Monday, 24 December 2012

Happy Christmas

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Friday, 21 December 2012

New research publication looks at HIV and sex work

This is a guest post by Laura Agustín

Dr Laura Agustín has edited the 13th edition of R4SW (Research for Sex Work), published by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.  The focus this time is on how HIV affects sex workers and the role played by official moves to regulate, restrict or further stigmatise prostitution.

Not so long ago a journal issue called HIV and Sex Work would almost certainly have focused on epidemiological studies of female prostitutes. More sensitive authors might have said sex workers and acknowledged that men and transgender people also sell sex. They might have stopped calling sex workers vectors of disease and begun calling them a high-risk group, and when that term was recognised to be stigmatising they might have switched to talking about at-risk populations.

In discussing efforts to diminish the spread of HIV, researchers might have talked about harm reduction, and they might even have invoked the need to ‘involve’ sex workers in health promotion. But sex workers would rarely have been the protagonists in research, the writers of published critiques or the strategists of campaigns. HIV and AIDS as topics were the terrain of institutions.

The new issue of Research for Sex Work reflects a small shift. Here HIV and Sex Work doesn’t mean an array of epidemiologically-oriented studies but the frame for critiques of and questions about policy, laws and programmes. Articles not written by sex workers themselves base their conclusions on what sex workers say. Here no one tells sex workers how to run their lives.

Research from the China Sex Worker Organisation Network Forum shows how policing is a central issue for HIV-prevention. In her speech at the International AIDS Conference Cheryl Overs highlights how technological fixes threaten to push aside sex workers’ rights. Brendan Conner exposes how the Global Commission on HIV and the Law erases problems of male sex workers by using epidemiological- style ‘populations’. Empower Foundation tell how they were ousted from the Global Fund’s HIV programme for sex workers in Thailand when they criticised priorities. Matthew Greenall and Abel Shinana propose research that foregrounds local sex workers’ needs. And Tiphaine Besnard shows how stigma against women who sell sex has been behind discriminatory policy since the 19th century.

Audacia Ray and Sarah Elspeth Patterson describe how activists have brought such critiques into the world of political lobbying through a campaign against the use of condoms as evidence against prostitutes in New York State. The concept of outreach takes on new meaning in Ecuador, as sex workers from Asociación ‘22 de junio’ and Colectivo Flor de Azalea educate men about sexual health.

Not all the news is good. Nicoletta Policek’s study reveals how HIV-positive women not involved in selling sex refuse to accept sex workers as equals. But even in the more repressive settings described by Kehinde Okanlawon/Ade Iretunde and Winnie Koster/Marije Groot Bruinderink, sex workers resist stigma and subvert discrimination. Diputo Lety tells Elsa Oliveira the story of how one sex worker empowered herself after testing positive for HIV. And although the fragility of African sex-worker networks is noted, this Research for Sex Work has no fewer than four contributions from Africa.

The new issue, together with previous editions of R4SW can be downloaded free from this site. Laura Agustín's own blog, The Naked Anthropologist, focuses on issues surrounding migration, trafficking and the so-called rescue industry, while her groundbreaking book, Sex at the Margins, is now available on Kindle.
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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Not the Mayan Calendar

Here's a picture of an Aztec calendar. 

To be more specific, it's the Stone of the Sun, which once stood in the heart of Tenochtitlan, the splendid Aztec capital that later became Mexico City. So precious was it that the Aztecs buried it during the siege of the city in 1521 to preserve it from the Spanish invaders.  By the time it was dug up again, during repairs to Mexico City's cathedral in 1790, the Christian rulers were sufficiently enlightened to see it for the important cultural artefact that it was.   To call it a calendar is perhaps misleading, though it does have calendrical markings.  It has been variously interpreted as a representation of the five ages through which Aztec mythology held that the world had passed, as a mappa mundi, as a political statement declaring and legitimising Aztec rule over the four corners of the world, and as a ceremonial basin or ritual altar for use during human sacrifices.  Perhaps it was all of those things.

You probably recognise the picture, because it has been endlessly reproduced these past weeks to illustrate stories about the "Mayan apocalypse".  As you will have heard by now, Friday probably marks a significant date in the Mayan calendar, the ending of the 13th Baktun, or cycle, of that calendar's Long Count.  A much-publicised New Age theory holds that the date will be marked by world-changing or apocalyptic events, though no-one seems quite sure what they will be.  As has also been widely publicised recently (so I don't need to go into it all again) the Maya, whose civilisation was based around the Yucatán peninsula and was at its height roughly during the period of the European Dark Ages, did not in fact have a prophecy of doom connected with this date.  Or any future date, so far as can be established.  The "Mayan apocalypse" is a modern myth.

Not, of course, that the world would be any more likely to end on Friday if the ancient Maya had predicted it.

Most recent reports, at least those to be found in the mainstream media, have accurately noted the non-existence of the alleged Mayan prophecy of doom.  Unfortunately, they have usually reproduced the Aztec Sun Stone as an illustration.  If you type "Mayan calendar" into Google Images, almost all the images that come up are of the Aztec stone.  Whether this is the cause of the confusion or its effect is unclear.  Both, probably.  But the result is now that this is what most people imagine a Mayan calendar to look like, even though it is neither Mayan nor, quite possibly, even a calendar.

This is what a Mayan calendar actually looks like, or at least one version of it.

You'll see the difference straight away. Most obviously, instead of the scary-looking head with the lolling tongue - so evocative of some nameless apocalypse - there's a human figure weighed down with a burden (in fact, a Mayan glyph), more suggestive of the endless, grinding repetition of days which represents the reality of time.

The Mayans and the Aztecs could not have been more different.  They were as different as the ancient Greeks and the Vikings: different in language, in culture, in mythology, in architecture, in attitude, in agricultural techniques, in politics, in artistic expression, in geographical location.  For a start, the Mayans were much older.  Early Mayan settlements cluster around what is now Soconusco in South-West Mexico, on the central American isthmus and date from as long ago as 1800 BC.  Classic Mayan civilisation, associated with spectacular ruined cities in the Yucatán, collapsed around 1000AD although the Maya themselves lived on and are still around today (as are the Nahuatl-speaking descendants of the Aztecs).  The Aztecs, meanwhile, started out as barbarian invaders from the North, who arrived in central Mexico in about the 12th century.  It wasn't until the 15th that they became the dominant power in the region: their empire was still expanding when Cortes arrived in 1519. 

Like many other barbarian invaders (including the Vikings in Northern France, aka the Normans) the Aztecs adopted some of the civilisation of the more settled cultures they came to rule over.  But in their case, it was mainly that of the Toltecs, previously the dominant people in central America, as well as the artistically-inclined Mixtecs in the South West.  There was some contact between the Aztecs and the surviving Maya, but the Maya were never Aztec subjects and by the time of the Aztec empire the days of Mayan greatness were a distant memory, or legend. 

As for the calendar, it's true that some basic principles, such as a 52-year cycles of years, were shared by most Meso-American systems; but each civilisation had its own, which differed in details, nomenclature and underlying myths.  The Mayan version was especially elaborate, involving multiple interlocking cycles including the famous Long Count whose starting date was placed at August 11, 3114 BC - a time centuries before Mayan civilisation got going.  The present "baktun" ends this Friday (or perhaps Sunday), but the Long Count itself carries on.  A far more significant date, experts say, will come on October 13, 4772, when a full cycle of twenty baktuns will be completed, though even that wasn't associated with any known apocalyptic event.  The Mayans didn't really think like that.  They seem to have enjoyed calculating dates far in the future or the past purely for the mathematical pleasure it afforded.

The Aztecs, on the other hand, did have a belief in world ages punctuated by apocalyptic events. According to Aztec myth there had been four previous ages, or "Suns", the ending of each of which was attended by great destruction and renewal.  The present age was destined similarly to end.   But this cataclysm wasn't tied to any particular date - and, in any case, the Aztecs' calendar lacked the mathematical complexity of the Mayan one.  Rather, it was seen as perennially threatening, to be warded off with daily offerings of human hearts to the gods.  Like the Romans, the Aztecs paid great attention to regularly recurring dates of good and bad omen throughout the year and the 52 year cycle.  The year One Reed was especially to be dreaded: by coincidence, it was in such a year that Cortes turned up.  But even that wasn't, exactly, a prophecy - though it is often popularly identifies as such.

Put it this way.  The Norse myths told of the day of Ragnarok, when the gods of Asgard would go into battle with the giants and Valhalla would be consumed.  The Christian calendar takes as its hinge point the supposed date for the birth of Christ.  Putting the two together and making five, a confused Mayan observer might have deduced that Ragnarok was bound to take place on 31st December 1999.  Especially if it represented a publishing opportunity.
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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Queen in Cabinet

There's a good reason why the Queen has never attended a Cabinet meeting - or, indeed, that none of her predecessors has attended the Cabinet either, probably since a still-sane George III popped along in 1781.  (A Downing Street press release yesterday, regurgitated by all news outlets, implied that Queen Victoria had done so, but there's no evidence that she ever did; in The Monarchy and the Constitution, Vernon Bogdanor states definitively that "since 1837 [the year of Victoria's accession] the sovereign has not attended cabinet at all".)  The Cabinet, originally a committee of the wider Privy Council, is officially at least the primary political and policy-making organ of government.  It is at the heart of the business of politics which a constitutional monarch is supposed to float above.  Any monarch today who insisted on watching her or his ministers in action, as they discussed what to do about the issues of the day, would rightly be accused of interfering in politics and trying to subvert the constitution.

Queen Elizabeth II's visit to the Cabinet Office today, where she sat in on around half and hour of ministerial deliberations, was of course a purely formal occasion: she was there to receive the congratulations of her Privy Councillors on this summer's Diamond jubilee, along with a set of 60 placemats, and to hear an announcement that henceforth a stretch of Antarctic wilderness was to be named in her honour (which as a Christmas present, is rather less useful than an iPhone).  Nevertheless, it was a proper cabinet meeting, with discussions that included the important topics of Afghanistan and the economy.  It's unlikely that the discussions proceeded quite as they would have done had the monarch not been present.  While she was there only as "an observer", she sat in the prime minister's chair, thus underlining the constitutional anomaly under which government in this country operates.

It is the Queen's government, not the people's.  Too many government functions are still carried out by Royal Prerogative, with inadequate Parliamentary scrutiny.  In the main, however, talk of "the Queen's ministers" is a polite fiction, and understood to be such.  By inviting the queen along to a Cabinet meeting, David Cameron runs the risk of upsetting the balance.  It is constitutionally improper for the Queen to be associated with a party-political instrument of government in this way, even if (perhaps especially if) she is understood by all to be no more than a cipher.  This sets a bad precedent, even if the occasion itself is fairly anodyne.  At best, it looks like an attempt to provide a helpful photo-opportunity for a bunch of politicians in desperate need of some good headlines, by associating them in the public mind with a monarch who's much more popular than they are.  It may not be a monarch interfering in politics, but politicians interfering in the monarchy is the next worst thing.  To preserve balance, the Queen should also be present at a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet - but that would, surely, be preposterous.

Now that this constitutional Rubicon (to use Cameron's own metaphor) has been crossed, it is more likely to happen again at some time.  Perhaps next time it will be King Charles invited along on some celebratory pretext: could he be relied upon to sit politely and listen while others talk of great affairs?  As it is, today's event has brought out the perennial forelock-tugging instincts of the British press.  Timothy Stanley, for example:

How I would have dearly loved her to reach across the table, point at David Cameron and say, “You're fired!” But, alas, things have moved on since the days of Charles I, when the monarchy was the last line of defence against democracy.

There is, though, another interpretation.  The Cabinet is not what it once was. Its meetings are largely formal affairs these days: the real decision-making happens elsewhere, in small sub-committees and informal one-to-one meetings between the prime minister and other members of the Cabinet. It's increasingly for show, too big to be really effective - its ranks swelled, indeed, by inviting along more junior ministers (such as Baroness Warsi) for no better reason than to flatter their fragile egos.  The government is more collegiate than it was under Tony Blair, but if the Cabinet were genuinely effective it's unlikely that Cameron could have got through things like minimum unit pricing of alcohol, a policy which appears to be a personal obsession unpopular with most of his colleagues.  It's been said that inviting the Queen to attend a Cabinet meeting is a compliment to her unimpeachable impartiality: she is so far above the political fray that it's "safe" to have her along to Downing Street without any fear of contaminating the quasi-republican process of democratic government.  But perhaps the Cabinet itself that is now almost as decorative a part of the constitution as the monarch herself.

Queen Elizabeth Land sounds like a slightly tacky theme park where one can watch re-enactments of Francis Drake playing bowls or be served ale by wenches in mob-caps.  It's not negligible, being about 170,000 square miles, and the gesture provides a nice reminder that even in these reduced days the British crown retains technical sovereignty over a number of desolate penguin colonies.  But it scarcely compares with Virginia, named after the first Queen Liz, let alone all the mountains, cities, lakes, waterfalls, islands, provinces and states named after Victoria.  She even has a crater on the surface of Mars.  In retrospect, Victoria was a bit greedy when it came to having bits of the globe named after her, not leaving enough to her heirs and successors.  And yes, she does have her own bit of Antarctica.  It's called Victoria Land.
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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Significant Others

Officially, around 241,000 people in England and Wales listed their religion as "other" on last year's Census form, the results of which were released yesterday.  This doesn't include the 177,000 self-declared Jedi, who are counted separately (the Census people assume, for some reason, that it's not a proper religion).  In 2001 there were 390,000 Jedi Knights, who were put down as No Religion, as were people who called themselves atheists, humanists and even heathens.  This was problematic because many, perhaps most, "Heathens" are followers of Norse gods rather than atheists.  This year, following a campaign, Heathens were listed as "Other religion".  Otherwise, the figures were calculated in much the same way.

The total represents a big increase on the 151,00 Others in 2001 - even allowing for the misidentified Heathens.  It mirrors, almost exactly, the percentage increase in those of No Religion, which rose from under 15% to over 25%.  It's up by two thirds.  It's a smaller increase, in both absolute and percentage terms, than Buddhism has enjoyed - Buddhists leapfrogged Others to go from 144,000 to 248,000, an increase of 72%.  It also trails behind Islam, up 75%.  But Islam's increase can largely be attributed to immigration and birthrate.  It's dramatic when set against the huge fall in Christianity (down from 72% to 59%), the modest rise in numbers of Hindus and Sikhs and the flatlining Jews.

But Others is a hodgepodge sort of category.  The raw figures are here, with Jedi and various non-believers mixed in.  I've grouped them into categories to produce what I hope is a more easily assessed picture.

The largest group is the Pagans: more 56,000 using that term alone, to which I've added Wicca (11,766), Druid (4,189) and assorted Heathens, Pantheists, shamans and witches.  This gives a total of 78,675 for England and Wales.  Add another 251 if you think that "reconstructionist" refers to that type of Paganism that aims to recreate the ancient worship of pagan gods (devotees of Zeus and Athena, for example).  In the 2001 census there were approximately declared 40,000 pagans in England and Wales (as far as I can tell, this was the combined figure for all varieties of pagan nomenclature).  The figure for Scotland was around 2,000.  So at almost 80,000 Pagan numbers have almost doubled over the past ten years; at least it's the case that twice as many people are now willing to identify as such. 

The next group are people I call religious freelancers: people who make up their own beliefs, picking and choosing from various traditions, or who prefer to describe their religion in particular philosophical terms.  Linda Woodhead's research suggests that a high proportion of the population views religion in this personal way, perhaps combining vague Christian belief with New Age ideas, angels and the like.  But relatively few are sufficiently self-conscious about it to explain their beliefs in the Census.  A mere 698 put down "New Age", for example.  But combining them with those who put "mixed religion", "spiritual", "believe in God", "I have my own belief system", "deist" and the like I get a figure of 47,091.

Then come the Spiritualists.  There are more than 39,000 of those.

I wasn't sure what to do about the 1,893 Satanists, some of whom may well have been joking (in which case there's probably an overlap with the 6,242 adherents of the Church of Heavy Metal).  For comparison, there are just 502 Occultists and just 184 Thelemites (followers of Aleister Crowley).

If you lump all these categories together as "New Age, Paganism and alternative religion", you get a total of 166,000.  This may be an artificial exercise, however, given the wide variety of ideas and levels of structural and doctrinal coherence, ranging from independent thinkers to the highly organised Spirtualist Church.

The Category "Others" also includes well-established faiths, some of great antiquity, others just about long-enough established to count as "proper" religions.  These can be broken down as follows:

Minority Indian religions:

Jain: 20,288
Ravidassia: 11,058
Total: 31,346

Baha'i: 5,021

Traditional Chinese Religion:
Taoist: 4144
Chinese: 182
Confucian: 124
Total: 4450
(I suspect that the majority of UK Chinese put themselves down as Buddhists or Christians)

Zoroastrianism: 4,105
Shinto: 1075
Druze: 515
Traditional African, Voodoo, Animist: 1290
Native American Church: 127

The grand total of "minor faiths" is 47,929: well behind the number of pagans and very similar to that for the religious freelancers.  No Mormons are listed, incidentally.  I assume that all the Mormons described themselves as Christians.

Finally, New Religious Movements, some of which come under the rubric of cults.  By far the largest (and certainly no cult) is Rastafarianism, with 7,906 adherents, more than the Baha'i, Zoroastrianism or all the traditional Chinese faiths combined.  The others that make the list are: Scientology (2418), Moonies (452), Brahma Kumari (442), Eckankar (379).  This brings a total of 11,597, or just 3691 if you exclude the Rastafarians.

There are some notable omissions.  The Census may have had a cut-off below which religious affiliations were simply not recorded; or perhaps some religionists are just too shy to out themselves.  No UFO cultists are listed: no Raelians or Aetherians.  Nor do we find any adherents of the Church of All Worlds, the free love movement inspired by the writings of Robert A Heinlein.  No Heretics, either, which is a particular disappointment. And where, but where, are the Pastafarians?  His Supreme Noodliness is sure to be mightily offended.
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Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Equal Civil Partnership Now!

If today's proposals go through, gay couples wishing to formalise their relationships will soon be able to choose between marriage and civil partnerships.  But for heterosexual couples there will be no such option - it will be marriage or nothing.  So how does the government attempt to justify this flagrant discrimination?  It doesn't.

The official response to this year's consultation, released today (pdf), admits that the majority of those who expressed an opinion argued that civil partnership should be extended to all, while others thought that equality could be achieved by abolishing civil partnerships altogether.  It notes the "concern" contained in the Church of England's response that allowing civil marriage for same sex couples without allowing civil partnership for heterosexuals would be "legally unsustainable." It points to a submission from transsexual representatives, who drew attention to an anomaly that would result: if one partner in a civil partership legally changed sex, they would be forced to marry, whereas if one partner in a marriage changed sex they could stay married.  But it is unmoved: "We remain unconvinced that extending civil partnerships to opposite sex couples is a necessary change. We will therefore be retaining civil partnerships for same-sex couples only."

It's not clear how they reached this conclusion, since there are clearly many people who do want to have civil partnerships, as the government acknowledges.  The statement is a remarkable piece of doublethink:

When civil partnerships were introduced in 2005, they were created to allow equivalent access to rights, responsibilities and protections for same-sex couples to those afforded by marriage. They were not intended or designed as an alternative to marriage. Therefore, we do not believe that they should now be seen as an alternative to marriage for opposite sex couples.

Opposite sex couples currently have access to marriage, either via a civil or religious ceremony, which is both legally and socially recognised. We understand that not all opposite sex couples wish to marry, but that decision is theirs to make and they have the option to do so if they wish. Through the responses received to this consultation, it has not been made clear what detriment opposite sex couples suffer by not having access to civil partnerships.

The "detriment" they suffer is simple: the inability to contract a civil partnership, which they may see as preferable to marriage.  Until now, gay couples have suffered an equal detriment.  They couldn't get married, even if they preferred it to a civil partnership.  So, although there was discrimination, it went both ways.  It balanced out (sort of).  Now there's imbalance, and that's a "detriment" in anyone's lexicon.

The government is in a logical mess here.  Either civil partnership and marriage are equivalent, in which case there's no need to have equal marriage; or the two are distinct, in which case both should be open to all or else there should only be one type of legally recognised union.  Why retain civil partnerships for gay people?  Here's the government case:

Since their introduction in December 2005, over 50,000 civil partnerships have been registered. Civil partnerships are not available to opposite sex couples and legislation specifies other prohibitions on who can form civil partnerships, for example, siblings. But differences remain and at the time of introduction it was clear that civil partnerships were distinct from marriage.

So the two are not the same.  It's not just a matter of language.

Having taken the range of views into account, we intend to proceed with the proposals in the consultation document to retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples only, including continuing to allow civil partnerships on religious premises. This is because we acknowledge the important role that these unions play in the lives of many couples. Civil partnerships are a well-understood union, which have been become part of people’s everyday lives and society in general. We see little benefit from removing them.

If civil partnerships are well-understood, and part of "society in general", it is wholly illogical not to extend them to "society in general".  It's true that they began as the gay alternative to marriage (largely, let's remember, it was a way of answering religious objections to same-sex marriage by saying "it isn't marriage").  But in retaining them now, the government is confirming, and strengthening, their different status from marriage.

In support of maintaining the option of civil partnership for gay couples, the government quotes the Law Society:

It would be unfair and legally tenuous for those couples to be faced with the choice of either being married or no longer being in a formalised relationship. We can see no practical benefit in dissolving civil partnerships.

But the Society also responded to the question of equal civil partnerships.  The statement doesn't appear in the government response, so here it is:

The Law Society believes that not opening up civil partnerships would constitute discrimination against heterosexual couples by denying them equal access.

We cannot see any reason why civil partnerships should not be open to heterosexual couples who want to formalise their union without the connotations that the term ‘marriage’ can bring. The issue is equal access and non-discrimination. We therefore disagree with this proposal.

The government has completely failed to address, let alone answer, the question of how banning heterosexual couples from civil partnerships will accord with equality and human rights legislation.  The Law Society response, as well as that from the Church of England, suggests strongly that making such a case would be very difficult.  I'd love to see the government's legal advice on this issue, but so far it hasn't been produced. 

So what arguments does the government have?  The first is that the change is "not necessary", a point that would apply equally to same-sex marriage itself.  Except that what the government actually means is that they don't think it's necessary "to open up civil partnerships to opposite sex couples in order to enable same-sex couples to get married."  The consultation, it's argued, was only concerned with that narrow question - this despite the fact that the question about heterosexual civil partnership (HCP) was asked.  The government also contends that extending civil partnership to opposite-sex couples would involve "a wider process of reform."  It wouldn't.  It would just involve more people.

When I last wrote on this issue I suggested that the real reason for not allowing HCP was that it was afraid of being seen to "undermine marriage":

On the face of it, and despite the Pope's paranoia, allowing more people to get married will not undermine the institution. It will make it stronger. But allowing more people to not get married, yet escape the legal discrimination that still exists against informal cohabitation, might well undermine marriage. It would no longer have much attraction to those who lacked a religious or cultural commitment to it; it would have a powerful, and perhaps in time more popular, rival.

While the consultation response doesn't quite admit this, it does perhaps let the cat out of the bag with this:

A number of organisations, including the Hindu Forum, indicated they did not think that civil partnerships should be available to opposite sex couples. Manchester Rabbinical Council felt that allowing more people to enter a legal relationship other than marriage would weaken marriage further. The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales stated that “it does not give recognition to any other partnerships or legal unions as having an ethical or legal equivalence with marriage. The Church opposes … extending civil partnerships to opposite sex couples who can marry”.

This chimes with David Cameron's repeated assertions that he supports gay marriage because he supports marriage, and that allowing same-sex marriage would strengthen the institution.  He thinks that marriage that is open to all couples would prove more popular.  Perhaps he even believes that marriage equality would strengthen its attractiveness to heterosexuals.  He might even be right.  But "you've got no choice" is a poor argument to offer on behalf of marriage, especially if a minority of couples do have a choice and many are choosing to get married.  In any case, I suspect this mean-spirited piece of moralising will backfire.  If equal civil partnership isn't added to the bill, I can't see how it will survive the inevitable legal challenge.  Would any lawyer like to explain how it might?
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Thursday, 6 December 2012

Bound to You: an erotic memoir by Nichi Hodgson

2012 has been the year that kinky sex entered the mainstream; at least, it has been the year when kinky sex has been talked about endlessly in the media, to the equal delight and bemusement of people who have been indulging in it for years.  Much of this, though not all, was down to the phenomenon that was Fifty Shades of Grey, which opened the eyes of millions of (mainly) women readers to the erotic possibilities of submission and spanking. 

Many BDSM enthusiasts welcomed the greater awareness and social acceptance of their lifestyle that has followed.  At the same time, as many knowledgeable critics noted (including Adele Haze here) the Fifty Shades books were rooted in the author's fantasy and imagination rather than actual knowledge.  As such, they could give at best limited insight into the actual world of BDSM.  At worst they were misleading.  Also quite badly written, but that's beside the point.

Nichi Hodgson does know the scene, and from two distinct perspectives: she worked for a time as a professional dominatrix, while being a submissive in her personal life.  Her book explores both these aspects of her life history.  It's not a novel, at least it is not presented as such, nor is it, as erotic memoirs of this type tend to be, anonymous.  Her decision to use her own name is a brave one for someone who already has a public profile as a journalist and broadcaster  (although as she has written extensively about sex, including alternative sex, in the past) especially as a large proportion of the book consists of explicit, even pornographic, sex scenes and unflinching descriptions of her domming activities. 

The cover promises to introduce the reader, assumed to have read Fifty Shades, to the real-life counterpart to the novel's Christian Grey.  But there's rather more (and less) to it than that.  It owes as much to Bridget Jones' Diary and Belle de Jour than to the EL James trilogy.  An extended prologue concerns a long-term and largely "vanilla" relationship with a Greek boyfriend, which fails amid the pressures of cultural divergence and mid-Twenties metropolitan ennui.  Sunk in gloom about the break-up, and trying to fund endless unpaid internships by temping as a hospital administrator, Nichi is saved by Mistress Sapphire, a dominatrix she meets at (perhaps appropriately) a Halloween party.  Sapphire recruits her, initially as a "vanilla girl" whose job is to sit on a throne while Sapphire humiliates a PR man (compared cuttingly to a waxy ham).  But our Nichi, rechristened Jade, is soon turning her talents to everything from verbal humiliation to full strap-on sex, the passage describing which is one of the most memorable in the book.

Nichi/Jade finds the work "psychologically intriguing" and also, increasingly, a turn-on.  At least when the client is attractive.  It's also highly remunerative: much more so than the hospital job, and the hours are better.  The Independent's recent story exposing what looked like a scam offering to match impecunious female students with wealthy sugar daddies (provided they first passed an "audition") drew attention to a growing phenomenon of the tuition fee era.  But trying to clamber on board the London media merry-go-round without a trust-fund to support you can prove far more challenging than student finance, with its organised loans system.  Nichi Hodgson is most certainly not the only young journalist to discover an unconventional means of financing her writing career, though she is unusual in talking openly about it.

Eventually, Hodgson finds a "proper" job at a magazine (unnamed, but work it out for yourself) and hangs up her whips.  Instead, she meets Sebastian, a somewhat Byronic artist with whom she begins a torrid, sadomasochistic, sexually exploratory but ultimately unfulfilling relationship.  They meet up about once a week for intense sex sessions but little more; he never phones and is emotionally distant.  You get the idea.  He's a narcissist with commitment issues; she mopes and tries to work out what's going on in his head.  She's in love with him; the closest he comes to a romantic gesture is to implore her to send him YouTube clips of her reviewing the papers on Sky News. He claims to have an inability to fall in love, but the problem may just be that Nichi, being short, blonde and bosomy, doesn't sufficiently resemble Sebastian's ideal woman, who is Queen Rania of Jordan.  In a last-ditch attempt to save the relationship she helps him fulfil a castration fantasy involving a large pair of scissors, but while it turned him on it left Nichi an emotional wreck.  So they go their separate ways and we all breathe a sigh of relief.  The book itself winds down slowly, ending on an optimistic note when another domly artist enters her life.

Bound to You was written over a mere six weeks this autumn and at times it shows.  It reads well - once it gets going, which isn't until the Greek boyfriend is out of the picture, it's something of a page-turner.  But the structure is rather episodic, and there's an ambiguity of tone.  It's unclear whether Hodgson is trying to educate her readers or turn them on.  There's also a vagueness with time: dates don't add up, so that identifiable events happen at impossible times.  This may be intentional fictionalisation.  In fact, the whole story might have worked better as a novel.  Hodgson is good on the psychology of dominant/submissive relationships and there are some memorable passages both erotic and hilarious, especially those that describe the intricacies of her dominatrix work. The problem is that Sebastian, the supposed "real-life Christian Grey", just isn't interesting enough to sustain the role of romantic antihero; although (I assume) he's a real person, he's too much of a cliché to convince as one.  The much-anticipated kinky sex doesn't seem to amount to much, either: he tugs her hair and spanks her, while she has exposive orgasms.  I suspect there was more to it than that.  And the submissive Nichi in the book seems far removed from the firecracker of real life, especially during the Sebastian passages. 

Dominatrix Nichi, on the other hand, seems like a lot more fun. But perhaps that's just me.
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Sunday, 2 December 2012

Leveson at last

So then, Leveson. I had vowed to say nothing about it until I'd inwardly digested all 1987 pages (including bibliography and notes) of Lord Justice Brian's long-awaited, and certainly long, report. But that's rather like when I decided to read the Bible from cover to cover and then gave up two-thirds of the way through Exodus. Actually, the Bible's a thrilling page-turner compared to Leveson, even the bits that explain in exhaustive detail what varieties of animal are and are not acceptable for sacrifice. So that's the first thing: it's boring.

Partly, I suppose, the dullness comes from the predictability. The cases of press intrusion that Leveson enumerates have all been gone over time and time again. Take Max Mosley, for example. First there was the court case, in which Mosley and Mr Justice Eady dealt a well-earned spanking to the News of the World. He was a hero then, but has since become a bore, hawking his familiar complaints around endless committee rooms and TV studios. His appearance before Leveson added little, and the write-up of his case in the report adds nothing at all.

Leveson's predictability, though, goes beyond the familiar nature of much of the evidence, and the fact that the central conclusion - calling for a semi-independent regulatory body with statutory "underpinning" - was well trailed in advance. Leveson plods through the evidence, showing little insight and almost never offering an original observation. There's no analysis beyond a general sense that the press's critics are right and its defenders wrong. The turgidity of the prose seems to be an accurate reflection of the turgidity of the judge's brain.

Perhaps he doesn't understand journalism. (He can't write, after all.) His regime, which requires meticulous record-keeping and would remove vital protection of investigative journalists from the rigours of the Data Protection Act, would make the most vital functions of a free press in exposing corruption and wrongdoing next to impossible. These proposals are astonishing, and show the dangers of the demand by Ed Miliband and the Hacked Off campaign, that Leveson's recommendations be adopted "in full." If Parliament's job were simply to rubber-stamp the opinions of a single judge, we might as well abolish democracy entirely and hand legislative responsibility to the judiciary. They would, of course, make a pig's ear of it, because however knowledgeable judges are about the law, they have the same occupational blind spot as members of other professions and callings, the assumption that what they happen to be expert in is the only thing that really matters.

Leveson almost entirely dismisses of the internet as a source of news, although he seems to make a bizarre exception for Mail Online, which he thinks "legitimately proud" of its large international readership, most of whom are there to gawk at celebrities' fashion faux-pas and suggestive pictures of under age girls. It might be said that the internet was beyond his strict remit. In the strict sense it was. But he was clearly free to point out that an inquiry into press ethics that ignored the media revolution that is going on all around us is bound to be inadequate. Instead, he appears to have taken the absence of cyberspace from his terms of reference as evidence that it is of fairly peripheral importance to the newspaper industry. The result is a report that might as well have fallen stillborn from the press.

Largely as a result of the head of steam that built up before and during Leveson's hearings, there will be some new form of much tougher press regulation, with or without "statutory underpinning." The press managed to resist such a conclusion for decades, eking out the last rounds in last-chance saloon. That they must surrender now is not because their abuses are greater than formerly. By any objective measure, press behaviour today, while far from perfect, is considerably less egregious than it was during, say, the 1980s. Most of the abuses into which Leveson inquired dated back several years: in Charlotte Church's case, a decade or more.

Some were, it is true, more recent, such as the smearing of Christopher Jefferies after his arrest by police investigating the murder of Joanna Yeates. He was, of course, entirely innocent; his innocence, indeed, should have been obvious from the start. But the press's behaviour didn't go unpunished. Two newspapers were held in contempt of court and Mr Jefferies won considerable damages from several titles. It's often forgotten that in defaming the retired teacher, the press were following a strong lead from the local police. To say that is not to defend their libellous and prejudicial pursuit of Jefferies, but it does perhaps point to the real problem here, which is the tendency of the press to be too close to the police and insufficiently critical of their shortcomings. This is but a subset of a wider issue: the vulnerability of much of the media (including the broadcast media) to official mindsets and pre-packaged points of view. But it would have been too much to expect Leveson to get to grips with that.

But to return to the point: it is because the newspaper industry is severely weakened that even though it has been cleaning up its act for some years now - even if there is much further to go - it is facing regulation today. In previous decades, its power was such that it could ride out bigger storms. At the heart of the various proposals for press regulation and oversight, whether Leveson's or those coming from Lords Hunt and Black on behalf of the industry itself, is a paradox. If statutory regulation is now imposed on an unwilling press (as might still happen) it will be because the press is no longer powerful enough to need statutory regulation.

And even if the press escapes statutory regulation (or independent regulation "underpinned by statute") it will give itself something almost indistinguishable from what Leveson is now proposing, just to save it from what Leveson actually is proposing. This is why most of this week's debate is hot air. Whether the regulation be underpinned by statute or not makes little difference. Either way it will be "independent" - in other words, it will be some sort of quango. It will be stuffed with the usual people of impeccable liberal credentials whose real talents are for empire-building and securing themselves attractive pension plans. The press is the main remaining area of public life over which the class of regulators has no control, and now is their chance to make good the lack.  But would a press controlled by the same regulatory oligarchy as the rest of the country's institutions be so preferable to one controlled by an oligarchy of press barons?

Statutory underpinning would not imply political or state control of the press, nor would voluntary "self-regulation" (which will not actually be self-regulation, for independent self-regulation is a contradiction in terms) imply that the press remains free or unfettered. Either way, ultimate control of the press is handed over to a quango or a quasi-quango staffed by people whose job is to represent the public interest but over whom the public have no control. The people can neither vote them out nor refuse to buy their product; and in need of something to fill their days as the press turns more and more risk-averse the regulators will find themselves listening to advice from special-interest groups and commissioning reports of their own.

Leveson himself (clear-sighted for once) anticipates much of this: buried in the report are several comments to the effect that "representatives bodies", rather than individuals who have been traduced or libelled, will have the major role in bringing matters of wider interest to the attention of the new regulator. Typically, he seems to think that this is a good thing. It isn't. Many such pressure groups believe deep down that all British newspapers should be indistinguishable from the Guardian. But there's only room for one Guardian, and they way things are going there may not for much longer be room even for one.

Lord Justice Leveson has written a staggeringly boring report. Let not his legacy be a staggeringly boring press.
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Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Can anyone stop Cameron's personal booze crusade?

There's an extraordinary story in the Telegraph - extraordinary not for what it says, which is that if (when) the government imposes a minimum unit alcohol price, probably 45p, multi-buy deals such as M&S's dinner + wine for £10 will be illegal - but for what it reveals about the open revolt within the Cabinet over the proposal.  Thus "a source" complains that "a policy that’s supposed to stop drunks and out-of-control teenagers ends up preventing respectable middle-class couples having a cheap dinner at home."  The policy is said to have have "raised fears inside the Government that middle-class drinkers will be hit hardest," and will therefore be a vote-loser.

It's not exactly news that David Cameron's desire to impose a minimum unit price, which will supposedly curb excessive drinking,  hasn't found much favour among his colleagues.  The former health secretary Andrew Lansley was said to have been particularly firm in his opposition, though his successor Jeremy Hunt may be more amenable to Cameron's way of thinking.  What's remarkable is the timing.  The announcement of a Home Office "consultation" on a MUP is due, after several delays, to be made tomorrow.  The Telegraph report, along with a flurry of others in recent days, looks like a determined attempt by someone within the government, possibly even within the Cabinet, to sabotage the proposal at the last minute. 

This comes after a report for the Adam Smith Institute by Chris Snowdon picked apart the computer modelling that led the government to claim that a 50p per unit price would save thousands of lives, concluding that the assessment was based on assumptions which "range from the questionable to the demonstrably false."  In Scotland, the proposal has already been driven through by the SNP administration, but faces a strong legal challenge on the basis of EU competition law.  Why the urgency in England?  Scotland has a worse drink "problem" than England.  If a minimum price is the answer, and is not in fact illegal, then the effect of the policy will soon become evident.  If it doesn't work, then adopting a wait-and-see approach in England would spare the government from an embarrassing (and no-doubt unpopular) failure.

The Minimum Price, while long demanded by the health lobby (which seems to believe that reducing the chance of early death is the only goal worth striving for in life) is only being forced on England because it is Cameron's personal obsession.  Cameron has a regrettable tendency - it's the most irritating thing about him - to go off on moral crusades.  He likes to ride a high horse, even though it usually turns out to have been lent to him by the husband of Rebekah Brooks.  We've seen it over "sexualisation" and now we're seeing it over alcohol.  His alcohol policy is of course inherently illiberal and unConservative (if people want to drink themselves to death, that's their right in a free society), but it's also bad, stupid and unnecessary.  Even were it to work, it would do so by increasing the profits of drinks retailers.  If the aim is to increase the price of alcohol, that could be achieved much more simply through higher duty, which would be entirely legal and would also benefit the Treasury.  Banning multi-buy deals will mostly hit people who are catering for parties or weddings. 

It's not even as though England and Wales have, by European standards, a particularly serious drink problem.  Consumption has been falling steadily for the best part of a decade, and has fallen most rapidly among the young - about whose supposed tendency to "binge drink" most of this moral panic revolves.  Extraordinarily, according to the most recent NHS statistics fewer than half of those aged 16-24 report having more than one alcoholic drink per week.  Among under-16s, the proportion had fallen over the decade from more than a quarter to a mere 13%.  A mere 5% of adult women and 9% of adult men reported drinking alcohol every day.  While it's in the interests of health campaigners to scare-monger about an increasing alcohol problem, the facts tell a different story.  Drinking will probably continue to fall in the years ahead, whatever the government decides to do.  If Cameron gets his way, no doubt he will want to give his MUP the credit for any reduction that occurs, but he will have no statistical justification for doing so.

Despite claims that the policy is aimed only at cheap booze and loss-leaders, MUP will push up the price of alcohol for all consumers.  It will hit the poor hardest, but the already-squeezed middle will be affected as well: the "hard-working families" who will be punished for wanting to relax over a bottle of wine at the end of a hard-working week; the pensioners who have few other pleasures in life.  And, of course, most members of the government know this only too well.  The policy may be popular with the killjoy BMA (or perhaps not: they want a Minimum Price of at least 50p a unit), it will go down badly with ordinary voters (and, to judge by Conservative Home, is already hated by grassroots Tories).  It will do next to nothing to tackle hardened drinking and won't even result in increased tax revenues.  Oh, and it will also be devastating for the Cornish cider industry.

So why is it happening?  How is Cameron able to drive through a policy no-one in his Cabinet wants, is unlikely to achieve its aims, targets a "problem" that is in fact diminishing with every passing year, will be stunningly unpopular and is probably illegal anyway?  Britain is not supposed to be an autocracy, in which one man's personal obsession makes law.  The business reminds me of the poll tax fiasco, which was Mrs Thatcher's personal project, imposed on an unwilling Cabinet and against much backbench opposition, which rightly saw it as an impending disaster.  Reports like today's in the Telegraph show that opposition to Cameron's scheme is, if anything, growing within government.  That should be enough to call a halt. 

I don't think that Cameron's stupid, however high-handed and pig-headed he is at times.  I think he knows that minimum unit pricing is a bad idea.  The trouble is that he is personally and publicly committed to it.  Not only has he announced his support for it, he has made great claims for what it will achieve.  A climbdown now would be seen as a failure of leadership, just it would have been a failure of leadership for Mrs Thatcher to have abandoned the poll tax.  If he abandoned the policy he would seem to be abandoning the goals that the policy is supposed to realise.  To demonstrate both his personal commitment to ending "binge drinking" and his authority as a leader, he feels bound to drive through a bad policy.  This is something that happens all too often in our political system.
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Sunday, 25 November 2012

Britain and Europe: is it different this time?

Is the UK heading for the European exit door?  Something seems to have changed in the past few months, or even weeks.  The other day Channel 4 News devoted most of its hour-long run to debating the question of if, or how, Britain might leave the EU, and what the consequences would be.  The programme would have been inconceivable even a year ago.  The Observer has had advance notice of a speech to be delivered this week by Tony Blair warning that it would be "a disaster for the UK's economy and its power on the world stage" were we to leave the EU.

It's said that Blair "still hankers after a prominent role in European politics," following his (let's face it, humiliating) failure to become EU president a few years ago.  But whatever ambitions he continues to harbour, he must feel highly frustrated that he needs to make yet again the basic case that Britain is better off inside the EU.  Blair's grand ambition since before he became prime minister was to have the UK fulfil what he once described as its "destiny" as a fully signed-up and enthusiastic member of the European integrationist project.  Instead, during the ten years of his leadership this most Euro-enthusiast of British prime ministers (except possibly for Ted Heath) did more or less what Thatcher and Major had done before him, and what Brown and Cameron have done after him: followed the rest of Europe with a cultivated air of foot-dragging reluctance.  He did, it's true, achieve one grand pro-European gesture by giving up a hefty proportion of the British rebate.  But he was not thanked for it, at home or abroad. 

Blair's Euro-vision was always the stuff of fantasy: apart from the facts of geography, history and language that make Britain look to the oceans at least as much as to the nearby continent, there's the inescapable reality that fervent pro-Europeans like him and Nick Clegg have always been a minority in this country.  The mainstream view of the political and governing classes has been pragmatic, resigned, accepting that a European future was vaguely inevitable (and, indeed, provided tremendous gravy-train opportunities for the lucky few) but not dreaming the dream.  It's completely different on the continent.  Completely.  In virtually every other EU member state, there has long been an unshakeable belief among the official classes, for all their nationalistic manoeuvrings and public differences of emphasis in the moral imperative of an ever-deeper union.  Full-blooded Euroscepticsm, if it even exists, really is confined to loonies, fruitcakes and not-so-closet racists.  That is the big difference. 

There has always been a strong anti-EU current in British opinion, one that has never been reconciled to our membership and has opposed every step of further integration.  Usually a minority view, it has never been a negligible one.   Respectable politicians have argued for it, and governments have seen political value in feigning reluctance in all matter European.  So the question of Britain's membership has never quite been settled.  Or, rather, it has never quite seemed settled.  A feeling of semi-detachment has  infused the British relationship with the rest of the EU from the beginning.  The general atmosphere, I would say, has been one of "We could leave, if we wanted to, but on balance we probably won't".  Such sentiments make "Brixit" at least conceptually possible.  And what can be imagined might just happen.

Nevertheless, it does feel different this time.   Andrew Rawnsley, also in the Observer, thinks that this is an illusion: that the basic facts haven't changed.  He suggests that Euroscepticism might be peaking, or have peaked.  He notes the familiar quality of the debate in Britain - the Euro-sceptics are still, after all, making the same arguments in much the same way.  He argues that when forced to take a firm position the British people have tended, however reluctantly, to accept that it's better to be in than out.   "The most important point about the outists is that they have always lost."  The troubles afflicting the Euro may have put wind into Euro-sceptic sails for the time being, but that (thinks Rawnsley) might well start getting better and probably isn't going to get much worse.  At least, Euro-sceptics can't rely on it getting a lot worse.  Rawnsley also thinks it highly unlikely that Ed Miliband would want to wreck his (possible) premiership by committing to hold an in-out referendum.

 So on the fundamental question, in or out, here is the line-up of forces. On the side of remaining in the European Union: the Lib Dems, the Labour party, an important number of senior Conservatives, the vast majority of business and the vast majority of trades unions. On the side of leaving: a lot of Tories, a few noisy newspapers, hardly any businesses and hardly any trades unionists. That is why I say the outists are unwise to toast victory before the battle has even been properly joined.

What's most striking about Rawnsley's analysis is its Little Englandism.  His article is entirely about the balance of pro- and anti- European forces within the UK.  Britain's membership or not of the EU is, for him, entirely a domestic political debate.  It's about what David Cameron thinks, what Nick Clegg thinks, what Ed Miliband thinks, what the CBI thinks.  This inward-facing view of the politics is what really hasn't changed: even for pro-Europeans, it's all about Britain.  For Blair, too:

Friends of Blair say he believes that the EU still lacks effective leadership and too often fails to promote a "big vision". Instead it too often gives the impression that it is obsessed with arcane, if important, institutional reform. Referring to moves to reform Europe's institutions to end the euro crisis, a source said: "He will say that of course you have to get the politics and economics aligned but this has to be part of a grand plan not a series of incremental changes."

So Blair is passionately in favour of the European Union.  But not, it seems, the EU that actually exists; rather, the EU that adopts his own big vision.  His own British vision, which while at odds with other British visions is still clearly British. 

Actually, whether the UK stays in the EU or leaves is scarcely a matter for British politicians at all, any more.  The EU is changing radically as a result of the crisis in the Eurozone: it is changing in the direction of further integration, and further integration, moreover, on German terms.  Britain is scarcely part of this debate at all.  The new EU that emerges will not be one shaped by or for Britain, and it will not be one that Britain can belong to, whatever political will there may still be among British politicians.  The seeds for this were laid twenty years ago.  It was because John Major had a small majority that he felt the need, for purely tactical reasons, to negotiate an opt-out from the single currency in 1992, and later to promise a referendum.  And, later, because of Brown's feud with Blair, the referendum was not held at the opportune moment in 1997 even though joining the Euro was Tony's dearest wish.  The British opt-out was never intended or expected to become permanent.  But that's what happened; and because the Euro is the key building-block of the new EU infrastructure, the UK has in a vital sense already left.

It doesn't feel like that, which is why the debate here (Will there be an in-out referendum?  What treaty changes will Cameron veto?  Too many Brussels regulations) seems so familiar.  And its familiar outcome (in the EU but grumpy) also looks assured.  But don't be fooled.  In Germany, preparations to deal with British departure are already far advanced.  When Angela Merkel declared the other week that she "couldn't imagine an EU without the United Kingdom," she meant precisely the opposite.  It is because British exit suddenly looks plausible, even likely, that she feels the need to forestall it, in public at least. 

It may still, on balance, be in Britain's interests to remain in the EU.  And it may still, on balance, be in the rest of the EU member states' interests for Britain to remain a member.  But it's a finer balance now than it has ever been; and it's no longer enough.  The real question that is left is this: in the end, will we jump or will we be pushed?
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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Ratzinger: the grinch who stole Christmas

The Mail brings us a hilarious attack on the "killjoy" Pope who it accuses of "rubbishing" beloved Christmas traditions in his latest book.

With just under 34 days until Christmas the Pope has put a dampener on the festive period by rubbishing the idea that donkeys or any other animal have a place in the traditional Nativity scene. Benedict XVI also claims angels never sang to the shepherds to proclaim Christ birth's - trashing the much-loved carol 'Hark! The herald angels sing' in the process. From this falsehood the tradition of singing carols was born, the Pope says.

Oh dear. Is the pontiff channelling his inner Richard Dawkins? It seems so. In a desperate attempt to shift the million copies of the last instalment of his three-volume study of Jesus (which focuses, for reasons best known to his publisher, on the beginning of the story) Ratzinger has looked at the relevant passages in the Gospel of Luke and discovered, presumably not for the first time, that they contain no mention of the ox and ass so familiar from the Christmas crib. This is news! 

If Rowan Williams had said it, the Mail could happily have put it down to trendy Anglican liberalism. But we don't expect to hear such tradition-busting language from the Pope.

It is, it seems, an especially radical departure because the Pope's own Rome headquarters "regularly has a giant scene at Christmas and has displayed an array of animals at the heart of the Vatican, but the Pontiff is certain that is wrong."  There's no suggestion that a new, purified, donkey-free crib will be introduced this year, however, despite the Pope "debunking the theory". This is clearly scandalous.  Ratzinger should have the courage of his convictions and tear down the misleading Vatican crib.  Or else, follow his own logic and include a sack-bearing Santa along with the Three Wise Men, a character hitherto inexplicably missed out of Nativity scenes.  The original Santa Claus was a saint, after all, so there would be ample religious justification, at least as much as for the wholly fictional animals.

The horrified tone of the report suggests that, like some liberal Anglican bishop of decades past, Ratzinger has cast doubt on basic Christian doctrines. Which, of course, he hasn't. The books insists, as one would expect, on the historicity of the Virgin Birth, which many would consider strains plausibility rather more than the apocryphal presence of an ox and an ass in the stable. He even, it seems, accepts the story of the Star of Bethlehem, adopting the currently fashionable rationalising explanation that it was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

I haven't read the book, but it strikes me that in sticking so closely to the text of the Gospel narratives Ratzinger is being a bit, well, Protestant. The familiar Nativity story, with its choirs of angels, lowing animals, three kings and all the rest is a quintessentially Catholic one: a delightful hodgepodge combining the accounts in Luke and Matthew with details plucked from other parts the Bible (the ox and the ass, for example, are mentioned in Isaiah), stuff from apocryphal gospels that never made it into the official Bible and centuries of storytelling and art. The elements were brought together by St Francis of Assisi, who assembled the first nativity scene (featuring live animals) in 1223.

The Nativity story is rooted in the Bible but much of its emotional engagement and narrative depth come from the later elaborations. Nor are they illogical. Luke doesn't mention a stable, but he does say that Jesus was "laid in a manger." A manger implies, if it doesn't necessitate, a stable; a stable implies animals; the heavily-pregnant Mary had presumably not walked all the way from Nazareth, so there must have been a donkey. There were "shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night"; hence sheep. Three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh imply three gift-bringers; the costliness of the gifts imply that they must have been rich; and so on.

The result was part theology, part fairy-tale. But the whole beautiful structure began to unravel when the Reformation put an emphasis on the words of the Bible and to downplay the story in favour of the theology.  What was left was a children's story.  But without the supporting cast of shepherds, innkeepers, donkeys and camel-riding kings the few basic Biblical "facts", which the Pope prefers to concentrate on, look rather exposed.

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Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Why does Cameron want to destroy customer choice in the energy market?

To spare David Cameron's blushes after he announced a stupid idea in the House of Commons the other month, the government plans to destroy competition in Britain's energy market.

After Cameron's bizarre promise to put gas and electricity customers on the "lowest" tariff automatically, apparently whether they wanted it or not, Energy Secretary Ed Davey has decided to reduce the number of tariffs offered by each supplier to just four, and will "require that the companies put consumers on the lowest tariff available to them."  Customers who prefer a different arrangement, such as a fixed price deal, will have to go out of their way to request it, and it's not clear if there will be enough tariffs available to allow a choice between tariffs that have a standing charge and those charging merely be consumption.  Depending on one's energy use, the difference here can be as much as £300 a year.

The inevitable result of this patronising proposal will be the disappearance of the best deals, which have always been unusual, eye-catching offers designed to tempt canny shoppers-around away from the competition.  It was worthwhile for supply companies to make such offers because, human inertia being what it is, customers who can be bothered to swap suppliers on a regular basis will always be in a minority.  And the special tariffs are still profitable, because energy profits are enormous.  If everyone was on a special deal, profits would still be tangible, but would be considerably lower.  It would of course be nice if all customers were on a special deal, but that would require action to limit the profits of energy companies, and that isn't going to happen under this government or (probably) under any other.

Many poorer, less tech-savvy customers are on deals that are lower than they could get by shopping around; but so are many better-off customers who have enough spare cash not to worry about cost.  The real losers will be people on tight budgets who can be bothered to undergo the fairly minimal hassle involved in logging onto one of the "switching" websites to find the best deal.  If everyone is forced onto the same "low" tariff, it will self-evidently be a higher one than is currently available.  People currently on the best-value deals will, therefore, face an avoidable hike in their gas and electricity bills.  The principal result of this idiotic policy will be enhanced profits for energy companies.  A market that is perceived to be failing will be replaced by one that isn't any longer a market at all, but a mere cartel.

It is a myth that there is no effective competition in the energy market.  It's just that only people who make the effort to shop around take advantage of the lowest tariffs.  This is not a bad thing.  People who make an effort to shop around should be rewarded with cheaper prices.  People who care more about continuity of supply and who are less price-sensitive should pay more.  It's called the free market.  The government doesn't insist that Sainsbury's only offer four different varieties of bread, or ban them from offering special offers on one type of fruit but not another.  Some shoppers have hours to spend chasing down the best prices.  They will save money compared to people who want to get the shopping over with as quickly as possible; but they will almost always be poorer to start with.  The energy market is not that different.

If poorer pensioners and others unable to access the internet are, at present, paying over the odds, there are ways in which they could be offered targeted help to find a better deal.  For example, the energy suppliers could be required to identify such customers and offer them a better deal.  This would be considerably cheaper and less intrusive than the anti-competitive, paternalistic and statist measures that are being set in motion.

Another stupid policy from an increasingly stupid government.

UPDATE I see it all now. 

Asked if the government would regard the policy as a failure if it led to some people’s fuel costs rising, Cameron’s official spokesman told a regular media briefing in Westminster: “Our objective has been to work to help hard-working families who often struggle to pay their energy bills.

The government is obviously concerned that too many of those currently taking advantage of tariff-switching are on benefits, or lack the distracting presence of children, or are otherwise insufficiently hard-working or insufficiently families.  So if they end up paying more, good. Not so stupid after all?

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Thursday, 15 November 2012

Abu Qatada is even worse than gay marriage

This is a guest post by Rev Julian Mann

There is a moral issue facing Britain that should be of major concern to voters, and it is not gay marriage.

As a passionate opponent of the redefinition of the God-created institution of heterosexual marriage, I can understand the principled passion of those who, like the Chancellor George Osborne, support it ardently for reasons of fairness and equality. Mr Osborne also believes, according to his analysis of President Obama's election victory, that gay marriage is a vote winner, particularly among young people, and I would have to concede that he is probably right.

But gay marriage, important an issue though it is, at this juncture pales into insignificance compared with the legal shambles over Abu Qatada.

It is a travesty of justice that he cannot face trial in an overseas nation that had reasonable grounds to charge him with plotting a terrorist atrocity against its people. The responsibility for this disgrace lies with the European Court of Human Rights. That is why Britain's relationship with Strasbourg must now become a matter not of hand-wringing but of robust political action.

I will not conceal the Christian spiritual agenda bound up with my concern about the threat to social stability that Islamist terrorism represents in the country I love. Because Christianity spreads by persuasion not by coercion peaceable social conditions are vital for its dissemination. It is wonderful that social conditions in the United Kingdom currently allow for the proclamation of God's love in Jesus Christ. The privilege of living in a democracy also allows Christians to articulate views on a range of social and political issues for the public good, though it should be acknowledged that the threat to free speech once gay marriage is enacted, particularly for public sector employees such as military chaplains, is a very real one.

With the potential for Islamist terrorism now deeply entrenched in British society, our government has both a symbolic and practical moral responsiblity to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan in defiance of Strasbourg. It would not be difficult under the very public circumstances of this deportation for British monitors to ensure that he is not tortured in Jordan. But, as well as opposing the obtaining of evidence by torture, does not the British government also have a moral responsibility to assist the Jordanian authorities in getting as much information as they legitimately can out of Abu Qatada and to help wipe the smile off the face of evil?

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire
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Monday, 12 November 2012

Newsnight's two victims

Pity poor Steven Messham, horribly abused for years as a child at the notorious Bryn Estyn childrens' home in North Wales, horribly abused again over the past week at the hands of the media.

The Mail on Sunday was wrong yesterday to pursue him with unfeeling spite (though it was not wrong to point out the inconsistencies in his evidence; they matter, because truth and justice matter, especially where a crime as emotive as child abuse is concerned). It was disgraceful of David Mellor to brand him a "weirdo" on a politics TV show yesterday. But the Newsnight team who disinterred his ancient stories, forced him to relive his nightmares, showed his face and name on camera, failed to do the basic journalistic work of checking his story against the mountain of publicly-available information (or even to show him a photograph of his alleged abuser) and then abandoned him after the claims imploded, did him worse damage than either. They used him. He is as much the victim of the BBC's journalistic collapse as is Lord McAlpine.

As for the idea that concentrating on the crisis at the BBC distracts attention from the real and serious matter of child abuse: so, too, does sensationalism of the type exemplified by the Newsnight report. Seeking out highly-placed paedophile rings and top Tory abusers makes for good horror-show entertainment; but it bears very little relationship to the mundane reality of institutional abuse, such as was laid out in exhaustive detail by Mr Justice Waterhouse in his unfairly maligned report. It's well worth reading if you want the facts, rather than the fantasy, about Bryn Estyn. Far from being any sort of whitewash, it is detailed and damning about the failures of oversight and culture of neglect that allowed the terrible abuse there to continue and go unpunished for many years.

Pity, too, Lord McAlpine. As Boris Johnson rightly says, to accuse someone of being a paedophile "is to consign them to the lowest circle of hell – and while they are still alive." McAlpine has lived with this horrendous smear for years, at least since he was named by the defunct gossip magazine Scallywag around twenty years ago. (Scallywag, sued out of existence after it accused a blameless woman of having an affair with John Major, was the pre-internet equivalent of certain well-known websites.) The allegations, based (as the Guardian demonstrated convincingly on Friday) at best on a case of mistaken identity, have been disproved several times before. But they have never gone away. They have continued to circulate on the internet, besides being contained in David Icke's classic of conspiratorial literature, The Biggest Secret, which remains in print.

It was not new evidence that led to Newsnight disinterring this old, long discredited slur. Indeed, the BBC broadcast questionable claims about Bryn Estyn way back in 1999. Rather, it was the media and political feeding frenzy that, having sucked dry the malodorous corpse of Jimmy Savile was looking round for a new object of its righteous indignation. Tom Watson's histrionic claims in the House of Commons of a paedophile network at the heart of the Thatcher government gave permission (at the very least) for this new inquisition. Inspiration presumably came from the bowels of the Internet. Members of David Icke's Forum, for example, had been naming McAlpine and other alleged Tory paedophiles for weeks before Newsnight broke the story not-quite-naming him. So had various conspiracy-minded blogs. These people were crowing in vindication and expectation before the claims began to unravel, since when they have been bemoaning yet another establishment cover-up.

From David Icke to the right-on Twitter crowd falling gleefully on claims of Tory paedophile rings may not be such a long road. I'm struck, for example, by the tone of George Monbiot's abject apology to Lord McAlpine for having, perhaps libellously, named him on Twitter. Monbiot describes his tweet, as well he might, as "the worst mistake of my life."

The tweets I sent which hinted – as I assumed to be the case – that Lord McAlpine was the person the child abuse victim Steve Messham was talking about were so idiotic that, looking back on them today, I cannot believe that I wrote them.

So what possessed him? Why did he "assume it to be the case" that McAlpine was a paedophile, which was always a frankly preposterous notion?

I knew that Steve Messham had been treated appallingly, and I believed that the terrible things done to him had been compounded by a denial of recognition and a denial of the recourse to the law which was his due. When I saw his interview on Newsnight I was very upset. I trusted his account unquestioningly. I was horrified by what he said, and by the fact that the identity of the man he was talking about appeared to have been kept secret for so long.

Monbiot says that he allowed himself "to be carried away by a sense of moral outrage." But what he was actually carried away by was his own cognitive biases. I don't just mean that some people find the idea of a Tory paedophile ring at the heart of the Thatcher government plausible and even appealing. (Terrible crimes, yes, and one feels for the victims, but it just goes to show what those bastards were capable of.) It's also that people of Monbiot's predisposition (and Watson's) are drawn to the idea of establishment cover-ups, of rich and powerful manipulators denying justice to little people they have betrayed. Because Messham was an abuse victim (which no-one denies) Monbiot will believe "unquestioningly" anything he says; because McAlpine was a wealthy Thatcherite Monbiot will assume the worst of him, even that he raped children, without evidence.

Jimmy Savile exploited the "halo effect" he gained from being a popular entertainer and charity fundraiser to bat away the rumours about his abuse of under-age girls, rumours that we now know were well-founded. He also exploited the halo effect that surrounded the institutions which employed him and with which he was associated: the BBC, Stoke Mandeville hospital, the royal family and the Catholic Church (that last being especially ironic, or rather telling). But Lord McAlpine, and the other former politicians still being smeared all over the internet, have no such cover. Tories and Thatcherites don't get the benefit of the doubt. Not from the likes of George Monbiot, anyway.
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Thursday, 8 November 2012

Archbishop Welby: Just don't mention the rock badgers

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby will be called upon to preside with due solemnity over grand national events. This was one of the bits of the job that Rowan Williams did unambiguously well: coming from the Catholic side of the Anglican equation, he had an instinctive understanding of the more ceremonious aspects of religion. Welby by contrast seems to have an Evangelical's natural suspicion of ecclesiastical mummery. Indeed there are signs he struggles to take it seriously.

Speaking in Liverpool Cathedral in October last year, shortly before he left the deanery for the more exalted role of Bishop of Durham, he raised an eyebrow at the "very strange" investiture ceremony, which involved "judges in tights and wigs, and much proclamation, and a great deal of prorection." It was, he said, "like Gilbert and Sullivan". He went on to refer to clerics like himself as "strange men dressed in ornate curtain material"; although on this occasion he resembled nothing so much as "a middle aged, balding man looking like a tour guide.

He clearly has a sense of the ridiculous, though being quite so up-front about the absurdity of ecclesiatical garb surely runs the risk of letting daylight in on magic. Here he was on Maundy Thursday:

Oh, the trouble is I quite like all this episcopal bling. As long as I don’t see photos of myself of course. Then I see my ears stick out, and in a mitre, lacking Bishop's Michael’s stature, I slightly resemble a self‐propelled tulip. Only slightly. I hope.

There was an unfortunate incident in February last year when the then Dean of Liverpool corpsed during evensong. The Old Testament lesson, which it was his turn to read, was taken from Leviticus. It was a long passage enumerating various non-kosher animals,

And then suddenly something happened which I warmly advise you against. As I read, I could see in my mind's eye what this looked like to the casual visitors who were wandering in and out of the cathedral and stopping to observe the service, even in some cases to take part. Many of them were clearly foreigners, and they came into this extraordinary building and found a middle aged man reading about not eating rock badgers, various types of owl and reptile, and not even eating camels. And a statement that God really didn't like any of that. Moreover, this same middle aged man is wearing what to the initiated looked like a dressing gown and nightie, the wrong way with the nightie over the dressing gown. As I thought about it the absurdity struck me more and more forcefully and as I got to the three types of owl or vulture that you are not meant to eat, I began to laugh and was incapable of stopping myself. I could hear the choir stalls rattling as the men and and boys of the choir themselves collapsed in helpless laughter. Eventually I had to stop the lesson before it got to its end, gasp out "God doesn't like you eating any of these things," and stagger back to my seat.

So, if you want to knock the next Archbishop of Canterbury off his stride at some important moment (not that you would, of course), you know what to do. Just sidle up to him and whisper "rock badger" in his ear.

There's a good chance that Archbishop Welby will preside over the next coronation, a ceremony more ridiculously Ruritanian than anything he has yet had to face. Should be fun.
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Wednesday, 7 November 2012

A prophetess named Janet

It would be inhuman not to have a twinge of sympathy for Janet Daley. Yesterday, fearing she would be robbed of the priceless gift of being able to say "I told you so" to the massed ranks of journalistic sheep who took their cue from the opinion polls (which almost unanimously pointed to a narrow win for Obama) she went instead with her "hunch" and called it for Romney.

Time to stop being a wuss. I will take my chances and say it straight out: I think Romney is going to win – not just the popular vote but the electoral college as well.

Not that this was just a wild stab in the dark, you understand. And certainly not just "Republican wishful thinking". Most of the major polling organisations, she thought, were "over-sampling Democrats deliberately in states where they believe that this corresponds to actual voter numbers", but their assumptions were out-of-date and wrong. Worst of all, they didn't take into account the indefinable X-factor: enthusiasm. Romney supporters were fired up and determined to boot out the hated president, whereas disappointed Democrats were simply going through the motions.

It is something far more indefinable: something which those of us who have been engaged with politics for half a century or so are inclined to trust. As that brilliantly perceptive commentator Peggy Noonan has said, Obama’s campaign does not look or feel like it is winning – and Mitt Romney’s does. The turnouts and atmosphere at Obama events are rather pitiful by comparison to the tremendous, ecstatic receptions that are greeting Romney and they are notably pitiful by comparison to the thunderous Obama pre-victory march across the country in 2008.

The same could, of course, have been said about Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996, or indeed about most re-election campaigns with the possible exception of Reagan's. No incumbent can ever match the irrational promises of hope and change on which all first-time candidates base their pitch. That is especially true of Obama, who inevitably failed to live up to the hype of 2008. But incumbency remains a trump card. Americans, history shows, are inclined to give their presidents a second term unless they screw up really badly or their rival is insanely charismatic. Reagan beat Carter; Clinton beat George Bush senior. It's possible that Obama might have beaten Romney, but Romney always had an uphill task. He might just have done it if Obama had continued to perform as badly as he did in the first debate, though the demographics were always on his side.

Daley went on to compare enthusiasm for Obama with that short-lived British political phenomenon of Cleggmania: "That too depended on the noisy support of young voters who proclaimed their passionate commitment to their hero – and then didn’t bother to turn up and vote." Whereas Romney's "enormous crowds" were composed of "grown-ups." Does she include the Birthers and the Creationists in the category of grown-ups, I wonder? Or does the concept of "grown-up", in her mind, consist overwhelmingly of white people and disproportionately of men? I suspect that may in fact be the case, actually, which isn't to suggest that Daley is in any sense a racist or unenthusiastic about her own sex: it's just that power in the United States remains overwhelming in the hands of people who look like Mitt Romney, and that people who wield power are more likely to be

The polls were close enough to mean that a Romney victory wouldn't have been astonishing, at least not mathematically or psephologically astonishing. Yet Janet Daley was at least right to note that she was going against the grain in her prediction. As I pointed out before, whatever the polls said, most of the world was assuming an Obama walkover until very recently. A Romney victory would have seemed like a thunderbolt - although a few people at the Telegraph would have been pleased. It would have been especially tough for David Cameron having to pretend to be on the same page as a genuine conservative. That said, Tony Blair managed it with George W Bush, and Romney was a in most ways a more moderate proposition than Dubya.

Anyway, back to Daley, for whom at one point things seemed to be looking up. At one in the morning our time she noted the "massive crowds"; one of her friends had queued for two hours yesterday morning before giving up and going home. Given her earlier thoughts, this must have seemed an optimistic sign. A couple of hours later, it was "breathtakingly, unbelievably close", "so close that virtually all of the battleground states still defy prediction." By four o'clock she had more-or-less given up on a Romney victory, but still hoped to claim a moral victory at least:

Although Mitt Romney could possibly get the electoral college votes he needs – the crucial states of Ohio, Virginia and Florida are still too close to call – the maths are getting harder. But what he has got, at least at this moment, is a majority of the popular vote. So even if the final numbers show that more American voters want him to be president than Barack Obama, he could lose the election in the end. Which means that both camps were right – those of us who believed intuitively that there was a popular groundswell for Romney, and those who bored for the nation with endless reams of statistical data.

At least she didn't do a Donald Trump and demand a revolution.  When even that small crumb of comfort was snatched from her, Janet changed tack, seeing in Obama's victory "a warning for Labour", largely on the basis that voters still blamed George Bush (who was, after all, in power) for the financial crisis of 2008 and all that has ensued. Unfair, of course, given Obama's general uselessness with the economy.

But if this proves anything, it is that the parties which held power when their national economies tanked are going to take a very long timeto recover from that ignominy. People who have lost their jobs, seen the value of their homes collapse under them, and had their savings debauched will not forget who was in charge when the ship went down. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls beware: your fingerprints are indelibly printed on the scene of the crime.

It's a good thought. Shame it didn't occur to her yesterday. She has after all been engaged with politics for half a century or so.

More comfort for Janet Daley, though, might come from the fact that she wasn't alone. Steve Forbes told almost exactly the same story yesterday. After confidently predicting that Romney would "win big" he gazed into the crystal:

One of the big Wednesday morning stories will be why most of the polls didn’t have this right. The basic answer is their model. Incredibly, in the face of contrary evidence, a number of polls used the 2008 model for this election although there was little objective evidence that those turnouts would hold for this contest. This time – and early voting confirms this – the relative Democrat/Republican split is almost even. In 2008, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a good margin. Moreover Romney is well ahead among independents, which Obama carried four years before. That’s why his popular vote margin will be 3 points or more.

The enthusiasm factor can be seen in the crowds – Romney is attracting bigger ones than Obama and the upbeat mood at these GOP rallies is palpable. A few months ago a number of GOP voters were tepid towards Romney. They have since become fully committed.

Perhaps they were. But there were never enough of them.
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