Sunday, 31 January 2010

They both want to save the planet

Osama Bin Laden, or at any rate someone purporting to be Osama Bin Laden, released an audio message the other day. That's two in as many weeks - a remarkable increase in productivity. The first of the two messages congratulated the Underpants bomber on his failure to bring down an aeroplance (and his success, presumably, in turning airport security staff into professional voyeurs). The second, like the first (and most previous specimens) leaked to Al Jazeera ... well, it was rather different. The terrorist mastermind, it seems, wants us to know how very concerned we should all be about the threat from climate change.

"Speaking about climate change is not a matter of intellectual luxury - the phenomenon is an actual fact," says Osama Bin Laden, sounding remarkably like Ed Miliband. And coincidentally, in today's Observer the "climate change secretary" - if New Labour had been in power in the 17th century there would have been a secretary of state for witchcraft - declared war on those "siren voices" who have leapt upon the recent string of embarrassing revelations to cast doubt on the science driving public policy in the area. It is now clear that the IPCC, under its discredited chairman Rajendra Pachauri, has crossed the line that separates research from advocacy, and science from politics. Some would claim that it was always on the wrong side of that line.

The dangers of this should be obvious. Those whose inclination was to doubt either the models for accelerated man-made global warming, or the wisdom of the action being demanded to tackle it, have had their suspicions confirmed. Scepticism has spread and may have reached a tipping point. Even those fully convinced of the science must recognise that it is the duty of researchers to report the facts objectively, not to cherry-pick the most alarming details from the most dubious sources. The end doesn't justify the means. Rather, the means prove fatal to the credibility of the end. That is what is now happening.

Miliband now says, "it would be wrong that when a mistake is made it's somehow used to undermine the overwhelming picture that's there." But if the picture is so overwhelming - and I'm not saying it isn't - why are these mistakes being made? Why, if there's so much proper science to report, should the IPCC be reduced to dressing up partisan documents written by pressure groups and pro-AGW lobbyists, or (dodgy dossier-style) material garnered from student dissertations? Why has a body charged with producing impartial assessments for the benefit of governments become so compromised? Something is terribly wrong. And no, this doesn't invalidate the science. But it does invalidate the procedures by which the science is brought to the world's attention. If Miliband truly wants to restore credibility to the case for AGW he should be demanding the IPCC be disbanded or at least completely reformed. Instead he goes around looking for messengers to shoot.

With scientists playing politics, it's especially troubling to find politicians who claim merely to channel science. Miliband is determined to quash climate-change scepticism not because of the science but because of the politics. Scepticism "would undermine public support for unpopular decisions needed to curb carbon emissions, including the likelihood of higher energy bills for households, and issues such as the visual impact of wind turbines" he told the Observer. He also invokes the precautionary principle, that codification of risk-avoidance that would, if rigorously applied, prevent anyone from ever doing anything.

He claims that "to take what the sceptics say seriously would be a profound risk." The trouble, though, is that - at least as far as most of the rest of the world is concerned - he's fighting a losing battle. Britain, and Europe, are irrelevant. We can waste what remains of our national wealth building windmills and loading environmental taxes onto industry, but so long as China and India insist on following the West along the road of economic development it will make no difference. Copenhagen demonstrated that Europe scarcely matters and even the Americans can't change much. The developed world, by definition, has already done its bit to fuel global warming. Now its their turn.

Still, at least "Osama bin Laden" is fully signed up to the Miliband agenda. This isn't the first time the mystery voice has warned of the dangers of environmental catastrophe, in fact it's a recurring theme. In fact, with his ecologically sustainable cave-based lifestyle and longstanding opposition to the oil-funded rulers of his native Saudi Arabia he arguably has more credibility than a minister in a government which categorises environmental protesters as "domestic extremists."

The latest tape is "a message to the whole world about those responsible for climate change and its repercussions - whether intentionally or unintentionally - and about the action we must take." He singles out the last Bush administration for failing to ratify the Kyoto treaty, and the West generally for causing the problem. "The effects of global warming have touched every continent," he warns. "Drought and deserts are spreading, while from the other floods and hurricanes unseen before the previous decades have now become frequent." Ah, that argument. More significant, though, was the coupling of the environmental threat with his desire to bring down the American economy. Multinational corporations, he claimed, were "the true criminals against the global climate."

I've no idea whether or not this tape is from the real Bin Laden, or whether it represents his actual views. But let's imagine it does. What does that tell us? Perhaps he's recognised that failing to blow up the occasional airliner isn't going to bring Western civilisation crashing down in ruins, leaving him the space he needs to establish his global Caliphate, but that draconian measures to tackle climate change, by crippling developed economies, just might?

It could even explain his group's otherwise hard-to-fathom fascination with planes. By targeting the source of much CO2 emission, Al Qaeda might be said to be doing its bit to save the planet. Every time a bomb doesn't go off yet more absurd security requirements are introduced - and new ways are found to circumvent them. The main effect is to discourage air travel - which may be terrible for passengers but would probably do more to cut greenhouse gases than all the wind-farms and fake lightbulbs put together.
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Saturday, 30 January 2010

When love goes cold

Why do people hate Tony Blair so much? We saw it on display again, yesterday, both inside the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre and, even more, outside it, among the demonstrators with their "Bliar" placards and the commentators in the TV studios: not just disapproval or disagreement but real, visceral hatred. What's it all about? Why has national embarrassment at an unfortunate foreign war turned into such personal animosity?

Everyone knew what was going to happen yesterday: what he was going to say and how he was going to say it, how he would put on an Oscar-worthy performance, how the members of the Chilcot panel would fail to land a glove on him, how his eyes would blaze with righteousness and sincerity. Everyone knew, too, that the performance would be accounted a triumph. But also that it wouldn't convince anyone who disagreed with the war and hated Tony Blair on account of it. It would just make them hate him more. And so it proved.

If Tony Blair wanted to defend his record, to make no concessions, to run rings around his questioners, then his performance was indeed a success. If he wanted to win back the reputation he once had as an honest politician, a "pretty straight sort of guy", and regain the trust of the British people that brought him to power in 1997 and lasted - despite accumulating evidence to the contrary - almost until the eve of war in 2003, then he failed. Because the two are not compatible.

Arguably, going to war with Iraq was the most honest thing Tony Blair ever did, despite the twisting of evidence and legal shenanigans that accompanied it. The means may have been less than ideal, and the outcome lamentable, but the motive was pure. He was, and remains, utterly convinced that he was right. If he was acting at Chilcot, it was method acting, and he has been in character for most of the past decade. Blair can be terribly hammy, it is true, but yesterday his performance was for real.

That's the paradox. When he was acting - blubbing for Diana, for example, or telling John Humphrys he was a straight sort of guy - he was popular and trusted. When his economic miracle turned out to be as insubstantial as the Lamia's palace - or the Dome - Gordon Brown got the blame. Blair's luck held: however bad the state he left the country, he sails serenely on, richer and more tanned by the day. It's galling. Iraq is the one issue on which he didn't come up smelling of roses, the one apparent chance to nail him. That we can't, that he will never admit his mistake and never be held properly to account, makes the whole thing even more exasperating.

Above all, people are angry with Blair because they voted for him; or if they didn't vote for him, they were impressed enough in the early years to wish that they had. They remember how much optimism he inspired in 1997, and what has happened to it, how it all turned out to have been built on sand - and they look at the man primarily responsible, how undamaged he seems, how upbeat, how untroubled and how rich. They're angry at Blair, but they're even more angry at themselves, that they were taken in by him. I wasn't taken in, which is one reason I'm not particularly angry, any more than I would be angry at a venemous snake that turned round and bit me after I decided to pet it. I'm not disappointed.

But why were so many people originally taken in, when the evidence of his phoneyness was so apparent to others? Tony Blair is a perfect exemplar of the type identified by Malcolm Gladwell - the Persuader. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell describes a meeting with such a specimen of humanity, a financial adviser who makes millions of dollars a year. He really loves his clients. He really, really loves his clients. And they love him back, which is why they give him so much of their money. Gladwell clearly liked him too.

What was interesting about Gau is the extent to which he seemed to be persuasive in a way quite different from the context of his words. He seems to have some kind of indefinable trait, something powerful and contagious and irresistable that goes beyond what comes out of his mouth, that makes people who meet him want to agree with him. It's energy. It's enthusiasm. It's charm. It's likeability. It's all those things and yet something more...

When I first read that passage some years ago, around the time of the Iraq War, I couldn't help thinking about Tony Blair. Gladwell goes on to say that "what I felt with Gau was that I was being seduced, not in the sexual sense, of course, but in a global way, that our conversation was being conducted on his terms, not mine." Actually, I think there probably is something sexual about it. Or at least, the same qualities will also guarantee their possessor (if that is what they want) unusual sexual success.

But now, with Blair, all is turned to dross. The same performance that once seduced people now reminds them of how they were duped. It's a huge turn-off, because it's not just hatred of Tony Blair himself, it also has a large element of self-disgust.

Clare Short is perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon. Short was on the point of resigning alongside Robin Cook - something that, as she well knows, might just have tipped the balance of opinion in the Labour party decisively against the invasion of Iraq. By a mixture of charm and (she now says) downright lies, Blair talked her round, only to renege on all his promises a few week later, leaving Clare looking weak and naive. Her reputation has never recovered, whereas Robin Cook's resignation made his (what a witness he would have made before Chilcot!). She can't forgive herself, so she turns her hatred onto Tony Blair.

Yet it would have been absurdly easy for Tony Blair yesterday, even after everything that has happened, to win back at least some of his popularity. All he needed to do was apologise - if not for the entire war, then at least for something: for misrepresenting the evidence, perhaps, for not insisting on a second UN resolution, for falsely linking Saddam's supposed weapons programmes with the post 9/11 terrorist threat. If he had made a more contrite statement, if had been less impregnable in his performance, if he had shown more human sympathy for the victims of the war, he would be reading more sympathetic headlines today.

By refusing to apologise, Blair is fuelling the anger against him. Despite themselves, despite knowing how he misled the country and the world, despite all the deaths he caused, on some level people still want to love him. He still oozes charm. He's still Tony. If only he could see it within himself to apologise, to throw himself on the public's mercy, all would be forgiven - if not quite forgotten. I'm reminded of a passage in Jane Austen. Mr Knightley is complaining to Emma about how easily Frank Churchill has been forgiven by the people of Highbury despite his outrageous behaviour.

"Frank Churchill is, indeed, the favourite of fortune. Every thing turns out for his good.--He meets with a young woman at a watering-place, gains her affection, cannot even weary her by negligent treatment--and had he and all his family sought round the world for a perfect wife for him, they could not have found her superior.--His aunt is in the way.--His aunt dies.--He has only to speak.--His friends are eager to promote his happiness.-- He had used every body ill--and they are all delighted to forgive him.-- He is a fortunate man indeed!"

But Blair didn't take the opportunity yesterday to show humility and be granted the public's absolution in return. His self-belief is too great - or, perhaps, too fragile. To admit that he was wrong, given what Iraq means to his legacy, to his very identity, would be too much. He can't do it.

So there's an impasse. The people want to forgive Blair, but they can't, because he would first have to apologise, and that would be psychologically devastating to him. The result is that people hate him even more. They hate him not because of what he did but because of what he is doing now, which is to deprive them of the right to love him.
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Friday, 29 January 2010

Kiss 'n' tells are here again?

An England footballer, now revealed to be captain John Terry, had a relationship with the long-term girlfriend of a fellow player, widely rumoured to be Wayne Bridge. If so, it might explain why Bridge's relationship with the French underwear model Vanessa Perroncel broke down late last year; though at the time it was blamed variously on his move north to play for Manchester City or on his "philandering ways". Allegedly, of course, although the Telegraph is now reporting it as fact (the involvement of Bridge's ex, that is, not his philandering ways - we must be careful).

The only thing we "officially" know is that Terry obtained a "super-injunction" last week to prevent a sunday newspaper revealing certain details about his private life, and that the super-injunction (i.e. an injunction that injoins even the fact of its own existence from being made public) has now been lifted.

By Mr Justice Tugendhat. Well, it wouldn't have been Eady, would it?

I have no idea who any of these people are, other than the fact that two of them play football and the third models lingerie, and I have no interest in reading about their sex-lives. Here, though is a photo of the charming Miss Perroncel:

I congratulate both gentlemen on their taste. According to the Telegraph, they have other things in common as well: "In 2004, together with a third player, they were reported to have gambled £40,000 a week between them on horse and dog racing." That was before Vanessa came on the scene, though. But on to more serious matters.

Some people are celebrating the news as being another nail in the coffin of the super-injunction, already under sustained criticism in the light of the Trafigura affair. Steve Busfield (on the Roy Greenslade blog) suggests that "a combination of legal sense and digital communications" may be too much for it. It is indeed a paradox that super-injunctions should have arisen at a time when they have become ridiculously easy to circumvent. An unknown number of such injunctions still stand, however - prominent media lawyer Mark Stephens has stated that he is personally aware of several hundred. Some everybody knows about, even though they officially shouldn't: the Andrew Marr one, for example.

Tugendhat explained his decision to lift the interim injunction on the grounds that it was not "necessary or proportionate having regard to the level of gravity of the interference with the private life of the applicant that would occur" if the facts were made public. He also criticised Terry's lawyers, Schillings, for not giving newspapers notice of the action they were taking. They had apparently told the judge they didn't know of any newspaper interested in the story - whereas they sought the injunction precisely because the News of the World was very interested indeed. Naughty Schillings. The judge also referred approvingly to a letter from the Guardian on the need for "open justice in a case such as the present one". I read that particular detail on the Guardian's website, needless to say.

The super-injunction angle is the causing the most interest this evening, but the granting of any sort of injunction in these situations is possibly more relevant. We may be seeing the development of a Tugendhat-Eady split. The two share much of the judicial workload in both libel and privacy cases, but while Eady has become notorious (fairly or otherwise) for his willingness to grant privacy injunctions (even to Tiger Woods) and to entertain libel tourists, Tugendhat has been a little more cautious.

In 2006, in a decision that later provoked much moralistic spluttering from Paul Dacre, Eady ruled that a man whose wife had conducted an affair with a footballer should be prevented from selling his story to the media. The guilty parties "ought to be able to keep their past indiscretion to themselves rather than suffer public humiliation and embarrassment" he maintained. He has repeatly stated his belief that sexual relationships are protected under the European Convention of Human Rights as it has developed in Strasbourg. In a speech last year (pdf) he commented that

Where the subject-matter is inherently private, such as sexual behaviour, it is not for judges to refuse a remedy on grounds of distaste or moral disapproval, or to accord protection on a graduated basis, according to how conventional or unconventional the sexual activity may be. This is quite a recent development. There is no logic to the stance taken a few years ago that marital relations are entitled to greater privacy protection than a footballer’s one night stand.

And in his famous judgement in the Max Mosely case, he argued that the law was now "that people's sex lives are to be regarded as essentially their own business – provided at least that the participants are genuinely consenting adults and there is no question of exploiting the young or vulnerable."

This principle is at first sight hard to square with today's judgement. Tugendhat J said in his ruling, to the especial delight of the Daily Mail:

The fact that conduct is private and lawful is not, of itself, conclusive of the question whether or not it is in the public interest that it be discouraged. There is no suggestion that the conduct in question in the present case ought to be unlawful, or that any editor would ever suggest that it should be. But in a plural society there will be some who would suggest that it ought to be discouraged. That is why sponsors may be sensitive to the public image of those sportspersons whom they pay to promote their products. Freedom to live as one chooses is one of the most valuable freedoms. But so is the freedom to criticise (within the limits of the law) the conduct of other members of society as being socially harmful, or wrong.

Paul Dacre could scarcely have put it better.

ALthough all cases have to be decided on their facts, Tugendhat's decision does seem to be dramatically different in its implications from the run of cases in recent years, many of which were decided by Eady. It's true that in 2003 another footballer, Gary Flitcroft of Blackburn Rovers, failed to maintain an injunction which he had obtained in similar circumstances to today's. But since then the European Court granted relief to Princess Caroline of Hanover and Monaco against the publication of unauthorised photographs, a result that led Lord Justice Sedley to argue that it was "extremely doubtful whether the Flitcroft case could now be decided as it was." The decision, he stated, required courts "to protect people's privacy against any incursions which are not justified by the free speech requirements of general public debate." Eady took a similar line in his speech:

The mere fact that you play football for Blackburn Rovers does not mean that your sexual activities are open to closer public or tabloid scrutiny. Von Hannover would appear to make it clear that even prominent public figures (let alone players in the Blackburn Rovers side) are entitled to a private life, which should only be intruded upon if justified by the contribution it would make to a legitimate public debate.

Newspapers will be delighted by the decisive terms in which Justice Tugendhat overturned not just the "super" parts of the Terry injunction but the entire thing. It's certainly hard to square with recent decisions both in Strasbourg and in courts presided over by his colleague Eady. Is this a green light for the return of Kiss 'n' Tell, or was his lordship just hacked off with Schillings' behaviour? Or does everything come down to the difference between playing for Blackburn Rovers and captaining England? Either way, there will be much celebration in newspaper land - except possibly at the News of the World, which no longer has its scoop.
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Thursday, 28 January 2010

Lotteries and lordships

Graeme Archer, on Conservative Home, has an interesting (if unlikely) suggestion about that perennial conundrum, reform of the House of Lords. In essence, he wants to replace a permanent second chamber with "people's juries", selected to revise and vote on individual bills. He explains:

An objection often raised is: how could random people be expected to be expert on any particular legislative topic? I do not propose that they should, any more than I was an expert on the problems faced by new immigrants in Bethnal Green, when I sat on a jury a few years ago. I propose that the parties in the Commons should nominate Advocates to make their case to the jury in the upper chamber. Amongst other benefits, this means that the Upper Chamber has access to experts for any particular topic....Each chief advocate could produce a panel of experts to help with their case - including (why not?) government ministers and their shadows, or backbenchers, or members of select committees, and even Baroness Greenfield or Helena Kennedy.

After reviewing the evidence, the upper "chamber" could then vote in one of two ways: Ready for Royal Assent, or Send Back to Commons for Revision. Such a process would almost certainly increase the power of the Select Committee (and hence the backbencher) at the cost of the Executive, but the (unelected) upper chamber could never permanently overthrow the will of the elected commons. It could make a government pause and re-consider. In this way we might see better thought-through legislation.

I've long been attracted to lot-based systems, partly because of the Athenian precedent (although that, of course, was a very different society) but mainly because random selection is inherently a more democratic mechanism than election. Pure democracy isn't everything, of course: you also need people with expertise, passion, reliability and high intelligence leading the political and legislative process. You need politicians, in other words. But any democracy worthy of the name should seek to involve as wide a cross-section of the population as possible in the political system. Once political parties had a mass membership and the House of Commons could draw upon people with a wide range of experience outside politics. Now it is dominated, on all sides, by career political hacks, who are viewed by the electorate with ever growing contempt. This is neither democratic nor stable.

What has happened over the past few decades is less an aberration than the exposure of the inherent flaws of the system. A broadly-based Parliament may be desirable, but in time the institution will tend to become colonised by politicos parasitic upon the body politic. Politics ceases to be a forum of democratic decision-making and evolves towards being a self-perpetuating mechanism, the purpose of which is to enable its practitioners to win elections and thus retain their jobs.

Most people do not want to become politicians, and of those who do only a small minority have the characteristics that bring success inside political parties, which may not be the characteristics best suited to serving the people of a country as a whole. Another way of saying this is that elections are invariably won by politicians, and that while electoral politics presents an illusion of choice to the voters, politicians in all mainstream parties have more in common with each other than with the voters they purport to represent. When we are told that parties are "essential for democracy", what is meant is that they are essential for politicians.

The most fundamental divide between politicians and the electorate is that for the public, politics is important (rather than merely interesting as a spectator sport) because of the policies, whereas for the politicians what matters most is their political career. Individuals MPs may be strongly motivated to pursue particular causes, but even they, outside their narrow enthusiasms, will by and large bear out the truth of WS Gilbert's caricature: "I always voted at my party's call, and never thought of thinking for myself at all". Such an MP is, of course, thinking for himself as he votes his party's way on a bill of whose content he knows or cares little - at least, he is thinking of himself. The ambitious backbencher is rarely an habitual rebel, and most backbenchers, to begin with at least, are ambitious. Getting on means making compromises, and some of those compromises will affect real people in profound ways.

This is where Archer's proposal begins to sound attractive, though he doesn't quite spell it out. He's attracted to the effectiveness of juries as noted by theorists like Ian Hacking. His major concern is that the system should churn out the best possible legislation. The principal advantage of a jury system, however, is that it would be representative of the whole country, including the people likely to be directly affected by particular laws. Instead of trying to find a sympathetic MP - who is most unlikely to prevail against a government machine - they will have a seat at the table, the chance of putting their case directly to their fellow-citizens, and a vote (if not a veto). Such a system would also counteract the power of lobbyists and big business to distort legislation (see, for example, the current Digital Economy Bill) - since part-time jurors, who are only deciding on one particular bill, would be virtually immune to such blandishments.

I don't hold with Archer's idea entirely, however. While having a truly democratic lock on legislation - provided by a randomised jury system - is a good idea in principle, it couldn't achieve the detailed scrutiny that experienced lawmakers acquire by virtue of years learning about procedure and political manoeuvring. There's need for a revising chamber that has that knowledge - and, however unfortunate the method of its selection, the House of Lords is currently not ineffective at doing its job. The major problem is that carefully reasoned amendments are too easily discarded by a government determined on getting its way, which can and does fall back on the argument that as "the elected chamber" it has a moral right to prevail. The obvious solution is for at least the overwhelming majority of the members of an upper house to be directly elected.

Personally, I would favour a small chamber - a hundred members seems about the right size - elected by rotation (say ten per year) by the entire electorate. No constituencies, no fancy PR mechanisms, just the ten candidates who nationally attracted the highest support. These "senators" - but perhaps someone could suggest a more English-sounding title - might be affiliated to political parties and stand under their colours, or they might be independent, but either way their huge electoral mandate would render them largely free of party control.

Needless to say, the party machines would never allow it.

Graeme Archer isn't very keen on elections to the upper house, because of the potential for conflict between two elected chambers. This would be "inevitable", he thinks, because "election, through universal suffrage, is a valid mechanism, and all the 'rules' and 'principles' and 'unwritten agreements' in the world will not change this. If I am elected to one chamber in parliament, and you are elected to another, we have the same (democratic, legitimate) basis on which to interfere with that parliament's proposed legislation."

This is true - just look at the United States, where gridlock can only be avoided if the same party controls the Presidency, a majority of the House and 60 seats in the Senate. Arguably the system has impeded necessary reform, healthcare being the obvious newsworthy example. It also gives opportunity for porkbarrel trading of special interests for votes. At the same time, though, it serves as a brake on ill-considered laws. A system that led to gridlock would have prevented the Thatcher government from introducing the poll tax, which would have been a great thing all round (especially for the Thatcher government). It might also have held back some of the worst New Labour legislation, in the process saving ministers from repeated drubbings in the courts. So legislatiave logjam has its advantages.

Indeed, the notion that the government should get its way, simply because it is elected, is not a democratic principle. It belongs to the theory of elective dictatorship, that a government gains legitimacy from the fact of having been elected, and once elected should be able to exercise near absolute powers until it submits itself once more to the voters. There are obvious problems with this. First, the support a government enjoys in Parliament does not, even under a proportional system, accurately represent the will of the people. The present government was elected on only 35% of the vote and has consistently polled below 30% in recent years. And even if a system of PR assembled a coalition representing in excess of 50% of votes cast, that coalition would be an expression of the compromises reached between politicians to enable them to work together, rather than the popular will.

My suggested Senate could sit alongside some version of Archer's juries. It might, for example, have the power to remit a bill for consideration by a special people's jury, or a jury might be invoked to resolve conflicts between the two houses. Perhaps, though, all these systems belong to an earlier age. If we were designing a political system from scratch, wouldn't we want to incorporate the potential for true democratic involvement available on the Internet?
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Wednesday, 27 January 2010

At least she wasn't stoned

The Telegraph brings us the charming story of a 16 year old Bangladeshi girl whose misfortune it was to have grown up in a village ruled by a combination of hardline religion and traditional community values. The formal authorities have little power here, so when she was raped by the local sex-pest she had nowhere to turn. The truth emerged some weeks later when, after an arranged marriage, she was discovered to be pregnant. She was immediately divorced and sent home in shame.

At that point an informal village council, which included two local imams, stepped in to "arbitrate". They decided that the alleged rapist had no case to answer, but that the girl deserved to receive 101 lashes for her unchastity. Her father was also fined, presumably for taking insufficiently good care of his daughter's honour. The punishment was delivered by the local headman last week. "At one stage of the inhuman torture, the girl collapsed and fainted" reports the Bangladesh Daily Star. It took her two hours for her to recover sufficiently to allow the beating to resume.

Declaring that the alleged rapist had ruined her life, the girl told the reporter, in tears, "I want justice". She's unlikely to get it, however. Although she has support locally, neighbours "did not dare to say anything against the so-called village arbitration." Her father, meanwhile, "said members of the influential group are now keeping a watch on them so that they could not move or seek legal action." The police said that they couldn't investigate unless the girl made a formal complaint.

This would seem to be an especially severe case, but CNS mentions "a rash of earlier floggings of women, including one who spoke to a man from a different community, another who filed a rape complaint, and a third who refused sexual advances made by a relative. In each case locally-issued fatwas ordered punishment of 101 lashes." It also notes that Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - another country where this sort of "community justice" is commonplace - are all currently members of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Bangladesh isn't Saudi Arabia, where handing out severe sentences to rape victims is part of the official legal system, or even Pakistan, where institutionalised Sharia principles regularly leave rape victims thrown into prison for "adultery". Formally, the country has a recognisable and humane judicial system along British lines. Since human rights campaigners drew attention to the case, the country's high court has stepped in and ordered the girl to be taken into protective custody. This follows an earlier ruling in which the court ordered the authorites to clamp down on extra-judicial punishments such as this, but which seems to have been widely ignored.

Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman of the Asian Human Rights Commission blamed a number of factors for allowing such abuses, ranging from a culture of automatic respect for local elders to rampant corruption in the local police. Bangladesh isn't unique in that respect, of course. Similar, and even worse, reports of "traditional justice" repeatedly emerge from countries like Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Sudan and even parts of Indonesia. Even in glitzy Dubai a British couple have been charged with illegally having sex after the woman reported a sexual assault to the police.

There's little anyone in the West can do except gape open-mouthed at the extraordinary inversion of humanity that must be involved in identifying a victim of rape as an accomplice, with her attacker, in an immoral act deserving of brutal chastisement. Whether or not Sharia law (however that is understood) is actually to blame, it rarely seems to help much. But that's not my point here. Rather it is to point to the vast moral gulf that has opened up between progressive and traditional societies. A case like the Bangladeshi one seems incomprehensible even to many people in Bangladesh; yet no doubt the village elders genuinely believed that they were doing the right thing according to their culture. These attitudes die hard.

There's much talk, these days, from people like David Miliband about the necessity of welcoming the Taliban into power in Afghanistan. That would be the logical the endgame of our involvement in that country - an entrenched Taliban, propped up by international support, going back to doing what they love best, enforcing traditional tribal morality. It would mark a huge symbolic defeat, not just for the Western alliance but most importantly for progress. But it would probably make little difference in practice. Outside Kabul itself, the removal of the Taliban has done nothing to improve the lot of women, and their return would be unlikely to make it much worse. You can't, after all, blame the Taliban for what happened last week in Bangladesh.
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Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Is it liberal to ban the burka?

The French proposal to restrict the public wearing of burkas and face-veils seems to be gaining momentum, with an official report recommending that such garments be banned in official buildings and public transport, and even that wearers be refused residence cards and citizenship on the grounds that they exhibit "radical religious practice". Among the claims made in the document are that the veil (worn, it is thought, by fewer than two thousand women in France) is "a challenge to the Republic", "the symbol of the repression of women, and... of extremist fundamentalism" and something that "all France is saying Non to". It added, "this is unacceptable. We must condemn this excess."

The debate seems utterly alien to British sensibilities. Multiculturalism exhorts us not merely to tolerate the niqab but to welcome it as a sign of a vibrant and diverse society. When Lord Pearson of UKIP proposed a French-style ban the other day, he was derided for illiberalism and bigotry. It is surely a cornerstone of a liberal society that people may wear what they like without the intervention of the state. So long as the women concerned are exercising a free choice - or appearing to do so - what's the problem? It's an easy case to make, not least because it's not immediately obvious in what way veiled women - however misguided their interpretation of Islam - cause harm to others. As Dominic Lawson wrote recently in The Times, "it is absurd — morally and legally — to force women to be feminist against their wishes."

Such a ban would be extremely difficult to enforce, would appear stigmatising and would not attract much public support. Even making the case seems somehow un-British. Indeed, the spectacle of the anti-EU Pearson arguing for a measure so quintessentially French was a paradox as relishable as his own claim - made to a burka'd up undercover reporter for Guy News - that it would be "a ban for freedom".

The fact that the proposal is un-British doesn't necessarily mean that it would be wrong, however. Not everything that is British is by definition right. Pervasive CCTV is British. Binge drinking is British. Bad food and poor dental hygiene are British. Twenty odd years ago there was nothing in the world that said "Britain" quite so definitively as football hooliganism. So whether such a ban is British or not is irrelevant to the broader question of whether or not it would be a good idea.

We should ask instead why the French - a high proportion of them, anyway - see the proposed ban as desirable. Doubtless motives are mixed. Some will be bigots who are offended by the visible presence of Islam. Others have genuine security concerns in places such as airports. Some are high-principled secularists or feminists who dislike the encroachment of religion on public life, or who see the very notion of a full veil - even a partial veil, perhaps - as inherently demeaning to women. A surprising number are Muslims. But there's another reason, too. At the moment, the wearing of veils in France is very far from prevalent. It is spreading, but it hasn't reached the concentration that it has reached in parts of the UK. This fact hasn't gone unnoticed. French people look across the Channel, and they see how the multicultural tolerance of Britain has led to a society in which increasing numbers of women see the need to express their "identity" by imprisoning themselves inside ambulatory tents. They also notice that Britain has become the European HQ of radical Islam and an incubator of terrorism. They wonder if these facts might be linked. And who is to say that they are wrong?

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is almost the only public commentator in Britain who is prepared to dissent from the national consensus. Perhaps it helps to have been born abroad. Here she is again in the Independent yesterday, making the arguments that white liberals are either too culturally sensitive, too cowardly or (in many cases) too stupid to make. "Does liberalism have any duty to those who use liberal values as weapons to promote illiberalism?" she asks. "Is it obliged to become a suicide bomber, to self-destruct to prove itself?"

She wonders why, if Britain is so liberal and tolerant, so many police enjoy harassing photographers in the spurious name of "counter-terrorism" and why we as a nation put up with so many nannying restrictions. It's a good question. And as she rightly points out, it's not true that we don't have laws about what people can wear in public. Just ask the naked rambler. A group of protestors - including one embedded journalist - are disgracefully being put on trial in a few weeks' time for the "crime" of dressing up as comedy police (bras and suspenders included) at a demo last year. Shopping centres ban hoody-wearers as a matter of course in the name of security, and if no-one would object to a bank refusing service to men in stocking-masks or balaclavas, why should a woman disguising herself in the name of religion merit special consideration? Such questions can only lead to one conclusion, I think: what appears to be a liberal concession to personal taste is in fact an acknowledgement of the particular claims of religion in the public sphere.

The French proposal, to judge by the language used in the report, is intended to be a form of legislative disapproval. It sets out the republican norms that the French state wishes to inculcate in its citizens, which include sexual equality and more broadly a notion of public space. Bernard Accoyer, president of the Assemblée Nationale, for example condemned the burka as "a rejection of co-existence side-by-side, without which our republic is nothing." Before we assume that such language is merely a French eccentricity, recollect Gordon Brown's repeated lectures on the subject of "Britishness" - or, indeed, the strong interventions in private business relationships and the right of religious bodies to discriminate contained in the Equality Bill. His Labour government is notorious for legislation designed primarily to "send a message" about some issue du jour. Ministers often seem to acknowledge no middle ground between encouraging some activity and seeking to ban it. The notion that something might be at once bad (for an individual or for society) yet permissible in a free society seems often to have passed them by. Hence ever more draconian schemes to curb smoking, drinking and even human body-size. Why, as a matter of principle, should gender-stereotyping dress be any different?

There are good libertarian and Conservative arguments against a burka-ban, of the sort made by Lawson. However much you or I may personally dislike these garments, it really is none of our business, nor the government's. But then increasingly many things that aren't or shouldn't be the government's business get done by the government in the name of the common good, or of equality, or even to protect individuals from themselves. So it is at least interesting that left-liberals who are so keen to intervene in other areas should be so convinced that it is wrong to intervene in this one.

Liberalism is partly a habit of mind, a willingness to entertain unexpected arguments and accept the validity of contradictory points of view. Hence its self-contradicting tendency towards moral relativism. It's even possible to make what looks superficially like a convincing feminist case for the burka: it protects the woman wearing it from the "objectifying male gaze", it is a response to a culture in which women are judged by appearance and expected to conform to normative standards of dress and grooming, it protects against harassment (though the reverse would appear to be the case), it embodies a rejection of the cheapness and pornography of Western societies, and so on.

Such arguments are absurd; but they are not logically incoherent so much as obtuse. They resemble the arguments made by proponents of Intelligent Design, which are couched in scientific language but are purely religious in their inner content. Similarly, the pseudo-feminist argument for veiling is apt to catch shallow thinkers (which means many professing liberals) unawares. The logic of it seems to lead to some recognisable liberal-feminist destination, but in fact it is on a one-way track leading to religious fundamentalism.

If you doubt that, ask yourself why none of the liberal feminists who speak up for the right of Muslim women to wear veils want to wear such garments themselves. Or as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown puts it.

You people who support the "freedom" to wear the burka, do you think anorexics and drug addicts have the right to choose what they do? This covering makes women invisible, invalidates their participatory rights and confirms them as evil temptresses. Does it stop men from raping them? Does it mean they have more respect in the home and enclaves? Like hell it does. I feel the same fury when I see Orthodox Jewish women in wigs, with their many children, living tightly proscribed lives.

Progressive Muslims come out daily against the burka, and against mothers who bind and swaddle their young girls in preparation for their eventual incarceration which they will accept without a cry – both un-Islamic customs. Yes, the burka will be used by racists against us. But while fighting racism we cannot allow ourselves to become apologists for another, abhorrent injustice.

There isn't really a feminist argument for the burka, nor is there a liberal one. There is only an Islamic argument for it; which is why the most effective arguments against it are also likely to be Islamic ones. In any case, Alibhai-Brown makes an important case which has not, to my knowledge, had a coherent response from those who accept her liberal-interventionist starting-point.

The classic argument here is of course John Stuart Mill's harm principle: burka-wearers may be misguided, but if they are only damaging themselves then there's little a liberal state can or should do about it. The French answer - and Alibhai-Brown's - would seem to be that in fact they are harming other people through their choice of dress. For example they are (1) implicitly denigrating other women - especially other Muslim women - and thus making it harder for them to exercise autonomy; (2) damaging the image of Islam and the Muslim community in wider society, thus promoting community disharmony (YAB quotes an incident in which one conspicuously veiled woman provokes a hostile response from other Asians, who are heard to mutter "Stupid women, giving us all a bad name. They should send them back."); (3) creating delays in security arrangements where visual identification is required; (4) providing cover for criminals and possibly terrorists who have been known to adopt the burka as a convenient disguise; (5) the deprivation of sunlight is bad for their health, and may lead to increased healthcare costs.

This, then, is what the difference between the debate in Britain and France comes down to: not liberalism versus illiberalism, nor even secularism versus multiculturalism, but two competing conceptions of what it is to be liberal. It may take a generation to find out which is right.
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Grazia editor Jane Bruton writes in The Times:

Recently, I was invited to Chequers by Gordon Brown. He asked me where I stood on issues such as social mobility, women and body image, our culture of consumerism ... and then, inevitably: “What’s going on with Brad and Angelina, then Jane?”

Nice to know he's not superficial just for public consumption, isn't it? Read the rest of this article

Monday, 25 January 2010

Avatar and the future of religion

James Cameron's sci-fi eco epic Avatar is almost certain to become the highest-grossing movie of all time - not bad going for a film whose heroes are blue-skinned aliens speaking a made-up language. It has violently divided critics. Some have been moved by its message of cosmic wholeness, others have been left cold by its vapid, predictable plot, its too obvious allegory and the preachiness of its message. Everyone agrees, however, that it is spectacular, which may be enough to explain its success.

Boris Johnson is the latest to notice the film's heavy-handed political subtext - a plot which involves an evil human (read: American) corporation despoiling the paradisal world of the Na'vi in search of valuable mineral deposits. The anti-Western, anti-technological slant, together with the celebration of primitive peoples living in harmony with the natural world has been seen in some quarters as the usual Hollywood liberal flannel; but, as the Mayor of London notes, "it is a feature of powerful military empires that they like to romanticise their victims and luxuriate guiltily in the pathos of their suffering." As he also points out, all this eco-hippyish breast-beating is done in the service of a hugely successful capitalist money-making machine.

I was particularly struck by this piece of Boristry:

There is already a group of Na'vi sympathisers in Florida who are proposing quite seriously to set up a Pandora-style community, complete with Eywa. You haven't heard of Eywa? You will. It is the blue-nose religion, a version of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis that postulates a kind of electro-spiritual link between every organism, so that we are hooked up to the trees and the trees are hooked up to each other in a huge dendrological internet.

I prophesy that in 10 years' time the UK census will show more adherents of Eywa than there are of Jedi, and that is saying something. With James Cameron poised to do at least two sequels to Avatar, and with the frenzy likely to grow, it is time, surely, to put the whole thing into perspective.

As far as I can make out (and I haven't yet seen the film) Eywa is a kind of giant plant the Na'vi live on, and also a sort of earth-goddess that connects every living thing to every other via a system of neural networks. As an added bonus, it includes a "Soul Tree" that keeps a record of every life and every thought (again a parallel with the Internet seems natural).

NY Times columnist Ross Douthat has complained that Eywa represents "Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world." He noted the popularity of such ideas in Hollywood and in American culture generally, tracing the theme as far back as Alexis De Tocqueville's ruminations on the nature of American democracy in the early 19th Century. He added:

Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

But if Eywa is a religion, it's a highly atypical one one. The notion that everything is connected to everything else and part of some great holistic system sounds suitably New Agey and spiritual - pantheistic, indeed - but as it is realised in Avatar it's not a belief system but rather the way planet Pandora actually functions. Eywa seems to be nothing but a vast and highly-evolved plant, and the creatures (including the Na'vi) that constitute its ecosystem have evolved in tandem with it, as certain insects have evolved to pollinate a particular species of orchid. It is not a deity: it is merely a life-form that has some of the characteristics traditionally ascribed to gods. For the audience Eywa can be seen as a metaphor for how (according to Gaia) everything on earth functions as a living entity, but for the Na'vi it just is. They don't believe in Eywa as human beings might believe in God. They are simply part of it. As Jeffrey Weiss points out,

Academics will argue about exactly how you define "religion." But one element is common to every definition I've ever seen: faith. A religion requires its adherents to have faith in some aspect of the transcendent that cannot be proven using the material stuff of the ordinary world.

Explaining Eywa is a matter of neurophysics, not theology. So it's not about religion.

Or is it?

Bron Taylor, an expert in environmental ethics at the University of Florida, has a new book out entitled Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, which tackles this question head on. Surveying the emerging religious and quasi-religious currents within environmentalism, he divides them in two ways - thematically (animist and Gaian) and in terms of their philosophical basis. Some forms of nature-religion are implicitly or explicitly spiritual - they see a transcendant or at least supernaturalist dimension either in living things (animist) or in the world-system as a whole (Gaian). Others are naturalistic. As he explains it (pdf),

The form I call Gaian Naturalism represents a skeptical stance toward any supernaturalistic metaphysics. Its claims are more likely to be restricted to the scientific mainstream as a basis for understanding and promoting a holistic metaphysics. Yet, its proponents express awe and wonder when faced with the complexity and mysteries of life and the universe, relying on religious language and metaphors of the sacred, albeit not always self-consciously, when confessing feelings of belonging and connection to the energy and life systems in which they participate, live, and study.

Taylor appears to see this form of naturalistic green consciousness as the future of religion. He writes that "traditional religions with their beliefs in nonmaterial divine beings" have been in decline since Darwin's time, but that "the desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, and the human place in it, has not withered away". This is his "dark green religion":

Whether beneficent, dangerous, or both, such religion is becoming increasingly important in global environmental politics. It motivates a wide array of individuals and movements that are engaged in some of the most trenchant environment- related struggles of our time. It increasingly shapes the worldviews and practices of grassroots social activists and the world’s intelligentsia. It is already important in global environmental politics. It may even inspire the emergence of a global, civic, earth religion.

Such religion may not be supernaturalist in content, but that doesn't mean it is not religious in tone or indeed in reality. In an interview with Religion Dispatches, Taylor described as a "misconception" the idea that religion necessarily involves belief in non-material divine beings. He preferred to concentrate on the "explanatory power" of the concept of religion in understanding modern environmentalism.

In a nutshell, and thinking long-term, maybe very long-term, I think that in the future, what we know scientifically, through our senses, will provide the parameters within which most people will find their spiritual understandings (what they consider the ultimate nature of reality to be). These understandings will be the ground for feelings of reverence for the earth, and concomitant action to protect and restore her fecundity and resilience. In my view, without such biocultural evolution, there is no bright future for Homo sapiens on this planet because the planet itself will be biologically impoverished, far from the paradise our species knows we once enjoyed, as related in so many mythic, edenic, narratives.

In other words, "deep green" environmentalism may be grounded in science (or claim to be); it may not acknowledge any form of divine intelligence or consciousness at work in the universe; it doesn't usually involve "worship" in the usual religious sense. There's also no priesthood (unless the IPCC qualifies), no canon of scripture, no dimension of mystical communion. Yet some elements of "religion" are present nevertheless. There are strong ethical imperatives, based on protecting the planet's resources. There's a strong narrative element, based on how human activities (sin, in other words) risk landing humanity in an inescapable damnation (aka "climate change") unless we repent and change our ways: the judgement of God has been replaced with the impersonal but implacable response of nature to what is done to it. We've even seen in some environmentalist circles the emergence of heresy-hunting tendencies, and an attraction towards worst-case-scenarios and authoritarian solutions that might well be called fundamentalist.

While there are points of contact with Buddhism and other eastern religions, environmentalist religion is Christian in form if not in content: it has an historical direction and an escatological conclusion and, above all, it's a story of sin and redemption. (Interestingly, there are some of these Christian themes in Avatar itself.) But it's also materialist. I'm struck by Taylor's comment that in future science "will provide the parameters within which most people will find their spiritual understandings". To some extent this is already the case. Even bishops now treat recycling as a moral imperative, and suggest people give up their cars as a Lentan penance. Meanwhile, health has become something of a secular religion, with doctors and state nannies its priests, smokers and drinkers its sinners - who must be reformed, re-educated, taught the error of their ways.

The nature-worship depicted in Avatar fits in nicely with this materialising tendency. It appears religious - in Bron Taylor's terms it is - and the language it employs of psychic interconnectedness and wholeness is implicitly spiritual. But there's nothing supernatural about it. The Na'vi aren't spiritually connected to Eywa; they're physically plugged into it. The neurological connections on planet Pandora are metaphorical, however, for the audience - a metaphor for Gaia, which is itself of course a metaphor. We are supposed to take from it an environmental message. Thus does the fictional planet of the Na'vi cross the bridge that separates ought from is - their reality is put forward as what our morality ought to be.

So let's look a little closer at the Eywa system. What do we find? As with most utopias, from Plato's Republic to the land of the Tellytubbies, it turns out to be a totalitarian nightmare. Everything is controlled by an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-pervasive system of control that operates to maintain global harmony. Evolution has made the Pandorans dependent upon a godlike superbeing, without the capacity for real independence. The beauty and coexistence with nature comes at a heavy price: the elimination of even the possibility of freedom. If the Na'vi are native Americans, they're also the Borg. And Eywa may be less an earth-goddess than a metaphor for the type of authoritarian control some scientists claim is needed to save our own planet. The future of religion indeed.

With some climate change scientists arguing that democracy and environmental protection are incompatible, Eywa may be the future of politics as well as the future of religion. Not a prospect I altogether relish.
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Bishop Williamson on the Financial Crisis

He may have remained out of the headlines since his views on the Holocaust spoiled the Pope's breakfast this time last year, but renegade Catholic bishop Richard Williamson is still keeping a close eye on events both theological and political. Reuters recently caught sight of him discussing the state of relations between the Roman Catholic church and his own breakaway sect with "a minor French far-right politician". He also took the opportunity cast doubt on the legitimacy of Israel, which may not come as too much of a surprise.

The report goes on:

Asked how he spends his days, he said: “Dormir et manger” (sleeping and eating), as well as writing his blog Dinoscopus, which was quickly turned into a private blog after the controversy last year.

Mostly, these blogposts - which are now circulated via email to his supporters - treat of matters unlikely to be of much interest to anyone outside his sect, although I was interested to note his views on the Irish referendum back in October. There's been nothing as colourfully bonkers as his views on the evil of women wearing trousers, as expressed in a pastoral letter some years ago. "Today's feminism" he wrote "is intimately connected to witchcraft and satanism". On occasion, he seems even in danger of being sensible.

Here, for example, are his thoughts about the economic situation:

When too many powerful people have a vested interest in "economists" being confused and confusing, it is a relief to come across (on the common sense of the "Seven Commandments"of the Austrian School of Economics. The first two, as listed below, are elementary. The last five condemn five ways in which many State governments today, no doubt under political pressure, are trying to get out of obeying the first two. Here they are, each with a commentary:

1) "Thou must earn". With all men's continual need to spend on food, clothing and shelter, every person, family and State must somehow earn. They can only earn by producing or providing the other members of the community (or other States) with goods or services which those others are willing to buy.

2) "Thou shalt not spend more than thou earnest". No person, family or State can go on for ever spending more than it earns. Otherwise it must pile up debt until the creditors call a halt. Then the debt must at last be repaid, which is painful, or it must be defaulted on, which can be disastrous

3) "No State may make too many rules". A State must make rules for the common good, but if it restricts the citizens' productive activity by making too many rules, it will harm the common good by restricting instead of promoting that activity.

4) "No State may tax too much". Similarly too much State taxation levied on productive activity will hinder, even paralyse, that activity, so that an excess of taxation will even diminish a State's tax income.

5) "No State may spend its way out of a recession". In a recession where most citizens of a State are both earning and spending less, no government can resurrect that earning and spending simply by spending more itself, because to get that extra money to spend, it must either borrow (see 2) or tax (see 4) or print money out of thin air (see 6). All three alternatives have strict limits.

6) "No State may print its way out of a recession". Nor can a government solve a recession by fabricating extra money to spend merely by printing more and more banknotes or by hitting more computer keys, because unless there is an increase in the production of goods corresponding to the increase in the money supply, too much money chasing too few goods will force up prices until hyper-inflation can eventually destroy the money altogether.

7) "No State may employ its way out of a recession". Nor can a Government solve unemployment merely by hiring the unemployed as non-productive government bureaucrats (see 1), or by paying out more and more unemployment checks (see 5).

However, if "democratic" peoples so adore Mammon that they keep on voting for politicians bought out by the servants of Mammon, who can they blame but themselves if these money-men take over their government? And if the result will be a living misery for the same peoples, will not the Lord God have punished them by where they have sinned? And will they have left him with any other way of making them understand that he did not give them life just for production, economics and money or even the Austrian School? Or of bringing home to them that these things are necessary in their rightful place, but that above and beyond all of them there is an eternal Heaven and an eternal Hell?
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Friday, 22 January 2010

Coming soon: a rigged election

You have to turn to a foreign publication to get the truth about Britain's woeful electoral system. Here's Der Spiegel:

In Labour's heyday, election districts were gerrymandered in such a way that the party still enjoys a massive built-in advantage today. This means that even if the Tories win many more votes than Labour, they could still lose the election.

At the last election Labour achieved a 60 seat majority on the e back of slightly over a third of the total votes cast. At the time I was amazed people were not angrier about the scandalous result - especially given the disproportionate influence of Scottish and Welsh constituencies which do not even return MPs to Westminster to decide on their own domestic affairs. In England, Labour polled less well than the Conservatives, yet still won more seats. In Wales, Labour piled up seats in constituencies on average a third less populous than their English counterparts. A more equal voting system would have produced a hung Parliament, and we would have been spared the last, dreadful years of Blair and Brown.

The Independent is reporting that, if he manages to win any sort of majority this year, David Cameron will act to cut the number of seats by 10% and also to redraw constituency boundaries in time for the following election. I'm glad the Tories are finally taking this matter seriously. Had they been more with it in the early Nineties they might have been able to at least temper the dangerously large majorities that Labour. It's worth remembering that in 1992 John Major obtained the largest number of votes ever cast for any political party, a full 8% ahead of what Kinnock's Labour achieved, and yet only obtained a majority of twenty seats.

If Cameron pulls off a similar feat this time there will be a hung Parliament. It is possible, however, that Gordon Brown's discredited Labour government could achieve fewer votes than the Conservatives and yet remain Prime Minister with a small majority. If that were to happen, there would probably not be a constitutional crisis. But there should be. A more likely result would be a hung Parliament, in which Labour might well - on a minority of votes - be the single largest party, its forces boosted by MPs from Scotland and Wales who have (or ought to have) little to do at Westminster. In such a situation, Nick Clegg would come under severe pressure from his MPs to prop up a defeated government. Add in the likely influence of dubious postal votes in securing some marginal constituencies, and we have the makings of an Iran-style travesty. Except we can't expect pro-democracy campaigners to come out on the streets in support of David Cameron.

Predictably, Labour sources are accusing the Conservatives of wanting to gerrymander the electoral system to their own advantage. Ministers "fear that it would prolong Labour's spell in the electoral wilderness if it loses this year" reports the Independent. We can hope. It's telling, though, that Labour should regard adjusting constituency boundaries to reduce the blatant bias in its favour is somehow improper. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is toying with a referendum on electoral reform; he favours Alternative Vote, a system that would, if implemented, tend to produce even larger Labour majorities than the party has enjoyed on its under-40% share of the vote since 1997. This will be sold to the electorate as "fairer" and "more proportional". It isn't.

Ever since that disastrous Cameron poster launch, it has become fashionable to talk up the possibility of a hung Parliament. Yet most still expect the Conservatives to poll far more votes than Labour. Few people know or care about electoral arrangements. They assume, because they haven't been told otherwise, that we have a reasonably fair electoral system in which the party with the most votes will win. In fact it resembles a football match in which one side starts with a five goal lead and the other with eight men and no goalie. Both main parties, to say nothing of the media, are acting as though nothing is amiss.

If the Conservatives wait until after an expected victory, it may well be too late. They should start campaigning against the biased electoral system straight away. They should make it one of the key election issues. Their aim should be to induce real anger amongthe public about the rigged nature of the system. That at least should be good for a few votes in marginal seats. Otherwise we could be sleepwalking into a democratic disaster, in which the people cast their votes for one party and wake up the next morning to discover that the losing party has won.
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Thursday, 21 January 2010

Send for the Grammar Police

Serious concerns were raised today about standards of literacy in the British police, after a document submitted to a Parliamentary Committee by the National Association of Muslim Police was revealed by the Daily Telegraph.

The document, which set out NAMP's opposition to the government's Counter-extremism "Prevent" strategy, was found to be littered with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and stylistic peculiarities. One of the Heresiarch's correspondents likened it to pidgin English. "You'd never guess it was written by coppers", he added.

Oh, I don't know.

Politically, it was almost as controversial. NAMP complained that the concept of "Islamist terrorism" unfairly singled out Muslims. It also denounced the British government for not allowing its foreign policy to be decided by Islamic representatives such as NAMP or the Muslim Council of Britain. Instead, it complained, "established pressure groups" - thought to be a reference to the notoriously influential Jewish lobby - and pseudo-Muslim groups such as the Quilliam Foundation monopolised the government's attention.

As a result of this and other failures in government policy, NAMP declared, "hatred towards Muslims has grown to a level that defies all logic and is an affront to British values." For evidence, NAMP pointed to an episode of Panorama one of its members had watched.

The political content of the document - which dates from November - led the Telegraph to suggest that its revelations would prove embarrassing to the government. Gordon Brown, it noted, has previously "said the association was crucial to bridge the historic divide between Muslims and the police." The well-known blog Harry's Place, for its part, has unearthed close links between NAMP and an Iranian-backed group calling itself the Islamic Human Rights Commission. The IHRC, the article noted, generally displayed little interest in the human rights of Iranians - unless it be in the human right of Basiji militiamen to beat pro-democracy protesters to within an inch of their lives on the streets of Tehran.

Telegraph blogger Nile Gardiner thought that NAMP - a body whose professed aims include "raising Islamic awareness - was "clearly in a state of denial regarding the motivation and inspiration behind the vast majority of terrorists in the UK."

It certainly seems to be in denial about the rules of English.

Whoever wrote the submission is clearly unaware of how compound nouns work, for one thing. It refers to "stereo types", "under lying concerns", "anti terror actions" "so called Islamist terrorism" and "non trust worthy" Muslims, among many similar constructions. Nor does he (or just possibly, though I doubt it, she) have much familiarity with the proper use of the apostrophe. Thus we find: "strategic term's" (pl); "there may need to be caution of the danger's of this being too politicised"; and "anecdotal evidence show's".

The difference between "effect" and "affect" causes the author some problems, too, as in "It is debatable whether we are reaching the really hard to reach individuals who may be effected by this thought process." There's a depressing tendency to use a comma where "and" or a semicolon is called for, as well as an occasional (but inconsistent) preference for American spellings. There are oddities like "stigitimatising" - used twice, which suggests it cannot simply be a slip. And there are many grammatically defective sentences such as this: "The net result may have caused some serious damage to Community Cohesion."

But the document's grammatical problems go beyond a few easily-correctible solecisms - of interest, perhaps, mainly to those of us who are pedantically-inclined - and strike at the root of its comprehensibility. What, for example, are we to make of this?

It appears that the whole of the Muslim Communities some 2 million plus is being stigitimsed and mapped from start to end, There has never been in any case in history to such effective mapping apart from the Martian era in America pre the second world war.

Or this?

Arguable the programme has been restricted in effectiveness although this cannot be truly gauged due to a lack of an effective transparent review of the strategy.

Or indeed this?

Whilst the projects such as Chanel from Prevent appear to be showing success in terms of referrals and recent take on of some right wing extremism. There is question again about the targeting of the real needy. It is debatable whether we are reaching the really hard to reach individuals who may be effected by this thought process.

It would be invidious to single out any more examples of syntactical confusion. To do so would risk lengthening this post beyond bearable limits. Instead, I will note that, stylistically, the document tends towards the rhetorical, even the baroque. Here's one of a number of purple passages:

Never before has a community been mapped in a manner and nor will it be, it is frustrating to see this in a country that is a real pillar and example of freedom of expression and choice. Our British system is a model for the world to follow, yet we have embarked on a journey that has put this very core of British values under real threat. This has been echoed from all areas of the globe, the UN in New York to Liberty based in the UK.

The hatred towards Muslims has grown to a level that defies all logic and is an affront to British values. The climate is such that Muslim are subject to daily abuse in a manner that would be ridiculed by Britain, were this to occur any where else. An example of this was the recent BBC programme titled "hate at your door step". This programme gave us an insight at level of abuse faced by many Muslims in Britain on a daily basis.

As might be imagined, this sustained assault on the English language by a supposedly representative body of police officers has the potential to cause NAMP severe embarrassment. And that is to say nothing of the document's claims of institutional Islamophobia or its scepticism about the notion of Islamist extremism. Happily, today NAMP has issued a press release (pdf) to clarify these matters.

Claiming that they wrote "in confidence" to the committee, NAMP stresses that they were "deeply disappointed that this has been made public". Apparently they weren't aware that such submissions are published as a matter of course on the Parliamentary website. It's striking, though, that an organisation of police officers should think that it has the right to slag off government policy - and in the most outspoken terms - and do so in private. Ah well.

They now claim, "in clarification" that

"We fully support the Government CONTEST strategy and have been working tirelessly withthe Police service and with the communities to ensure that the strategy serves its purpose."


So sentences like:

The strategies of PREVENT were historically focused on so called Islamist extremism.

This has subjected the biggest Black and Minority Ethnic community and second biggest faith group in an unprecedented manner ,stigitimatising them in the process. It has also arguably isolated them and visibly made them the focus of all our anti Terror actions for a substantial period. The net result may have caused some serious damage to Community Cohesion.

Amount to fully supporting government policy. I can't think what opposition would look like.

The new statement also says that "the Police Service needs to gather and coordinate intelligence on far right organisations more affectively."

There goes the spelling again. Or perhaps they really want to say that the police ought to use emotion rather than logic or evidence when it comes to countering the far right.

Finally, we are extremely pleased to say that since the submission of our memorandum to the Home Affairs select committee, progress has been made on many of the areas highlighted in the memorandum and we continue to support the work of the Police Service and the Home Office on Contest Strategy.

I think this means that, since they wrote to the Committee, the government has started being nice again to NAMP's allies at the MCB. How reassuring.

NAMP is only one of many groupings of police officers. There's also a Christian Police Association, a Gay Police Association, even an Association of Pagan Police. There doesn't, sadly, seem to be an Association of Grammatical Police Officers. It would be considerably more helpful than NAMP.
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Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Is Google an atheist?

All-knowing, all pervasive, more powerful than any human government - it knows what you're thinking before you know yourself - Google approaches to the traditional definition of God. But does it have any theological opinions of its own?

I tried to find out.

To begin with, the search-engine doesn't seem to be very keen on religion, to judge by the following serving suggestions:

Google would appear to have a particular problem with Christianity:

It's pretty unflattering, too, about Judaism:

When it comes to Islam, though, Google would seem to be in two minds. No shortage of critical thoughts, but the most popular result by far proclaims that "Islam is the best". Doing the maths, there 50% more positive results for Islam than negative ones. Perhaps Google is a Muslim. That might explain the most puzzling statement on the list:

At a casual glance, this final screen-grab would appear to disprove any notion of the godlessness of Google. But look at the results in more detail: almost twice as many results say that the world's No 1 atheist is right as all the negative suggestions put together.

So on the whole I think Google probably is an atheist. At least, it's hostile to most religions. It's just slightly scared of upsetting Muslims.
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Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Angry blondes and bad science

Attractive women are more likely to be right-wing, say scientists. New research proves that, like men with greater upper-body strength, women who consider themselves good-looking tend to favour law-and-order policies and the use of force to settle international conflicts. Presumably this explains Sarah Palin.

Such a presentation of scientific findings is, needless to say, over-simplified to the point of absurdity. It is, however, one observation that could validly be drawn from a paper published last August by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which bore the less-than-enticing title Formidability and the logic of human anger. You can read the whole thing on PDF, but the short version - as explained in an accompanying press release - is that the research supports the theory that anger is a negotiating strategy. People get angry because they want something. It is most effectively deployed by people who either have the wherewithal to back up their threats or something to offer.

The researchers found (or possibly just assumed) a difference between the sexes: with men, the implicit threat was violence, with women, the implicit offer was sex. It followed that men with more bodily strength and better-looking women started from a stronger position. The study - which like many such studies was confined to Californian undergraduates - found that such "formidable" people were quicker to anger than those less biologically favoured. They felt more "entitled"; more precisely, they believed (on a subconscious level) that becoming enraged would help them get what they wanted. The strongest correlation was between strength in men and anger-proneness. The study concluded that the "Napoleon complex" was a myth. It also suggested that the widespread belief that anger was a response to frustration is false: the people who angered easily were those who were used to getting what they wanted.

The authors were especially struck by the political implication of their findings: men's strength and women's beauty predicted their attitudes towards military action, for example. Researchers saw this as "evidence that the internal logic of the anger program reflects the ancestral payoffs characteristic of a small-scale social world rather than rational assessments of modern payoffs in large populations." In other words, if you find anger works for you you're more likely to believe it works on a national or international scale. "One might hope that the decision to go to war is arrived at rationally, in response to objective conditions" the authors commented. Seems not.

All this is fairly startling stuff, though one can see obvious caveats. The use of student subjects is one problem. A more broadly-based survey would be able to take account of other factors (such as money and occupational status) which might be even more relevant than strength or attractiveness when it comes to feelings of entitlement. Moreover, as I read it the study suffers from a common deficiency of explanations based on evolutionary psychology: assuming that modern Western society is biologically normative.

All that is as nothing, however, compared with the travesty of its reporting this weekend.

Under the headline Blonde women born to be warrior princesses, John Harlow wrote in the Sunday Times that

Women with fair hair are more aggressive and determined to get their own way than brunettes or redheads, according to a study by the University of California. Researchers claim that blondes are more likely to display a “warlike” streak because they attract more attention than other women and are used to getting their own way — the so-called “princess effect”.

Even those who dye their hair blonde quickly take on these attributes, experts found.

Experts found no such thing. The research paper made no reference to hair colour at all, nor to any "princess effect". This didn't stop Harlow suggesting that the study "could cast fresh light on the ability of Joanna Lumley... to pummel ministers into giving all Gurkha veterans the right to settle in the UK." It may also, he claimed, "help to explain the success of the lead character in Legally Blonde." As though the scriptwriters had nothing to do with it.

According to Harlow, the scientists had discovered that blondes "were less likely than brunettes or redheads to get into a fight themselves — possibly to ensure they preserved their looks." Again, since the research paper did not differentiate the female participants by blondeness, merely by self-perceived attractiveness, it's hard to see where this came from. Perhaps he just has a thing about blondes.

The version of the story that appeared in The Sun added the speculation that "the findings may explain the domineering behaviour of Katia Ivanova in the Big Brother house." They might be interested to learn that Lady Sovereign is a brunette.

The Mail, which also picked the story up yesterday, even thought that "the theory may help to explain the success of businesswoman Michelle Mone, founder of the Ultimo underwear brand." Their report also mentioned "the longevity of Dolly Parton's career" as further evidence of the truth of the claims. Even though there were no such claims.

Obviously, it's nice to be able to fill your paper with photos of good-looking blonde women, and even nicer to do so in the traduced name of science. I wonder, though, how a piece of research that had nothing to do with hair colour - and whose most conclusive findings related to the relationship between physical strength and anger in men - came to be presented as a discovery about blonde "warrior princesses". Especially since a "scientific finding" that attractive girls are more demanding and belligerent ought to be newsworthy enough on its own.

The Sunday Times quoted the lead researcher, Aaron Sell, who apparently told them:

We expected blondes to feel more entitled than other young women — this is southern California, the natural habitat of the privileged blonde. What we did not expect to find was how much more warlike they are than their peers on campus.

There was also this:

Sell suspects that blondes exist in a “bubble” where they have been treated better than other people for so long they do not realise that men, in particular, are more deferential towards them than other women. “They may not even realise they are treated like a princess,” Sell said.

Where did all this come from, if not from the study? Via Gawker, I found this excellent piece of debunking from Ryan Sager, whose suspicions were aroused by his inability to track down the research in question:

So, I fired off an email to the supposed study’s author. And I received this in reply, from a ticked off Aaron Sell: “I’m afraid you, and thousands of others for that matter, have been badly misinformed. I have never done any research that shows blondes are more aggressive, entitled, angry or ‘warlike’ than brunette or redheads.”

So did the Sunday Times make the whole thing up? That's what Sell appears to be saying:

The author of the Times article, apparently, asked Sell to break down the study by hair color — something that was not done for the published version. According to Sell, he was able to do this, using pictures of the participants to code for hair color.

What he found:

"based on our data:

Blonde women do not feel more entitled.
Blonde women are not more prone to anger
Blonde women do not feel more attractive than other women.
Blonde women are not more militaristic."

These findings are, to put it mildly, not what was reported.

Indeed. That last point in particular directly contradicts his supposed comment to the ST reporter that "What we did not expect to find was how much more warlike they are than their peers on campus." This is either a shocking example of journalistic malpractice, or Dr Sell - perhaps under pressure for a good quote - really did give a misleading impression of his findings and is now trying to repair the damage. Either way, though, it seems the aggressive blondes story originated with the reporter and not with the scientist. It has now been reported all over the world, even in Italy, where the news is unlikely to come as much surprise to Silvio Berlusconi. The BBC have updated their version of the story to correct the earlier misinformation - apparently after Sell contacted them about it. All other news outlets I could trace, however, are still going with the blondes.

Ryan Sager's advice is "be skeptical — especially, for whatever reason, when it comes to the British press". It's a code I've always tried to live by. But I can't help but be a tad sceptical of Sell's explanation too. Most puzzling of all is how a rather obscure study from last summer suddenly hit the news now.

This all cries out for a scientific study, of course. Are people more likely to read science stories with the word "blonde" in the title? What percentage of science stories are padded out with irrelevant references to celebrities? What is the likelihood that any given quote from a "leading scientific researcher" will be twisted out of all recognition?
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