Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Knight of Death, the White Bird, and the fates of nations

This is a guest post by Valdemar

I have always been fascinated by the fighter aces of the Great War, and spent much of my childhood reading about them and gluing together Airfix biplanes. One in particular caught my imagination – he seemed the quintessential action hero. So I was intrigued when, late last year, I read that a French author, Bernard Decré, claimed to have found evidence that Charles Nungesser was the first to fly the Atlantic from continental Europe to North America. As soon as I read the name I recalled the pictures of the dashing, if rather morbid, young ace.

Did Nungesser make it, only to perish within sight of the North American coast? It wouldn’t be surprising. The term daredevil might have been devised for this extraordinary pilot, racing driver and playboy, who styled himself The Knight of Death. But when claims about this or that historic achievement surface, many of us ask the perfectly reasonable question, does it matter? If Scott had beaten Amundsen, what effect would it have had on history? Very little, in that particular instance. But the case of Nungesser is rather different.

First, a bit of background. Charles Nungesser was born in 1892 in Valenciennes. A mediocre scholar, he was good at sport and adventurous by nature. When he left school he went to South America to search for a lost uncle in Brazil, then to Argentina where he became a professional racing driver. When he got the chance to fly a primitive Bleriot aircraft he jumped at it. (Oh, and he eventually found his uncle.) When war broke out in 1914 he returned to Framce and was soon in the thick of combat high above the Western Front.

Nungesser made a point of drawing attention to himself by emblazoning his plane with a skull and crossbones, plus a coffin with two candles. He apparently believed that if he paid due tribute he would escape the Grim Reaper, and styled himself the Knight of Death. This attitude, coupled with rugged good looks and his appetites for wine and women, made him a national hero. While he ended the war as the third-ranking French ace, with 43 confirmed victories, he was easily first in popularity.

Nungesser’s success – indeed, his very survival – seems all the more remarkable given his appalling bad luck. (Or good luck, depending on how you view it.) He crashed more often than any other ace, and was frequently wounded. Rather than detail every incident, let’s just recap on this 1918 summary of his injuries:

‘Skull fracture, brain concussion, internal injuries (multiple), five fractures of the upper jaw, two fractures of lower jaw, piece of anti-aircraft shrapnel embedded in right arm, dislocation of knees (left and right), re-dislocation of left knee, bullet wound in mouth, bullet wound in ear, atrophy of tendons in left leg, atrophy of muscles in calf, dislocated clavicle, dislocated wrist, dislocated right ankle, loss of teeth, contusions too numerous to mention.”

After an unsuccessful spell as a flying instructor, in 1923 he moved to Hollywood and found a new lease of life giving flying exhibitions and doing film stunts. Footage of Nungesser appears in The Dawn Patrol, released in 1930. It was during this period that he became interested in a trans-Atlantic flight, but he was in such poor physical shape that he hesitated to try.

In 1927 another French ace, Paul Tarascon, was planning a flight from Paris to New York, Francois Coli as his navigator. When Tarascon was injured in a crash Nungesser stepped in as replacement. He had his death-defying insignia painted on Tarascon’s plane, L’Oiseau Blanc, or White Bird. The daredevil was back in the limelight, and all France was once again cheering him on.

On May 8th, 1927, the White Bird took off from Le Bourget airfield near Paris. It was escorted to the coast by French warplanes and crossed the Channel safely. Later, witnesses noted the distinctive white biplane passing over Ireland. The next morning New Yorkers gathered in their thousands in Battery Park, which offered a good view of the Statue of Liberty. The amphibious White Bird was expected to land in the harbour, beside the symbol of Franco-American friendship.

There were rumours that Nungesser’s plane had been sighted off Newfoundland or Long Island. Some French newspapers prematurely reported a triumphant landing in New York, such was their belief in the indestructible fighter ace. But as the hours passed and the crowds dispersed, it became clear that the White Bird had been lost. Two weeks later, Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, and claimed his place in history.

Searches were made for the White Bird and its crew, but despite claims that an aircraft had been heard by fishermen off Newfoundland, nothing was found. Since then many people – including thriller writer Clive Cussler – have tried to solve the mystery. But despite many claims that fragments of the plane were found, nothing substantial has emerged.

The latest theory, from Bernard Decré, is that Nungesser crashed in fog on May after battling against contrary winds in an epic 40 hour flight. The White Bird carried enough fuel for 42 hours, in ideal conditions. Next summer Decré plans to start searching the seabed around Newfoundland. Perhaps this latest attempt will solve what has been called the Mount Everest of aviation mysteries.

If Nungesser had succeeded, Lindbergh would have called off his attempt. As it was, Lindbergh’s flight gave the USA a new national hero. A national hero who, in the run up to the Second World War, became a trenchant critic of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Nazi sympathiser, and a fervent isolationist. Without Lindbergh as its figurehead, American isolationism would have been a much weaker force. US intervention on the side of Britain might not have had to wait for Pearl Harbor to settle the matter.

If Nungesser had succeeded, events might have been different on the other side of the Atlantic, too. France would have been galvanised by new-found patriotism and self-confidence. The French aviation industry would have benefited, as its American counterpart certainly did in the wake of Lindbergh’s triumph. A more confident, better-armed France might have faced the events of the Thirties with greater resolution. Indeed, France might have stopped Hitler’s march into the Rhineland, leading at the very least to a disastrous loss of face for the nascent Third Reich. Charles Nungesser would not have advocated appeasement, and he would have had the microphone.

All very speculative, I know. But at a time when we’re beset by people telling us that such-and-such is ‘inevitable’ and we must be ‘pragmatic’ (i.e. turn round and drop ‘em, sunshine, this is going to hurt) it is appealing to think that sometimes, at the most crucial moments in history, remarkable individuals can make a difference, for good or ill. It may not be true. But which of us doesn’t want to believe it?
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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

History sometimes rhymes

The government themselves prevented the benefits of cheap money as far as they were able. Having secured cheap money, they refused to use it, and prevented those wom they controlled from doing so. The budgets of 1932 and 1933 were meant to balace, though they did not according to the strict doctrine of financial purity. Even so, they helped to create a psychology of economy, not of spending. The government refused to contemplate a deficit, or even public works on any large scale for the relief of unemployment. Such schemes as the Labour government had inaugurated were cut off. Local authorities were sternly told to limit their expenditure. The building of new schools practially stopped. The making of new roads stopped altogether. A later generation paid a bitter price for this in traffic congestion... Later on, when the economy recovered, the government authorised more public spending. Thus their use of cheap money was directly contrary to modern theory. They refused to spend when the economy was going down; spent when it was going up; and so exaggerated the respective trends instead of smoothing them. More sensible behaviour came from local authorities who embarked on large-scale schemes which could not easily be suspended. Their reward was to be much condemned for "waste".

AJP Taylor, English History 1914-1945 Read the rest of this article

Monday, 24 January 2011

Mad Mel earns her nickname

An article by Melanie Phillips in today's Mail on the subject of "the gay agenda" has caused something of a stir. At one point, her name was the top trending topic on UK Twitter. And it's not difficult to see why. Even by her standards, it was a remarkably over-the-top performance, reading more like the paranoid ramblings of an embittered old soak (or possibly Robert Mugabe) than the considered opinions of a renowned political and social commentator in the national press.

"Schoolchildren," she warned, "are to be bombarded with homosexual references in maths, geography and ­science lessons as part of a Government-backed drive to promote the gay agenda.... Absurd as it sounds, this is but the latest attempt to brainwash children with propaganda under the ­camouflage of ­education. It is an abuse of childhood."

It was, she intoned, "all part of the ruthless campaign by the gay rights lobby to destroy the very ­concept of normal sexual behaviour." Instead of tolerance for all (and she is willing to admit that prejudice against gay people was not always such a great thing) there is now "a kind of bigotry in reverse. Expressing what used to be the moral norm of Western civilisation is now not just socially impermissible, but even turns upstanding people into lawbreakers."

People like B&B proprietors Peter and Hazelmary Bull, that is. Or Hans-Christian Raabe, a Christian doctor who was subjected to an "astonishing attack" after being appointed to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. A man of "robustly traditional views", he had apparently upset some gay members of the committee. Or perhaps they were just using his support for marriage as an excuse for undermining someone who has "criticised the flawed logic behind the claim that it is the illegality of drugs such as ­cannabis that is the problem."

Because this isn't just a gay agenda. It's a gay drug fiend agenda. Given the involvement of the BBC's Mark Easton in the story, it's probably a gay drug-fiend feminist immigrant-loving anti-Israel pro-warmist agenda decreed by Brussels, but perhaps Mel's still working out all the ramifications of the global gay conspiracy. As it is, she can merely mutter darkly that "everything in Britain is now run according to the gay agenda." And that the campaign against Raabe representd "behaviour more commonly associated with totalitarian dictatorships."

Provocative stuff - vintage Phillips, except that even Phillips doesn't usually sound quite so ludicrous. It marked a (terminal?) descent into self-parody, and ridicule is a natural reaction. So unsurprisingly, the indignation which greeted this outpouring attained (as it often does) a kind of rapture. But is such a response helpful?

I don't want to defend Phillips' detailed claims about the "gay agenda", not least because it isn't true. The whole congeries of assumptions, doctrines and laws which go under the banner of "equality and diversity" is too complex and subtle for such a simplistic analysis. It makes no more sense to blame the "gay lobby" for politically correct textbooks than to blame Muslims for some council's decision to drop the word "Christmas" from its midwinter celebrations.

I'm not sure what gay maths is all about (though non-Euclidean geometry always seemed a bit gay to me) or whether schools really are being turned into homosexual indoctrination centres, as Mel Phillips seems to believe. Somehow I doubt it. And as the brilliant Quiet Riot Girl astutely pointed out on Twitter, if there is a "gay agenda" it's more concerned with promoting an essentialist model of sexual identity and orientation than with destabilising society.

Nevertheless, I think we might cut Mad Mel some slack. The other day I noted that the transformation of public morality in Western countries over the space of a mere forty years is almost unprecedented, and that it has left traditionally-minded religious believers and others "morally stranded". Phillips is not exactly wrong when she points out that "values which were once the moral basis for British society are now deemed to be beyond the pale" . You may think this a good thing. But it is inevitable that many people will find it disorienting.

Faced with the world turned upside down in this way, the losers in the culture war - who tend on average to be older, less articulate, less well-educated, certainly less fashionable - will often react with anger, confusion and wild imaginings. Phillips herself of course is neither ignorant nor inarticulate - and however unfashionable her views she is far from unprivileged. Her notion of a "gay agenda" - or more broadly a conspiracy of elitist liberals - is on the one hand quite mad. But it is also a way of making sense of a phenomenon that otherwise must seem quite inexplicable. That someone as intellectually sophisticated as she can be reduced to such anguished blustering reveals much about the cultural chasm that now divides our society. I find it all rather ominous.
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Spam in my inbox

No time at the moment for a proper post, I'm afraid.

But I thought I'd share with you this wonderful opportunity that came my way... which, however, I shall not be taking advantage of:

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For this campaign we are looking for bloggers men and women based in UK or France to help promote this ingenious concept that will bring a bit of je ne sais quoi to your letter box...

********** have received a huge success in both the US and Canada and they are now ready to bring a bit of joie de vivre to Europe.

Each blogger selected for this campaign will receive a free parcel with a pretty panty. If you are interested in taking part in this campaign, please email ***** with the url you will using to review *********** as well as the size requested and a full name and address. Note that we will get in touch if your blog has been selected.

No wonder the OFT is worried about blogs. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Muslims in the news

This is a guest post by LibertyPhile

Baroness Warsi thinks that dislike of Islam is down to a minority (no doubt very small) of Muslims who carry out criminal acts. And of course the "sensationalist media" that "drowns out free discussion" and "inflates controversial stories". But she misses the point. People are not just worried by terrorists. They are worried by what very large numbers of law-abiding Muslims in this country and other places do and say.

Two contrasting sources throw light on media coverage of Islam.

(i) “Images of Islam in the UK - “The Representation of British Muslims in the National Print News Media 2000-2008” (pdf)published by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (CSJ), July 2008

(ii) My blog, which carries extracts and Web links to over 2500 press news stories, analysis and comment concerning Islam and Muslims gathered over the last two years.

CSJ searched the Lexis Nexis database of British newspapers for all stories about British Muslims from 2000 to the end of May 2008. This yielded around 23,000 stories.

The coverage of British Muslims in the British Press increased dramatically after 11th September, 2001. Another significant increase occurred in 2005, the year of the 7th July attacks, although coverage continued to increase further in 2006, reaching a level 12 times higher than in 2000. See Table 1

Table 1 - Stories about British Muslims over time

YearNumber of Stories

The Lexis Nexis stories were used to construct a sample of just under a thousand articles (974) which were selected from five alternate years from 2000 to 2008. By selecting alternate years CSJ avoided the terrorist attacks in September 2001 and July 2005. CSJ categorised all the stories in this sample by ‘news hook’, the main focus of the story or the element that makes it newsworthy.

Table 2 - Prominence of news hooks in alternate years from 2000 to 2008

News Hook20002002200420062008
Religious cultural issues208122732
Muslim extremism38141110
Politics & public affairs1088108

The initial rise is clearly tied to the increase in terrorism and terrorism related stories and they continue to account for nearly a third of all stories in later years of the study period 2006 – 2008.

However, since the initial rise, the proportion of stories on religious and cultural issues has also grown and become more important reaching nearly a third of all stories in the later years. So by 2008, 27% of the stories concerned terrorism, criminal activity, and 42% (32%+10%) concerned religious and cultural issues and extremism.

This is a very one-sided account of just five news reports and the reader is given only the CSJ interpretation. Three of these news reports were:

Nazi UK

Though Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, then head of the Muslim Council of Britain, when interviewed by the Daily Telegraph never used the word Nazi, he was accused in very strong terms of comparing Britain to Nazi Germany. Headlines included “Fury as Muslim brands Britain 'Nazi”, “Comparisons to Nazi Germany inaccurately reflect Muslim status in Britain”.

What he actually said was: "Every society has to be really careful so the situation doesn't lead us to a time when people's minds can be poisoned as they were in the 1930s.”.

CSJ might have posed the question what did Dr Bari actually have in mind when referring to the 1930s? Was it high unemployment, the abdication crisis, or was it just possibly the Nazi persecution of the Jews?

Sharia Law in Britain

Dr Rowan William, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that aspects of Sharia law could be adopted in the UK. CSJ are highly critical of the storm of protest that this met: his remarks were decontextualised, exaggerated; Sharia was equated with brutal punishments; the Archbishop was delegitimised, he was ridiculed, the Star called him “a prize chump”.

CSJ might have paid some attention to the large volume of well-informed criticism of the Archbishop’s speech and what it might or might not have meant and they could have mentioned that judges in the House of Lords described Sharia rules on child custody as ‘arbitrary and discriminatory’ or considered the letter that one Muslim woman wrote to the papers:

"Sir, I shudder to think of the repercussions for Muslim women if British law recognises decisions made by Sharia councils .... For Sharia judges to question a woman’s motives for divorce and pressure her socially and financially to remain in an unfulfilling and possibly dangerous marriage is antiquated at best and deadly at worst. Decisions made by Sharia councils have no room in British law."

And they could have mentioned how Muslim women in Canada fought successfully against Sharia family tribunals.

‘No-Go’ Areas - Self Segregation and Colonisation from Within

The then Bishop of Rochester, Dr Nazir Ali, wrote a comment article that criticised the ‘novel philosophy of “multiculturalism”’ and warned of the emergence of ‘nogo’ areas for non-Muslims in certain areas of the UK.

CSJ complain the ‘”No go” areas’ story … invokes a proactively ‘self-segregating’ Muslim community within Britain: an alien culture colonising Britain from within and dismissive of extant British norms and practices”. As would be journalists you might think the CSJ authors of this study would have gone to a so-called no go area to examine the truth of Dr Ali’s comments. If they did it isn’t mentioned.

They might have interviewed non-Muslims like the vicar’s wife who calls her account of her stay in a part of Birmingham “A stranger in my own land” and how local police described the neighbourhood to her as a “no-go” area.

The Liberty Phile carries Web links to over 2500 press news stories, analysis and comment.
You can read news stories and judge their significance and credibility for yourself.

It is my contention that Muslims inspired by their faith do and say a great number of things from the trivial to the very important that annoy, puzzle or repulse non-Muslims. The problem has little to do with the media and a lot to do with Muslims, ordinary law-abiding Muslims.
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Friday, 21 January 2011

Lady Warsi's problematic distinction

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi's Sternberg lecture, delivered at Leicester University yesterday, was a bizarre and rather alarming rant against opponents of all religion, especially her own. Intellectually, it was utterly vacuous. Its tone was churlish and more than a little paranoid. Some of her remarks struck me as dangerously naive. She may have been "got at" by Islamists (Harry's Place carried an interesting piece that discussed, among other things, her friendship with Lord Ahmed, the somewhat dodgy Labour peer). Her presence around the cabinet table suddenly seems troubling - as does the fact that so well-integrated and successful a British Muslim as she can harbour such thoughts.

I don't want to waste too much space discussing whether or not Warsi was justified in her claim that "Islamophobia" is rife in modern Britain, or whether (if it exists) it is necessarily irrational or a manifestation of religious ignorance. She seems oblivious to the distinction between Polly Toynbee's Islamophobia (a principled objection to the theology and practice of Islam, especially to the intolerant version that is currently in the ascendant worldwide) and that of the BNP. It is, of course, this distinction that is deliberately obscured by the neologism "Islamophobia" - that is largely the purpose of the word. Warsi's mental befuddlement is caught well by this pair of sentences:

Islamophobia should be seen as totally abhorrent – just like homophobia or Judeophobia – because any phobia is by definition the opposite of a philosophy. A phobia is an irrational fear.

A staggeringly stupid remark by any standards. Unlike (say) fear of spiders or closed spaces, which are indeed psychological phenomena, proper phobias, Islamophobia is a recent and artificial construct, a concept inseparable from the ideology of those who coined it. Some would argue that fear of Islam - certainly political Islam - is wholly justified. At any rate, when Polly Toynbee cheerfully admitted to Islamophobia she was not claiming to be irrational.

But I want to tackle something else that caused a stir, which is Warsi's remarks about "extremism", in particular her objection to the commonly made distinction between "extreme" and "moderate" Muslims:

We need to stop talking about moderate Muslims, and instead talk about British Muslims. And when it comes to extremism, we should be absolutely clear: These people are extremists, plain and simple, because their behaviour has detached them from the thought process within their religion.

Warsi's formulation turns the notion of an "Islamic extremist" on its head. It implies that extremists are less Muslim than "moderates", not more so. A comforting thought. But is it true?

Sam Harris has said that "the problem with Islamic fundamentalism are the fundamentals of Islam". He points out that Muslim extremism wouldn't be so much of a problem if violence in the service of the faith and discrimination against non-believers had not been mainstream themes in Islam since the day the prophet Mohammed raised his sword against his former fellow-citizens of Mecca. The form religious extremism takes, on this view, depends on the religion that is being too-enthusiastically implemented. Extremist Jains - Harris's example - take extraordinary pains not to tread on an insect. Indeed, some starve themselves to death as an act of ultimate devotion. That is true "extremism" - an example of the dangers of taking even the most peaceful of creeds too seriously. But at least no-one else gets killed.

On this analysis, an "extremist" Christian would perhaps be someone like St Francis of Assisi, who took literally Christ's request to the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. But over the centuries, Christian extremism has taken numerous other forms. St Simeon Stylites spent more than thirty years standing on top of a pillar as (I suppose) some sort of Christian gesture. St Catharine of Siena drank pus. St Hugh of Lincoln ate the bones of another (deceased) saint. (A lot of these strange people were made saints, for some reason.) Jesus never recommended such behaviour. Nor did he exhort his followers to kill unbelievers (he did say "I came not to bring peace but a sword", but the sword was purely metaphorical - even if history has proven the remark sadly prophetic). The monks who murdered Hypatia in a church in Alexandria, the Spanish Inquisitors, the murderers of abortion doctors, the Rev Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, all were or are Christian extremists, doing extreme things inspired by aspects of their religion, taken to an extreme.

On the other hand, Catholic and Protestant terrorists in Northern Ireland have been Christians, and extremist, but not Christian extremists. Rather, they are political extremists who use religion as a badge of identity.

With Islam, the distinction is harder to draw. On the one hand, Islamic extremists - violent or merely ideological - act and think in ways that are very similar to the way in which political extremists have always thought or acted. But on the other, in doing so they draw plausibly upon Islamic history and tradition. It may be that violent or intolerant political Islam represents a perversion of what Tony Blair likes to call "the true faith of Islam". But if so, it is a remarkably pervasive and persuasive one - as recent events in Pakistan make clear. It's not the only Islam, and perhaps not the majority Islam, but it is a visible, energetic and growing Islam - and in Islamic terms, therefore, not particularly extreme.

Is Islamic extremism, then, political extremism cloaked in the language of religion or the political manifestation of a religiously extreme worldview? Of course, it's both. That's the problem.
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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Winners and losers in a moral revolution

A few words on the "gay hotel ban" case, mainly to recommend this thoughtful and measured response by sex-law blogger Chris Ashford, which stands out amongst the jeering, triumphalism and moaning that has made up most of the online comment on all sides. As he charitably notes, however unfashionable their views the hotel owners "consider themselves good decent people [who] try to live their life as good citizens." I haven't changed my own mind substantially since commenting on a similar case last April (the one that sank Chris Grayling's chances of becoming Home Secretary).

To my mind, the most striking thing about Judge Rutherford's ruling was its acknowledgement of the magnitude of the social change that the equality law embodies. "The standards and principles governing our behaviour which were unquestioningly accepted in one generation may not be so accepted in the next," he said. In many areas - the judge also mentioned corporal punishment in schools, suicide and the laws restricting smoking - what may loosely described as the liberal agenda (though it is not always particularly "liberal") has achieved an almost complete capture of the public sphere in the space of forty years, not just in Britain but throughout the Western world. Perhaps only the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century comes close - and that was a slower process. It would be surprising if it did not meet some resistance. It is surprising that the resistance has been relatively muted.

Modern acceptance of gay sexuality in particular (which I fully endorse) represents a moral revolution as dramatic as any in history. Attitudes that were common currency for centuries are now unacceptable in polite company. What was once considered unmentionable now enjoys state approbation. Such is progress; but it has left people who have stayed true to traditional religious teachings (and most religions, not just evangelical Christianity, have always taken an extremely negative view of homosexuality) in an uncomfortable position. They have not changed. Society has reordered itself around them, leaving them morally stranded. As they become fewer in number, so the social and legal pressure against them becomes more extensive and oppressive. You don't have to agree with their views to have some degree of sympathy for their predicament. Read the rest of this article

Service announcement

Expect blogging to be intermittent, at best, during the next few weeks as I undergo the upheaval of a house move and relocation to a different part of the country. I'll try to put up the odd piece if I find the time but I can no longer promise a regular service. I expect to be still hanging around on Twitter much of the time.

During this partial hiatus, I'm especially open to guest posts. If there's anything you'd like to contribute, please get in touch - heresycorner[at] Read the rest of this article

Monday, 17 January 2011

Any suggestions?

Christopher Hitchens on fine form about what he calls "the hideousness of Islamic jihadism", and in particular its unpredictability:

Amid all our loose talk about Muslim "grievances," have we even noticed that no such bill of grievances has ever been published, let alone argued and defended? Every now and then an excuse is offered, but usually after the bomb has gone off in the crowded street or the "offending" person has been eliminated. Sérgio Vieira de Mello was murdered, and the U.N. offices in Baghdad leveled along with him, because he had helped oversee the independence of East Timor. Many Australian tourists in Bali were burned alive on the same retrospective pretext. Or it could be a cartoon. Or an unveiled woman. Or the practice of the "wrong" kind of Islam—Ahmadi, for example, or Shiism. Or the practice of Hinduism. Or the publication of a novel. But the sinister, hateful thing about all these discrepant "causes" is precisely the fact that they are improvised and to a large extent unpredictable. That, and the fact that no effort is ever made to say precisely why the resort to violence is so immediate and its practice so random and indiscriminate.

Of course, it's easier to pose the question than to work out how we can deal with it. Hitchens was writing in the wake of the murder of Salmaan Taseer by the fanatic Mumtaz Qadri and the extraordinary reaction to it: the outpouring of support from religious and political leaders in Pakistan for the murderer. That incident ought to remove all doubt that a virulent and corrosive poison has infected the body of Islam - mainstream Islam - in many of its historic centres and will not be expelled by warm words, concessions, self-abasement or more "understanding". There are many Muslims with fine intentions and a peaceful disposition, but even the scholars among them are now powerless to do anything about the hotheads. Even by speaking up they risk their lives. I feel for them, but they are not the solution. I increasingly worry that there is no solution. Islam is doomed, and much of human civilisation with it.

Any suggestions? Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Is it wrong to "treat" homosexuality?

Via Twitter, the Conservative MEP Roger Helmer asks an "interesting" question:

Why is it OK for a surgeon to perform a sex-change operation, but not OK for a psychiatrist to try to "turn" a consenting homosexual?

It's interesting because it hints at hypocrisies on two sides of a question. It's a bit like asking a Southern Baptist why he opposes abortion on the grounds that only God can take life, and yet supports capital punishment; or (a question I myself posed on Twitter recently) why in "liberal" circles it's acceptable to blame the actions of a disturbed Arizona gunman on the rhetoric of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, while condemning Jack Straw for "smearing" British Pakistani culture when he pointed out that criminal gangs preying on vulnerable young girls were often brought up with a low opinion of Western women? Helmer's question also works just as well backwards: there will be many who oppose sex changes while supporting "sexuality modification" of the type promoted by Christian therapist Lesley Pilkington, who is facing disciplinary action by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy after her work was "exposed" by an undercover gay activist.

In Helmer's case, his poser provoked many on Twitter to splutterings of outrage. Here's a selection of reactions:

You, Sir, are a disgrace and I'm ashamed you're one of my representatives

How do these people get elected?!

Does anyone know if there is any therapy available to "turn" @RogerHelmerMEP away from being a small-minded homophobe?

You are a moron. I can't be bothered even demonstrating the various holes in your idiotic statement. Get a grip.

Etc, etc. Some responses were more nuanced, the politest suggesting that while one procedure is possible, the other isn't. But even if true, that wouldn't quite answer the question. What Helmer was driving at was not the practicability of either procedure, but rather its moral status. And the replies he received strongly suggest that, for many, while sex-change is self-evidently a good thing, sexuality-change is equally self-evidently wrong. So much that the merest hint of support for it is enough to have one labelled a "homophobe".

I have no idea whether or not Roger Helmer is a homophobe. But his personal feelings towards gay people are in any case irrelevant. The question he raises is, indeed, worthy of consideration. Nor am I convinced by David Allen Green's suggestion that "Helmer is confusing the distinct issues of gender identity and sexual preference." Too lawyerly. They are indeed distinct issues; but the strength of feeling engendered by Helmer's suggestion points to something more at play than a technical distinction.

So let's take it in two parts. Is there anything wrong with a sex-change operation? In my uncontroversial view, provided the person having the change is fully aware of the consequences, such a procedure is almost wholly beneficial. No-one enters into such revolutionary surgery lightly. Typically, it comes after years of the misery of living in the "wrong" body. The feelings may stem from an underlying physical, hormonal or genetic cause, or they may be entirely psychological. They may be present from early childhood or develop only in middle age. But for most people in this situation, the sense of alienation between mind and biology is overwhelming. To deny transsexuals their one salvation would be an act of cruelty. I also set great store by personal autonomy. In any case, to me it is sufficient that someone wants to change their sex. Even if it were done on a whim and later regretted, that would not make it wrong, merely foolish.

While there are some who would deny on philosophical or religious grounds that it is possible to turn a man into a woman, many post-operative transsexuals have little trouble passing the walking duck test. Whether or not it is possible to "turn" a gay person straight (or, for that matter, a straight person gay) remains a hugely contested question. Even to pose it calls into play the very understanding of "sexuality". Is it something innate? God-given? A matter of environment? Is it amenable to free will or conscious choice? Is it fixed or fluid? Is there, indeed, such a thing as "sexual orientation" at all?

Modern western society, including officialdom, seems to have decided that there is, and that it is binary - or at most tripartite. You are gay, or straight, or possibly bisexual, and you'd better make up your mind because there's a box to be ticked on the new diversity survey. The law now puts people into categories based on the sex of the people they live with or find themselves attracted to. Personally, I find this a bizarre way to classify human beings in all their richness and paradox; but then I have an unreconstructed pre-digital mindset, and am fully aware of my own anachronism.

I was struck by a remark - not unlike Helmer's - made by Pilkington's nemesis Patrick Strudwick (who described the therapy he secretly taped as "chilling"):

If a black person goes to a GP and says I want skin bleaching treatment, that does not put the onus on the practitioner to deliver the demands of the patient. It puts the onus on the health care practitioner to behave responsibly.

For Strudwick, sexual orientation is evidently as fixed as racial identity. But what then of gender identity? Might not a white person have a strong conviction that inside them was a black person trying to get out, that they were born in the "wrong body"? The suggestion will strike many as offensive. Yet genetically, race scarcely exists - there can be more variability within a particular racial group than between different races. Race is purely superficial. It has no more intrinsic significance than eye colour. Modern society has however insisted that it is fixed, classifiable (another box to tick) and determinative of personal identity. But if your identity is bound up with your race, why in a free society should you not be able to "change" it cosmetically, in the same way that you can change your gender, or just the shape of your nose?

Lesley Pilkington takes a straightforwardly religious (many would say bigoted) line on sexual orientation. God, she believes, created everyone heterosexual but "some people have a homosexual problem" caused by upbringing or environment. The alternative is, I suppose, too horrible to contemplate. If homosexual orientation is (as research increasingly suggests that it is) innate, or at least has a significant genetic component, then the notion that God creates everyone heterosexual becomes impossible to sustain. You have rather to say, with the Pope, that some people have a "strong tendency to an intrinsic moral evil"; though that raises the obvious question of why God would (as Christopher Hitchens put it) "create people sick and command them to be well". Or you could take the evidence as suggesting that God actually wants some people to be gay; in which case you merely have to throw away the Bible.

Yet to say that there's a genetic component in homosexuality (or even that it can be explained in Darwinian terms) is not to deny the influence either of culture or of individual choice. Our genes are expressed in culture, after all. And even if the genetic basis is proved, there will still be people without the "gay gene" who are gay, and others who have the "gay" gene without the homosexual feelings. The modern view of homosexuality as an "orientation" would have made little sense even in the era of Oscar Wilde (married, not unhappily, with children) and may - who knows? - seem equally strange to our descendants. In ancient Athens male homosexuality - in a particular, culturally endorsed form - was all but universal; yet while it was expected that a man would take a younger man as his lover it would have caused bemusement if he did not also have a wife. Can an entire civilisation be bisexual? Quite possibly it can. But where does that leave the notion of innate, or biologically determined, sexuality?

Back to Lesley Pilkington. She denies that she believes homosexuality is a "disease", claiming rather to be "helping people move out of that lifestyle because they are depressed and unhappy." As far as I can ascertain, she does not seek aggressively for patients. They come to her.

The SOCE method involves behavioural, psychoanalytical and religious techniques. Homosexual men are sent on weekends away with heterosexual men to “encourage their masculinity” and “in time to develop healthy relationships with women”, said Mrs Pilkington.

She also says, "I have been able to help my son" - who is, however, "still gay." This might suggest that her therapy is not always effective. It's not clear, though, that her son is as unhappy with his sexuality as Mrs Pilkington is. Others more deeply convinced of their desire to be heterosexual might have more success with the "treatment".

The official position of the Royal College of Psychiatrists is that "there is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be exchanged" and that "so-called treatments of homosexuality create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination flourish". The first may factually be true (though that does mean that there are no people who believe that their sexuality has indeed been changed). The second is more questionable, but gets to the nub of the objections. Even if the treatment were effective, it implies, it would be politically unacceptable for reasons that have nothing to do with therapy. It is not just the treatments offered by therapists like Pilkington that are suspected; more importantly, it is the motives behind them.

Behind such a statement, which is far from unique to the RCP, may lurk the fear that if sexual orientation can be chosen - or might changed by an act of will - then the whole edifice of modern sexuality theory, which is premised on essentialism, will be imperilled. And with it the tolerance. For, politically, discrimination against gay people has been challenged by denying that sexuality can be chosen (and thus is "not their fault"), rather than on the more truly liberal grounds that free people have the right to live their lives in whatever way they choose.

Sexual freedom includes being gay, straight, bisexual, polyamorous, kinky, asexual or a virgin. It also includes being dissatisfied with one's feelings and attempting to change them. Human sexuality is not just a matter of instinct, after all. It is possible to be morally and intellectually committed to a certain lifestyle (monogamy,say) while finding it hard to live up to. As many married people have found. Evolutionary psychologists of the type so often quoted in the Daily Mail like to claim that, for men, promiscuity may be "natural" - a way of spreading their genes. But that doesn't make adultery "right", or the sexual double standard acceptable in the modern world; these can only be moral questions. And moral questions are in the end for individuals to decide.

You may not like it, but some people combine strong homosexual tendencies with a religious commitment to a heterosexual lifestyle. One the one hand, they feel sexually satisfied only in gay relationships; on the other, they feel morally dissatisfied in those same relationships. If they "try" heterosexuality, they fail, hurting both themselves and their opposite-sex partner. Either way, they are miserable. What is such a person to do? In my mind, only the individual can supply the answer. The problem with the RCP's position is its paternalism, its assertion not just of scientific but of moral certainty. It may be that therapies offered by Lesley Pilkington and her like don't work. That is not the same as asserting that sexuality-change therapies cannot work - such a statement is altogether too dogmatic and anyone making it has crossed the line separating science from moralism. If there is a genuine demand for treatment, then the proper response to the failure of current therapies is to work towards the development of a more effective one.

I also wonder if Patrick Strudwick would be quite so outraged by the thought of heterosexuals pleading with psychiatrists to turn them gay
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Thursday, 13 January 2011

Saudi bloggers now free to support government and extol Islamic law

Saudi Arabia has introduced draconian new restrictions on blogging. Henceforth, blogs will be redesignated "electronic newspapers". Anyone running a blog will have to register their details - and that of their web hosts - with the authorities. Only full Saudi citizens aged over twenty, in possession of a high school diploma and approved by the government will be allowed to comment on current affairs at all, and their output will be carefully monitored for any controversial remarks about religion or politics. And it will be compulsory to include on every webpage a message proclaiming to unbelievers the necessity of converting to Islam.

Even posters on online forums and members of chatrooms are being "encouraged" to register their details with the authorities. For their own protection, of course; although as the report on Fast Company points out, the Saudi government "has a long history of jailing bloggers who write about politics, corruption or religion. " Three topics that are so closely entwined in that country that it's usually impossible to tell where one ends and another begins.

That's Saudi Arabia for you. It does demonstrate, though, how the much-vaunted freedom (or anarchy) of online discussion is to a large extent a product of governments' inertia or tolerance when it comes to regulation, rather than their inability to do so. A couple of years ago a report for the European Parliament recommended some type of regulatory regime for blogs. The Estonian socialist who compiled the report was particularly concerned about the "undetermined and unindicated status of authors and publishers" and the need for a "mark of quality" to single out EU approved blogging. The proposals didn't get very far. At least not on that occasion. But some Eurocrats will no doubt be casting envious eyes in the direction of Riyadh. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Kiss N Tell, Grauniad style

So it turns out that, as part of his important inquiries into "domestic extremism" - aka environmental protests - undercover policeman Michael Kennedy had sexual relationships with various female protesters. Doubtless it was necessary to preserve his cover. It was tricky enough to explain his non-vegan eating habits. Refusal to sleep with hippy girls would have raised serious questions about his commitment to the cause. And he could scarcely have introduced them to his wife, who - apart from anything else - had to be kept in the dark for reasons of national security.

The Guardian is fairly salivating at the tale of Anna, a European eco-activist who met Kennedy in 2005 at the tender age of 21. We learn that she "had sex with him more than 20 times" during the course of a few months, a statistic whose relevance to the story of police tactics is I confess lost on me. Admittedly the sex is not described in any great detail, as it would be if the Sun or the News of the World were covering the incident, but we are treated to the news that Anna "knew he was seeing other people at the same time" and that allegedly the cop "also had a long-term relationship with a woman in Nottingham".

Read to the bottom of the story and you find this plea for more dirt:

Did you know Mark Kennedy?

I believe the Screws traditionally end their exposés of rutting footballers and the like with a similar request to ex-lovers to sell their story.

Mind you, this being the Guardian, even an old-fashioned kiss 'n' tell has to be incorporated within a narrative of female victimhood and gender politics. There's a concentration on the woman's feelings of "violation" on discover that her casual lover was picking up a police salary. She was "questioning whether this [sleeping with women] was a tactic – or part of his task – to become more trusted or respected within the scene" and if, therefore, he was effectively being paid to sleep with her. If you think about that, that makes him the prostitute, rather than her, but the Guardian can't put "sex" and "money" without turning the story into one of female exploitation.

Quiet Riot Girl - whose promising new blog is devoted to the Grauniad and its not-so-hidden agendas - has much more to say about the meaning of "violation" in this context and how it can easily be stretched:

Words are very subtle and important things. Journalists use particular words for a reason. This word, ‘violated’ fell into the Guardian’s hands who grabbed it and ran.

I wonder what words the woman will use to describe her feelings when she sees the story in the paper. I wonder if she might agree with me that they have taken her sense of ‘violation’ and used it for their own ends?

I think the word I might use is ‘exploited’. But that’s a loaded term too.

The whole post's well worth a read. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Off with her head

So the Queen will not lose her head. New legislation will "safeguard" the monarchical visage, ensuring that it remains on British stamps after the Royal Mail is privatised. Thus is the symbol of the national unity and essence - no doubt appropriately - reduced to a branding design and auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Far from being a victory for Tradition, this decision is fundamentally tacky and dishonest.

What does the Queen's head on the stamps signify? The same, surely, as her head on the coinage - that the Royal Mail is not a private company but in some way an expression of the State: that its stamps are official. Like passports and Acts of Parliament, stamps are issued in the Queen's name, just as in more constitutionally transparent countries they are issued in the name of the people. It is not Mrs Elizabeth Windsor who appears on stamps, coins and banknotes, but the symbol and expression of national sovereignty. The royal silhouette does the job that elsewhere in the world is performed by the name of the country of origin. Significantly, Scottish banknotes - which are issued by private companies rather than in the name of the official Bank of England - do not feature the Queen. Her image does not appear even on notes issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was founded by Royal Charter and is currently 84% owned by the taxpayer. Admittedly, there are some pubs that call themselves The Queen's Head without anyone suspecting that what goes on inside enjoys royal approbation. But they tend to carry images of dead queens: Victoria, the first Elizabeth, or (most appropriately) Anne Boleyn. The profile of the reigning monarch implies the imprimatur of the State.

If the Royal Mail becomes privatised, it will cease to be by the Queen's authority that the post is delivered and the postal service will cease to be the prerogative of the State. It may not even be British: "German and Dutch operators are expected to be leading bidders in the sell-off." That may be well and good. Margaret Thatcher once said - a long time ago - that by its very nature the Royal Mail could never be privatised. But that statement merely demonstrated how unchangeable some aspects of the status quo can appear even to a natural radical. Indeed it is largely a matter of historical accident that the postal service developed as a state concern. And it's a strange idea, if a pervasive one, that national identity should somehow reside in a small square of adhesive paper. So long as letters and parcels are efficiently delivered, it doesn't matter who owns the rights of distribution. But if they are no longer the Queen's stamps, why must - or should - they continue to bear her image? To feature an official emblem of the British state on what is basically a payment receipt of a private enterprise cheapens the one and disguises the other.

The whole "debate" is, of course, irrelevant to the real issue, which is whether or not it is a good idea to privatise the mail service. But its very irrelevance is the point. By such specious debates the true point of principle is deliberately obscured. When the possibility of Britain joining the Euro was being considered, proponents were anxious to reassure the public that a space would be found on the coins (if not the notes) for Her Maj, squeezed into the space between a circle of twelve EU stars. Thus they hoped to disarm patriotic opposition. Here, the privatisers seek to persuade sceptics that the postal service will still somehow be Hers, and therefore Ours, even when it isn't.

Off with her head, I say. Read the rest of this article

I agree with Inayat

Who writes:

The Guardian today has a very hard-hitting editorial about the assassination of the Pakistani governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and the continuing demands from many (not just some religious extremist groups) who want a Christian lady, Asia Bibi, to be killed for alleged blasphemy. The Guardian quotes Pakistan’s second largest Urdu newspaper as actively endorsing the killing of Asia Bibi.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws must rank amongst the most unjust laws in the world. They are notoriously prone to abuse by all manner of unscrupulous people with grudges to settle, particularly against members of vulnerable minority groups.

The very visible and sad moral collapse of Pakistan that we are witnessing – the seemingly endless suicide bombers, tit-for-tat sectarian killings, corruption levels rivalling Nigeria etc, should be a huge cause of concern to all Muslims. At the very least, Pakistan has buried the idea that an ‘Islamic State’ can be a workable solution in today’s world. The truth is that Muslims in power are every bit as prone to abusing that power as non-Muslims. Only, most ‘Islamic states’ or ‘Islamic republics’ do not have anywhere near the same legal safeguards and restrictions on power that most modern secular states do.

The irony here is that Inayat Bunglawala has devoted most of his life to raising the political consciousness of Muslims, as Muslims; to placing a private religious identity firmly in the public sphere in Britain; to championing (what he has described as the Muslim Council of Britain's most signficant achievement) "a greater sense of faith identity among British Muslims in place of the outdated and mostly irrelevant ‘ethnic’ based categories of yesteryear." What we are seeing in Pakistan - established under Jinnah as a secular country, but one explicitly for Muslims - is precisely what happens when you let religion (above all this particular religion) form the basis of political organisation. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 6 January 2011

An extreme test case

Two developments today in the ongoing saga of the Extreme Images ban, one farcical, the other potentially of far-reaching significance.

(In case you're not au fait with the background, this is the crime, invented by the last government in its 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (s.63) which makes it an offence to possess any "explicit and realistic" image that depicts certain violent or life-threatening acts in what is deemed to be a sexual context. Its supporters believed that the law was necessary to prevent copycat murders; opponents felt it was targeting perfectly legitimate forms of sexual expression. See (for example) here. In fact, people with no interest whatever in "deviant" sexuality have ended up being caught when arrested for something else and police found viral videos on their mobile phones - as in last year's notorious "tiger porn" case in Wrexham.)

The farce, highlighted by Jane Fae in the Register, involves Northumbria police, who wanted to charge someone on the basis of a single "extreme" image. Sadly for them, according to the CPS "the defence requested details of where the image was on the computer and when the computer was checked, the image was no longer there." Self-deleting porn? It could be the next big thing.

Much more serious was the case of Kevin Webster, who has been on trial in Stafford charged with possessing a number of "extreme" images that unlike the tiger-porn did actually originate on a fetish website called Drop Dead Gorgeous. Yet by most standards, the four images put before the court were not particularly extreme. One showed no more than a woman pretending to drown in a bath, while others featured knives. It's not entirely clear how the case ended up in court, though there is a suggestion that the site from which Webster downloaded the pictures included (unknown to him) a link to a child-porn website. Although there was no paedophile material on his computer, and although he had downloaded the image before the 2008 Act came into force, the CPS decided to prosecute him anyway. And so Webster was facing up to three years in prison for possessing pictures that resembled stills from an old Hammer Horror film.

As the prosecutor admitted to the jury:

We know the images were fake, we know it isn't a knife in someone's breast. The question is whether it is realistic or portrayed in that way. You have to be satisfied the people in those images are real. Plainly they are. The intentions of the persons within those images, the actors and actresses, are irrelevant. It is what is depicted in those images which is material.

This is important, because stills taken from a Hammer film - to say nothing of more recent (and much more realistic) mainstream horror - even if passed by the BBFC might well form the basis of a prosecution if the police or CPS believe that the picture or sequence was extracted "for the purpose of sexual arousal".

The case represented an important test of s.63. For the first time (at least in a case of intentional downloading of "sexual" images) a defendant pleaded Not Guilty; and for the first time a case went before a jury. Previously, charges of possessing extreme porn have been uncontested. They have also tended to involve images of animal abuse, whose illegality is less controversial, or been charged alongside child porn offences. Here were pictures that were admittedly consensual and obviously staged, and yet appeared to fall within the definition of the Act. In many ways this was the case that campaigners against the law have been waiting for.

The defence - which was advised by the anti-censorship group Backlash - called two expert witnesses, Professor Feona Attwood of Sheffield Hallam University and Dr Clarissa Smith of the University of Sunderland. They are probably the leading academic authorities in the field, and together wrote the definitive study of how the new law came into being - Extreme Concern: Regulating "dangerous pictures" in the UK (available in pdf here). It was Attwood who made the Hammer Horror comparison. Webster himself didn't take the stand.

The news came this afternoon that Webster has been cleared. Had he been convicted, it could well have opened the floodgates to many more such prosecutions. Will his acquittal have the opposite effect, and make the CPS think twice about their own definitions of extreme pornography? It's interesting that while male prosecutor Darron Whitehead told the court (somewhat in the spirit of Mervyn Griffith-Jones) that the law was needed "to safeguard the decency of society and for the protection of women", two female academics and a predominantly female jury disagreed. But the law remains very much active. Late last year a man was jailed for ten months in Cornwall for possessing what the investigating police officer described in court as the most "depraved, abusive and cruel pictures and movie files" he had ever encountered. I've no details, but presumably these did not look like stills from a Hammer Horror. But with a law so widely drafted and open to interpretation it's often impossible to tell what is actually being prosecuted and why. (Pandora - also writing today - has a useful round-up of some other notable uses of s 63.)

If this illiberal law (which seems unlikely to fall victim to Nick Clegg's much-anticipated Freedom Bill, despite a vociferous campaign to have it repealed) has any justification, then it should be restricted to cases which appear to feature images of actual sexual violence and abuse. In other words, for "realistic" to be interpreted as meaning "likely to be real". The vast majority of such material, even the most "extreme", is however known to be staged. Some of the participants, indeed, are articulate advocates for their subculture. Several have their own blogs, while fans of the genre, as Clarissa Smith told the court, know and recognise the regular performers who "play dead" for the camera. We are dealing with pure fantasy. It's good to know ordinary members of a jury can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, even if the law and its enforcers decide that the distinction doesn't matter.
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Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The truth about male sexuality

Following the still baffling murder of Jo Yeates, police in Bristol have released their now-traditional warning to women not to go out alone after dark. The message prompted Joan Smith, in the Independent, to wonder why men weren't being asked to stay indoors so that women could feel safer.

Making local women feel even more vulnerable isn't helpful, especially when the advice they're being offered is next to useless. What's needed is the reassurance of extra patrols, police travelling on buses at night, and a much greater readiness on the part of officers to look out for and challenge men on dark streets. And if you think that's a breach of civil liberties, it's no more so than expecting half the population to stay at home after dark.

As Julia points, out, "there is a vast, yawning gulf between issuing sensible instructions to a possible vulnerable group... and suggesting that 50% of the population be regarded with suspicion purely due to their genitalia!" Both the official advice and Smith's response to it are deeply patronising to both sexes, part of a pervasive narrative that demonises men and encourages women to jump at shadows. The proper response is not to "make the streets safer", as Smith wants, nor to frighten women into staying indoors, but to spread the news that the streets are safer today than they have ever been. Random tragedies occasionally happen, but it remains the case that the vast majority of street violence is male-on-male and fuelled by alcohol rather than psychopathic criminality.

The myth of the street corner rapist (the myth being that he represents a common or pervasive danger to women generally) is part of the pathologising of male sexuality - the view that sees men in terms of a latent capacity for sexual violence, and women as their potential victims. Even radical feminists admit that all men are not rapists, but the notion that they have the potential to be, or that misogyny is somehow intrinsic to the normal male make-up, has proved remarkably influential. Ironically, the main effect of this mindset is to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes - stereotypes that otherwise feminists would want to reject.

And of course it is nonsense. As this excellent post by Sexademic Jessi Fischer makes clear, the belief in "brutish" male sexuality rests on some seriously dodgy science. It is a myth that testosterone makes men more aggressive, for example. If anything, research suggests that raised testosterone in males enhances co-operative behaviour. Equally unsupported are the notions that men are naturally more promiscuous than women because they have billions of sperm, and that women are sexually more selective because they bear the costs of pregnancy and childcare. Social expectations are far more powerful than underlying biology in promoting certain patterns of behviour. Fischer concludes that despite its dubiousness, "In social debates about sexuality, this narrative is repeatedly employed to inaccurately discuss porn, justify rape and reinforce restrictive gender stereotypes."

I wouldn't say that claiming that rape is an expression of male sexual behaviour is to "justify" it, but even placing it within a spectrum of reproductive strategies stigmatises male sexuality as a whole, turns the most beautiful thing in the world into the ugliest. The rapist is not an extreme instance of the male sex drive but more like an inversion of it. To view the phenomenon of heterosexual male desire through the lens of violence, aggression and misogyny is fundamentally to misunderstand it. Because it's not just the case that most men are not rapists. It is that men are least like rapists - least predatory, least aggressive, least driven by base instincts - when they are in pursuit of women. Sex doesn't turn men into brutes. It turns them into poets.

Much the most striking characteristic of heterosexual male desire is its gentleness. It can turn the toughest, most macho of men into tender lovers. It is life-affirming and transformative. It promotes grand, unrealistic romantic gestures, discovers depths of sensitivity and altruism, opens the wallets of misers, makes the loudmouth stammer and the tongue-tied eloquent. Male sexuality has given the world its sublimest music, poetry and art. (It may even be the case that the intense aestheticism sometimes found in gay men comes from their need to replicate the beauty that straight men get from their relationships with women.) It is a noble thing, too: a man who truly loves a woman will literally die for her. The pitch of desire does not last forever. Work usually intervenes, and all the practical business of life. Domesticity - or disillusion - replaces ardour. But while it persists it gains a temporary victory over that most pervasive feature of male psychology, the ego. It is when a man is most driven by sex that he is most selfless, open-hearted and vulnerable.

When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky
You can bet that he's doing it for some doll.

Ah yes, but isn't romance just a rigmarole men have to go through in order to get a woman into bed? Even if it were, it would not be a bad thing. And it might be questioned why they should bother when, brutes that they are, they could simply physically overpower the woman and rape her? But no. The need to woo, to gain the affection (however temporary) and not just the body of a woman is important psychologically to most men. Even if it's an illusion - which is why escorts offering a "girlfriend experience" command higher prices and a regular clientele. Another question: why do women fake orgasms? Answer: because men want to think that they are giving their partner pleasure. And women are sometimes too tender-hearted to disabuse them.

Male sexuality defuses violence and kills aggression, something that was recognised at the very beginning of world literature. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Shamhat, a temple harlot of Uruk, is the only one who can tame the fearsome Enkidu, the wild man of the mountains, a figure as strong and as a wild beast. Lions fled in terror at Enkidu's approach, but in Shamhat's arms he became a pussycat. He forgot his wild ways, embraced the life of the city, desiring only to lie on soft sheets. Ever since, it is the most patriarchal and militaristic societies that have sought to denigrate and marginalise male heterosexual desire. In Ancient Rome men with a pronounced interest in women were considered effeminate: real men couldn't wait to leave their wives and go off and kill some barbarians. Mark Antony was a fearless soldier, yet because of his fondness for Cleopatra his enemy Octavian was able to portray him as a decadent wimp. Elsewhere, women have been confined to the home, treated as property, viewed as morally and intellectually inferior to men. A sexist ideology grew up in which men were reassured of their God-given right to rule.

To what end? The answer may be very simple: to keep men away from women, and so distort and divert the natural sex drive which would otherwise soften and civilise them. To turn sex into a grim duty of procreation or a merely hydraulic function - to dehumanise it, in other words - it is first necessary to strip it of its mutuality, by emphasising - and inventing - an unbridgeable gulf between the sexes. Misogyny is premised on fear - not of women (who are merely its victims), but of male sexuality, its power and its beauty, the danger it poses to societies based on conformity and aggression. That's why the most subversive slogan of the 1960s was "Make love, not war."

Sex, in short, is not what fuels male violence. It is what cures it.
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Sunday, 2 January 2011

Police admit: "We haven't a Cluedo"

There was surprise today when police investigating the brutal murder of Miss Scarlet released their only declared suspect, Professor Plum. "We assumed he did it," a police source told reporters "because he had purple hair and liked Victorian poetry. Our ace psychologist pointed out that if you put Miss Scarlet in a wig she would look a bit like Lizzie Siddal. And he had no known interest in women, so there was an obvious sexual motive. Unfortunately it turned out he had nothing to do with it so we had to let him go. We did find a brass candlestick in his flat but try as we might we couldn't find any bloodstains. Frustrating, really, since no-one seemed to like the old git."

Observers had previously noted how closely Professor Plum resembled the type of person who usually turns out to have done it in old episodes of Inspector Morse. Beneath that purple hair was an enigma. He was well-known in the community but no-one really knew him. He was a schoolteacher yet apparently rich enough to own several properties. The Quentin Crisp lookalike had a posh accent and what some described as a pathological distaste for net curtains. He was a Liberal Democrat. And in a chilling coincidence it was revealed the other day that a teacher at an entirely different school, whom Plum had never met, was serving time for a sex offence. Of course, there was no suggestion that Plum had anything to do with these entirely unconnected events, but journalists thought they ought to mention it anyway, just in case.

Outwardly respectable, Plum had a carefully concealed dark side. "Once he told me off when I failed to hand in my homework," recalled a former student. "At the time I thought he was just being a typical teacher, but looking back it seems kind of scary. I mean, him being a murderer and all that. I just got detention, but I could so easily have been hacked to death." Another remembered how the potty professor had been "passionate" about 19th century literature. "It's not normal," he told the Mirror. "If he could get excited about a bunch of dead poets, he could well have had it in him to murder someone. I could give you an exclusive interview after he's sent down."

With Plum in the clear, police are said to be working on a new theory involving one Colonel Mustard, who was observed behaving suspiciously in his garden with a piece of old rope. Asked to explain himself, he claimed that a journalist had offered him "good money" for it. Read the rest of this article