Thursday, 23 June 2011

Geert Wilders fails to become a free speech martyr

So the protracted, farcical, often surreal trial of the Dutch politician and provocateur Geert Wilders for insulting Islam, has reached a surprisingly sane conclusion. He has been acquitted. This ought to come as no surprise, seeing that the Prosecution told the court that he had no case to answer. In Britain, that would have been the end of it. But the Netherlands is not Britain, and the panel of judges (no jury) would have been quite entitled to ignore the arguments of Defence and Prosecution alike and find him guilty as charged.

Many expected that they would. The case was brought, not by the prosecutorial authorities but despite their best efforts. It was brought at the direction of an Amsterdam appeal court that, in an astonishing and chilling ruling back in 2008, not only overturned the decision not to prosecute but virtually directed the lower court to find him guilty. The judgement declared that prosecuting Wilders was "obvious" and dismissed the contention of the public prosecutor that there was any distinction to be drawn between criticising Islam and inciting hatred against Muslims as a whole (a distinction that, mindful of the law, Wilders has always been careful to enunciate).

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

During Wilders' trial last year it was revealed that one of the Appeal judges responsible for this ruling had tried to nobble one of the defence witnesses. Soon afterwards the defence managed the judges on the case dismissed for bias. It even looked as though the case might be over. But no: the whole expensive circus started up again this year. The defence asserted the principle of free speech, the prosecution offered no evidence, and Wilders himself made a histrionic speech attacking both Islam -"an ideology sprung from the desert that can produce only deserts" - and the European elites who were "acting as the protectors of an ideology that has been bent on destroying us since the fourteenth century."

It was a deliberately combative and provocative speech, one that seemed to invite a guilty verdict. Yet today we learn that he has been acquitted. The court has blinked, steped back, refused to give Geert Wilders the status of a free speech martyr that part of him must have craved. The lead judge described some of his remarks as "rude and denigrating", but decided that they did not amount to incitement. Regarding the film Fitna, the court ruled that "given the film in its whole and the context of societal debate, there is no question of inciting hate".

The Amsterdam Appeal court , by contrast, had ruled that Fitna's "method of presentation is characterized by biased, strongly generalizing phrasings with a radical meaning ongoing reiteration and an increasing intensity, as a result of which hate is created."

In other words, in choosing to acquit Geert Wilders the panel have refused to follow the clear directions of the Appeal Court that ordered the prosecution.

Cranmer thinks that the effect will be "seismic". It clearly lays down some sort of marker for the future. When the charges were first laid, there were plenty of people willing to argue in favour of curbing free speech to protect (as they saw it) social harmony. In February 2009 Chris Huhne , in a fine example of Liberal illiberalism (or illiberal Liberalism, if you prefer), wrote in support of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's ban on Wilders entering Britain that there was "a serious risk that Wilder's views could create substantial harm to ethnic minorities in this country, and it is this prevention of harm that justifies the restrictions to Wilder's freedom of speech."

But the ban was overturned by the High Court (not surprisingly, since it was plainly contrary to EU law on freedom of movement) and Wilders came, not once but twice, and no harm was done. Anjem Choudary and his chums showed up with their usual "Islam will Conquer" and "Free speech go to hell" placards (exercising their free speech as usual) and that was about that. It's surely over the top to ban someone from entering the country on the grounds that his presence would give Mr Choudary, a man who largely shares Wilders' view of Islam, an opportunity to shout a few slogans.

Geert Wilders is only the most prominent person in Europe to find themselves in trouble for being offensive about Islam. Earlier this year in Austria, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff was convicted for "denigration of the religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion", a strange sort of offence that is hard to square with any sort of free debate about any religion.

Wilders notoriously compared the Koran with Hitler's Mein Kampf on the grounds that both books incite violence. If the latter should be banned (as it is in most of Europe) he said, then so should the former - a more nuanced position than the one he is often accused of maintaining, that the Koran should be banned. Of course, there are differences. It is possible to draw a violent message from the Koran, but many (perhaps most) Muslims manage to take only a spiritual and moral message from it. Has anyone ever found Mein Kampf to be a work of peace and love? Has anyone ever been inspired by Hitler to lead a better life? Nevertheless, Wilders had a point.

Once you start banning books because they're offensive, or because bad people are likely to do bad things after reading them, you're already in a world of censorship. Censorship - of ideas as well as of information about footballers' private entanglements - usually backfires in today's world.
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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Has the BBC gone to the dogs?

The BBC was one of many news organisations - but perhaps the most high-profile - to carry an amusing/outrageous report about a rabbinical court in Jerusalem sentencing a dog to death by stoning.

Even more shockingly, the penalty was to be carried out by children.

The mutt's offence?

It reminded a judge of a curse passed on a now deceased secular lawyer about 20 years ago, when judges bid his spirit to enter the body of a dog.

The animal is said to have escaped before the sentence was carried out.

Embarrassingly, it turns out that the entire story - which came complete with a statement from the court declaring that the sentence was "an appropriate way to 'get back at' the spirit which entered the poor dog" - was an almost total fabrication. Something of a shaggy dog story, in fact.

There was a dog. But -- as the Jewish Chronicle clarifies - "all that had happened was that the city dog catcher had been called to remove the stray." From from regarding the punishment as appropriate, the court official stressed that "there is no basis for stoning dogs or any other animal in the Jewish religion, not since the days of the Temple or Abraham."

So what did happen? It seems that a stray dog wandered into the courtroom, found a comfortable spot in the corner and wouldn't leave. It amused some local children. The court officials rang the local animal welfare officers who took it away. "There was no talk of reincarnation, a lawyer has never been mentioned, either now or 20 years ago, and there was no stoning."

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if someone - perhaps not a senior court official - did compare the dog to the "secular lawyer" who used to annoy the Ultra-Orthodox patrons of the Beth Din. Something along the lines of "He's as difficult to shift as Whatsisname was"; or "Looks like Whatsisname's come back as a dog". Hilarity ensued. Says another, "You kids, make yourselves useful and throw a few rocks at him!" "Serves him right, the apostate swine". Etc, etc.

The story had to start somewhere.

In its defence, the BBC website protests that the report was "based on sources usually regarded by the BBC as reliable." That's not good enough, though. The story - involving a judge who claimed to have mystical power to transfer a man's soul into a dog - was never remotely plausible, even if it did come from a usually reliable source. Its plausibility could easily have been ascertained, perhaps by ringing up a rabbi.

This is an example of churnalism at its laziest worst. Or is it something more sinister? The statement from the court suggested that "Such inventions are a kind of blood libel, and we wonder why the inventor of the story did not continue to describe how we collected the blood of the dog to make our matzah." That might be going too far. But it says a lot about BBC journalism that they imagined that stoning reincarnated dog lawyers to death was the sort of thing Orthodox Jews get up to. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Review: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test
by Jon Ronson

(Picador RRP £16.99)

Even bloggers are supposed these days to declare an interest when plugging things, so I should perhaps mention that I received my copy of The Psychopath Test from Jon Ronson's own hands when he came to talk about it the other week in Cambridge. He's as entertaining in person as he is on the page, and readers of his earlier books (such as The Men Who Stare At Goats) will know what to expect: a quirky, self-deprecating and highly readable journey through some fairly strange territory.

His subject this time is darker, though it begins in picaresque fashion with the bizarre tale of a lavish, self-published and highly cryptic book which was sent, for reasons that are still unclear (but have nothing to do with psychopathy), to various psychologists around the world. With its jaunty tone and rogue's gallery of eccentrics - a Wall Street raider who fills his house with statues of lions and sharks, a Haitian paramilitary who collects plastic action figures, renegade MI5 officer David Shaylor - this is an amusing book about an unamusing subject. It's a risky venture, even for as subtle a humourist as Jon Ronson, and he doesn't always bring it off. But amid the weirdness there are important issues at stake, about the penal system, about psychiatry, about the nature of journalism itself, and Ronson does not shy away from them.

The Psychopath Test of the title is a twenty-point checklist devised by Canadian psychologist Robert Hare. Widely used in prison systems in many countries (including the UK) the test aims to enumerate the personality traits which together make up the psychopathic (or sociopathic) personality. They include: superficial charm, pathological lying, sexual promiscuity, manipulative behaviour, a lack of realistic long-term goals. The underlying factors, shared by all psychopaths, are lack of empathy and lack of restraint. Someone who scores highly on the Hare scale is likely to be deemed untreatable and a danger to society; they (usually he) may never be released.

Hare's approach emerged in reaction to liberal regimes of the Sixties and Seventies, which in some places involved pumping rapists and murderers full of LSD and encouraging them to emote. Such programmes failed: most of the psychos officially pronounced cured went on to reoffend, sometimes in horrific ways. The Hare formula is, by contrast, thoroughly pessimistic - psychopaths cannot be treated, merely identified and quarantined. There's a suggestion, indeed, that their - and society's - problem is deep-rooted and physiological.

Research suggests that psychopaths have a smaller than average amygdala - the ancient part of the brain that processes basic emotions such as fear. This may explain why they do not respond emotionally to strong stimuli (close-up pictures of horrific injuries, say, or the prospect of being given an electric shock). But there's a difference, surely, between the discovery that psychopaths have small amygdalas and the claim that having a small amygdala makes you a psychopath. What makes you a psychopath is psychopathic behaviour.

Mention of the amygdala reminds me of a strange piece of research a few months ago which claimed to find an association between neurophysiology and political orientation. Among other things, conservatives seemed, on average, to have larger amygdalas that left-wingers. Make of that what you will - or what your political prejudice prefers. Some on the left, characterising the amygdala as an ancient "fear centre", interpreted it as meaning that Right-wingers were primitive, fearful creatures who craved reassurance. But you could equally conclude that the conservatives were more empathic and had more friends, and it was the lefties, with their shrunken amagdalas, who were cold-hearted, unsociable and, maybe, borderline psychopathic.

Problems of definition become much greater when the Hare Test is applied - as it increasingly is - outside the criminal justice system. I first came across this some years ago when it was suggested (by Bob Hare himself, it turns out) that the late Robert Maxwell displayed psychopathic tendencies in his business practices and in his treatment of employees. Its tempting to start looking for psychopaths everywhere. After meeting Hare and going on his psychopath-hunter training course, Ronson gives in to the temptation with all the zeal of a convert. And when you look, you find. It was the same, once upon a time, with witches.

As I read this book, I became increasingly convinced that it is a temptation that should be resisted.

There may well be interesting parallels - and some overlapping personality traits - between psychopaths and people in all walks of life whose lack of empathy makes life miserable for those around them. Let's call them bastards. Robert Maxwell was a bastard, perhaps, but even his worst enemies (or his pension-fund victims) wouldn't claim that he tortured and killed people for fun, or that he had any desire to, or that the thought of torturing and killing people turned him on. But that, if the word means anything, is what a psychopath is: someone who gets off on torturing and killing people, who feels no remorse afterwards and who is, therefore, a continuing danger to society. All psychopaths are bastards, but all bastards are not (except in a colloquial sense) psychopaths.

In the final chapter, Ronson speculates that luck alone - the circumstances of birth, upbringing and life-experience - might make the difference between a murderous sex-crazed psychopath and a successful corporate raider. But as Al Dunlap - the man with the stone tigers - points out, to succeed in life requires self-discipline, something that he has in abundance. That might mean that he is not a psychopath; or it might mean that psychopaths come in very different forms. What I think it means is that the single term "psychopath" is woefully inadequate to describe the wide range of people who score highly on the Hare test.

Once someone has committed violent criminal acts, it is obviously important to ask whether they are likely to reoffend. If they have no remorse, no empathy and little or no control over their responses, it follows that they pose a high-risk of reoffending. Outside the criminal justice system, on the other hand, none of this applies. Calling a ruthless businessman a "psychopath" is, at most, emotionally satisfying.

Psychopath-spotting in business, in politics, even in the world of conspiracy theorists (in the Shaylor chapter, 7/7 survivor Rachel North notes the "complete lack of empathy" shown by the nerdish Truthers who tormented her for months) is misplaced. It devalues the word itself. It misses the point - which is that there is an enormous difference between a psychopathic criminal and someone who is merely a bastard, and it is that difference, not any similarities, that researchers should be focussing on. And it confuses true knowledge and understanding with a box-ticking exercise.

It matters not a hoot, frankly, whether or not Al Dunlop can be defined as a psychopath according to Bob Hare's checklist. It makes no difference to his career or to the people who he put out of work (who would have lost their jobs anyway, because Wall Street demanded it) and tells us nothing that isn't already obvious from his CV or from talking to people who experienced his ruthlessness in business. It's not news - would not have been news to the writers of the Old Testament - that greed and selfishness are often rewarded. It's part of the human condition.

Ronson leaves some fascinating questions hanging in the air. Does the prevailing economic system reward "psychopathic" behaviour and provide an environment in which "psychopaths" can flourish? Is the media world, with its constant source for novelty and sensation, guilty of "psychopathic" behaviour itself, even if the people working in it are not themselves "psychopaths"? Why do some delusional beliefs and conspiracy theories have a greater public appeal than others? (Ronson - or anyone else interested in this question - might like to Google the phrase "minimally counterintuitive") Is the Hare test part of a wider tendency in psychiatry to redefine normal behaviour as medically disordered?

One pressing question, though, is answered by one of Ronson's interviewees: "If you're beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognise some of those traits in yourself, if you're feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one."

Phew. You are probably suffering from General Anxiety Disorder, though.
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Friday, 17 June 2011

Do parents drive their children to drink?

The Today programme this morning was excitedly trumpeting the headline finding from a Rowntree survey on teenage drinking. Children who see their parents drunk, we were told, "are twice as likely to get drunk themselves."

The audience was invited to conclude that there was a causal relationship between these two facts: teenagers drinking heavily because they see their parents drinking heavily. But there are at least three reasons why this might not be so.

1) There is a strong genetic component in alcoholism. An alcoholic is likely to have had at least one alcoholic parent, whether or not the parent got drunk in front of them as a child. There is nothing to suggest that the survey compensated for heredity. In fact, the words "genetic" and "heredity" occur not once in the full report.

2) Another factor in teenage drinking claimed by Rowntree was "poor parental supervision" - allowing children to stay out all night, not knowing where or with whom they are hanging out, not exerting discipline. This is plausible, not because of the parenting itself, but because inadequately supervised teenagers are more likely to be hanging out with the wrong crowd. Then again, they might be hanging out with a good crowd, in which place the lack of parental supervision would be less damaging.

Studies tend to show that peer pressure at least as significant as parental influence when it comes to drinking. But such research very rarely takes genetic factors into account. So while it is known that peer groups do influence teenage behaviour very strongly, what proportion of parental influence is down to their example rather than their genes has yet to be adequately determined.

3) Most importantly, the survey implies that it is the sight of a parent drinking that encourages the child to drink. There is no evidence for this whatever. Even factoring out the genetic influence, it's obvious (or should be) that if a parent is in the habit of getting drunk in front of the kids there are likely to be other problems in the family: inadequate parenting (see above), abuse, a chaotic private life, depression or simple misery. All things that might well lead a child to seek solace with a group of similarly disaffected peers who will probably end up drinking (and smoking, having sex, committing criminal damage and all the rest of it).

The Rowntree survey made no attempt whatever to consider these other factors, preferring to draw a simplistic causal link between seeing and doing. And of course the media, with its predictable "blame the parents" agenda, lapped it up. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Why hasn't Frank Dobson bought his council flat?

Frank Dobson may not be a dustman, or wear Gor Blimey trousers, but the Mail has discovered that the former Labour health secretary (and once upon a time the party's failed official candidate for Mayor of London) lives in a council flat. And not just any council flat - a 3-bedroomed flat in a Victorian mansion block in central London, boasting an "elegantly proportioned" hallway, a "grand mahogany stairwell" and "stunning mosaic floor". The building was scheduled for demolition before was snapped up by Camden Council in 1979, but the paper estimates that flats in the block are now worth up to £1 million.

It certainly looks a lot nicer than the highrise concrete drug-dens that pass for social housing in some parts of London. Lucky Frank.

Needless to say, Dobbo quite likes living there - although with an MP's salary, his wife's earnings as an academic, plus anything else he may be picking up along the way, he doesn't fall into most people's idea of a typical council tenant. He's not a single mother, a clan of Bangladeshi immigrants, or even a crack addict. He's not on the minimum wage, and presumably he doesn't qualify for housing benefit. So isn't it outrageous, asks the Mail, that he's living in subsidised housing at a rent of around £160 per week - about an eighth of what he might be paying if he was renting the flat privately.

Dobson justifies his occupation of the cut-price mansion flat on the grounds that London rents are "insane" and that his presence helps to create a "mixed community" - preferable, he thinks, to a "sink estate" that would be the result of the government's proposals to restrict social housing just to poor people. Arguably, having a resident MP on every council estate would lower the tone immeasurably - but that isn't the Mail's prime consideration. Rather, we are invited to feel deep-seated rage at the great deal Dobbo is getting from the taxpayer even though he could probably afford to live elsewhere. They've even gone to the trouble of finding some "affordable" properties in the general area. Affordable for the Dobsons, that is.

It's an argument worth having. But what really puzzles me is that Frank Dobson has never exercised his Right to Buy. The article implies he has been living there for thirty years - certainly, it must be a long time since Dobbo was entitled to social housing, if indeed he ever was. Like Commie union boss Bob Crow, he wouldn't have had much trouble paying off the mortage and today would be the proud owner of an expensive and desirable London property. The Mail would probably applaud him for it - yet the flat would be equally unavailable to impoverished families, and the council wouldn't be getting a penny in rent. What an idiot, though. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Yet another sex-trafficking report on the way

With the Bailey review having strutted its hour upon the stage, the market for reports into childhood sexualisation is probably saturated - for the time being at any rate. But not to worry - there's always sex-trafficking to get worked up about. A subject very like "sexualisation" in its ability to unite the outraged sentiments of Mail and Guardian alike.

A press release from the Centre for Social Justice - the Conservative think-tank established by Iain Duncan Smith and Tim Montgomerie - announces the setting up of a "major inquiry into modern slavery". The report's remit extends beyond the sex-trade - it will also look at domestic servitude and people-smuggling for the purpose of forced or illegal labour (that latter being, numerically, by far the larger phenomenon). But the statement doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

The CSJ claims that people trafficking is "the fastest growing international crime". No evidence is given to prove this assertion - though I've found this report in which FBI Agent Steven Merrill is quoted as saying that it is "widely regarded" as the world's fastest-growing crime. Other popular candidates for the "fastest-growing crime" accolade include identity theft, rape and child pornography. The problem, needless to say, is that no-one can agree on what "people smuggling" actually is, and what distinguishes it from illegal immigration.

To many law-enforcement authorities and governments, all assisted illegal immigration is "people-smuggling" - it is irrelevant if the people being smuggled are volunteers, as in most-cases they are. So the mass phenomenon of unauthorised border crossing becomes conflated with bonded labour, and the whole scarily described as "the world's fastest growing crime." There's a big difference, though, between tackling excessive immigration (assuming that tackling excessive immigration is your thing) and tackling modern-day slavery. I assume that the CSJ are aware of this. They certainly should be, although there's no indication that they are.

It's similarly unclear what constitues slavery. According to Demi Moore - a reliable authority, I suppose, since she is quoted on a UN website - there are 27 million slaves in the world today. Anti-slavery International likewise asserts that "millions of men, women and children around the world are forced to lead lives as slaves." Its list of modern slavery highlights the following abuses:
  • Bonded labour - Mainly in Asia
  • Forced labour - at least 12.3 million people worldwide
  • Early or forced marriage
  • Slavery by descent
  • Trafficking
  • "Worst forms of child labour" - affecting 126 million children

According to Anti-Slavery International, 77% of forced labour occurs in the Asia-Pacific region. The industrialised countries as a whole account for a mere 3%.

According to the CSJ, by contrast

Contrary to popular perception, slavery is as much a problem in the UK as abroad. In the year to March 2010, 706 victims of slavery were formally identified in this country but the true numbers are much higher. According to one estimate, at least 6,000 women and children have been trafficked into the UK and forced into prostitution.

The 6,000 figure might be true: it depends on the timescale. If the starting point it the beginning of time, or a hundred years ago, it may be too low. But as a current estimate, it is almost certainly too high. Unfortunately, the press release doesn't source this or any other statement, or explain what evidence there is for the claim that "the true numbers" of slaves in Britain are "much higher". True domestic slavery, for example, is likely to be quite rare in the UK, and many of its practitioners probably have diplomatic immunity. In any case, the suggestion that slavery is as much a problem in the UK as it is in some other countries has nothing whatever to do with evidence. It's just bonkers.

By appointing Reg Bailey of the Mothers' Union to head the "sexualisation" review, the government was choosing someone whose likely emphasis was already well known. And he didn't disappoint. So who have the CSJ asked to front up their trafficking review? One Andrew Wallis, who is described as the director of "anti-trafficking and victim support charity Unseen UK". Someone, in other words, already in the campaign business - just as Bailey was - rather than a disinterested lawyer or academic who might just question the assumption that trafficking is a major problem. Personally, I'd like to see Laura Águstin on the panel. Fat chance.

And it turns out that describing Unseen UK as an anti-trafficking organisation is a bit misleading. It's an anti sex-trafficking organisation. To be more specific, an anti-female sex-trafficking. At the very least, the appointment suggests that the inquiry risks giving overdue weight to the minority of trafficking and forced labour that has a sexual dimension. According to Unseen UK's website:

unseen(uk) is a charity founded to support female survivors of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. unseen(uk), as well as achieving our other aims, wants to allow women who have been subjected to trafficking, safety, hope and choice as they begin the journey of rebuilding their lives. The driving force behind the work of unseen(uk) is the desire to see women who have been freed from the sex-trafficking industry here in the UK, regaining their dignity and self-worth.

Laudable aims, no doubt. But why are their services only open to women? It's also striking that the website quotes numerous trafficking statistics that are not - but might easily be taken to be - sex-trafficking statistics.

For example, there's a claim that "Between 500,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked into the EU every year". This may be so, if the definition of "trafficking" includes (as it does) bringing people into the EU for the purpose of illegal employment. The vast majority of such people are not coerced, do not end up in conditions of servitude and do not form part of the sex industry. They are illegal immigrants. The group includes those who will become cheap labour, working at rates far below the national minimum wage of whichever country they enter. Some might be considered "slaves"; fewer will be "sex slaves". Of those trafficked into the sex industry, many will be volunteers.

Both myth and reality are in evidence in a story from Glasgow's Evening Times, coincidentally appearing today. Under the heading "Cops raid four city brothels", the first, attention-grabbing line reads "a 16-year-old girl has been rescued from sex traffickers in Glasgow". There's no information supplied about the girl in question, save her nationality (Romanian) and that she had been staying in flat in Govanhill. We don't know if she was alone in the flat, or if anyone else was involved or has been arrested in connection with the trafficking offence.

Instead, the report concentrates on three other raids, which the Evening Times was invited to witness. These were connected with what is described as "a major intelligence-gathering exercise on the scale of Thai prostitution rings in Glasgow." One woman was found in each flat (which, legally, does not make them brothels, although that is how they were inevitably described). The suspected pimp was arrested at another address. Interestingly, the women do not seem to have told the police what they wanted to hear. Initially detained "as suspected victims of trafficking", the trio were now being charged with prostitution offences and will shortly appear in court.

The report states that Thai women in the British sex industry "typically feel they can’t leave their brothels because of a bond of debt – or fear of reprisals against family members back home." But it also admits that some trafficked women "know that they are going abroad to work as prostitutes." Moreover:

Trafficked women rarely live up to the media image as unwashed waifs chained to radiators when they are not working or smuggled in to the country in the back of container trucks.
Nor do they necessarily conform to the stereotype of a street prostitute in high heels and short skirt.
They may dress like any other woman of their age and be able to move freely in and out of their flats.
That is one of the messages of a major public information campaign launched by [Strathclyde Police's] anti-trafficking unit.

So what is the message? If you see a Thai woman, she's probably a sex-slave? Even if she doesn't look like one, behave like one and denies it if asked.
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Monday, 13 June 2011

Imagining Amina

In the years before she was revealed as Dr Brooke Magnanti, many doubted that the eloquent author and sex-blogger Belle de Jour was a real person. Her work was both too well-written and too upbeat to be the work of a real prostitute, sceptics argued. She must therefore be a fictional creation - a male fantasy, possibly even the product of a male imagination.

It was a thought that gave comfort to the many people who objected to the very idea of a "happy hooker" - or indeed of any sex-worker who wasn't trafficked, imprisoned, drug-addicted and regularly raped. Such a person should not exist. Even the suggestion that she might was a threat, serving to legitimise the exploitation of women. Belle was more than a threat, she was a scandal, glamorising prostitution, taking attention away from the real issue, which was the campaign to destroy off the sex trade. If Belle existed - if her experience was in fact fairly typical of intelligent urban women who made money selling sex - then the whole prohibitionist case was undermined. Better to write her off as a clever hoax, and those who believed her as naive.

There was at first little such scepticism last week when it was announced that a Syrian lesbian and human-rights activist blogger, Amina Arraf, had been abducted by the secret police. Instead there was a huge outpouring of humanitarian concern, beginning on Facebook but soon reaching the mainstream media. Only after it transpired that no-one in Syria had heard of her, that no-one fitting her description had disappeared, and that a photograph claimed to be her belonged to a woman living and working in London, did doubts begin to surface.

Now, to widespread outrage, the gay girl from Damascus has been revealed as a heterosexual American man living in Scotland. Tom MacMaster had attempted to defend his hoax, which included not only stealing somebody's face and sparking an international campaign but also exchanging more than a thousand emails with a Canadian woman who believed that they were having a romantic relationship. Which is somewhat creepy.

A genuine (I assume - he's also pseudonymous) Syrian gay rights activist, protested:

There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us.

MacMaster is not entirely contrite, however, defending his pseudo-blog on the grounds that pretending to be an attractive Syrian lesbian was the only way he could get anyone to listen to his views on the Middle East. This is what he told Good Morning Scotland:

It was a fiction but the facts I was presenting about Syria, about Islam, about the Middle East, about all of these things are true. I really felt a number of years ago that in discussions on Middle East issues while living in the US, when I presented real facts and opinions, the immediate reaction to somebody with my name was ‘why are you anti-American, why are you anti-Jewish?

Getting that kind of reaction was distracting from the real focus. So, I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue.

Even more interesting was a comment he left on the blog itself. "This experience," he writes, "has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism."

The chutzpah of the first part of that sentence is striking: the fact that he managed to hoodwink thousands of well-meaning people - and, for a time, much of the global media - becomes an opportunity to lament the "superficial coverage" of the media, rather than to reflect upon the distress he has caused. Amina may have begun as a sock-puppet for MacMaster's views, but she soon became far more than that: a person that other, real people cared about, campaigned for and, in one case, fell in love with. That's partly down to the quality of the writing - deeply moving in places - and the strength of MacMaster's empathy with the Middle East. But it's also a measure of the need people had to believe that someone like her existed.

I think MacMaster's hoax went beyond mere publicity-seeking or thoughtlessness, and became an attempt to skew the international debate and exacerbate an already dangerous situation. The clue to what he was playing at lies in the phrase "liberal Orientalism". It's not clear what liberal orientalism he thought he was exposing - perhaps it was the concern some (but not all) western liberals display for the plight of gay people and women in repressive Islamic societies. A perception which, of course, made "Amina" such a brave and representative heroine. It's even possible that he was deliberately creating a character who would prove irresistible to Western liberals, someone around whom they could unite - as indeed, for a time, they did.

MacMaster's own brand of liberal Orientalism, however, seems to have been of a different order - the celebration of an idealised Islamic society characterised above all by tolerance, pluralism and freedom. A picture entirely at odds with the burkhas and beheadings image perpetuated by that other sort of "orientalism" that sees Islam as irredeemably backward and savage.

In a very telling post published on 1st June - a few days before Amina "went missing" - MacMaster/Arraf drew a contrast between "their Islam" and hers. "Their" Islam - the caricature associated with, say, Geert Wilders or the Daily Express - was

an image of a religion based on the worst cultural practices of a few dozen lands muddled together and confused with the religion, of selected quotations taken out of context or wholly fabricated, of fantasy masquerading as reality.

Whereas "her" Islam was

sitting at the feet of the Sheikha (our Islam has sheikhas as well as sheikhs!) as she explained that it was perfectly natural to desire other women; chastity was what mattered, not the object of desire. Our Islam discussed sexuality as a healthy and normal part of humanity, a religion for real people, not reserved for ascetics.

It's true that Syrian Islam is fairly liberal - certainly when compared with Saudi Arabia. But it isn't that liberal. Homosexuality remains illegal in the country. More to the point, the religious tolerance for which the country is rightly famed has much to do with the secularism enforced by the Assad regime. This secularism is partly pragmatic: Assad's power-base comes from the minority Alawite sect, and the regime has maintained itself with the support of other minorities, including Christians.

The leaders of Syria's ancient churches have been notably silent about Assad's human rights abuses in recent weeks, and some have been cheerleaders for the government. They continue to support a muderous regime because they are terrified that if the Ba'athists fall their own freedoms will be lost too. That Sunni majority rule would mean the oppression of minorities.

It is already starting to happen in Egypt, where recent weeks have seen an upsurge in violence against Coptic Christians (a community whose rights were being eroded, in response to Islamist campaigns, even under Mubarak). Christians, though, have less to fear from Islamic radicalism than do gay people. It's not a comforting thought - that the toppling of a brutal dictatorship might lead to new types of oppression for members of vulnerable minority groups. Where is a well-meaning liberal - orientalist or otherwise - to turn?

Easy. To an attractive, proud, openly gay, loyally Muslim woman who supports the revolution. A shame, then, that unlike Belle de Jour she really did turn out to be nothing more than a male fantasy.
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Thursday, 9 June 2011

Texas psychic speaks out

The Houston Chronicle has been speaking to the woman it claims is the "psychic" who sparked a massive and pointless search of a house on Tuesday.

They don't name her, except by the pseudonym Angel, but "sources close to the investigation" confirm that it is her. She is a 48 year old grandmother who describes herself as "a reverend for a ministry that helps the poor and the homeless". She lives in a trailer, inevitably, but "spends much of her time travelling to do God's work". At the moment, though, she is "hunkered down" in said trailer, hoping to remain anonymous. She could probably do with a superinjunction right now.

So what do we learn? First, she has had dealings with the police before - based, it seems, on her psychic visions. At any rate, the police source confirmed that previously shared information with law enforcement agencies in Texas. This time's information does also seem to have come to her via a vision. She says that she went to the police on Monday "after confiding with two friends who were having similar visions that three children could be in trouble." What she did not tell the police - so she says - is that there were twenty to thirty dismembered corpses buried at the property. Her "information" related to the missing children, of whom she says "I think they are hungry and thirsty. They are still alive."

It's not clear whether she is referring to children who are known to be missing. But in any case, she is emphatic that she did not tell the police to look for dead bodies. This, of course, is in direct conflict with early press reports of the story, which (on the basis of police briefings) clearly stated that the psychic had spoken of a mass grave. Where the figure of twenty or thirty came from is unclear - but again, the source seems to have been the police.

What seems to have happened is that officers enquiring about missing children saw a blood-spattered door and smelled rotting flesh and drew their own conclusions. It was only after these suspicious discoveries had been made - during a low-level, routine visit - that the police applied for a search warrant. They did not tell prosecutors that the source of their information was a psychic.

Which brings me to what I called the "crucial" question - were the police who followed up the original tip aware that they were acting on "psychic information"? It's still unclear. Angel is obviously quite open about the source of her tips, and has worked with police before. Perhaps not these police, however. County Sherrif's spokesman Rex Evans is quoted as saying that "they did not know after their first conversation with her that she claimed to be a psychic."

The first conversation led nowhere - the police went to what Angel later said was the wrong address. If at this point she had revealed that her information was psychic in nature, then perhaps the police should have let the matter drop. But here we meet a conundrum - because according to the police she provided a detailed description of the house which suggested that she knew it intimately. Put it another way, the correct sceptical response when faced with accurate information is to assume that it is NOT psychic in origin, even if it originates from a psychic - and, therefore, to take it seriously. It was because she appeared to know something, not because she was "psychic", that the police felt bound to follow up her lead.

The case, though, raises wider questions about the use of self-styled psychics by the police. The New York Times has a good article about the "long and uneasy relationship between law enforcement agencies and people claiming extrasensory powers". It is, they say, "occasional at best." However, the report quotes a survey by Skeptical Inquirer which found that 65% of America's 50 largest PDs never employed psychics. Which suggests, rather worryingly, that more than a third did so - if only on a case-by-case basis and when the psychic came to them.

The NY Times spoke to one Chicago psychic, Jacki Mari, who claims to have "helped solve more than 400 murders and missing persons cases around the world". Asked about the Hardin case, Mari sounds spectacularly clueless. "My first feeling was that something did happen, but I didn't see a bunch of bodies lying around". Later her mystical powers told her that there was nothing to worry about, "even before the news media frenzy over the search in Texas died down." Or so she now says.

Fortunately, the great Joe Nickell is on hand to provide a skeptical perspective. He explains the process of "retrofitting" - how psychics manage to claim credit for discoveries even when most of the information they supplied is false, so long as they have said something that - coincidentally - turns out to be accurate.

But why are some police officers receptive to psychic tips in the first place? I wonder if it has something to do with the romance of their own profession. These days, criminal investigation can be a highly scientific, technical, process - all statistics, DNA sequencing and data compiling. Yet in their hearts, many detectives remain wedded to the idea of the hunch-driven sleuth who solves crimes in a not wholly rational manner. Like a psychic, in fact.
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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Were the Texas Police wrong to believe a psychic?

This is a story about credulity. It is about a credulous woman, a credulous police force, a credulous media and a credulous internet. It is also a story about jumping to conclusions. Almost everyone who was involved in or who heard about the story jumped to one conclusion or other. Including me. What follows is the story as I can best reconstruct it. Much remains unclear, including one crucial detail - the detail, in fact, on which the story turns.

Hardin, Texas is a tiny place with a population of around 800 - an appropriate setting, perhaps, for a slice of Southern Grand Guignol. Except that what began as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre ended up more like the Keystone Cops.

On Monday afternoon, it seems, local police received a call from a woman who claimed that there were up to 30 bodies buried at a house in the area. Some of them, she said, were the bodies of children.

According to Rex Evans of the County Sherrif's office, speaking later, an initial investigation revealed nothing. But the following day the woman called again, told the police that they had gone to the wrong house, and directed them to the home of a truck driver named Joe Bankston. This time the police found suspicious evidence. There was blood on the back door and a bad smell emanating from somewhere inside. "The smell of decomposition was overwhelming," said the police spokesman. This, combined with the detailed description that the caller had given of the house gave the police and, perhaps, the fact that Bankston's estranged son is a convicted sex offender, persuaded police to execute a search warrant.

A full-scale search ensued, involving sniffer dogs, the FBI and the Texas Rangers. 15 carloads in total. The story went viral, with Twitter carrying the first excited reports. It soon hit the newswires, with the Associated Press reporting (in an item since withdrawn) that police had actually found 20 bodies at the house. That was premature. As filmcrews and news helicopters arrived at the scene, and the tale reached Sky TV and the website of the Daily Mail late last night, an interesting new detail emerged: the woman who reported the grisly details to the police was a "psychic".

It turned out that there never were any bodies. The bloodstain was the residue of a suicide attempt by Bankston's daughter's ex-boyfriend (not ex in the parrot sense, thankfully). The bad smell came from rotting meat left in a broken-down refrigerator. The sex-offender son (the precise nature of whose offence, serious or trivial, has not been revealed) had not lived there for more than a year. The household's only previous contact with the police had been when a neighbour complained about Bankston's dogs. Bankston claimed to know the woman concerned, and that she was "mentally unstable".

The story swung around. The major questions now concerned the wisdom of the police in trusting the word of a "psychic", and the media's apparent instant acceptance of claims that the police had found a mass grave. The police were said to be looking for the psychic - whose identity (despite Bankston's reported comments) remained a mystery, it seems, even from them. They were "actively trying to locate the caller", said Evans - perhaps with a view to charging her with wasting their time, though some would say the only time they had been wasting was their own.

As one wag said, the tragedy is that in future genuine psychics who came forward with information might not be believed. My own initial thoughts were not far from those of Brendan O'Neill:

You couldn’t have asked for a better snapshot of the astonishing credulity and weakness for crankiness amongst people in positions of power today. Police are now trying to track down the psychic. But when one psychic can impact on the world in this way, it is quite clear that the problem is *us*, and our capacity to believe the worst and our penchant for hocus-pocus, rather than them. It’s a daft world indeed that can allow itself to be led astray by an eccentric on the end of a phone.

But is such a reaction, no less than the police's or that of the Associated Press, a case of jumping to conclusions based on insufficient information? Despite all the coverage, we still do not know (that is, I have so far been unable to discover, despite reading most of the local news reports) whether the mystery caller told the police that she had been vouchsafed a mystical vision, or whether the fact of her being a psychic was purely incidental. And this, surely, is crucial. At this point all I can do is note that the police so far have not said that they began the search on the basis of "psychic" information.

What we do know is that, according to the police, the woman was able to provide a detailed description of the property, inside and out. She "knew things about the layout of the house and the property, the contents of the house, how the walls were configured." The police concluded that she must either have lived there or have known it intimately. They now want to know how she knew and whether she had any motive - such as a grudge - to make a hoax call.

It's easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to put the police reaction down to a combination of credulity and incompetence. Perhaps they watch too many cheap horror movies. Perhaps they are dumb enough to put their trust in psychics. Clearly, they put two and two together and made rather more than five. But put yourself in their position.

They receive a call from someone who appears to have detailed information about a major crime. She is a psychic - perhaps not the most credible of witnesses - but she appears to have first-hand knowledge of the property's layout. The house owner has had previous contact with the police on account of his large fierce dogs. One family member has been convicted of a sex crime.

Add to that the remoteness of Hardin and of the house itself, which was on unincorprated land (in other words, in the middle of nowhere). The sort of place where one could bury bodies in secret. The owner's job - as a truck driver - would have provided endless opportunities to meet vulnerable, anonymous people. FBI figures released two years ago showed that at least 500 women have been murdered by truck drivers in the USA. Many of them by serial killers.

Above all, when officers call round to investigate, they find a blood-spattered door and an overwhelming smell of decomposition.

Of course they instituted a major search. It would have been irresponsible not to, even if the likelihood of finding anything was low.
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Review: Why We Believe In God(s)

Why We Believe In God(s): Concise Guide to the science of faith by J. Anderson Thomson with Clare Aukofer (Pitchstone Publishing)
(available from Amazon UK here)

Is there an essential conflict between science and religion, or do they occupy such different cultural and psychological spaces that no such conflict is necessary or even coherent? Many liberals - liberal believers and secular liberals alike - would say that latter. It has become something of a liberal orthodoxy to denounce or sneer at those "militant atheists" and religious fundamentalists alike who suggest otherwise. Science, as earnest contributors to Thought For The Day repeatedly remind us, has little to say about morality or the meaning of life. Such questions are best left to men wearing dog collars or beards.

But some conflict is surely inevitable, because science and religion share at least some questions (Where did the universe come from? What is the source of moral intuition?) to which they will inevitably supply quite different answers. They seem to occupy some of the same cognitive space. In one recent experiment, Christians demonstrated the same physiological "disgust response" when confronted with a passage from the Koran and one from Richard Dawkins.

And there's one area in which science cannot but trespass upon religious territory - the attempt to explain scientifically what religion is, where it comes from and why it continues to hold such sway over human imagination and human behaviour. The yearning for gods, and the need to associate with others in religious rituals, seems to be universal. But does religion itself serve an evolutionary purpose, or is it more a by-product of other facets of human nature that do?

J Anderson Thompson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, provides a short but coherent account the "by-product" thesis in this new book. His view is that religion utilises - hijacks, if you prefer - a number of innate cognitive mechanisms, all of which in themselves are helpful or even necessary for survival. We all, for example, have an "attachment system" that bonds children and parents, lovers, friends and allies. God can be our heavenly father, the lover of the soul, the friend we have in Jesus - and the powerful ally who will help us to defeat our enemies. We are predisposed to accepting authoritiy - again, part of our inheritance as social, hierarchical primates. God is the ultimate authority.

Prayer and sacrifice involve a kind of reciprocal altruism (probably the ultimate basis of morality, and the phenomenon most commonly held up by the inter-faith crowd as the shared insight at the heart of all religion). Worshippers often try to strike a bargain with God - answer my prayer, cure my sister's disease, and I will go to church more often or become a better person. I recently came across the extraordinary medieval rite of the "humiliation of saints", in which a community dissatisfied with the service a saint had provided would cast their relics upon the ground and hurl curses on them.

Another important dimension is what Thomson calls "hyperactive agency detection" - the way that human beings tend to imagine an actor behind every action. This might well have an evolutionary basis: a rustle in the grass probably isn't a lion waiting to pounce, but it's safer to run anyway just in case it is. This particular cognitive bias helps explain the appeal everything creationsim to conspiracy theories. Then there's "decoupled cognition" - the theory of mind that enables us to imagine what is going on is someone else's head. We can imagine having a conversation with a friend, a colleague, a dead relative or a talking pink unicorn. So we might easily imagine having a conversation with God.

Ritual is important, too. Intense shared actitivities - dancing, chanting, praying - alter our brain chemistry in powerful ways, raising the level of neurotransmitters like seratonin, domaine, oxytocin and the endorphins. They are, in fact, addictive. When allied to pre-existing religious beliefs, involvement in ritual can increase commitment, social bonding and suggestibility. This helps make religion a formidable social glue, and in some circumstances a dangerous one. The high that ritual provides can make participants flog themselves with glass shards, drink poisoned Kool-Aid or go off on crusade.

Thomson uses the metaphor of fast food. Our ancestors, faced with regular shortages, sought out foodstuffs rich in sugar and fat. On result is that we are still attracted to sweet, fatty, salty foods that lead to obesity and heart disease. Fast food piggybacks on tastes that evolved for good biological reasons. In fact it is sweeter, fattier, saltier - and thus provides more of an instant taste hit - than anything that occurs naturally. Religion, he suggests, works a bit like that.

We crave parental love - religion gives us a super-parent. We need social relationships - religion bonds us into a super-family, a super-community. We seek satisfying explanations - religion over-explains, offering answers we are predisposed to like. Here's another possiblie comparison. A herring-gull chick will peck at the red spot on its parent's beak to procure regurgitated food. In experiments, chicks will peck just as enthusiastically at a red spot on a plank of wood. The larger the spot, the more enthusiastic the pecking - despite the impossibility of the chick getting any food from it. Perhaps religion exploits our own cognitive weaknesses in a similar way.

Thomson's little book is less detailed, and less original, that Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, but it provides an excellent primer of recent thinking in this controversial area of research. If nothing else, he shows convincingly why religion is so powerful. But is that the same as explaining what it is? There are two main questions here: why the particular package we call religion came together and whether it provides anything much beyond the bundle of cognitive hits that Thomson describes.

There's no conflict between saying that the building-blocks of religion are to be found in the cognitive mechanisms discussed in this book, and maintaining that it is important in itself. Evolution often adapts existing biological systems to a new purpose - feathers probably evolved for insulation before they were used for decoration and flight, for example. The many components of the eye were not all evolved for sight. Religion could be a similar adaptive system.

Explain the propensity to believe in supernatural beings, the need societies have for a clear moral code and the strong emotional satisfaction generated by group rituals, and you still haven't explained why these things usually (though not always) occur together. In the end, I suspect that there really is something distinctively "religious" about religion, and that while this book answers many questions it leaves the biggest one, for the moment, unresolved.
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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Complaints procedure

Among the key recommendations of Reg Bailey's review into the "sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood" is that it should be easier for parents to complain about things they deem inappropriate for their children to see or hear.

Broadcasters and companies "need to be more proactive in encouraging feedback and complaints." Industry and regulators should work together "to promote parental awareness... of complaints procedures." There should be a website where regulators such as Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority provide a "one-stop shop" aimed at parents who want to complain. Company websites should have user-friendly complaint buttons.

It's all part of "empowering parents". Instead of muttering to themselves or neighbours about the inappropriate thing that they've seen, or merely switching the TV off when something upsets them, they should be doing something more decisive. Bailey seems disturbed, even puzzled, by what he sees as "the low level of complaint" - and convinced that a complicated complaints process must be to blame:

Despite some good practice, notably from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the consumer complaints landscape is complex, confusing and inconsistent and certainly does not encourage parents to voice their concerns or make complaints. Our omnibus survey showed that the majority of parents (92 per cent) have never complained about things (for example, products and adverts) whether in public places, on television, on the internet, in a newspaper or magazine that they felt were inappropriate for children because of sexual content. This was because they have never needed to (43 per cent), they didn’t think anything would be done (22 per cent), didn’t know who to complain to (15 per cent) or didn’t get round to it (13 per cent).

The most relevant figure here is the 15% who didn't know who to complain to - but it's unlikely that ignorance alone frustrated their complaint. If they had been motivated, it's likely that they would have found out. In any case, it's a low proportion of the total. Most people are aware of who they might complain to, but either have nothing to complain about or do not see it as much of a priority. Perhaps they just weren't angry enough.

Bailey suggests that "the true extent of parental concern is not currently reflected in complaints statistics". But is this really a problem? Only if no-one is complaining about genuinely offensive material would there be a good case for encouraging more complaints, but the report provides no evidence that that is the case.

At present, the Review states, "the numbers of complaints to the ASA regarding children and advertising are relatively low." About 5% of ads complained of involved children. This might well reflect that advertisers generally obey the rules. Yet these same ads attracted 10% of the complaints. A questionable advert relating to a children's product or involving a child is already, it seems, twice as likely to be complained about as "complaint-worthy" adverts in general. That would suggest that parents are already well-motivated (perhaps over-motivated) when it comes to making complaints.

What would be the effect, then, of making it even easier for parents to complain? Most obviously, perhaps, more complaints - something that Bailey seems to approve off even if the complaints themselves are groundless:

We understand that complainants are going to be disappointed if their complaint is rejected. But a timely and personalised response will make such disappointment easier to accept, and provide reassurance that someone has listened to one’s views.

Last week at the Cambridge Skeptics, Simon Perry was talking about his ongoing campaign against the dubious claims made by some alternative medicine practitioners. Basically, it involves making multiple complaints to the ASA, Trading Standards and other regulators whenever he or his comrades in arms spotted anything unscientific. The campaign's biggest triumph came in the wake of the British Chiropractic Association's misconceived (© David Allen Green) libel claim against Simon Singh. Since then, Perry has developed a plug-in for Google Chrome to make submitting a formal complaint as easy as clicking on a few links.

Perry recently met representatives from the ASA, who expressed some slight misgivings about the sheer quantity of complaints they were now receiving about alternative therapists. There were, after all, other complaints that had to be dealt with. More importantly, the ASA stressed that all complaints were investigated. It was the substance of the complaint that mattered, not the volume of complaints about any particular issue. A complaint might be upheld if only one person had complained, or rejected if a thousand had done so.

Yet Bailey implies that volume matters; that it is not enough that some people complain - everyone who sees something they disagree with has a duty to go straight to the ASA or Ofcom. This suggests both a woeful misunderstanding of how these bodies operate and some lack of consideration for their overburdened staff.

Won't somebody think of the regulators?
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Friday, 3 June 2011

Mitt Romney and the all-American religion

Cranmer wonders if a man who believes in a sacred planet called Kolob - or who is, at any rate, a devout member of a religion that has said sacred planet as part of its theology - could be elected President of the United States. He means Mitt Romney, of course. Kolob sounds like a planet in which Scientologists might believe (they after all acknowledge the ancient space-lord Xenu, who might conceivably hail from a planet named Kolob); but in fact the name was coined by Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who may have been aware at some subconscious level that, pronounced backwards, it sounds a lot like "bollock".

No matter. Kolob is not an especially important part of Mormon theology. Nor is it the only Mormon belief that strikes outsiders as being a trifle odd. There's the sacred underwear that believers are supposed to wear at all times, the practice of baptising the dead, the derivation of Mormon temple rituals from Freemasonry - and above all, perhaps, the Book of Mormon itself, a scripture that claims, inter alia, that Jesus Christ visited America after the crucifixion for the purpose of taking his message to the descendants of ancient Israelite tribes who lived there.

Greta Christina, for one, found much to be unimpressed by in her visit to Mormon HQ in Salt Lake City:

Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions on the planet; there must be something about it that people like. But its effect on me... Well, it was inspiring, all right. It inspired me right into a rollercoaster ride of hilarity and horror. It inspired me, at one point, to out-loud laughter that I was literally, physically unable to control....

It inspired me to work on my atheist activism ten times harder than I ever had. Its effect on me was not to entice me into the faith. Its effect was to make me think, even more strongly than I had before, "This religion is batshit crazy."

None of this is Mitt Romney's fault, any more than the unlikelihood of transubstantiation, the bodily assumption of Mary or (for that matter) the Virgin Birth are the fault of practising Catholics who might run for office. If some Mormon beliefs seem ridiculous (more ridiculous than those of older religions) it is because they were laid down in the 19th century rather than the 1st, in the full daylight of the modern world. It is vulnerable, as older religions are not, to historical questioning. Joseph Smith was probably no more a fraud than Mohammed was; it's just that there is more evidence to undermine him. But that is an historical fact; it has no religious significance.

And it must be said that having improbable supernatural beliefs does not seem, in most cases, to inhibit politicians from being in other respects rational decision-makers, honest legislators or good representatives.

It may in fact be of some benefit - especially in the United States, which is a more religious nation than most in Europe. Americans respect faith. Even evangelical Christians who regard Mormonism as heretical are likely to regard a faithful member of the Church of Latter Day Saints more favourably than they would regard an atheist. Atheism would be an almost insurmountable handicap for any potential candidate.

If Mitt Romney is disadvantaged by his religion in seeking the Republican nomination, then, it won't be because of the content of his religious beliefs. It will be because the religion started by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young remains, for all its wealth and numerical growth, not quite fully accepted into the pantheon of great world religions, even in its native land. Its status is still ambiguous - an offshoot of Christianity (a dialect, perhaps) and as such vulnerable to being seen as dissident or "weird".

Tim Stanley believes that Romney should put his religion at the fore of his campaign, rather than trying to downplay it, thus challenging "the fragile tolerance of the 21st century electorate". (A risky strategy, that: though arguably it worked, with regard to race, for Obama.) He "should seize this opportunity to promote a much-maligned and misunderstood faith – a faith that, coincidentally, could have electoral benefits."

Electoral benefits? Why yes. Mormons tend to be well-educated and prosperous, as well as socially conservative - which always plays well in the Midwest. The Mormon prohibition on alcohol and caffeine fits snuggly into the American Puritan tradition. As does a somewhat patriarchal family structure that has survived the abandonment of polygamy among all but fringe adherents of the religion.

Stanley points to the custom of sending Mormon missionaries abroad as providing them with a more internationalist outlook than is general in the US. Also, "the Mormons have a narrative of suffering and survival against the odds that makes their story far more universal than their peculiar theology suggests." Their history of persecution and internal exile, ultimately leading to success, is "a great narrative of trial and redemption that could play well in an America that seems apocalyptically broke".

It's more than that, in fact: it's a quintessentially American story. Just as the United States is a country of immigrants, many of whom came fleeing persecution in their own country, so the early Mormons were chased from town to ever remoter town. Their first prophet, Joseph Smith, was killed. In Salt Lake City, the Latter Day Saints under Brigham Young recreated the ideals of the Pilgrim Fathers, starting over from scratch, establishing a new and godly community far from the corruption of the world. They were among the first and most influential of the pioneer communities who opened up the West; and in doing so they needed all the great American virtues of self-reliance, ruggedness, family values, courage and fortitude. In Salt Lake City they created a blooming metropolis on the banks of a dead sea.

The history of the Mormons is the history of America in microcosm, and their religion is the theological expression of the American dream. Joseph Smith himself was a quitessentially American figure - part idealist, part entrepreneur, part hustler. So was the patriarchal, God-fearing, autocratic, unbiddable Young. Mormonism teaches that America is God's chosen land and Amercians His chosen people - something that many non-Mormon Americans implicitly believe. Today the LDS has grown wealthy, corporate, litigious - a US-based multinational, selling God rather than soft drinks, but otherwise a recognisable capitalist success story. Quintessentially American.

Could a Mormon become President? Only in America.
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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Fit for a (future) king

I was pleased to discover the other day that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have already acquired a fitting official residence in their titular city.

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