Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Rhetoric and reality on Climate Change

Sitting here shivering at the end of the coldest late November in living memory (well, in this living memory at any rate) it's somewhat surreal to contemplate the assembled panjandrams of the climate alarmism industry sunning themselves in Cancun while delivering apocalyptic pronouncements of the doom that will befall us should a sufficiently draconian regime of carbon control be imposed upon the world. "Global warming? Yes please, I'd like some of that here" sums up, I'm afraid, my present mood.

Of course, we should not expect signs of apparent cooling in some places (or even a "slowing of the rate of warming" globally) to disrupt the accumulated science. Evidence is rarely definitive, and the warmists can always fall back on their theories (as Einstein once said about an observational test of Relativity, if the experiment did not confirm his theory then so bad for the experiment). Data can always be reinterpreted to fit in. And whatever scepticism may exist among sections of the public, most governments - and ours more than most - accept the consensus that the earth's climate is getting warmer, largely as a result of human activity. But still, it's hard to escape the sense that much of the urgency has gone out of the debate. No-one really expects a breakthrough at Cancun.

So where does this leave the advocates of action to forestall global warming? In a state of desperation; for while they have (for now, perhaps for ever) won the scientific battle, the gap between what they see as essential and what is likely to happen is steadily widening. Whatever targets may be agreed by conferences, the world's carbon emissions keep on increasing. It doesn't really matter how many eco-lightbulbs we put in our European homes if China and India keep pumping out the carbon, as of course they will. The most sensible response would be to accept defeat and begin planning to mitigate the effects of global warming when it occurs. The trouble is that neither the scientific establishment nor the political process is yet in a psychological place where they would be able to admit their limitations. Instead they dream their pipe-dreams.

The Royal Society has just published a strikingly downbeat paper by Professor Kevin Anderson (Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research) and Alice Bows of Manchester University which reveals a lot about the warmist scientists' current mood of existential pessimism. It begins by noting the Copenhagen commitment to keep the global temperature rise below 2° Celsius. The Canute-like confidence with which the EU and the British government believe that they can bend the planet to their will is indeed unintentionally hilarious.

The EU maintains it ‘must adopt the necessary domestic measures … to ensure that global average temperature increases do not exceed preindustrial levels by more than 2°C’. Within the UK, the language of many Government statements suggests, if not a zero probability of exceeding 2°C, at least a very low one. For example, in July 2009, the UK Government published its UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, in which it stated explicitly that ‘to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change, average global temperatures must rise no more than 2°C’. The previous Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, subsequently reiterated this commitment, stating ‘we should limit climate change to a maximum of two degrees’

Anderson and Bows assert, however, not only that the mechanisms now being adopted will fail to achieve this, (they dryly refer to what they term the "pivotal disjuncture between high level aspirations and the policy reality") but also that even such a limited temperature rise would have more seriously disruptive consequences than often envisaged. Most of the paper is taken up with a detailed analysis of how most projections of future temperature rise have failed to take full account of the impact of the accelerating development of China, India, Brazil and other such countries. Anderson and Bows substitute their own, more alarming, projections.

They might, of course, be wrong; time alone will tell. The accuracy or otherwise of their predictions, however, is of no consequence politically: all that matters is whether or not they are believed and whether or not their conclusions are acted upon. The two are by no means the same. Even in countries like the UK where policy is directly informed by the views of climate change scientists Anderson and Bows claim that "the scale of current emissions and their relationship to the cumulative nature of the issue is not adequately understood." But a bit later the authors imply that perhaps it is understood after all.

Put bluntly, while the rhetoric of policy is to reduce emissions in line with avoiding dangerous climate change, most policy advice is to accept a high probability of extremely dangerous climate change rather than propose radical and immediate emission reductions.

Policy makers tacitly concede, write the authors, that "avoiding dangerous (and even extremely dangerous) climate change is no longer compatible with economic prosperity." Governments and their adivisers are interested in what is "feasible", not what would actually solve the problem of climate change. I find this reassuring. The starting point for any new global scheme ought to be an acknowledgement that (if the science is true) it will simply not be possible to limit temperature increase to under 2°C, and we had just better get used to it.

But the authors of this paper cannot bear so much reality. Anderson is reported in the Telegraph as calling for economic stagnation to be imposed on Western countries for a twenty-year period (the paper refers only to "planned austerity") and even for World War II style food and energy rationing to be imposed.

You only have to spell it out to realise that it's not going to happen. We don't, fortunately, live in the kind of centrally-planned, authoritarian state that would be necessary to impose such drastic disciplines. The present government's economic strategy, moreover, is utterly dependent on achieving growth - not to mention its chances of achieving re-election. Imposing a policy of economic suicide on Britain, or even on the whole of Europe, would in any case have very little impact: the developing countries will continue developing whatever we do.

The policy-planners are aware that emissions targets and the like are largely symbolic, even if the economic damage they will do is far greater than any benefits they may bring. They are not actually stupid. They have calculated that the appearance of action on climate change is important for its own sake - rather in the way that medieval kings spent the taxes they extorted from their subjects on building cathedrals or going on crusade. This is gesture politics; the futility of the gesture does not make it any less virtuous. The aim is not to prevent catastrophic global warming, which will happen or not happen in its own good time (and beyond the electoral cycle) and which humanity will cope with, as it has always coped with climatic change. It will bring as many benefits as harms. Rather, the aim is to be seen to be doing something, so that the eventual blame attaches to someone else.

And if the planet doesn't overheat, so much the better. It will vindicate the policies, just as a rainstorm vindicates the shaman's dance.
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Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Blair/Hitch verdict

The debate in Toronto between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on the question of whether or not religion is a Good Thing (transcript here) was more eagerly awaited than many heavyweight boxing contests. In the event, it lacked the baroque rhetorical flyting that marked the earlier, insult-laden encounter between Hitchens and George Galloway. Hitch was the more colourful speaker, needless to say, and he prevailed. Not only was the motion defeated (though a closer analysis of the voting suggests that the initially undecided split fairly evenly between the two) but his arguments sounded more forceful and compelling. But then he has been schooled by a lifetime of journalistic controversialism, while Blair's political success was based on a remarkable ability to agree with several opposing viewpoints simultaneously. Hitchens has never done warm words, and wasn't about to start now.

Still, I want to concentrate on Blair's contribution, which in some ways was the more interesting. His points weren't in any sense new, of course (in this debate, there are no new points) but the humble and apologetic tone in which he expressed his belief that religion did, sometimes, make the world a better place - at least, some religious people did - was striking. It might almost be said to have done Hitchens' job for him.

Greta Christina has made an astute point that religious speakers in debates like this often seem to be seeking atheists' approval.

Typically, these believers acknowledge that many religions are profoundly troubling. They share atheists' revulsion against religious hatreds and sectarian wars. They share our repugnance with religious fraud, the charlatans who abuse people's trust to swindle them out of money and sex and more. They share our disgust with willful religious ignorance, the flat denials of overwhelming scientific evidence that contradicts people's beliefs. They can totally see why many atheists are so incredulous, even outraged, about the world of religion.

But they think their religion is an exception.... And they want atheists to agree.

Christina offers two explanations for this phenomenon: that theists believe at some level that atheists - of the humanist variety - have higher (or at any rate more conscientious) moral standards than believers; and secondly that getting the atheist "stamp of approval" will help them to differentiate themselves, in their own mind, from the bad believers, the suicide bombers, the oppressors of women, the creationists... Obviously, she's talking about liberal believers who, God aside, share most of their outlook with humanists anyway. She's not talking about fundamentalists, who don't care what atheists think of them because the atheists will be going to Hell. She's talking about what might be called religious humanists, or Anglicans (of all religions), or Karen Armstrong-style fudge merchants. She could easily be talking about Tony Blair. Indeed, though it wasn't written in response to the Toronto debate, her article is a remarkably good summation of its general atmosphere.

To begin with, the former PM readily admits - how could he not? - that while he would like religion to be part of the solution, it's a big part of the problem:

Therefore, what I would say is I actually think that yes of course a lot of these conflicts have religious roots, I actually think it's possible for religious leaders to play a positive part in trying to resolve those, but in the end, it's for politics and religion to try and work out a way in which religion, in a world of globalisation that is pushing people together, can play a positive rather than negative role, and if we concentrated on that, rather than trying to drive religion out, which is futile, to concentrate instead on how we actually get people of different faiths working together, learning from each other and living with each other, I think it would be a more productive mission.

This, of course, is what his Faith Foundation is meant to be all about. Blair's position is a pragmatic one, as befits a politician:

I'm not claiming that everyone should congregate on my space, I'm simply claiming one very simple thing, that if we can't drive religion out of the world because many people of faith believe it and believe it very deeply, let's at least see how we do make religion a force for good, how we do encourage those people of faith who are trying to do good, and how we unite those against those who want to pervert religion and turn it into a badge of identity used in opposition to others.

Which is far enough as far as it goes (which is a long way towards accepting the atheist criticism, of course - see Greta Christina above). I'm sure he didn't mean to imply that it would be better for all concerned if we COULD drive religion out of the world, and that persuading members of the different religions to get along was making the best of a bad job. Still, these admissions presented Hitchens with something of an open goal:

It's very touching for Tony to say that he recently went to a meeting to bridge the religious divide in Northern Ireland, but where does the religious divide come from?

In one sense Blair's contention is unarguable. Given that there are going to be many religious people, it is better that they should do good in the name of religion than do evil. And yes, of course, there are many selfless humanitarians who are motivated - or at any rate who believe that they are motivated - by a religious faith. A moral purist might object that it is better to do good for its own sake, rather than from a belief that God will reward the do-gooder, or that doing good is carrying out a divine command. But for the beneficiary of the good work, that scarcely matters. What matters is that someone is doing a good thing.

In making the argument for faith, Blair didn't make the argument for any particular religion. He was careful to praise the example of various religious figures, such as Jesus or Mohammed, but when he spoke of what was good in religion, he stressed compassion, altruism - not only something found in the teachings of almost every religion but the very thing that religious believers share with humanists. The quintessential thing about religion, he suggested, was not unique to religion at all. The most he could claim was that religious believers might be more likely than non-believers to devote their lives to such a cause.

It's a good dodge, but it doesn't strike at the root of the problem that Blair readily admitted when he discussed the problem of scripture. The "single most difficult argument" to counter, he said, was that "the bad that is done in the name of religion is intrinsically grounded in the scripture of religion." His answer seemed to be that scripture should be reinterpreted in the light of the modern world. And of course that is what "progressive" religious types have always done. So that when the Bible says that homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord or that children who answer their parents back should be stoned to death, or the Koran says that Muslims have a duty to make war on unbelievers, or whatever, the correct response is to say that we must interpret the scripture in a more "sophisticated" manner, until what it "really means" is almost the precise opposite of what it appears to say.

In other words, you should pick and choose the bits you like and ignore the rest. Which is fair enough, if you don't then continue to claim that the scripture is inspired by God, or even the direct Word of God. Some religious teachers do make such an admission. Most, though, try to have things both ways.

The problem here goes beyond religious texts. Put simply, the bits of religion that cause the problem - the tribalism, the archaic attitudes towards sex and the position of women, the cruel attributes of God - are precisely what makes each religion distinctive, that anchor every faith in a particularity and definiteness. Not to mention the doctrines: God chose the Jews, God disapproves of condoms (at least He did until last week), God comes in Three Persons (no he doesn't: there is No God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet)... Whereas the bits that Tony Blair wants to stress, the things that every religion shares with every other - the altruism and so on - are common also to humanism. They aren't really "religion" at all, however many believers do good things in religion's name.

As far as I can see, this is insoluble. Religion, like the IRA, isn't going to go away, which is why Blair's modest project of encouraging different religious people to work together for unobjectionable good ends is about the best we can hope for. But it will never be fully realised, because if it were the differences between the various religions would evaporate - and if that happened, then religion itself would disappear to be replaced by a more-or-less spiritualised humanism. In which case, religion would lose its purchase on the human imagination, which comes from the myths, doctrines and scriptural teachings that make every religion distinct and dangerous. Result: less religiously-inspired humanitarianism, which would probably just mean LESS humanitarianism. Oh yes it would.

Blair wants to say - spends much of his life saying, in fact - that the "true" essence of religion lies in compassion and observance of the Golden Rule (a biological phenomen also known as reciprocal altruism) while religiously motivated war and intolerance is a perversion of its inner spirit. But religion isn't just about being generally nice and loving one's neighbour. It's also about the claim that particular beliefs are true, and (just as importantly) about other beliefs not being true. What dooms any universalist project is that religious beliefs make little sense in the absence of contrary ideas. Even when Europe was almost entirely Christian there were heretics, Jews and Muslim Infidels to oppose; later Catholics and Protestants had each other to despise. Further afield, Hindus and Muslims squared up (the Sikh gurus' largely unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the two notwithstanding) and there have always been lots of different sorts of Buddhist. Although, to be fair, Buddhists don't waste too much of their time hating one another.

Everyone agrees - well, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens agree - that religious strife is a Bad Thing. They only disagree about whether or not it represents the true nature of religion, or whether the altruistic, compassionate dimension is the fundamental one. It's not so simple. There is an energy that propels religion, that turns some people into saints of compassion and others into suicide bombers; and it's the same energy in both cases. You can't have one without the other. It's not just wrong, it's wicked, to pretend otherwise.
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Thursday, 25 November 2010

A new sort of field trip

Newspapers such as the Mail and the Telegraph have been delighted to discover the existence of a new threat to public order in Britain. Schoolgirls. And why not? It gives the Telegraph an excuse to adorn their cover with photos of teenage girls - without even any exam-results to celebrate - while the Mail can decry the "disturbing" emergence of a new breed of activist ladettes. Not to mention the "truanting schoolgirls who were there for the excitement rather than to cause mayhem then swarmed around the van and posed for photographs taken on friends’ cameras and iPhones."

But were they necessarily truanting anyway? Paul Sagar writes on LibCon about yesterday's demonstration against student fee increases in Cambridge:

At least a thousand people attended the march, and a considerable number of them were from local sixth form colleges protesting against the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance.

Most of the rest were students at Cambridge University. There were also a handful of lecturers in attendance. And best of all, school children in uniform with their teachers.

With their teachers? This is term-time. On what basis did teachers take children out of the classroom to attend a political rally - in the process, I might add, exposing them to possible police heavy-handedness? Were their parents consulted? Were the usually rigorous health-and-safety assessments gone through? Was this sanctioned by the schools? Or did some teachers just take it upon themselves to ask class if they'd like to skip double-maths and spend the afternoon shouting anarchist slogans?

And what happened to any children who didn't want to join the protest?

This is rather mysterious. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Gay Catholic theologian spills beans

Spiegel has an eyebrow-raising interview with David Berger, a former high-flying Catholic priest and theologian who quit earlier this year after coming out as gay. He claims, among much else that "a large proportion of the Catholic clerics and trainee priests in Europe and the United States are homosexual." The main emphasis, though, is on the German church that nurtured Joseph Ratzinger. He depicts a perfumed, rarefied world in which closet cases give career leg-ups to similarly-inclined younger colleagues who don't rock the boat while aristocratic Nazi sympathisers meet up in grand houses to theorise about how Jews, freemasons and homosexuals are taking over the world:

These groups are very careful about who they invite. They meet in very high-class venues, sometimes in former aristocratic residences or in luxury hotels. Old men smoke fat cigars, drink expensive red wine and eat well. It is a parallel world whose inhabitants seek to defy the modern world....

For many years, there were "gentlemen's evenings" in Düsseldorf that were organized by a tax consultant. They increasingly became a focal point for a right-wing Catholic network. At one of the meetings, which were regularly visited by senior clerics, the man sitting next to me, a retired university professor, was railing against gay parades...

According to Berger, developments such as the rehabilitation of the Society of St Pius X (including the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson) show the rising influence of such reactionary groups, and that "views that used to be exchanged discreetly at gentlemen's evenings or in the editorial conferences of newspapers and magazines have now been declared part of the official doctrine of the Catholic Church by leading clerics." In that context, it's interesting to note the consternation the Pope's recent softening of the anti-condom line has caused among arch-conservatives (though not, for once, Damian Thompson). They perceive, perhaps, that even the smallest crack in the absolutist facade of Catholic doctrine might provide an opening through which the modern world can squeeze in.

Berger thinks that "many gays are attracted by the clear hierarchies of the male world of Catholic rituals" and discusses the strange phenomenon (found also among some Ango-Catholics) of clerics giving each other female nicknames. All this is tolerated, even tacitly encouraged, so long as celibacy (or at least the illusion of celibacy) is maintained. Indeed, he maintains that "the fact that many prelates had homosexual tendencies is certain to have made them more ready to help me get positions" - something evidenced by "unmistakable looks, hugs, stroking of my upper arms and excessively long handshakes".

"The fiercest homophobia in the Catholic Church," he believes, "comes from homophile clerics who desperately suppress their own sexuality."

For Berger, the dream of "leaf gold and Brussels Bobbin lace" eventually turned into a nightmare. He's now a high school teacher. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 22 November 2010

Of Tweets and pat-downs

In an act of remarkable generosity, Paul Chambers has decided to give the English legal system yet another opportunity to demonstrate that it can tell the difference between a joke (or an off-the-cuff expression of exasperation) and a terrorist threat. The High Court will now decide on whether the law really is the ass that Judge Jacqueline Davies interpreted it to be, or whether she was the ass. As I write, donations towards the Chambers fighting fund (around £10,000 needed for the appeal) are pouring in as Spartacus dips into his wallet. There's even talk of a benefit gig. There hasn't been anything like it since the Atheist Bus Campaign. Paul also has high-profile support from the likes of Stephen Fry, Nick Cohen and John Kampfner. The Twitter Joke Trial, in short, is now a cause celebre.

Whether the strong support Paul Chambers enjoys will have any impact on the High Court's decision is a moot point. The court won't want to be seen to be caving into public pressure. On the other hand, the disrepute into which this case has brought the law is not healthy. Public confidence in the legal process matters - as the Court recognised today by throwing out the Home Office's attempt to have evidence at the 7/7 inquiry heard in secret. In an area as politically sensitive as the terrorist threat and the official response to it, it is especially dangerous for the law to be seen as clumsily authoritarian, misdirected or a laughing stock. What happened to Paul Chambers both chills and invites ridicule.

I suspect - I certainly hope - that the police and the CPS realise that they handled the Chambers case very badly, even if they did succeed in obtaining a conviction. This was a Pyrrhic victory. In future, they may be more cautious in wasting resources on pursuing cases like this. That won't be of any help to Paul himself, though. And against the plain fact of his innocence (it cannot be repeated often enough that no-one took the "threat" seriously) must be set the strict reading of the law which convicted him, according to which a communication can be "menacing" even if no-one was in fact menaced by it. This enabled Judge Davies to invoke a fictional elderly couple who were at one and the same time technically avant-garde enough to trawl the Twitter archives for references to an airport and unworldly enough to imagine that terrorists used the service as a handy way of advertising their bomb-plots. Bizarre, but not necessarily not the law. We shall see.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic the backlash against the TSA's draconian security checks is gathering force. For days now, the newswires and the airwaves have been filling up with stories - some dating back months, or even years - of traumatised rape victims, children and a cancer patient with prosthetic breasts being subjected to degrading and intrusive "pat-downs" by airport security staff. There have been examples of individual activism, like the internet porn-star who embarrassed staff by insisting on being examined while wearing see-through underwear. Mass protests are being orchestrated later this week. In response, TSA officials have been going through all the stages of bureaucratic response - first stonewalling, then attempted explanations, then half-hearted apologies and promises to listen, and finally (though not yet) humiliating climbdown. This being America, it will no doubt end with the payment of millions of dollars in compensation to aggrieved passengers.

For the TSA, organised resistance of this type is the ultimate nightmare. Maintenance of security theatre is more about psychology than crime-prevention, and is entirely dependent on public co-operation; on the public accepting the necessity of apotropaic rituals to ward off the terrorist threat. Submitting to a pat-down or a full-body scan, however unwelcome, is for most people preferable to the alternative, which is to be unable to travel by plane. And if one or two people resist, the security industry can shrug its shoulders and carry on. But if thousands resist, then the transport system falls into chaos and the security procedures become unworkable.

It's interesting to note how Americans - subjected to even more War on Terror alarmism than the British - should finally have begun to fight back when the security measures intrude on their personal space. The language used by the TSA's opponents has been heavily, and increasingly, sexualised. Pat-downs have been described as indecent assaults, the body-scans as pornography; the touching of genital areas and women's breasts is emphasised; while particular horror is felt when children are involved. Indeed, this month's campaign was sparked by a viral campaign sparked by a recusant passenger who adopted the slogan "Don't touch my junk". All this is understandable, but also deeply revealing.

Over here there has, as yet, been no such resistance. Rather, the indignities and delays occasioned by airport security elicit a combination of grumbling, eye-rolling (as yet another granny has to take her shoes off, just in case she's walking on semtex) and Stoical acknowledgement that they wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't necessary. There have been critics - such as Michael O'Leary - but the complaints have had little public purchase. There has certainly been nothing like the heartfelt indignation at the absurd conviction of Paul Chambers.

In Britain, we don't mind being felt up by strangers. But we'll fight for our right to make jokes.
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Sunday, 21 November 2010

Has the pope really gone soft on condoms?

Two big stories this morning: the Pope apparently endorsing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and Ed Balls telling Andrew Marr that New Labour might have gone a bit far in its attack on civil liberties. I'm looking forward to Carter-Ruck issuing a denunciation of super-injunctions, Tony Blair handing himself in for war crimes and the International Panel on Climate Change predicting an imminent freezing-over of Hell. Or even, as Zeno offers on Twitter, scientists discovering that homeopathy actually works.

Anyway, the Pope - quoted in pre-publicity for a forthcoming biography - seems to have created the biggest stir. What he said was fairly modest and tentative - merely that "there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization." He wasn't actually advocating condom-use even in these circumstances. The interview doesn't mean that "the Pontiff has ended the Church’s absolute ban on the use of condoms" as Jonathan Wynne-Jones has it in the Telegraph. But still, the Pope - and not just any Pope, but Ratzinger - saying something sensible about condoms is undoubtedly big news. If only in the sense that Man Bites Dog is big news.

Some of the media excitement undoubtedly comes down to a rather simplistic misunderstanding of the Vatican's position on condoms. The assumption seems to be that the Pope objects to condoms as such; in fact, the objection is to what they do, which is to prevent conception. It may or may not be the primary intention (that depends) but in heterosexual couplings it is at the very least a side-effect of condom use that the act is not "open" to the transmission of life. For the Catholic Church, that is what sex is all about; other things, such as reinforcing the love-bond between a couple, or pleasure, are secondary (and, in the case of pleasure, historically rather questionable). Gay sex, of course, isn't open to the transmission of life with or without a condom. Thus homosexuality is, effectively, already "sex-with-a-condom", whether or not condoms are actually being used.

The Pope appears to have been making a point about degrees of badness. He brought up the example of gay prostitution, which is presumably the worst thing he can conceive of, combining as it does the "intrinsic disorder" of homosexuality with the anti-human (as he would see it) squalor of commercial sex. But his argument would no doubt apply equally to other gay sexual situations where there is s significant risk of HIV transmission, such as cottaging. The most important consideration here is that the condom is not being used, even accidentally, as a method of contraception. The normal argument against condoms therefore doesn't apply. The homosexual act is not made worse by the presence of a condom. In those limited circumstances, however, the "responsibility" shown by the condom-wearer indicates that he has the first glimmerings of conscience. In the Pope's mind, condom-use may be the first stage on a journey of enlightenment that ends with him giving up the gayness altogether, finding a good Catholic virgin to marry and settling down to the morally virtuous production of ten or twelve children.

Janet Smith explains this with a rather striking analogy:

If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.

Because gay sex is just like bank-robbing.

So, no big revolution, then? I'm not so sure. Smith writes that "the Holy Father is not making a point about whether the use of a condom is contraceptive or even whether it reduces the evil of a homosexual sexual act" but merely "about the psychological state of some who might use condoms." Surely, though, his words imply that the transmission of HIV is a bad thing, and that preventing its spread is a good thing. The Pope does indeed appear to believe that protected gay sex, while still an evil, is a lesser evil than unprotected gay sex with an inherent risk of infection. This strikes me as being potentially revolutionary in three ways.

First of all, it admits the possibility of moral discrimination within gay sexual encounters; that by showing concern for one another the partners are acting in meritorious ways. It follows that homosexuality might be immoral but it is not amoral. It is an area in which virtues of responsibility, forethought, conscientiousness, putting another's interests before one's own immediate pleasure can be manifested. What other shades of discrimination might be teased out of this discovery? Perhaps the Pope (or his successor, or his successor's successor) might one day be able to proclaim the value of faithful, loving, stable relationships between same-sex partners. There's a long way to go, but this could come to be seen as the vital first step.

The second important element concerns the narrower question of condoms and HIV. The case of gay prostitution is fairly straightforward, since the benefit of disease-prevention doesn't have to be balanced against the "evil" of contraception. Nevertheless, by acknowledging that containing infection is a good in itself the Pope has already waved goodbye to moral absolutism. He will find it hard to argue that condoms are acceptable for gay sex but unacceptable for heterosexual encounters, even where there is a similar risk of disease. The Catholic doctrine may be that sexual acts must be "open to life"; but does that imply that they should also be open to death? Ratzinger may continue to insist that abstinence is the best policy. He now at least appears to be saying that the best need not be the enemy of the good.

The third point goes beyond both homosexuality and AIDS. Simply put, by allowing an element of nuance to override a rigid application of rules the Pope may be inching away from the old claim that his church embodies Absolute Truth towards a more flexible, even humble, attitude - an acknowledgement of the complexity of modern life and moral problems, of the possibility of shades of grey. In such a world, Popes - like anyone else seeking to give advice on moral or social questions - will have to argue their case from first principles, will have to appeal to facts more than to Holy Writ or abstract theological principles when seeking to persuade.

Of course, it's a very small beginning. Damian Thompson is right - for now - that "the core of Catholic teaching on contraception... remains intact". But Ratzinger has opened the door just a crack. Or perhaps he has taken a peek inside Pandora's Box. Who knows where it might lead?
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Thursday, 18 November 2010

Other times, other adverts

Thanks to Tania Glyde on Twitter for pointing me (and countless others) in the direction of a priceless collection of politically incorrect advertisements from (mostly) the Forties through to the Sixties - a world whose slow passing is hymned in Mad Men.

This should bring some pre-Yuletide cheer to the likes of Leg-Iron and Dick Puddlecote. I'm seriously considering using it as my Christmas card.

While I can think of a few people who might enjoy this:

And this is, well, just weird.

But take a look at them all.

Advertising can certainly provide an illuminating peek into the attitudes and assumptions of a former time, as well as affording us a warm glow of self-satisfaction. But it's lazy to assume that previous generations were simply blinkered and bigoted (or that we're not) and in any case at this distance it's not always clear who is the butt of the joke. An advert for morning-sickness pills bearing the strapline "Now she can cook breakfast again" is as much a comment on stereotypical male selfishness as an indulgence of it. And one claiming that a certain brand of cigarettes is recommended by doctors reflects a dawning awareness that smoking is, in fact, bad for one's health. These days, anyone taking their sociological data exclusively from advertising would probably conclude that men are uniformly clueless and incompetent and ethnic minorities, instead of being the racial stereotypes of yore, scarcely even exist.

What I can't see is any evidence that social progress was derailed as a result of advertising messages of this type. On the contrary, they look absurd today precisely because they had little or no role in shaping society. And it is modern manners, not the bureaucratic preciousness of an Advertising Standards Authority, that would prevent any company attempting to run similar campaigns today. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

How to pay for a wedding

It didn't take long for the royal engagement announcement to degenerate into a row about money. Inevitable, I suppose: at the best of times, there will be those who object to the expenditure of any money on the royal family, largely because they object to the royal family; and these are not, of course, the best of times. Yet someone has to pay the vast cost of the elaborate nuptials. The nation expects a big party, and will feel shortchanged if William and Kate opt for a semi-private, hole-in-the-wall affair. The rest of the world will look upon us as cheapskates if we can't give our future king and queen a send-off at least as lavish (if hopefully less vulgar) than that enjoyed recently by Katy Perry and Russell Brand.

Even at a time of harsh austerity - especially at a time of harsh austerity - national pride demands a proper Royal Wedding. It may be a less mawkishly sentimental affair than Charles and Di thirty years ago (though I wouldn't bet on it) and the couple involved may be, by royal standards, reasonably normal-seeming people (something of a miracle in William's case, given his parents); but what are the Windsors there for if not to look fairytale-like and fulfil people's vicarious fantasies? There must be horses and carriages; there must be music and fireworks; there must, regrettably, be massive security. And all this costs money, if not nearly as much as the Olympics.

So how to pay for it? I see no reason why the wedding could not be run at a profit. Perhaps giving Hello! magazine exclusive rights to the photos would be a tad vulgar, but there's no reason why the rights to broadcast the event could not be sold to the highest bidder. And yes, that would be Sky: so no Dimblebys, and out with the saccharine forelock-tugging deference the BBC always paradoxically exhibits on such occasions (paradoxically, because we all know what the Beeb is like the rest of the time). Prime seats on the processional route could be hired out to help defray the cost of policing. Then there are the souvenirs, sales of which are forecast to top £25 million in the UK alone. What a merchandising opportunity to die for! The image and the names of Wills and Kate must be trademarked forthwith, and a percentage extracted from every mug and coaster, every exquisite hand-crafted commemorative spoon.

There's as much, if not more, income to be gleaned from abroad as from Britain. Radio 4 reported this morning on the massive interest the House of Hanover Windsor still enjoys in its ancestral homeland. Well, good. Unlike anyone else in Europe, the Germans still have money. If they want to enjoy the show, they should at least help to pay for it. Ditto the Americans. As Jonathan Friedland notes, "in the US Britain remains more period drama than real country, a Ruritanian theme park that is forever charming and quaint." Such an image may be ridiculous and anachronistic (at least, I hope so), but at least it sells. Someone over there is going to make money marketing royal trinkets; it may as well be the royals. Kate and William already missed a trick yesterday by granting a free interview to the national media, but I'm sure Oprah would still be interested.

The papers are full of speculation today about the usual trivia: Who will make The Dress? Where will the happy couple go for their honeymoon? I say: let the market decide. Whichever fashion house is prepared to stump up the most dosh to have its name plastered all over the festivities should have the honour of designing the dress; and whichever country's tourist board offers the most attractive bribe should be granted the first matrimonial visit.

Really, the possibilities are endless. With a bit of imagination, this wedding could be a real money-spinner.
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Tuesday, 16 November 2010

FITwatch and Spartacus

According to the Metropolitan Police, the authors of the activist website FITwatch are guilty of a serious criminal offence. So serious, in fact, that they felt able to demand, not just that the offending post be taken down (as would normally be the case) but that the entire website be removed for at least a year. The site's hosts complied without demur. Some have accused them of cowardice, but given the strong language employed by the Met it's scarcely surprising that they felt they had no option. It's the police, after all. Carter-Ruck and Schillings are terrifying enough for your average pusillanimous web-host, but they can't come round and arrest you.

What FITwatch did was to post some general advice, directed at people who feared they might be suspected of involvement in illegal activity during last week's student protest at Millbank, on how they might avoid arrest. It ranged from not pro-actively coming forward ("Yes, it was me in the photo, it's a fair cop") to disposing of clothes and even changing one's appearance. Fairly obvious stuff that mighthave occurred to anyone anxious not to be detained by the police, whether or not they were guilty. After all, the fact that one may have been caught on a police video in the general vicinity of lawlessness is not proof of criminal conduct. As is well known, the police keep files on demonstrators, activists and "domestic extremists", whether or not they actually manage to charge them with anything. One might be innocent of any offence, yet still find FITwatch's information useful.

The Met, however, insist that FITwatch's advice constitutes the offence of perverting the course of justice by supplying information that would help an offender escape justice. Even though the advice was addressed to no offender in particular.

The email makes for sobering reading. Police State UK has the whole thing, but here's the most troubling passage:

This website are [sic] committing offences of attempting to pervert the Course of Justice under Common Law.

The website is providing explicit advice to offenders following a major demonstration in Central London. The demonstration was marred by violence and several subjects have already been arrested with a major police operation underway to identify and arrest further offenders.

The person controlling these websites has posted material held to be contrary to Common Law within the UK.

A few points to note. First, the police have no legal power to order the closure of a website. Nevertheless, the email contains numerous phrases which imply that they do. For example:


We hereby confirm that: The domain is being used to undertake criminal activities.

Authority to close the website and IP address given by
Will Hodgeson, Acting Detective Inspector
Metropolitan Police
CO11 Public Order Branch

That last comment in particular, with its assertion of "authority to close the website", suggests that the email is an exercise of a legal power rather than a request.

The police have every right to request the removal of a particular post (as do Carter-Ruck) if they think it is hosting illegal or libellous content. But there's a huge difference between taking down a single page and having the entire site disconnected. By specifying a twelve-month disconnection period, the email suggests that it is imposing a quasi-judicial penalty on the site's authors. It's not clear if the web-hosts took any legal advice before complying with the Met's demands; more likely they were just frightened. Which is understandable.

Second, if the police are as confident as they claim to be that FITwatch are guilty of an offence, why has no-one been arrested and questioned? Those responsible for FITwatch are not unknown; indeed, one of its leading lights, Emily Apple, has written today on the Guardian's website complaining about the police action. Yet instead of proceeding in the normal way with its investigation, the Met states merely that the material on the site is "held" to be contrary to common law. Held by whom? It has not come before any court. It has not even been properly investigated - if it had been, there would surely have been arrests.

Third, are the Met really so stupid as not to realise that the one predictable result of their heavy-handedness would be the proliferation of the offending post throughout the blogosphere and beyond? Google listed a hundred separate occurrences of a particular phrase when I checked a few minutes ago. There will be more soon. I doubt it will be as widely reproduced as Paul Chambers' Tweet about blowing up Robin Hood airport, but the Spartacus effect is now becoming almost as well established as the older Streisand effect.

(I define the latter as the dissemination of unwelcome information, despite legal or other attempts to suppress it - for example, the damaging disclosures in the Trafigura case. The Spartacus effect is the organised reproduction of a specific posting as part of a self-conscious attempt to evade censorship or defy legal restrictions. The mass reposting of Simon Singh's article about Chiropractic Awareness Week is an obvious example. It is basically a form of mass defiance. "You can't arrest us all".)

The police action looks like an abuse of power - using a particular, arguably illegal post as an excuse to demand the closure of a site that has caused them embarrassment in the past. To quote Emily Apple, it bears the hallmarks of "a highly suspicious attempt at preventing dissent and it must be resisted." Reproducing the post seems like a reasonable response. I do not do so, however, out of any desire to assist offenders or to pervert the course of justice.

If you fear you may be arrested as a result of identification by CCTV, FIT or press photography;

DON'T panic. Press photos are not necessarily conclusive evidence, and just because the police have a photo of you doesn't mean they know who you are.

DON'T hand yourself in. The police often use the psychological pressure of knowing they have your picture to persuade you to 'come forward'. Unless you have a very pressing reason to do otherwise, let them come and find you, if they know who you are.

DO get rid of your clothes. There is no chance of suggesting the bloke in the video is not you if the clothes he is wearing have been found in your wardrobe. Get rid of ALL clothes you were wearing at the demo, including YOUR SHOES, your bag, and any distinctive jewellery you were wearing at the time. Yes, this is difficult, especially if it is your only warm coat or decent pair of boots. But it will be harder still if finding these clothes in your flat gets you convicted of violent disorder.

DON'T assume that because you can identify yourself in a video, a judge will be able to as well. "That isn't me" has got many a person off before now.

DO keep away from other demos for a while. The police will be on the look-out at other demos, especially student ones, for people they have put on their 'wanted' list. Keep a low profile.

DO think about changing your appearance. Perhaps now is a good time for a make-over. Get a haircut and colour, grow a beard, wear glasses. It isn't a guarantee, but may help throw them off the scent.

DO keep your house clean. Get rid of spray cans, demo related stuff, and dodgy texts / photos on your phone. Don't make life easy for them by having drugs, weapons or anything illegal in the house.

DO get the name and number of a good lawyer you can call if things go badly. The support group has the names of recommended lawyers on their site. Take a bit of time to read up on your rights in custody, especially the benefits of not commenting in interview.

DO be careful who you speak about this to. Admit your involvement in criminal damage / disorder ONLY to people you really trust.

DO try and control the nerves and panic. Waiting for a knock on the door is stressful in the extreme, but you need to find a way to get on with business as normal. Otherwise you'll be serving the sentence before you are even arrested.

While this advice might be helpful to an offender, it might equally be helpful to the innocent bystander who doesn't, for obvious reasons, want to become involved with the police. Indeed, it is in parts remarkably similar to NightJack's famous "Survival Guide for Decent Folk".

Never explain to the Police

If the Police arrive to lock you up, say nothing. You are a decent person and you may think that reasoning with the Police will help. “If I can only explain, they will realise it is all a horrible mistake and go away”. Wrong. We do want to talk to you on tape in an interview room but that comes later. All you are doing by trying to explain is digging yourself further in. We call that stuff a significant statement and we love it. Decent folk can’t help themselves, they think that they can talk their way out. Wrong.

Admit Nothing

To do anything more than lock you up for a few hours we need to prove a case. The easiest route to that is your admission. Without it, our case may be a lot weaker, maybe not enough to charge you with. In any case, it is always worth finding out exactly how damning the evidence is before you fall on your sword. So don’t do the decent and honourable thing and admit what you have done. Don’t even deny it or try to give your side of the story. Just say nothing. No confession and CPS are on the back foot already. They forsee a trial. They fear a trial. They are looking for any excuse to send you home free.

Keep your mouth shut

Say as little as possible to us. At the custody office desk a Sergeant will ask you some questions. It is safe to answer these. For the rest of the time, say nothing.

Always always always have a solicitor

Duh. No brainer this one. Unless you know 100% for sure that your mate the solicitor does criminal law and is good at it, ask for the Duty Solicitor. They certainly do criminal law and they are good at it. Then listen to what the solicitor says and do it. Their job is to get you off without the Cops or CPS laying a glove on you if at all possible. It is what they get paid for. They are free to you. There is no down side. Now decent folks think it makes them look like they have something to hide if they ask for a solicitor. Irrelevant. Going into an interview without a solicitor is like taking a walk in Tottenham with a big gold Rolex. Bad things are very likely to happen to you. I wouldn’t do it and I interview people for a living.
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Thursday, 11 November 2010

With the Conviction of Paul Chambers, it is now illegal to be English

There is something deeply and shockingly offensive about the conviction of Paul Chambers for his Twitter joke, almost unbelievably reaffirmed today at the Crown Court in Doncaster. It goes beyond the normal anger anyone would feel at a blatant injustice, at a piece of prosecutorial and judicial overkill that sees the might of the state pitted against a harmless, unthreatening individual for no good reason. It goes beyond even the pointless waste of public money expended on bringing this man to "justice." No, it's worse than that. This conviction feels personal. It feels like an offence against nature. In reality, it is an offence against culture. Our culture. It is an offence against the deepest principle of Englishness. And I don't mean justice, fair-play or common sense. I mean humour.

The action against Paul Chambers has rightly been dubbed the "Twitter Joke Trial". Not just because it was a joke of a trial - though certainly not a funny one - or because it centres on what everyone involved acknowledges to have been a joke. What has been on trial is the possibility of humour itself, the right of a freeborn Englishman to be facetious as and when he feels like it, about any subject whatsoever. Against that age-old national instinct to make light of adverse circumstances - the spirit that got us through the Blitz - we now find a new and alien notion that there are some things that are beyond joking, that even an obvious joke must be treated seriously. Because it's no laughing matter. Because you can't be too careful. Because any imagined threat, however patently absurd, must be ritually investigated. And the person making the joke must bear the responsibility for the time-consuming and costly process of investigation, even though the possibility of such an investigation never crossed his mind, just to drive the message home that You Cannot Make Jokes About Terrorism.

Any more than you can make a tasteless joke about wanting to stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, it would seem.

It's not Paul Chambers' fault that the authorities feel they must investigate even farcical, obviously humorous pseudo-threats. But given that they do feel this way, they must pretend that it is his fault when they follow their demented logic. For to decide otherwise - to exercise a bit of common sense and not waste time investigating his light-hearted "threat" (made for the benefit of a handful of friends who followed him on Twitter) to blow an airport "sky-high" - would be to question the very principles on which the Terror paradigm rests: Everything Must Be Investigated and You Can't Be Too Careful.

The upshot of this is that it becomes illegal to make a joke. In other words, it becomes illegal to talk in your native idiom.

In other cultures, writes social anthropologist Kate Fox,

there is a time and a place for humour; it is a special, separate kind of talk. In English conversation, there is always an undercurrent of humour. We can barely manage to say "hello" or comment about the weather without somehow contriving to make a bit of a joke out of it, and most English conversations will involve at least some degree of banter, teasing, irony, understatement, humorous self-deprecation, mockery or just silliness. Humour is our "default mode", if you like; we do not have to switch it on deliberately, and we cannot switch it off. For the English, the rules of humour are the cultural equivalent of natural laws - we obey them automatically, rather in the way that we obey the law of gravity.

Watching the English

And that, of course, is precisely what Paul Chambers did when he vented his frustration at being unable to catch a personally significant flight by Tweeting:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!

If you don't instantly recognise that this is a joke, then you're probably not English. You'll be German, or possibly Canadian. I'm not going to analyse its comedic structure, or how it plays subtly on ideas of impotence, self-importance and bombast in the tradition of Tony Hancock, or how the exclaimation mark at the end is a dead giveaway. All that matters is that it's an instantly recognisable joke. (Though you can find a thorough linguistic analysis here.)

Graham Linehan writes today that the trial "is the clearest indication yet that the world is divided into two sorts of people at the moment. The people who get it, and the people who don’t." But he goes on to say that what people are getting or not getting is the Internet, specifically Twitter.

The people who get it are those who are living in a world that the internet has created. A new world which would have been unimaginable as little as 15 years ago... The people who don’t get it are the people in charge. Politicians (for the most part), judges (for the most part), the policemen who came to Paul Chambers’ place of work and arrested him for posting a piece of frustrated, jokey hyperbole on Twitter. These are the people who, more than anyone, need to understand the modern world. And they simply don’t.

He's wrong. This is not about modern technology, but about the new threat to deep-seated English habits of mind. What has changed is officialdom's loss of a sense of proportion, or of their ability to use discretion and common-sense. That represents a more radical change than the coming of Internet. And the police, the CPS and the judges are on the leading edge of it. The old-fashioned traditionalist who doesn't get it is Paul Chambers, doing what comes naturally to almost any English person and finding himself in the kind of situation once described so eloquently by Kafka. Who wasn't English at all.

Twitter may have made Chambers' witticism accessible to a member of staff dredging the search facility for mentions of Robin Hood Airport. Without Twitter, his joke would never have become public. But the medium is just that - a medium. What the police, the prosecutors and the judges didn't get is the joke. Except that, being English themselves, they almost certainly did. That's what makes this whole saga so tragic.

PS There's talk of a possible appeal. You can donate to Paul Chambers' legal defence fund here.
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Wednesday, 10 November 2010

You can't blame religion

How many times have you heard something like this?

The fact is that these rules have very little to do with religion and a lot to do with patriarchal ideas about keeping women in their place.

It might be arranged forced marriage, or female genital mutilation, or veils, or even the ban on women priests in the Catholic church. In fact, it's Brian Whitaker, in the Guardian, discussing the latest barmy ruling from Saudi Arabia, where a new fatwa forbids women working as cashiers in supermarkets because the job would involve them - horror of horrors - serving men. Each time the argument is the same. It's not religion - especially not Islam - that inflicts endless indignities and restrictions on women. It's just culture, and the male misogynists who run culture, that has somehow co-opted religion for its own reactionary ends.

Funny that.

If not from religion, where do these patriarchal attitudes actually come from? Biology?

PS: Just noticed this:

Iran and Saudi Arabia bid for seat on UN women's rights council

Saudi Arabia will probably be elected unopposed. Or perhaps the Vatican will put in a late bid. Read the rest of this article

Libel Reform mass blog

Along with many other bloggers, I was invited to put up this statement from Simon Singh at 2 pm this afternoon. But what with the exciting events at Millbank, it quite slipped my mind. Still, the message is as relevant now as it was a couple of hours ago.

The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition.

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at http://www.libelreform.org/sign Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Does waterboarding work?

George W. Bush has no doubts about either the legality or usefulness of waterboarding. Indeed, he has even come out with a (to my knowledge) wholly new justification for it - that Islamic militants may feel less guilty about spilling the beans if they've been roughed about a bit first. Waterboarding "allowed" one suspect to co-operate, he claimed - and the man concerned subsequently became so co-operative that he urged his captors to "do this for all the brothers". Given that Abu Zabaydah was waterboarded a total of 83 times, he clearly needed quite a bit of persuading.

Does waterboarding work?

I suspect the true answer to that question is "it depends". Depends, among other things, on what your definition of "works" is.

If the question means, "Does waterboarding sometimes elicit accurate and important intelligence, which the detainee is unwilling to give, and which proves to be useful to the interrogators" then the answer is probably "Yes, but only sometimes." But even if the answer is in the affirmative, that doesn't make the practice legitimate - or even a useful source of intelligence.

For a case to be made for the unpleasant practice of simulated drowning (or for any other form of torture) at the very least three things would need to be established:

1) that the information gleaned is accurate and useful

2) that the information is believed by the interrogators and

3) that there is no other available technique by which the information could have been obtained.

The first of these provisos is obvious. It is also obvious - or should be - that information obtained via torture (or procedures that seem a lot like torture to anyone who isn't a White House lawyer) is often inaccurate and useless. It may be as absurd as confessions of witchcraft (which seemed plausible enough at the time); more likely it will include the naming of wholly innocent co-conspirators or of imagined plots. To the person being tortured, giving true information will always be less pressing than giving the information that the interrogators want to hear. If the interrogators expect to hear X, but the truth is Y, then telling them Y may not end the torture. It may make it worse.

Hence point 2. It is not enough for the detainee to tell the truth if torture is to be pronounced effective. The truth must also accord with what the interrogators expect, otherwise they may well ignore it; so that even if subsequently it turns out to be accurate it will not have done any good. Any form of interrogation is potentially vulnerable to this, but torture increases the danger. The prime motivation of the detainee, after all, is not to tell the truth but to stop the pain - and if telling an unexpected truth doesn't do it, the detainee is likely to fall back on a more plausible falsehood.

Even Abu Zubaydah, who Dubya claims was so grateful to the CIA for waterboarding him, turns out to have told his interrogators a load of rubbish which, however, was in close accord with what they wanted to hear. That Saddam Hussein was hand-in-glove with Al Qaeda, for example.

There will be cases in which the information elicited by torture is both accurate and believable. In such a situation, it could be said that the torture has worked. But isolated successes, however beneficial, can't justify the use of torture or near-torture in general, even leaving aside humanitarian considerations. It would have to be shown that torture in general has a higher success-rate than other forms of interrogation. No study has ever come remotely close to proving this claim.

The third of my provisos is routinely ignored by supporters of waterboarding, and indeed of other forms of investigation by torture practised by some of our allies who are rather less scupulous even than the Bush administration. They stress, rather, the importance and utility of particular snippets information (such as today's claim by ex-president Bush that waterboarding-assisted interrogation helped prevent an attack on London), as though the fact that information has been elicited in itself justifies the use of torture. But of course it doesn't. Unless it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that only inhumane methods are capable of extracting vital information from detainees, then the case for such methods falls.

This is not simply because a civilised society should always prefer civilised methods, but because information extracted under torture has frequently been shown to be unreliable. There's evidence that torture may even elicit false memories (not just false confessions - actual false memories). Even if it "works" in particular cases, there will almost always be more reliable methods available. Unfortunately, a few successes, being dramatic and newsworthy, have more impact than the statistically more significant number of failures.

But then the attraction that torture continues to have for many people has little to do with a dispassionate consideration of its effectiveness. Rather, it can seem emotionally satisfying. Here, for example, is Con Coughlin:

...when you are dealing with fanatics who glorify in the murder of thousands of innocent civilians – as happened during the September 11 attacks – simply offering them a cup of tea and a good book to read is hardly going to persuade them to tell reveal their darkest secrets.

What he seems to be saying here is no more than "they deserve it" ("they" being obviously guilty terrorists, of course; no innocent person ever undergoes interrogation). Perhaps, too, the very fact that a piece of information has been tortured out of a detainee may make it seem somehow more valuable. Meanwhile, breaching the moral taboo against torture (or even advocating torture) becomes a signal of one's own toughness and realism, one's unsentimental willingness to face the tough decisions needed to keep the country safe. I suspect that, for all the pained discussion of "ticking timebombs" and similar Spooks-style scenarios that are always brought up whenever anyone attempts to put the case for torture, it's not just the possibility of gleaning valuable information that makes it sound like a good idea. It's also that it's so darned macho.
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Monday, 8 November 2010

If it looks like a court...

The Election Court is a strange beast. At the very least, it is a rare one, having last been convened (as was reported all over the place last week) almost a hundred years ago. Perhaps that means that elections in this country are mercifully free of the kind of malpractice - for example, telling deliberate lies about one's political opponents - that the Election Court was called upon to adjudicate in the now celebrated case of Woolas v Watkins. Or perhaps there has hitherto been a tacit understanding among candidates not to be such cissies as to cry running to the courts whenever someone attempts to steal an election using underhand tactics of the sort complained of here. One thinks back, for example, to the Tower Hamlets election of 2005, in which Oona King was slandered even more outrageously by supporters of George Galloway than was Robert Watkins by Phil Woolas at Oldham in 2010. It's interesting to speculate what the Election Court would have had to say about that.

That's as maybe. Whatever one might think about the propriety of resorting to law following a bruising election campaign, though, it would seem fairly obvious that the Election Court that (under the Representation of the People Act 1983) has jurisdiction over such cases is in fact a court. The name is the first clue: Election Court, not Election Tribunal, or Election Commission, or Election Inquest, or another name that might have been chosen had the framers of the Act wished to imply that there was something not-quite-courtlike about the court. Nope, it's called the "Election Court".

Then there's the question of personnel. Unlike the regular High Court (which in all other respects it resembles - and, as we shall see, in fact is) the Election Court boasts not one but two of Her Majesty's judges. In this case, it was Mr Justice Teare sitting with Mr Justice Griffith Williams. Not just any old court, then, but a special souped-up court featuring an extra judge, just to be on the safe side.

So far, then, we've managed to identify two pretty significant court-like features of the Election Court: it's called a court, and it has judges sitting in it. But that's not all! The Representation of the People Act also seems to assume that the Election Court is simply a name given to a special sitting of the High Court. Section 120 provides for the challenging of an election result by means of a petition to the High Court (or, in Scotland, to the Court of Session). And Section 123, which establishes the Election Court procedure, is worded as follows:

(1) A parliamentary election petition shall be tried by—

(a) two judges on the rota for the trial of parliamentary election petitions, and the judges for the time being on that rota shall, unless they otherwise agree, try the election petitions standing for trial according to their seniority,

(b)in Northern Ireland, the two judges of the High Court or the Court of Appeal for the time being selected under section 108 of the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978,

and the judges presiding at the trial of a parliamentary election petition are hereinafter referred to as the election court.

(2) The election court has, subject to the provisions of this Act, the same powers, jurisdiction and authority as a judge of the High Court (or, in Scotland, a judge of the Court of Session presiding at the trial of a civil cause without a jury) and shall be a court of record.

So: it looks like a court, it's called a court, it is presided over by judges, and the Representation of the People Act confirms that it is a court - with precisely the same authority as the High Court normally enjoys. Anything else? Well, last Friday's judgement is headed


Which ought to put the matter beyond question. So why did Phil Woolas' lawyers advise him that the best way of challenging the judges' verdict was not the usual one - of seeking leave to appeal the decision from the Court of Appeal - but rather by means of a judicial review?

For the uninitiated, a judicial review is the procedure by which the High Court scrutinises decisions made by official tribunals, administrative officials and ministers, regulatory bodies such the General Medical Council, and other quasi-judicial bodies and people. Not other courts. As part of the High Court, the Election Court can scarcely expect to have its decision reconsidered by another part of the High Court - especially given that two High Court judges sat in judgement on the case, and a Judicial Review would ordinarily feature just one. The general rule is that appeals are made to higher courts than the one that made the initial ruling. The first appeal is to the Court of Appeal, and after that to the Supreme Court - and, ultimately, there may be grounds to petition the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. At each stage, the judges involved aren't just more senior, there are usually more of them. To ask one judge to overrule two others of the same rank would be anomalous to say the least.

That's what Mr Justice Silber seems to think. Throwing out Woolas' request for judicial review today, he made the rather obvious point that the decision was "not amenable to judicial review because it is a decision of High Court judges sitting in their capacity as High Court judges". This was "settled law", he added. Well, it's nice to know that "settled law" agrees with plain logic and common sense. That isn't always that case. And, to be fair, he did add that "even if" the Election Court was amenable to judicial review, it would only apply in "limited circumstances none of which apply in this case", which might be taken to imply at least the possibility of a judicial review being heard. But that's really no more than typical judicial belt-and-braces, since the majority of his short ruling was taken up with reminding everyone of the principle that decisions of the High Court can only be appealed to a higher court, not judicially reviewed as though it were some lowly tribunal. He also invited Woolas to appeal, if he wanted to appeal, to the Court of Appeal; which quite frankly he should have done in the first place. Apart from anything else, an appeal would allow a much wider reconsideration of the facts.

To sum up, the Election Court looks like a court, is called a court, is run by High Court judges like a court, the Representation of the People Act describes it as a court, its judgements come headed with the words "In the High Court". And as if to remove all doubt, Mr Justice Silber, like Bunny sitting in the corner, thinks it's a court.

I'd put it down as definitely a very probable court.

"However a source close to Phil Woolas' legal team told the BBC his lawyers would renew their application for a judicial review and were seeking an oral hearing in front of a High Court judge in which to argue a review should take place."

I give up.
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Thursday, 4 November 2010

Votes for Prisoners - A possible loophole?

The government's apparently reluctant surrender to the European Court of Human Rights on the issue of voting rights for prisoners has led to the usual unhelpful debate. Most noticeable has been the tangling together of two quite separate issues - whether or not giving votes to prisoners is a Good Thing, and whether or not the European Court of Human Rights (not, in this instance, the EU) has or should have the jurisdiction to impose its view on a supposedly sovereign Parliament. As is often the case, how one answers the first question tends to influence one's view of the latter; but they really are entirely distinct.

As it happens, I think it is perfectly reasonable in principle that the punishment of imprisonment should be accompanied by the loss of voting rights. It can be argued that allowing prisoners to vote would have pragmatic advantages - for example, helping to keep the incarcerated in touch with normal civil society, or giving inmates an opportunity to influence the policies of the government, which directly impact on their lives inside jail. I don't agree: for me, the inability to vote reminds prisoners of their debt to society and reminds the rest of the citizenry that the vote is something to be cherished; something bound up with being free. In any case, the deprivation is far less onerous than the deprivation of liberty.

It's an argument worth having. The trouble, here, is that we are not being allowed to decide this question for ourselves, through normal democratic processes. Instead, an international court, sitting in another country, has taken it upon itself to oversee the constitutional settlement of a sovereign state. Yet there's nothing in the wording of the Convention - which is concerned with individual human rights, not the technicalities of electoral systems - that implies any such right in the Court. Its decision here represents an obvious instance of juridical empire building.

A Parliament that has any pretensions to sovereignty ought, at the very least, to be able to decide its own composition, and the nature and extent of the franchise that elects it. It has been depressing to watch ministers, including David Cameron himself, wring their hands, express distaste and lament their inability to act. Do they really have no option but to implement the ECHR judgement? David Allen Green thinks that this may be a case of the Coalition government making illiberal noises to disguise a liberal policy change. In support of this, he claims that the government could choose to derogate from the European Convention on this issue. Unfortunately it's not so simple. Under Section 15, derogation from specific articles or stipulations is only allowed on grounds of an "emergency affecting the life of the nation" - a justification invoked by the last government when passing some of its anti-terror laws. The only way to break this particular article would be to ditch the Convention (and the Human Rights Act) altogether, a drastic step that, post-Lisbon, would also entail detaching ourselves from the European Union. Of course, there are many who would like nothing better. But that would be a drastic step to take merely to exclude serving convicts from the electoral process.

I've been reading, and scratching my head over, the 2005 judgement that caused all the trouble, Hirst v UK. (Hirst being the unpleasant and seemingly unrepentant killer whose champagne celebration of the announcement has turned many stomachs over the last couple of days.) I haven't been impressed. It strikes me, as it struck the several dissenting judges, as fundamentally flawed (or, to use DAG's favourite word, "misconceived"). The reasoning within it is embarrassingly bad. That's slim comfort to the government, though, or to the many members of the public who disagree with the jailbird franchise. The decision stands, however illogical it may be. The court may have exceeded any reasonable definition of its powers, but since it is the ultimate authority as to what its powers are, there is nothing that can overrule it (short of an amendment to the Convention itself, agreed by all 47 signatory nations - as Charon QC pointed out in a Tweet). The government could refuse to abide by the ruling, refuse to amend the law or pay any compensation that may be awarded in future to voteless convicts. But that would be bad for the rule of law, to which British governments have always paid great lip-service.

Or they could look for a loophole. I think I've found one.

First the bad reasoning. As the dissenting judges point out, the peculiarity of the provision being contested (Section 3 Protocol 1 of the Convention) is that it does not, unlike the rest of the Convention, confer individual rights. It does not say, as it might have done, that "Citizens shall have the right to vote unless legitimately deprived by a court of law", or anything of the kind. It merely says that there shall be free elections, by secret ballot, to enable the expression of "the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature". It does not specify, nor attempt to specify, who shall be given the vote. Logically, if prisoners are to be included in "the people", why should legally resident aliens be excluded? Or children? Or, indeed, members of the House of Lords, who also don't get to vote in elections to the House of Commons? A sixteen year old in work and paying taxes - admittedly a rarer creature than used to be the case - has a greater part in civil society than a prisoner serving life.

The ECHR claims that the exclusion of prisoners en masse is "arbitrary". But it is less arbitrary than the exclusion of children, who may well be intelligent and politically engaged, or contributing financially to the state; and it is less arbitrary than the exclusion of resident non-citizens, who may have lived and paid taxes in the country for decades. It is not in fact arbitrary at all, because it is part of the punishment. Prisoners are not simply deprived of their liberty; they are also deprived, for the duration, of many of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Imagine if it were the other way around, and the usual punishment for a serious crime was to be stripped of voting rights rather than being imprisoned. Would the ECHR dare to overrule that? Probably not, because the penalty would be imposed individually on each miscreant, just as driving bans are imposed individually on everyone convicted of certain categories of offence. Indeed - though the judgement specifically declines to spell out how such a rule would operate in practice - it is suggested that in future a voting ban might be imposed on certain categories of offender, such as those serving life. This, though, would be as arbitrary as a general ban on all prisoners. Instead of the class of all prisoners losing the franchise, it would be the class of all murderers.

This offers a clue as to the problem with the court's reasoning. It seems to have held that a convicted prisoner serving time belongs to an arbitrarily defined group. But he or she doesn't. Rather, a prisoner is a person labouring under legal disabilities - most obviously, deprivation of liberty - as a result of his or her own actions. And, crucially, the state's right to impose these disabilities is accepted on all sides. The ECHR appears to hold that the state may impose one kind of penalty (deprivation of liberty for a defined term) but may not impose another (deprivation of voting rights for a concurrent term) which most people would consider a lesser burden. This is utterly illogical. Their mistake is to imagine that the punishment of incarceration is limited to deprivation of liberty. In fact, deprivation of liberty is only the most obvious of several consequences of being sentenced to imprisonment. There is also (in many cases) loss of conjugal rights, loss of the right to earn a living, subjection to the orders of prison officers. Such deprivations breach rights enshrined in the Convention far more obviously than the loss of a "right to vote" that is not part of the Convention at all.

One possible get-out might be to redefine imprisonment so as to specifically include deprivation of voting rights, so that loss of franchise would become an explicit element in every custodial sentence. But I doubt this would work. I have a better suggestion. The crucial Section 79 of the judgement reads as follows:

As to the weight to be attached to the position adopted by the legislature and judiciary in the United Kingdom, there is no evidence that Parliament has ever sought to weigh the competing interests or to assess the proportionality of a blanket ban on the right of a convicted prisoner to vote. It is true that the question was considered by the multi-party Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Law in 1968 which unanimously recommended that a convicted prisoner should not be entitled to vote. It is also true that the working party which recommended the amendment to the law to allow unconvicted prisoners to vote recorded that successive governments had taken the view that convicted prisoners had lost the moral authority to vote and did not therefore argue for a change in the legislation. It may be said that, by voting the way they did to exempt unconvicted prisoners from the restriction on voting, Parliament implicitly affirmed the need for continued restrictions on the voting rights of convicted prisoners. Nonetheless, it cannot be said that there was any substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification in light of modern-day penal policy and of current human rights standards for maintaining such a general restriction on the right of prisoners to vote.

The court appears to rely on this Parliamentary history when awarding itself the right to settle the question. In other words, it sees the expression of the will of Parliament as a highly relevant consideration. This being the case, it's a little strange that it should take so little heed of clear precedents. As the Minority noted, during the debate in 2000 on allowing remand prisoners to vote "had a majority of the members of Parliament disagreed with this opinion, it would have been open to them to decide otherwise."

Indeed. But the Majority's scepticism about whether or not there was a proper debate is not really the issue. What matters is that the ECHR stresses this perceived deficiency as one of the main justifications for its decision. If Parliament debated the issue in a manner that would satisfy the ECHR's definition of "substantive debate... in the light of modern-day penal policy" - followed, perhaps, by a free vote - then the ECHR would be deprived on an argument that it seems to find crucial. At the very least, the government would be able to claim that it had satisfied the requirements of the court.

David Cameron claims that the government has looked at the question "from every legal angle" and concluded that it has no room for manoeuvre. But I can't believe that they haven't considered the possibility of specific legislation along the lines adumbrated in the ECHR's own decision. Either they have been very badly advised, or Mr Green is right and ministers secretly want to give the vote to serving prisoners. It's hard to believe. But then so are increasingly many of this government's decisions.
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Monday, 1 November 2010

Sympathy for Stephen

My heart goes out to Stephen Fry, now sheltering from the rage of feminists of every generation - everyone from Germaine Greer, the sisterhood's Dowager Duchess, to that earnest young Laurie Penny. Penny is depressed by the thought that her favourite gay uncle has dissed her generation's struggle against slut-shaming and stereotypes. Greer thinks Fry has "delusions of grandeur" (and she, one might unkindly suggest, ought to know). And what's this? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown objecting to Fry's imagined claim that women are "sexual flops" by accusing him of having "odd and unhealthy feelings about the body and its needs" and even of "heterophobia - the real, visceral repulsion felt by some gay men when they imagine what men and women do in bed." Which is a bit over the top, even by her remarkable standards.

Anyone would think Fry had claimed that all women were frigid. But he said nothing of the kind. All he said was this:

If women liked sex as much as men, there would be straight cruising areas in the way there are gay cruising areas. Women would go and hang around in churchyards thinking: 'God, I've got to get my fucking rocks off', or they'd go to Hampstead Heath and meet strangers to shag behind a bush.

It doesn't happen. Why? Because the only women you can have sex with like that wish to be paid for it. I feel sorry for straight men. The only reason women will have sex with them is that sex is the price they are willing to pay for a relationship with a man, which is what they want. Of course, a lot of women will deny this and say, 'Oh no, but I love sex, I love it!' But do they go around having it the way that gay men do?

And for this they will bully the poor chap off Twitter?

That there's something amiss here, I wouldn't deny. Fry's error would appear to lie in a remarkably reductive definition of "liking sex", as a bonobo-like compulsion to be constantly and randomly at it. This seems a little strange in a man who was celibate for sixteen years; one can only conclude, perhaps not wholly inaccurately, that Stephen Fry himself has a womanish horror of the sexual act. Without wishing to psychoanalyse him, it seems to me that there's more than a little self-disgust - for himself as a man, and as a gay man - contained in those words. In any event I cannot interpret his depiction of cruising as some sort of approval. He makes it sound so sordid and depressing. But perhaps that just means I don't like sex much either.

It seems unfair, though, that Fry's sociological observation should have left him accused of misogyny. Old-fashioned it may have been, but it was kindly meant. His target was not the women who "don't like sex" - on the contrary, he seems to envy them - but the men who do. If anything was truly offensive in what he said, it was not his dismissal of female lustfulness, but the deeply unflattering picture he painted of animalistic, unthinking, phallus-driven male sexuality. Is there any truth in it?

Let's start with the Darwinian imperative. Men have lots of sperm, and the best reproductive strategy for the male is to spread it around as much as possible, which means, ideally, sticking his membrum virile in any passing vagina. Women have a limited supply of eggs, as well as the time-consuming business of pregnancy and lactation to deal with, so their best strategy is to find a high quality mate and persuade him to hang around and help her bring up the kids. In other words, marriage. (There's also a second-best strategy, which involves the woman getting herself impregnated by a superior quality male while remaining with a second-rate but loyal partner; birds go in for this a lot, human beings somewhat less; but I don't want to complicate the story overmuch.)

This is all horribly reductionist, of course, and a gross simplification. I'm not a biological determinist, any more than I'm a cultural determinist. I regard it as deeply unfortunate that we live in a media world where an experiment on rats can be reported as proving that "men brought up by women are less sexy." I do though believe that biology and culture together (and it's often impossible to separate where one ends and the other begins) can nudge people in certain directions. And indeed what we might expect from biology is what we tend to find in society, most especially in the stories that society tells about itself. Men are expected to be promiscuous, their sexuality focused in those few inches of erectile tissue, as satisfied with a random shag as they would be with a deep and meaningful relationship. Women are supposed to want their sex sugared with love, or at least with a halfway plausible simulacrum of love - even in a one-night stand situation.

Of course, women are free to denounce these assumptions as patriarchal, "slut-shaming", stereotypical, demeaning and all the rest of it. They are certainly simplistic. It's not just that there are many women who seek out - and may even occasionally find - satisfaction in random encounters (though rarely on Hampstead Heath); and men who pine for true love as much as any Mills and Boon heroine. It's not just that most men do. It is, of course, that there's a little of each in all of us; that sometimes, at some points in most of our lives, we're gagging for it and at others would prefer a nice cup of tea. And yet.

And yet, on balance, on average, all over things being (as they never are) equal, the concordance of evolutionary theory with immemorial wisdom has something going for it. Men do tend to think with their dicks. Women do tend to put a greater value on deferred gratification where sex is concerned. It may be biology, it may be conformity with social expectations, it's probably both. But it's not as though Stephen Fry was saying anything new.

Germaine Greer may have affected disagreement with him, but her way of denouncing his comments sounds to me awfully like agreement:

Well, if he thinks that women are not interested in genital encounters with total strangers then he is absolutely right. But to conclude that we are therefore uninterested in sex is madness. It is true that men have an interest in a kind of sex which women find infinitely depressing, and it’s true that women really don’t want to hang around toilets hoping that someone will come along and play with their bits. That is not what passion is about for us and we would be placing ourselves in mortal danger if it was. ... What women yearn for is intimacy.

Or you could try Camille Paglia, who writes in Sexual Personae:

That nature acts upon the sexes differently is proved by the test case of modern male and female homosexuality, illustrating how the sexes function separately outside social convention. The result, according to statistics of sexual frequency: male satyriasis and female nesting. The male homosexual has sex more often than his heterosexual counterpart; the female homosexual less often than hers, a radical polarization of the sexes along a single continuum of shared sexual nonconformity....

She even, controversially, brings up AIDS:

The first medical reports on the disease killing male homosexuals indicated men most at risk were those with a thousand partners over their lifetime. Incredulity. Who could such people be? Why, it turned out, everyone one knew. Serious, kind, literate men, not bums or thugs. What an abyss divides the sexes! Let us abandon the pretense of sexual sameness and admit the terrible duality of gender.

It may be that, as a lesbian, Camille Paglia is (like Fry) supremely conscious of the "duality of gender". In reality, of course, heterosexual men and women get along together far better than talk of sexual abysses (of Venus and Mars) would suggest. In reality, of course, men and women want more or less the same thing - which for the majority means both great sex and great relationships. (Which is why Russell Brand is not, after all, so surprising a convert to the joys of monogamy.) And in reality, of course, both men and women are capable of enjoying casual sex - up to a point. The sexes are not different species; the psychological differences between them are ones of degree.

Which is why the proper response to Fry's ruminations is not to point out all the women who are into casual pickups, group sex or dogging and say, "Look, women can like sex too." Rather, it's to respond along these lines:

If men liked sex as much as women, there would be male trashy romance novels in the same way there are female trashy romance novels. Men would watch Richard Curtis films thinking "God, this stuff is HOT, or they'd join book groups and meet intelligent women to have long, meaningful conversations with, followed by deep, sensual lovemaking sessions. It doesn't happen. Why? Because the only men you can have sex with like that want to marry you. I feel sorry for gay men. Other men will only have sex with them is if it's a shallow and pleasureless screw in the bushes. Of course, a lot of men will deny this and say, 'Oh no, but I love sex, I love it!' But do they go around having it the way that women do?

And then see how ridiculous it sounds. Or on the other hand, not.
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