 November 2009

Palin's prospects

After a lengthy hiatus - ever since she left the governor's mansion in July - Sarah Palin is now back in the land of Tweets, with a new page decorated with a map of the US coloured Republican red (not so odd: back in the 18th century, red was the Tory colour in Britain, too), a cartoon moose captioned "Go Rogue with Sarah" and - obviously - a copy of her book. The Tweets themselves are as you might expect, a combination of the strident and the syruppy. There are gushing messages of thanks to her loyal supporters ("Good folks have been lined up outside... UR inspiring!"). She's "excited to meet Indiana folks who want to read about solutions to US challenges". She's evidently trying to patch things up with John McCain: "spoke w/John yestrdy;he truly is a hero & thx for shout out on the book!" Her strange obsession with blocking healthcare reform continues ("horrible govt healthcare takeover"). She spells "tonight", "tonite" (it's only one extra letter). She has had a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to meet Billy Graham: "The patriarch's message of faith is needed in US today more thn ever".

Palin, of course, long ago descended into self-parody. She was once a genuine political phenomenon who, despite shortcomings (including inexperience and a lack of philosophical sophistication) did manage to get things done. Her pitch of being an ordinary "hockey mom" sorting out complacent and out-of-touch politicians had an element of truth. Her achievement in becoming governor of Alaska was remarkable in itself; more remarkable was that, for two years, she appeared to be doing a good job. That should have been enough. But for the intervention of last year's presidential election, she would still be in the governor's mansion, gearing herself for re-election, still a local heroine. Now she trudges round the bleaker parts of America signing books.

A typical Palin book-signing. More pictures on Mudflats.

Gary Younge claims that "She had a thin record when she was picked to run as vice-president" and that her "rise to prominence, from little-known governor to one of the most popular and arguably most charismatic Republicans in the country in just a year, has been startling." But in fact it is her fall, rather than her rise, that needs to be accounted for. She had a perfectly good record as governor, and if she had stuck to it could have been - perhaps in a few years' time - an effective candidate. True, she was little-known outside Alaska - but then in 1992 Bill Clinton was little-known outside Arkansas, and a couple of years ago not many people had heard of Barack Obama. Palin was charismatic in her Convention speech and many believed that a new political star had arrived. Her resignation speech a few months later was so embarrassing it almost certainly destroyed the last serious chance of resurrecting her political career.

What has happened to her is a tragedy on several levels. For herself first of all: she has exchanged power and regard for money and celebrity, and in the process rendered herself more-or-less irrelevant. The greater her fame, the more adoring the fans, the less credibility she possesses. She has become the leading character in an increasingly bizarre soap-opera, a professional entertainer rather than a politician. From a potential Thatcher she has sunk to the condition of Ann Widdecombe or even Christine Hamilton. She has also become much more ideological, the spokeswoman for a Republican fundamentalism that she did not originally espouse. Or at least didn't make much fuss about. The almost Survivalist aversion to government, the uber-religiosity (which sits so oddly with her chaotic domestic life), the extreme narrowness of outlook are part of the Palin persona that developed after she was introduced to national politics. She appears to have adopted as her personality, wholesale, the caricature that her opponents created for her. The original Palin, hard-working, level-headed and bi-partisan, has vanished.

It's not obvious why this has happened. Sexism probably has something to do with it. And Naomi Wolf might be on to something in Saturday's Times when she suggests that when Palin became candidate for VP she was taken over by the same people who gave us George W Bush.

When the McCain campaign professionals finally step forward in the second half of the book, they treat her like a Stepford vice-presidential candidate. They buy her beautiful clothes and have her turn in front of the mirrors while they style her: but they hand her a copy of a statement they’ve crafted about her daughter’s pregnancy — putting feelings in words she doesn’t share — and when she tries to edit them, they’ve already released their version to the national media. They keep her from calling her press contacts. They stop her from staying near supporters on the rope lines; they hustle her away from the special-needs children in wheelchairs into the private plane. They make her wear $70 pantyhose. They try to tell her what she can and cannot eat. This is not a vice-presidential campaign — and I say that as someone who has worked for the Vice-President in such a campaign in 2000. It is the high-level grooming of a political geisha.

Her job, in that campaign, was to speak to, and for, the Republican base (like John Prescott, almost) and such was her inexperience that she was happy to go along with being used as a puppet - for a while, at least. She became, for a time, extremely popular, but the price to be paid was the destruction, not just of her political credibility, but of her as a politician. As governor of Alaska, she actually did things and was treated as a serious decision-maker. As candidate, she said what she was told to say, wore what she was told to wear - and was rewarded with derision. She was a good instinctive politician (how else can we explain her ascent from nowhere to state governorship?) but a bad actress, and it was acting that was required of her.

In their desire to hold onto the "base", Republican strategists created a pseudo-candidate indistinguishable from one that might have been invented by the elitist liberals she devotes so much of her time these days to ridiculing. She found herself typecast, as her juvenile avatar Carrie Prejean has more recently been, as Bible Barbie. Yet her personal story and homespun style was genuinely appealing. Gary Younge claims that "the very things that liberal commentators ridicule her for – being inarticulate, unworldly, simplistic and hokey – are the very things that make her attractive to her base." That's a tendentious way of putting it. Her supporters, rather, are prepared to overlook these glaring faults, even to interpret her shortcomings as proof of a conspiracy against her, because they share her strong convictions - God and country - and see in her struggle with life and the establishment their own daily battles writ large. Indeed, every time she is taunted she becomes more popular because it reaffirms the (not entirely mistaken) view that the deeply held values of a sizable section of the population are being disparaged.

To that extent she does indeed speak to "the thwarted aspirations and brooding resentment" (Younge again) of America's white working class - which is at least as marginalised politically as ours is. But this does not necessarily mean that large numbers of people actually want to vote for her. In fact, it may be a mistake to look upon the Sarah Palin phenomenon as political at all (although it is to a large extent anti-politics). Her attraction for her fanbase, now queuing for her book-signings, is one of solidarity and sympathy (and, for the men, a strong admixture of sex). In this she resembles a tough-but-vulnerable Country and Western singer - Dolly Parton, say - more than she does any politician.

Wolf thinks that Palin "is going to be around, and she is going to be a force". I disagree: around, yes, but scarcely a force. Not a political force, anyway. There is a life - and a career - outside politics for failed polticians willing to perform as parodies of themselves: Tony Benn, Ann Widdecombe, Al Gore (perhaps even Bill Clinton falls into this category). But they were all something to begin with. What Palin was and what she has become are so different that her current incarnation strikes a duff note. And you can tell from her faltering public performances - so unlike the confidence she exuded when she was first talent-spotted by the McCain team - that she doesn't really believe it herself. In any case, she lacks the articulacy and clarity to be the demogogue that Naomi Wolf fears. She'll continue to make money - she has enough die-hard followers to keep her in lipstick - and the soap opera will continue to prove irresistible. But it's just entertainment.
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Sunday, 22 November 2009

On the House

Desperately trying to cash in on the Belle de Jour fallout, the News of the World carries an interview with an artificially busty 25-year old who - strapped for cash as a student - threw over a potential legal career for the easy money of the "high-class" escorting circuit.

"Six years later she has £300,000 in the bank, a posh North London flat, a soft-top sports car and a boob job," we learn. "Stunning" Paige Ashley tells of posing as the wife of a businessman in his sixties - £30,000 for a week - and a £20,000 night with three Arab plutocrats in Abu Dhabi. It sounds - and is clearly meant to - sleazy rather than glamorous. Paige is full of the usual regrets about her champagne lifestyle, wishing she was still poor and honest. "I'd love to turn back the clock and be slumming it in a bedsit."

And yet of course these trinkets are endearing...

Paige's parents, whose refusal to help her out when she started university was, she claims, responsible for her fall into vice, took the news in their stride. Her mother's attitude was "as long as they wear a condom"; dad "shook his head and got on with life". It makes you wonder.

Anyway, this was the bit that caught my eye:

Her worst bookings with her new agency have been in Britain - with MPs. She said: "My job has taken me right to the heart of Westminster. I've had sex with about a dozen MPs at different times, all of them Conservatives and all what I'd term upper-class.

"They seem to think they're being naughty by spending £5,000 to have a night with me. They're rubbish in bed - all fingers and fumbling. I find them pretty distasteful.

"Funnily enough, since the expenses scandal broke I haven't met any."

Why not? Were they putting her on expenses? Read the rest of this article

Friday, 20 November 2009

Unelectoral politics

At first sight, the twin appointment of Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Cathy Ashton to their respective eminences in the EU would appear to embody a principle of duality. He: male, from a small country, from a centre-right party, an elected politician; she: female, from a large country, from a centre-left party, an unelected quangocrat (the phrase "unelected politician", which I heard used yesterday to describe her, strikes me as - in the truest sense of the term - an oxymoron; nevertheless, given her CV, it is a bit misleading). They do appear to have some things in common, but again they are structural opposites: he is virtually unknown outside his own country, she is virtually unknown inside hers.

Similarly, both have been explained as technocratic operatives who will do the bidding of the governments who appointed them. That remains to be seen. Early evidence, however, suggests that Van Rompy at least has his own agenda, and it is a federalist, bureaucratic agenda. In a recent speech, he appeared to call for Europe-wide taxes - though it's impossible to be sure precisely what he said, since the remarks were made at a meeting of the notoriously secretive Bilderberg Group. Or perhaps that should be formerly secretive. Conspiracy theorists will no doubt make much of the fact that he was appointed so quickly, and so smoothly, just days after receiving the blessing of the secret rulers of the world. More to the point - it's interesting that they're no longer trying to hide their unelected influence.

And Ashton?

The job of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is potentially both prominent and powerful. It has been described as the diplomatic "face" of the EU, the person at the end of the phone when the Americans want to call Europe, Hillary Clinton's counterpart, the one who will Speak for Europe. And that's only the foreign affairs half of the job: given the all the many things that are done in the name of "security" nowadays this part of her brief could give her power over almost every aspect of our lives. It's worth remembering that David Miliband was sorely tempted to put himself forward for the position, which he would surely have got.

Given that Lady Ashton is so patently uncharismatic, many suspect that her appointment signals a scaling back of the job-description. The appointment has been described (like Rompuy's) as good news for Euro-sceptics. Writing from a different perspective, Carsten Volkery in Spiegel thinks that, "once again the EU has missed an opportunity to boost its standing on the global stage." But the powers accorded the High Rep in the Lisbon Treaty are formidable, and are not diminished by the obscurity of its holder. So it may be worth heeding the view of the Euro-fanatical John Palmer that such reactions "seriously miss the point". He adds:

Some commentators have been too quick to conclude that Ashton's appointment means that nothing will really change; that national governments will remain totally in control. But this ignores two important aspects of her new job. The first is that she will have the power to propose foreign policy initiatives to the Council of Ministers, as well as be given a mandate by them to pursue in international negotiations.

The new EU foreign policy supremo will also no longer function as one important individual with very limited support from policy experts. The first priority of Baroness Ashton will be to introduce the new European external action service (the embryo EU diplomatic service), which was created under the Lisbon Treaty. This will for the first time provide the EU high representative with a flow of information and advice from experts on the ground and make her less dependent than her predecessors on advice from national governments, who are notoriously ready to cloak purely national interest issues under a spurious European wrapping.

It's the sort of job, in other words, that one would expect to be filled by a proper politician - if not someone elected to the post, at least someone who is at home in the rough and tumble of democratic debate. The route by which Ashton arrived at such potential power suggests that she is no more than an apparatchik. She has built a career through sitting on committees, networking, not offending anyone. And luck: the Times remarks that she "has an extraordinary gift for being in the right place at the right time."

If you asked a computer to come up with an identikit of the type of person who has done well out of New Labour, it would produce something like Ashton. She "ticks all the boxes": CND, work in the "equality" industry, chairing a health board, some ministerial experience. Her appointment to the European Commission was an accidental by-product of Peter Mandelson's return from Brussels to rescue Gordon Brown. Like several other prominent New Labour people, she married to a Left-leaning media type, in her case Peter Kellner. She is an embodiment of the quango state, at one remove from democratic control: her legitimacy, if any, derives not from herself but from those that appointed her. She inhabits the strange no-man's land that has appeared between the worlds of democratic politics and bureaucracy; her career demonstrates, if nothing else, just how far it is possible to go in modern politics without ever being elected to anything.
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EU Haiku

Herman Van Rompuy
Is quite well known in Belgium
But who's this Ashton? Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Get out and walk

This is a guest post by Valdemar

It was a Nobel prize-winning Swedish chemist by the name of Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) was who first discovered the greenhouse effect. And it didn't take him long to conclude that burning coal (oil was just coming into widespread use as a fuel in the late 19th century) would cause a surprisingly strong increase in that effect. In other words, the earth would heat up. Now Arrhenius didn’t necessarily think that would be a bad thing. Far from it. He could see that the world’s population was increasing, and he thought that global warming (as we call it) would make more land in higher latitudes available for food production. Also, he was aware that we are living in an interglacial period during the current Ice Age, and therefore increasing the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere could forestall a global cold snap.

His rosy prediction may yet be proved right (though if we believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others who’ve done the scientific heavy lifting that’s not the way to bet). Alternatively, none of it may be true. Thousands of scientists from Arrhenius onwards could all be wrong and the world’s climate will not become substantially warmer. Suppose that's what happens - yet the government introduces measures to avert the catastrophe anyway. Would that be such a bad thing?

For one thing, the roads would be a lot nicer.

One likely result of policies designed to tackle climate change is that we end up with millions of electric or hybrid cars tootling around in our towns and cities. This makes life a lot quieter, of course, which is no bad thing. Indeed, so quiet are green vehicles that the RNIB would like them ‘noised up’ a bit, because they represent such a menace to visually-impaired people trying to cross the road.

So, we are likely to see a huge drop in the number of internal combustion engines working in densely-populated areas. How much money will this save the NHS? All the pollutants belched out by gasoline and diesel engines might (invoking our old pal common sense again) have an effect on people’s health. Yes, I know some will deny outright that exhaust fumes cause any serious damage. Believe what you like, but ask yourself this: if the internal combustion engine were brand-new technology, how happy would you be to see it introduced on a huge scale?

But let’s consider something more important than cutting urban pollution. Maybe the price of fuel will rise so much due to those nasty carbon taxes (and perhaps due to genuine scarcity) that people will have to get off their arses and walk about more. This might have a beneficial effect on society. I suggest that the ‘great car economy’ lauded by Margaret Thatcher, whatever its economic benefits, has had a more corrosive effect on modern Britain than cannabis or Ecstasy ever could. This might simply because I am an insanely embittered non-driver. But stay with me. I might be good for a laugh, if nothing else.

Walking down the street for more than a few yards is an activity millions of able-bodied people shun in so far as is humanly possibly. Walking, though it’s never presented in such stark terms, is the chosen transportation method of society’s losers. Drivers whinge incessantly about almost everything, yet the number of people who choose to shun the car in favour of using their legs is hardly striking to someone who (like me) can’t drive due to their optical limitations. No, the car is always best, even for a journey that would take a healthy adult fifteen minutes to walk. As a result of this (and, of course, other factors) many people who eat fewer calories than their grandparents did have far fatter backsides. Not great news for the dear old NHS. But perhaps the physical harm habitual driving does is the least of our problems?

I’ve become convinced that frequent urban driving on our ludicrously congested roads makes people worse – more selfish, more aggressive, and more childishly obsessed with their own immediate needs. When you’re behind the wheel of a car it is far easier to be a bad citizen than a good one. Drivers expressing aggression and threatening violence is something the habitual pedestrian sees every day. Drivers can of course show some consideration for their fellow drivers and for pedestrians, but in a very limited way. More nuanced interaction with others is simply not possible.

Does this matter? I think so. So much of what we claim to prize about our society – our ironic, self-deprecating humour, our willingness to muddle through, and to live and let live – are well nigh impossible to demonstrate when you’re fuming inside a plastic and alloy pod. A burning, raw hatred for one’s fellow man, or woman, seems to be more commonplace than good-natured tolerance. How many of us have been shocked by the way a mild-mannered friend or colleague has been transformed, in an instant and very much for the worse, by that great car culture?

Well, of course, they don’t carry that rage into their non-vehicular lives, do they?’

You want to put money on that, Sigmund? I don’t believe that people can compartmentalise their minds so efficiently that the raging barbarian at the wheel can simply be put back in his box when the keys come out of the ignition. I think that this unpleasant side to the average driver’s character might well be manifest at home, at work, and pretty much everywhere else. I think it’s a Bad Thing.

I’m not going Daily Mail here – my chosen headline would not be ‘Driving a Car Makes You A Selfish, Immature Bastard Who Doesn’t Work at His Marriage or Value His Kids’. No, I’d opt for ‘Driving a Car Too Often Makes You Less Pleasant in a Vague, Corrosive Sort of Way’. I’m obviously no loss to modern journalism, but I hope my point is taken.

I think if we drove a lot less our society would be a lot better. Not richer - better. I think that if more people (and a broader cross-section of people) spent more time moving along the pavements we would have less crime, and less fear of crime. I think that women, the elderly and the young would be happier and feel more secure. We would, as a society, reclaim the streets.

Did I hear some old reactionary ask about evidence-based policies? Well, I appeal to common experience. I can’t present a UN-sponsored scientific report to support my viewpoint, oddly enough. I just think that our car-based society is very effective at suppressing what has long been considered civilized behaviour. And I think we’ve lost something important; something nebulous, and certainly something that’s hard to quantify, but something real and good, nonetheless.
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Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Bloggers repel boarders

There's a memorable passage in One Hundred Years of Solitude where a "magistrate" turns up in the small but growing settlement of Macondo and informs the inhabitants that they now belong to the government. And that they are required for some bureaucratic reason to paint their houses blue. The town's patriarch, Don José Arcadio Buendía, objects that they could manage perfectly well by themselves.

He gave a detailed account of how they had founded the village, of how they had distributed the land, opened the roads and introduced the improvements that necessity required without having bothered the government and without anybody having bothered them... No one was upset that the government had not helped them. On the contrary, they were happy that up until then it has let them grow in peace, and he hoped that it would continue leaving them that way, because they had not founded a town so that the first upstart who came along would tell them what to do.

It works for a time; but the government got the better of him in the end. It's what governments do. So, of course, do quangos. They regulate to accumulate. Show them something new, and they want to regulate it. So it was far from surprising to learn - the conduit for this information being the Independent's Ian Burrell - that the new head of the Press Complaints Commission (which isn't yet, quite, a quango, but would clearly like to be) has set her sights on blogs. Baroness Buscombe wants to "examine the possibility" that people should have a "right of redress" to the PCC for things that are said about them on blogs, we are informed. "Some of the bloggers are now creating their own ecosystems which are quite sophisticated," she warns, having mastered at least some of the lingo (though "now creating" suggests that she's just a little behind the times). Cue general outrage and much spluttering into keyboards.

But of course, now that the storm has broken, it turns out that she was simply musing out loud. The PCC has no plans to regulate blogs. Guido (who is, to most who know nothing of such matters, the alpha and omega of British blogging) reports that the noble lady was "mischievously misquoted" - and mischievously suggests a complaint about Burrell to the PCC might be in order. I suspect there was more to it than that. Of course, the PCC has no fixed intention to monitor the blogosphere, and no real idea about how it would set about doing so. But, as a paid-up member of the Great and the Good, she may well view blogs rather warily - or perhaps with envious eyes. To the tidy official mind, there's something unsettling about the idea that blogs aren't being regulated by someone. In a clarification, she now says that self-regulation may be a way of heading off "increasing pressure" for something more formal and coercive. She's just trying to help us.

There certainly is increasing pressure. There was that nice woman from the European Parliament last year who was worried about anonymous blogs and the "less principled people" who might be writing them. She felt that bloggers should identify themselves - perhaps even being licensed - and declare their interests. The European Commission was concerned that bloggers were "overwhelmingly negative" about the EU - and assumed that that demonstrated something wrong with blogs. Then there was Hazel Blears (now sadly no longer in the government) who despaired of the "corrosive cyncism" of bloggers who saw "their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy". Rather more seriously, culture secretary Andy Burnham announced last year that the government wanted to give people who felt they had been defamed online an easier route to legal redress - on the theory, presumably, that the present libel laws are too liberal.

Ian Burrell thinks that bloggers "would presumably have to volunteer to come beneath the PCC's umbrella". But that's not remotely likely, is it? Trying to tell bloggers what to do brings out all our most contrarian instincts - and almost all bloggers (and certainly anyone who's any good) are contrarians of one sort or another, united only by a belief in the vital importance of being able to say what we think. Cats are herd animals by comparison. Unity is leading the charge over at Liberal Conspiracy with an open letter objecting to the proposal (although it never was a proposal), now "signed" by tons of bloggers from the well-known (Devil's Kitchen) to the thoroughly obscure (Helen and Denny? Who they?). Unity is typically prolix (a well-phrased "Fuck Off" would have done the job). His letter makes a particular, and not obvious, argument: that the blogosphere does not require PCC regulation because blogs already have higher standards than most newspapers. He drew a contrast between the "tortuous process" that one of its readers had to go through to get the News of the World to retract a "manifestly untrue and inflammatory" statement and the alacrity with which most bloggers put their hands up:

This is but one clear example of a practice that would be unacceptable amongst established bloggers and one of many that bloggers who specialise in monitoring the national press for accuracy have documented in recent years. For a blogger to engage in such practices, which include ‘stealth editing’ of articles, after publication, to avoid owning up to factual errors and removing and/or refusing to publish critical comments from readers, especially those that highlight and correct factual errors.

For an established blogger to adopt such practices would do incalculable damage to their public reputation; this being, after all, all that we have to trade on.

Like I said, somewhat debatable. Most bloggers may behave with the highest propriety. Others may not. At the moment, unless you want to sue (as an increasing number of people mentioned on blogs do) you have no redress beyond the goodness of the blogger's heart. You may leave a clarificatory comment; the blogger may delete it. You may object to the blogger's characterisation of you as ugly and stupid; they may respond by claiming that you also have BO. And there's not a lot you can do about it. Except sue. For many people, of course, taking legal action is out of the question: it's daunting, can be expensive (unless you win really large damages) and (if it goes all the way) time-consuming. For the richer and more brazen, on the other hand, it can be easy money, because nine times out of ten the person sued will back down and pay up. It's not difficult to persuade a large news organisation to make a generous contribution towards your favourite bank account. Less easy, perhaps, with a blogger, who might have no money to give you.

Also, Unity makes the assumption that the problem (if there is a problem) is one of "established bloggers" who are concerned with their reputation for probity - this being what they "trade on". Given that very few blogs make money, it's not clear what damage losing the respect of fellow bloggers would do to a rogue blogger who just wants to stir things. If anything, being denounced as a ratbag or a liar by other, perhaps more prominent, denizens of the blogosphere will be good for hits. In fact, being obnoxious is as good a way as any of getting noticed. Better, perhaps, than turning out beautifully-written but largely unread (because overlooked) posts day after day. It's dangerous, I think, to use the alleged ethical superiority of bloggers over mainstream journalists as a reason for not being regulated or monitored by the PCC. And while Unity is right to point to the grave deficiences of the PCC (shown again, perhaps, by its failure to tick off the News of the World over its alleged phone-hacking activities) a broken clock may be fixed. Lady Buscombe has announced a review of the PCC's procedures already. If the PCC did its job properly, most of Unity's arguments against regulation would disappear.

No. The reason for not regulating blogs is that a blog isn't the sort of thing that could or should be regulated. Blogs aren't like newspapers, and bloggers aren't like journalists (even many bloggers who are journalists aren't like journalists while they're blogging). For one thing, there are just too many of them. The cost involved in mounting investigations could spiral, especially if complaining to the PCC became accepted as the normal thing to do when someone has been nasty or inaccurate about you on a blog. The PCC accepts complaints via an online form, which means that complaining has become absurdly easy. A single article can attract thousands of complaints (vide Jan Moir) but equally many different articles, or blogposts, can attract single complaints and the PCC might be swamped. Who would investigate these complaints? Who would fund them?

A few blogs have a wide audience, and even influence, but most bloggers are just people expressing an opinion. Freedom is the attraction and the essence of blogging: it's also a prerequisite. If bloggers had to sign up to a code, many simply wouldn't bother. Regulation of blogs would imply a structure and an organisation that simply doesn't exist and will probably never exist. Who would draw up the code of conduct, and what would become of bloggers who rejected it? A whole new class of blogger-regulators - with the necessary experience - would have to be recruited, and paid, and trained to do the job. Who would these people be? I've got a fairly good idea, actually: they would in the main be aspiring bloggers unable to attract their own readers. And they would be blogging busybodies with a particular idea of what blogging is (like Unity, even) and a desire to impose their view on others. For other people's own good, of course. Such types - at once altruistic and self-aggrandising, nature's quangocrats - may be found in every area of life. Why should blogging be any different?

At present, of course, the PCC is funded by the newspaper industry - which is part of the problem, its critics would say. It seems unlikely that bloggers, even the two who make any money, would be in a position to pay the costs of being monitored. And the PCC code is a voluntary one. To persuade bloggers to submit themselves to it, the PCC would have to offer something in return: a seal of approval, perhaps. I can imagine a sidebar button - click here if you want to complain about anything on this blog. Would you (if you have a blog) put such a device on your site? No, me neither.

Baroness Buscombe's proposal - or suggestion, or (most likely) throwaway remark - was never going to get anywhere. The reaction to it was, perhaps, more significant than the story itself. It showed that bloggers are seriously concerned. Even while pointing out that regulating the blogosphere is next to impossible, they share - we share - a sinking feeling that They'll get us eventually. The government, the EU, Ofcom, the PCC, the IWF or some new body not yet thought of: slowly, but surely, they draw their plans against us. That's what they do.
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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Faith talk

As Secretary of State for "Communities" (and it's worth pausing here, just for a moment, to notice the typically New Labourish elision of title and propaganda - seen also in Miliband Minor's billing as secretary for "climate change") one of John Denham's responsibilities is to front the government's effort to cosy up to representatives of "Faith". Apparently, he wants Faith leaders to have "a central role" in shaping government policies. In a recent speech, he described himself as a secular humanist; which you might think would give him some sense of perspective - but no, he went on to eulogise Faith in terms that seem to have been ripped almost word-for-word from one of St Tony's regular sermons.

For many people, their faith plays a defining role in their lives, their character, their identity. It can inspire and give purpose; it is a source of consolation and comfort. It brings duties and responsibilities; often challenge - but also joy and hope. It motivates some people to get involved in public life - it sustains others through private crises.... Government should respect - should value, prize and celebrate - those things which matter to its citizens. And for many citizens in this country, their faith shapes and defines who they are.

The terminology reveals the government's basic dishonesty here. Take Denham's most recent speech, launching "Inter-Faith Week" (and announcing that he had £2 million to spend on the "Faiths in Action" programme). The word "faith" appeared seventy-nine times in the course of his remarks. The word religion, by contrast, appeared once - and that was in a quote from a Dr Singh about "barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice that divide our different religions". It's easy to see why. "Faith" is a friendly, mushy catch-all, encoded with positive ideas such as commitment, honesty, trust, integrity and wholesomeness. It's one of those words - "diversity" is another - that are used to circumvent thought. "Religion", by contrast, brings in all sorts of awkward questions - claims to truth, exclusivity, peculiarity of practice, the wagging clerical or divine finger proclaiming Thou Shalt Not. Religion separates; faith unites.

Of course, neither Denham nor anyone else in the government would dare put it like that. Instead, by talking exclusively of Faith they hope, magically almost, to make the problem of religion melt away.

You may not be surprised to learn that I don't share this government's enthusiasm for Faith. The only Faith that ever really appealed to me was the one portrayed so memorably by Eliza Dushku. Oddly, I've much less problem with religion. Religion I can deal with: it has sharp edges, it has something to say, even if I disagree with it or regard its doctrines as risible, and there are things that may be said back to it. You know where you are with religion: on Planet Batty, maybe, in many cases, but at any rate somewhere. You can debate religion. I can even respect it. But Faith? It has all the coherence of a half-melted blancmange. That's why the government - this government - prefers to talk about Faith rather than Religion, of course. Cosy talk of faith, rather than hard talk of religion, conceals the reality - perhaps even from those in the government who easily confuse the positive connotations of the word "faith" with the Thing Itself.

This sounds warm and fuzzy:

Anyone wanting to build a more progressive society would ignore the powerful role of faith at their peril. And we should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution faith communities make on the central issues of our time. That is obviously easiest when faith requires its members to engage in the great issues of the day....we should not only permit, but welcome and celebrate the expression of faith in the public sphere as part of the democratic debate on the challenges we face.

This, on the other hand, sounds rather sinister, or just plain self-contradictory:

Anyone wanting to build a more progressive society would ignore the powerful role of religion at their peril. And we should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution religious communities make on the central issues of our time. That is obviously easiest when religion requires its members to engage in the great issues of the day...we should not only permit, but welcome and celebrate the expression of religion in the public sphere as part of the democratic debate on the challenges we face.

By "the great issues of the day", Denham means those issues that the government agrees with: climate change, for example (though it mystifies me why it should be thought that the science that underlies the theory of global warming should be strengthened, rather than weakened, by the enthusiasm with various Sky Pixie believers have adopted it). But the religious voice, as he well knows, says other things as well: that homosexuality is sinful, that abortion is always wrong, that women should obey their husbands, that parents have the right physically to chastise their children or even to select their marital partners. These too are great issues of the day. Not all religious voices say all of these things, of course, and some say none of these things. But a government starting from the faith position (for that is what it is) that religion deserves respect simply by virtue of being religion, and that religious leaders speak in some sense "for" their particular communities, is sooner or later bound to come up against insuperable contradictions.

The determination of the government to suck up to religious leaders has given us an education system in which children are increasingly segregated according to what sect their parents adhere to (or profess to adhere to). In the name of "equal respect", it has encouraged reactionary Muslim leaders to set up "courts" handing down verdicts often unfavourable to women, and for years turned a blind eye to forced marriages and domestic abuse - though there has been some small improvement of late, thanks largely to campaigns mounted by secular human rights groups, not by bearded theocrats with access to Number Ten. And, more insidiously, it has encouraged religious leaders of all sorts in the belief that they have important messages to deliver about every aspect of life and society, because Faith is the embodiment of everything good and they, my lords, embody Faith. So that you end up with bishops pontificating like Prince Charles and (again like Prince Charles) expecting to be taken seriously.

Today we learn that the Church of England is advising people that it's a bad idea to run up huge credit card debts, and that you can save money by doing some of your Christmas shopping online. Which may well be good advice, but what on earth makes the CofE think it is its job to deliver it?

Denham talks of "the unique insights that faith groups bring to contemporary issues." But he offers little that might be described either as unique or insightful that they have offered, beyond a desire to influence government policy in accordance with their particular beliefs. If I wanted to know about Christianity I would talk to a bishop (or perhaps to my friend Father Rattue). But if I wanted to know about climate change I'd rather talk to a scientist working in one of the relevant fields. For centuries, Christians believed that they were given dominion over the earth. Today, they are more likely to tell you that the earth is a precious divine trust that must be taken care of. That is not a Christian insight: it is a contemporary commonplace given a theological twist. As in so many areas, the religious are playing catch-up with modern society. We should give them credit for moving with the times, not pretend they are supplying the motor.

For some of the truly religious, religion and faith may be indistinguishable, in that their particular religion inspires them to a general compassion and tolerance (while other, also deeply religious, people turn to fundamentalism - or "aggressive religious conservatism", as Rowan Williams, rightly I think, prefers to call it). For others, their adherence to a religion is not much more (and may be less) than support for their football team. By telling people that their religious identity is fundamental, what makes them distinct from others, the government exaggerates differences and actively encourages ghettoisation. That it should regard labelling people by religion as a method of encouraging social cohesion and "progressive" political goals is, on the face of it, bizarre. It is explicable only as the consequence of talking blandly of Faith rather than honestly about religion. The language of Faith may be appealing to politicians for its soft inclusivity, but the worst aspect of it is how it messes with their brains.

Even if, like John Denham, they're not in the least religious.
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Monday, 16 November 2009

Peter Oborne and the Israel Lobby

Peter Oborne writes:

It is impossible to imagine any British political leader showing such equanimity and tolerance if British troops had committed even a fraction of the human rights abuses and war crimes of which Israel has been accused.

(My italics)

Tonight on Channel 4, Oborne is presenting a Dispatches programme on the "Israel lobby" and its supposed vast influence in Britain. The document from which that particular (and highly representative) quote is taken is a lengthy report available at Open Democracy. Having read it fairly quickly, I am truly disturbed - not by its "findings", which strike me as fairly bog-standard "Israelophobia" (I'm trying not to use the word "antisemitism" here, partly because all the Israel-denouncers quoted here profess themselves appalled by the insinuation, but to be honest I'm not finding it easy) but by the fact that a serious, proper and generally sound journalist like Oborne should be propagating them. I like Peter Oborne. His anatomy of the political class in Britain and the havoc it has wrought on our democracy. But this stuff is dangerous, and he should know better. I assume that, like so many who venture into this territory, he's simply naive.

Cranmer reproduces some of the vile comments that have appeared on the Channel 4 website below an article publicising the programme. It's vile stuff - "the hand of global Zionism at work", that kind of thing. You might say that's just the ranting of some crazed antisemitic conspiracy theorist whose well-thumbed copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion sits proudly on the shelf next to Mein Kampf. But it's also a very fair summary of the conclusions reached by Oborne, and presented at very great length at Open Democracy. There's a lengthy section, for example, detailing the baleful influence at Westminster wielded by organisations sympathetic to the Middle East's only democrary. "Many of the most sensitive foreign affairs, defence and intelligence posts in the House of Commons are occupied by Labour or Conservative Friends of Israel," we learn. The implication is clear: British foreign policy, like that of the United States, is controlled by those Israelis and their minions.

Except that it isn't. To Israel-bashers (and this is what smokes them out as being, despite their protestations, at least unconsciously anti-semitic) only the powerful, secret influence of behind-the-scenes conspirators could possibly explain why British pronouncements aren't as damning of Israel as those made by the governments of, say, Iran or Syria. After all, what possible reason could a democracy have to support the right of another democracy to defend itself against terrorism and the ever-present hostility of the surrounding despotic regimes? Why not simply bow down before the obvious fact that Israel is the main, indeed the only, obstacle to peace?

After all, it says so in the Guardian. So it must be true.

Let's return for a moment to the remark of Oborne's I quoted at the beginning. Is it possible to imagine any British political leader showing such equanimity and tolerance if British troops had committed even a fraction of the human rights abuses and war crimes of which Israel has been accused? You bet it is. It happens every day. British troops - and American troops - have been accused of worse crimes and human rights abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq than Israeli troops have been accused of in Gaza. No Israeli military guards I'm aware of stand accused of raping entirely innocent detainees, either for their own pleasure or their captives' humiliation. In terms of the number of innocent civilians killed, Anglo-American operations by common consent vastly outnumbers those killed during Operation Cast Lead. Of course, these civilians deaths were unintentional. But then so were the deaths caused by the Israelis unintentional. To claim otherwise is a pernicious lie propagated by the hate-filled and repeated by the terminally naive.

This singling out of Israel for particular blame fills me with disgust and anger. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not - as it happens - Jewish (though why should this even be relevant?). Nor am I a member of any "Israeli lobby". If Israeli personnel committed war crimes in Gaza, they should be investigated and, if necessary, punished; so should American, British, French, Chinese or Egyptian personnel. Israel is not perfect. No country is: though Israel, with its freedom of speech, sexual equality (the Israeli army could teach its British equivalent a thing or two about that) and respect for sexual minorities is vastly superior to most of the surrounding countries. That in itself, rather than any sinister Israeli "lobby", ought to explain why Western governments might have sympathy for the country. The surprising thing is why they have of recent years become so overtly critical of Israel. Presumably oil has something to do with that.

I don't subscribe to the view that any criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. But then neither does anyone else, not even Melanie Phillips. I am, however, coming to the view that the converse is true: that to accuse Israel's defenders of making that claim does indeed have a whiff of anti-Semitism about it. Because they don't. It is just that part of the ancient stereotype of unscrupulous Jews assumes that they would behave like that. In fact, Israel's defenders merely point out that Israel is held to higher standards, not just than the surrounding dictatorships, but higher even than our own countries. There's no equivalent of the Goldstone report into Iraq: if there were, it would be, I suspect, far more damning. The truth is that much of the media and the political/diplomatic world is disproportionately, bizarrely, almost psychotically obsessed with Israel and its dealings with the Palestinians.

If you want an explanation of why there's an Israel lobby, and why it has to lobby so hard, start there.
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