Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Charging Alfie Meadows

The news that Alfie Meadows, the student who suffered a near-fatal brain injury during last December's central London protest, is to be charged (along with several others) with the serious crime of "violent disorder", has been greeted with predictable outrage on Twitter and elsewhere. It was my reaction, too, late last night.

As everyone knows, Alfie was an entirely peaceful protester whose misfortune it was to have his skull smashed in by an out-of-control police officer, who has so far not even been identified, let alone held to account. To charge the victim with, essentially, the crime that was committed against him is, even by Met standards, more than usually crass and insensitive. It marks a new moral low both for the police and for the Crown Prosecution Service. It demonstrates contempt, not just for the protest movement (understandable, perhaps) but for basic human decency and compassion. It bespeaks an arrogant state apparatus drunk on its own impunity. It could almost be Syria.

To strike a topically Orwellian note, this chilling prosecution (it seemed to me) summons up a future of a boot stamping repeatedly on a human face - and then putting the face on trial for boot-obstruction.

I still think this, more or less, but four months since the above picture was taken there remains much that is elusive about the circumstances of Meadows' injury, to say nothing of his role in the protests. Today's decision to charge him, whether vindictive or misguided (or even defensible) doesn't shed much light upon what really happened that day.

As I said at the beginning, "everyone knows" what happened to Alfie, a 19 year old (at the time) described touchingly by a friend as "humble and witty". He doesn't look like a hooligan, and according to his mother he only became "radicalised" by the threatened closure of his university's philosophy department. One's sympathies must surely be engaged by anyone prepared to put his body on the line in defence of Schopenhauer and Kant. It is his mother, too, who is the only named source for the accepted account of events - that he was battered by a police truncheon in an unprovoked assault while attempting to leave a kettled area.

Susan Matthews (Alfie's mum) also asserted that the police tried to obstruct attempts to take him to hospital - a claim that turned out to be at the least problematic, and perhaps completely untrue. No mother wants to believe that her son was engaged in "violent disorder". And she was not present at the scene. Alfie himself has not commented publicly, nor has any video footage emerged that might settle the question. We do not yet have the full report of the Independent Police Complaints Authority - not that that will necessarily please everyone when it does.

In the absence of definite information, it strikes me that there are three possibilities:

1) Alfie was the victim of an act of unprovoked police aggression. His injury was a crime and his prosecution is a breathtakingly cynical gesture of official contempt for the life and liberty of the citizen.

2) Alfie was being violent and disorderly, and was hit over the head by an officer attempting to restrain him. The blow may have been (clearly was) excessive, but occurred "in the heat of battle" and the tragedy was, to some extent, of his own making.

3) Alfie was not hit by a police baton at all, but by a brick hurled from somewhere in the crowd by a violent protestor, aimed at the police. Inspector Gadget has claimed that there were rumours circulating in student circles late last year that Meadows was injured in a "friendly fire" incident. If this is true, his injury would of course be unconnected with any "violent disorder" he might or might not have been engaged in.

The third, most shocking possibiliy (at least to the many who naturally think the worst of the police), is also the least plausible, at least for the time being. Apart from Gadget's claim of student rumours (a rumour about a rumour) nothing has emerged to suggest that he wasn't struck by a police baton. This is surely significant. There have been no off-the-record whispers from highly-placed sources, as might be expected if there were any truth in the supposed rumours - not that such whispers would necessarily be reliable. The Metropolitan Police have an unfortunate track record when it comes to "confidentially" placing inaccurate information in the public domain.

Such considerations, when combined with the fact of prosecution, would tend to support the second theory. But that, of course, is precisely the impression the Met might be trying to achieve by prosecuting him. Already the charges have been seized upon in some quarters as "proof" that Alfie was not a peaceful protester. Yet - and this is what makes today's news especially shocking - there has hitherto been no discernible attempt to blacken Alfie Meadows' name, little or no suggestion that he was not as peaceful a protester as his mother claimed. The most charitable explanation is that the Met have finally learned the lessons of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson. Even so, if there was evidence of misbehaviour one might have expected some confidential hints to have been dropped to sympathetic journalists.

But let's suppose he was indeed acting in a violent manner. Should the fact that he nearly died influence the decision whether or not to prosecute him? Legally, it makes no difference. Morally, and politically, it makes every difference. To drag him through the courts looks like an appalling abuse of power. Even if it isn't. Even if the proper procedures were duly followed. In an extreme (and thankfully rare) situation like this normal human decency ought to take precedence over rules, over setting examples or securing easy convictions (and getting charges against protesters to stick has always been easy). Some will object that he would therefore be "getting away with" violent disorder. But he had his head smashed in - that is hardly getting away with anything. And there were presumably more than eleven violent protesters that day. They, too, are getting away with it.

There undoubtedly was violence that day. But there are others who could have been charged - ten others are also up before the beak - without attracting such negative attention. If nothing else, the spectacle of Alfie Meadows in the dock will rebound on the Met in PR terms. It can only seriously undermine the genuine efforts they have made in recent months to evolve a more balanced approach to policing large demonstrations. Can they really not have grasped this? Could it even be that Meadows is being charged not despite, but because of his injuries - to send a message about police ruthlessness and amorality, about the impossiblilty of challenging them? It's not inconceivable; but I find myself reaching the even more worrying conclusion that they really are that stupid.

There was a thoughtful article by David Aaronovitch in the Times Saturday magazine the other week - a sentence I never thought I'd write - in which he reminisced about his youthful demonstrating in the 1970s. It was a time when demonstrators had

...a more robust attitude to policing. Essentially, if we were doing anything that we weren't supposed to be doing... we expected the fuzz to do something about it. Once, at a demo outside South Africa House, I found myself pushed to the front of a pushing crowd. Unaccountably the policeman in front of me, his arms linked to those of his colleagues, began to kick my legs hard with his big boots... it felt like his way of telling me that there was some price to be paid for all this.

Now I suppose I'd take his number, photograph him, write an online column for the Guardian and insist on an investigation. But we didn't take pictures, and there was no comeback. The standing joke was that you'd get charged with whatever they did to you. If they simply carted you off to make up the numbers, you'd be charged with obstruction, as I was. And if they hit you, you'd face a charge for assaulting a police officer.

The Metropolitan Police appear to believe they still live in such a world. Perhaps they're right.
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Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Not-so-super injunctions

Like most people who aren't Westminster insiders, the first I knew about Andrew Marr's supposed lovechild was in January 2008 when Guido brought us the news.

It was in the same month that Marr took out the superinjunction; I can't be certain, but I think Guido's story was posted up a few days earlier. More significantly, it has never been removed - which suggests, among other things, that Marr's lawyers have been less than assiduous in covering his traces. As for Marr himself, he has limited himself to oblique comeback, famously dismissing the whole tribe of bloggers last year as "socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting." All this is puzzling, because (unlike various footballers and celebrities) the jug-eared journalist was in no danger of being outed as an adulterer. Except possibly in Private Eye.

Under the heading A Story You Won't Get from the BBC, the Guardian or The Times, Guido complained back in 2008 that

If this story was about soap stars, footballers or chart-toppers it would be all over the papers. If an actress on EastEnders had an affair with an actor on Coronation Street who was married to the star of Emmerdale which resulted in a love-child it would be front-page news on every newspaper. Yet Andy Marr fathering a child with A**** M**** whilst married to Jackie Ashley goes unreported. Across newsrooms, at Islington and Hampstead dinner parties it has been common knowledge for years. These three journalists are at the heart of the politico-media nexus that constitutes the new ruling class. The producers and editors who are the media gate-keepers would not be keen to dish the dirt on their own… despite the fact that it would be of huge interest to the public.

(My asterisks; just in case we're still not supposed to know the name of Marr's one-time mistress.)

I'm not sure that the story would have been of "huge interest to the public". Marr might be a well-known presenter but his wife is of interest only to Guardian readers and his former mistress (who has retained a dignified silence) is almost unknown outside her by-line. Today's Mail story, in which Marr "comes clean", fawningly celebrates him as "hugely respected" and "considered one of the stars of his generation, his languid charm and sharp intelligence making him a household favourite." The story certainly might have made a splash; but it didn't, and it is only news today because of the lifting of the injunction. Even the Sun doesn't take the opportunity to focus on the affair, instead concentrating on the far more newsworthy fact of the injunction.

Is this evidence of the Westminster media elite looking after its own? Or merely a commercial calculation that it was never actually much of a story? It was never a "kiss and tell". Crucially, the woman at the centre of it had no desire to sell her private life for money. Nor had Marr (apart from the sexual indiscretion itself) acted dishonourably. Quite the reverse. It doesn't reflect badly on his character that he was willing to pay child support for years without difinitively establishing that the child was his (she isn't). Marr is not a vicar, lecturing other people on the evils of adultery; and at least insofar as it concerns him, this particular soap-opera has no political implications.

So we're left with, basically, a piece of office gossip, neither in the public interest nor interesting to the public. Journalistically the story was a non-starter because no-one wanted to talk about it. There were no anonymous "friends" to explain why Marr was a ratbag or, alternatively, a great lay. No photospreads of The Other Woman posing in her underwear, showing off fake tits. Just three people, all saying "no comment." There was, it's true, a child involved - but the story was already five years old, had been known about in journalistic circles for five years, and only Guido Fawkes showed the slightest interest in reporting it. And his story was never taken down. The injunction not only leaves Marr open to the charge of hypocrisy, it also appears to have been both unnecessary and ineffective.

The situation is very different in some recent cases, such as the now-notorious contra mundum order granted by Mr Justice Eady the other day. Eady described it as "a straightforward and blatant blackmail case", in which the woman involved was threatening to sell compromising photographs to a newspaper if the adulterous man didn't pay her off. That, though, isn't how she saw the situation. Writing the other day in the Independent, she complained that

I still had feelings for the guy, with whom I had enjoyed a long relationship, and had decided to let him know I was planning to tell the story of my life. I thought it was only fair. It was always going to be a difficult telephone call, and I thought I had calmed him down, after his initial pleading, threats and a fair bit of bullying to try and get me to pull the plug. I had no intention of revealing any salacious details. I just wanted to write about what happened between us and the impact on my life. But the mere fact that I was going to write something was enough for him to want to conceal this from the public, and, more importantly, from his family.

Worse, though, she doesn't seem to have had an opportunity even to put her case before the court:

So when a text pinged in late at night, which wasn't from Mr Ex, formally alerting me to an email, on reading its contents, I shook. I was the subject of a court injunction which demanded to know to whom I had spoken; I was threatened with jail if I didn't respond through my lawyers within days. I didn't have a lawyer.

As the recipient of this anonymous gagging order, I have become the defendant. I have no name. I have no voice. I am referred to as a set of initials. Who am I? I can't tell you, because if I do I could serve a jail term for contempt of court. I'm a nobody. I don't count.

I had no say in whether this order should be put in place. I wasn't given the opportunity to put my point across. If I want a voice I have to spend huge amounts of money to prove that I have a right to freedom of expression. In an inversion of this country's judicial tradition, I am guilty until proven innocent.

All of which has had a severe effect on her life:

It's being accused of blackmail that's the worst part. I've never been in trouble with the law, apart from the odd driving offence. Yet I'm having to defend myself, and prove that I didn't blackmail him. Why do the judges take their word for it, without asking me?

The man who won this order considered that to even have my existence made public would be detrimental to his career. But what about my life? What about my rights to freedom of expression?

I have had severe stomach cramps and have been constantly on the verge of tears. I haven't known where to turn. I haven't been able to work.

Without knowing the circumstances of the case, it's impossible to know who to believe. The question, though, is whether the judge granting the order was able to take a balanced view of the case. This matters, not simply for reasons of natural justice, but because of the wording of Section 12 of the Human Rights Act:

(2)If the person against whom the application for relief is made (“the respondent”) is neither present nor represented, no such relief is to be granted unless the court is satisfied—

(a)that the applicant has taken all practicable steps to notify the respondent; or

(b)that there are compelling reasons why the respondent should not be notified.

Was that the case here? Miss Anonymous Initials claims that it was not. Whatever one thinks of privacy law in general, to grant a coercive injunction without ensuring that all parties are properly represented undermines a fundamental principle of justice.

I'm also unimpressed by two other relative novelties in privacy law. The first is what seems to be a swiftly-developing doctrine that entering into a sexual relationship (illicit or otherwise) with someone involves an implicit promise never to discuss it in public. There's an increasing conflation between the public's alleged right to know (as embodied in the test of whether or not something is in the public interest) and the lover's right to sell her - or sometimes his - story. The two are quite distinct. The wider public has no "right to know" the details of anyone's private life - which is why it was quite wrong of the News of the World to set up Max Mosley by sending a wired-up dominatrix to his spanking party in Chelsea. But recent cases have been entirely different. They involve women who entered into relationships with famous men, not for the financial gain of selling their stories but for the reasons human beings have always entered into sexual relationships. They are about the "right to talk".

The relationship, in such a case, is as much hers as it is his; and if she should later decide to trade a celebrity connection for money that is (or should be) her decision. The assumption that there is a "reasonable expectation of privacy" here is a false one; people's personal privacy thresholds vary, and it is not reasonable to expect another person to keep quiet about their own private life simply because you happen to feature in it. Moreover, to gag a woman in such circumstances is to absolve the man concerned from taking responsibility for his own actions. The law in such cases is not behaving as a neutral arbiter, weighing competing rights; it is actively removing a basic right from one person to spare the blushes of another.

The second development concerns the adulterer's children. In another recent case Lord Justice Ward stated:

Then there are the children. The purpose of the injunction is both to preserve the stability of the family while the appellant and his wife pursue a reconciliation and to save the children the ordeal of playground ridicule when that would inevitably follow publicity. They are bound to be harmed by immediate publicity, both because it would undermine the family as a whole and because the playground is a cruel place where the bullies feed on personal discomfort and embarrassment....Regrettably I cannot agree that the harmful effect on the children cannot tip the balance where the adverse publicity arises because of the way the children's father has behaved.

The judge quoted both European human rights law and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child to the effect that a court "should accord particular weight" to the interests of children (before adding that "the interests of children do not automatically take precedence over the Convention rights of others"). "Think of the children", it strikes me, is usually a dangerous doctrine. Being teased in the playground is unpleasant, but is the prospect of a few off-colour taunts about one's father's bed-hopping the worst sort of bullying that can be imagined? Worse than "four-eyes", "Carrot-top", or "gay"? Children have no right to be shielded from their parents' bad behaviour, any more than they have the right for their parents not to divorce, or to have two parents in the first place, or for one of their parents not to be sent to prison when they have committed a crime. It is a slippery slope that is being embarked on here.
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Sunday, 24 April 2011

Chris Patten: "terrified of doubt"

Here's a rather strange statement by Chris Patten:

It makes people think I'm peculiar and lack intellectual fibres because I don't have any doubts about my faith, but I'd be terrified to have doubts.

Now, I have some sympathy with Patten's frustration. There is nothing intellectually sophisticated about atheism, and it is wrong and more than a little smug of some atheists to pretend that there is - by calling themselves "brights", for example. Committed atheists may be over-represented at the top end of the IQ spectrum, but so are committed believers. If anything, the mental flexibility required to be a serious religious believer in the modern scientific, secular-focused world is much greater than that needed to justify atheism. And I'm not just talking about subtle liberal quasi-believers who write for the Guardian. The world is not short of highly intelligent, if staggeringly blinkered, creationists, who are well aware of the strength of evidence for evolution and who, far from ignoring it, are convinced that they can easily refute it. The ingenuity of such people is as much a product of their intelligence as it is of their commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible.

Being an atheist, by contrast, really is a doddle. All it requires is to accept the scientific understanding of the world at face value. To a first approximation, the universe appears to be a material place. There are no obviously supernatural events occurring on a regular basis. In former centuries, when the prevailing interpretation of the world was a religious one, to be an atheist required both courage and intellectual independence - for it seemed plain that the complex and ordered cosmos required a God to set it in being. When William Paley combined the "design" of an eye to the design of a watch he was making a common-sense argument. It was Darwin who was the revolutionary. When Richard Dawkins sets out the argument for natural selection being true, he is Paley's heir more than he is Darwin's, using logic, rhetoric and appeals to common sense to support a proposition that has the whole weight of informed opinion on its side.

Where Chris Patten comes unstuck is in his admission that he'd "be terrified to have doubts". If he really is too scared to confront the arguments against his faith, then he does indeed lack "intellectual fibres" - or at least intellectual moral fibres. It seems to me that being too terrified to confront possible doubts is not a sound basis for religious faith. What is he afraid of, that he might find the doubt all too plausible? It sounds almost like an admission of tacit atheism: "I don't want to go there, just in case I discover something I don't like, or can't easily dismiss. So I'll just sit here in my religious comfort-zone and stick my fingers in my ears." It's not an intelligent remark for any publicly prominent believer to make, though it is, perhaps, an honest one. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Christianity for Muggles

It is during Holy Week that Christianity most closely resembles an ancient pagan mystery cult. The teachings associated with Jesus Christ, the parables and injunctions to neighbourly love, largely give way to a drama of sacrifice and redemption, as his final days on earth, violent atoning death and triumphant (though obscure) resurrection are ritually re-enacted in story and music. More than a commemoration of supposed events in Jerusalem not quite two thousand years ago, the days leading up to Easter present an intensely mythic lesson about the human condition which followers of Osiris, Dionysus, Mithras or Attis would have recognised - even if they would have considered an itinerant Jewish preacher, executed as a troublemaker by the Roman authorities, an unworthy focus for the great cosmic drama.

That may have been the masterstroke, of course. As EM Butler put it in The Myth of the Magus, the Passion narrative's "humanising of what in the legends of Osiris and Dionysus had been divine mysteries made a reality of the sacrifice which staggered the whole world". The Christian version of the story survived because it was located in history, because it attached itself to a real person - and so it could be claimed that the narrative was not just mythically or psychologically true, it was also factually true. These events actually happened. But did they? Is the similarity between the myths of antiquity and the recorded facts of Jesus' life and death not just a little too convenient, a little too coincidental? Which came first, the man Jesus or the incarnate Christ - and what relationship do they actually have with each other?

A book drops through the letterbox, with the publicity-friendly title Jesus Potter Harry Christ, that attempts to tackle such questions. The title, and the mildly blasphemous cover image, suggest a fairly light-hearted examination of apparent parallels between the boy wizard and the Son of God; and that is indeed how it begins and ends. The parallels are obvious enough, despite the well-known objection to the novels by some fundamentalist Christians, and at least to some extent deliberate. Derek Murphy enumerates them: Harry, half-magic, half-Muggle (but is he both fully wizard and fully Muggle, as Jesus was fully man and fully God?), is rescued from danger at birth and brought up in secret, performs miracles, struggles with the Dark Lord, appears to die in a final battle but emerges triumphant. And so on.

Some of the parallels are worked out in great detail - but as a sceptic quoted by Murphy rightly says, much of the Potter-Christ similarity can be put down to Harry "following a standard sacrificial hero archetype". That rather begs the question, though. Harry Potter is no more Jesus than Luke Skywalker is, or Doctor Who - which is to say, quite a lot. The basic Jesus storyline is so fundamental to Western culture that, believer or atheist, it is impossible to ignore. It has profoundly influenced the very concept of what a story looks like. On the other hand (and despite an attempt by Murphy in his conclusion to promote Harry Potter as "a much more humane, in depth, vibrant character than the Jesus of the gospels") the young wizard is destined to remain squarely within the realm of literature and film. There will be no Potteranity (or Harry Krishnaism) any time soon.

It is the reverse contention that is more intriguing - not Potter as Christ, but Christ as Potter - and it is this which occupies most of the book. In fact, Murphy says little about Harry Potter after beyond the first chapter of an almost 500 page volume, and the comparison seems to be not much more than a convenient peg on which to hang a detailed discussion of the origins of Christianity. Murphy's contention, briefly, is that the Jesus worshipped by Christians is a fictional character, who never existed (or if he did exist, is not relevant); and that Christianity is indeed a pagan mystery religion whose saviour-god has been mistaken for a real person. "The Jesus of the early Christian communities," he writes, "rather than a recently deceased historical person, was primarily a literary construct."

This isn't just a case of consigning Jesus to a notional archetype of "dying and rising" gods: the New Testament writings, Murphy tells us, are coded with precise astrological symbolism that reflect now largely forgotten, but once widespread, ideas. All this is worked out at some length, and with varying degrees of plausibility. In Murphy's account, the "heretical" Gnostic versions of early Christianity, in which Jesus appeared as a mystical and usually disembodied source of arcane knowledge, were not late elaborations but rather preserved the original (but mthological) Christ-figure from which the "historical" rabbi-messiah was derived. He contends that the story of the earthly Jesus originally represented the exoteric, first-stage presentation of early Christian doctrine - a mere prelude to "higher" teachings in which initiates were presented with a more obviously unhistorical Christ. In some Christian communities, the esoteric teaching was neglected or lost; but their attachment to an imagined history gave them the edge. Their religion was less elitist, better organised and inspired more fervent devotion (including acts of martyrdom). It survived and grew, and so all we are left with today is a Christianity for Muggles.

Murphy also shows convincingly that the distinction between Judaism and paganism is not as absolute as generally supposed, that there was in the Roman world a great interplay between the two (as seen, for example, in concepts such as the Logos), and suggests that the figure of Jesus represented a convenient synthesis.

Such ideas are far from new. A hundred years ago, indeed, the theme was already so hackneyed that James Joyce (in Ulysses) could include Was Jesus a Sun-myth? among the Twelve Worst Books Ever Written. I've already referred to The Myth of the Magus (overlooked by Murphy) which places Jesus in a continuum of wizard-heroes - some historical, some mythical, some fictional - stretching from Zoroaster to Madam Blavatsky. The names of James Frazer and Joseph Campbell, among others, crop up frequently in this book - as do those of more recent speculative writers. Murphy demonstrates, however, that doubts about the historical reality of Jesus can be traced very early, even within the lifetime of the first apostles. The similarities between the Jesus story and those of pagan gods were remarked on by ancient writers, pagan and Christian, and adduced as evidence both for and against the truth of the new religion. Yet as Murphy admits, in this secular era the area remains academically suspect, even taboo - hence the continuing quest for the "historical Jesus".

This is indeed a paradox.

Edward Gibbon wrote, with typical irony, that "By the wise dispensation of Providence a mysterious veil was cast over the infancy of the church". That's putting it politely. The fact is that we know nothing whatever about either Jesus himself or about how the religion we all recognise as Christianity emerged from out the seething cauldron of myth, history and ideas. There is only guesswork. Jesus is not a historical figure like Julius Caesar, about whom some things are indeed known and others can be plausibly surmised; or even like Paul, whose personality and voice survive powerfully in the New Testament epistles. I'll repeat. When it comes to Jesus WE KNOW NOTHING.

That's not to say that a huge amount of evidence hasn't survived that appears to cast light on Christian origins, though in reality the light it casts is fragmented as though refracted through a myriad prisms. There are the canonical writings of the New Testament, of course, which at least look like historical documents of some recognisable kind, even though there aren't. There are brief, not terribly enlightening allusions in Josephus and Tacitus that seem to anchor Jesus in history. There are Gnostic and other apocryphal writings that were never accepted by what became orthodox Christianity, but which reflect other ways of interpreting who and what Jesus was. There are rumours and traditions, referred to in the writings of early church fathers. There is some highly disputed archaeology. But there is nothing which can be pointed to with certainty as proving either the existence or the actual teaching of Jesus Christ.

Instead, what all this wealth of contradictory material provides is an opportunity for endless discussion and debate. We may know nothing, but we can imagine anything, and can quote chapter and verse to make that anything sound plausible. The current tendency is to locate the historical Jesus in the context 1st century Palestine, emphasising his Judaism and the continuity between his teaching and earlier Jewish thought. It's possible to create thereby a plausible account of an itinerant preacher such as an original Jesus must have been. But - as Murphy points out in one of the strongest passages of the book - this can only be done by jettisoning most of the theology and mythology in which the figure Jesus comes wrapped, already in the earliest stratum of Christian literature. In other words, it requires a backwards logic: the starting point is the assumption of the very thing which the historian sets out to prove, which is that there is a plausible human Jesus to be found underneath all the theological accretions. But what if there isn't?

The point is not that there was no original Jesus "behind" the myth. (Murphy's case that there might not have been is ultimately rather weak, I think, but his thesis does not in fact depend on the non-existence of Jesus the man.) The point is rather that the original Jesus is irrecoverable, and in any case is not the Jesus that Christians actually worship. Who (if anyone) inspired the paradoxical teacher of the Synoptic Gospels, the incarnate Logos of St John and the personal saviour of St Paul is a fascinating but ultimately unanswerable question. The Jesus of faith is a figure of literature and myth, who answers powerful human needs, but who has no existence outside of the Christian tradition that reveres him.

I would argue that there remains strong evidence that a real man stands behind the mythologised figure of Jesus Christ - a human teacher who was believed by many to be the promised Jewish messiah. I would point, for example, to the Ebionites, a Palestinian sect who for centuries retained their Jewish observances and who did not (it appears) believe that Jesus was God Incarnate or hold other "pagan" beliefs about him. Murphy doesn't mention them. It is, though, striking just how quickly the personality of Jesus was mythologised. Paul - whose letters are the earliest surviving Christian literature, older than the gospels - shows very little interest in the events of Jesus' life, or even awareness of them. Yet his theology is already fully formed. It is almost as though Christianity came first, Jesus himself being something of an afterthought.

Jesus Potter, Harry Christ - which I'd certainly recommend though it's not entirely error-free and some of the astrological claims strike me as a bit forced - doesn't seem to be available in Britain at the moment, but you can order it through Amazon USA. In addition, large parts of it are available for free download on the book's dedicated website. It's controversial, but far from outrageous, and full of fascinating, insufficiently disseminated information.
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Sunday, 17 April 2011

Aussie Rules

Beneath a typical Guardianista piece of anti-cuts hysteria by Lisa Ansell and Kate Belgrove (hailed by Lady Laurelia as "brilliant, BRILLIANT") comes this eye-opening comment from "wanderlustboy":

How is it that the Australian public sector went from 1.6 million workers in 1984, to 1.5 million workers in 2006? How could they do that whilst providing more services, more complex services, administering vastly greater numbers of programs and taxpayer funds?

Could it be that the public service in Australia is not seen as a jobs program for trade unionists and poor areas? Could it be that Australia actually uses modern technology, instead of demanding that any and every interaction with the government here is by mail? Could it be that its an absolute disgrace that it takes 6 weeks to get a national insurance number here, and when you call up Jobcentre or HMRC, neither know the status of the request? And if I've moved I'll need to send them a form?

And another thing; people always telling me how amazing the NHS is, that is, except when you have something wrong with you. I was told it would take 8 weeks to see the specialist I needed to. That is, until I pulled some strings and name dropped and got a prominent medico friend from Australia to find someone to help; I got into see the specialist the next week. Is that how you want your heath system to work? Treatment if you have connections?

Its like dealing with a kafkaesque bureaucracy. In Australia, there are all the basic welfare state services Britain has (free healthcare, education, unemployment and disability benefits). We do not, however, believe it is the role of government to provide "active women co-ordinators" and nonsense like that. Perhaps a look down under might provide some clues as to how to run a country, considering it had no recession, unemployment is about 5%, it paid off its national debt in 2006 entirely, and the debt incurred to stimulate the ecnomy during the financial crisis will be paid off by 2019 (with the government back in surplus by 2013).

Stop being so parochial, stop accepting absolutely appalling quality public services.


The public sector here is so bloated, so inefficient, its excruciating to deal with the NHS, DWP or HMRC. I often see, at government offices, four or five workers standing around a front desk, with cups of tea, happily chatting away and ignoring the fact that a member of the public is standing there waiting to be assisted.

The equivalent government office in Australia would have one or two people up front. And they would be working. And if there weren't people to serve, they would have other work, admin type stuff, do be doing or catching up on. The Australian government understands that productivity growth and international competitiveness are the name of the game. Here if I want to see a doctor, I need to register and fill out reams of paperwork (excellent, more work for administrators); in Australia, I pull out my medicare card and they swipe it and the government transfers the money to the healthcare provider.

Australia understands that the Asia-Pacific is the region of the 21st century, and we can't live in a dreamland if we have any expectation of keeping up our standard of living when competing with countries like China and India.

Of course, they have AV in Australia. Perhaps that's their secret...

The comment gets to the nub of the issue, which is that the cult of overspending - which reached its apogee under Gordon Brown - didn't just leave the country close to bankruptcy, it also made the public services in measurable ways worse. Less efficient, less user-friendly, bossier. And it's not hard to see why. With one person fully occupied, the work gets done. With two people semi-occupied, there's ample scope for gossip, time-wasting, messing about on facebook and blaming the other person. So the work doesn't get done. And then there's the sense of entitlement that comes from being part of a huge drone class sustained by compulsory taxation. There's safety in numbers.

Cutting back on inefficiency - which means cutting unnecessary jobs - should not entail the destruction of public services themselves. Unfortunately, however, it almost certainly will. Cutting front-line services causes most pain to the public, but least pain to the managers sitting behind desks in the civil service and in quangos who are by and large the ones making the decisions. A lot of what normal people consider "non-jobs", moreover, are a consequence of legislation and involve enforcing "compliance" with the vast infrastructure of regulations. The law requires the monitoring of diversity; it does not require that there shall be a specific number of libraries or swimming pools in any locality. So it's the libraries and the swimming-pools that are the first to go.

The public-sector and its apologists have become remarkably adept at fighting their corner. Here's one small example. The government is currently consulting on what should be done with the hugely expensive and bureaucratic Equality Act. You can contribute here. Judging by the responses - 99% hostile to any sort of change - the consultation has been the victim of a remarkably successful astroturfing operation. Hundreds of almost identically-worded comments denounce any watering-down of the Act as an attack on fundamental rights. This is typical:

The Equality Act should not be scrapped; it defends people’s fundamental rights and dignity. Maintaining equality in the workplace is not “red tape”, it’s something people have fought and died for over hundreds of years. Scrapping the act would set us back in terms of equality and diversity provision and to do so would send a negative mesaage to the wider community.

I have no objection to anti-discrimination laws. Indeed, I think they should be extended beyond the present rather arbitrary set of "protected characteristics" to cover all acts of irrelevant discrimination. Why should the law protect (as it does) Australians but not Scousers, Muslims but not Goths? But it's entirely possible for the law to give enforceable rights to people who can prove that they have been discriminated against without erecting - as the Equality Act does - a vast bureaucracy of pre-emptive compliance, complete with tick-boxes and intrusive questionnaires, not to mention a small army of enforcers and diversity co-ordinators.

"Framing fundamental anti-discrimination legislation as ‘red tape’ is a deeply worrying indication of this government’s priorities," complains Irene Gedalof in another comment. What has she to worry about? Given that she describes herself as "Course Leader for the MA in Equality and Diversity at London Metropolitan University," I would imagine quite a bit.
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Thursday, 14 April 2011

AV and fair play

The Referendum campaign is already ugly and fraught, with both sides resorting to wild claims and mudslinging - as well as largely irrelevant arguments about who is funding whom. It's a sure sign that nothing very significant is at stake. I'll be voting No, largely because AV's well-documented tendency to exaggerate landslides strikes me as bad for democracy, but I doubt it will make very much difference.

That, of course, is what most prominent supporters of the Yes campaign used to say about AV; Nick Clegg's description of the system as a "miserable little compromise" is only the most notorious of such expressions of unenthusiasm. Though you wouldn't know it to listen to them now. Mark Reckons, on Twitter, expressed sadness earlier today that Roy Jenkins was not around refute attempts by No campaigners to use his words against the change; but I think he's lucky to be spared the verbal gymnastics his erstwhile pro-reform colleagues are now having to perform. (I too regret his departure, if only because I like to think he'd be speaking up for Oxford more vociferously than his successor Chris Patten seems to be doing.)

Vitriol aside, the respective campaigns are beginning to develop revealing differences of flavour. On the Yes side, the myth that under AV "every vote counts" is deployed to give the proposed system the all-important aura of fairness. The implicit suggestion is that it is somehow unfair to be forced to choose between voting for a candidate who has no hope of winning, and voting tactically for a candidate you don't much like. It could equally be argued that according the same weight to the positive first preferences of voters who actually like a candidate and the unenthusiastic, tactical second-preferences of those who would rather have someone else, is unfair. Why shouldn't BNP supporters have to waste their votes? The answer lies in the concept of fairness many members of the Yes campaign instinctively embrace. Put simply, it's the "all must have prizes" idea. Fairness lies not in the opportunity to vote but in whether your vote, when counted, influences the final outcome.

Now consider the No campaign, who are recruiting sportsmen and whose recent broadcast featured a horserace in which the horse that comes in first is placed third by the judges. "The person who finishes first should win," says the caption. Of course, "first past the post" is in origin a sporting metaphor, so it's not surprising that the No camp (like David Cameron in a speech following the Grand National) has reached for this analogy. But it also reveals where they're coming from psychologically. They are putting forward a notion of fairness expressed in another sporting figure of speech - "level playing field". From this point of view, the unfairness would lie in giving supporters of a low-placed candidate a second chance to have their vote counted when supporters of higher-ranking candidates are only counted once.

"To the victor, the spoils" says the No campaign. I get the impression that, for some of them, an election under AV is a bit like one of those politically correct school sports days where no child is allowed to come last.

More broadly, both campaigns are trading on a notion of politics as, among other things, a kind of game. They both agree that there should be "fair play", they just disagree about how to achieve it. This is, of course, a quintessentially British perspective and explains quite a lot about the way our political system has developed. The adversarial system seems natural given that, in football or cricket, there are always two teams. The referee - the Speaker - is supposed to be impartial (and until fairly recently no-one would have questioned his or her decisions as biased). At a darker level there has been a high level of trust that has allowed postal vote fraud to flourish, the unwillingness of candidates to challenge close results - and, if they do, the near certainty that they will be punished for it at the subsequent by-election. Because if politics is a game, then there's nothing worse than a sore loser.

This sporting approach to politics was strongest when party politics was more firmly rooted in popular culture, and when MPs themselves were at best semi-professional (and many were outright amateurs). These days it has become much more professional; but then so of course has sport, often with similarly depressing results.
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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Feminists and Evangelicals compete to rescue fallen women

The British Humanist Association is complaining about a government decision to award a contract to what it describes as a "vital service for trafficked women" to the Salvation Army. Previously, the funding for the Poppy Project worth around £2million per year had gone to Eaves, a feminist group that campaigns against the sex industry.

The BHA describes this as a "shock move" and "deeply concerning." Praising Eaves as a "pioneering women’s charity" which was "motivated solely with regard to the well-being of those women", the statement - attributed to Naomi Phillips - dismisses the Salvationists as homophobic and "a church motivated by a clear mission to evangelise". The BHA fears that the church will "discriminate and proselytise" in the way it provides the service, and calls upon the government to bar religious groups from tendering for contracts such as this one.

This is all a bit rich. Eaves might not disturb the peace and quiet of your local high street by banging tambourines, but their evangelical zeal is, if anything, even greater than the Sally Army's.

Motivated by an ideological opposition to all aspects of the sex industry - on the grounds that it "helps to construct and maintain gender inequality" - Eaves campaigns for tougher anti-prostitution laws (for example, for a Swedish style ban on all purchasing of sex, however consensual) and has been accused of carrying out and publicising misleading research into the prevalence of sex-trafficking and the damaging impact of lap-dancing clubs. The organisation was a favourite of the last government and of the Home Office, whose own "research" and consultation exercises tended to draw heavily and uncritically on Eaves/Poppy papers such as "The Big Brothel" and "Sex in the City".

Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon of Birkbeck is prominent among those who have drawn attention to the apparent conflict of interest involved. Two years ago she wrote:

There are many linked organisations with no interest in questioning ramped-up figures on trafficking. The Poppy project's parent organisation, Eaves Housing, has an income of more than £5m, and a large sum of this comes from the Home Office. Eaves' objectives are threefold: to provide accommodation, advice and support directly to women and children escaping domestic violence and women trafficked into prostitution and domestic servitude; lobbying and responding to government papers on violence against women; and researching and highlighting issues around violence against women, including prostitution, trafficking and domestic violence. The Home Office gives money to the Poppy project, which in turn lobbies the government. If this sounds rather circular, it is.

The 2006 accounts describe the cosy relationship it has enjoyed with government. "In addition to direct service provision Poppy research and development team has been nurturing relationships with both government and non-governmental agencies. Members of the project joined Mr Paul Goggins, the parliamentary under secretary of state at the Home Office, on an official UK presidency visit to Lithuania and following a meeting with Mr Mike O'Brian, the solicitor general, were invited to attend the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking." (Page 8).

As "Eaves plan over the long term is to be recognised as one of the leading agencies on violence against women issues in the country [sic]" (page 2, pdf), one fears this implies corporate domination over the interests of, rather than provision of service to, women. Funding comes from the Home Office (via the Office for Criminal Justice Reform) and also from the former Association of Local Government, London Councils. This is worrying because these same organisations are the ones being lobbied by Poppy, Eaves and Object.

Brooks-Gordon has also described the help offered by the Poppy Project - which has been criticised for making help conditional on women leaving prostitution altogether and turning in their pimps - as "like the worst sort of Victorian philanthropy". Eaves denies any link between its campaigning and its housing provision, but there would certainly seem to be a conflict between providing objective, non-judgemental support to genuine victims of sex-trafficking and other abused women, and the organisation's absolutist opposition to the sex industry as such.

The foreword to The Big Brothel, written by Eaves chief executive Denise Marshall, brackets prostitution together with rape and child sexual abuse as a form of "violence against women". She allows that women (there is no mention of men, that would spoil the intellectual conceit) in the sex industry may be socially excluded and have poor access to housing and health support but rejects the one solution - decriminalisation - that the evidence suggests would most benefit sex workers and protect them from the risk of harm. This is because the report insists that prostitution is itself a form of abuse, that even the suggestion that some sex workers are not coerced "serves to create a notion of genuine victims and non-deserving women" and that any relaxation of the legal regime would "amount to official endorsement of these constructions of gender identity".

Marshall goes on to compare prositition, once again, with child abuse.

For those who say ‘prostitution has always happened and can never be eradicated’, imagine what the reaction would be if solutions to child sexual abuse were presented in this way. If governments were to say “well we can never stop it, so we must make sure that the children suffering it can have care after the event,” there would, rightly so, be universal outrage.

The equation of adults making informed choices (but choices with which feminist activists disagree) with abused children particularly telling. And the repeated reference to "construction of gender identity" shows where her true priorities lie: not with the social circumstances of the particular women they aim to help but with the theoretical framework through which they view the sex industry. The implication is that even if decriminalisation objectively benefited the women involved (as it probably would) Eaves would still oppose it because it "sends the wrong message".

And what of the Salvation Army? Interestingly, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson claimed that awarding them the contract would be "much better for the victims of trafficking" because they offered a wider geographical spread and because, unlike Eaves, they were prepared to extend help to men as well as women. (Their bid was also 60% cheaper, presumably because they are not entirely reliant on public money.) In other respects, however, the Army's agenda would seem to dovetail quite closely with Eaves'. In 2009, Nick Davies noted that they were as eager as the feminist group to exaggerate the scope of the trafficking problem. And it's fair to say that the organisation has been rescuing fallen women for much longer than Eaves has. Here, for example, is Captain William Baugh's appeal for funds to build a refuge for such unfortunates in 1883:

On Sunday night last amongst about a dozen others who came out for salvation, four prostitutes came out and (as far as we can judge from appearances) they are real. They were there on Monday night and testified. But then what hope have we of them while they are at large in their own town? Can nothing be done? Can we not raise a home in which to place them under proper Salvation Army management? We could get others no doubt then, but till then we are spending our strength for naught with such precious souls who cannot call their body or soul their own. We have got to get them away from the dens in which they are living, but are at a loss to know what to do.

More recently, the Army has involved itself with such campaigns as scare-mongering about prostitution and sex-trafficking during previous World Cups and a push to remove prostitutes' business cards from phone-booths. The latter was described "as a very positive signal of the ongoing commitment to anti trafficking policies and policing which determines to put an end to this ‘modern slave trade'." Which is, to say the least, debatable.

At least the Salvationists are up-front about their religious motivation. If anything they tend, as individuals, to be considerably less judgemental than their ideologically-driven counterparts in the feminist movement. As regards their motivation and objectives, there's little to choose between the two groups: they use the same language of degradation and objectification, and they share the same fundamentally conservative view of a woman's "proper" sexual role. When it comes to sexual illiberalism, religious and feminist groups have long been in covert and sometimes overt agreement. Yes, the Salvation Army probably at some level want to convert the women they rescue to Christianity. But Eaves want to convert them to their brand of doctrinaire feminism. Is that really any better?
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Monday, 11 April 2011

Spare a thought for the "thickos"

Political Betting wonders if The No campaign is "too reliant on Andrew Rawnsley's 'thickos'" - a reference to an Observer column from February in which Rawnsley pointed out a demographic split in support for a change in the voting system. While there was a (fairly slender) Yes majority among higher social groups, there was a solid No majority among members of the C2DE classification. "Yes" is also disproportionately represented among younger and more urban voters. No surprises there. "The no campaign," Rawnsley concluded, "will probably not put it so indelicately themselves, but they are calculating that their best hope of preserving first past the post is to mobilise what you could crudely call the Thicko Vote."

The propensity of younger, more affluent, trendier and better educated people to be taken in by progressive-sounding utopian nonsense is nothing new, of course. It would have been on such voters that the Yes campaign would have relied had there been a referendum on the Euro (and thank goodness we stayed out of that one). But I'm not making an argument about the greater political sagacity of the poor, the old and the thick. There is such an argument to be made. I want rather to consider what implications the finding poses for the future of British democracy, were AV to be introduced.

The Yes campaign's most bizarre (or possibly just optimistic) contention is that changing one unfair voting system for another that is equally, but differently, unfair will boost interest in politics, will repair the broken trust between the people and their elected representatives, will somehow make the political process generally more relevant to the turned-off masses. By recruiting a whole bunch of minor celebrities the campaign has sought to capitalise on an anti-politics mood, to give the appearance of a popular groundswell to a somewhat esoteric debate that in truth only excites people who are already political obsessives. It's an ironic strategy, and one that I think is doomed to backfire - if not before referendum day, then afterwards, and for years to come.

Why? Because in a democracy participation matters. The more that people are turned off politics, the less legitimacy the system can claim - and the less accountable politicians actually become. There's a direct link between low voter turnout in recent elections and the scandal that engulfed Westminster over expenses. The Yes campaign seeks to blame "seats for life" for the malaise and posits AV as a solution; but there have always been seats for life - for good and defenisble reasons - and AV will not make them disappear. No system would. At the root of the crisis in confidence is the collapse of party politics as a mass participation activity. There are deep social and structural reasons for this (some of which the government is at least attempting to engage with via the Big Society; unsuccessfully, I predict) but AV will if anything make the problem worse.

That's because AV is inherently complicated. Hard for people to get their heads around. Maybe not hard for you to get your head around, but then you're an over-educated political obsessive, aren't you?

How hard can it be, ask the Yes campaigners, to rank candidates in order of priority? Even Rawnsley's "thickos" could manage that. Well, you've probably received your copy of the Electoral Commission's handy guide to the upcoming referendum. As you may have noticed, the leaflet explains the current system in a couple of sentences.

"The votes for each candidate are put into a pile and counted. The candidate with the most votes wins."

In contrast, the explanation of the Alternative Vote takes 351 words, printed over four pages and entailing the use of three diagrams. The act of ranking candidates may be "simples"; the relationship between that act and the eventual emergence of a winner is less so. In a close contest, everything can depend on the order in which the lower-ranked candidates are eliminated. Applied over the whole country in a general election, AV can increase the likelihood of a hung Parliament or it can exaggerate a landslide. Counting the votes is slower, which will destroy the fun of election night (and election night plays a crucial role in engaging people in politics). A candidate ahead on first preferences pipped at the post when third and fourth preferences are called into play might justifiably feel cheated, as will many of his or her supporters. Who wins and who loses becomes more of a mathematical game - fascinating to pundits, but potentially a real turn-off to mainstream voters.

Who will be most confused by the complexity of AV? Undoubtedly, those older and less-educated voters who in the poll mentioned above disproportionately preferred to keep the current system. Members of lower social groups, presently disinclined to vote (and not just in next month's referendum), yet whose participation is vital in a society that claims to be a democracy, will be further disincentivised by having an opaque voting system foisted on them by the votes of the minority of political junkies who bother to turn out. A change touted as a cure for political disengagement and the domination of a narrow, self-referential elite thus risks producing precisely the opposite.
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Friday, 8 April 2011

Laurelia, or The Two Nations -- A Penny Dreadful

One fair spring evening, as the slowly sinking sun cast its benign rays over the whole shimmering, pulsating, still bustling city, the brightest and most fashionable of the capital's inhabitants repaired to a grand house in Fitzroy Square. It was a dazzling assembly, but by common consent none among them dazzled so brightly as the young and celebrated Lady Laurelia Penworthy. In her diminutive yet comely person were united the liveliest of minds and the tenderest of social consciences. Her only fault - if it was indeed a fault - was a tendency to view the world as a story of which she was the heroine. Perhaps that was the key to her success. On this evening she was indeed the cynosure of all those present; and yet while she was fully in the company she was not fully of it; or so it seemed to the gentleman taking the air with her on the balcony. He pressed her for some explanation; and she, after hesitating for a moment or two, condescended to answer.

"I have always desired," she began, "to experience life as it is lived by the common run of people. To know its joys and sorrows. To inhale cheap tobacco and dance in uncouth taverns. To dwell awhile in a garret above some dingy emporium. Even -- "

She paused, overcome for the moment by a kind of giddy excitement.

"Even to lose myself in amorous dalliance with some peddlar or coachman."

Sebastian Dullbore raised his eyebrows. He had always cultivated an air of nonchalance, even of nonconformity, as befits the editor of a radical literary journal. This, though, was too much. He dragged on his cigar.

"My dear Laurelia," he resumed. "I swear you mean to provoke me."

"No indeed," returned the maid (for she still bore the aspect of a maid, and I thus suppose we must accord her the presumption of an uncorrupted youth), "I consider myself to be in truth one with the downtrodden masses. Why only last week I espied a beggar, cadging potatoes in Covent Garden, set upon by the constable of police. Heedless of my own safety I remonstrated with the constable until he desisted; after which I cast a closer eye upon the vagrant. There was something noble in his bearing, notwithstanding the mighty blow he had received, and I determined upon a bold experiment. I took him to my house; I had the servants bathe him and dress him in a tailcoat; and that evening I brought him to a grand reception at the Duke of Omnium's."

Sebastian laughed. It was the supreme earnestness with which Lady Laurelia indulged her foibles that made her so endearing; although he was painfully conscious that not all his acquaintanceship shared this opinion.

"I suppose he was a great success," he ventured.

"He was indeed. I put it about that he was my cousin, returned from the Colonies having made a vast fortune but having lost, alas, the finer points of etiquette. The disguise was perfect; and my new friend was possessed of natural wits and an untutored loquacity that made him able to converse on equal terms with lords and members of Parliament. Yet there was something painful about the gathering."

"How so? His Grace is famous for his liberality. There are a thousand people in this city who would pay fifteen guineas for such an invitation."

"And a hundred thousand for whom the Duke of Omnium is as inconceivable a creature as a mastodon or a brontosaurus," Lady Laurelia rejoindered. "A hundred thousand in this very city who struggle each day for bread, who lead lives of squalor and mental impoverishment not fifty yards from this very spot. What is the Duke of Omnium to a dustman, or a dustman to the Duke of Omnium?"

"Or what is Lady Laurelia Penworthy, for that matter?" interjected her companion.

"Mr Dullbore, you mistake me," Laurelia responded with redoubled passion. "I am indeed a dweller in two worlds. For when I could no more bear with His Lordship's tedious guests I suffered my new friend to take me with him for a walk along the riverbank, the place of resort of the labouring poor; and there with unpretentious spontaneity he lit me a cigarette; and Mr Dullbore, I condescended to accept it. Truly I did so; and as I inhaled, each breath was like a new epiphany. This is truth; this is reality; this is the world as it is, not as fine persons who congregate in great houses will have it so. A world of men and women - yes, women too. Yet it remains unregarded, ignored, unknown. Well, it will unknown no longer; for I Laurelia Penworthy shall be its Voice. Yes indeed, Sebastian, I shall be its voice, and you will carry my voice throughout the land."

"A splendid notion indeed," said he. "But have you seen what has become of our circulation?"
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Thursday, 7 April 2011

Was the "gay caveman" actually gay? Or even a caveman?

The "first known gay caveman" has been unearthed in Prague, apparently. The Mail is only one of several newspapers excited by the news.

How can they possibly know? The answer is depressingly stereotypical. The man was apparently buried in the attitude, and with the accoutrements, traditionally ascribed to women - not with weapons of war but with pots and pans. Therefore, say an archaeologist, he was "probably" gay or transsexual.

"She added that Siberian shamans, or latter-day witch doctors, were also buried in this way but with richer funeral accessories to appropriate to their elevated position in society."

Well perhaps. But - assuming that the male identification of the skeleton is confirmed rather than merely probable - perhaps he was a potter (whether or not a Stone Age equivalent of the cross-dressing heterosexual Grayson Perry), or the village chef. Perhaps burying the man in the attitude of a woman was a form of ritual humiliation because he had displayed cowardice in battle. Or perhaps he was a shaman. It seems strange to rule out this possibility on the grounds that in much more recent times, in a different part of the world, shamans were buried with "richer funeral accessories". Then again, the burial might have been carried out in accordance with magical practices whose purpose is quite lost to us. We just don't - and cannot - know.

Unfortunately there's no reference made to any academic paper or even to a more formal report of the announcement, so I'm unable to discover how reliably the sex of the skeleton had been determined or how large a sample of gender-specific burials from this period the new find violates. The original report - from which today's have largely been cut and pasted - seems to be this one from a Czech news site, which appears under the incredibly offensive heading "Grave of Stone Age gender-bender excavated in Prague". It contains few further facts, however. (For an expert sceptical analysis see Rosemary Joyce.)

The find is clearly unusual, but why are the archaeologists so keen to interpret it in the light of 21st century notions of sexual identity and orientation? And rather crude notions at that. Notice the elision - made by the archaeologists as well as in the churnalised press reports - between homosexuality, transsexuality and transvestism, as if being gay were the same thing as being feminised. There's no inevitable connection between effeminacy or cross-dressing and same-sex relationships, however. In many cultures, homosexual practices have occurred in a context of heightened masculinity (Sparta, various armies, English public schools). Today, of course, the whole area of sexual identity is highly political - there are already signs that the Prague burial may become the object of a tug-of-love between gay and transsexual activists.

That's not the only stereotype doing the rounds in these reports. The grave is late Neolithic, dating to around 2,500-3000 BC - which means that the person buried, whatever his sexuality, wasn't any sort of "caveman". That doesn't stop the Telegraph illustrating the story with some completely unrelated cave art, reproduced above, which the compositor may have decided looked a bit gay. What's going on here? Presumably, at some level, a contrast is being drawn between the cultural personas of a brutish, club-wielding (and thus stereotypically hetero) "caveman" and that of a mincing, cross-dressing, Judy Garland-loving queer. Thus "gay caveman" makes for a satisfying oxymoron, even though the body in the burial pit was certainly not a caveman and there's no real evidence he was gay.

The reporting of this story, and perhaps the presentation of it by the archaeologists, says rather more about our society than about the one in which this person lived and died. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Historical responsibility and modern myopia

It's now a long time since the end of British rule in India. Next year sees the 65th anniversary of the creation of India and Pakistan. You have to be quite old to have any significant memories of the Raj, and very old indeed to have participated in any significant way in the events that accompanied its demise. It seems likely, though, that generations yet unborn will continue to pay the price for decisions that were made then - for example, the incorporation of Kashmir in India rather than Pakistan on the say-so of its then prince.

International or internal disputes can last for generations, even centuries. The Kashmir dispute is no older than that between Israel and the Palestinians, and much younger than the tribal rivalries that still divide Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, the Caucasus and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The Russians are still "paying the price" for the country's Eastward expansion of the 18th and 19th centuries, the American indians will never recover from their displacement from the West; and then there's Ireland, which seemed to be past the worst until just the other day. On the other hand, England seems mostly to have got over the Norman conquest (despite continuing disproportionate Norman prosperity) and it would be an odd sort of person who still hated the Romans. The time eventually comes when people collectively decide to stop being defined by the past, but when or how that moment comes is never predictable.

David Cameron, in Pakistan, has raised eyebrows for apparently accepting blame for the continuing bloodshed and unrest in Kashmir. It wasn't exactly an apology. But his precise words were, I think, highly significant: "I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place." Something a bit odd, there, eh? An acknowledgement of responsibility, accompanied by a refusal to get involved. "It's all our fault," he seems to be saying, "so don't expect us to do anything about it!" This isn't merely evasion, it implies that the role of the British can only ever have been to make things worse - that without our meddling, nothing would ever have gone wrong.

Historically, of course, this is absurd. The partition of the Indian Empire was a compromise drawn up between India's leading politicians. In effect, the territory was carved up between Nehru's Congress and Jinnah's Muslim League. It was a rushed job and the British - whose main aim was to get out of the place as quickly as possible - didn't exactly cover themselves in glory, but the key decisions were all made by Indians. And the massacres that followed Partition were all perpetrated by locals. The only way that the British authorities can be blamed for what happened - and thus for the continuing discontent - is by asserting that they didn't interfere enough, that they largely stood aside and allowed the leadership of the Indian people to make a mess of things. In other words, that the British accorded Nehru and Jinnah the respect due to founders of nations.

What was the alternative? To stay and fight to preserve a doomed empire? I suppose it's possible that, had it required a full-scale War of Independence to end British rule in India, Congress and the League would have sunk their differences in a united campaign. Even then, it's hard to imagine the country remaining united for long - by this stage, the fractures were too severe. Had Lord Mountbatten done a Gaddafi, blood would still have been shed - only it would have been British blood as well as Indian blood shed by the British and I can't think that sixty-five years later a British prime minister would expect his hosts to thank him for it. No, he would be apologising - and this time rightly.

Tristram Hunt, the BBC's favourite historian turned Labour MP, had it right for once: "To say that Britain is a cause of many of the world’s ills is naïve. To look back 50-odd years for the problems facing many post-colonial nations adds little to the understanding of the problems they face."

Naive and, I would say, patronising. Whatever happened in the past, the continued standoff and intermittent violence in Kashmir is not our fault, and it's not Jinnah's fault or Nehru's. The responsibility lies squarely with the people who live there now, and with today's governments in Islamabad and Delhi who continue to play political games with people's lives. That's ultimately why it would be absurd to "insert Britain in some leading role" there: it's none of our business, and hasn't been for around sixty-five years. If indeed it ever really was. (Peter Oborne has an excellent take on this subject.)

Something else that isn't our fault - last week's tragedy in Mazar-i-Sharif, superficially in response to Pastor Terry Jones's burning of a Koran. As I noted the other day, the massacre of UN staff there was not a direct or immediate reaction to the Florida stunt, and even if it had been that would not make Jones morally responsible for murders carried out by adult human beings. If you're interested in the background, I'd recommend this piece by Terry Galvin, who knows the area well. The key point is that the whole place was a furnace ready to blow - and it was not Terry Jones thousands of miles away in Florida who threw the match. It was "an opportunity that was just waiting for a pretext. What happened did not simply result from a protest march that began at the Blue Mosque and got terribly out of hand." The politics is murky, the causality diffuse.

To blame Jones, or the US generally (for being unable to stop him, for continuing to believe in that pernicious thing called free speech) is breathtakingly naive and arrogant as well as wrong. According to an absurd blogpost by Joe Klein, the pastor's action in staging a "trial" of the Koran was "as murderous as any suicide bomber's". It's increasingly clear, though, that the hotheads who incited the mob in Afghanistan - partly by lying about what had occurred and who was responsible for it - would have found some other excuse for encouraging a murder spree. So why were so many observers eager to confuse the pretext with the deeper motivation? I think for much the same reason that David Cameron wants to blame the British empire for "so many" international problems. It provides an easy explanation. It makes the world seem simpler and more controllable than it actually is.

Most importantly, it's close to home. It's only human to exaggerate the importance of things we can readily understand or for which we (as a society) seem to bear some responsibility. A long-running dispute or a sudden riot seems more comprehensible if it can be seen as somehow "our fault".
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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Neville Thurlbeck

It's reported today that the News of the World's chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, has been arrested by the Metropolitan police as part of their ongoing investigation (if you can call it that) into phone-hacking by the tabloid press. I've no information as to the extent of Thurlbeck's involvement (if any) with criminal activity, but it's fair to say that some people will be feeling limited sympathy for his current predicament.

It was Thurlbeck who caused the News of the World (and the gutter press generally) no end of trouble after mounting a sting operation on Max Mosley's private spanking party in Chelsea in 2008. In his judgment in the subsequent court-case, Mr Justice Eady was quietly devastating about Thurlbeck's professional ethics. It's well worth reading for its crystal-clear description of the deceit, manipulation, bullying and borderline blackmail that the reporter engaged in to get his story, sex it up and then avoid paying his source the agreed price.

Eady considered Thurlbeck an unconvincing witness at best, finding some of his evidence "hard to swallow" and expressing astonishment that Thurlbeck "seemed rather puzzled that his conduct was thought worthy of criticism". The judge was also dismayed at the reporter's deficient note-keeping - several key conversations were apparently written up days afterwards or not at all - which he found "surprising for a journalist of Mr Thurlbeck's experience."

The real problem, so far as Mr Thurlbeck is concerned, is that these inconsistencies demonstrate that his "best recollection" is so erratic and changeable that it would not be safe to place unqualified reliance on his evidence.

Thurlbeck was, perhaps, the obvious choice to do over Max and the Mosleyettes, since his experience in orchestrating sexual exposés is unrivalled. One of his most notorious scoops involved Bob and Sue Firth, proprietors of a "naturist guest-house" in Dorset - which Thurlbeck tried to depict as a brothel. The story was best told by George Galloway (a man with his own experience of tabloid sex scandals) who told the House of Commons on 9th June 1999:

Many of us must have been intrigued over the years about whether the famously intrepid News of the World investigators really made their excuses and left the scenes of depravity that they were helpfully bringing to our attention. Sue and Bob, armed with audio and visual aids, answered that question, at least as far as the chief crime reporter of the News of the World, Neville Thurlbeck, was concerned. After he had plastered on a double-page spread a story entitled "The guesthouse where all rooms come with en suite pervert", he was unmasked by the couple's videotape as the pervert who badgered, begged and finally bribed Bob and Sue into allowing him to indulge in a rather pathetic act of onanism at the foot of their bed.

Despite the News of the World being caught bang to rights in that case, the PCC refused even to consider the couple's complaint in one of its most spineless failures of the decade. The presence on the board of the PCC of Mr. Phil Hall, the editor of the News of the World, scarcely persuaded those two private citizens that self-regulation would do it for them.

But Bob and Sue had revenge of a kind when Private Eye featured the story, complete with a graphic description of "the sleezy hack with his trousers, ahem, down". The couple even posted stills showing an aroused Thurlbeck on the Web, where they remained for several years before being taken down around the time of the Mosley scandal. I must have been one of the last people to see them.

I suppose you have to admire the man's dedication to his work. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 4 April 2011

Encouraging news on Lords reform. Mostly.

It's being reported that Nick Clegg is finally ready to present his proposals for reforming teh House of Lords. The suggestion is that there will be a much smaller chamber of 300 members, 80% of whom are to be elected (though there's some confusion about precisely how they will elected) and the rest appointed. Because Clegg (whose party came a distant third in the general election) previously promised a wholly elected second chamber, this is being seen in some quarters as a climbdown. The Mail, for example, claims that Clegg "has suffered another setback" and has been "forced to compromise". Geoge Eaton complains that he has been "outmanoeuvred".

Actually, reform along these lines is a great deal more radical than anything the previous government managed to come up with. If it ever happens (a pretty enormous "if") it would put an end to the cronyism that, with the watering-down of the hereditary principle, has come to dominate the House of Lords. But it would preserve one of the most valuable aspects of the existing chamber - the role of the independent Crossbenchers, chosen not for their political affiliation but for their expertise, distinction and contribution to public life.

The Crossbenchers represent an important (if rarely articulated) principle, that legislation is too important to be left merely to politicians. Of course, popular election confers legitimacy and a semblance of public choice. But elected politicians of whichever party in many ways have more in common with each other than with the voters. And with very few exceptions they owe their careers more directly to the party machines that selected them to a winnable seat than they do to the voters. Any advanced representative democracy will produce a political class, and the tendency - not just in Britain - has been for that class to become increasingly homogenous.

The trend is probably inevitable - but it has its dangers. One is that the political process becomes progressively more self-referential, shutting out both people and ideas that are not plugged into the system. The division widens between those on the inside and those on the outside, between the rulers and the ruled, leading to resentment and a loss of perceived legitimacy. And, not infrequently, to bad lawmaking. Laws are passed which have avoidable, foreseeable negative consequences, simply because there is no-one on the inside able to puncture the political consensus. Having a few Crossbench peers in the House of Lords isn't a solution to this problem - they have not stopped a great many bad laws from being passed, and even good Lords' amendments are ultimately rejected. But they help, and their loss would be a sad diminishment.

Not so the bishops. It's baffling to learn that Clegg - a publicly declared atheist - has "bowed to pressure from the Church of England" and agreed to keep a few special seats reserved for Anglican prelates. It's well known that the C of E greatly enjoys the historical anachronism that grants its leaders ex officio seats in Parliament, and will resort to almost any desperate argument to justify their continued presence. Once, they represented the vast political, financial and landowning power of the Church of England. Now, they make a virtue of their marginal status, suggesting that without them moral and spiritual issues would be neglected. It's special pleading at its worst. In a country that is largely secular and claims to be modern, the bishops' presence is frankly embarrassing.

What pressure, I wonder, are the bishops able to exert? There are only 26 of them, in a House of nearly 800 members, so they can scarcely be said to constitute a blocking minority. There are not, so far as I can tell, thousands of angry parishioners ready to march Anjem Choudary-style on Westminster in defence of their bishops' votes. No doubt they have been able to muster considerable behind-the-scenes support. But it's depressing to think that Cleggie couldn't summon up the wherewithall to shout "boo" to a couple of dozen bishops.
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Sunday, 3 April 2011

Pastor Jones and the blame game

In understandable shock after the brutal murder of several of his staff in the Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif, the UN's chief envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura has made a quite extraordinary statement. "I don't think we should be blaming any Afghan," Mr de Mistura said. "We should be blaming the person who produced the news - the one who burned the Koran. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from offending culture, religion, traditions."

What peculiar logic. It was Afghans who murdered the UN officals, not Terry Jones. If you repeatedly poke a lion with a stick, until it goes on a rampage, then you may be held culpable for the fate of unconnected people it subsequently mauls. But a lion is not a moral agent with responsibility for its actions; it is a brute beast. By refusing to blame "any Afghan" - even those who wielded the knives and beheaded people who had no conceivable connection with Jones or his church - de Misura not only wrongly absolves the guilty, he condescends to them. He treats them as less than human; and he insults the millions of Afghans and other Muslims, deeply offended as they might be by Pastor Jones, who killed no-one on account of him.

It was certainly unwise and provocative of Terry Jones to burn a copy of the Koran, especially given that last year he promised not to do so. He may secretly have hoped to provoke a violent response, and thus been cavalier with other people's lives. After all, the riots that have occurred in Afghanistan and Pakistan serve only to confirm him in his belief that Islam is inherently a violent religion. But that does not make him morally responsible for a single death. One might as well blame the 9/11 hijackers, or the rioters against the Danish cartoons, without whose actions it would never have occurred to Mr Jones that the Koran was a book worth burning. By all means criticise the Koran-burning if you disapprove of it on grounds such as respect for religion or for the feelings of believers. But to condemn it on the grounds that it incites violence betrays severe moral confusion.

When you start apportioning blame for crimes to people other than those who perpetrate them, it quickly becomes complicated. Was it really Pastor Jones who "inflamed the Muslim world" with his theatrical Koran-burning stunt? Or was it the media, who reported it? Probably neither. Without the media, Jones's action would have gone unnoticed and would have inflamed no-one. Yet reporting of the event doesn't seem directly to have precipitated Friday's events. In contrast with the circus that surrounded Jones's aborted Koran-burning last September, his bonfire this time received surprisingly little coverage. Jones burned the Koran on March 20th, yet the first time most people (including me) heard about the incident was a full twelve days later when the mob in Masar-i-Sharif went on its murderous rampage.

Clearly, the crowd had heard the news. But who told them? Presumably it was the preacher who denounced Jones's sacrilege in the local mosque. He was certainly guilty of incitement even if he didn't personally wield a gun or a knife. But that preacher wouldn't have done so had President Hamid Karzai not chosen - for his own political purposes - to make Jones an issue. The New York Times reports:

Both Afghan and international news media had initially played down or ignored the actions of Mr. Jones, the Florida pastor. On Thursday, however, President Karzai made a speech and issued statements condemning the Koran burning and calling for the arrest of Mr. Jones for his actions. On Friday, that theme was picked up in mosques throughout Afghanistan.

“Karzai brought this issue back to life, and he has to take some responsibility for starting this up,” said a prominent Afghan businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution if he was identified as a critic of the president.

Karzai, familiar as he is with the emotional tenor of some of his people, must surely have known that by condemning a Koran-burning of which most Afghans were unaware he was playing with fire. Was it his fault, then? The causal link is stronger; but again, no. The tragedy in Mazar-i-Sharif has been followed by rioting in Kandahar during which at least a dozen people have been killed. Yet - the NYT also notes - in other parts of Afghanistan the demonstrations have (so far) been small-scale and largely peaceful. So the mere act of burning a Koran, nor the act of reporting it, nor even the act of loudly denouncing it, cannot be said to cause riots or murders. And is not the fault of Islam. Such events occur when several factors come together in a largely unpredicable way, and are usually connected with local politics and personalities on the ground. Ultimately, though, only those who actually carry out monstrous acts or urge others to do so have blood on their hands.

UPDATE: On the Guardian website, Martin Robbins also wonders about the causality of the UN massacre and wonders if the media is as "responsible" as Pastor Jones. He also brings up the case of Raoul Moat, asking if the intensive press coverage during his six-day spree egged him on. I have a different thought. There was, notoriously, widespread sympathy expressed for Moat, especially on the internet, by people who preferred to blame his girlfriend for "betraying" him. As though she was somehow responsible for the cold-blooded murder of her new boyfriend and the random shooting of a police officer. It's strange how strong the desire to blame someone other than the criminal can sometimes be.
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