Friday, 27 July 2012

The Twitter Joke Trial and the Public Interest

The final end, at the High Court this morning, of the "Twitter Joke Trial" has a bittersweet quality. On the one hand, justice has - eventually - been done. Thanks to the perseverence of Paul Chambers and his legal team, a precedent has been set that should ensure no future prosecutions under s127 of the Communications Act for such obvious jokes as (all together now) "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" A wrong has been righted. The judges made the right decision. The right of freeborn Englishpersons to make bad jokes on the interent has been enshrined in law. Paul Chambers' reputation, and that of the legal system himself, has been vindicated. Hurrah!

And yet, of course, this has been two-and-a-half years of hell for Paul, who was arrested at work and then charged by a police and prosecution service that seemed to be working on autopilot, more concerned with process than justice or logic. He has lost two jobs and his career may never fully recover. All for a piece of nonsense that should never have come within a mile of a court. We are entitled to wonder how the Crown Prosecution Service should ever have thought it justified.

Standing outside the court, David Allen Green described the personal decision by Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions, to pursue the case all the way as "disgraceful" and the who case as "shameful". He went on that there were "very serious questions for the DPP to answer." Louise Mensch, who happens to be Paul Chambers' constituency MP, suggested that Starmer might be held to account by the Justice Select Committee for his profligacy with public funds. Many rightly question how the prosecution could ever have been thought to be in the public interest, seeing that no-one, at any time took the "threat" seriously. Indeed, the Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues concluded that, "on an objective assessment, the decision of the Crown Court that this tweet constituted or included a message of a menacing character was not open to it." Which is surely correct.

The answer may lie in the Code of Practice for Crown Prosecutors (pdf). This provides a two-stage test for deciding whether a prosecution should be brought: the first considers the evidence (and whether there is a greater than 50/50 chance of success) while the second considers whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. This sounds reasonable. The Code sets out a number of factors that might weigh against a prosecution being brought. Some of these might, at first sight, seem applicable to the Chambers case. Thus:

4.17.b) the seriousness and the consequences of the offending can be appropriately dealt with by an out-of-court disposal which the suspect accepts


d) the offence was committed as a result of a genuine mistake or misunderstanding


e) the loss or harm can be described as minor and was the result of a single incident, particularly if it was caused by a misjudgement;

Other things being equal, such factors might have been expected to weigh against a prosecution, considering both the cost to the public purse of bringing proceedings and the disproportionate effect that the process has had on Paul Chambers' life.

But that would be to misunderstand the Code. The CPS website makes clear that there is a presumption in favour of prosecuting. "A prosecution will usually take place unless the prosecutor is sure that the public interest factors tending against prosecution outweigh those tending in favour." The test is not to balance factors favouring with those tending against a prosecution. It is assumed to begin with that a prosecution will be in the public interest. In case of doubt, prosecute.

There is nothing in the Code that considers the proportionality of subjecting someone of previous good character to the full rigor of the legal process, which can be shattering even if they are ultimately acquitted. Nor is there anything in the Code to suggest that, in a trivial case, prosecution might be an inappropriate use of public resources even if it produces a conviction. The CPS can waste as much taxpayers' money as it likes in its tenacity to secure a conviction, without violating the "public interest" test. Public money is not a public interest. This is absurd. A proper public interest test ought to take into account the cost of court action in all but the most serious cases. In other words, there should be a presumption against pursuing a case to court if it can be settled more cheaply.

We live in an era that fetishises due process, best practice and adherence to guidelines. There is less and less room for the exercise of discretion and common sense. The bureaucrat (and Crown Prosecutors are essentially bureaucrats) who exercises independent judgement takes a risk. But just because something is written down in a Code of Practice does not make it sensible or right, and in the case of the CPS Code there appears to be a serious problem with a narrow and restrictive test of "public interest." By assuming that prosecution is by its very nature in the public interest the Code encourages, indeed forces, disproportionate, oppressive and financially wasteful criminal actions. It's a problem much wider than the farcical case of Paul Chambers and his Tweet.
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For Mitt Romney, as for Churchill, England is a small island

We must hope that Mitt Romney does not win the US presidency in November, because however positive his words about our shared "Anglo-Saxon heritage" (by which I'm sure he meant Magna Carta, the common law and Shakespeare rather than anything genetic) he's unlikely to forget the derision to which he has been subjected by much of the British press during his trip here. A series of gaffes, wittily and inevitably dubbed "Romneyshambles", have been gleefully seized upon by an establishment still locked into an unrequited love affair with the Obamas.

Not only did Mr Romney cast aspersions on the UK's preparedness for the Olympics in a TV interview before he left his native shores (but wherever might he have got the impression that there were any organisational problems, other than the British media?) Not only did he "insult" Ed Miliband by seeming to forget his name (but perhaps not: perhaps he believed that Mr Leader was the correct way to formally address a leader of Her Majesty's Opposition). It now turns out that in a book written two years ago he denigrated the entire British nation.

This is the full quote from that book, which has the charmingly inappropriate title No Apology, as unearthed by Foreign Policy:

England is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small. With few exceptions, it doesn't make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy. And if it hadn't been separated from the continent by water, it almost certainly would have been lost to Hitler's ambitions. Yet only two lifetimes ago, Britain ruled the largest and wealthiest empire in the history of humankind. Britain controlled a quarter of the earth's land and a quarter of the earth's population.

The first sentence is of course technically inaccurate. England is not an island, but part of an island; and the island of Great Britain is not small. Sark is a small island. Great Britain is the ninth or tenth largest island in the world, depending on whether or not one counts Australia as an island. But all this misses the point. In referring to England, Romney is not merely following an American convention (no more or less inaccurate than the convention of using "America" to mean the United States rather than to the two continents of North and South America). He is also speaking as Churchill almost invariably did, as Disraeli did, as the Irish-born Duke of Wellington did. Or as David Starkey still does today. The synecdoche that makes England stand for the entire United Kingdom might annoy Scots and Welsh (or even encourage nationalism) but it is correct in terms of history, politics and language. The United Kingdom has always been England with a few other bits tacked on.

And yes, Great Britain is not a small island. But it is - and this was surely Romney's point - a small country, geographically confined and modest in terms of population, overcrowded as the southern part of it may be. It is a country, moreover, whose people have often in their history - when it faced the Armada in 1588, when it confronted Nazi Germany in 1940 - used the idea of being a small island as part of the national self-definition. Churchill spoke of "the island race" and "defending our island" almost as often as he spoke of "England". Actually, it's not just in times of war that the small island mentality surfaces. It's one of the most consistent clichés of British identity. It provides a language of modesty and self-doubt but also a language of defiance and pride.

One of the commonest tropes - more popular, it is true, when Britain had an empire - was to contrast the "smallness" of the island with the great things that the British had achieved. Conquering a quarter of the globe, launching the industrial revolution, inventing the railways and the steamship, exploring unknown regions of the world. And this, of course, is precisely what Romney is attempting to do in the quoted passage. Yes, Britain ("England") is a "small island". Yes, its roads and houses are small (and to an American, its roads and houses most certainly are small, especially the houses). And yet "only two lifetimes ago, Britain ruled the largest and wealthiest empire in the history of humankind."

This is a remarkably British thing to say - or rather was, since celebrating the imperial sway of a century ago is now distinctly unfashionable. I don't know what the passage goes on to say: perhaps to contrast the relatively meagre resources with which the United Kingdom dominated the world with the much more substantial potential of the United States. But was nevertheless a sentiment of praise rather than of belittlement. There is, it's true, the suggestion that with a few exceptions Britain doesn't make "the things that the rest of the world wants to buy". And it doesn't, sadly, any more. The days of our manufacturing greatness were fading into memory a hundred years ago. Today it's China that makes the things that the rest of the world wants to buy. What does the UK "make" that the world wants? Dodgy financial products and smart advertising, mainly. And the demand for dodgy financial products is not what it was.

We should thank Mr Romney for pointing out these home truths. Not that anyone over here was unaware of them, of course.
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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The French take genital mutilation seriously. But then they also ban burqas

Newsnight has been doing its bit towards the public service remit this week by highlighting the barbaric practice generally known as "female genital mutilation", or FGM. Two reports by Sue Lloyd-Roberts, who also wrote about the issue in Monday's Independent, highlighted suggestions that the authorities Britain were turning a blind eye to the practice.

Despite the fact that it has been illegal since 1988, there has never been a single prosecution in this country. In France, there have been more than a hundred. The UK, Lloyd Roberts suggested, is so lax on the issue that girls are being brought into the country from elsewhere in Europe to have their genitalia sliced off, sewn up or otherwise mangled by supposed doctors in the name of cultural tradition, pseudo-religion or virginity-preservation.

The ever-disappointing DPP Keir Starmer was asked on Monday's Today programme why there had been no prosecutions. Adopting a see-no-evil attitude, he claimed that there had never been a single complaint. Meanwhile, Lloyd-Roberts interviewed the senior Met officer in charge of child protection, Commander Simon Foy, who justified the lack of action on the grounds that he was "not necessarily sure that the availability of a stronger sense of prosecution will change it for the better", an answer that Nick Cohen rightly called "a disgrace".

Why has FGM been tolerated for so long in Britain? The general explanation is one of "cultural sensitivity", or what Cohen calls "the racism of the respectable." If white English girls were regularly being subjected to such life-ruining procedures at the age of four or five, there would surely be an outcry, but because the victims belong to minority communities (for example, Somalis) it's easier to look the other way rather than be accused of cultural imperialism. This may be more than just misplaced liberal good intentions. Cohen writes:

I know doctors who worry they will be accused of racism if they protest about the mistreatment of girls. They suspect that their employers will not report protesting parents to the police but punish them instead.

The French, by contrast, are not satisfied with passing symbolic laws against FGM. They refuse to let cultural sensibilities stand in the way of protecting small girls from abuse, even instituting programmes of physical examination that Foy claimed amounted to child abuse. Do the French authorities care more about child protection than those in the UK? Or are they just less concerned about respecting cultural sensitivities?

I do not think it is a coincidence that France has also banned the public wearing of burqas and niqabs (full-face veils) in France, a step that in the UK would be regarded by mainstream opinion as beyond the pale. There is, of course, a huge difference in principle between an adult women making a personal choice to wear a veil for religious reasons and a small girl being intimately mutilated and facing a lifetime of pain, sexual misery and health problems as a consequence. The two are not directly comparable (although both may be justified on the grounds of preserving a woman's "honour" and sexual chastity). A cross-channel comparison may still be valid, however.

Kenan Malik, a firm secularist, recently argued that no liberal society could contemplate banning the burqa because such a ban is violates a fundamental freedom to manifest one's religious beliefs. He says:

Wearing a burqa neither harms, nor discriminates against, others. Of course, one might well believe that the burqa harms the woman who wears it and is an expression of discrimination against women. A liberal society accepts, however, that individuals should free to make choices that may not be in their interest and that, to liberal eyes, demean them. This applies even to particularly distasteful expressions of degradation, such as the wearing of the burqa. If women are forced to wear the burqa against their will, the law should protect them against that coercion. It should not, however, impose a ban on those who have chosen to wear the burqa.

Most people in Britain would agree. A thoroughgoing liberal might well add that if an adult woman wished to have her genitalia hacked off or sewn up on a kitchen table, that is her right too. One can even find self-described "feminists" such as Germaine Greer affecting to see no difference between FGM and cosmetic surgery. Many in France, however, would say instead that the burqa is not compatible with participation in an equal and democratic society. A certain sacrifice of individual rights, in this case, the right to hide one's face in public for religious or cultural reasons, is justified if it advances the wider aim of creating a unified civil space. The public realm, on this view, is characterised not as a neutral meeting-place of different forms of life, among which it makes no judgement, but is itself a cultural expression, something that demands the adherence of all its citizens.

The French republican approach may produce an "illiberal" ban on burqas, but it will also have few qualms about stamping upon barbaric imported customs such as FGM. The British multiculturalist approach will defend people's right to manifest their own oppression by wearing a burqa on the grounds of individual liberty. It will also encourage, or at least permit, ethnic or religious communities within it to police their own, whether this means allowing women to be discriminated against by Sharia courts applying antiquated rules of divorce and inheritance, or turning a blind eye to forced and coercively "arranged" marriages. And it will tie itself up in knots of embarrassment and cognitive stress when it comes to what ought to be the clear-cut abuse of FGM.

It's not that burqas and FGM are in any moral sense comparable. It's just that a society that is inclined to ban the first will be less likely to tolerate the latter.
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Friday, 20 July 2012

Lie Detectors: do they work, and does it matter?

It's generally accepted that serial sex offenders may continue to pose a danger to society even after being released back into society at the end of their sentence. That, ostensibly at least, is why this country (like several others) maintains a sex offender register. As part of the monitoring process of those sex offenders deemed to pose a particular threat, the government is apparently proposing to subject some 750 of them to "lie detector" (or polygraph) tests. Enthusiasm for the scheme seems to come from the very top, given that quotes given to newspapers are attributed to "Downing Street sources" rather than to the Home Office, as might be expected.

The Downing Street sources are pointing to the supposed success of a pilot scheme that has been running in the Midlands. As evidence, we are told that offenders subjected to the tests were "more honest with their offender managers" and provided more information about any potential threat they posed. They made twice as many disclosures about prohibited behaviour (such as contacting victims) to probation staff as those not tested. And some said that undergoing the tests had "helped them manage their own behaviour more effectively". (A slightly puzzling one, that.)

David Cameron is said to be "impressed" with these results, and hoping that the use of lie detectors can be, as they say, "rolled out" across the country.

What the government does not seem to be claiming is that polygraph tests actuallywork, in the sense that they can detect lies and confirm truth within an acceptable margin of error. And indeed the scientific evidence for this appears to be slight, or non-existent. The most thorough assessment of the method's reliability, a 2003 report from America's National Academy of Sciences, concluded that it might produce better than chance results in many cases, but there was "little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy." Other research has been even less positive. For many Skeptics, polygraphs are about as scientific as one of L.Ron Hubbard's E-meters.

In questions concerning innocence or guilt, where someone's freedom is at stake (as opposed to, say, the Jeremy Kyle show) it would seem unreasonable to rely on something so inherently dubious. Especially as the apparently "scientific" nature of the test might lead some to give it more credibility than it is due. This would be a particular problem if it were being proposed that polygraphs be admitted as evidence in court. This does not seem to be the case here, though: we are talking about offender management.

At least I think so. There's an ambiguous statement in the Guardian's report that "offenders found to have broken their licence as a result of a lie detector test would be sent back to prison," which might imply that judgements would be made based on whether or not the subject passed the test. The Telegraph report is more circumspect, noting merely that the tests had "led to" some offenders being returned to prison. So it might simply mean that the offenders were being sent back to prison because of incriminating information that they had volunteered while taking a polygraph test, rather than because they failed one. It's an important distinction.

If I admit to having done something, because I fear that I am about to be found out anyway, does it matter if my fears were based on belief in a piece of possibly bogus science? The police have rarely been shy of using psychological techniques to extract confessions - for example, by alluding to conclusive proof that may not, in fact, exist, or suggesting that an accomplice has already confessed. "Come on, mate, we know you did it." If you've seen The Singing Detective, you may remember the scene where a schoolmistress identifies the boy who has shat on her desk by announcing that God will find out the culprit. The terrified miscreant (stand-in for a young Dennis Potter) recovers himself enough to point the blame on another boy, but only because he's so much the teacher's pet that she can't bring herself to believe the accuracy of her technique. But it worked.

What we're talking about isn't quite the same as a placebo effect. If that applied (and it might well do) then belief in the efficacy the test itself would cause a subject to pass or fail it. What the government seems to be relying on here is a pscyhological effect rather than a psychosomatic one. Seeing the wires of the polygraph prompts confessions, rather as (though for a different reason) seeing the instruments of torture prompted confessions in previous centuries. The more convincing the deception (which includes the self-deception of the examiner, whose belief in the process also matters) the more likely it is to produce the desired effect. That's why a "scientific" set-up, preferably with men in white coats deploying obscure teminology, will likely be more effective than, say, a cardboard box with "lie detector" written on it.

There are obvious moral problems with this idea (such as the undesirability of lying to secure confessions), and also practical ones: the longer the scheme goes on, and the wider its geographical spread, the more likely it is that offenders will become aware of the dodginess of the underlying science, and thus be unwilling to produce voluntary confessions. If they can't be sent back to prison on the strength of a negative test alone (and, given the state of the evidence, that would be outrageous) then this could destroy its long-term viability. And this isn't just because offenders will stop confessing. It's also because publicly backing known pseudoscience is likely to prove embarrassing for politicians.
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Monday, 16 July 2012

Fifty Shades of Grr

A spanking model reads That Book

This is a guest post by Adele Haze

Last summer I went to see Sir Patrick Stewart in The Merchant of Venice. He played Shylock, a member of a minority subculture, in a work created by a writer from outside that subculture. The director performed feats of inventiveness to turn a play full of wounding stereotypes into a spectacular, memorable production. The play’s contemporaries would have had to make no such efforts: there weren’t many Jews in Shakespeare’s target audience.

Of course there's no real comparison between EL James and Shakespeare. Merchant is a work of genius. Fifty Shades of Grey is a black hole of literary merit: shelved next to other books, it sucks the quality out of them. That it’s a bad book is indisputable, but that in itself doesn’t matter. Many books are bad; to save on blood pressure medication, we literary snobs are well advised to ignore them.

Yet, media attention, the viral nature of memes, and the appeal of some porn wrapped in a culturally sanctioned package have turned Fifty Shades from a trio of terrible books into a conversation carried out at a deafening level. There are a few categories of people who can’t simply pretend it isn’t happening. These are, at a minimum, writers of erotica, sellers of sex toys, gender theorists and members of the BDSM community.

Here’s something you may not know about kinky people: we are hungry for mentions of our lifestyle and its expressions in the mainstream media. When a book, film, article or a documentary focuses specifically on kinky people, there is usually a lot of buzz on the message boards and around dinner tables. Having lived through several BDSM-centric cultural events - large-scale, like the film “Secretary”, or minor, like episodes of police procedurals featuring a BDSM club here, a professional dominant there - I can say that on the whole, we don’t expect to see anything positive.

Whenever I prepare to see a production of The Merchant of Venice, I brace for Shylock. While these days a production that isn’t culturally sensitive is unlikely to make it onto the stage, the play is what it is, the characters are who they are. Shakespeare’s genius notwithstanding, Shylock is a stereotype of a Jew, and, as far as much of Western culture was concerned, he was the only type of Jew that had ever existed.

While race isn’t the same as sexuality, kinky people brace for every mainstream portrayal of our subculture in a very similar way. We know what to expect, from heroes and villains alike: if a character is into BDSM, there’s usually either a flashback to childhood beatings (Exit to Eden), or allusions to a present-day mental illness (Secretary). And these are just the romantic comedies. As we travel across genres through drama (The Piano Teacher?) and romance to thriller , there are precious few examples of kinky characters who haven’t been served up from the same cauldron of lukewarm stereotypes. What a miserable, guilt-ridden, destructive lot we are.

Now that every person in the country who ever reads books has either read 50 Shades or taken a decision not to, it’s the BDSM novel. While some are happy that the BDSM conversation is happening at all, participating in it is not dissimilar to discussing current events with people who read only the free newspapers. To get a balance of views, a person would has to search and to pay.

Here’s the thing: 50 Shades isn’t a BDSM book at all. It’s a romance novel with a redemption plot, not unlike Jane Eyre, where a pure heroine saves the tortured hero from a demon of past addiction. The addiction in this case happens to be a minority sexual interest that launches a thousand sex scenes. While I’m delighted that people new to openly buying porn at Asda now have the go-ahead for culturally sanctioned masturbation, I wish their wank material hadn’t been delivered in a form that props up exciting fantasies with a bank of puritan sandbags.

The heroine can enjoy sex - but only if at the start of the book she is a virgin. (EL James takes the innocence rule further, and makes Ana chaste to the point of asexuality: by the age of 22 the woman has never masturbated, and even managed to go through puberty and beyond without having a sex dream.) The hero can have non-mainstream sexual appetites, but these have to be justified with the excuse of an unhappy childhood. While it’s possible for the hero to have had sexual partners before who shared his interests in BDSM, those women could never have the same effect on him as one with whom he’s profoundly sexually incompatible - that is to say, an innocent who will, in the words of the novel, bring him “to the light”. In order for the timid readers to enjoy their BDSM, they must be given a chance to retreat into a mental state in which they’re not really enjoying it.

What BDSM there is in the trilogy is frequently inept: in part dangerous, in part offensive. Here are some of the misconceptions a new reader will learn about BDSM:

- BDSM relationships include a detailed contract. (Some do, most do not.)

- It’s acceptable to physically punish somebody even if they haven’t consented, as long as you’ve warned them in advance that you don’t like certain behaviours. (No, it’s still assault.)

- Cable ties are bondage tools. (They’re not.)

- It’s acceptable for the submissive's limbs to become numb while in restraints. (It isn’t. If they are, the restraints are too tight.)

- “Lovers don’t need safewords” (There are circumstances under which people choose to suspend the use of safewords. True love is not what makes this safe. In addition, there are two universal safewords: “vomit” and “lawsuit”.)

- Dominants are strong, and are older. Submissives are weak, and are younger. (Spare me.)

- Switches, that is, people who enjoy both roles, don’t exist. (A position with which bisexuals may find it easy to sympathise.)

The eminent erotica editor Rachel Kramer Bussel writes that it’s patronising towards readers to think that they would use a novel as a sex manual. I disagree. It isn’t patronising to acknowledge that people for whom 50 Shades has been a revelation aren’t basking in a bubble of sex-positivity and self-acceptance. In a world in which a woman can be assaulted by her boyfriend for reading 50 Shades, and in which the Times advice column can recommend that a woman leaves her BDSM fantasy just that, a fantasy, it will take some people more effort and courage than others to seek out the educational resources available out there. It’s better than getting your sex ed straight out of Marquis de Sade, but I don’t envy the BDSM educators and community greeters their role in clearing away the misinformation introduced by EL James and helpfully propagated by the likes of Cosmopolitan.

Still worse, Grey’s lifestyle is used to justify behaviour that’s possessive, stalkerish and emotionally abusive. He berates Ana (who isn’t even his girlfriend at this stage) for arranging a trip to see her mother, he billows puffs of drama whenever she talks to another man, and his jealousy of her boss is so profound that he arranges to buy the company she works for. (I realised that this was what must be happening with the NHS privatisation: perhaps Ana wanted to be a surgeon, and Grey had to buy it.) He throws his toys out of the pram when, newly married, she chooses to keep her name at work - and this is in the third book of the trilogy, in the midst of their “happily ever after”. Yet, it is not this bad behaviour that gets shaken out of him by the force of Ana’s love and innocence, but his perfectly mundane spanking fetish.

A certain social ritual is expected to play out when a public figure gets dragged through the press for their sexual conduct. They must necessarily perform what the advice columnist Captain Awkward calls a “shame dance”: a display of (most likely) false contrition, a visible intention to not stray again. One of the reasons I deeply admire Max Mosley is that he chose to tell mainstream society where to stuff their disapprobation; you won’t hear him denounce BDSM or swear chastity.

Not so, Christian Grey. In order to keep Ana, he’s willing to swear off BDSM; the shock of her rejection gives him anxiety about entering his playroom again. So that the readers don’t expire of tedium, the author allows some sex props to drip back into the trilogy, but the hero is adamant that he will stay vanilla if he has to, because he’s been cured by the power of love.

At the end of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock converts to Christianity. For an Elizabethan audience, this was a happy ending, for now he could earn his way to heaven. This is not how Jewish people would see it. As Patrick Stewart took off the trappings of Judaic religious dress, and said the words bullied out of him by the victorious heroes, nobody could have been left under any illusion that what happened to his character was anything but spiritual rape.

Christian Grey is happy to denounce his sexual identity if Ana should ask this of him. To a reader from outside the BDSM lifestyle, this is the pinnacle of his love, a testament to his healing. To somebody who values their sexual identity - who has, perhaps, spent some years trying to come to terms with it - it’s a direct insult.

I’m sure we’re all looking to a faithful film adaptation.

Adele Haze is a fetish model and performer. Her website and blog are here. Or follow her on Twitter @AdeleHaze
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Thursday, 12 July 2012

On hating the Olympics

A lot of people have been getting rather upset over recent weeks - but especially over the past twenty-four hours - about certain aspects of the Olympics. Like the fact that spectators are being banned from bringing in "excessive quantities" of food, or T-shirts bearing political or commercial slogans, or large hats, or more than 100ml in liquid. Or news that a butcher in Dorset was told to remove a display of sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings from his window, on the grounds of copyright violation. Or the men arrested in a dinghy for sailing too close to the Olympic canoeing venue (later released without charge). Or the kid knocked off his bike for cycling too close to the sacred flame.

Or the banning of on-site caterers from serving chips in any non-piscatory context so as to preserve McDonalds' Olympic chip monopoly, even though McDonalds' do not and never have served "chips" with anything, preferring "regular" or "large" packets of something called "French fries", which neither look nor taste like what we earthlings call a chip.

Or the 13,500 troops that are being drafted in, turning the Olympic park into a version of Baghdad's Green Zone. Or the special lanes that have been set aside for Olympic officials and their limos. Or the missiles stationed on the roofs of local tower-blocks without so much as a by-your-leave: an outrage upheld by the High Court. Or the café that has had to stop calling itself the Olympic Café, as it has done for years, but the Lympic Café instead, which makes it sound like it trades in slightly dodgy herbal infusions. Or the suggestion that magazines have been warned not to use Olympic logos or Olympics-related codewords or offend the sponsors or risk being pulled peremptorily from the shelves of WH Smith. Or the fact that it will be difficult, for the duration, to get a train from Ramsgate.

"Olympic fascism," says Cranmer. "The Olympics belong to the world: they are the people's games."

"A horrible, illiberal mess," Tweeted David Allen Green. "The rapaciousness of intellectual property law joined with the tyrannic silliness of 'anti-terrorism'."

"What is being played out in London reflects a legacy of the war on terror and deregulation of unbridled corporate power – both elite blunders that have ended in failure," says Seumas Milne. (Although, as someone Tweeted me, Seumas hates everything except Noam Chomsky and Uncle Joe Stalin, so this doesn't come as too much of a surprise.)

The dissident ex-ambassador Craig Murray suggests that visitors from Gulf and Central Asian dictatorships will feel right at home in "martial law Britain", especially given the "contempt for the ordinary citizen" shown in the prioritising of all persons and things corporate, official or military.

To complete the left-right chorus of boos, Delingpole thinks that all these assaults on freedom of speech and movement in the name of security and corporate profits are somehow un-British.

We haven't been invaded and conquered since 1066... And we're, what, expected to give up our ancient freedoms in order to sate the Nero-like whims of a bunch of pampered, greasy, crypto-fascist sports administrators in return for the dubious privilege of forking out billions of our taxpayer pounds to watch our athletes get thrashed in all the serious track and field events, while only picking up gold for the really weird sports that no one cares about?

Un-British? Endless queuing? Endless grumbling? Gold-plated compliance by haughty bureaucrats with every dot and tittle of rules decreed by foreign officials? Jobsworths conducting petty and theatrical procedures in the name of security and health and safety? Exaggerated fear of supposed terrorists? Small entrepreneurs chewed up or ignored in the interests of big business? Government ministers and departments issuing infuriating, anodyne statements about "keeping London safe" and "delivering core legacy objectives"? Massive budgetary overruns? Waste and profligacy in procurement? Freebies for politicians?

Everybody complaining about it but going along with it anyway?

Un-British? Well, at least we can rely on the rain.

As a sports event, the Olympics is obviously overrated. It's too big and diffuse. It lacks a theme. It will never stir the heart the way the football World Cup can. Many of the sports are obscure, or boring, or both. The Olympic "ideal" was absurdly pretentious long before it became irrevocably linked to the vainglorious dreams of politicians or the self-interest of corporate sponsors. The notion of spectator sport as an engine of individual moral improvement, of the harmony of nations and of economic growth or as a cure for national couch-potatodom was always unrealistic, as a recent report from Theos (pdf) set out. There was always an air of pure bollocks about the Games, as these words from Baron Pierre de Coubertin make plain:

O Sport, You are Peace!
You forge happy bonds between the peoples

by drawing them together in reverence for strength

which is controlled, organised and self disciplined.

Through you the young of the entire world
learn to respect one another,
and thus the diversity of national traits becomes a source of generous and peaceful emulation!

He said that in 1912. Two years later he turned out to have been a trifle over-optimistic.

The sentiment continues to be trotted out, however, and when applied to what is now a festival of purest commercial self-interest is bound to enrage. Two articles in the Guardian earlier this year gave a more realistic picture of what is going on. On the one hand,

what many legal experts consider to be the most stringent restrictions ever put in place to protect sponsors' brands and broadcasting rights, affecting every athlete, Olympics ticket holder and business in the UK.

and on the other

London is also being wired up with a new range of scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints. These will intensify the sense of lockdown in a city which is already a byword across the world for remarkably intensive surveillance.

The gigantic security budget, though, is part of a trend: in the midst of auserity and global recession, the past few years have seen an unpredented boom for the "loose confederation of defence, IT and biotechnology industries" that make up the domestic security sector. The Olympics operation belongs in the same realm as the government's monstrous proposals for email surveillance, now the subject of lacklustre Parliamentary scrutiny. As for the draconian protections - many legally novel and outrageous - enacted in the interests of corporate sponsors, these too are scarcely out of keeping with zealous copyright laws that see a young British student facing extradition to the United States for offences allegedly committed in his own bedroom.

The Olympics merely provide a uniquely public and unavoidable demonstration of the world, and the country, we have become.

(Or as a brilliant Tweet from Rob Lyons summarised it, after this went up, "All modern Britain's bullshit, turned up to 11.")
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Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Melinda and the Pope

Some interesting thoughts from Melinda Gates, who is in London to promote contraception, especially in the third world:

Gates, who was a speaker at the London Summit on Family Planning organised by her foundation in conjunction with the UK government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said that since she announced her new direction a few weeks ago she had been inundated with messages of support from Catholic women, including nuns.

"A church is made up of its members, and one of the things this campaign might do is help women speak out. I've had thousands of women come on to websites and say" 'I'm a Catholic, but I believe in contraception.' It's going to be women voting with their feet."

The identity of the "nuns" who are supporting her isn't revealed, but their existence isn't altogether inconceivable given the recent travails of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the USA.

As for Catholic women in general, it's no secret that many use artificial contraception despite their church's 45-year ban on its use. The degree to which their conscience is troubled by ignoring church teaching must vary. Gates' own Catholicism comes into play here in an especially pointed way, however, because this doesn't merely involve her private life. She is spearheading a campaign, and spending a great deal of money, promoting something that the leadership of her church continues to regard as sinful. She was asked about this apparent conflict of interest:

Of course I wrestled with this. As a Catholic I believe in this religion, there are amazing things about this religion, amazing moral teachings that I do believe in, but I also have to think about how we keep women alive. I believe in not letting women die, I believe in not letting babies die, and to me that's more important than arguing about what method of contraception [is right].

Now if you were, say, the Pope, you would probably have two things to say in response to that. First, that the Truth remains the Truth regardless of how many people believe in it, and that sin remains sin however many Catholics indulge in it. Catholic doctrine isn't a popularity contest. It isn't a matter of votes and debates, as in the General Synod of the Church of England. The deposit of the Faith shall stand for all eternity, et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam. That's the first thing.

And the second thing is this. The whole of the faith is a self-sustaining mechanism. As Tim Stanley wrote recently, "its theology is like a delicate spider’s web: remove one strand and the entire structure would collapse. It can’t be done." The ban on contraception isn't just an eccentric add-on, but flows from and expresses the church's understanding of the sacredness of life, the need for Catholics to defend and preserve be open to the creation of life. So by saying that she wants to be able to pick and choose "amazing things" to believe in, Melinda Gates is saying, in effect, that she doesn't want to be a Catholic. Catholic means "universal". There's no such thing as a-la carte Catholicism. If you think there is, you've misunderstood the whole idea.

If you accept this, then you're faced with a choice: either it's all true, or none of it is. Richard Dawkins understood this clearly, when he wrote many years ago:

The newspapers are full of snivelling modern Catholics, whingeing over the fact that the Pope [John Paul II] stands up for his Catholic principles, demands obedience to himself and forbids contraception, abortion, homosexuality, embryological research and sexual enjoyment. They complain that he is illiberal, patronising, bossy, meddling, intolerant, bigoted, misogynistic, old-fashioned, dictatorial and ignorant. But what on earth do they expect? That is what the Church they have bought into is about. It always has been. If you don't like it, leave!

But it's not that simple. People like Melinda Gates exist in their millions. Most of them didn't ask to be Catholics: they were brought up that way, and, like Gates, relate to a great deal of it. They think and act more like Anglicans, in that obedience to the entirety of church teaching is less important to them than the basic principles of Christianity: they are Christians who happen to be Catholic. For them, being Catholic isn't primarily about signing up to what it says in the Catechism but belonging to families, communities, familiar and well-loved traditions. Millions live in countries where you have to make a considerable effort not to be a Catholic, at least nominally. And why should they leave?

It doesn't necessarily matter if bishops believe one thing and a large proportion of massgoers something else. But it matters a great deal if the bishops, as they have in the United States, claim to speak on behalf of Catholics as a group, and to threaten politicians accordingly, for example in their campaign against the Obama adminstration's contraception mandate. Through her philanthropic activities, Melinda Gates may help improve the lives of millions of women in Africa. She may also go a long way to restoring the credibility of Catholicism in the modern world.
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Monday, 9 July 2012

Gaslighting: or emotional manipulation in action

This unintentionally (I assume) self-referential piece of garbage comes from Hugo Schwyzer:

By now, you've probably heard of "gaslighting," the increasingly popular term for the various ways in which men convince women that they're "crazy," "over-reacting," or "hysterical." Gaslighting's goal is simple: Get you to tone down that oh-so-scary lady rage that frightens the menfolk. But there's another kind of gaslighting that's almost as common and which serves the same purpose. Call it the "I'm such an asshole" speech or call it strategic self-deprecation, the end goal is always the same: deflect women's anger.

Schwyzer's claim is that men use the cultural meme that "all men are useless", beloved of advertisers and the educational establishment, as an excuse for their poor behaviour, or to garner female sympathy, or to avoid doing the housework. Maybe even to get laid. It's an argument that will presumably go down well with Jezebel's target audience of hip liberal feminists. For what does his argument amount to, other than a repackaging of the very "we men are awful" manoeuvre that he purports to explain and critique?

What's frustrating, writes Schwyzer, observing the tendency of some men to play up to the "useless man" stereotype, at least in their dealings with women:

is that a lot of that self-criticism isn't about copping to a need to change. Rather, this disparagement of men in general and the self in particular has two enduring aims: To lower women's expectations and to defuse women's anger. It's more successful at accomplishing the former.

Assume that this is true, or at least that Schwyzer believes it to be true. What does it say about him, that he's writing it for an audience of women? Surely he can't be attempting to get women to nod along with his views, to post favourable comments, to share his article, to think more favourably of him, by revealing one of the many ways in which men are shit? Surely he can't be "gaslighting"?

Referring to men who (unlike him, obviously) have nefarious motives for telling women that men are useless, or biologically incapable of fidelity, or multitasking, or whatever it happens to be, Schwyzer laments:

These guys figure that if they say truly awful things about themselves, they'll force their partners to cease the search for legitimate discussion and turn to the more traditionally feminine role of soothing male anxiety. "I'm such an asshole, I don't know why you stay with me." It often works, particularly on a woman who wants to believe she can show the guy she loves a side of himself he has never seen.

...The trajectory of these arguments is always the same. Dude progresses quickly from denial to defensiveness to, finally, brutal self-deprecation. He may blame his shortcomings on women's unrealistic expectations (inflated, he might claim, by feminism). He may blame the absence of strong male role models in his own life. Whether he means what he's saying is almost irrelevant, because whether it's real or feigned, the goal is always the same: To get the woman who's on his case to back off and swallow her own anger.

For Schwyzer, such self-deprecation is manipulation. He admits, in passing, the possibility that some men "genuinely believe (or pretend to believe) that males in general... are inferior to women." But which is it? There's all the difference in the world, after all, between genuinely believing something and pretending to do so. And while Schwyzer notes that it "isn't clear to what degree young men themselves buy into the idea of men in decline", he shows little or no interest in discovering the truth, even by way of introspection, concentrating instead on the assumption that men who badmouth their own sex in front of women must have some sneaky ulterior motive for doing so. Except, presumably, for Hugo Schwyzer himself.

Why is he so uninterested in the possibility that a large number of men actually have bought into the pervasive "men are useless" theme in modern culture? It is, after all, not difficult to see how a negative self-image might arise. This may be a deeply patriarchal and misogynist society (like Afghanistan, really, though with fewer public executions of "adulterous" women), in which men have all the power and most of the money. Yet Diane Abbott can declare on Any Questions that there should be women bishops and more women bankers because "they would make better decisions" and get loud applause for saying so. I don't think everyone who joined in that applause was a woman; nor indeed that every man who joined in was doing so out of a desire to be excused the washing-up. Imagine, though, what reaction would have greeted a male panellist who pronounced that only men could be bishops because women wouldn't be up to the job, or that however bad things were in the economy at least the big decisions were still safe in the hands of level-headed, analytical, authoritative men.

What generalisations men might make about women in all-male groups, or for that matter what women say about men in all-female groups, is of no concern here. In mixed company, and in public, the double standard is striking. Women are allowed to say that men are useless; men are expected to agree; women are frowned upon for suggesting that women are in any capacity inferior; a man who even hinted such a thing would be drummed out of town.

At the same time we all have to agree that men still have all the "privilege".

It seems to me that a great many people, women and men, have internalised these contradictory beliefs. Why would praying in aid the "useless man" stereotype work as a tactic in domestic situations, if women weren't already convinced of its truth? But Schwyzer's own argument goes even further, not just by adding manipulativeness and mendacity to the list of "masculine" vices (traits associated in traditional sexist discourse with women, of course) but by portraying them as a tactic for maintaining power over women.

Here he overreaches himself (or does he?) Women, on this analysis, are still men's victims, gullibly falling for male excuses of incompetence or emotional illiteracy. They are no match for men's mastery of the language of emotional manipulation. The poor things are helpless. They need... they need a man to look out for them, a decent man on their side to warn them of the evil tactics employed by other men. Step forward Hugo Schwyzer.
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Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Army: Use it and Lose it

It used to be the case that our army just sat there; or it sat somewhere else, mostly in Germany. In Northern Ireland, soldiers patrolled the streets in a quasi-policing capacity, partly because, unpopular though the British army was with the Nationalist community, it was less unpopular than the RUC. But there weren't any wars worth fighting. The army was there, just in case: just in case the Russians invaded West Germany (never a particularly likely prospect) or just in case something rare and improbable occurred, such as Argentina invading the Falkland Islands. Once the Islands were recaptured, it was assumed, the army could go back to sitting around waiting. It was good at that.

That's what you want an army for, ideally: to sit around, to be there just in case something awful happens. There was another army, the Territorials, that didn't even sit around. It was a sort of Combined Cadet Force for grown-ups, enabling youngish professional types to indulge their inner Rambo at the weekends, a more socially acceptable paintball. Few TA members actually expected to be called up for actual fighting. It was a terrible shock to many of them when they were. Because that wasn't really part of the deal. Legally, yes, but not implicitly. Because if you have an slightly overstaffed army whose primary purpose is to sit around waiting for something to happen that almost never does, the prospect of the nation calling on its reserves is faintly preposterous. The army are the reserves.

But not any more. Somehow, this country got into the disastrous situation of having a shrinking, overstretched, almost manically over-engaged army dependent upon reservists to cover basic functions. Somehow, we got to have an army that actually did things, despite having neither the numbers nor the financial resources to do them. This was not a good idea. For any modern country that isn't the United States and which isn't a military dictatorship, the cost of maintaining the army in a state of readiness and technological capacity is only supportable if it isn't being used. If the ammunition and missile stocks aren't constantly being depleted through use, if the soldiers aren't being flown around distant theatres of battle, needing to be fed and treated for injuries, if aircraft aren't flying expensive sorties. It's not a case of "use it or lose it". It's more a case of not being able to have your cake and eat it.

A fearsome-looking military makes a great deterrent. But the chief value of a deterrent lies in its not being used. The nuclear "deterrent" would be disastrous for all concerned were it ever actually to be employed. An army isn't quite like that: it does need to be used from time to time, because vital national interests are occasionally threatened. It's like the fire brigade, whose effectiveness does not depend on there being a certain number of fires to put out. But with the possible exception of Argentina, modern Britain has no more natural enemies than does Switzerland. The French aren't going to invade us, nor are the Germans. We are too far away for the Iranians to bother attacking us. Now that Northern Ireland is more-or-less settled, with Martin McGuinness making the time-honoured transition (so much seen in the declining days of the British Empire) from terrorist rebel to having tea with the Queen, our army ought to be sitting around playing soldiers. We don't, come to think of it, really need to have an army at all, except perhaps as a marketing tool for BAe.

I blame Tony Blair for this. Yes, there was the Falklands, an unavoidable diversion that was over in a few weeks. And there was Gulf War I, again a short, necessary response to an act of international aggression, swiftly remedied. But after those interludes, the army returned swiftly to its peacetime role of dolce far niente. But then Blair came along and had the quite disastrous thought that the army should justify its existence by being fighting as many wars as possible, while at the same time being cut to the bone to pay for grandiose and ruinous PFI schemes. So we entered the modern phase of over-extended, over-used and underfunded armed forces, dependent upon civilian reservists to fulfil basic operating functions, churning out physical and mental casualties that both the government and much of the public would rather forget about.

Today's announcement that the army is to be cut by 20% wouldn't be so bad if it were to be accompanied by a determination to stop fighting wars, to return to the peacetime status quo. The fact that a reduced military must perforce do less might, of itself, help to reduce the current (and historically anomalous) political mania for foreign intervention. Alas, it will probably take more than that. Unless there's a big change in the way politicians and the press think about the army, a smaller force will find itself deployed overseas almost as much, there will be more unconscionable pressure on regular troops and reservists alike, and the overstretch will be even greater.

Here's Con Coughlin, for example, complaining about the proposed cuts:

I very much doubt he [Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary] has given any serious consideration to the Army's ability to deal with the many threats to our national security we are likely to face in the years ahead....

In the past decade it has twice been necessary for Britain to deploy a division-strength military force, to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. And on both occasions it was necessary to maintain a sizeable military presence for many years while efforts were made to stabilise the security situation.

But whatever the politicians and top brass say about the new, highly flexible and adaptable Army that is envisaged in the proposals outlined by Mr Hammond today, the Army's ability to sustain demanding military operations over any length of time will be severely curtailed.

To which I say: good. It was not "necessary" for Britain to deploy either to Iraq or to Afghanistan, and curtailing the army's ability to sustain operations over time would be a small price to pay for such operations to be avoided. Of course, it would be even nicer to have the capability and not to use it. That worked fine in the past. But post-Blair such sensible counsels do longer prevail. The only way to avoid using the army, sadly, is to not have one. Which is why I think these latest cuts go nowhere near far enough.
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