Friday, 29 October 2010

What's offensive about a pregnant nun?

Two priests share a glance in front of an altar, and seem about to share something more than the tub of ice-cream that one has in his hands. A nun looks down at her pregnant belly, one hand holding a spoon poised over a large tub of the same brand. Offensive? The Advertising Standards Authority thinks so. It has recently banned both these adverts on the grounds that they might upset Catholics. The National Secular Society today accused the quango of seeking to "unilaterally" reintroduce the old law of blasphemy less than three years after it was abolished by Parliament.

Terry Sanderson, who has complained to culture minister Ed Vaizey, says

Anyone who has seen the Antonio Federici ads knows that they are mildly humorous, in no way threatening, abusive or insulting. It is entirely wrong that these advertisements have been banned by such an unaccountable body, which needs to be reined in.

I'm not always a fan of the NSS, but I think they've got this one right. It is indeed troubling that these fairly inoffensive pictures should have been deemed - by the anonymous functionary who made this decision - to be likely to cause "serious or widespread offence" to religious people. If only on grounds of common sense. Certainly, the offence cannot have been widespread. A mere six people complained about the "gay priests" ad, while there were ten complaints regarding the pregnant nun. Last year, an even tamer ad by the same firm featuring a priest and a nun "looking as if they were about to kiss" was also deemed offensive by the ASA, again after 10 complaints.

It's not clear if anyone complained separately about all three adverts, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some overlap. In any event, there is a maximum of twenty-six people and a minimum of ten who find these things offensive. There are supposedly five million Roman Catholics in the UK. Not all of them will have seen these ads, and some who did may have felt some offence yet not have been moved to complain. But that, too, is relevant. For given that the offence was not widespread, we must assume that the ASA deems it to have been serious.

Does this image really represent "a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of Roman Catholics" as the ASA held? Scarcely. I can imagine a Catholic pedant - or even an atheistic one - being offended by the apparent misuse of the phrase "immaculately conceived" as a reference to the virgin birth and thus to the incongruity of a pregnant nun. The theological meaning of "immaculately conceived" is "conceived without sin" - but given that ice-cream is supposed to be sinful (that's the whole point of the ad, I should have thought) the line doesn't really work. That isn't why the ASA upheld the complaint, though. It imagined that Catholics might be shocked by the very idea of a pregnant nun. Yet neither history nor literature is short of pregnant nuns. Such a lapsed Bride of Christ might get well into trouble with her Mother Superior, but her existence would not mock or undermine the faith. She's just not a very good nun. First she gets herself up the duff. Then, when she should be deep into remorseful Hail Marys, she starts tucking into ice cream. First lust, then gluttony.

And anyway, it's not like she's having an abortion. A pregnant nun - continuing with her unplanned pregnancy although it has presumably ruined her career, and, indeed, still in the habit (which means that Mother Superior has forgiven her) - actually represents an affirmation of Catholic teaching, if you think about it.

As for the "gay priests", they aren't even Roman Catholics. Their cassocks clearly mark them out as Anglicans, possibly from one of the more liberal Anglican parishes that don't have a problem with gay clergy. It may in fact be that the advertisers intended the models to represent clerics of the Roman persuasion, but there is nothing either in the picture, nor in the caption ("We believe in salivation") to prove such a contention. Yet the ASA decided that "the portrayal of the two priests in a sexualised manner was likely to be interpreted as mocking the beliefs of Roman Catholics", and that was apparently that. Whether or not the advert actually mocked anyone's belief was irrelevant; it was enough merely that it could be "interpreted" in such a way. This is a ludicrously censorious interpretation of what is already a restrictive code.

Antonio Federici may not mind the further publicity that comes from having their already-seen adverts withdrawn, but the rest of us should mind. The adjudications are couched in that humourless, deadening prose we have become used to from the modern bureaucracy of "non-offence", whose effect is to make things that are humorous and trivial sound like serious and dangerous threats to society. The code itself, notes the statement without further rationale, stipulates that "particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability." This is a problem. Why should religion be privileged in this way, especially when what is being satirised is not even a core belief of the faithful but merely the institutional structure and its personnel?

The NSS claim that the watchdog is surreptitiously reintroducing laws against blasphemy actually misses the point, for its rulings do not make the adverts illegal. Rather, we should be asking why advertising should be subjected to petty-minded interventions that would never be tolerated in literature or film, simply to appease the sensibilities of a tiny minority of the easily-offended. Or, more likely, of semi-professional offence-takers whose motivation is as much political as spiritual.

At the very least, the ASA seems to have an alarmingly low threshold as to what constitutes "offence" where religion is concerned. An advert need not be objectively outrageous; it's enough that someone somewhere might potentially take exception to it. The organisation is worryingly over-protective both of the supposed sensibilities of believers (who, at most, will have been mildly irritated) and of its own Holy Scripture, the Code. Perhaps they would like all advertising to be bland and inoffensive, just to be on the safe side. But as Federici told the ASA:

They did not believe offence had been so deeply felt as to affect their right, as marketers, to free expression and that offence caused to a small minority should not affect the ability of the wider public to see their ad. They believed that, as a form of art and self-expression, advertising should be challenging and often iconoclastic.

I agree. Advertising is mainly about selling things, obviously; its artistic impulse will always be secondary. Yet it is an important form of public art. The best advertisements are thought-provoking, memorable, unexpected and, yes, controversial. Advertising is also the most ubiquitous type of art. It can make a huge impact on public consciousness, much more so than most films or books. This hands the unelected, largely unaccountable ASA the powers of a censor. Banning an advert robs people of the opportunity to have their thoughts provoked by it. Potentially it impoverishes culture. The ASA should realise that it owes greater duty to society as a whole than to the unrepresentative and eccentric handful who take the trouble to complain.
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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Anglicans seen consorting with Buddhists on Songs of Praise

This is a guest post by Julian Mann

If you want to see what mainstream establishment religion looks like, then watch the recent edition of the BBC's Song of Praise, rather patronisingly entitled Surprising Sheffield.

Not even the BBC can suppress the Nicene credal theology expressed by the Christian hymnody Songs of Praise necessarily features. But in this edition showcasing multi-faith Sheffield the inescapable aspects of Nicene Christianity were well drowned out by politically-correct religiosity and complacent sentimentality.

Aled Jones’ cheery voiceover described an inter-faith meditation group meeting at Sheffield Cathedral. When this collaboration between the Cathedral and local Buddhists came to light around eight years ago, the then Diocesan Evangelical Network raised objections and I debated with a Cathedral cleric on BBC Radio Sheffield. Our group argued that such a meditation group in the Cathedral involving Buddhists undermined Biblical and indeed Anglican teaching regarding the supremacy and uniqueness of Christ.

But there it was, flattered and flaunted on Songs of Praise.

At least, you know where you are with Nicene Christianity. You can argue with it and if you are unpersuaded in a Christian-influenced democracy, you are free to reject it. This new politically-correct establishment religion is much more slippery.

If you criticise it, you can be accused of undermining good community relations and even public order in a multi-cultural society. But it needs to be criticised if we are to value free and rigorous intellectual enquiry in our country. Politically-correct religion is incoherent. Buddhism and Nicene Christianity cannot both be correct.

Either, to quote the Nicene Creed, there is ‘one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible’ or there is not.

Either there is ‘one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God’ or there is not.

Freedom of speech and intellectual enquiry has far more to worry about from this new PC establishment religion than from counter-cultural Christianity.

No wonder none of the pro-active evangelism and church planting being done by orthodox Christians in Sheffield received the Aled Jones' treatment.

The Heresiarch adds:

The latest issue of Private Eye reports on recent comings and goings at the BBC's religion department, including at Songs of Praise. It mentions the "2008 head-hunted recruitment of Tommy Nagra" as the programme's editor:

Nagra's staggering lack of knowledge of music, Christianity, TV and the meaning of the word "Emeritus" became such an embarrassment that [Aaqil] Ahmed [Head of Religion] had to appoint yet another executive to help him out. This new "series editor" was David Taviner, barely more knowledgeable than Nagra, but an evangelical Christian. Nagra has since been given the grand new title of Head of Religion and Ethics TV.

(The "emeritus" reference is to a notorious alleged incident in which Nagra spotted a caption reading "Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu" and supposedly exclaimed "I didn't know Desmond was his middle name".)

So it seems that the person ultimately responsible for this latest multi-faith horror is in fact an evangelical Christian. Just shows how far the rot has spread, I suppose...
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It's the thought that counts

The super-rich Emir of Qatar is on a state visit to Britain.

The Queen presented her guests with signed photos of herself and Prince Philip.

In return, she received an 18-carat gold casket encrusted with diamonds, amethysts and pearls, while Philip’s gift was a statue of a horse on a clock base.

Clearly, the spending cuts are already beginning to bite. I wonder if that gold casket will turn up on Ebay? Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The language of prostitution, or the prostitution of language

Listening to the podcast of last week's Westminster Skeptics debate on the sex trade (which you can also read about here) I was struck by the extent to which discussion about prostitution often seems to get reduced to an argument about language. Dr Brooke Magnanti (the celebrated author Belle de Jour) criticised anti-prostitution campaigners for their habitual use of terms which both denigrated sex-workers (her preferred term) and denied their agency; she added that while she personally was content to call herself a hooker, even that term might be considered derogatory when used casually by someone outside the sex industry. Rather like only gay men being allowed to call each other "queer", perhaps.

This might all seem somewhat politically correct, but this is an area in which language can be peculiarly powerful in shaping thought. It might even be argued that the "problem" of commercial sex is as much a linguistic problem as a social one, perhaps more so. The very reasons Magnanti gave for preferring the term "sex-work" - that it respects the women's (or, of course, men's - but for simplicity's sake I shall be using the female pronoun) autonomy, that it implies that they are people doing a job rather than passive objects - are those cited by anti-prostitution campaigners for rejecting it. She claimed that "sex worker" was the most neutral term available, because it does not come loaded either with moral judgement or assumptions of victimhood. But that is precisely why it is not neutral. Merely by not passing moral judgement on prostitution, its clients and practitioners, you are already taking a stand.

By way of contrast, I offer you an intriguing passage from a lengthy report (pdf here) compiled by an anti-prostitution working party. Financed by the Hunt Alternatives Fund, and supported by such high-profile campaigners as the Guardian's Julie Bindel, the group aims to use "business strategies" to tackle the "demand" for paid-for sex, on the theory that "commercial sexual exploitation" (which is their preferred term for the phenomenon) would disappear if men could somehow be dissuaded from visiting prostitutes. (See Laura Agustin's lucid dissection here.) As such, they are as alive to nuances of language as Brooke Magnanti is. Here's what they have to say:

One of the messages we frequently encountered during our research for this project was, “words matter.” The language used to describe commercial sex and those involved in it reflects different positions about the nature of commercial sex and exploitation, and how best to regulate or combat it. The right words can inspire, strengthen resolve, and mobilize action. The wrong choices can alienate potential supporters, fracture coalitions, and bring effective action to a halt.

There are instances where it is most appropriate to use a term such as commercial sex provider or prostituted person when describing those engaged in selling sex or being sexually exploited. There was debate among those interviewed about whether the term “prostitute” should ever be used, and consensus that children engaged in commercial sex are never to be referred to as “prostitutes,” but instead as victims or survivors of commercial sexual exploitation or rape. Prostitute is seen by many as a pejorative, stigmatizing label that attempts to define people simply by their role in commercial sex. The term is regarded as failing to convey the force, fraud, coercion, and/or exploitation to which the providers of commercial sex are often subjected, and can be interpreted as implying a level of self-determination that is seldom experienced by those with pimps or traffickers. However, many survivors or providers of commercial sex refer to themselves as “prostitutes” or former prostitutes, and do not use the term “prostituted person” because they were not compelled by a third party.

Many opponents of commercial sex refer to prostitution with the term “commercial sexual exploitation,” and refer to those serving as prostitutes as “prostituted women,” “victims of commercial sexual exploitation,” or “survivors.” The buyers of commercial sex are described as “offenders” or “exploiters” rather than as “clients” or “customers.” The use of these terms is an attempt to describe commercial sex in the language of crime and exploitation, and to convey the sense that prostitution is something detrimental and done to women for the benefit of others, rather than something done by women to benefit themselves. Proponents of decriminalization or legalization prefer the phrases “the sex trade,” “sex work,” or “the sex business,” and refer to the providers of commercial sex as “sex workers” or “providers,” and to the consumers of commercial sex as “clients” or “customers”. These terms seek to legitimate prostitution by describing it in the language of the conventional workplace. There was a strong consensus among those we interviewed that the term “sex work” is never appropriate, since it implies a legitimate form of labor, while the Campaign is based on the premise that selling sex is exploitation or slavery, and is never work.

While professing not to judge sex-workers (although emphatically judging their clients) these campaigners have no such qualms about denying their agency and autonomy. Indeed, denying their agency - and thus their right to participate in the debate on any terms other than those of abuse victim or "survivor" decreed for them by the activists - is the whole point. The last sentence is especially telling. Ideologically committed to the a priori belief that "selling sex is exploitation or slavery, and never work", they are unable to recognise (or even comprehend) any view that contradicts their own. For them, the iniquity of prostitution is encoded within the language used to describe it. It is very difficult to argue against this way of seeing the world. If you believe, not only that all swans are white, but that whiteness is part of the very definition of the word swan, the sight of a black swan is unlikely to disabuse you. Rather you will be apt to argue that as it is not white, therefore it cannot be a swan.

That is one reason why the debate about sex-work, for all the efforts of sensible people like Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon (who also spoke at the WS meeting, and who I had the pleasure of hearing speak on the subject about a year ago) to promote an evidence-based approach to the issue, is so intractable. In some ways, the old stigmatising language was less oppressive. Talk of whores, prozzies, sluts and all the rest may be deeply misogynistic, and it is certainly derogatory, but at least it constitutes the sex-worker as an active participant in her own shame. The new caring, politically-correct formulations ("prostituted person", "survivor", "exploitee") are dehumanising. They express the view, openly admitted in the above passage, that "prostitution is something detrimental and done to women for the benefit of others, rather than something done by women to benefit themselves".

It is scarcely surprising, then, that sex workers often resent the attitudes demonstrated by those who claim to be campaigning on their behalf. Such language is experienced as objectifying, because for the activists (often professed feminists) the prostitute, in her capacity as commercial sex provider, is an object, a mere instrument to be used by the client for his selfish pleasure. It is asserted that a prostitute is a receptacle for a client to masturbate into, for example. Or prostitution is defined as men asserting their "right" to "buy" a female body to abuse, ignoring the possibility that a woman (and again I note that not all prostitutes are women!) might want to assert her right to deploy her body and sexual talents as she sees fit. Melissa Farley begins an academic paper with the bald assertion that "prostitution is sexual violence which results in economic profit for perpetrators" - almost as though the sex worker wasn't even there!

By contrast - and I don't want to glamorise what is indeed often a seedy business - in a society that stigmatises commercial sex and its providers, the people least likely to unthinkingly objectify prostitutes, and most likely to treat them with respect, are in fact their clients.

Whence comes this objectifying, ideologically-imprinted language? After all, it ought to be possible to tackle the attendant evils - the gangsterism, the human trafficking, the coercion - without striving to eliminate the phenomenon of commercial sex altogether. People do not walk around naked because they dislike the fact that many clothes are manufactured by poorly-paid workers in third world sweatshops. It was recently revealed that immigrant children had been working long hours fruit-picking on British farms. No-one is saying we should ban fruit. Why is sex different?

Partly, I think, it is an overhang from religious morality. Campaigners find it impossible to separate the situation which women involved in the sex industry find themselves in from the status which the prostitute has traditionally occupied morally. The prostitute is culturally an un-person, defined either by her victimhood or by her notoriety. It isn't a job like any other because anyone engaging in it is tainted. Indeed, it seems natural to impugn the moral status of other forms of work and money-making by associating them prostitution - as, for example, in the famous line from Pretty Woman, in which Richard Gere's corporate raider tells Julia Roberts's LA hooker, "We both screw people for money."

But that just begs the question. What is it about sex, rather than, say, cooking, that makes its commercialisation wrong? There's much to be said for home-cooking, but few people would argue that it is immoral to eat an expensive restaurant (or even, for the matter, McDonalds). The parallel is a good one, because sexual skills can be as highly-toned and valued as culinary ones. In some societies, historically, prostitution has indeed been an honourable profession - or at least an accepted one, with its own traditions and pride. And why shouldn't a fine blow-job be as celebrated as a perfect soufflé? A Martian observer might find it strange that in a society which lays ever-greater emphasis on sexual performance, with how-to guides everywhere on sale and magazines aimed at teenage girls discussing sexual techniques in often alarming detail, sexual professionalism remains so strongly taboo.

The logical conundrum faced by anti-prostitution feminists is that, supposing the premises of 1) equal rights and 2) informed choice, it must be at least conceptually possible that some women will choose prostitution, not out of desperation, but because they actually find it preferable to the alternatives (which include, for example, graduating with a huge student debt, or being unable to get on the property ladder). The fact that the choice is, by and large, unavailable to heterosexual men does not ipso facto mean that it is a bad one. It might just as logically be the case that women are peculiarly fortunate in having the option.

Rather than confront such a dark truth, it's much easier to define prostitution in such a way that the question simply does not arise.
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RIP Paul the Octopus

So farewell then
Paul the Octopus
Psychic cephalopod
The invertebrate Uri Geller

He knew who would win
This year's World Cup
But I bet he couldn't
See this coming
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Friday, 22 October 2010

The Cuts: A poem

(With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe)

Let's look forward to the cuts
Spending cuts!
And celebrate a government that's finally got the guts
How we feel all a-quiver
With the sweet anticipation
Of what Osborne will deliver
Just to make the unions shiver
And repair a shattered nation.
Swing the axe, axe, axe
Chop the budget, don't raise tax
As the serried ranks of Labour join in choruses of tuts
At the cuts, cuts, cuts, cuts
Cuts, cuts, cuts
At the painful but most necessary cuts

Let us welcome in the cuts,
Costly cuts!
For we must receive our medicine, ignoring ifs and buts
With the country on the brink
Only fools would turn or shrink
From the measures, hard to bear.
Yet they're right -
And yes, of course, we care
And we recognise some people will despair -
Just hold tight
As the Guardian erupts
With a gush of muddle-headed, bleeding-hearted tosh.
Polly's nuts
And Seumas Milne a putz
Their analysis won't wash
They are stuck in dated ruts
With their silly opposition to the cuts
To the cuts, cuts, cuts
To the cuts cuts cuts cuts
Cuts cuts cuts
With their whinging at the swingeing spending cuts!

Feel the sharpness of the cuts,
Longed-for cuts!
Listen as the controversy rapidly erupts
See the quangocrats take fright,
And forget to be polite
Almost horrified to speak
They can only shriek, shriek, shriek
Don't you dare!
In a clamorous appealing for their feather-bedded jobs
As they cast about for reasons why they must retain their jobs
And in terror of the dole
They will threaten and cajole
Warn that chaos will descend
If the state refrains to spend
If the Chancellor refuses to take care
With the cuts, cuts, cuts
How the word rips up their guts
With despair!
And we watch with exaltation
At the frenzied decimation
Of a hundred thousand civil service drones
Who spend all day on Twitter or the phones
Clear them out!
And a million welfare shirkers
Who sponge off honest workers -
All their illnesses are feigned
And their breeding unconstrained
And they're housed at our expense
Free of rent
It's unnerving
How they always play the system
So rejoice as they fall victim
To the cuts
To the cuts, cuts, cuts, cuts,
Cuts, cuts, cuts
To the cleansing and catharsis of the cuts

Feel the fury of the cuts
Savage cuts!
Tremble every minute as a public service shuts
As the prisons overflow
Have to let the rapists go
Less police!
But at least we'll get those carriers
(A shame they won't have harriers
Or jets)
And it's better not to think about the foul and unplugged drains
Or the slow and rusting trains
Or the houses no-one's able to afford
Or the scientists who're forced to work abroad
By the cuts
In the schools
All the hungry kids will get wet when it rains
Yet we're all in this together
And we'll face the bitter weather
Take the strain,
Not complain
As we steadily get poor
Still we will not ask for more
Like those rowdy Greeks or French
They are fools.
Pay our debts!
Watch the government retrench
Though the bankers still get rich
Which is good
And we'll toil, toil, toil,
(Though we're running out of oil)
In the darkness of the night
When there's no electric light
And we'll have to work till eighty
Just for food
Now they've got us by the nuts.
Though the burden may be weighty
Still there's comfort for we know we need these cuts
And we'll cheer the Coalition
And enjoy the masochism
Of the cuts, cuts, cuts
The unprecedented cuts
The exquisite masochism of the savage spending cuts
Of the cuts cuts cuts cuts
Cuts cuts cuts
While we're moaning and we're groaning at the cuts.
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Thursday, 21 October 2010

Winter Fuel Allowance: Did minister mislead Parliament?

The Telegraph this morning is reporting that millions of pensioners will get less than they were expecting when their Winter Fuel Allowance arrives in a few weeks' time. The bung - paid to millionaires and paupers alike - will be "reduced this year in line with plans announced by Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor, in his last budget", writes Robert Winnett. This means £200 rather than £250 for younger pensioners, and £300 rather than £400 for those over eighty. A nasty surprise, that, especially as George Osborne's words - and the general reporting of the Comprehensive Spending Review - implied that there would be no change.

What Osborne actually said was this:

We also keep the universal benefits for pensioners, in recognition of the fact many have worked hard and saved hard all their lives. Free eye tests; free prescription charges; free bus passes; free TV licenses for the over 75s; and Winter Fuel Payments will remain exactly as budgeted for by the previous Government - as promised.

I thought at the time that this sounded like a particularly sneaky cut - and Tweeted that it seemed like bad politics not to warn pensioners that their cherished allowance was being reduced by as much as a quarter. The difference between the two rates originates in Gordon Brown's love of political gestures: technically, for the past couple of years pensioners were given an extra, specially-announced "top-up" of the basic £200 or £300 rate, as a sort of Christmas present by a generous Labour government. Crucially, for technical reasons the calculations in Alistair Darling's March budget this year assumed the basic rather than the bonus rate of WFA, even though it was widely assumed that the bonus would be re-announced in due course.

So while George Osborne appeared to be saying that the WFA would be the same as last year, as far as pensioners are concerned it will be less. That is, at least, the natural meaning of his words, and how the Telegraph reported it.

But on Monday Steve Webb, Lib Dem minister of state in the Department of Work and Pensions, stood up in the House of Commons and said quite plainly:

In winter 2010, the winter fuel payment will continue to be paid at the higher rate of £250 or £400, according to family circumstances. Decisions about the rates for future winters will be taken as part of the annual Budget cycle, as normal.

Was this wrong? It's hard to believe that a minister would give false information to the House unless he himself - and his whole Department - had themselves been misled. Yet that would seem to be the implication of George Osborne's announcement. If he had intended to keep the higher rate to which pensioners have become accustomed, after all, would he not have said so unambiguously, if only to point out his largesse?

It's all rather confusing, especially since DirectGov is still telling pensioners that the rates will be the same as last year. I guess they'll just have to wait and see. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Big Brother back in business

Most people are talking about the spending review today, but there are other things going on - like the Coalition's latest abject surrender to the architects of the database state. As I was saying just the other day, ID cards may have gone, but much beside remains, a lot of it arguably worse.

Eighteen months ago, the then Labour government announced the abandonment of a £12 billion scheme to build a central database storing details of every phonecall, email and website hit made by everyone in Britain. Instead, telecoms companies and ISPs would do the dirty work, otherwise known as the Intercept Modernisation Project. Some campaigners (including Shami Chakrabarti) saw this as a welcome concession by Big Brother to the principle of privacy. Actually, it just represented a convenient cost saving. And as I wrote at the time:

We should be careful. A big, scary centralised database does at least present opponents with a target to aim at. By forcing companies to collect the data the government will achieve most of what it wants, but stealthily. Despite talk of safeguards, the proposal will enable almost any public body to build up a complete picture of anyone they choose, with little or not outside scrutiny. Even the minimal safeguard of needing authorisation from a magistrate or judge appears nowhere.

Henry Porter was moved to prophesy:

We should not be lulled into seeing this as change in the government's goal of knowing everything about every one of us. The civil servants behind the scheme have a very long horizon indeed – an agenda that is designed to survive cuts in public spending and any change of government.

They will argue the urgent necessity of the case with force and plausibility to inexperienced Conservative ministers, as they have done to the co-operative second raters in the present government. I pray that a future government will have the gumption, sense of history and political values to resist these arguments...

For a short while (a couple of weeks, at a pinch) it looked as though the new government might indeed have the gumption. A Conservative party more newly committed to personal freedom, bound together with Liberal Democrats for whom the defence of civil liberties have always represented a core belief... What could possibly go wrong? It was all there in the Coalition agreement, which promised to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason". Even Henry Porter seemed to agree, signing off his blog in May with the joyful air of a man who thought his job was done.

An important caveat was attached to that seemingly clear-cut promise. It attracted little attention at the time, perhaps because it seemed self-evident. What possible "good reason" could there be to store data on the entire, law-abiding population just to help catching a few criminals? Surely "good reason" implied that each individual act of data storage must be justified? Of course not. To the officials in the Home Office, the need for a "good reason" attaches, not to the collection of particular bits of data, but to the policy of data storage as a whole. So however depressing it is, it's not surprising to discover (in a little-noticed announcement yesterday) that the data storage policy is to continue almost unchanged.

The civil servants and securicrats haven't even had to think up any new "good reasons", even for appearances' sake, even so ministers can claim that their U-turn is compelled by scary new threats. The Security Strategy document released yesterday argues that data-retention is required "to keep up with changing technology and to maintain capabilities that are vital to the work these agencies do to protect the public." That is precisely the justification set out at length in Labour's document of April 2009. It wasn't convincing then and it's no more convincing now. Data storage is not about "maintaining" capacities that the security services or the police already have; it's about giving them unprecedented new powers of snooping and data-mining, a prospect about which they have been salivating for years.

"It is disappointing that the new ministers seem to be continuing their predecessors' tradition of credulousness" says Guy Herbert of No2ID. Perhaps he should redesignate Saturday's victory party as a wake. The new government may display slightly less relish for Orwellian schemes than the last lot did, but that's as far as it goes. Alex Deane finds it "fascinating and dreadful to see the speed of bureaucratic capture, the reversion to bureaucratic authoritarianism on show". The fight will go on, of course, but there's no longer an obvious enemy (New Labour) against whom to unite, nor an obvious solution (voting them out). Instead, the reality of where the real power lies is horribly exposed. Of course, we knew all along, but it was nice to be able to delude ourselves for a little while.
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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

At last, a pain-free cut

BBC executives are reported to be hopping mad at suggestions that in future "responsibility" for providing elderly people with "free" TV licences might be "transferred" to the corporation.

I do hope it's true. I'm amazed that the taxpayer ever picked up the bill for this "benefit".

According to a BBC Trust source quoted in the Mail, "It would be unacceptable for licence fee payers to pick up the bill for what is a DWP universal benefit."

There's so much slippery thinking and vested interest contained in those few words that a little elucidation may be in order.

First of all, "licence fee payers" will not be expected to pick up the bill, unless it is proposed that the licence fee as a whole is to be increased proportionately to compensate for the claimed £500 million cost of supplying "free" licences to the over 75s. And of course it isn't. What is proposed is that the BBC find the missing millions by making cuts. The reason for invoking "licence fee payers" is that the BBC Trust, established by the last government as a replacement for the Board of Governors, is supposed to "represent the interests" of licence fee payers (otherwise known as taxpayers). In fact, it represents the interests of the BBC in almost precisely the same way the Governors once did. The interests of the BBC and of the public are assumed to coincide, which is why a cut to BBC funding is bizarrely explained as a cost borne by licence payers.

Secondly, the "free" TV licences are only a DWP universal benefit because the previous government decided to compensate the BBC the full sum it lost by exempting over 75s from paying the Fee. This strange decision may have been bad news for taxpayers (in other words, for the national budget) but it served the purposes of both the BBC (which continued to rake in the cash from the steadily-increasing number of elderly households) and of Gordon Brown, who could represent the move as a distribution of state largesse. He could "give" something to older pensioners rather than merely exempt them from a form of taxation. But a TV licence is not a thing - like a prescription drug or a welfare payment or even a bus pass - that anyone "receives", so the analogy with other "free" services given to the elderly is inaccurate. It is merely a legal requirement imposed on every household in the UK in which there is a television set.

The scheme isn't just costly and bureaucratic, it also embodies a fiction - that it was a "universal benefit" rather than a tax break, and as such something that the Coalition, looking for savings, might save money by "taking away". But the government never gave the money to pensioners in the first place. It gave the money to the BBC, to spend on Jonathan Ross's salary, or pointlessly relocating to Salford, or beefing up the Director General's pension package, or whatever. Of all suggested cuts to benefits, removing this subvention is the only one that will cause no pain to its notional recipients. Nor will it do that much harm to the BBC, which like every other part of the public sector cannot be exempted from the spending squeeze. Without the proposed change, the BBC would be handed ever-larger dollops of taxpayers' money, unearned, on behalf of over 75s, for the purely statistical reason that the number of such households is increasing. BBC bosses may have begun salivating at the prospect and worked out how to spend the money, but that is not in itself a reason to carry on with this wholly unnecessary drain on the Treasury.

To the pensioners themselves, the distinction between a benefit and an exemption matters little: they no longer have to pay their poll tax to the avaricious agents of the state broadcaster, and that is that. On the other hand it matters a great deal to the BBC. The corporation, and its supine Trust, has already started squealing and is said to be "furiously opposing" the move. This is largely because of the money they will lose, of course, but the principle at stake may prove to be even more significant. Paying the licence fee on behalf of elderly people wasn't just an unnecessary burden on the Treasury, it also preserved - technically at least - the principle that every household in Britain must have a TV licence. Now that dam will be breached. Having abolished the compulsory licence fee for those aged over 75, the government may find it psychologically easier to take the next logical step of abolishing compulsory payment for everyone else.

One can but hope.
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Monday, 18 October 2010

Contrary to reports, Geert Wilders has not been acquitted

The bizarre trial of Geert Wilders for his outspoken criticism of Islam continues its merry way, despite the best efforts of the prosecuting authorities to stop it. At the end of last week, after exhaustively listing the evidence against the Dutch MP, the prosecution submitted that he had no case to answer. All three charges should be removed from the indictment. However much one disagreed with his views, lawyers argued, he had a right to freedom of speech. Presumably the defence agrees. The bench is now hearing evidence from Muslims who still want him to be convicted, including a trainee lawyer who begged the court to "protect me as a Muslim and a Moroccan against Mr Wilders". Wilders, who for years has lived in fear of his life, must have smiled ruefully at that line.

As the three charges against him (including the incredibly vague "insulting a group") were successively withdrawn by the prosecution, many observers unfamiliar with the Dutch way of doing things imagined that he had won and that his acquittal would be a mere formality. His sympathisers in blogland (of whom there are many, not all of them "Islamophobic" or right-wing) erupted in celebration. It was premature. Wilders remains on trial, and the probability remains that he will be convicted.

In Britain or the US, if the prosecution offers no evidence the trial is over. The notion that a judge (there's no jury) would overrule both prosecution and defence and find a defendant guilty is unthinkable. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, the fact that the prosecution and defence might be united in agreement that the accused has no case to answer would seem to mean very little. It's not even surprising. What most commentators forgot last week was that the Dutch equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service never wanted to put Wilders on trial in the first place. They were forced to do so by an appeal court ruling that appeared to find him guilty before he had even been charged. Having argued at length that they had no need to bring charges, it would be at the very least inconsistent of the prosecutors to strain every sinew to bring him to justice. Their presentation of the case was always likely to be half-hearted.

The Appeal Court ruling that led to this trial was so strongly worded it reads like a final judgement rather than a technical granting of the right to proceed. "The Court of Appeal considers criminal prosecution obvious for the insult of Islamic worshippers because of the comparisons made by Wilders of Islam with Nazism," it said. It went on:

The public prosecution is of the view, amongst others, that part of the statements of Wilders do not relate to a group of worshippers, but consists of criticism as regards the Islamic belief, as a result of which neither the self-esteem of this group of worshippers is affected nor is this group brought into discredit. Some statements of Wilders can be regarded as offending, but since these were made (outside the Dutch Second Chamber) as a contribution to a social debate there is no longer a ground for punishableness of those statements according to the public prosecution.

The ruling dismissed all these contentions. It asserted that Wilders' views (I assume they mean his expression of them, but it just says "views") "constitute a criminal offence according to Dutch law... both because of their contents and the method of presentation." The views were an incitement and, moreover, "insulting as well since these statements substantially harm the religious esteem of the Islamic worshippers." And thus criminal. He could not assert his Convention right to freedom of expression because, as a politician, he had "special responsibility" - there were apparently "European standards" according to which "statements which create hate and grief made by politicians" were "not permitted." Moreover, by bringing up the Nazis (he famously said that if Mein Kampf were banned, the Koran should be also) Wilders had "exceeded fundamental boundaries".

The whole ruling - dated 21st January 2009 - is a chilling masterpiece of liberal illiberalism. It is jaw-dropping in its insistence that free speech yield to political convenience. Even those who disagree with almost every one of Wilders' opinions on Islam and immigration ought to recognise how dangerous a principle it enunciates. Clearly the Prosecutors have not been changed their interpretation of the relative value of the freedom to offend and the need to protect "groups" from insult. That may well be meaningless, however, given that the Court of Appeal all but ordered that Wilders be found guilty. Such is the Alice in Wonderland world of the Dutch courts.
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Friday, 15 October 2010

De Profundis

Like Alexander Chancellor, I was struck (if not necessarily surprised) by the readiness with which many of the Chilean miners, their families, rescuers and observers, thanked God for their deliverance. (Though I don't share his congratulation of the doctors involved for their rather mean-spirited refusal to allow the miners alcohol or cigarettes.) Of course God had nothing to do with it. At a pinch, I suppose, one might blame God for causing the mine to cave in, trapping the miners underground; but thereafter the story has been purely a human one - the resilience (physical and mental alike) of the miners, the technical expertise of the engineers who bore down to the pit and constructed the escape pod, the dedication of the families, the refusal to give up hope: none of this was in any sense supernatural, and it is all the more impressive for that.

"What do they think God was doing when nearly 500 people died in a Chilean earthquake early this year?" asks Chancellor. A fair question. The usual response among modern theologians is that God does not either cause or prevent natural catastrophes (if indeed this was a natural catastrophe) but rather sustains and fortifies people during these ordeals. So that even amid mass death those who survive feel an urge to thank the Almighty for their deliverance (as though they had been preternaturally marked out to cheat death) and those who have lost loved ones pray for strength and draw comfort from their faith. The logical conclusion of such arguments is that God actually causes such disasters to enable people to demonstrate or discover their need for faith; few, though, venture so far into such a morally dubious theodicy.

Incoherent it may be philosophically; but psychologically there's no mystery. It's the "no atheists in foxholes" phenomenon. What really struck me was not that the miners' natural response to being rescued was to drop to their knees in prayer, but the prevalence of religious language and metaphors in the coverage of the story. Not only was the rescue been hailed widely as "a miracle"; the miners' hot and dark underground prison was commonly referred to as "hell", the return to the surface as a "rebirth" or even a "resurrection". Like Lazarus, they had emerged alive from the tomb. The rescuers were saints and angels. Prayers had been answered. From darkness, into light... Only the sight of two women, the wife and mistress of one of the miners, fighting over their man, provided an incongrous reminder of the messy reality of the human condition.

These Christian (rather than just generically "religious") metaphors may seem obvious, but they aren't the only ones available. The collapsed mineshaft was occasionally described as a dungeon or a prison, and the miners' situation was compared to that of submariners or long-term residents of the international space station. To me, the film from inside the mine during the rescue revealed a space more womblike than tomblike; indeed, the somewhat phallic rescue pod, moving alternately into and out of the cave via a narrow borehole, looked disconcertingly like something I once saw late at night on Channel Five. A Pagan rendering of the story might have the earth goddess holding the miners being safely in her nurturing womb and providing them with the air and water they needed to survive during the darkest days when no-one on the surface knew if they were alive or dead.

But no. It was Hell. If nothing else, the ready availability of religious metaphors for the miners' ordeal and eventual (here we go again) salvation gives the lie to the complaint regularly voiced by church leaders in Britain that society has lost connection with its Christian heritage. The old theological clichés are still there, just below the surface, ready to be called upon at moments of catastrophe or grand public drama. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Pregnant women told: Don't visit museum, it'll upset the exhibits

Women who are menstruating or pregnant have been asked not to look upon some Maori artefacts in a New Zealand museum in case it offends the ancestral spirits.

Of course, it's not worded quite like that. Rather, the instruction (later clarified as a "request") is couched in terms of cultural sensitivity. It's also said to be a condition of the museum's holding the objects that such strictures be applied to visitors. Nevertheless, that is what it amounts to. After all, who is to tell whether a female visitor is menstruating? Or is in the early stages of pregnancy? Museum officials are not (I hope) checking. Rather, the New Zealand Herald reports, "women who plan to attend the [invitation only] tour on November 5 are expected to be honest about whether they are pregnant or menstruating as a sign of respect to Maori beliefs."

And what if they decide not to defer to what is, on the face of it, a blatantly sexist piece of superstition? Stuff NZ quotes a feminist blogger who is urging pregnant and menstruating women to demonstrate their contempt for this "completely archaic belief" to attend the exhibition.

Well, they have been warned. The report quotes Jane Keig, from the Te Papa museum in Wellington, who declares (for all the world as though she believes it) "If a woman is pregnant or menstruating, they are tapu. Some of these taonga have been used in battle and to kill people. Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects."

Does that mean that any woman who disobeys the ruling and subesquently miscarries would be able to sue the museum on the grounds that bad juju caused the loss of her baby? Perhaps the museum would be able to point to contributory negligence on her part. But what if she doesn't even know she is pregnant? Will the magic still work?

Any malificent power possessed by the relics would certainly be down to suggestion. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. The negative power of suggestion (sometimes dubbed "Nocebo" and analagous to the better known Placebo effect) can be very powerful. It's how voodoo works. People have become seriously ill or even died as a result of being cursed, even (and this is the real frightener) people who consciously dismiss such things as mere superstition. Of course, not everyone would be affected; but it's not impossible that a woman might attend the exhibition, subsequently discover that she is pregnant, and that knowledge lead to illness or miscarriage. I doubt the museum considered such a possibility, but perhaps they should. And take out the necessary insurance.

But is this really about protecting women from dangerous magic at all? And what do Maori gods have against pregnant women anyway? Have they not read the Equality Act? Margaret Mutu, head of Maori Studies at Auckland University, offers a slightly different justification:

The reproduction area is extremely powerful and can do damage to things that are not tapu. It's about the power of women, not about stopping them... [the objects] are tapu and pregnant or menstruating women are tapu. It would be very unwise to put the two up against each other.

Mutu, who also noted that menstruating women shouldn't enter "gardens or fishing areas" (useful information, I'm sure you'll agree) is drawing upon a vast complex of primitive beliefs and practices surrounding women's biological processes. Such ideas aren't confined to Polynesia. Leviticus ordains (15;19) that menstruating women be sequestered; not only are they unclean, but any man who touches them is unclean also, as is anyone who touches an item of furniture she has come into contact with. To this day, orthodox Jewish women take ritual baths to purify them of the pollution of menses. Among many similar examples he collected from all over the world, Sir James Frazer tells us that

Among the Bribri Indians of Costa Rica a menstruous woman is regard as unclean. The only plates she may use for her food are banana leaves, which, when she has done with them, she throws away in some sequestered spot; for were a cow to find them and eat them, the animal would waste away and perish. And she drinks out of a special vessel for a like reason; because if anyone drank out of the same cup after her, he would surely die.

What harm could possibly befall the Maori sacred objects, though, is difficult to fathom.

Notwithstanding the fascinating subjects of taboo and the anthropological significance of mentstruation, most discussion about the Kiwi museum has focussed elsewhere: on the perceived clash between cultural sensitivity and gender equality. Should we respect the traditional (if from our point of view politically incorrect) beliefs attaching to Maori artefacts - whether or not most modern Maoris share those beliefs (another interesting question which does not seem to have been explored)? Or does the principle of non-discrimination override everything else? Who to offend: feminists or ancestral spirits? Who are we nowadays most afraid of?

One New Zealand feminist blogger had this to say:

I don't understand why a secular institution, funded by public money in a secular state, is imposing religious and cultural values on people. It's fair enough for people to engage in their own cultural practices where those practices don't harm others, but the state shouldn't be imposing those practices on other people.

One possible answer is that the museum has to recognise that these seemingly inert pieces of wood derive their significance - and much of their anthropological meaning - from the ritual context in which they originally featured. Moreover, there are still many people for whom these are no mere curiosities but are still imprinted with sanctity - are still the abodes of spirits. But in that case, it might be asked what they are doing in a museum in the first place.

The purpose of a museum is to hold, conserve and display human artefacts, not to serve as an ersatz place of worship. The notion that (because it offends the resident spirits, or otherwise) pregnant women should not approach these objects is a fact giving an added layer of interest to the objects being displayed. But it is (or should be) irrelevant to the museum's admission criteria, which must be based on the principle of equal access for all. If it is wrong to allow tabooed persons to view the display, it is equally wrong (and, I would suggest, offensive to the spirits) to keep them in a museum at all. There's something more than a little phoney about the argument from "cultural sensitivity", something equally patronising and hypocritical. And also irrelevant. Because - as anyone who was truly deferential towards Maori sensitivities would surely recognise - it's not the Maori who are offended if menstruating women or pregnant women look upon these objects. It's the objects.

I'd say both pregnant women and animistic totems have good reason to feel aggrieved. And as Margaret Mutu noted, they can both be pretty dangerous.
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Swingergate: the Tommy Sheridan trial

This is a guest post by Edwin Moore

On 4 October 2010, Tommy and Gail Sheridan arrived at the Glasgow High Court to be tried for perjury. Details of the case and its cast can be found on several excellent places on the Scottish blogosphere. I recommend for starters A Very Public Sociologist and the estimable Lallands Peat Worrier (who includes the full indictment). There is also a very useful daily blog by an observer of the trial, which is expected to last 10 weeks and thus become Scotland's longest ever perjury trial. To the tabloids' delight and the mortification of the puritanical Left, the affair springs from disputed and very uncomradely memories as to whether or not Tommy Sheridan admitted to visiting a 'swinger's' club.

What remains baffling to some of us is not the question of who lied in court about what (most observers are comfortably clear on the basics) but the fact that the Sheridans have been brought to trial at all - as the Scots Tory Alan Cochrane says in this fine piece in the Telegraph (back in February 2008 - this case is the veritable Glacier of Doom) -

'. . .Scottish justice is getting a bad name from the Sheridan case. It may not have the trappings of a show trial, but Mr Sheridan's treatment thus far is beginning to look like cruel and unnatural punishment.'

Others are not so sure; the first link above makes the point that the charge sheet pertains 'to the specifics of the original trial itself'.

So what's going on? My take is that you can discount the state-conspiracy-to-destroy-left-of-Labour-in-Scotland theory. Even the British secret service could surely work out that the best way to destroy the Scottish left at present would be simply to stand by and watch it self-destruct. Putting the Sheridans on trial was always going to carry the risk of making martyrs of a couple with a young child. The exuberance with which the police went for the Sheridans seems to me to be part of the ancient Scottish tradition of seeking out the heretic (proportionately, Scotland was one of the worst witchunting nations in Europe).

Sheridan wants to overthrow the state and the cops probably see that as a threat to themselves. But as any fule know a socialist state means more, not less, cops. Perhaps Strathclyde Police haven't realised this yet.

Enough conjecture. I went along to nosey at the High Court on the 5th. It seems an odd thing to say given the huge media coverage, but on the evidence of the wee group that assembled outside court on the second day of the trial, there seems to be very little public interest in the Sheridan case. Apart from the press there are only a handful of us civilians and a very few Sherryfans. If this trial was about some X Factor person lifting a bun from Greggs you would not be able to move around here.

Not long after Sherry was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, a prominent Scottish journalist wrote about how proud she was to be living in a country which had elected such a man as Tommy Sheridan to its parliament. Indeed.

One of the emerging features of the trial (I am typing this on 9 October) is the close-knit nature of Scottish politics and Scottish life. On Tuesday, the former Treasurer of the SSP, Alison Kane, had this exchange (taken from the Daily Record) with Gail Sheridan's advocate -

'Gail Sheridan's advocate Paul McBride QC - who has been tipped as a future Tory candidate - asked Miss Kane about whether there were "factions" in the SSP.
In a reply which prompted laughter in the courtroom, Miss Kane replied: "Yes - like your own."

Factionalism is a universal feature of all parties and religions, but one wonders if Scotland is particularly bad. I remember an English Tory saying to me after meeting his Scottish counterparts, 'These people aren't Conservatives - they are bigots'. Similarly, Scottish Presbyterian wrangles seem rather more toxic than, say, equivalent Anglican ones.

Arguably, Scotland created the modern world through the Scottish Enlightenment, an Enlightenment driven from Glasgow as well as from Edinburgh. It is a phenomenal achievement, something we should all be vastly proud of. Yet here we are in 2010, with the Mr Hyde version of Scotland rising into view, and barely a few decades away from sectarian policies that quietly kept Catholics out of employment in institutions such as major banks and BBC Scotland.

The journalists and writers who orgasmed over Tommy Sheridan in his early days were part of the problem - we don't need heroes to exalt into demigods to be trampled when found out to have feet of clay. Whatever the outcome of this trial may be, it is not going to be pleasant.

Reposted from Edwin's Glasgow Album, where you can read a follow-up post. He's also the author of Scotland: 1000 Things You Need to Know which, he tells me, has been no 4 on the WH Smith Scottish bestseller list for two months now.
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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

No2ID: Party on?

No2ID are having a party later this month to celebrate their success in getting rid of ID cards. As well, you may think, they might. During the Commons debate which saw Labour's flagship scheme consigned to the dustbin, Damian Green saluted them as "one of the most successful pressure groups in history". Led brilliantly by Phil Booth and Guy Herbert, No2ID kept the subject of ID cards in the public arena long after the passage of the 2006 Act should have made it a fait accompli. Opposition to the scheme united natural political enemies to such an extent that the group might even claim to have played Cupid to the present Coalition.

When first proposed, ID cards and their accompanying mass database were touted almost as a solution to all the ills and inconveniences of modern life. They would defeat benefit fraud, frustrate illegal immigration, stop terrorists, help the police and "entitle" you to public services that you had previously only been able to access by telling people who you were. Or sometimes not even that. More than that, thanks to the wonders of IT they would link every part of your life together, meaning you would never have to look out that piece of paper or reference number again. And if that meant that some computer somewhere knew every last detail of your life - well, only a few million civil servants and contractors working for the state would be able to access the database, and there would be "safeguards" and procedures to prevent leaks and misuse of information, and as we all know computer systems never fail and dishonest or incompetent people never work for the government anyway, so what's there to worry about? You can trust Big Brother.

By the time the scheme was finally killed off, so little of the original vision remained that the termination was almost, but not quite, symbolic. No2ID deserves the credit for some of that. But if ID cards were not the threat they had been, the threat has not gone away. Other costly, intrusive schemes with potential to go horribly wrong survive. The danger, indeed, is that this is precisely why the ID card scheme proved so easy to axe.

The Coalition may have fulfilled this one, straightforward pledge, but in other areas evidence of backtracking is starting to pile up. A few examples:

1) The 2011 census, described a few months ago by Conservative spokesman Nick Hurd as "intrusive and bloated" is going ahead virtually unchanged in March. The government's excuse is that it was too late to stop it or to make substantial alterations. So all of us will be legally obliged (on pain of a £1000 fine) to spend the better part of an evening telling the government our business. Fuel Injected Moose has full details of the horror to come (and whether evasion is a viable option); Cranmer has been taking a closer look at some of the questions.

2) Another scheme the Conservative opposition had in its sights, the centralised database holding the Summary Care Records of almost all patients, is also proceeding as planned despite growing concerns about its accuracy and usefulness. According to Tony Collins, the decision is "a testimony to the influence of civil servants at NHS Connecting for Health and the Department of Health who have strongly advocated the continuance of the programme" and pays no heed to an independent and highly critical report from UCL earlier this year which found that many hospital doctors were distrustful of the information contained therein. The only concession is that it will be made slightly easier to opt out (as I did). Phil Booth accuses the Coalition of having "broken its promise on medical confidentiality" and "capitulating to the bureaucrats on a system known to be unsafe". As he adds, it shows who's really in charge.

3) The "vetting and barring" scheme run by the Independent Safeguarding Authority, and which would potentially cover almost half the adult population (anyone with any kind of access to children or "vulnerable adults"), is under review but seems likely to survive in some form. This is in many ways the most frightening, Orwellian scheme of all, treating all adults as guilty until proven innocent, enshrining gossip and hearsay in a quasi-judicial process that gives civil servants power to destroy careers at the stroke of a pen, and fatally undermining both data protection laws and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

Jane Fae has a good discussion of the current state of play. It seems that the Coalition intends to make amendments, but it's far from clear how far they will actually go. As she points out, the "cultural imperative towards fearfulness, so assiduously fostered by New Labour, is still there". Even well-intentioned politicians are caught up in it. It's highly unlikely that the ISA would have stopped Ian Huntley, who was not employed at his victims' school, although it was in response to the Soham murders that the Labour government adopted the scheme. But if the scheme is dropped or seriously diluted, and there is (as there inevitably will be) another ghastly, unpredictable crime against a child, the Opposition would undoubtedly then blame the government for "letting children down".

4) The new government fully shares its predecessor's strange obsession with curbing teenage drinking - despite the fact that teenagers have never drunk less alcohol. Imposing ever more draconian penalties on stores found to be supplying underage drinkers has created a nightmare situation in which almost anyone under 30 is routinely asked for ID - often after buying alcohol legally and without hassle for years - and even pensioners find themselves questioned by doltish shop assistants. Things look likely to get even worse. Getting rid of ID cards is one thing. Getting away from the ID culture, in which impertinent and superfluous demands to prove one's existence punctuate daily life, will be another thing entirely.

I'm sure the No2ID party will be a call to arms as well as a celebration. It's certainly no time for complacency.
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Monday, 11 October 2010

Ofcom: Political propaganda OK if it's non-party

According to a report on Media Guardian, Ofcom have cleared this government carbon-reduction advert of being overtly political. But only just.

At the time, its simplistic tone (including the assertion that "scientists" claimed CO2 emissions "that grown-ups sent up into the sky" caused freak weather events) and emotionally manipulative use of a little girl led to more than 500 complaints to Ofcom (and another 1000 to the Advertising Standards Authority). Looked at in the light of Richard Curtis's now notorious Splattergate, though, it all looks rather charming and innocent. Too charming and innocent, in fact. The conceit - a father reading a bedtime story to his child about the damage those idiot "grown-ups" did to the planet with their carbon emissions - says less about the science of climate change than it does about the low opinion the government (or perhaps the advertising industry) has of the general public.

The message is delivered in nursery school language, ostensibly to a small girl, in reality to an audience composed of functional adults, people with mortgages and jobs and responsibilities. Is it really necessary to talk down in this way? Whatever one thinks of the impact that members of the public doing greenish things can actually have on global warming (I'd say negligible) it's hard to see many people changing their behaviour on the basis of something so puerile. Of course, we've become used to patronising drivel like this in government "public awareness" campaigns (think of those brightly-coloured plasticine men encouraging us to "Change 4 Life") - but it is nevertheless rather puzzling. Such campaigns are, after all, contracted out to proper advertising agencies who otherwise produce witty, informative, highly polished commercials. No-one tries to sell car insurance with mocked-up picturebooks beginning "Once upon a time there was a man who crashed his car". Instead we get meerkats.

If the medium is so awful, I can't help thinking, there must be something wrong with the message.

Particularly interesting, though, was the reasoning behind Ofcom's decision to approve the ad, which on the face of it appears blatantly "political". Climate change is, the regulatory quango admitted, a subject of fierce public controversy. However, there was a "broad level of consensus across the major political parties" on the issue. Therefore it wasn't party political. Presumably that would make other subjects on which there is cross-party consensus - such as as British membership of the EU - "non-political" as well. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Nick Clegg's school report

It is plainly absurd for the Mail on Sunday to accuse Nick Clegg of hypocrisy for wanting to send his eldest son to one of the country's top-performing Catholic schools, on the grounds of his own atheism and his party's long-standing opposition to "faith" schools. For one thing, his wife is a practising Catholic and she has at least as much right to choose a school for her children as he does. For another, it would seem an unreasonable expectation to lay on any parent, that they should deliberately choose to send their child to a bad school where a good one is available.

One may perhaps question why he is so keen for his children to be indoctrinated with ideas that (one assumes) he considers to be nonsense. This is not exactly "hypocrisy" - after all, it would not be the first time his views on "faith" have been revealed to be decidedly ambivalent. All three children already attend Catholic primary schools, and he has said quite clearly - in the same 2007 interview in which he denied the existence of God - that he was "committed" to bringing up his children in his wife's faith. He has even been seen in church. But it is a sign of the genuflection towards faith that even avowed atheists in public life feel they must adopt if they are to maintain a quiet life. "I'm an atheist - but don't worry, I have enormous admiration and respect for faith." It rarely seems to flow in the other direction. Even in a society usually held up as an example of extreme secularism, lack of belief is still something politicians feel they have to make apologies for.

The real problem, though, lies elsewhere. Like David Cameron, and Tony Blair before them, Nick Clegg is denying his children the private education that he enjoyed and could easily afford, for purely political reasons. For reasons I cannot entirely fathom (perhaps someone can explain it to me) this is a modern British phenomenon. Barack and Michelle Obama were able to send their daughters to an exclusive private school with almost no adverse comment whatever. Why should it be so different here?

The idea, presumably, is that by freeing up a place in a top-ranking state school for a poorer pupil who might actually benefit from it, the Cleggs (or the Camerons) would be demonstrating a lack of confidence in the state system. They would face even greater opprobrium, no doubt, if a member of their family went private for an operation. Logically, this is absurd. No-one expects politicians to live in council houses or rely exclusively on public transport. Their taxes would continue to pay for state schools and NHS hospitals even if they directly benefit from them. By not burdening the state education system, senior politicians could be seen to set an example to other better-off parents - at the same time as fulfilling every parent's instinct to do the best for their kids. It's less selfish, surely, than exploiting the systemn for maximum personal advantage while expecting the taxpayer to pick up the bill. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Tony Blair and the narrative of terror

I'm not Tony Blair's biggest fan, not by a long way, but he's not always wrong. Even when he's right, however, he invariably manages to draw the wrong conclusions.

His latest speech, delivered to a Washington foreign affairs think-tank that had just given him a prize as a "scholar-statesman" (like Gladstone, presumably, or the emperor Marcus Aurelius), concerned his favourite subject of what to do about the Terrorist Menace and the extreme Islamist politic-religious world-view which inspires many (but not all) of the terrorists. In some ways it was an impressive oration. He made some good points. Unfortunately, his fixation on "faith" as the answer to everything let him down yet again.

My solution to all this has always been to concentrate on foiling actual plots and let the ideology take care of itself. The fact that many Muslim-majority countries, and Muslim communities in the West, have become infected with paranoid, self-pitying and reactionary ideas based on a particular view of Islam and of history is inconvenient, but it is not really any of our business. Provided that they're not actually planning to blow anything up, if people want to think that "the West" has it in for Islam and that everything they don't like, from corrupt governments to female emancipation, is Our Fault - well, let them. It's a bizarre way of thinking, but then so is Scientology.

Blair, however, has long been convinced that arguing against this ideology - whether held by terrorists, proto-terrorists, terrorist sympathisers or "non-violent Islamists" - is the best and only way of defeating terrorism. "I do not think it is possible to defeat the extremism without defeating the narrative that nurtures it," he says. In making this case, he does put a finger on what is wrong with the rival view (associated with people such as the ex-spy Alastair Crooke and many in the British foreign office) that the strategy towards "non-violent extremism" should be one of appeasement, accommodation, even tacit support. He says:

The irony is that the many Muslims who believe passionately in co-existence and tolerance, are not empowered but frequently disempowered by our refusal to confront the narrative. We think if we sympathise with the narrative – that essentially this extremism has arisen as a result, partly, of our actions, we meet it half way, we help the modernisers to be more persuasive. We don’t. We indulge it and we weaken them. Worse, a reaction springs up amongst our people that we are pandering to this narrative and they start to resent Muslims as a whole. This is because implicit in this indulgence is an acceptance of the argument that Islam and, for want of a better term, ‘The West’ are in conflict.

This is, of course, true. The problem, though, is not merely that Blair's own actions - invading Iraq, most notably - have done more to reinforce "the narrative" than any number of anti-imperialist pamphlets by self-hating Western intellectuals could ever do. It's that his own solution - "confronting the narrative head on, forming an alliance across the faiths and across the divides of culture and civilisation" - tends to end up looking remarkably like the strategy of appeasement he claims to disapprove.

Partly, that is because the very process of engaging constructively with another point of view entails accepting the validity of at least some of its analysis. Blair speaks warmly of Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, which he calls a "brilliant template" for the dialogue he supports. But the president's platitude-laden speech was in many ways ill-judged, indeed dangerous. In an effort to stroke his audience's collective ego, he made a number of bizarre historical claims (for example, that Muslims invented printing and discovered the magnetic compass) and, more seriously, betrayed the very principles he claims to represent. He boasted about the right of women in the United States to wear the hijab while saying nothing about the forced veiling of women in Iran, Saudi Arabia or (under Western noses) Afghanistan and southern Iraq. He confused (as Blair often does) the religion of Islam with the totality of life in Muslim countries and among Muslim communities - something much to the liking of conservative (and even "moderate") Sharia scholars, no doubt, but also patronising and damaging to the lives and aspirations of millions of people who, while Muslim, are not obsessed with their religion. We have long since ceased talking of Europe and America as "the Christian world"; while to describe China, Japan and Korea as "the Confucian world" would be just plain silly. So why not forget about "the Muslim world" as well?

Worst of all, Obama was unable to follow up his warm words with any radical change in US foreign policy (how could he?) with the result that many who applauded him in 2009 are now feeling short-changed. The speech achieved a rare double effect, confirming many at home in their suspicion of him as an appeaser while reinforcing the "narrative" that Western leaders (even the initially different-looking Obama) are hypocritical and speak with forked tongue. The president might as well have punched himself in both eyes.

But that's what inevitably happens when Western politicians blunder into the mental landscape of Islamists, whose nuances - and even basic principles - necessarily elude them. Blair himself yesterday mentioned the recent example of Pastor Jones and his (abandoned) Koran-burning stunt. He wondered why

condemnation was necessary (and, by the way, it was necessary). Suppose an Imam, with thirty followers, in Karachi was to burn a bible. I can barely imagine a murmur of protest. It wouldn’t be necessary for the President of Pakistan to condemn it because no one here would remotely consider he supported it.

The point Blair misses, of course, is that official condemnation of Pastor Jones and his aborted bonfire, far from being necessary, merely drew attention to the Florida fundamentalist and turned what would probably have gone ignored into a global media event, a trial of strength between one man and the government of the world's only superpower - not to mention a demonstration of Western "tolerance" in action. Once General Petraeus and the White House had alerted the world to the supposed danger of mass protests, it became necessary to stop the event. Several Korans were burnt publicly on September 11th this year, in fact - including one in England. Yet these incidents were overlooked, by governments, by the media - and, most significantly perhaps, by the violent protesters who did not materialise.

For Tony Blair, confronting extremist ideology has usually entailed lecturing Muslims (and others) about "the true nature of Islam", a hazy, rosy-tinted vision based on a reading of the Koran as selective as that of any Islamist ideologue and on cultivating the company of "moderate" scholars whose worldview (like the worldview of any religious leaders or, for that matter, of Tony Blair) is premised on an absurdly inflated view of the importance of religion. Ultimately, these questions are political, not religious and will not be resolved by politicians doing God. Once upon a time, Blair seemed to understand this - or, at any rate, Alastair Campbell did.

He's on a hiding to nothing here, as he must at some level realise. He admits, for example, that while "the practitioners of extremism are small in number, [t]he adherents of the narrative stretch far broader into parts of mainstream thinking." He says:

It is a narrative that now has vast numbers of assembled websites, blogs and organisations. Of course many of those that agree with it abhor the terrorism. But as the support across the Middle East for the Muslim Brotherhood shows, far too many buy into far too much of the analysis of the extremists, if not their methodology.

But if only a small number support terrorism (and an even smaller number actually become terrorists) while the vast majority of those who accept the "analysis" of the extremists (presumably he's thinking of people like Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Ken Livingstone's old friend) are content just to think badly of the West - well, why is this Tony Blair's problem? Or ours? The problem of rare, religiously motivated murders of abortionists is not to be answered by tackling head-on the "analysis" of the religious organisation to which Tony Blair belongs. An ideology or religious belief should be discussed, dismissed or argued with on its own terms, not on the basis of what a few isolated nutters then do with it. Terrorists may share the analysis of more mainstream Muslim haters of the West, but that is not what makes them terrorists. If it were, then there would be many millions of suicide bombers, and Al Qaeda spectaculars such as 9/11 would be of daily occurrence. I would go further. If Blair is right about the importance of ideology, we should perhaps be asking what it is about Islamist extremism that discourages its adherents from strapping bombs to themselves. I'd say that was the real mystery.

In any case, in his self-chosen battle against Islamism, Tony Blair has a serious problem. He knows what it is, but can only bring himself to hint at the source of the trouble. Here's what he said:

Finally, we should wake up to the absurdity of our surprise at the prevalence of this extremism. Look at the funds it receives. Examine the education systems that succour it. And then measure, over the years, the paucity of our counter-attack in the name of peaceful co-existence. We have been outspent, outmanoeuvred and out-strategised.

By whom have we been "outspent, outmanoeuvred and out-strategised"? Where does most of the money he speaks of come from? Saudi Arabia, perhaps? He doesn't say. I wonder why not.

[On that last point, see also this first-rate analysis by Richard Wilson]
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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Why I called Virginia Ironside a Eugenicist on live TV

This is a guest post by Clair Lewis

I don't have a secular or religious opinion on abortion itself, believing it to be a personal issue for people to consider themselves. I do, however, have a big problem with pro-life and pro-choice campaigners using emotive disability related arguments to validate their point of view. I also have a problem with women's rights being misused as a platform from which to spread hatred and prejudice against disabled people or advocate murdering us.

I was therefore delighted to be asked to participate via webcam in a discussion about abortion with the Rev Joanna Jepson and Virginia Ironside on Sunday for the Sunday Morning Live show on BBC1 . (On the iPlayer here. You'll find the disability related part of the show at 20:30 mins.)

I described it as outrageous for Virginia to suggest killing is the answer to the hatred and suffering disadvantaged children face (disabled and not). In response, she went on to describe how she'd be the first to put the pillow over the face of a child who is 'suffering. Then she claimed this is what any loving mother would do, seemingly certain that this is a perfectly acceptable and typical parental response.

Ironside's shocking claim has been widely condemned, but she has her defenders, too.

Suffering is a very subjective concept, as I have outlined in detail here before. I wonder if Virginia Ironside has any disabled people in her family or neighbourhood who she might be a risk to. Her attitude is not only deeply worrying, but quite dangerous as disability something she WILL come across at some point in life.

It is fascism masquerading as equality politics when we try to pass off disability discrimination and prejudice like this as feminism. The welfare of women and disabled people are not opposed and this is not a competition for a limited quantity of equality and rights. It is misuse of the platform of women's rights and insulting to twist debates about our right to choose whether to be pregnant, or not, into opportunities to peddle a moral obligation to kill disabled infants. It is a distortion and conflation of two separate issues.

Yet women’s rights and secular prejudice has become a stick to beat anyone who opposes this sort of eugenics. This leaves me as one of few disability rights activists who will publicly speak against it. I am then labelled pro life and religious, despite being neither! This is becoming so normal these days I am beginning to feel like an honorary believer.

The problem that other points of view are virtually unheard in these important debates about disabled people’s lives. Even if it kills me, before my life is over, I vow to break the back of that problem, to get a wider variety of perspectives out there.

Why is an anti eugenic standpoint not anti choice? Simple.

The right to choose is about choosing whether to parent, not who to parent: the first is our right (within legal limits), the second is legalised eugenics. Women's right to choose expires at 24 weeks under current UK law. Unless there is grave risk to the mother's life, rape or disability as a factor, in which case later term abortions may be permitted. I am unsure why these three are thrown together, but my own experience and comment is on the disability equality issue only, the bottom line of which is probably explained best here.

There was not time to discuss on Sunday’s BBC show how almost all abortions of 'defective' pregnancies happen after 24 weeks - the date by which women must have made the choice of whether to stay pregnant. This means women, most of whom had already chosen to stay pregnant, then have to make a choice about whether to terminate their pregnancy because it is offered as standard. I believe people make those decisions under threatening medical and social/economic pressure that is almost completely one sided and unfair.

Termination is the only the only ‘fix’ on offer, or we are told to expect a life of suffering for our child and our family. There is no real choice whereby we can rely on a decent life for our child, or our families - even though in almost all cases this is fully possible. I think parents deserve fairer choices than this and deserve more balanced information.

Trying to pass off eugenics as a women’s right wrongly implicates women as responsible for the neglect of disabled people in society by making them responsible for ‘the fix’. Arguably, and ironically, the opposite is true - it’s mostly women who take care of us, whatever age we are.

Is extermination necessary and a suitable fix for a suffering infant or anyone else in their family? Suffering is around us, but in this rich pleasant land in most cases, it is not necessary and viewpoints such as Ironside's excuse, facilitate and fuel neglect and abuse instead of addressing the social problems faced by all disadvantaged people. She is excusing discriminatory policy, wrongly blaming women for eugenics, wrongly implying that women's equal rights cannot be had at the same time as disabled people's equal rights, as if these ideas are directly opposed when really those rights go hand in hand. To offer all disabled children a chance of a decent life is to offer their mother and the rest of their family a decent life too.

Disabled people, of all backgrounds and 'severities of impairment' have been fighting for our equal human rights for decades (alongside many of our parents). We are watching our equal right to exist, as promised in the Human Rights Act, being further and further eroded. It's become normal to talk of killing disabled people at any age as if is in some way helpful to us, necessary for our family, or best for the state. It's horrible for us, and very personal.

In some ways it’s easier to fight when someone is as explicit as Virginia Ironside. After all, is there really that much difference between a late term abortion and smothering an infant, apart from having someone else do the dirty work? This is why in her reply to me she smiled smugly and said she was happy with the current abortion laws. Of course she is – we’ve now effectively got a whole population screening program giving her what she wants without the need for pillows.

What Ironside and the state are promoting is eugenics. But nobody uses that word any more: advocating for killing disabled people is just normal these days.. for disabled people's own good, even (!).. but once we accept the idea that targeting any specific group of people for killing or pre-birth extermination, we are approving eugenics. This is outright discrimination while we have a law which states that only impaired infants may be terminated after 24 weeks.

I don't see this as much different to advocating for euthanasia - these ideas are based on the same principle, that some lives are unworthy, unnecessary, disposable.. a problem for all around us, best killed. I don't know when is the best date to allow abortions until, but I do think the law should be equal for all. If it's banned, ban for all. If it's ok any time, then make it any time for all. Current law is abortion rights are cut off at 24 weeks, so it should be 24 weeks whoever the entity concerned will turn out to be.

Why is it acceptable in 2010 with all the legal protection we (appear) to have to still spread hatred and advocate murder of disabled people, in the name of feminism.. in the name of women's rights.. in the name of economics.. or in the name of kindness and salvation?

I have never heard of a women's campaign for eugenics... I believe these beliefs are handed down to the UK populace from government, who have been pushed by eugenic scientists, relying on political issue-based ignorance and false economic strategy to push though what is essentially a fascist policy that some scientists (social, medical and otherwise) have been trying to set in our culture since the Victorian era - the most successful (in their terms) examples were the Nazi programs of extermination. Most modern British eugenicists have a more slick approach and I kind of admire Virginia Ironside for her honesty.

This country has the only free, universal prenatal screening and termination program anywhere, so the notion of killing those of us who are impaired to prevent us from bringing suffering to our families is now a social norm - acceptable to do, acceptable to talk about and now campaign for more of – you know, being allowed to kill our own family members and things like that.

Killing people is still illegal, by the way.. and those of us with impairments are people too.

Ironside is utterly wrong that killing a child we love is what any good mother would do. In most situations, in reality (not intellectual debate), what good parents, a good people do is fight for our children, our loved ones, to have the best lives possible, whatever our circumstances. Yes, even us lower class plebs.

It's human nature.

Adapted from a piece which first appeared on Clair's LiveJournal blog here.
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