Friday, 31 August 2012

Happy Birthday Caligula

Today marks the 2000th birthday of Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula ("Little Boots"), the "mad" Roman emperor made famous in the modern world by Robert Graves and, later, Tinto Brass. As Penelope Goodman notes, this historic anniversary hasn't been marked by great celebrations or, indeed, by anything much at all, an Australian TV documentary and an article in History Today being about the sum of it. Which seems strange. Perhaps a mad emperor best known for making his horse a consul, sleeping with his sister and inspiring a 1970s porn film might not seem to be much of a cause for celebration. But while the man himself reigned for only three years and left little that could be described as a lasting legacy he remains one of relatively few personalities of the ancient world of whom most people have heard.

Of course it is the Caligula of Robert Graves, portrayed so unforgettably by John Hurt in the classic BBC adaptation, that people have heard of, rather than the Caligula of history, about whom relatively little is known and that little may be unreliable. But it's surprising that, for example, Film 4 hasn't taken the opportunity to screen the 1979 film starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud, which would not only provide an opportunity for showing some late-night filth but also serve as a tribute to Gore Vidal, who wrote much of the screenplay.

And even in debunking the myths one still has to retell them. Take the most famous Caligula legend of all, the consular horse. It offers a compelling image of the madness of power, and also a modern political cliché: that the preferment of an unpromising candidate represents "the strangest political appointment since Caligula made his horse consul". As far as I can tell, the phrase was first used on the appointment of Tom Inskip, rather than Winston Churchill, as defence minister in 1936 (though with "most cynical" rather than "strangest") and the originator was either Churchill himself or his friend Professor Frederick Lindemann. But it has since been used many times, for example of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's choice of running mate for the 1968 presidential election, and of John Redwood's appointment of Secretary of State for Wales.

The horse did exist. It was a famous racehorse named Incitatus. According to Suetonius,

He used to send his soldiers on the day before the games and order silence in the neighbourhood, to prevent the horse Incitatus from being disturbed. Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he planned to make him consul.

That Caligula was said to be planning to make the horse Consul does not mean that he was, of course: it's more likely to have been a joke at the emperor's expense, the point perhaps being that he seemed more interested in pampering a racehorse than in the serious business of government. Or maybe it was Caligula's own joke, an ironic celebration of his autocratic power ("I could make my horse consul, and there's nothing anyone could do to stop me!") or aimed at the Senate ("My horse would make a better consul than any of you lot!"). He played a similar joke on a Senator who ostentatiously promised to give his life if the emperor recovered from an illness, hoping to rewarded for this extreme declaration of loyalty. Caligula recovered, and forced the senator to fulfil his vow. At any rate, Incitatus never did become consul, so far as anyone can establish. But sometimes fiction contains more "truth" than reality.

What Suetonius does say is alarming enough. He alleges that Gaius, whose father was the beloved general Germanicus, murdered his way to the throne, slept with all three of his sisters and demanded to be worshipped as a god. He forced the wives of senators to have sex with him, enjoyed watching prisoners being tortured to death and famously wished that the Roman people had only one neck. He was the third emperor, but the first who really experimented with the possibilities of autocratic power. Augustus was an adept politician who pretended that Rome was still a republic, while Tiberius seems to have been a reluctant despot. Caligula acted as though there were no restraints, constitutional or moral, on his behaviour, and eventually discovered that there were. He was murdered within four years by a conspiracy of senators and guards.

Being assassinated is not the best career endorsement, it is true. But the same fate befell Julius Caesar, and was later to befall Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, without their posthumous repuations suffering too much harm.

Perhaps Caligula, too, deserves a more balanced assessment. Suetonius was writing, like all ancient authors, from the point of the elite, who observed his rock star behaviour at close hand and were forced to pay new and burdensome taxes to subsidise his extravagance. We are told that he emptied the treasury within a year, spending the money on entertainments for the masses but also on building projects such as aqueducts. Bread and circuses, but also bread and jobs. After twenty years of austerity under Tiberius, Caligula was wildly popular, and remained popular throughout his reign. So he must have been doing something right. It would be too much to suggest that he was a Robin Hood, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, but his "extravagances" were redistributive. He was a "tax and spend" emperor who managed to give at least a short term boost to the economy.

Happy birthday then to Gaius Caesar, Bootikins, mad, bad and a pioneering Keynesian.

Here's some more of John Hurt.

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Monday, 27 August 2012

Lion Hunting in Essex

For people to see mystery big cats in Britain is not so unusual. Such sightings have been a staple of the August "silly season" for at least fifty years, ever since the "Surrey puma" of the mid 1960s. "Our newspapermen report each big cat episode with a kind of playful excitement," wrote Michael Goss in Folklore some twenty years ago. "They show no great desire to investigate the matter; they simply collect what everyone else has to say about it, from eyewitness to police spokesman to zoo expert... If a story is a good story, then its 'goodness' justifies it being told - or, to supply a terse formula for the same journalistic philosophy, if it's good, then that's good enough."

Today's story of a "lion" on the loose in Essex, which had already gone global by the time police called off the search shortly before 3 O'Clock this afternoon, was certainly a "good story", if a rather hackneyed one. What gave it such a high profile, though, was the seriousness with which the local police appeared to be taking the reports; a seriousness that now turns out to have been entirely unjustified.

At around 7pm yesterday, Essex police were contacted by a four middle-aged caravanners - a brother and sister and their respective spouses - who told them that they had seen and photographed a lioness in a field at St Osyth, a village in northeast Essex about 5 miles west of Clacton-on-Sea. A couple of hours later, the force issued a public warning urging people to stay indoors while the beast was hunted down. "Police are working with experts from Colchester Zoo who can tranquilise the animal when it is found," said an official constabulary Tweet. Around thirty officers, accompanied by staff from the zoo, were drafted into the nocturnal search, armed with thermal imaging equipment. A police helicopter was also used to help the impromptu lion hunt.

When reports first surfaced on Twitter, I was immediately sceptical. I commented that "Surely if there were a lion loose in Essex someone would have reported it missing". Much of last night's reaction was satirical or amused - for example, the creation of a number of Twitter accounts in the name of the lion, the most prominent being @EssexLion. But not everyone was dismissive. The lion sightings had, after all, been given considerable credence by the police. According to media reports, moreover, zoo experts were convinced that the photographs they had seen did indeed show a lion.

By this morning, with the creature apparently still at large, the police were urging people to "be extra vigilant and cautious". An official statement encouraged anyone seeing the lioness to ring 999. But this afternoon a new statement appeared, announcing that the police now believed that "what was seen on Sunday evening was either a large domestic cat or a wildcat. Extensive searches have been carried out, areas examined and witnesses spoken to; yet nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area." The police offered no apology for any public alarm their warnings might have caused.

Was there ever anything to suggest the presence of an actual lion?

The police stressed this morning that "Public safety is our priority, which is why we are taking the sighting and all associated evidence seriously." Public safety is indeed important. But it's not in itself a reason to bandy around implausible claims for which there is no corroborating evidence. Essex is not natural lion country. So the question that Essex Police should have asked themselves was not "does the picture look like a lion?" but "have any lions been reported missing?" The answer to that question was a clear No. Colchester Zoo soon confirmed that all its lions had been accounted for. Indeed, one would hope that any zoo escaping from a zoo or wildlife park would be missed long before it turned up in a field twelve miles away. Initial reports suggested that a circus - one of the last in Britain to use wild animals in its act - had been in the area a fortnight ago. But it soon emerged that the circus had no lions, only tigers, and that none of its tigers was missing.

It's astonishing that Essex Police should plough vast resources into a lion hunt without establishing that there was, in fact, a missing lion. Their first step, having eliminated the zoo and the circus, should have been to check with all known lion owners, who should be registered under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1974. There are said to be twelve privately-held lions in the whole of the UK, so it should not been too time-consuming to check that they are all accounted for.

The Mail suggested that the Essex Lion "could be an illegally owned animal", which was, indeed, the only possibility (unless it had materialised from some other dimension in space and time; there are those who believe that "alien big cats" are paranormal in origin). But there's no evidence that anyone is illegally keeping lions in the UK. In his account, Goss notes that both the "escaped exotic pet" and the "escaped from the circus" theory are "motifs commonly invoked in alien big cat stories - a piece of rationalising attached to explain the otherwise incredible."

The police might nevertheless have been justified in taking the claims seriously had the photographs given to the police shown unequivocally an image of a lion, taken locally.

Early reports suggested that the image had indeed been positively identifed by experts. But this later fell apart. Colchester Zoo's Anthony Tropeano, who analysed the pictures for the police, later described them as being "of such poor quality it's not possible for us to say one way or the other what it definitely is." Meanwhile, Sarah Forsyth, who also works for Colchester Zoo, told the Guardian that in her opinion the photo showed a large dog.

With no reports of missing lions in the vicinity (or, indeed, anywhere in the country), a massive lion-hunt looks like a gross overreaction to a couple of ambiguous and grainy holiday snaps.

The photographs were not released. Instead, the Mail website featured a picture of a lion which had been circulating on Twitter, "believed to be" the Clacton Lion - despite the fact that it clearly shows a male lion, taken at night, whereas the lion-spotters described seeing a lioness in broad daylight. According to Jonathan Haynes, the Guardian's Web news editor, the picture in question had in fact been circulating for more than a year. It purported to show a lion that had escaped from London Zoo during last year's summer riots, but was in fact a fake.

This sort of confusion is only to be expected. In the absense of actual pictures, a fake picture emerged to meet the demand for visual proof.

UPDATE: When the pictures did finally emerge (see, for example, here) what they showed was so obviously not a lion the police reaction seems even harder to justify. It's difficult to believe that experts from Colchester Zoo would have positively identified them as any sort of big cat.

What of the eye-witness reports? There were a number of sightings (anywhere between two and six) but they are far from consistent. The initial report came from the caravanning couples. Denise Martin said that she had seen "a shape in a field", a tan-coloured creature with a white chest which "looked like a lion":

We weren't scared at all - it was excitement. You don't often see something like that in the wild. One time it sat up and looked at us and we could see its ears twitching. It knew we were there and it sat down and started cleaning itself.

Her sister-in-law, Sue Wright, added that the couples had watched the lion for about half an hour before it wandered off. "The moment I saw it, straight away I said 'That looks like a lioness'."

A lioness, of course, differs from a male lion in that she lacks a mane.

Another report came from Rich Baker, a van driver from Romford, who was out walking with his two sons.

A man started running towards us yelling 'It’s a f****** lion!' He looked so panicked you knew it was not a joke. The lion you could see it from the side. I grabbed my children’s hands and we ran towards our caravan. My children started to scream, “daddy, is the lion going to get us?” It was one million per cent a lion. It was a tan colour with a big mane, it was fully grown, it was definitely a lion. It was just standing there, it seemed to be enjoying itself. There were a dozen or so people who saw it.

What happened to the dozen other witnesses isn't clear. But the full-maned creature that Mr Baker claims to have seen cannot have been the lioness reported by the Martins and the Wrights. Perhaps there were two escaped lions - or an entire pride. Then there was Rob Hull, a barman, who had already heard about the lion via Facebook and Twitter when he saw it "ambling laconically along by the lake in the field, like it didn’t have a care in the world." And Che Kevin, who was sitting with his wife "in the front room playing backgammon at around 10pm" when he heard a "very loud roar. It was incredibly odd to hear something like that at that time of night."

There are lots of things, both animal and mechanical, that might "roar" in the night. But when you know that the police are warning people to keep a look-out for an escaped lion, you may well interpret an unexpected sound as a roaring lion.

So that's the Essex Lion of 2012: a few misidentified photographs; an animal - probably a big dog - seen in the distance; a handful of inconsistent, indeed, incompatible, eyewitness accounts, some reported by people who were actually expecting to see a lion. It's easy to write it off as just another silly season yarn. But what really fuelled the story was the attitude of the police, who instead of calmly and rationally weighing up the likelihood of there being an unreported escaped lion on the loose in Essex indulged in misleading and irresponsible scaremongering.

And this matters, not simply because of the waste of resources in this particular case, but for what it says about police attitudes more generally. A lion is an obvious and dramatic threat. It's easy to imagine the worst-case scenario: a member of the public being devoured by a lion. This may have outweighed any rational calculations as to its likelihood to a police force anxious to neutralise any conceivable threat, however far-fetched. It's the same mentality that led the police to shoot Jean Charles de Menezes because he might just have been a suicide bomber, and which leads to security theatre at airports or to stationing anti-aircraft missiles on tower blocks during the Olympic Games.

Many will blame the media for getting over-excited. And they do. But the coverage was in the main fairly tongue-in-cheek. When official police sources warn the public to stay indoors overnight, when helicopters are scrambled and dozens of officers are seconded to the search for the animal, it's only natural to assume that reports are based on something more substantial than wild rumour. When the police announce that they are "working with experts ... who can tranquilise the animal when it is found" you could be forgiven for assuming that existence of the lion is not in doubt. When the police urge anyone who has seen a lion to immediately phone 999 it's not surprising that people start seeing lions.
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Thursday, 23 August 2012

The naked prince and the naked rambler

In Las Vegas, Prince Harry is photographed cavorting naked with a young woman (and no doubt other naked people too) during a drunken game of strip pool in a hotel room. In deference to palace sensibilities and post-Leveson fears, no British newspaper dares publish the photos or even put them on their website, though there can be few people who haven't seen them elsewhere. Not that many people would want to see them for themselves: we look at them because we want to have seen them, which is a different thing altogether. Meanwhile the Sun instructs its picture editor and a young female intern to get their kit off to recreate the scene, which reminds me of the time Rebekah Brooks ordered a reporter to dress up as Harry Potter.

Much hilarity ensued, but only a small amount of po-faced finger-wagging. If anything, by larking about in the altogether Harry was playing to his strengths. It's not as though he matters, after all. If William and Kate are blessed with children his constitutional irrelevance will be complete. And if a 28 year old man takes his clothes off in the company of other consenting adults, who cares?

It's only a naked body. We've all got one of those. If you're a distinguished actor you may well have displayed it to all the world in the name of art. This is the 21st century.

Meanwhile the "naked rambler" Stephen Gough was back in court again today. It didn't take long for him to be convicted, for the umpteenth time in Scotland, for breaching the peace by walking about in his preferred state of undress. Gough has spent most of the past six years in prison since making the mistake of bringing his naked frame north of the border, where a Presbyterian horror of the body lingers despite repeated SNP claims that Scotland is a mature, progressive democracy ready for full independence. His refusal to compromise his belief that it is his human right not to wear clothes has been matched by the Scottish judicial system's refusal to accommodate his eccentricity. Most of his time behind bars has been spent in solitary confinement.

A pattern became established over the years whereby Gough would be arrested, would be sent to prison for refusing to wear clothes, released for long enough to stride, naked, out of the prison gates and then promptly re-arrested and put back inside. After his most recent release he was allowed to go free. But his liberty was short-lived. A week later he was arrested once more, allegedly because he was walking in the vicinity of a playground, and promptly remanded in custody where he has remained ever since. Today the Kirkcaldy sheriff ordered psychiatric reports - perhaps believing that his unwillingness to wear clothes could only be explained as the result of a mental disorder - but told him that "in the absence of any good reason otherwise, you're going to end up serving prison sentence after prison sentence."

Because clearly the fact that six years in solitary confinement have in no way altered Gough's determination to walk around naked doesn't constitute a good enough reason for ignoring him and letting him go on his way.

Gough's case is simple: "there is nothing about me as a human being that is indecent or alarming or offensive." He poses no danger to society. He has never physically attacked anyone or interfered with property, nor has he used insulting language: his "crime" is to upset the sensibilities of prudes, of whom there are obviously a large number in Scotland. His continued detention spares the blushes of whatever members of the public would be offended by the sight of his nakedness. That is all.

Is nudity "indecent"? Only if you assume, as Anglo-Saxon prudes tend to do, that nudity implies sex. There are other reasons for being naked that have little to do with sex - taking part in a game of strip-billiards, for example - and, in Britain as a whole, laughter has largely replaced shock-horror as the default response to nudity. Perhaps the Scots are especially sensitive souls, though I find that difficult to believe. It's hard to escape the view that Gough's real crime is not so much outraging public decency as refusing to conform. Keeping him upholds the majesty of the law which Gough's defiance challenges, at a cost to the taxpayer of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Considering the trivial nature of his "crime" - basically, being unconventional and stubborn - the severity, expense and sheer pointlessness of his punishment is a scandal. Yet unlike Pussy Riot, who whatever their credentials as political dissidents deliberately provoked religious indignation by performing a foul-mouthed parody hymn at the altar of Moscow's most prominent cathedral, his continuing punishment does not seem to be the occasion for international protest. The EU has not seen fit to condemn the indefinite imprisonment in solitary confinement of one of its citizens for no real crime. Hillary Clinton has made no statement on the case. Pussy Riot have Madonna and Paul McCartney to be outspoken in their support. Stephen Gough has... Sean Biggerstaff, an actor best known for his portrayal of a quidditch player in the first two Harry Potter films.
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Monday, 20 August 2012

Todd Akin: an undiscovered feminist?

Until this weekend, few people outside Missouri had heard of Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican senatorial candidate for that state. But he's ensured a brief brush with international celebrity through that time-honoured political manoeuvre of opening his mouth and pushing his size-fifteen boots through it. What Akin said, if you haven't heard, is that where a woman is "legitimately" raped, her body will shut down, making it unlikely that she will get pregnant. Therefore, he concluded - for this statement formed part of a pro-life argument - there's no reason why rape victims who become pregnant should have access to abortion. The fact that they got pregnant, after all, shows that they were not genuine rape-victims at all.

Or at least it shows that they are unlikely to be genuine rape victims. "It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors," he told a local TV reporter, "that’s really rare."

Akin later apologised, saying that he "misspoke" and expressing "the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year." He does not, however, seem to have repudiated his claim about "legitimate" rape victims' bodies "shutting down" to prevent pregnancy.

Naturally a lot of the attention has focused on the phrase "legitimate" rape, by which of course he means not rape that is "legitimate" - not even a Republican politician from Missouri is likely to go so far as to argue that some rapes are legitimate - but "proper" rape, violent stranger rape, the sort of thing that Whoopi Goldberg, defending Polanski, notoriously called "rape-rape". Even if you don't take the fundamentalist position that there can be no distinction at all between different rapes, Akin's use of language here is strikingly provocative. But I want to consider instead the underlying claim that a rape-victim's body will "shut down".

It's not clear which doctors Akin has been speaking to. Dr Jen Gunter suggests that he may have got the idea from the anti-abortion group Physicians for Life. A statement on their website begins by distinguishing between "forced rape" and statutory rape (ie under-age sex), acknowledging that "[all] forced rape is still rape, regardless of whether it occurs on a date or behind the bushes." That at least is a reasonable distinction to make. So let's be generous and assume that by "legitimate rape" Akin was merely distinguishing (very clumsily) between unlawful but consenting sex and coercive, non-consenting sex. According to Physicians For Life, pregnancy among rape victims is "extremely rare", with "no more than one or two pregnancies resultant from every 1000 forced rapes." The group draws this conclusion from Department of Justice figures on the incidence of rape.

PFL lists a whole lot of reasons why a woman might not get pregnant after being raped among which is "psychic trauma":

Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get and stay pregnant a woman's body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There's no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, and implantation.

No scientific evidence is offered for this statement. Three papers are listed, two of them by Sandra Mahkorn, a doctor and pro-life campaigner. They do not seem directly relevant - in one of them, Mahkorn interviewed 37 women who had become pregnant through rape, of whom the majority continued with the pregnancy. This was in 1979. The third paper, by AN Groth (from 1977), examined "the sexual performance of the rapist during assault and its relation to the medical evidence of sexual penetration." Which also has nothing to do with a woman's biological response to rape. Says Dr Gunter:

Put another way, the Physicians for Life have not provided a single published article to support their claims. Interestingly, Physicians for Life also promote the long disproven claim that abortion causes breast cancer.

Of course, Rep. Akin might not be relying on Physicians For Life but instead have been talking to other experts, for example Dr Samuel Farr, who in 1814 was still repeating a medieval theory that

...without an excitation of lust, or the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place. So that if an absolute rape were to be perpetrated, it is not likely she would become pregnant.

(For more on this, there's a good round-up on Guardian Science blogs)

Incidentally, the theory that a woman needed to enjoy sex in order to conceive began to fall from favour during the 18th century, at a time when the old view that women were the more "lustful" sex began to give way to the modern belief that men are perpetually horny and women are demure creatures who can take it or leave it. In Victorian times, excessive sexual desire in women was given the medical term "nymphomania" and seen as requiring treatment; these days, it lingers in an attenuated form in the belief that men want sex but women want relationships - seen, for example, in Stephen Fry's comments in 2010:

I feel sorry for straight men. The only reason women will have sex with them is that sex is the price they are willing to pay for a relationship with a man, which is what they want.

The good news for women in the older theory was that it gave men who wanted to impregnate their wives an incentive to make an effort, whereas in Victorian times a husband could just instruct his spouse to lie still and think of England ("ladies don't move"). Only whores got pleasure out of sex, it was widely assumed, a position that is, of course, the inverse of the official position among today's feminist establishment that commercial sex can by definition be pleasurable only for the customer.

By the same token, Akin's wacko belief that forced sex cannot result in pregnancy (because the body "shuts down") does at least have the benefit of being ever so slightly feminist. And yes, he is of course coming from a position of extreme anti-feminism, but the idea of a woman's body "shutting down" after rape would, were there any evidence for it, help to dispose of the highly inconvenient theory put forward some years ago by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer that rape can be viewed as a reproductive strategy. The idea caused a storm, largely because people who couldn't tell the difference between Ought and Is assumed that to say that rape was "natural" was somehow to condone it. It also offended against the orthodox view that rape is a crime of power, not of sex, even that "rape is not sex", a nonsensical slogan that is nevertheless endlessly repeated.

So what does the evidence actually say? Briefly, that Akin was wholly wrong. Not only does rape not cause a woman's body to "shut down", conception after rape might actually be more likely than conception after normal consensual sex. A 2003 paper in Human Nature by Jonathan and Tiffani Gottschall concluded, after studying the data in detail, that "per-incident rape-pregnancy rates exceed per-incident consensual pregnancy rates by a sizable margin, even before adjusting for the use of relevant forms of birth control." Indeed, a single act of rape might be more than twice as likely to make a woman pregnant as a single act of consensual sex.

Quite why that should be so was unclear. One of the Gottschalls' suggestions was that "women feel more attractive and sexy when ovulating, and unconsciously give off signals that rapists might pick up" (which sounds to me worryingly close to the "short skirt" defence) or that "rapists target attractive and healthy-looking women - both characteristics that can indicate fertility." Again, that doesn't strike me as very convincing. But this is all speculative.

To many, the Thornhill and Palmer theory that rape is a "reproductive strategy" was offensive and politically unacceptable, even if there might be evidence to support it and even though it seems to give scientific backing to radical feminist ideas of inherent male violence and female victimhood. By that token, the Akin theory ought to be a feminist one: for it asserts (though without any evidence) that, at some deep biological level, women are in control of their own fertility. Their bodies can "choose" whether or not to conceive. But if so, if pregnancy isn't something that men do to women but which women do to themselves, why should they precluded from making the conscious choices that modern science allows them? Akin seems to be asserting that nature itself (and therefore presumably God) is pro-choice. Even if he's wrong, he should at least try to be consistent.
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Friday, 17 August 2012

Pussy Riot sentences show what Russia holds sacred

The three members of Russian girl-punk band Pussy Riot who laid on an impromptu and sacrilegious "prayer" in a Moscow Cathedral in February have been sentenced to two years imprisonment for hooliganism and religious hatred. While severe, this is less than the seven years they might have faced, and its relative leniency - at least by Russian standards - may represent a nod in the direction of international opinion, which has been firmly on their side, and almost unanimous in seeing the trial primarily as a manifestation of Vladimir Putin's authoritarian style of government.

The case has certainly attracted quite extraordinary international attention. That can't simply be because it gives serious news reporters and journalists the opportunity to say "pussy". The trial has been headline news throughout the world, gaining far more prominence than, for example, the execution in Texas of a mentally retarded man or either of our own recent "freedom of speech" cases, the Twitter Joke Trial and the trial of Simon Walsh for possession of "extreme pornography". Yes, there are attractive women involved, and yes it feeds into a narrative about the state of modern Russia. But above all it has provided an opportunity for western liberal self-congratulation: it allows us to tell ourselves that in our own land of liberty, democracy and the rule of law such a show trial could not have taken place.

Yet today's sentences, it might be thought, compare reasonably well with the 18 month sentence given to Cambridge student Charlie Gilmour for swinging from the Cenotaph during a protest in London in 2010, and is considerably less than the 4 year sentences handed down last year to Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan and Jordan Blackshaw, who had posted messages on Facebook that supposedly constituted incitement to riot - even though no riots in fact took place.

Nevertheless, while the savage sentences handed down to many people involved in last year's riots attracted a good deal of public support, today's sentence has been greeted as an outrage. The European Union, for example, has officially condemned the sentences as "disproportionate": no such statement was forthcoming from Brussels in response to the courts' response to last year's British riots. It's hard to spot any enthusiasm for today's verdict outside Russia, unless you count Christian Voice which put out a press release welcoming both the sentences and the decision of Moscow City Council to ban Gay Pride. ("I don’t pray to Mary, as it happens," said Stephen Green, "but I can recognise an assault on the Christian Faith when I see it.")

This may be because, in the West, protesting against Vladimir Putin is generally perceived as being a Good Thing and as a brave stand for the principle of free speech. Indeed, the assumption has been that the trial is, in itself, evidence that free speech is dying in Russia or has already died there. Knowing this, yet still protesting - and doing so in a dramatic, hard-to-ignore fashion - thus becomes a particularly noble action, even if it did cause genuine offence to many Orthodox Christians who have no stake in the Putin regime and perhaps no interest in politics.

The incident in the cathedral was only one of many protests carried out by members of Pussy Riot and its associated art collective, Voina, which have included painting a giant penis on a Moscow Bridge, spilling live cockroaches in a courtroom and kissing policewomen. In 2008 the youngest of the trio, Nadia Tolokonnikova (then aged 18 and heavily pregnant) took part in a public orgy in a Moscow museum. Why should they have been treated so much more severely this time?

Religion undoubtedly has something to do with it. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, it has been claimed by the husband of one of the imprisoned women, personally contacted both Putin and the chief of the Moscow police to demand the arrest and prosecution of Pussy Riot, after seeing the footage of their protest on YouTube. He denounced the protest as "blasphemy" and called for severe penalties; his spokesman called it "demonic". If there is political manipulation behind the scenes of the trial (and there may well be) it is likely to be motivated as much by Putin's neo-Tsarist desire to pose as a champion of Orthodoxy as by his undoubted intolerance of dissent.

The religious angle has been strangely overlooked in Western reporting. Where it is discussed, it is usually in terms of the closeness of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to the Putin regime rather than questions of sacrilege and blasphemy. The protest did not take place in a cathedral by accident, of course. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, demolished by Stalin and recently rebuilt (allegedly with help from the Russian mafia) is deeply symbolic both of the reemergence of Orthodoxy after the collapse of Soviet communism and of the unhealthy closeness between the church hierarchy and the Kremlin. The Pussy Riot "prayer" called upon the Virgin Mary to cleanse Russia of Putin, and the women in their statements to the court repeatedly criticised the links between Orthodox hierarchs and the government, especially the way in which Putin has used these religion for his own political benefit:

Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.

No doubt Kirill's amour propre was damaged - the protest was aimed at him personally more than at religion - but this does not mean that there was no genuine offence to ordinary believers. Russian Orthodox churches are not, like some Anglican churches, simply buildings people go to pray in: they are more like temples, sacred spaces where heaven is believed to come down to earth. The Pussy Riot prayer was foul-mouthed (for example, replacing the words of the mass, "Holy, Holy, Holy" with "Shit, Shit, Shit") and, to a traditional religious sensibility, profoundly shocking. Without this profanation of the sacred, the patriarch might have been less outraged, and might therefore not felt compelled to call in political favours, and this trial might never have taken place.

When Peter Tatchell interrupted George Carey's sermon in Canterbury Cathedral in 1999, to protest the then archbishop's views on gay clergy (or something) he was arrested and charged under an obscure 1860 law. He was later fined the symbolic sum of £18.60. But then in secular Britain, a cathedral is far less sacred a place than the Cenotaph, and religious feelings count for less than property. Indeed, Pussy Riot have been supported by several prominent Anglicans, such as Giles Fraser or, on Thought for the Day this morning, Lucy Winkett. They have even been compared to Jesus, who "profaned" the Jerusalem Temple by overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Christ's complaint, though, was that the traders had turned a house of prayer into a "den of thieves". He didn't stride into the Holy of Holies and shout "Caesar is a cunt!" In any case, his punishment was rather more severe.
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Thursday, 16 August 2012

How Assange might escape

The good news for Julian Assange is that he's safe inside the Ecuadorian embassy, having been granted asylum there. The bad news for Julian Assange is that he's safe inside the Ecuadorian embassy, which is a fairly nondescript London flat. There will be no more Suffolk mansion, no more trips to Cambridge to deliver tales of his fight for truth and justice to rapt audiences , just four bare walls. Still, it's "freedom", of a sort. Unless the government wants to create a diplomatic incident and a very dangerous precedent, the sanctity of diplomatic property means that the writ even of a European Arrest Warrant does not run there.

But being Julian, even the prospect of a round-the-clock vigil by deluded supporters (one of whom told a BBC reporter that "there's no warrant, just allegations") won't make a long-term stay in Ecuador's modest London apartment a long-term solution. Short of coming out with his hands up begging to be taken to Sweden, how can he possibly extricate himself? Some have suggested that he might be smuggled out in a diplomatic bag. But the authorities would surely frustrate such a hackneyed and obvious deception. Here are five more possibilities that he might, even now, be considering...

1) The Face/Off option

Wearing a prosthetic mask, Assange disguises himself as the Ecuadorian ambassador and leaves Britain on a diplomatic passport.

2) The Mr Toad option

Disguised as a washerwoman, Assange slips boldly past oblivious police. Once free, he steals an aeroplane and, in a feat of derring-do, flies out of the reach of British justice and across the Atlantic

3) The Lazaraus option

Injected with a nerve toxin to simulate death, Assange is taken from the embassy in a coffin and flown to Quito for a hero's funeral in his adopted country. When he is laid to rest, however, the coffin is empty and Assange begins a new life under an adopted name.

4) The Madame Tussaud option

The famous London attraction announces that it is make a waxwork of the Wikileaks founder and sends one of its top modellers to the embassy to recreate his features. No one suspects anything when the completed "waxwork" is taken out of the embassy in full view of press, police and demonstrators. En route to Madame Tussaud's however, the waxwork mysteriously disappears.

5) The Extropian option

Using his advanced hacking skills, Assange downloads his consciousness onto a computer. Thus freed from the constraints of a physical body, Assange merges with the Internet, achieving his ultimate aim of knowing everything that ever happened anywhere and putting himself forever beyond the reach of justice.
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Friday, 10 August 2012

A Christian Voice for Assad

Remember Christian Voice? They're the miniscule pressure group, headed by one Stephen Green (who may be, for all I know, the only member) that first came to prominence campaigning against Jerry Springer the Opera. Recently, Green - exposed last year in the Mail (of all places) as a perpetrator of domestic violence - has descended into what looks like rabid conspiracy theorising fuelled by anti-Muslim paranoia. A few days ago the Christian Voice website carried a hilarious article speculating (from a position of studied neutrality) whether the Illuminati and other secret rulers of the world would carry out a "terrorist" atrocity at the Olympics.

I got a press release from Christian Voice today bemoaning the news that William Hague is to give £5m in aid to Syria's rebels. It read in part:

Last month, Christian Voice posted an article giving thanks to Almighty God for Russian and Chinese resistance to the anti-Assad USA and EU UN bloc, saying that only the Russians and Chinese were standing between the Christians, Syria’s Alawite minority, of whom President Assad is the most prominent member, the state of Israel, and a bloodbath.

You can tell the way Stephen Green's Icke-like mind works from statements like this:

If we step out of Mr Hague’s simplistic ‘Assad = dictator = bad, rebels = democracy = good’ mindset, we see that no one side is a pure as the driven snow, but that the deciding factor is that the USA/EU/Soros sponsored rise of the Muslim brotherhood and Al Quaeda elements in Syria and across the Middle East is a thoroughly bad thing.

Stephen Green goes on to warn that Syria's Christian minority "will be exterminated" if the opposition emerge victorious, as now looks increasingly likely. In fact, Hague's gesture strikes me as largely a symbolic recognition of that probability, intended to shore up democratic, secular and pluralist tendencies within the opposition. To suggest that the radical Islamists, who do indeed form part of the rather ramshackle opposition movement, are about to sweep all before them strikes me as at best a fundamental misreading of the situation (as it was a misreading of the situation in Libya), but withholding support from Syria's mainstream majority will only strengthen them. The largest element in the opposition consists of Sunnis whose opposition to the Ba'athist goverment is tribal rather than primarily political or religious. We should encourage them.

Assad's regime has been a secular one, and Syria's ancient Christian communities have been freer to practise their religion than those in many other parts of the middle east. But Syria has also been a firm ally of Iran, a sponsor of Hamas and Hizbollah, and an inveterate enemy of Israel. It has been no friend of the West, although an uneasy alliance of convenience was established after 9/11. Between an Iran-backed secular dictatorship and a Saudi-backed Islamist regime there may not seem much to pick. So we must hope something relatively moderate to replace the doomed Ba'athist hegemony.

That is not a simplistic "black and white" position; it is a nuanced and practical one. What is simplistic is to assert that the Arab Spring will inevitably lead to a radical Islamic takeover of the entire region. That hasn't happened in Tunisia or Libya, and the early triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian elections has led to a noticeable secular reaction. There are, of course, dangers, and Middle Eastern Christians deserve more support than they often get from their co-religionists in Europe. But continuing with the time-honoured policy of propping up tyrants is no longer a solution, given that many of the tyrants are tottering or already gone.

I wouldn't have bothered with Green's latest outpouring had I not seen The Telegraph's right-wing blogging vicar, Peter Mullen, making exactly the same point this morning. Mullen put Hague's move down to "cliché, sentimentality and fantasy" about "aspiring democrats bravely spending their lives (and their mobile phone accounts) against the brutal dictator Assad":

No doubt Assad is a very nasty piece of work, but many of those who are opposing him are by no means pure as the driven snow; and many of them may actually be a great deal worse. The “activists” – as the relentlessly euphemistic BBC refers to Assad’s opponents – are not aspiring democrats at all. The reality is that the opposition to Assad is largely an uprising of Sunni militants whose aim is not simply to cast out the foul dictator but to exterminate all those who do not share their own extreme views: the Alawites, the Druze and the Christians especially.

Now that sounds remarkably similar to Stephen Green. It even features the same cliché about Assad's opponents not being "pure as the driven snow". Are they actually the same person? I think we should be told.

Here's Mullen:

The fact is that every few hundred years there is a militant Islamist insurgency. It has to be defeated. It was defeated at the Battle of Tours, at Lepanto, in Malta. Only a few centuries ago, they were at gates of Vienna. And if we don’t take decisive action, they will soon be there again.

And here's Green:

Our leaders are caught like rabbits in the headlights by Islam’s militant tendency. 9/11 and the 7th July London bombings took them unawares. Trapped in a multi-cultural matrix, unassailed by truth or fact, they had to pretend that the militants were perverting Islam, when in fact they were simply, logically, working out its theology of world domination.

Not easy to tell the difference.
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