Saturday, 28 August 2010

Does this post remind you of anyone?

What strange and unnatural wonders lurk within the vastness of the World Wide Web, the human mind can only shudder at, and turn away in awe. For to linger, to ponder, to look with full daylight vision upon the immensity - that, truly, is to invite madness. I know, for I have looked and seen. I have offered up my very soul - my words, that is, which are the diaphanous raiment of my soul - to the irrevocable judgement of that stupendous megabrain which few can truly comprehend, and ineluctable Truth has been revealed to me.

It was this afternoon, in a fallow moment, as I picked idly through the rich offerings of my feedreader, that I came upon a post by Longrider. That famous blogger had, by what route I can only guess at (though he claims to have had it from Nourishing Obscurity) been directed towards this presumptuous website, which demands the tribute of a sample of prose and offers, in return, an assessment of its literary resonances. It claims, in short, to tell you who you write like.

Longrider reports that every time he offered up his prose the program responded with the name of a different author. He writes, in the opinion of the machine, like Kurt Vonnegut, like William Gibson, like Arthur C Clarke and like Mario Puzo. Perhaps Longrider is an inconsistent scribbler. But though my scepticism was engaged by the system's inability to provide Longrider with a clear literary model, it would, I reasoned, have been wholly unscientific of me to pass up the opportunity to give it something of my own to chew on. So I tried with one of my most recent posts; and the unholy website informed me that my prose resembles that of an obscure early 20th century horror writer named Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

I was, I confess, disappointed; I had been hoping for Gibbon or, at the very least, Macaulay. So I tried again with a post of which I was inordinately proud. H.P. Lovecraft. Something taken at random from 2007, when the blog was in its first flush of youth. Lovecraft. Something about sex. Lovecraft. Something about Rowan Williams. Lovecraft again.

Every damn piece I entered was allegedly Lovecraftian is style, if not content. But then, needing a control (for by this point I was getting decidedly suspicious) I entered something by another blogger, whose style, I considered, somewhat resembled my own.

David Foster Wallace, spake the oracle.

It was uncanny. Unnerving. Either some improbable statistical fluke was in play, as when a coin tossed twenty times comes up heads without fail, or - and at this a horrid, crepuscular sensation crept upon me like some frightful other-worldly insect - it was true. I gave up. My reason gained its inevitable victory over my self-delusion. It was true. I could no longer deny it. I write like Lovecraft. Perhaps I am Lovecraft, reborn. Or perhaps his undead spirit even now guides my hands from some desolate region beyond the boundaries of time and space.

It is strange, though. I am no Lovecraftian. I pay little attention to the sage of Providence, whose fantastical imaginings have inspired dense pseudo-scholarship and role-playing games, things wholly alien, alas, to my sensibility. I have read his stories rarely and with little enthusiasm. His prose struck me - strikes me still - as overblown and somewhat ridiculous. Cthulhu does not call to me. My sleepless thoughts do not wander through the weird, ghost-haunted streets of Arkham Massachusetts. The Necronomicon remains a closed book. I tremble not at the horrid, illimitable vastness of the spaces between words, where for eons unnameable blasphemous Things have waited in darkness for their hour to come. I prefer Martin Amis.

So whence the Lovecraftian taint? More to the point, can anyone tell me if I really do write like Lovecraft - and, if so, is there anything I can do about it?

I've just sent this post through the system. Ironically, it came out as copybook Tolkein....

Just joking. It was H.P. Bloody Lovecraft again. But at least this time I was ready for it.
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Friday, 27 August 2010

Not at Ground Zero, Not a Mosque, just a really bad idea

I haven't commented so far on the "Ground Zero Mosque" - or multi-function Muslim venue within walking distance of Ground Zero if we're being strictly accurate - largely because I've found it genuinely difficult to work out who is most wrong. Almost everyone is at least partly wrong. Robert Spencer of JihadWatch, for whom it is an "Islamic Supremacist Mega-mosque" planned by radical Islamists intent on destroying American democracy, manages to torpedo any valid criticisms he might have had about the insensitivity of the proposal with his absurd, rabid conspiracy-mongering. But Barack Obama was just as wrong to imply that it was purely a question of religious liberty and planning law. Those who claim - with the venue's planners and their liberal cheerleaders - that the building is merely a positive contribution to interfaith dialogue and a celebration of tolerance are either naive or dishonest. And as for those who think that it's all a fuss about nothing, they obviously have no understanding of how symbols often count for more than reality.

Today, Butterflies and Wheels draws attention to two excellent pieces which ask rather more searching questions about the whole proposal (whose provisional name is Park 51). On Slate, Christopher Hitchens takes a look at the background and past pronouncements of the famously liberal and moderate imam behind the scheme, Feisal Abdul Rauf. Rauf has said some dodgy things over the years, for example singing the praises of the brutal theocratic government of Iran. He also condemned the Danish cartoons in vociferous terms (not much sign of tolerance there) and implied that the US was partly to blame for 9/11.

No-one motivated by anything other than malice would suggest that Rauf is a friend of terrorists or a purveyor of an extremist version of Islam. That, though, may be the problem: what is moderate or liberal from an Islamic point of view does not equate to moderate or liberal from the point of view of secular democracy. And this is especially true when it comes to those who claim to speak public for Islam or to represent Muslims. Hitchens:

We are wrong to talk as if the only subject was that of terrorism. As Western Europe has already found to its cost, local Muslim leaders have a habit, once they feel strong enough, of making demands of the most intolerant kind. Sometimes it will be calls for censorship of anything "offensive" to Islam. Sometimes it will be demands for sexual segregation in schools and swimming pools. The script is becoming a very familiar one. And those who make such demands are of course usually quite careful to avoid any association with violence. They merely hint that, if their demands are not taken seriously, there just might be a teeny smidgeon of violence from some other unnamed quarter …

The term "radical", in Islamic terms, invariably signifies a bearded loon convinced that the whole world will bend the knee to a Taliban-style universal caliphate - someone, in other words, who is profoundly reactionary in religious terms. It would be great to hear from a genuinely radical Muslim for a change. The only one I can think of, off hand, is Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam. Happily, she too has been writing about the GZM affair. She begins by wondering about the politics of offence, which she describes as a "nefarious force". "Too many Americans are mistaking feeling for thinking," she complains. It's telling, indeed, that the technique - perfected by Islamists - of claiming offence as a way of closing down debate has been adopted wholesale by the anti-mosque campaigners, their tone most succinctly caught by Sarah Palin's notorious Tweet that the scheme "stabs hearts." But Manji pushes it further, noting that the mosque's liberal supporters are now using the same emotive language - declaring, for example, that the campaign against the building offends their sense of American values.

Manji then takes a different, and much more interesting, tack. She asks what kind of "tolerance" the GZM might be expected to embody, given the intolerant nature of the kind of mainstream, moderate Islam associated with its proponents. It's not just that no-one associated with the proposal has "publicly acknowledged that the feelings of these 'appalled' Americans parallel how moderate Muslims such as Imam Rauf felt during the cartoon debacle." It's also things like this:

Will the swimming pool at Park51 be segregated between men and women at any time of the day or night?

May women lead congregational prayers any day of the week?

Will Jews and Christians, fellow People of the Book, be able to use the prayer sanctuary for their services just as Muslims share prayer space with Christians and Jews in the Pentagon?

What will be taught about homosexuals? About agnostics? About atheists? About apostasy?

Where does one sign up for advance tickets to Salman Rushdie's lecture at Park51?

Manji argues that the intense scrutiny that the GZM will inevitably face if it goes ahead could lead to the construction of a facility that would genuinely embody the spirit of pluralism and equality and so "make the colorful neighborhood around Ground Zero host to the most transparent, most democratic, most modern Islam ever." Which is very optimistic of her. Much as I share her dream, it's too late for that. The battle-lines have been drawn. In any case, a mosque-complex based on the ultra-liberal version of Islam Manji espouses would be deeply controversial within Islam. It would surely be disowned by Muslim leaders around the world as evidence of a sinister Western plot to undermine and re-design their religion. It would be an open invitation to terrorists.

"Park 51" is not part of a plot by Islamists to take over the world, a celebration of the destruction of the Twin Towers or an attempt to rub the noses of 9/11 families in their grief. Of course not. It is, however, a really bad idea. Even if you regard it as a positive thing in principle, it should by now by obvious that has not worked out like that, and indeed was never likely to. The row has now become terminally poisonous. Either its construction or its abandonment will be something to crow over or denounce for the winning and losing side. It can't end well. The real question is why anyone ever thought it could.

Whatever the positive intentions of the facility's backers, this was always a high-profile, elaborate and thus divisive scheme. Spencer and his evil twin Pamela Geller may have cynically whipped up a storm on their blogs, but that does not mean that there was not something inherently offensive about the proposal. It is not simply a question of giving local Muslims somewhere to pray or meet. There is already a makeshift mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero, that has been operating for some time with little or no comment. It is the size and ambition of Park 51, more than its incorporation of a mosque, that smacks of insensitivity or even triumphalism. It was intended as a grand gesture, which is why the location matters to its proponents (who have rejected an alternative site) as much as to its opponents. Ground Zero - or its vicinity - is no place for an Islamic PR stunt, which is basically what this complex always was.
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Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The civil liberties fetish

Over at Police State UK, Lib Dem activist Liz Williams analyses that accusation beloved of authoritarian-leaning Labourites, that people like her (me too) have a "fetish" for civil liberties. She points out how the the word tends to be used pejoratively to belittle sexual minorities - "fetish is just another way of saying a sexual interest the majority doesn't like" - and suggests that the intention is to make civil libertarians feel deviant. "It's supposed to make us blush and admit that yes, perhaps we did get a bit carried away, and perhaps that nice Mr Blair was all right after all." This is quite amusing:

But let's play with the metaphor a bit longer and ask ourselves what a "civil liberties fetish" would look like if it really did play out in the bedroom. Only getting turned on when the other person - or people, even - made a free choice to be there? Keeping their confidences, because their right to privacy trumps your mates' right to cheap entertainment? Respecting their dignity, even if it means they won't do what you want? Assuming their likes and dislikes are as valid as your own, even if they seem squicky or silly at first? Not meddling in other areas of their life uninvited, even for their own good, because they have a right to do it their way if they want to? You know, I've had partners like that - I have partners like that - and I can't for the life of me think why that's supposed to be a bad thing.

No place for handcuffs, presumably. An actual civil-liberties fetish strikes me (strictly an outside observer, and I don't mean voyeur) as somewhat counter-intuitive. The better-known sexual fetishes tend to have an authoritarian tinge, whether it's a fascination with uniforms or role-play scenarios involving discipline and the infliction of pain. But perhaps some people do fantasise about being rescued from Belmarsh by a scantily-clad Shami Chakrabarti. Ironically, but given the last government's legislation not surprisingly, there is currently a strong vein of civil liberties activism in the fetish community - and not just on behalf of sexual freedom issues. And of course fantasy is fantasy. Someone who enjoys being tied up and whipped in their private life may well be a vocal campaigner in public against the abuse of power by those in authority.

Is the phrase "civil liberties fetish" meant to imply some sort of sexual deviance, though? A fetish, in its original meaning, is an animistic totem, an object of worship supposed to contain powerful magic. A stone, perhaps. To call civil liberties a fetish in this sense is to suggest that it is a false god, and that civil libertarians place an irrational faith in its symbols. A civil liberties fetishist might be someone who shows an exaggerated regard for things like trial by jury, habeas corpus, or British parliamentary traditions, despite knowing that these institutions are imperfect and old-fashioned. A civil liberties fetishist is like a superstitious tribesman, bowing down before outworn ancestral deities - while sensible, progressive, pragmatic politicians are just interested in "what works". This, I think, is what is generally meant by calling civil liberties a "fetish".

Put like this, I can see why the phrase might make Lib Dems like Liz feel uncomfortable. For an (exaggerated?) attachment to traditional totems is almost the definition of political conservatism. Most British Tories are strong monarchists, while in the USA the Republican Right tends has a fierce attachment to the flag, the Bible and the Second Amendment. The liberal case, like any political case, is best made on grounds of principle and logic - and, indeed pragmatism. Liz points out that "for votes to work, you need to be able to scrutinise what your government is doing, and campaign against it, and generally make a nuisance of yourself; and for that, you need a legal system that will protect you even when the government finds you troublesome". True enough. But even liberals have emotions, and the emotional attachment that many people feel to the rights won by their ancestors can be a powerful card to play. Conservative supporters of civil liberties intuitively understand this. Progressives, on the other hand, like to express impatience with traditional taboos. It's no accident that self-consciously progressive and rational political movements have often found it easy to dispense with civil liberties in the name of a greater good - such as a Utopian vision of society.

An African fetish has power only because people believe in it. The fetishes of civil libertarians are not like that: the right to a fair trial is intrinsically a good thing, after all. But a passionate attachment to a principle or an idea, even in circumstances where it might prove inconvenient or unappealing (free speech for racists, for example) is not wholly a rational thing. It can also be hard to explain to those who don't share it - there will always be ready applause for calls to castrate rapists, hang murderers and do unspeakable things to women who dump cats in wheelie bins. That, at least, belief in civil liberties may have in common with fetishes of a sexual kind.
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Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Has Professor Nutt gone nuts about alcohol?

Professor David Nutt was controversially sacked as the government's chief drugs adviser by the previous Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, largely because he had the temerity to suggest that the classification of controlled substances should be based on scientific evidence rather than political prejudice or the opinions of the leader column in the Daily Mail. In the process he became a hero to both skeptics and libertarians - to the former for his evidence-based approach, to the latter because, well, he opined that the government shouldn't just go around banning things. Today, though, his attachment to the harm principle would seem to have gained him a whole new set of enemies.

In a blogpost, Nutt argues that alcohol is a dangerous drug - more dangerous, in fact, than many that are currently illegal - and that to mitigate its harmful effects on individuals and society its availability should be restricted and its price should be increased. In fact, he has come up with a twenty-one-point booze-busting plan, including teaching primary-school children about the dangers of the demon drink, bans on all advertising and happy hours and even the abolition of the government wine cellar (a philistine notion that would perhaps appeal to some of the more hair-shirted of our Coalition as an easy spending cut). He also suggests a draconian US-style ban on drinking by anyone under 21 (always a puzzle in the Land of the Free).

Nutt's proposals are fisked very cogently by Jackart here, and there's not much I would add to his detailed criticisms. I want to examine why it is that Nutt can appear simultaneously a liberal reformer when it comes to drugs policy and crazily authoritarian on alcohol. His prescriptions in fact derive quite naturally from two assumptions, both of which are superficially plausible. The first is that alcohol is a major (indeed, the major) social problem. Nutt calls it "the worst epidemic of public harm from a legal drug since the introduction of cheap gin in the 1700s". The second is that government should strive to reduce harm, basing its policy as far as possible on scientific evidence rather than on political or cultural considerations. Ideally, whether or not a drug happens to be illegal (like cannabis), legal but marginalised (like tobacco) or fully normalised (as alcohol still is) should have no bearing on what policies are adopted. The objective is reducing harm, and the mechanism is to be rationally discovered.

This is empirical, technocratic, emotionless policy-making from first principles, the sort that might be expected of a perfectly detached and enlightened despot or philosopher king. As a thought-experiment, it actually has much to recommend it. If you accept that alcohol is the prime cause of the ills that are associated with its over-consumption - the social disruption as well as the long-term health effects - then seeking to reduce its prevalence in society by persuasive and coercive means seems obvious. At the same time, it can convincingly be argued that many illegal drugs produce less public harm, and that much of the harm they do cause is a result of their illegality rather than their pharmacology. So treating alcohol and drugs in the same way (including expanding the category of "drug" to encompass alcohol) would result in a more liberal drugs regime and a less liberal one for alcohol. It may even produce a situation in which alcohol is subject to greater legal controls than currently illegal substances such as ecstasy and cannabis.

This much is obvious, and quite consistent with Nutt's general approach. Yet outside the ranks of the alcohol concern industry - for whom no restrictions will ever be sufficient - the result of Professor Nutt's seemingly logical approach is absurd. Alcohol and illegal drugs are quantitatively different. For one thing, alcohol is embedded in our culture in a way that narcotic drugs could never be, even if they were fully legalised. The government wine cellars Nutt would like to get rid of are testament to that. State banquets do not generally degenerate into drunken orgies with guests dancing on the table - at least, not since the passing of the Queen Mother. Health campaigners and moralists can only see the negative side of intoxicating drink and thus assume that alcohol (or at least its ready availability) is a bad thing. For all his aspiration to scientific objectivity, Nutt would seem to be a born-again Puritan.

Smoking, of course, was once socially as prevalent as the consumption of alcohol. Just watch Mad Men. Many would argue that the official discouragement of smoking has now gone way beyond anything necessary for the protection of health and amounts to the persecution of an increasinly unpopular minority. I tend to agree. But at least the health news about tobacco was unequivocally bad. Smoking kills. Passive smoking probably doesn't kill, but it does pollute the smoker's immediate vicinity in ways that are not pleasant. There are thus sound reasons for restricting it, and few countervailing reasons for indulging it (the main one being, of course, that people should be free to do what they want when and where they want). A smoke free world is a nicer place for non-smokers, and that, rather than the health arguments, is what has been decisive in securing public support for anti-smoking initiatives. There may well be stronger philosophical reasons for restricting and ultimately banning tobacco than for banning drugs which harm (if they harm) only those who take them.

Alcohol is different. Wine and beer both have proven health benefits. Nor does alcohol have negative effects on others. While other intoxicants are bad even in moderation, alcohol is good in moderation and bad only in excess. There is no such thing as passive drinking. People are killed in road accidents by drunk-drivers, not by alcohol; people are beaten up by drunks, not by drinks; a woman whose inebriation renders her more vulnerable to being raped is still the victim of a sexual assault, not of the vodka screwdrivers.

Of course alcohol can be abused by solitary addicts, but it is the most social of all intoxicants. The cultivation and enjoyment of alcoholic drink is a golden thread running through history - indeed, has been fundamental to human existence. Euripides, in a passage that inspired St Paul's description of the Last Supper (quoted at every celebration of the eucharist), wrote this:

The blessing that Dionysus, Semele's son, procured
and gave to man is counterpart to that of bread:
the clear juice of the grape. When mortals drink their fill
of wine, the sufferings of our unhappy race
are banished, each day's troubles lost in sleep.
There is no other cure for sorrow. Dionysus,
himself a god, is thus poured out in offering
to the gods, so that through him come blessings on mankind.

That's why David Nutt is wrong. Like most professionals and campaigners primarily concerned with health outcomes, he has developed tunnel vision. Alcohol policy can never be merely about health, or about anti-social behaviour or public harm, because every measure aimed at minimising the harm that it can do - whether increased taxation or restriction of supply - impacts on the good that it does. Nutt, for example, wants alcohol to be less affordable. That will inevitably increase the burden on moderate drinkers (as well as produce even more customs avoidance), including those whose glass of wine a day is helping to ward off heart disease. It will punish the innocent and the harmless - not to mention the poor. This is bad as a principle, because it is unfair.

There's one solution, but it is so authoritarian and nightmarish I dare not mention it for fear that someone will read it and think it is a good idea. That is to give everyone a weekly alcohol ration at an affordable rate of duty and charge progressively higher duties on every excess unit that person buys, with perhaps an absolute cap to prevent anyone from drinking dangerous amounts. Ensuring that everyone purchasing alcohol presented a smartcard would also, of course, solve at a stroke the problem - if it is a problem - of under-age drinking.
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Sunday, 22 August 2010

Setting the Record straight on trafficking

Here's a video in which a group of women talk eloquently about the problem they have with feminist anti-sex-work campaigns, and why they refuse to accept the victim status often accorded automatically to anyone (but especially women) working in the sex industry. It's rather good. (h/t Obo, who found it here; I'm told it's been doing the rounds for some time).

Towards the end, one of the featured women addresses feminist campaigners with these words:

"If the idea of sex for money seems morally repugnant to you, then you may need to come to terms with the fact that this is just your own personal bias, and in no way constitutes grounds for prohibiting consensual acts."

This perennially controversial topic is in the news again thanks to the recent release of a major new ACPO report (pdf) into the extent and nature of sex trafficking and sex-slavery in Britain. The report estimated (based on extrapolations from interviews with fewer than 250 sex workers) that there might be 2,600 "trafficked" women in Britain, a figure criticised by some campaigners for being too low and by others for including as victims of trafficking people who were fully aware that they were going to work in prostitution. In addition, the report creates a new category of those considered "vulnerable" to trafficking - migrant sex workers who, while not meeting all the criteria for being trafficked could nevertheless be accounted potential victims. This category was estimated to comprehend more than 9,000 sex workers (out of an estimated total of 17,000 migrants) , which enabled newspapers to speak of 12,000 trafficking victims, a much more satisfyingly alarmist figure.

The furtive, quasi-illegal nature of prostitution (which the report's authors consider to be exploitative by definition), the lack of a social safety-net and the dubious immigration status of many of these women are all treated as factors supporting a categorisation of "vulnerable". For most of the women concerned, there was no evidence that they were sex-slaves, abused by pimps or tricked into working unwillingly as prostitutes. Merely hailing from a country outside the EU was usually sufficient to attract the label. A much fuller assessment of the report can be read here. It is on a pro-sex work blog, it should be said, but the analysis is extremely thorough and the piece strikes me as well-balanced.

The ACPO report ("Setting the Record") certainly has its problems. It estimates, for example, that on off-street (that is, brothel-based) prostitutes in London, more than 96% are non-British. The representative sample happened to consist almost exclusively of foreign women, and I'm not personally aware of the national mix to be found in London brothels, but that figure is so out of step with the rest of the country, and with common sense, that it's worring that the report's authors were willing to accept it with very little question. Other unexpected findings were more convincingly established. The most significant was the preponderance of Chinese and other Far-Eastern (but especially Chinese) women among likely victims of sex-trafficking. The stereotype of Albanian or former Soviet sex-trafficking gangs, on the other hand, seems to have little empirical support. The problem may exist, but it is of relatively small scale - most East European sex workers are not trafficked into Britain, something that it is as well to remember in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics with its inevitable sex-trafficking scare stories.

Ultimately, a report like this has two quite separate audiences and impacts: the professionals for whom it is written, and the wider public debate. Professionals will (one hopes) read it carefully, note the caveats, and use it along with other evidence (such as the results of the Pentameter swoops, which led to surprisingly few trafficking victims being identified) to inform their actions. The public and media debate, by contrast, will take little note of the methodological bases and detailed conclusions of Setting the Record, focussing instead on the easily absorbable (if highly problematic) figure of 12,000 "trafficked" and "vulnerable" women. Despite its objective intentions, then, the report will doubtless fuel the alarmism that has always surrounded the subject. As an example, pre-publicity for a new Channel 4 documentary on the subject asserts that 4,000 women per year are being trafficked into Britain, a figure that would seem to be based on no research (though prior to ACPO's report, the figure of 4,000 trafficking victims in total has frequently been banded about).

In this heated atmosphere, it's worth noting that the report's authors are well aware of the nuances - how, for example, the same set of facts might be interpreted differently by an outside observer and by someone actually involved in the sex industry, or by two different observers, or even by the same person at different times. They write:

All individuals and organisations involved in the prostitution sector view it from their own perspective: women involved in prostitution, customers, law enforcement officials, charity and NGO staff, women previously involved in prostitution, legislators, judges, jurors and academics all have their own particular set of experiences, biases, expectations, cultural influences and worldviews. Everyone experiences the world through their own unique cultural filter, and because the sale of sex itself is an emotive and politicised subject, when discussing human trafficking it is critical to recognise the effects of these cultural filters. Legitimate arguments on how best to minimise harm from prostitution range from toleration to legalisation to unconditional abolition. It could legitimately be argued that anyone who sells sex is by definition unacceptably exploited; conversely it could also be argued that in certain circumstances prostitution is an entirely legitimate form of employment. There exist a variety of opinions on all sides of the debate, and there seems little chance of achieving a widespread consensus.

I'm not sure that it can be legitimately argued that sex-workers are by definition exploited, though of course it often is. The final point is sadly true, however - yet also unnecessary. To the extent that it exists (which is a matter of debate and considerable uncertainty, even after the report) sex trafficking - the coercive recruitment, movement and "employment" of unwilling sex-workers - is a real evil. That should go without saying. It does not have to be large-scale, or constitute a significant proportion of prostitution, to be worth prosecuting with the full might of the law. A single woman, or man, rescued from sexual slavery should be a cause of celebration. It seems, however, to be at the heart of many campaigners' assumptions that such abuses are inherent within prostitution and other parts of the sex industry as such.

It is this ideological bias, not the necessity of suppressing the sexual abuse of adults and children, that leads many self-declared feminists to inflate and exaggerate the number of victims - a strategy that might secure dramatic headlines, but which undermines the autonomy and denies the experiences (good, bad and most often indifferent) of many real women (and men), alienates the respectful and non-exploitative sex-worker clients (who are thus discouraged from reporting suspected trafficking victims to the police) and ultimately undermines the credibility of their whole cause. They should watch the video.
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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

If that is the sentence, why was there ever a trial?

Sentence has finally been passed on the two ten year old boys convicted in May at the Old Bailey for the "attempted rape" of an even younger girl. The judge, Mr Justice Saunders, decided that a three-year supervision order was the most appropriate way of dealing with them. A custodial sentence would be "counterproductive". Instead he was giving them "the assistance of trained social workers to help, guide and educate you. This will also help your family come to terms with what happened." He was talking about the boys' actions; but he might equally have been talking about the legal process itself.

In effect, this was the minimum possible sentence. The judge even told the boys that he accepted "that you did not realise how serious what you were doing was.'' If that is so (and I'm sure that it is) they would seem to have lacked the mental state necessary for the crime of rape (or attemped rape). Why, then, were they ever put on trial? The judge's words here fatally undermine the rationale for the prosecution. I wrote at the time that "it is hard to conceive of a more striking instance of the inappropriate sexualisation of children than the spectacle of two boys of primary school age put on trial at the Old Bailey for rape." The characterisation of what went on as "sexual", I argued, was an inappropriate imposition of adult concepts onto prepubescent children. This would now seem to be the judge's view too. It makes his decision - later backed by the Court of Appeal - to put the evidence before a jury even more puzzling than it was before.

By passing a non-punitive sentence, the judge has managed to undo at least some of the damage he caused by not halting the trial when he had an opportunity to do so. But no-one and nothing can undo the damage caused by the CPS's decision to prosecute in this case. Given that all sides appear to agree that a non-custodial sentence is the correct one - indeed, it now turns out that a custodial sentence was never even contemplated - it is plain that the decision to prosecute in the Crown Court, subjecting both the accused and, even more importantly, the victim, to the rigmarole of a full Old Bailey hearing was not only wrong but entirely unnecessary. In fact criminal proceedings of any kind were never the appropriate response to the events described in this case, and were not a necessary precondition to an intervention by social services on the boys' lives. It could, and should, have been dealt with informally.

Indeed, the judge seemed to acknowledge that the trial had constituted at least as serious an act of abuse of the victim as the attack. "Everyone will sympathise with her for what she has gone through" he said. "Not only what happened to her as the victim of these offences, but also to have to give evidence about them. "

Not only for what two ten year-old boys, too young to understand the issues of sex and consent on which the crime of rape is supposed to turn, did to her, in other words. But also for what the Crown Prosecution Service, whose officials should have understood the implications and which is supposed to act in the public interest, did to her. In my view, their offence against the child victim was by far the worse. It is certainly much harder to forgive.

As I've written before and no doubt will again, Keir Starmer's CPS is an organisation in need of urgent reform. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Sure as eggs is eggs?

You may remember a couple of months ago a story that the Daily Mail ran, claiming that "British shoppers are to be banned from selling eggs by the dozen" thanks to a vote in the European Parliament. Not only would the new rules "not allow both the weight and the quantity to be displayed," claimed the Mail, it would also (inevitably) result in "higher costs" which would be passed on to shoppers.

This latest example of apparent Euro-nonsense much exercised the likes of Iain Dale (who fulminated against "these crackpot regulations that serve the purpose of no one apart from the idiot that wrote them in the first place") but was treated with scepticism, even scorn, by others. A couple of days later word came that it was all a misunderstanding. The UK Office of the European Parliament put out a statement announcing, emphatically:

Selling eggs by the dozen will NOT be illegal under the terms of the amendments adopted by the European Parliament to EU food labelling proposals. Labels will still be able to indicate the number of food items in a pack, whether of eggs, bread rolls or fish fingers. To suggest that British shoppers will not be allowed to buy a dozen eggs in the future is wrong.

So that was that. The Mail declared victory (despite the fact that nothing had actually been changed) and the caravan moved on. But were things really quite so simple?

I should start by saying that I was generally sceptical of the story, not because I trust the EU not to pass otiose and ludicrous regulations, but because the claims in the Mail made little sense. Apart from anything else, it seemed incredible that it would be illegal to write the number 6 on an eggbox that plainly and obviously contained 6 eggs, as the report seemed to be suggesting. (Not to mention that fact that it is already the case that egg packet labelling includes the approximate weight in grams.) And, of course, some products - of which eggs are an obvious example - can by their nature be sold only in discrete numerical quantities. One can't, after all, subdivide eggs without creating an unnecessary mess. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling that there must be something strange going on, mainly because the Mail's report contained a quote from an official at the Food Standards Agency, which ran as follows:

This proposal would disallow selling by numbers. Retailers would not be allowed to put “Six eggs” on the front of the box. If it was a bag of rolls, it would say “500g” instead of six rolls. It is important that information is provided in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to consumers.

It seemed - it still does - unlikely that the FSA should have made so elementary a misreading of a proposal, especially considering how easy it was for bloggers such as John Band to debunk. I contacted the FSA, asking for a clarification and pointing out some of the problems with the story. But I didn't hear back, and in any case the whole business seemed to reach a conclusion a couple of days later, so I forgot about it.

I've now finally had my reply. And the tone of it suggests that there might, after all, be a story here - just not quite the story originally reported.

Here's what Ruth Hodgson from the FSA's Food Labelling Branch told me:

The reports were suggesting that products traditionally sold by the number of units present in the pack such as eggs or bread rolls could no longer be sold in this way and would be sold by the weight or volume.

I would like to emphaise that the reports were premature, as negotiations on this proposal are ongoing. It is clear that the proposed new regulation would allow the number of units present in a pack to be provided in addition to the weight or volume of the product. However, consumers are used to buying some products such as eggs by number present in the pack and we want this practice to continue.The current proposal is unclear as to whether this is the case and we will continue to press for clarity in the negotiations.

On the one hand, then, it's perfectly clear - the proposed new regulation would allow the eggbox to carry the legend "6 eggs". No surprises there - and no explanation as to why the quote in the Mail from the FSA was so misleading. But if there's no doubt as to what the regulation means, why is it also "unclear" that under the new rules consumers would still be able to buy products by number? The FSA statement just makes no sense whatever.

It was easy enough to dismiss the Mail's story as absurd anti-EU scaremongering by the usual suspects - and the speedy clarification seemed to vindicate the usual Mailophobes. But there was nevertheless a story here - and an important one - demonstrated by that original FSA quote (which the email to me did not attempt to disown) and even by this new statement. One of the commonest complaints about the British attitude towards EU rules and directives is the manner in which our own regulators not only to fail to foresee the implications of certain harmonisation measures but then proceed to over-implement them with an almost perverse delight, interpreting their meaning in the most draconian fashion possible. And, needless to say, putting all the blame onto "Brussels bureaucrats".

Read that FSA statement again. What Ruth Hodgson appears to be telling me is that although the meaning of the proposal is perfectly clear to any normal person (including FSA personnel), it still isn't clear enough for their official purposes, and that therefore if it is possible to read absurdity into it (not being allowed to write "6 eggs" on a box of 6 eggs, for example) then that is what the FSA will probably do, just to be on the safe side. This sort of lunacy is not the fault of Brussels, and it is not the fault of the Daily Mail, but it probably accounts for the majority of the justified irritation that people find with the application of EU rules.
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Saturday, 14 August 2010

Round in circles

There was a man on Radio 4 this morning talking about crop circles. Michael Glickman, his name was. An architect, he was plugging a book about the phenomenon subtitled "The Bones of God". Richard Coles listened patiently - as a vicar, he's used to humouring obsessives, I'll guess - to Glickman's empassioned insistence that crop circles cannot be the work of mere human beings. Glickman has been studying the "phenomenon" for 21 years, during which time he had been "swimming in waters of absolute denial, scepticism, refusal to look."

Coles suggested that the more elaborate formations might be "an artwork, some would say a hoax." Glickman responded by recalling his first experience of visiting one:

"I've been an architect, I've worked in engineering... I used to pride myself on knowing how everything was made. I entered this one and realised immediately that it was beyond human agency, something I've become more certain about as the years have gone by."

Glickman considered that the elaboration and elegance of some crop designs could be rivalled only by "twelve lace-making Belgian nuns" - an interesting benchmark, since I assume he doesn't consider Belgian nuns hail from a far-off galaxy. Coles put it to him that the increased complexity and perfection of form, as the years went by, might be the result of "a group of artists working on their art," but Glickman was having none of it. The designs were "simply breathtaking" and he wondered who these "enormously secret, enormously gifted" artists might possibly be. Known man-made creations, by contrast, were "crummy".

We are to believe that these enormous events... appear apparently in moments, flawlessly, without ever a correction or amendment. The fact that we have no explanation does not entitle us to cast the phenomenon aside as simply a joke, which is how the media and the pubic have treated it for so long.

True, there is no "evidence" available, he admitted. "But then we live in an era of scientism, the rules of which simply won't encompass a whole series of phenomena which are simply brushed aside, one of which is the crop circle."

The hoax claimants say they simply stomp it down with a board... but the detail of the true crop circle is breathtaking, the surge, the flow, is simply of a scale that is unimaginable by a simple stomping down, [the patterns are] so varied, so particular, so meticulous that it is simply unimaginable that it is done by humans.

What the crop circles are telling me is that there is somewhere an intelligence superior to our own, further evolved than our own, and it seems to be gently pushing love letters under the door... not landing metallic craft on the White House lawn but dealing more gently, more lovingly with mankind.

How nice.

Needless to say, I have no doubt that all crop circles, however intricate in design, that actually appear in fields, are made by human beings. I'm not entirely convinced that all apparent crop circles truly exist - some might be computer-generated, if only because using CGI takes a lot less effort than stomping around a field. Neverthess, any formation that can be designed and plotted out can in principle be reproduced on a field of wheat. All that is required is desire to do it, patience, and mastery of a few basic skills.

It is quite puzzling that these artists are happy to work so hard anonymously, with their sole reward the possibility of seeing their creations filling some vacant space in the Daily Mail, but I don't doubt their existence on that basis. It's possibly a fun way of spending a summer evening. If anything needs explaining, it's not the circle makers' motivation but rather the selective incredulity of people like Glickman. Beautiful as they are, there's nothing inherently mysterious about a crop circle. At the end of the day, it's just a pattern in a field.

Glickman has a website. Has it not occurred to him that the technology that enables him to disseminate his views about crop circles to a wider public is many orders of magnitude more complex and hard to understand than his pet obsession could ever be? Glickman ascribes crop circles to a "superior intelligence" on the basis that he finds their intricacy baffling. But what of his mobile phone? Is that not infinitely more amazing than any crop circle? Yet neither he nor any other "crop circle researcher" imagines that an iPhone is extraterrestrial in origin. How can something so extraordinary be taken for granted, while something as rudimentary as a crop circle is seen as beyond human capacity?

The only solution I can offer to this rarely-posed riddle is that it is the very simplicity of the crop circle that makes it seem preternaturally impressive to people like Glickman. For the same reason, in the era of the Apollo moonshot there were many people who, following the lead of Erich von Daniken, found it impossible to believe the ancient Egyptians capable of building the pyramids of Giza. A pyramid is basically just a pile of rocks. You can imagine building one - or, rather, you can imagine trying to do it and failing miserably. Similarly, you can imagine stomping around in a field late at night, trying to create a crop circle, and producing only an embarrassing mess. In both cases, the technology is so basic that the beauty or size of the results can seem to some people superhuman, simply because it would be beyond them. Whereas the technology hidden inside an iPhone is so far advanced that most people simply wouldn't know how to start failing to build one.

It's still odd, though. I can tap out enough of a tune on a piano for my mind to boggle at the skill exhibited by Andras Schiff or Michiko Uchida. How can a human hand, I ask myself, create such sounds, such emotion, just by tapping the black and white keys? It is certainly way beyond the capacity of most human beings. Concert pianists are not alien beings, though. Would Michael Glickman consider their skill inferior to that demonstrated by a maker of crop circles?
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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Pope Music

I'm grateful (this once, at least) to Damian Thompson for pointing to the official PopeTour UK commemorative CD. Damian isn't impressed. "My heart sank when I saw that the papal visit team had released two tracks from the official “Pilgrim Journey” CD that comes with the (expensive) tickets for papal events. But nothing could have prepared me for the awful reality."

One of the newly-released tracks which you can listen to on the Papal Visit website, Urban Pilgrim (Reprise), is a piece of ambient chill-out music that clearly belongs in a nightclub. It's not exactly bad, just inappropriate. It would sound reasonable if you were spaced out on Ecstasy, but I doubt that is quite what the Catholic Church has in mind. The second, Deus Tuus Deum Meus, is rather more contemplative and consists of a seminarian crooning some words taken from one of the gospels with a pared-down piano accompaniment. I can imagine him on Britain's Got Talent, though I doubt he'd last very long.

Damian Thompson thinks the music is "crap" which "proves that the Church in England and Wales is still in the grip of philistines." I suppose it depends what you're looking for in a Papal souvenir CD. "I’m not suggesting that visitors to papal events should be given a CD of Renaissance polyphony," he writes. But why not? And would his suggestion of "good Christian rock music" be any better? I doubt it. There is no musical abomination worse than "Christian rock", for the perfectly good reason that rock music is Satanic. And I don't mean that if you listen to tracks played backwards you can hear demonic messages. Rock music is about blackness and sensuality; it is the music of sexual excess, of drink-sodden abandonment; of damnation. At least if it's any good it is. It is no coincidence that bands have traditionally chosen names like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Megadeth. Rock music belongs to the Devil and if the Devil has all the best tunes that's just bad luck on the Christians.

Renaissance polyphony, leavened by a bit of Bach and Mozart and perhaps some of 19th century French religious pap (Panis Angelicus, Gounod's Ave Maria, that kind of thing), would be just the ticket. It would be much more in keeping with Ratzinger's own style and tastes, and it would give papal groupies something they might find themselves listening to more than once. The church should be celebrating its great musical heritage not undermining it, either with pseudo-acid house or ersatz rock.

As a branding exercise, it's doomed. They clearly want to package as trendy and modern someone who mentally has never left the 17th century. But if you like Pope Benedict XVI or find his message credible, then almost certainly you're not the sort of person who will relate to Urban Pilgrim (Reprise). They would have done better repackaging Monty Python's Every Sperm is Sacred. At least that would accurately reflect Ratzinger's core message.

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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

What will become of the Lib Dems?

Pity the poor Lib Dems. In office, but not in power, they have traded their souls for ministerial baubles. Unable to shape government policy, they provide the human shield for the harshness of Cameron's and Osborne's measures, whose image they soften by their reassuring presence but whose substance they cannot disguise. As a result, they have lost their raison d'etre and, with it, increasing numbers of their supporters.

At any rate, that's fast becoming the received wisdom. A poll in today's Independent tells the usual story of steady decline, with the party down to 16%, their lowest share since before the election campaign. The Conservatives, meanwhile, are holding firm on 39% - up since the election, and enough (possibly) to have given them an absolute majority. Labour, though, are treading water on 33%. Other recent polls have told a slightly different story - one putting Labour on 38% with the Lib Dems down to 12. Precise details, however, probably matter less at this stage than perception, and the narrative is now clear - grassroots activists, we are told, are deserting in droves. Some are heading for for Labour, which is fast reasserting its self-defined role as the natural home of anyone "on the centre-left", a category to which many Lib Dems tell themselves they belong. There is talk of splits, of that faction of the party that finds government so congenial eventually being absorbed by the Conservatives, as the National Liberals once were.

Certainly the alacrity with which Lib Dem ministers have embraced Conservative cost-cutting has surprised many. They can't have been listening too closely to Vince Cable's utterances before the election. The Indie records the despair of people like former MP Sandra Gidley, who thinks that "it's difficult to see where the Liberal Democrats have had an influence" on what looks to many people like a Conservative government. Yet Lib Dem fingerprints are all over the government's policies, and not always in a good way: from the future blackouts adumbrated by Chris Huhne's deep green energy policy, through the surprising return of the graduate tax (a truly terrible idea) to, of course, the coming referendum on electoral reform. Other Lib Dem policies (or at any rate themes) on things such as localism, civil liberties and transparent government were adopted/stolen by the Tories long before the election.

The most interesting finding is that 73% of those questioned in the Independent poll had little or no idea what the Lib Dems stood for. This, though, was an increase of just 8% - in other words, before the Coalition was formed a two-thirds of voters had no idea what they stood for. Presumably, the increase is made up largely of those who thought they knew what the Lib Dems stood for - and have been proved wrong. Put like that, it sounds bad, but not standing for anything in particular has long been the Lib Dems' biggest draw. Of course, they do stand for things - proportional representation, mostly, and the EU - but few of their voters (as opposed to their members) supported them on this basis. Their unique selling point has long been that they were the alternative party, the anti-politics party, the home of the protest vote. Much of their appeal was calibrated on the basis that they would never get into power, but wouldn't it be nice if they did.

Being in government necessarily poses problems to such a party. Partly, they have to do things that any government would have to do, but are unpopular - like, in this case, spending cuts. They are no longer the party to vote for if you don't like the government but don't like "the other lot" much better, either. They can no longer pretend to the public that they are not as other politicians. At long last, they are an honest party. They have to be seen to stand for things. Thus we have a paradox. A party that, by necessity, now has to do something ought to present a public image more concrete than when it could avoid being pinned down. Yet, judging by this poll, it has even less public definition than before.

Perhaps that's why it still has so much support. For, in truth, that figure of 16% in the latest poll isn't particularly bad. It's close to the long-term average for the party. LD support tends to peak during election campaigns when they become the natural choice of the undecided voter. It's only during election campaigns, after all, that the full awfulness of party politics in this country becomes apparent to those who are not generally interested in politics.

Those who think, like many Lib Dems, that future elections (without, or even with, AV) represent mortal peril for the party realise the importance of its negative anti-politics appeal. It has become a commonplace to predict near annihilation for Nick Clegg's MPs (and perhaps for Clegg himself, since he failed to secure a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters in his own constituency). People who like the government will vote Conservative, the theory goes, while those who disapprove of the government will vote Labour. Quite possibly. It will certainly be difficult for them to repeat their usual vote-catching trick. But subsisting on the fringes of national politics, retaining a core of support and a cadre of MPs at the price of never actually sitting in government, does not represent a noble attachment to principle. Rather, it is the ultimate form of political cynicism. Even if the Lib Dems are destroyed at the next election, they will have done more in government than they did in the eighty preceding years in opposition. And near-calamity will present its own opportunities. It won't be long before they start looking like the anti-politics party once again.
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Saturday, 7 August 2010

Compare and Contrast

Dr Priya Gopal

Feminists have long argued that invoking the condition of women to justify occupation is a cynical ploy, and the Time cover already stands accused of it. Interestingly, the WikiLeaks documents reveal CIA advice to use the plight of Afghan women as "pressure points", an emotive way to rally flagging public support for the war...

While there exists a colonial tradition of relegating the non-west to the past of the west – and some suggest leaving it to rot in hopelessness – the trendier option involves incorporating Afghans into modernity by teaching them to live in a globalised present. In non-fiction bestsellers such as Deborah Rodriguez's Kabul Beauty School, an American woman teaches Afghan women the intricacies of hair colour, sexiness, and resisting oppression. "To all appearances, there is no sex life in Afghanistan," writes Rodriguez, obsessed – like Seierstad – with the nuptial habits of Afghans. Sex and the City in the Middle East may have tanked as a movie, but as ideology it has displaced meaningful global feminism.

Acceptable Afghan-American voices such as Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) and Awista Ayub (Kabul Girls Soccer Club) reiterate the notion that suburban America can "infuse" Afghans with freedom. Formulaic narratives are populated by tireless Western humanitarians, sex-crazed polygamous paedophiles (most Afghan men) and burqa-clad "child-women" who are broken in body and spirit or have just enough doughtiness to be scripted into a triumphal Hollywood narrative.

Dr Karen Woo

The access that a doctor or healthcare professional has to a community is unlike that available to a journalist; the trust and conversations are different. The insight is through the lens of birth and death, of loss and disability, and reflects every aspect of the consequences of conflict on individuals and on their community. The loss of nearly all elements of the infrastructure of a country; security, governance, education, transport, clean water, sanitation and power, are all visible in the health of the people.

The body of the documentary will focus on key players whose commitment to providing healthcare and a sustainable offering go largely unsung, these people are both foreign nationals working in Afghanistan and Afghan men and women who a working to make a change. The context will be set by the women and men who are able to tell of their experiences giving first hand narration to the viewer. The predominant focus is on women as this is where the most disturbing and tragic scenarios are played out, occurring through ignorance, poverty and cultural and religious restrictions. The characters; both the patients and the care givers, give us their human stories and link us to the real people and families of Afghanistan. This perspective gives substantial reason to continue to invest in humanitarian aid and development.

The documentary aims to counterbalance the British media's bias toward reporting only the live conflict, to provide a deeper level of information and understanding of the complex situation which is the current Afghanistan. It aims to reflect the human spirit of survival and to remind of, or explain the relatively developed Afghanistan of the 1970s as a way of visualising a possible future of peace and stability.

I wouldn't wish to suggest that Priya Gopal is personally responsible for the deaths of Karen Woo and her colleagues. Indeed, it's not yet clear whether they were murdered by the Taliban, who have claimed responsibility, or by opportunistic bandits. But arguments like hers - or those of the Canadian academic Melanie Butler, who claimed that the leading Canadian women's group campaigning to improve the lives of their Afghan sisters was little better than a front for Western imperialism - set the context in which aid workers can be viewed as legitimate targets. Armchair intellectualising about the semiotics of magazine covers may seem smart in the rarefied atmosphere of a Cambridge college or the editorial office of the Guardian. But they are easily picked up by the murderous ideologues of the Taliban or of Al Qaeda. Indeed, Al Qaeda has in the past proved itself adept at using the language of Western liberal scholarship in its own propaganda.

Gopal wrote, in her now notorious article, that Aisha, the mutilated Afghan teenager, "ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change." She was able to decry the "bankrupt version of modernity" that "has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators." Karen Woo - a product of that bankrupt modernity - was offering the Afghans considerably more than bikini waxes. Those minded to reason like Gopal should perhaps be reflecting today on the life of someone who was very far from being a symbolic void, who left a comfortable and well-paid job to improve the lives of the women and children of Afghanistan, and whose work stands as the best answer to the cynicism that sees a magazine cover as no more than a tool of US foreign policy. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 6 August 2010

A tale of two prosecutions: Same facts, different result

I've previously covered the disturbing case of Andrew Holland, the Wrexham man charged under the newish offence of possessing "extreme pornography" for two short video clips. One of them featured an animated tiger engaging in a sexual act with a human being; the other was purely human, and involved some sort of injury to male genitalia. It was the bizarre nature of the first clip that attracted the attention of some national newspapers, but when that charge was dropped (when the the clip's soundtrack, which referenced an old Frosties commercial, was revealed, even the prosecution had to concede that it was a joke rather than in any sense "pornographic") the press lost interest. Andrew Holland, for his part, seemed to believe that his nightmare was over. It wasn't. The CPS persisted in its prosecution of the second charge, based on a a mere six seconds of "extreme" material.

Yesterday, just as the trial was due to begin, the CPS offered no evidence and he was formally cleared. But it was a close-run thing. Holland had originally been advised by his solicitor that he had no defence - even though he had received the clip (which was sent to his mobile phone) unsolicited and apparently as a joke. He pled guilty. He then was shocked to be told by the judge at the initial hearing that he could go to prison. That, and the interest his case had provoked from campaign groups Backlash and CAAN, persuaded him to apply to have his guilty plea vacated. This was granted in May. Backlash, whose regular legal adviser Myles Jackman had taken on the case, noted at the time that "had he not contacted Backlash in the first place he would have been sentenced for an offence which he may have been misadvised that he did not have a defence for." And the case only came to their attention thanks to the newsworthiness of the initial "tiger-sex" angle.

If the CPS had merely charged him with possession of the second clip he would almost certainly have pled guilty and been sentenced with little publicity. As it is, Backlash assembled a team of experts prepared to testify that the clip was not in fact pornographic but (like the tiger clip) intended as a sick joke. Faced with possible embarrassment, the CPS decided to throw in the towel. But this concession raises serious questions - not just about the decision to prosecute in this case, but about the application of this newish law more widely. It would seem, indeed, that Andrew Holland is the first person charged with the offence of possessing "extreme pornography" who has ever mounted a defence.

As longer-standing readers may recall, the law - the infamous Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 - was brought in in response to a campaign led by the mother of murder victim Jane Longhurst. The murderer, Graham Coutts, was claimed at the trial to have been "addicted" to extreme porn featuring rape and violence against women. The extent to which exposure to this kind of material provokes real-world violence has long been a contested issue - familiar from the 1980s moral panics surrounding "video nasties" or more recent but eerily similar rows about computer games. What is new now - and dangerous - is that the law, adopting the precedent of pornography legislation, criminalises mere possession, rather than production or distribution, of banned material.

The Labour government assured Parliament that s.63 would only be used in cases where someone's extreme porn habit raised serious cause for concern. The stated - and apparently reasonable - aim was to prevent another Coutts. The law, though, does not single out "addicts" who show a demonstrable obsession with disturbing material. Anyone found in possession of even a single rather nebulously defined "extreme" image is potentially caught by it, however the image came into their possession, even if they received it unsolicited.

The campaign against the law has been led by groups representing people who have an erotic - and they would insist wholly legitimate - interest in "violent" (or, to a conventional mind, disturbing) images. Their fear was that the government was stigmatising and even outlawing their sexuality. But at least they are aware of the law, and are able to take action to protect themselves - for example by deleting images the might fall foul of it from their hard drives. Cases like that of Andrew Holland demonstrate how s.63 has given the police a handy weapon to use against anyone who comes to their attention, and who just happens to have dodgy material on their mobile phone or computer. Given the viral nature of much "inappropriate" material, this could potentially criminalise many people who have never heard of the law and whose sexual tastes are entirely mainstream.

This seems to be what happened to Andrew Holland. And another case this week shows just how fortunate he has been. The Sunderland Echo reports the conviction of 23-year old Michael Nelson for possession of a very similar-sounding clip. The offending footage was found on his mobile phone "after he was arrested and taken to Gill Bridge police station". There's no information about why he was originally arrested - it might have been for something entirely unconnected. As in the Wrexham case, the clip "showed a man's genitals being mutilated" (which might simply be journo-speak for pierced); it had been sent to his phone, unsolicited. Nelson told the police that the images were "going about the streets". It might even have been the very same clip. Lacking decent legal advice, however, he now has a criminal record and was sentenced to 200 hours community service. And yet no other disturbing images were found in his possession, he had no previous criminal record, he didn't attempt to pass the clip to anyone else and his solicitor told the court that it was "not the kind of matter he was seeking or gets any gratification from."

District Judge Roger Elsey, passing sentence, said that "there is no doubt that this was a revolting and perverted piece of video and there is no reasonable explanation for this being on your mobile for the time it was." He would have passed a jail sentence, he added, had the defendant passed it on. Nelson's own solicitor doesn't seem to have been much help, saying in mitigation(!) that "I can't imagine why you would want to watch this, unless you were the particular type of person that found some gratification in it." Prosecution, judge and even the defence, in other words, all assumed that the clip involved was sexual in nature. Yet no evidence was produced during the trial for any sexual motivation, which the defendant plausibly denied. Despite this, and merely because the police stumbled up a tasteless clip on a mobile phone, Michael Nelson stands convicted of a sex offence.

To quote Backlash, "It is unclear who benefits from the costs of prosecuting and punishing this man. This case also has nothing to do with the original intent of the legislation, which was to prevent harm to women." I would go further. On the facts as described by the Echo, it strikes me as a clear abuse of prosecutorial process.

Was there even a case to answer? Context matters, of course. To be illegal under s.63, an image must be both pornographic (i.e. intended for the purposes of sexual arousal), "realistic" and "extreme". There are various categories of extreme; the one at issue here falls under the rubric of "an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals". The image in the Wrexham case might have passed this part of the test - but then so might an explicit film of circumcision, which arguably inflicts a serious (if socially approbated or religiously demanded) and irreversible injury on the genitals. Yet a video depicting circumcision would hardly be judged to fall foul of the law. No-one would suspect it of being "sexual" in intent.

As was said in court in Sunderland, few people are likely to be turned on by scenes of genital mutilation or torture. Yet neither prosecution nor defence drew the obvious conclusion from such a thought, coupled with the apparently wide spread of the clip - that it may never have been intended as pornography, but was rather intended to shock or gross out rather than sexually arouse the viewer. Indeed, the clip involved in the Wrexham case (and possibly the Sunderland one as well, to judge from the report) was too short to be plausibly, in itself, a pornographic movie. I cannot confirm this, but I have been told by someone close to the defence that the brief "extreme" clip was extracted (by the CPS) from a longer montage that has widely circulated on the internet for some years and has been viewed by more than two million people. It enjoys a certain cult status, indeed.

This source suggests that the sequence was originally put together, not for sexual arousal, but to advertise a body modification website. The film itself is no longer widely available online - but YouTube offers a large selection of "reaction" videos showing people's faces as they view the compilation of excruciating scenes. The viewers are horrified, grossed-out, disbelieving, nervously laughing. But they are not sexually aroused.

Many people thought that s.63 was an unnecessary and illiberal law to begin with, of course - why shouldn't consenting adults watch other consenting adults doing painful things to each other? - but these two cases raise a wider problem. Jack of Kent, or David Allen Green as he is professionally known, defines "Bad Law" in the criminal context as "when either criminal liability is used in an inappropriate way, or when charging and prosecution decisions (which effectively mean whether there will be a conviction in many cases) are made on a misconceived basis." Or you could say that Bad Law happens when the authorities forget the public interest rationale of a particular offence and treat it merely as a mechanism for getting a conviction. Two cases in which DAG has played a prominent advisory role were those of Paul Clarke, who was found guilty of possessing a shotgun which he had handed in to the police (at one point he was facing an automatic five year prison sentence, though thankfully the judge was able to find "exceptional circumstances") and the ongoing case of Paul Chambers, whose Twitter joke about Nottingham airport led to his conviction for communicating a "bomb hoax".

In both cases, the letter of the law was used as a pretext for bringing charges despite the lack of any real public interest in doing so. Part of the problem may lie in the narrow way in which "public interest" is defined by the Crown Prosecution Service. CPS guidelines assume that once the evidence is strong enough to suggest a likelihood of conviction, a prosecution will always be in the public interest unless there are "clear" reasons suggesting otherwise. As the latest edition of the CPS code makes plain: "A prosecution will usually take place unless the prosecutor is sure that there are public interest factors tending against prosecution which outweigh those tending in favour." This is chilling. Prosecution is no light matter. It can have an utterly devastating effect on anyone's life - especially on someone who is normally a law-abiding citizen. I suspect that because they are dealing with criminal cases day in, day out, CPS lawyers easily overlook this. And they have targets to meet.

Nevertheless, even the CPS code offers factors that ought to have weighed against the decision to prosecute a man for possessing a single short clip which he had not solicited, which he did not pass on, and which only came to the police's attention when they arrested him on apparently unrelated grounds. For example, Section 4.17 (e), where "the loss or harm can be described as minor and was the result of a single incident, particularly if it was caused by a misjudgement."

It looks like another bad call for Keir Starmer's increasingly discredited organisation. Whether the dropping of the Wrexham case means that the result in Sunderland won't be repeated is difficult to say - since the first case was not heard, it remains moot whether or not the clip (which no jury got to see) would have been interpreted as "extreme porn". Perhaps the CPS wanted to avoid testing it. But that's the point, of course: miscarriages of justice are frequently the result, not of faked evidence or biased juries, but of defendants' own decision (under fear of harsher punishment and often on the advice of their own lawyers) to plead guilty when they would have been better advised to stand and fight. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Priya Gopal and the nature of cynicism

This is how Time magazine's cover story begins:

The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight, demanding that Aisha, 18, be punished for running away from her husband's house. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn't run away, she would have died. Her judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved. Aisha's brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose.

I'm not going to reproduce, here, the photograph of the mutilated victim of this horrifying attack, which Time magazine used to adorn its cover to deliberately emotive effect. You may have seen it. You can see it if you follow the link to the story. I can barely bring myself to look at it. It ought to have the same effect on the world as the image of nine-year-old Kim Phuc Phan fleeing from an American napalm attack on her village in 1972, or as those of starving, pot-bellied Ethiopian orphans in 1984. It is an image that, try as you might, you can never banish from your mind, that you wish you had never seen but know, nevertheless, that it should be seen by everyone. It fills me with rage and despair. It makes me want to do back to those men what they did to her.

Suffice it to say that this is one woman who has a good reason to wear a burka.

Not everyone is equally affected, though, I now discover. Priyamvada Gopal, an English lecturer at Cambridge University and specialist in post-colonial literature, is as unmoved as the Taliban commander. Or rather, she is moved to anger and indignation, but not by the barbarous treatment meted out to a young girl at the hands of those who ought to have protected and cherished her, but at the temerity of Time magazine in using it to draw attention to the condition of women in Afghanistan - and thus, implicitly, in support of continued Western intervention.

Gopal accuses the magazine of "condensing Afghan reality into simplistic morality tales", and then links the story of Aisha's mutilation to the world of humdrum, unthinking (but non-violent) misogyny depicted in Asne Seirstad's The Bookseller of Kabul as an example of how the Afghans have been "silenced and further disempowered by being reduced to objects of western chastisement". She ends with a bizarre rant about the state of western democracies, where "modernity is now about dismantling welfare systems, increasing inequality (disproportionately disenfranchising women in the process), and subsidising corporate profits" and which "has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators".

In short, while she concedes that "misogynist violence is unacceptable", it is clearly rather less unacceptable than the desire of well-meaning westerners to do something about it. For this self-professed feminist, what really matters is exposing the double-standards of the west and the "formulaic narratives" of those who dare to suggest that women might just have more life-opportunities in countries where they do not face being killed or disfigured for disobeying the orders of men who believe that they own them.

"The mutilated Afghan woman" she writes, "ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change." But there is nothing symbolic about Aisha's devastated face, or the barbarous "honour" system that destroyed it, and the only void is the one at the heart of the Gopal's moral universe. For her (and she is regrettably not unique among liberal academics, even supposed feminists) even the matchless barbarity captured in Time's cover image is no more than a convenient pretext for lambasting the West. She is right, perhaps, to draw attention to Time's unfortunate caption - What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan - for Aisha suffered despite the presence of Nato forces. It is certainly possible to draw different conclusions from the photograph - about the futility of the Western intervention, about how, despite the expressed (and not entirely unsuccessful) aim of improving the condition of women in Afghanistan, any difference that can be made is necessarily small-scale and not worth the price in lives and money. But that does not make the photograph itself, or the decision to publish it, merely a piece of cynical manipulation. For it is primarily the record of an unspeakable crime, one that has gone, and will go, entirely unpunished, a crime to which Gopal remains studiedly indifferent.

"Misogynist violence is unacceptable, but.." she writes.

But what? But if a woman misbehaves she has it coming to her? But it's preferable to American and European do-gooders condescending towards other cultures? But it can provide a good jumping-off point for a controversial and thought-provoking piece of analysis for the Guardian's website? But if you're clever, middle-class and have a lectureship at the University of Cambridge it's something you can be ironic and post-modern about? I wonder if Priya Gopal would view the subject with quite such equanimity if someone she knew had been the victim of such horrendous abuse. I rather doubt it.

Gopal calls herself a feminist, but she'd rather defend the fake-medieval social system of a tribal backwater than admit that the United States can ever be right about anything. She calls herself a feminist but displays almost total lack of empathy with other women - not just Aisha, but millions of others whose lives are circumscribed by rigid religious and cultural norms that demand they submit in everything to men. She calls herself a feminist but can write things like this:

Based on her stay in the eponymous protagonist's home, Seierstad's memoir uses offensive commercial language to describe ordinary marital negotiations and refers to female characters as "the burka".

Buy "ordinary marital negotiations" - though you'd hardly realise it - Gopal is referring to the custom of buying and selling women (willing or otherwise) as though they were cattle. By "offensive commercial language" she means calling money money, rather than adopting some politically-correct euphemism to disguise what is really going on. Yes, of course trading in women (and often little girls) is "ordinary" throughout much of Afghanistan, but since when did a cultural practice have to be rare in order to justify opposition?

Stung apparently by criticism by some commenters, Gopal came back to clarify her position without, I think, managing to banish the impression of moral lop-sidedness. She denies being culturally relativist (don't they all?) and declares - belatedly - that "what happened to Aisha was indefensible and violence of this sort, whether from the Taliban or drunken husbands, must be condemned and resisted at every turn." (The culturally relativising remark about "drunken husbands" would make more sense, of course, if drunken husbands who mutilated their wives went unpunished by the law.) But she can still write:

What I question in my article is whether there is real solidarity for Aisha and her sisters as opposed to reducing them, like the Taliban also do, to objects for position-taking and grandstanding. (Yes, Time is paying for reconstructive surgery, by the way, and are careful to say they obtained consent to show her picture. How free this consent is when money is attached, is a different matter.)

She really doesn't get it if she thinks that Time magazine - using Aisha's fate to draw attention to the routine ill-treatment of Afghan women as well as helping to give Aisha herself a new face - is treating her in the same way as the Taliban did, "reducing" her to an object. I mean, she really doesn't get it. So let me spell it out for her benefit. Aisha is both an individual who has suffered a heartbreaking brutalisation, and a symbol of a culture in profound moral breakdown. By drawing attention to her plight in the most visceral way possible - by printing the photograph - the journalists can both tell her story (thus giving her the humanity and dignity denied her by her own community) and, through her, illustrate the dilemma currently facing Western policy-makers.

Something else. I cannot come away from Time's report without concluding that Aisha is a remarkable person, possessed of the strength of will not merely to defy, initially, the men around her by trying to escape and then to survive and overcome the horrifying attack that was the result of her disobedience, but later to reflect upon its wider implications. "How can we reconcile with them, the people who did this to me?" she asks Time's reporter - meaning, of course, the Taliban. For Gopal, however, she can only ever be a passive victim, the object of (as she concedes, "unacceptable") violence and the subject of others' cynical manipulation, a "symbolic void". Gopal - "like the Taliban", indeed - would prefer Aisha to be neither seen nor heard.

Of course the photograph is emotive, intended to arouse anger in whoever sees it. Anger is no substitute for rational analysis, but without the anger, rationality can lead only to a cynical, or at best self-interested, conclusion. Anger is the best, indeed the only, response to such an image. Bringing such evils to the world's attention is in the finest traditions of journalism - indeed, in an age of where most of what passes for news coverage consists of fake celebrity spin and recycled press releases, Time's feature shows that traditonal reporting still, thankfully, has a place.
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Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Giving Stephen Green his Voice

Some people think it was wrong of Channel 4 to invite Stephen Green - founder, spokesman and only known member of the pressure-group Christian Voice - to fulminate against homosexuality last night. Patrick Strudwick, for example, complains that "having Green on Channel 4 is like putting a pound of flour on one side of the scales, and dropping a house on the other" and wonders why the newly beardless Green hasn't been arrested for inciting hatred. He also claims that Channel 4's main motive in inviting him was to boost ratings.

Stephen Green is an odious self-publicist, to be sure. And of course Channel 4 have no obligation to allow him a platform. Yet while he may not himself be representative (like Anjem Choudary or the Westboro Baptists, his message is closely bound up with his own notoriety) but he does represent a point of view - an unfashionable point of view, and a minority one, but one traditionally upheld by most major religious traditions, and very strongly by the three monotheistic ones. It's still widely held across the world - above all in Africa and the Muslim world - and indeed among Britain's own ethnic minorities. I can't see how Channel 4 could have aired a series of personal views on the subject of religion and homosexuality without having someone propounding the idea that homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord. And if not him, then who? Ann Widdecombe, presumably. Perhaps she was too busy practising the rumba.

It is gay rights activists, and anti-homophobes more generally, who have been in the forefront of cricisim over Green's appearance. I think it's the anti-gay religious conservatives who have more to complain about. Stephen Green is, after all, a ridiculous and remarkably unattractive personality. Imagine if the slot had been given instead to one of those nice media-friendly imams who are usually to be found extolling the virtues of our multicultural society. Or, for that matter, an African Christian. (It was a masterstroke of the station, incidentally, to give the right of reply to a gay Nigerian Christian minister who had been forced to flee his native country. But it's hard to believe that the Reverend Rowland Macaulay is remotely typical.) A moderately-expressed encapsulation of the traditional view might have convinced viewers without strong views on the subject. Green's appearance merely reinforced smug liberal certainties about the nature of the anti-gay position.

Channel 4 knew what they were doing. Generating a bit of much-needed publicity for themselves (they need the revenue that comes from increased viewing figures, I don't begrudge them) yes, but also making damn sure that they were giving Green the rope he needed to hang himself. He might think that there is "something inherently destructive about the homosexual lifestyle". There's certainly something inherently self-destructive about Stephen Green.

Green had three main arguments against homosexuality, only one of which is strictly-speaking religious - the view that homosexual practice is wrong because God doesn't like it, the evidence for which he finds in certain passages of the Bible, most but not all in the Old Testament. It seems to me that once you've accepted the principle that the Bible is inerrant and should, where possible, be taken literally, then it's hard to disagree. But does Stephen Green want to stone adulterers, as is also recommended in Leviticus? Jesus didn't. Does he want to ban art, as demanded by a strict interpretation of the second commandment? As Reverend Macaulay wondered, with so many Biblical prohibitions to choose from why do campaigners like Green so often choose that one?

Of the other two arguments, the first masquerades as biological but is really Aristotelian - he claimed that homosexuality must be unnatural because gay people "have to press into sexual duty parts of the body that aren't designed for that." If by "that", he means reproduction - and is thus insisting that the only legitimate reason for sexual intercourse, even in the context of a Christian marriage, is the begetting of children - then he probably does have a point. But somehow I doubt even Stephen Green has quite such a restrictive view of sex. And once you've accepted that sex has other beneficial functions besides procreation - such as expressing love, providing mutual pleasure, reinforcing relationships - then Green's argument collapses. For there are many parts of the body that respond to sexual stimulation. You could argue - though I doubt Green would - that God designed the whole body for, among other things, the expression and fulfilment of sexual desire. The feet, the neck, the breasts, the earlobes, the (insert your own favourite erogenous zone) - all respond to the touch. If God didn't want them to be used for sex, why did He make them that way?

Finally, he warned that as a result of the "homosexualisation" of society, the Christian population is failing to reproduce itself properly, the inevitable result of which will be the takeover of society by Muslims, who do breed. He adds - in a nice ironic twist - that "the gays aren’t going to like it much living under that system." Indeed not - as examples such as Iran and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan testify - but then Stephen Green's Christian fundamentalist Utopia doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs for sexual minorities either. Or for anyone else.

Of course, Green's figures don't add up. The decline in the birthrate has gone into reverse in recent years, and not just because of the breeding habits of Muslims and other immigrant communities. In any case, the smaller average family sizes that come with economic and educational progress almost everywhere can't be due entirely (or at all) to non-reproducing gays. There's nothing new (nor religious) about this trope. Moral conservatives worried about it in Roman times. To begin with, the fear was that Roman citizens were being outbred by non-citizens (especially immigrants) and slaves. Augustus levied higher taxes on the unmarried and childless. Later, respectable pagans began worrying that they were being outbred by Christians.

Stephen Green doesn't like Islam. Looking at his website, it's hard to work out which he hates more, gays or Muslims. Is he jealous, I wonder, of the no-nonsense moral line upheld (at least in the popular perception) by Muslim religious and community leaders? Does he feel an inferiority complex? In parts of Africa, gay people are the victims of a rhetorical arms race between Christian and Muslim bigots, trying to establish the Godliness of their respective faiths by the stridency of their denunciations. Similarly, Green's Biblical certainty seems to mask a deep-seated uncertainty - about the future of Christianity, perhaps even about whether it has God on its side.
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Monday, 2 August 2010

Praying for rain

Say what you like about Rowan Williams (and I do) you're unlikely to find him claiming that he can make it rain through the power of prayer. The 1662 Prayer Book, it is true, contains prayers beseeching Almighty "for such moderate rain and showers, that we may receive the fruits of the earth to our comfort, and to thy honour", but respectable religious leaders have long since stopped pretending that God exercises day-to-day control of the weather. Haven't they?

Perhaps not. In Russia, where there has been an "unprecedented" heatwave culminating in a series of devastating wildfires, Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has responded by urging the faithful to get on their knees. "I call upon everyone to unite in a prayer for rain to descend on our earth," he said, during an elaborate ceremony at a monastery blanketed by smoke from nearby forest fires. A woman in the congregation agreed that the fires were "a punishment sent to us for our sins." Admittedly, that's what some environmentalists keep telling us, but they usually have in mind metaphorical sins like taking too many international flights.

As far as I can work out, there are two possible reasons why a prayer for rain might be effective. Either God is using the drought - as in the story of Noah he used floods - to punish mankind (or just the Russians) for their sins, in which case a bit of repentence might just do the trick. Or He somehow hasn't noticed the destruction that His weather systems have wrought, and the prayers are simply a way of bringing the matter to His attention. Neither paints God in a particularly good light.

It's also something of a high-risk strategy for the church. Of course, it might start raining - eventually, its bound to - in which case Kirill can take the credit. But what if it doesn't? Read the rest of this article