Monday, 29 October 2012

Is the world ready for a Romney victory?

David Cameron has spent his time in office assiduously sucking up to Barack Obama, not just because (as Christopher Meyer once implied) it's the job of any British prime minister to crawl as far up the US president's backside as possible and stay there, but because Obama remains international, if not domestically, an enormous attractive figure.  To be best buddies with Barry O was an ambition shared by many other Western leaders.  Association with Obama conferred kudos, credibility and cool.  Cameron could certainly not be damaged by it, as Tony Blair was damaged by his closeness to Dubya.

As for Mitt Romney, his international reputation until very recently has been as a candidate in equal measure rich and unappealing.  Someone who gained the nomination through vast expenditure of money, and because all the other candidates were, to a lesser or usually greater extent, crackpots.  (Certainly, from a European perspective they looked like crackpots; and if you're a European politician that's what matters.)  Politically, Romney is someone who you wouldn't want to be associated with unless, of course, he was likely to win.  Which for most of the campaign he wasn't.  For all the superficial exoticism of his Mormon heritage, Romney is in British terms instantly recognisable as a toff, born to privilege, a Mormon aristocrat whose wife owns dressage horses.  Even Samantha Cameron wouldn't dare bait the plebs by owning dressage horses.

Henry G Manson notes that Tory contacts with leading Republicans were already limited in the Bush era, despite the theoretical sisterhood of the two parties and any warm, lingering memories of the Thatcher-Reagan love-in.  In March, Cameron annoyed the Republican high command by not deigning to meet the leading candidates, even Romney, when he visited Washington.  And when Romney visited London on the eve of the Olympics he was the received with icy politeness by Cameron while Boris Johnson performed a comedy routine at his expense.

This suggests that a victory for Mitt Romney in next week's US election might be bad news for David Cameron, just as Clinton's victory was bad news for John Major who had, as Clinton himself pointed out publicly (ouch) been "openly supportive of my opponent."  Except that it's more or less the same story in the rest of the world (if one excludes Israel): something approaching open partisanship for the incumbent combined with a sense of inevitability about the outcome.  François Hollande, asked which of the two candidates he was backing, joked that, since support from a French socialist would be the kiss of death, he ought to back Romney.  As for the ever-cautious Angela Merkel, she arranged to be in holiday at the time of Romney's planned visit to Europe in July.

The polls suggest that the election is anybody's.  The consensus right now is that Obama will probably scrape home.  But no-one in America will be astonished if he loses.  It's the conventional wisdom that his presidency has been a disappointment, failing to live up to the soaring rhetoric of the 2008 campaign.  The economy remains stagnant, at least by historic American standards.  The Obama years have been marked by a curious insipidity, punctuated by a few half-decent speeches.  He isn't a particularly bad president, but he was required to be an outstanding one and fell short.  The White House would open its doors to a genuinely inspiring  challenger, a Reagan or a Clinton.  Obama's good fortune is that he faces Mitt Romney. Who would, if elected, probably turn out to be a perfectly reasonable, if unexciting, president.  At least he would disappoint no-one's exaggerated hopes.

But if the United States would take a Romney victory in its stride, the rest of the world will be shaken.  Obama's reputation may be a bit tarnished, but he's still seen as representing the best of America: the outward-looking, richly-layered, optimistic, democratic America.  That's why international politicians still want to be his friend, and don't want to be Romney's.  A Romney victory would look like the United States turning inward, and turning its back on the historic promise of 2008.  It would look like a reversion to the Bush years, and the restoration to power of a rich, white dynast promising to repeal allegedly European-style health reforms.  But more than disappointment, there will be amazement.  In much of the world the tightness of the presidential race has simply failed to register.

If Romney wins, there will be consternation behind the scenes in Downing Street.  But there will be equal consternation behind the scenes in Paris and Berlin. Most of the Western world, at both a political and a popular level, has invested heavily in the lazy assumption of an Obama victory.  That doesn't mean, of course, that the congratulations offered President-Elect Romney will be anything other than ingratiating and effusive, or that European leaders won't indulge in the traditional race to be the first on a plane to see him. 
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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Andrew Mitchell was right about the modern police

This is a guest post by Rev. Julian Mann

With the expletive deleted, former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell's parting remark to police officers is a cri de coeur that is echoed by many law-abiding members of the public: "I thought you guys were supposed to help us."

Political correctness and its ugly sister, bureaucratisation, have changed the moral face of Britain's police very markedly over the past decade.  The prosecution of Christian street preachers for alleged hate speech crimes is indicative of that profound moral change, as was the political manoeuvering by police lobbyists in the run-up to Mr Mitchell's resignation.

Britain's police force, founded as it was during the remoralisation of society in the 19th century following the 18th century Evangelical revival, was the product of a Christian culture. Of course, as with every institution including especially the Church, it reflected human sinfulness, and one of the scandalous moral weaknesses of English-speaking Protestant countries was their toleration of racism.

But the public service ethos of Britain's police force did reflect the words of the founder of the Christian Faith about His own mission to a lost world: "For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10v45 - NIV)."

In his resignation letter, the point Mr Mitchell has admitted to making, with unacceptable language, to police officers on the Downing Street gate was that excessive officiousness toward law-abiding citizens is alien to that ethos of public service.

Ironically, the Mitchell episode highlights the importance of removing the reference to  'insulting words' from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. A police force that has been corrupted by politically-correct ideology sadly cannot be trusted with that provision in law. It cannot be trusted not to use the outlawing of  'insulting words' to suppress legitimate free speech for the sake of politically-correct posturing.

It is never acceptable to swear at a police officer. But, as a preacher of the gospel of Christ, I would rather myself be sworn at with impunity than sacrifice the right to proclaim counter-cultural Christian truth that flies in the face of the political correctness that has undermined Britain's police force.

Julian Mann is vicar Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire.
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Friday, 19 October 2012

Better a Cannibal than a Catholic

The Standard has spotted a typically trenchant observation from the recently published collection of the Queen Mother's letters.  Travelling to some South Sea Island, perhaps near to the one where her son-in-law is worshipped as a living god, she wrote:

The natives are very diseased and are rapidly dying out.  Instead of being strong, healthy cannibals with strange religions and no clothes, they are now half-hearted Roman Catholics, with European clothes.  It seems all wrong but that is what happens.

David Icke will no doubt take this as confirmation that, like the rest of her brood, the QM was a blood-drinking lizard, with a keen sense of the benefits of a diet of human flesh.  The rest of us just have to wonder whether the remark displays the royal family's progressive appreciation of cultural diversity (the world is a richer place with naked cannibals in it, after all, so long as they're not eating anyone you know) or just a case of anti-Catholic prejudice.  Ex-cannibals in that part of the world are just as likely to be half-hearted Methodists these days, after all. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Is Obama bonkers?

I received a rather strange press release for a book by a Dr Paul Fick, described as "a nationally prominent clinical and forensic psychologist", that claims Barack Obama is suffering from "unresolved psychological problems":

In addition to displaying narcissistic features, Obama suffers from paranoid tendencies and oppositionalism. It is this trifecta of psychological maladies that makes Obama a dangerous and destructive president. Obama is now exacting his anger upon America, which he purports to love but consciously and unconsciously hates.

The evidence for this, apparently, comes from the president's "choice of words and mannerisms" on those rare occasions where he is forced to ad lib. Fick is also fascinated by Obama's biography. He suggests that Obama's peripatetic childhood, characterised by a largely absent father and "abandonment" by his mother, produced a personality characterised by "significant insecurity which he attempts to mask with arrogance." He is filled with resentment and anger, which he first tried to suppress with drugs and then by becoming a community organiser and eventually a politician. "He even married someone with a similar chip on her shoulder."

The theory sees Barack Obama using the US political system as a type of therapy to work through his emotional problems, and when that didn't work, taking out his unresolved emotional problems on the entire country. The American people, in this scenario, plays the role of an abused spouse.

Using victim logic, Obama resents a litany of perceived wrongdoings for which he now seeks vengeance. In Obama’s convoluted thought process distorted by his rage, those wrongdoings were perpetrated on him unjustly and personally with the blessings of institutions like marriage, family, the American socioeconomic system, religion, the legal system, race relations, and the Constitution. The unrelenting feeling of hate screams for a “transformation” of all of these areas of American life.

While presenting itself as psychology, this is really a conspiracy theory, offering (like more conventional conspiracy theories revolving around the machinations of hidden cabals) a single, simplistic interpretive key to the whole of US domestic politics and foreign afairs. And it's no different really from the "Obama hates America" rhetoric of the barmier sections of the US right.  Like other conspiracy theorists, Fick leaps on any evidence that might seem to confirm his ideas (such as Obama's poor performance in the first Presidential debate the other week) while ignoring anything to the contrary, such as the president's improved showing this week.

Who is Paul Fick? His website presents him as a psychotherapist, specialising in "effective, no nonsense therapy". He previously wrote a psychological study of Bill Clinton, titled "the dysfunctional president", the thesis being that Clinton had a self-destructive personality that craved humiliation and exposure. An impartial observer might think that George W Bush, with his history of alcoholism, religious certainty and enthusiasm for going after "evildoers" provided even more material for a psychological examination. Fick, though, doesn't seem to be interested in Dubya. But he does show tender concern for Barack Obama's welfare, urging that the best way to help him would be to "vote him out of office, the larger the margin, the better." I suppose that's what they call tough love.

I'm no psychologist, but I'd suggest that Fick might be working out his own feelings of frustration and rage by devising elaborate psychopathologies for politicians he happens not to vote for. Of course, British politics isn't immune from this type of thing. I remember a lot of similar stuff about Gordon Brown.

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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Jimmy Savile: when dogs don't bark

An interesting question about the Jimmy Savile affair is why it didn't happen sooner. I don't mean, why didn't it all come out while he was alive? That's a perfectly valid question about which much has been said already, and perhaps the BBC's internal inquiries will shed some light on it. Nor do I mean, why was Newsnight's report into his serial sexual abuse of young teenage girls shelved last year? That, too, is the subject of much speculation and inquiry. I mean something more specific: why didn't it happen earlier this year?

The origins of the current media storm lie in pre-publicity for the ITV Exposure documentary which was broadcast on 3rd October - less than a fortnight ago, although already it seems like years. The Radio Times published a story about the programme on 20th September, reporting that "a number of women have been interviewed for the programme, each alleging that as under-age teenagers they were abused by Savile during the 1970s." It went on to say that the documentary was "still being edited" and quoted an old friend of Savile's, Howard Silverman, as rubbishing the claims:

Of course we would go out in the 1970s and chat women up but everyone did that at the time, we were single guys and having a good time. But none of the girls were ever unwilling and they were definitely never underage. Jimmy hated anything like that.

Savile was best man at Silverman's wedding in 2009, and led many of the tributes to him after his death last year. I wonder how he's feeling now.

The national press got hold of the Savile revelations about a week later. The Evening Standard went with it on 28th September, and the story dominated the rest of the papers and the broadcast media the following day. And so it has been ever since. The documentary itself was surely one of the most eagerly awaited in years, but it seems to have served only as an excuse for the bursting of the dam of silence that had surrounded Savile - a silence that had persisted despite rumours that occasionally, as at the time of Louis Theroux's documentary a decade ago, received a partial airing.

But information about the Savile allegations (and they are still allegations, if in many cases extremely credible allegations) and about the pulling of the Newsnight report, has been in the public domain since early February at the latest. On 10th February this year, the Telegraph (along with several other newspapers and media outlets) reported that:

The BBC shelved a Newsnight investigation into allegations that Sir Jimmy Savile sexually abused a teenage girl in his dressing room at Television Centre, it has emerged. The woman [later identified as Karin Ward] claimed that the presenter molested her when she was 14 or 15 after inviting her to recordings of Clunk Click, his 1970s BBC family show. Newsnight tracked down several other women who claimed that Savile used his role on the programme to groom and abuse teenage girls.

The BBC had hoped to broadcast the Newsnight report in December, two months after Savile’s death, but bosses ordered that the investigation be dropped. Instead, the corporation screened two tribute programmes celebrating Savile’s lengthy BBC career as presenter of Jim’ll Fix It and Top of the Pops, and also as a Radio 1 DJ. The BBC now stands accused of covering up the allegations, which were detailed in The Oldie magazine, because senior executives did not want the corporation’s reputation to be tarnished...

Enough material there, both in the claims about Savile and about the alleged BBC cover-up, to set the story running. Guido had already had a go, reporting on 8th February that there were "whispers in the wind of a potential BBC scandal developing." He went on to state that "the BBC said in December that Newsnight’s report was never aired because there was not enough proof, but that line is now looking shaky." (I haven't been able to track down any official BBC statement on the issue from last year.)

All that was missing from the reports in February were the filmed interviews (admittedly powerful) that ITV's documentary makers were later able to provide. But given how much some of our national newspapers supposedly hate the BBC, you would imagine that they would have pounced upon the Savile allegations and run with them. It's worth bearing in mind that the majority of the abuse stories that have been published in the past three weeks do not have a direct source in the ITV film, or in the suppressed Newsnight package, but have been the result of people coming forward in the light of the publicity.

If nothing else, awareness of what Newsnight intended to broadcast could and should have spurred the press to begin their own investigations into Savile, investigations which would surely have led to many of the stories that have now emerged, emerging sooner. Instead, pro-Savile stories continued to appear. For example, July brought news of an auction of Savile's jewellery and other memorabilia, including his Rolls Royce which sold for £130,000, while on 20th September - the very day that Radio Times began the build-up to the ITV documentary - his elaborate and boastful tombstone was unveiled amid much mirth at an unfortunate spelling-mistake. At the ceremony, Savile's nephew made some unfortunate predictions: "Jimmy's legacy will be long lasting"; "the headstone will become a tourist attraction" [it is now landfill]; "I dare say soon there will be an ice cream stall and someone selling Jim'll Fix It badges."

What prevented the press from bursting "Sir" Jimmy's bubble even after his death removed threats of libel? It may be another sign of the timidity that has overtaken the press in the wake of the Leveson inquiry. It's also illuminating to read the comments under the Telegraph's report in Februry, which were overwhelmingly hostile to the story. One described commenter said that it was "appallingly disrespectful to air a scurrilous accusation like this after someone's death". Another accused the Telegraph of indulging in "tabloid muckraking about a dead former celeb who no one published anything about when he was alive to defend himself, wrapped in the DT's daily pop at their rival the BBC."

Meanwhile, Guido's piece brought out a bunch of conspiracy nuts obsessed with the long-discredited Hollie Greig case. (Though it has to be said that the conspiracy theorists were well ahead of the curve in linking Savile with the notorious Haut de la Garenne children's home in Jersey.)

The fact remains, however, that as recently as mid-September the British media continued to praise Savile even though thye were well aware, not simply of the rumours about him, but about about the abandoned Newsnight report and the allegations of a cover up within the BBC. Not only were the media aware, they had reported it. Millions of people must have read many of the exact same details that have been leading the news for the past three weeks, and that have caused a sensation. People read the details and shrugged, and turned to the next thing, as did the reporters who forgot about Savile's child-abuse and published cheerful photos of his Rolls instead. It just wasn't a big story. And then suddenly it was. How come?
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Thursday, 11 October 2012

What sort of country sends someone to jail for wearing a T shirt?

Adam Wagner is good on the inappropriate use of the law to enforce what should properly be considered matters of politeness in online discourse:

 The problem is that once the state starts policing speech and thought, this tends to be the thin end of the wedge. People become frightened to say what they feel and instead say what they think they ought to say. Such a climate would undoubtedly place a chill on the wonderful, bizarre, entertaining, sometimes concerning but always interesting world of social media. And that would be bad for everyone.

High-profile recent cases include that of Azher Ahmed, who was convicted for writing on Facebook that British soldiers should "die and go to hell" - an opinion that many people will not agree with, but which surely struggles to reach the threshold of "grossly offensive" under s 127 of the Communications Act, which was the law used against him. Ahmed was "let off" with community service, because he apologised and deleted the comments soon after they were made. The district judge, however, suggested that the remarks in themselves were sufficient to send him to jail and that Ahmed had "failed to live up to" the "responsibility" that comes with freedom of speech. His culpability was increased, in the judge's view, because someone else had taken it upon themselves to circulate the address of someone else with a similar name, and various thugs had intimidated an innocent family at home as a result.

Meanwhile, 20 year old Matthew Woods has been jailed for twelve weeks for making tasteless jokes about missing five-year-old April Jones. Not a nice thing to do, but it seems to have amounted to much more than "a moment of drunken stupidity. When the comedian Justin Lee Collins gets community service for conducting a sustained campaign of violent harassment against his former partner it seems hugely disproportionate. But perhaps it's a different rule for comedians. As Adam Wagner notes, Frankie Boyle hasn't yet had his collar felt for any of his outrageous "jokes", the latest of which suggested that the reward for all Jimmy Savile's charity work will have been "the opportunity to shag Madeleine McCann in heaven".

The DPP is currently (with some help from Twittering lawyers) consulting on new guidelines on where to draw the boundary of "acceptable speech" online. The problem doesn't just concern the exciting new world of social media, though. Sections 4 and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 is still with us, criminalising any behaviour liable to cause "harassment, alarm or distress", a provision which would appear to be a stranger to the entire concept of free speech. Barry Thew has today been jailed for eight months under the POA for wearing an offensive T-shirt.

Thew, whose son died in police custody three years ago, was seen sporting a T-shirt with the hand-scrawled slogan "one less pig - perfect justice" in Radcliffe town centre hours after the murder of policewomen Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, an act which chief inspector Bryn Williams, speaking after the trial, described as "morally reprehensible". The sentence worked out at four months for the T-shirt, and a further four months for breaching his bail conditions. It's not clear what the breach entailed, but it could well have been getting himself arrested, in which case the whole sentence was T-shirt related. But whether it's four months or eight, it's still a ridiculous sentence.

Prosecutions for "offensiveness", whether they involve Facebook messages or slogans worn on t-shirts, amount to a legal doctrine that people have a right not to have their feelings hurt, indeed that it should be a crime to cause another person emotional distress. That, of course, is the argument made by those who want further restrictions on free speech where religous sensibilities are involved, something akin to a new law of blasphemy. In that case, the danger of protecting religion from criticism has, so far, remained sufficiently obvious to keep the the opponents of free speech at bay. But it's surely inconsistent to deny the deeply felt religious convictions of people the legal redress offered to the more immediate emotions of bereaved relatives and colleagues of soldiers or police officers. It's certainly inconsistent to lock up "offensive" T-shirt wearers while condemning Russia's treatment of the punk band Pussy Riot for upsetting Orthodox worshippers at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Chief Inspector Williams made a point of noting that "the overwhelming response from the public, who have inundated us with messages of support and condolence, proves that Thew is the exception and not the rule and our communities were right behind us at our darkest hour." This is obviously true; but it's not obviously a reason to prosecute and jail someone for not sharing the general opinion. On the contrary, the existence of a social consensus of acceptable behaviour is more than adequate in itself without recourse to the law. If bereaved relatives are upset by isolated incidents of unpleasantness, are they not also comforted by the support and good-will offered by many thousands of people unknown to them, and do not messages of the latter sort outnumber the former many, many times?

I find it especially disturbing that in many of these cases prosecutions have been brought after members of the public reported the offensive conduct to the police. Rather than demonstrating their personal distaste for the sentiments by condemning the culprit to his face, people preferred to do so by demanding criminal sanctions. Wagner notes that a group of around 50 members of the public cheered when Woods was sentenced for his Facebook message. Free speech is not particularly popular in modern Britain. The public here has never been terribly liberal, but I think we're also dealing with the erosion of the idea of social space as something self-policing and independent of the state, just as politicians in recent years (not just New Labour ones) have often been unable to distinguish between disapproving of something and wanting to ban it. The gap between "I don't like X" and "people who do X should go to jail" should be a lot wider than it seems to have become.
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Saturday, 6 October 2012

Time limits, gender and abortion

The new and somewhat accident-prone Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has stoked the embers of the ever smouldering abortion debate by expressing his personal view that the default time limit for elective termination should be cut from the current 24 weeks to 12. While 12 weeks is not exceptionally low by continental European standards (indeed, it is more-or-less the European norm, being the limit in France, Germany, Italy, Denmark and several other countries) it is outside the normal terms of debate in the UK, where calls for a reduction have tended to coalesce around twenty weeks, the figure supported on the radio this morning by Home Secretary Theresa May.

If Twitter has a collective mind, it's distinctly pro-choice, so it's hardly surprising that when news of Hunt's statement emerged late last night it was greeted by an overwhelming chorus of boos, above all from feminists. The Guardian's feminist in chief Suzanne Moore Tweeted that she was "cheered by the gut reaction towards Hunt here," adding that "the Tories will not win their war on women." Two incredibly lazy but widespread assumptions combine in the notion of a "Tory war on women". Firstly that the divide on abortion is primarily political (and left-right) rather than moral, and that the pro-choice position is progressive and the pro-life one reactionary. Secondly, that the pro-choice case is the pro-women, feminist one and its opponents are motivated by hatred of women, or at the very least by an inherently misogynistic desire to control women's lives.

The reaction was the same earlier this week, when Maria Miller (Hunt's successor as Culture Secretary, who is also minister for women) told the Telegraph that she favoured a 20 week limit. Describing calls to reduce the time limit "a key flashpoint in ongoing attempts to chip away at a woman’s right to choose", Zoe Stavri articulated the feminist orthodoxy in the New Statesman. "To support women," she declared, "you must support the choices they make about their own body, whether it’s something you approve of or not." Miller was "no friend of women" and had no right being women's minister, since her views were "anything but pro-women."

To be a feminist, one assumes, is to support women. That doesn't mean, of course, that men can't support feminist platforms, or even be feminists (though there are some radical feminists who argue that a male feminist is a contradiction in terms, and there's a more widespread view that even sympathetic men are too embedded in their own gender privilege properly to appreciate what it's like for women.) No feminist would claim that all or even most women were de facto feminists, though they might claim that all women should be. There are plenty of female misogynists, women who collaborate with "the patriarchy", women who make life worse for other women, women who vote Conservative, and so on, in the feminist demonology. Indeed, feminists reserve a particular and gleeful bile for these traitresses to their gender - above all for female Tory politicians such as Nadine Dorries - that a visitor from the planet Mars might think looked just a tad misogynistic.

But even allowing for the fact that all women aren't feminists, one would expect to find a considerable overlap between feminism and the concerns and views of women more generally. If, as they believe, feminists are working to advance the cause of women, one would expect feminist arguments to find a particular resonance among women and a greater degree of opposition or indifference from men. In would be highly paradoxical if feminist arguments turned out to be more popular, on average, with men than with women.

There is indeed a gender divide on the abortion debate in Britain, and it is especially stark in relation to the question of term limits. A YouGov poll in January found that of the 37% of Britons who favoured a lowering of the 24 week limit (34% supported the status quo) the majority were women. In total, twice as many women as men (49% as opposed to 24%) wanted to see a lower limit. There was also an interesting age difference: among the younger age group (18-24) support for a lower limit stood at 43%, whereas in the two older age groups it was 35%. Strikingly, support for a reduction to 20 weeks or below was highest among people who expressed a preference for Labour rather than the two other main parties - which again fits ill with the concept of a "Tory war on women".

This gender distinction seems to be consistent. An Angus Reid poll in March found an even more dramatic difference, with 35% of men favouring a reduction below 24 weeks and 59% of women doing so. Back in 2006, a MORI poll published by the Guardian found that 47% of women wanted to lower the limit, and a further 10% would ban abortion outright.

I wondered aloud about this paradoxical situation on Twitter last night. Pro-choice feminists, I noted, almost never acknowledge the perhaps counterintuitive fact that the majority of those who support their position on abortion time-limits are men, and the majority of those who want a reduction are women. Why are men more "feminist" that women, at least in this one area? A number of responders simply refused to believe it. Someone suggested that "kyriachy operates by convincing disenfranchised groups to defend the system," which may or may not be the same point as "women have always hated women far more effectively than men have", which was how another woman put it.

Another suggestion was that women are more likely to have strong opinions one way or another, since the issue affects them most directly. Even women who have never had an abortion may have contemplated one, or have had a pregnancy scare, or at the very least have thought through the issues. To have, or not to have, an abortion is a question that almost every woman might potentially have to ask herself, and no man will. Men might well consider that it is not their place to tell women what to do "with their own bodies", while women may have no such inhibition. What is less obvious is why the fact that abortion is so much more personal for women would lead a majority of them to superficially unfeminist conclusions.

One respondent (a man) suggested that "because women with children have experienced being pregnant, therefore they are more aware that the foetus is alive." It would certainly be interesting to know how the opinions of women who had children compared with those who did not. The only hint from the polls was in that striking figure from YouGov that women under 24 were more strongly in favour of lowering the time limit than those in older age-groups who are much more likely to be mothers themselves - which is quite the opposite of what my interlocutor would have expected.

Women who favour further restrictions on abortion might well deny the assumption that a pro-choice position is a feminist one, claiming instead that a liberal abortion regime benefits men. If women have easy (and socially unstigmatised) access to abortion, then men may feel less responsibility for the women they get pregnant or for any resulting child. Men are likely to feel less pressingly the physical and psychological consequences of abortion. So they will be only to happy to concede women's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, and fear the implications for themselves of more legal restrictions. Such a view is not unknown even in radical feminist circles. Catherine McKinnon once wrote that "abortion facilitates women's heterosexual availability" and "frees male sexual aggression."

Or perhaps it's just that, on average, men are more responsive to abstract arguments that tend to favour the principle of choice and personal autonomy, while women (again, on average) may be more swayed by emotive images of unborn children with fingernails and smiles.

One thing that does seem clear to me is that the pro-choice position depends less on a feminist argument than on a libertarian one. It says that a woman is, first and foremost, her own person, belonging neither to her family nor to her community or religion nor to her biological destiny but to herself. It asserts the primacy of the individual over the community and offers a scientifically reductionist view of the foetus as being essentially a biological fact and not yet a human being with rights. Research consistently shows that men are more responsive than women to libertarian arguments; women's instincts tend more to the communitarian. So perhaps we should expect men to "get" the pro-choice case more readily than women, despite the assumption that pro-life is anti-women. In this matter at least feminism goes with the grain of male nature and against the female.

But hang on a minute. Isn't libertarianism supposed to be right-wing? Aren't pro-choice feminists predominantly of the left? Is it not true that the most vocal campaigns for abortion restriction are rooted on the political right, especially on the religious right? It is. I merely point out the paradox. I do not purport to account for it.
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Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Timeless Innocence of Page 3

Martin Robbins wrote a blistering riposte to the current (and remarkably widely-debated, given its essential triviality) campaign against Page 3 at the New Statesman, accusing those behind it of slut-shaming and being unhealthily obsessed with nudity as a source of moral pollution, and suggesting that the rest of the Sun would be just as misogynistic a publication without the daily breasts. 

At best, misguided attempts to censor nudity distract from the real battle that must be fought, to challenge a tabloid culture in which misogyny oozes from every page. At worst, campaigners are engaging in exactly the same sort of sexual policing and censorship that The Sun does: one side attacking non-conformists, the other belittling the choices of ‘sluts’.

The No More Page 3 petition is "rooted in the same desire for sexual hegemony we see in anti-porn campaigns," Robbins writes - which isn't perhaps a surprise because, in essence, it is an anti-porn campaign.  It's no coincidence that those opposed to Page 3 tend to use the same language and make the same claims as when they're calling for Internet filtering or worrying about adverts that feature women (never men?) in various states of undress.  There's the same talk of sexualisation, of objectification and degradation, of misogyny; the same claims that it leads to violence against women.  Lynne Featherstone, Equalities Minister until the last reshuffle, said that.  She didn't offer any evidence because, of course, there isn't any.

Here's the thing.  Page 3 is an anachronism.  Its datedness, indeed, is one of the arguments regularly used against it by its opponents, who denounce it as a throwback to a more sexist era, when misogyny was pervasive and upfront,  the stuff of jokes on popular suburban sitcoms; a reminder of the days when a female judge or politician was a rarity, when the thought of golf clubs admitting female members would have had the guys choking on their G&Ts in the 19th hole, when Benny Hill was a big name in family entertainment, when Bond Girls had names like Pussy Galore.... you get the idea.  The bad old days.

Throughout the vast social changes of the past four decades - changes that folk memory insists began in the 1960s but which for most the the population have occurred far more recently - Page 3 has been there, a cultural coelacanth. The more you think about it, the stranger it seems.  All those interchangeable young women, all those Hollies and Nickis and Samanthas, with their interchangeable mammaries and their interchangeable ghost-written opinions about the issues of the day, just what are they doing there? 

If the point, as the more conspiratorially minded of the campaigners like to imply,  is to keep women in their place as objects for the contemplation of men then it isn't working very well.  Despite familiar claims that we live in an unregenerate patriarchy, the progress made by women - professionally, socially and sexually - has been profound.  Page 3 has patently not retarded the journey toward sexual equality.  Nor has it prevented the overwhelming majority of men from relating to the women in their lives as human beings rather than as objects of lust or receptacles for their DNA.

Originally, one assumes, Page 3 existed to sell newspapers.  Because heterosexual men wanted to look at breasts (as they always did - ask Titian - as they always will - ask Desmond Morris) and the Sun, which has always liked to call itself a "family newspaper", afforded them a reasonably respectable opportunity for doing so.  (The Sun or the Mirror?  I'll have the one with the tits, please.)

But now?  Well, say I woke up one morning with an overwhelming need to look at a photograph of some naked breasts.  Now I could haul my frame down to the newsagents and spend my 30p, or whatever it is these days, and take a chance on whether the breasts on Page 3 are to my taste.  Or I could turn on the laptop and put the phrase "naked breasts" into Google Images and (I just tried it: it worked) Hello Boys!  From which I conclude that, whatever else Page 3 of the Sun is still doing there, it is not catering to an otherwise unmet need in the male population to see breasts.

If the point of Page 3 were really to titillate, one would expect more variety.  Many heterosexual men - most perhaps - would be just as turned on by the sight of a pert, well-shaped female bum as they would be by nipples.  Type "naked bottom" into Google Images and the bottoms that show up are at least 90% female: make of that what you will.  But Page 3 is invariably breasts: a sure sign, I think, that we are dealing with a phenomenon as stereotyped and circumscribed as, say, Japanese Noh theatre or the Welsh poetic form of cynghanedd.

It could of course simply be that Page 3 girls have survived because - ever since Clare Short tried to ban it thirty years ago - no Sun editor wants to go down in history as the one who gave in to the po-faced feminists by discontinuing the feature.  But if readers didn't want it to be there, no appeal to editorial conservatism or political bloody-mindedness would save it.  Fans of Page 3, I think, crave reassurance.  They want to see breasts on Page 3 not because they want to see breasts (there's the Internet for that, and a whole lot more) but because "it wouldn't be the same without it".  It is, after all, an institution, even a "great British institution", a signifier of demotic nationalism no less than fish and chips, pubs or football.  Tracy, 22, from Luton is not reminding her admirers that 22-year old women have nipples, but rather assuring them that in this world of constant change, financial crisis, job insecurity, mortgage payments and all the rest of it some things can still be relied upon.

There'll always be an England
While there's a pair of breasts
Where Page 3 has a pretty girl
With nothing on her chest

There's an essential innocence about Page 3, I think, that its opponents completely miss.  Yes, it's tacky, and juvenile, and pointless, and the world wouldn't stop turning if it ceased to be.  I will even concede that it's sexist.  But it proclaims a very traditional British attitude towards sex as a source of humour and embarrassment: it's the sexuality of seaside postcards, Carry On films and "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" rather than that of top-shelf magazines or hardcore porn.  It is not erotic.  In fact it's determinedly unerotic; it's anti-erotic, an antidote to eroticism.  But by now Britain, finally catching up with the rest of the developed world, has moved on to "proper" porn, leaving Page 3 as a nostalgic reminder of a lost age, of the days when Barbara Windsor represented the height of sexual allure and Jim'll Fix It was on the telly.
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Monday, 1 October 2012

Death of a Stalinist

Last year I was at a function most of whose attendees were, I suppose, of the political Left. At one point a sudden hush descended and a whisper ran around the auditorium that Eric Hobsbawm was there.  A few seconds later the crowds parted reverently as the nonagenarian Marxist hobbled into view.  The atmosphere was not unlike how I imagine a Papal audience or a personal appearance by the Dalai Lama; it would scarcely have been more respectful had Nelson Mandela himself walked into the room.

Hobsbawm was an icon of the Left - and the Left loves its icons, the older and more doddery the better - and enough a member of the Establishment to have been made a Companion of Honour, a particularly swanky (and exclusive) decoration sometimes given to people who believe themselves too grand for mere knighthoods.  He was much spoken of, while alive and in frequently in his presence, as Britain's greatest living historian, as the most important historian of the 20th century, as the Left's foremost intellectual and as an all-round good egg. 

His death today at the age of 95 has yielded similar encomia, not least in the Guardian.  He had  "a unique position in the country's intellectual life" wrote Martin Kettle; "one of a tiny handful of historians of any era to enjoy genuine national and world renown."  For Tristram Hunt, one could have no more generous, humane, rigorous, and involved a guide than Eric Hobsbawm".  He was "an Enlightenment giant whose passing marks a sad pulling away from the 20th century and all it entailed."  Hunt could be heard in equally misty-eyed form on Radio 4 this afternoon, waxing lyrical about Hobsbawm's encyclopaedic mind and love of jazz.

Missing from such tributes was much acknowledgement that Hobsbawm was an unrepentant communist who had in his youth had looked the other way as Stalin purged and murdered millions of his own people, who in middle age supported (albeit "with a heavy heart") the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and who in old age preferred not to mention the show trials or the gulags.  He was quite happy to distort the facts.  The Soviet empire, he claimed incredibly in 1997,  "was maintained only a limited, even minimal use of armed coercion."

At least he was consistent.  "When the fact change", said John Maynard Keynes, "I change my mind."  Hobsbawm never recanted, even after it became impossible to deny that the Soviet Union was rotten and oppressive.  Right to the end, long after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, he seems to have regarded Communism as a noble experiment that had unaccountably failed to work.   In a 1994 TV interview he told the great Canadian liberal Michael Ignatieff that Stalin's murder of twelve million of his own people would have been justified had it ushered in the communist Utopia.  The conversation is worth quoting in some detail:

Ignatieff: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?

Hobsbawm: ...'Probably not.'

Ignatieff: Why?

Hobsbawm: Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing... The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure.

Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?

Hobsbawm: Yes.

For Hobsbawm, Stalin's crime was that he failed.  Perhaps it did not occur to him that if a revolution can only be brought about by mass murder there must be something fundamentally wrong with it.  The end justified the means, however terrible the means might be.   Michael Gove had it right in 2008: "When I think of the millions who were killed and tortured in Marxism’s name," he wrote in the Times, "from the Polish officers shot in Katyn forest to those brave dissidents who endured the gulag, I am convinced that only when Hobsbawm weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to."

He never did.

It's puzzling that Hobsbawm can be described - even by ideological opponents such as Niall Ferguson - as one of the 20th century's greatest historians when he was so utterly and demonstrably wrong about the single most significant aspect of 20th century history.  I don't deny that he had many of the qualities of a great historian - intensive research, a sweeping view, a good prose style.  But he conspicuously lacked that indispensible quality of judgement for which none of the others can compensate. You read an historian, above all, to understand the past, to gain insight.  Reading Hobsbawm, one can perhaps gain an insight into how an intelligent observer might be taken in by Communism, but only by treating him as the unreliable narrator of his own history.

Writing in Prospect some years ago, Ian Buruma called Hobsbawm "a decent man who served a blood-soaked cause."  Blindness to communism's crimes or willingness to overlook them was, of course, a common failing among his contemporaries on the Left.  Idealism often and easily overcomes reality.  Stalin was in his way no less a monster than Hitler, yet his apologists have, again and again, been able to cloak themselves in a mantle of righteousness, to remain respected and even beloved.  Their hearts, it is assumed, were in the right place - an excuse never made for admirers of Hitler.  But Hobsbawm's case strikes me as especially troubling.   Naivety can scarcely serve as an excuse for an historian who possessed a legendary command of facts, a man who had what was recognised universally as a towering intellect.  His blindness can only have been wilful.  He used his powers for evil.  And history, long before he died, had already disproved him.
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