Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Votes for prisoners?

The government has six months to obey a directive from the European Court of Human Rights to "bring forward legislative proposals" to allow prisoners to vote. This follows today's ruling (pdf) in the Italian case of Franco Scoppola, a convicted murderer who, ironically, lost his appeal against his own inability to vote in Italy.

Italian law is, in some ways, harsher than that in the UK. Here, prisoners currently serving sentences cannot vote but, having paid their debt to society, regain all the rights they had before being sent down. That is, partly, because disenfranchisement is not a separate punishment but merely a consequence of imprisonment. Prisoners can't vote, any more than can children, the mentally incapacitated and members of the House of Lords. In Italy, however, disenfranchisement is a distinct penalty, imposed on those sentenced to terms of least five years and continuing long after their release. Indeed, the ban is for life, though it is possible for ex-convicts to have their civil rights restored if a court decides that they have earned it. Which the court is free not to do.

The European Court of Human Rights today ruled that permanently depriving offenders of their right to vote was not disproportionate or indiscriminate, and "pursued the legitimate aims of preventing crime and enhancing civic responsibility and respect for the rule of law and ensuring the proper functioning and preservation of the democratic regime." But it took the opportunity to reaffirm its belief that the loss of voting rights by currently serving UK prisoners is a breach of their fundamental human rights.

The United Kingdom Government, intervening as a third party, considered that the Court’s findings in Hirst (no. 2) v. the United Kingdom were wrong. In that case the Court had found a violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 because of the general, automatic and indiscriminate nature of the measure depriving convicted prisoners of the right to vote. The Court noted that, since that judgment, nothing appeared to have changed at the European and Convention levels that might justify the re-examination of the principles set forth in that case – on the contrary, if anything, the trend was towards fewer restrictions on convicted prisoners’ voting rights. The Court accordingly reaffirmed the principles set out in the Hirst (no. 2) judgment, in particular the fact that when disenfranchisement affected a group of people generally, automatically and indiscriminately, based solely on the fact that they were serving a prison sentence... it was not compatible with Article 3 of Protocol No. 1.

The Court considers it outrageous for prisoners to be denied the vote, as they are denied other, more basic, human and civil rights, while they are serving their sentence. This is disproportionate and indiscriminate. Yet it's fine for Italy to have a system under which anyone who has been sentenced to five years or more loses the right to vote for their entire life. What kind of crazy is that?

Being sent to prison entails losing a number of normal rights, privileges and obligations besides the inability to vote. The most obvious deprivation is that of liberty, but it is by no means the only one. Prisoners cannot choose their manner of work, nor demand to be properly rewarded for any work they are compelled to perform. They may not live where they choose, or go on holiday. They may not enjoy sexual relations with their spouse - a particularly harsh deprivation, in that it equally affects the partner (who may be entirely innocent of any offence) and not infrequently leads to the permanent destruction of relationships. Prisoners lose their right to privacy (for example, to communicate with the outside world without those communications being monitored). Their rights to free expression and free association are, at best, severely circumscribed. They have to follow orders. On the other hand, prisoners have their food and shelter taken care of, and they are given educational and training opportunities often denied to those on the outside.

Compared with more basic human and civil rights, the loss of an opportunity to make a mark on a ballot paper, if there happens to be an election, strikes me as a fairly trivial loss. The right to vote is a precious one, of course, but it would be a rather strange person who would prefer to be allowed to vote than to have sex. Or to go where they liked. Or to earn a decent wage. I'm especially baffled that "votes for prisoners" seems to have become a great liberal cause.

If the right to vote is so basic a human right, moreover, why should it be restricted to citizens? Foreign nationals, unless they hail from Ireland or the Commonwealth, are not permitted to vote in British Parliamentary election, even if they have lived legally in this country for decades and never committed a crime. Why should their permanent deprivation - and they may have perfectly good reasons for preferring to remain citizens of their country of origin - be considered less objectionable than the temporary deprivation of those currently serving a prison sentence for a serious breach of society's laws?

But to pose that question is to suggest the true answer: the right to vote is not a natural right but a civil right. It does not properly belong to the sphere of fundamental human rights at all. Rather it is bound up with the constitutional settlement of the nation. The European Convention (Protocol 1.3) provides for "regular, free and fair" elections. It does not specify the franchise. All persons under 18 are currently unable to vote, however intelligent or interested in politics they may be, even if they are (unlike convicted prisoners) working and paying taxes.

If voting is such a fundamental right, on what basis it is withheld from teenagers? More to the point, if it is such a fundamental right, why is it not asserted to be such in the Convention or its Protocols?

There are, no doubt, good arguments for allowing prisoners to vote. Some claim that it may help with the process of rehabilitation. I can't see myself why it should. A prisoner who really cares about being able to vote is more likely to be encouraged towards rehabilitation by the prospect of early release for good behaviour - and thus earlier restoration of his or her voting rights - than if nothing has been lost to begin with. It's said that refusal of the franchise places convicts out of society. Well so it does and, many would say, a good thing too. In any case, this is a political argument, and should be had in Parliament and in the court of public opinion. It is not the sort of question that should be left to unelected judges, especially not to judges who are not part of this country or its legal system.

I hope that MPs have the good judgement to vote down whatever proposals the government feels obliged to put before them. I really do.
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Monday, 21 May 2012

Alain de Botton's guide to porn

The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has spoken of his desire to create a new form of pornography, one "fit for thoughtful, good human beings" and that could be "harnessed to what is noblest in us." Now, writing exclusively in Heresiarch's Dungeon, he outlines his vision and offers some more reflections on the modern porn industry. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 18 May 2012

Get out of jail free?

Here's a fascinating suggestion:

Scottish independence could see the UK kicked out of the European Union and forced to surrender its £3 billion annual rebate if it wanted to rejoin, a senior constitutional lawyer has told MPs.

Patrick Layden QC, a former Scottish Executive legal expert, warned that other EU countries could exploit separation to argue that the United Kingdom has ceased to exist as a member state.

Ministers in Edinburgh and London would then both have to reapply for membership, but he said they could be stripped of “ridiculous” privileges that governments on the Continent resent.

The assumption that an independent Scotland would remain automatically a part of the EU has been questioned before. But the notion that the rump of the UK -- which would still include Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland -- would cease to be the same country in international law is rather more questionable. Would the UK cease to exist if there was a united Ireland? Surely not. Nor would an enlarged Ireland be a new country.

The West Germany that signed up to the Treaty of Rome in 1957 arguably ceased to exist in 1990. In the event of Scottish separation, there would be no new Parliament in Westminster (merely one with fewer MPs); no new government (unless the loss of Scottish members led to the fall of a Labour administration) and no new head of state. That's more than could be said for the Soviet Union when it was dissolved in 1992. It's government and constitutional continuity lapsed with it. Boris Yeltsin, who was already president of Russia within the USSR became the first president of a constitutionally autocephalous Russian Federation by default. It was legally a new country. But it seemlessly inherited the USSR's seat on the UN Security Council and the USSR's various treaty obligations.

So I don't think a shrunken "United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland" would find itself outside the EU. And I'd be surprised if Scotland had any trouble being accepted, either. However, it's a nice idea to play with. What would happen if the European Court of Justice were to rule that neither of the two "new" countries remained a member state of the EU?

I've no doubt that such a scenario would be perceived by the British civil service as an ultimate nightmare. EU membership is so intertwined with the way the UK is run that unravelling it would be immensely disruptive and psychologically disturbing to the permanent government. They would advise ministers to avoid protracted accession negotiations at almost any cost, playing on politicians' fears about loss of influence and economic uncertainty. If other member states dragged their feet, surrendering the rebate and promising to join the Euro could be portrayed as the lesser of two evils.

Yet any new settlement would need to be put before the people in a referendum. The EU is unpopular enough as it is, and these days you need to be named Michael Heseltine or Peter Mandelson to not think that joining the Euro would be absolutely crazy. A proposed re-entry based on humiliating terms, leaving the UK shelling out yet more money and receiving even less in return would surely be rejected by a large majority. It's hard to see any government taking the risk.

On the contrary, there would be enormous public pressure to get a much better deal -- and even that would run a considerable risk of being rejected. If the UK suddenly found itself outside the EU, a large section of the press and the Parliamentary Tory party would be ecstatic (thank you, Scotland!) and immediately campaign to keep it that way. The government would have to make a positive case, not to stay in the EU but to join up, and to pay the (rebate-free) £6 billion per year membership fee. The case for not joining would be easy to make: look at Greece. Look at Spain. Look at Ireland.

An enforced departure from the EU, as an unintended consequence of Scottish independence, would provide a perfect opportunity to negotiate the kind of semi-detached, pick 'n' mix relationship that opinion polls suggest that most British (and certainly English) people would prefer. It would also be possible to renegotiate, and substantially reclaim, territorial fishing rights. In the early 1970s, Ted Heath was desperate to get into the Common Market at almost any price. That would no longer apply. The British economy may be in considerable difficulty at the moment, but so is most of the rest of Europe, and with the rise of China and Brazil the advantages of being shackled to the EU corpse are no longer as obvious as they were. An English government would be in an ideal position to play hard to get. Everything would be up for negotiation.

Nor could EWNI easily be portrayed as having "rejected Europe". It would merely, by a constitutional accident not of its doing, find itself suddenly outside the EU's structures. What a remarkable Get Out of Jail free card. For that reason, it is surely highly improbable that any European government (even the French) would deliberately bring Eurosceptics' greatest desire into fruition. It would, rather, be for the government of the rump UK to seize the opportunity, by declaring unilaterally England and Scotland are wholly new entities that would have to apply to join the EU. Time, I think, for Tory Eurosceptics to make a tactical alliance with the SNP.
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Rich People don't Create Jobs

Valdemar thinks this guy talks a lot of sense.

"In a capitalist economy, the true job creators are middle class consumers. Taxing the rich, to make investment to help the middle classes grow and thrive, is the single shrewdest thing we can do for the middle class, for the poor and for the rich."

Something tells me it's not quite that simple. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Leveson: an Independent view

Lord Justice Leveson himself is now thoroughly bored with listening to the same tales of phone-hacking over and over again. He has nightmares of ending up like Lord Saville, who wasted most of his judicial career on an interminable inquiry into Bloody Sunday. His other main fear is that when he finally does produce a report it will join all the others on the shelf. And then in 10 or 20 years time there will be another scandal. That's how we do things in this country.

So thinks Independent editor Chris Blackhurst, who was talking about the Leveson Inquiry yesterday evening at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He also conveyed a sense of the overwhelming pervasiveness of what he calls the Leveson industry. His own newspaper is a relatively small player in the ongoing saga of phone-hacking and media cross-ownership (the Indy didn't hack or employ private investigators, he maintained, because it couldn't afford to) but he's still kept busy by it. He recalled one week when he gave no fewer than four talks on the subject. When it will all end is anyone's guess, except that it will enrich many lawyers.

One of Blackhurst's complaints related to the inquiry's open-ended, indeed vague, terms of reference. Leveson is not looking into a specific misdeed or problem, such as phone-hacking or media ownership or the relationship between News International and the Metropolitan police. Rather he is charged with reporting on "the culture, practices and ethics of the press." It is a task that might have no end. Blackhurst himself could only scratch the surface of the issues raised by the current debate on the state of journalism. He didn't mention Johann Hari, for example.

What he did say was that Leveson "goes to the heart of what is wrong with this country today." The laws that were drawn up and passed for a purpose were simply ignored by journalists, by the police and CPS, by politicians. Power silenced what should have been an outcry. The law "fell asleep": the police, the CPS and the Information Commissioner "simply didn't want to know". Only when the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone came to light was their enough of a public reaction to compel David Cameron to set up Leveson as a traditional Yes, Minister-style response to the situation.

And while Leveson is "about" the press, for Blackhurst it is about much more. It should, he suggested, dispel any smug notion that Britain is an unusally clean country, that corruption scarcely exists here. Little money changes hands, instead it works by nudges, winks, mutual favours and (in the case of Rebekah Wade and the Met) gift-horses. Leveson might be exposing the corruption of the press, but less is being said about corruption involving arms manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry, and PR. Leveson has failed to explore the way that PRs working in businessm the arts, fashion and sports - "some of the most powerful people in the country" - dictate the press coverage given to their employers.

Indeed he sounded quite indignant on behalf of journalism. Week after week journalists are being hounded, he lamented. Leveson has not heard about any of the good things that the press do, such as bringing to light the Parliamentary expenses scandal. All this at a time when the press is weaker than it has ever been, haemorrhaeging money and readers, challenged by an unregulated and unregulatable cyberspace. Nevertheless, he seemed quite comfortable

The real trouble, he suggested, was the Britain had no mechanism for dealing with corporate malfeasance. While the US has regularly seen top executives (such as the Enron crew) paraded through the courts, no banker over here has even been arrested. If the phone-hacking scandal had happened in America, the Murdochs would have done a perp-walk.

A few sidelights:

-The first question was asked by a "gentleman in the front row" who turned out to be Norman Fowler. I wondered if the students in the audience had a clue who he was.

Fowler suggested that the main issue was the concentration of media ownership, especially in Murdoch's hands, to which Blackhurst responded wondering who would buy loss-making newspapers if press empires were broken up. This led to an anecdote about how he and Rosie Boycott had hoped to turn the Express titles into beacons of liberal, intelligent thought (a sort of mid-market Guardian, I suppose) but had been thwarted when the group was snapped up by Richard Desmond. Cue much harrumphing about how Downing Street were "completely slavish" towards the pornographer who temporarily derailed his career.

- No-one mentioned Hari. I intended to, but the time for questions ran out before microphone got round to me. I was going to suggest that a whitewash of an inquiry followed by a period of "retraining" and the expectation that the malicious sock-puppeteer would get his old job back was a good example of the cosy British-style corruption he was complaining about. I was also going to suggest that had it not been for the work of independent, unpaid bloggers (who he seemed to want to regulate) Hari would be back at the Indy today.

- Blackhurst favoured state funding of political parties: it was, he said, "certainly the case that MPs are underpaid."

- When he gave evidence at Leveson, Blackhurst saw one lawyer whose sole job seemed to be to operate a tape recorder.
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Sunday, 13 May 2012

Cranmer and the ASA

A substantial and growing number of bloggers have joined a Spartacus-like campaign in defence of my distinguished colleague Cranmer, apparently under the misapprehension that he's being persecuted by the Advertising Standards Authority. The boring truth is that he isn't, although there may have been some sort of mix-up. That said, the case is disturbing for a number of reasons.

For one thing, however the complaint about the Coalition 4 Marriage advertisement is ultimately resolved, the seriousness with which the ASA is treating it provides further evidence of the low value that the regulator attaches to freedom of speech where there any possibility of "offence". I'll come back to that. The more immediate question raised is over the applicability of the ASA's investigatory procedures to smalltime bloggers, even one as celebrated as His Grace.

If you're unaware of the known facts, Cranmer tells his side of the story here. But briefly, he (along with several other blogs) carried a sidebar advert for C4M, which is campaigning against the proposed extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples. The Coalition is clearly on the wrong side of history; nevertheless, it has attracted a great deal of publicity and claims to have collected more than half a million signatures for its online petition. The advert in question linked to the petition: it was thus, in effect, an appeal for signatures. If you haven't seen it already, here it is.

The sidebar link, along with a print version of the advert which appeared in Country Life, was the subject of a number of complaints from individuals, and also from the Jewish Gay & Lesbian Group. It is asserted that the claim that 70% of people support "traditional" (i.e. heterosexual) marriage is misleading. It is also alleged that the ad was itself homophobic and offensive. The ASA has launched a formal investigation into whether the ad falls foul the CAP code (which it applies). As part of that investigation, it sent an email to Cranmer which he regarded as indimidating. It states, among other things, that

We require you to explain your rationale for the ad and comment specifically on the points raised in the attached complaint notification

And demands

robust documentary evidence to back the claims and a clear explanation from you of its relevance and why you think it substantiates the claims. It is not enough to send references to or abstracts of documents and papers without sending the reports in full and specifically highlighting the relevant parts explaining why they are relevant to the matter in hand.

A reply is requested by 21st May, after which the ASA will "draft a recommendation for the Council based on your response to us" and publish its adjudication on its website.

This all does indeed sound fairly intimidating, the more so since it came with a request (or a demand) for confidentiality. It seems that Cranmer felt the need (quite unnecessarily, I think) to seek the advice of a lawyer, at some personal expense. This is unfortunate. On the face of it, it's puzzling that the ASA saw fit to write to Cranmer at all. He did, after all, merely host the advert. He is not responsible for its content, even if he happens to agree with the message it conveys. It is for the advertiser, not the publisher, to justify the content of any controversial advert.

Presumably others who featured the banner on their websites received the same email. Guido certainly did. Instead of writing a lengthy post claiming that he was being persecuted and censored by the "Gestapo", however, he merely offered the following Tweet: "Have received same complaint from ASA told them to take a run and jump." That strikes me as the better course.

The ASA helpfully provides a leaflet for the benefit of advertisers who find themselves subject to one of their investigations. From it we learn that "about 80% of the complaints we receive don't raise any problems and in these cases we simply answer the complaint without any need to contact you." It goes on to inform the reader that "we prefer to work by persuasion and consensus and, where appropriate, we will resolove issues informally." A formal investigation will only take place in cases of "a possible serious breach of the rules." It seems, then, that the complaints about the C4M ad have cleared both those hurdles and that the ASA considers the matter a serious one that cannot be resolved informally.

In such cases, "We'll write to the advertiser and other parties appropriate to the complaint, which might include the ad agency, the media that broadcast or published the ad, and the clearance centre. We'll explain what the complaint is about, which Code clauses are relevant and ask for a response to the complaint." This is what Cranmer, among others, received the other day.

In other words, what Cranmer interpreted as threatening and Guido as in impertinence to be simply tossed in the virtual bin, was no more and no less than the ASA's usual procedure. C4M will presumably have received the same demand; no doubt they are preparing, or have already prepared, their response. The ASA's questions are simply not relevant to Cranmer's role in the affair: what they are seeking, I would guess, is a simple assurance that he accepted the advert in good faith and that he does not consider it to be offensive. A two sentence response will suffice. A mainstream publisher would realise this. Country Life will no doubt pass the ASA's email to their legal department (assuming they have one) who will dispatch a brief response promising to abide by the final adjudication.

In treating Cranmer as a publisher, and not specifying clearly why it was contacting him personally and what it actually expects him to provide, the ASA has blundered into a wholly unnecessary row about free speech. Its approach is clearly not appropriate to the world of blogging and social media. The tone of the email, formal and bureaucratic as it was, is almost certain to come across as threatening and/or presumptuous to an independent blogger who's in no position to supply the information apparently being demanded. The ASA should have realised that its communication might have such an effect. It should certainly take note of the backlash its email has generated and revise their procedures.

[UPDATE: According to Cranmer (via Twitter) there was a crucial difference between the email received by Guido and the one sent to him, in that the former was clearly marked as being for information while Cranmer alone was asked to justify the tone and content of the advert. If that is true, then he appears to have been the victim of an administrative error; all the various publishers should have been treated in the same way. In that case he has valid grounds for seeking an explanation and apology; now that he has consulted a lawyer, I would also suggest he asks for his legal expenses to be defrayed.]

Much of the somewhat hysterical reaction, beneath Cranmer's post and in sympathetic blogs, seems to be based on the idea that the blogger himself is being censored, that the ASA is attempting to run its blue pencil over his opinions. The CAP code is quite clear, however, that it does not apply to "editorial content, news or public relations material". Cranmer can say what he likes about same sex marriage. So can C4M. Only where they use advertising to publicise their campaign do they become subject to the Code.

Finally a brief look att the complaints themselves, and whether they deserve the detailed consideration the ASA is giving them. Leaving aside the contested nature of the 70% claim, the complainants allege that a montage of wedding photos (all of them featuring opposite-sex couples) and accompanied by the message "Help us keep the true meaning of marriage" is in itself offensive and homophobic. Whatever the underlying motivations of C4M (which may well be many and varied) I cannot believe that an advert that says nothing whatever about homosexuality, for or against, can possibly be construed as offensive. Even in its current mood of hypersensitivity as regards issues of offence (a disposition that annoys secularists at least as much as it annoys some religious people) I would be amazed if the ASA decided that such a message falls foul of its Code. But then it's surprising enough that the regulator considered such a trivial complaint necessitated a formal investigation, so you never know.

The preamble states that "the Code makes due allowance for public sensitivities but will not be used by the ASA to diminish freedom of speech unjustifiably". It also states that "the ASA does not arbitrate between conflicting ideologies". A decision that the C4M ad was offensively homophobic would be hard to square with either of those promises. The more serious complaint relates to the use of the 70% figure; there is a reasonable argument that it is indeed misleading.

That is a rather different issue, however.
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Thursday, 10 May 2012

Review: The Sex Myth by Brooke Magnanti

One of the best things about Brooke Magnanti's breezily-written new book is her name on the cover. Her previous notoriety as the call-girl blogger turned bestselling author Belle de Jour will (presumably) guarantee sales and has already produced widespread press coverage. Even if it hasn't been universally favourable (a spiteful review in the Telegraph stands out on that score) the press attention at least ensures that the important issues the book raises will reach a wider public than might normally be the case with a volume that seeks to dispell, rather than to sensationalise and talk up, fears surrounding sexuality, pornography, sex work, the sexualisation of children and suchlike recurrent tabloid fodder.

The slightly random collection of "sex myths" under discussion also include attempts to medicalise sex: for example, in trendy concepts of sex addiction or "female sexual dysfunction" (sometimes called "sexual anorexia", a phrase I hadn't come across before but which I'm unlikely to forget). She traces their historical antecedents in nymphomania and hysteria -- there's a hilarious digression about John Harvey Kellogg, a man whose ideas about sexual purity were as flaky as his cornflakes -- and critises the underlying, stiffling assumption that there's such a thing as sexual normality. Perhaps that's the ultimate sex myth.

The subtitle proclaims: Why everything we're told is wrong*. That depends on what you've been reading, of course. Many of these themes have featured here at Heresy Corner over the years, and some of this blog's heroes (such as Belinda Brooks-Gordon and Laura Agustin) are regularly namechecked. Even the Heresiarch surprisingly turns up at one point to accuse the Poppy Project (New Labour's go-to source of evidence-free scaremongering about sex work) of behaving as evangelistically as the Salvation Army.

So it comes as no surprise to me, and I hope to most of you, that MPs and even government ministers have often deployed wildly exaggerated sex trafficking figures or that the review into sexualisation carried out by trash TV psychologist Dr Linda Papodopoulos at the behest of the last Labour government was a seriously flawed document (and the more recent Bailey Review not much better). Magnanti also explores the history of the Obscene Publications Act (up to and including its recent outing in the case of "Sleazy" Michael Peacock and his fisting videos) and revisits the moral panic that produced that monument to bad law-making, the "extreme images" ban.

I find a lot of this yawningly familiar by now, but many people won't and Magnanti's book provides an entertaining compendium of tabloid myths, as well as a source of ammunition. Whether it can do much against the juggernaut of the Daily Mail, currently engaged in a crusade to introduce compulsory web-filtering, remains to be seen. On that highly topical subject she does a good job exploring the links between Claire Perry's Parliamentary campaign to save fifteen year-old boys from being forced to look at porn on the internet and organisations affiliated with the American religious right (such as, for example, the Witherspoon Foundation). Unity has also been on the case recently. I was also startled to learn (though perhaps I shouldn't have been) that in Ireland, a religious order that once ran the notorious Magdalene Laundries (which for decades used unmarried mothers as a convenient sourse of slave labour) is now prominently involved in anti-trafficking campaigns.

Possible links, and commonality of outlook, between radical feminists and religiously-motivated moralists, feature strongly in the final "myth" tackled by Magnanti, the assumption that campaigners are motivated by high principles. She demonstrates how, whatever the original or ultimate motivation of campaigners, the fear industry generates its own momentum. Campaigners rarely let facts get in the way of a good panic, especially when there's a conference circuit to enjoy, privileged access to politicians and policy-makers on offer, celebrity endorsements to win. This isn't entirely cynical, but it is human nature. I was reminded of something Christopher Hitchens wrote about why so many international conflicts seem intractable: because it's not in the interests of the parasitic class of factional leaders for there to be a solution.

Ronald Weitzer, a professor at Northwestern University, has an excellent paragraph that sums up the approach of what he calls "oppression writers" -- anti-porn or anti-prostitution campaigners such as Melissa Farley and Gail Dines. It isn't in Magnanti's book but could almost serve as a precis:

Oppression writers have been roundly criticized for violating standard canons of social science inquiry and for viewing sex work through a monochromatic lens. Despite this criticism, proponents rigidly adhere to the central tenets of their paradigm, even when confronted with compelling counter-evidence. Moreover, most oppression writers restrict their citations to writings of like-minded authors and ignore research findings that contradict the pillars of their paradigm. Such inconvenient findings are plentiful.

Weitzer goes on (pdf) to criticise these writers' neglect of relevant research as "a radical departure from conventional scholarly writings." The Sex Myth offers many examples of this phenomenon, from claims that all porn is violent, or promotes violence, to the propaganda surrounding the "Swedish model" of outlawing the purchase of sex. As you might expect, Magnanti has much to say about prostitution, and convincingly demonstrates how the "rescue industry", by painting all sex workers as degraded victims, objectifies, patronises and demeans the women it is ostensibly trying to protect.

Magnanti is at her best, perhaps, in the chapter dissecting (and effectively refuting) the claim that the presence of a number of lap dancing clubs in Camden had led to an epidemic of rape in the area. Her presentation deploys statistics with devastating force. This is basically a work of polemic, however, and she's not immune from leaping to unscientific conclusions herself. I found some of her aperçus a trifle odd: for example, her suggestion that the relative rarity of missionary position sex in porn films is because it tends to give less pleasure to the woman. Firstly, that is not, in fact, true (well, it may be for her...); secondly, she overlooks the obvious explanation, which is visual. Porn favours positions, and practices, that display most clearly what is going on (which is why ejaculation is nearly always external). And would male strippers really be more popular with female audiences, as she seems to suggest, if they were permanently erect?

As with most books of this type, the emphasis is on women. Perhaps this is inevitable, and to be fair Magnanti does repeatedly criticise (say) anti-prostitution campaigners for ignoring the experience or even the existence of male sex-workers. She also evinces a tender concern for underpaid and put-upon male porn performers, almost making out that the industry is a functional gynocracy. A work dealing with media representations of sex, and the way that sex is problematised in public discourse, is almost bound to reinforce the perception that sex is something that mainly happens to, impacts upon and is most problematic for women.

This suggests a deeper problem, which despite its title the book scarcely addresses. It deals with "sex myths", in the sense of widely circulated inaccurate beliefs; "cargo-cult science", "zombie statistics"; moral panics. But what is the sex myth? Consider the constellation of popular ideas that lie behind and render plausible many of the claims advanced by commercial interests and by moral entrepreneurs. Sex and love belong together. Sex is the most important thing in any relationship. It should never be boring. Commercialised sex is wrong and exploitative. Men are sexually rapacious, visually stimulated and dangerous. Women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped. Sex is a dangerous force that must be channelled through relationships. Women are, or should be, "modest". There are right and wrong ways to have sex. To be healthy is to be having the right amount of the right kind of sex with the right number of people, preferably one at a time. Porn is degrading. Children should, as long as possible, be kept innocent. Sex should be beautiful, spiritual and profound. There's too much sex on TV. Ban this filth.

Sex is dirty; save it for someone you love.

There you are: the myth of myths, the ur-myth, the underlying psychopathology that gives rise to all the things that Brooke Magnanti is complaining about. She thinks, or at least hopes, that the light of science can illuminate the dark recesses of the soul where lurk myths about sex. She imagines a world "in which reason and experience finally trump the playground demons of rumour and fear." She is calling for an end to ambivalence, for sex to be no longer a mystery. For people to believe what science rather than their own intuition tells them about the most intimate and troubling of human experiences. Dream on, Brooke, dream on.

*Brooke Magnanti informs me that she wasn't responsible for the title, nor for the strapline "Why everything we're told is wrong." I would have gone for "Sex, lies and the media", myself.
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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Blood and money

Reviewing some books for Prospect (one of them by the Harvard philospher Michael Sandel), Rowan Williams offers his thoughts on paid-for blood donation, as practised in the United States (and, needless to say, generally frowned upon over here):

Predictably, most of the blood that is dealt with on a commercial basis comes from the very poor, including the homeless and the unemployed. The system entails a large-scale redistribution of blood from the poor to the rich... We hear of international markets in organs for transplant and are, on the whole, queasy about it; but here is a routine instance of life, quite literally, being transferred from the poor to the rich on a recognised legal basis.

Williams goes on to quote the Book of Revelation and Karl Marx while struggling to put his finger on just what is so objectionable about the "commodification of life". He then sets out his reflections with his trademark clarity of expression:

Sandel is describing an alienation of the subject from the body, of the will from the material world. What is lasting and “real” is the abstract ego, independent of its physical nature, its environment, even its actual history. The fundamental model being assumed here is one in which a set of unconditioned wills negotiate control of a passive storehouse of commodities, each of them capable of being reduced to a dematerialised calculus of exchange value. If anything could be called a “world-denying” philosophy, this is it.

But I'd like to go back to the starting point: the "redistribution of blood from the poor to the rich". A very strange expression that, suggestive of vampirism. Is that what is actually going on? For a start, most of those getting the blood will not be "rich" in any meaningful sense (though, this being the US, they will tend to be people with health insurance, or perhaps older people on Medicare). Even genuinely wealthy recipients will only be receiving it from the donors indirectly.

Furthermore, along with the homeless and the very poor (though not, of course, anyone with serious medical conditions, drug users, sex workers and other categories of person usually considered outside the pale and hence ineligible) will be a fairly high proportion of students or housewives looking for a small boost in their disposable income. So it's as simplistic to claim that the donors are poor as it is inaccurate to claim that the recipients are rich.

And if, as Williams claims, "life" was being "quite literally" transferred from the poor to the rich, the poor blood-donors would go into the clinic, be bled dry and never come out. Perhaps that's what the Archbeard imagines is going on over there, though I doubt it.

The redistribution, in fact, is from the healthy to the sick.

Or you could look at the system in another way, as a redistribution of money from the rich to the poor. After all, the poor person who sells his blood gains something absolute in exchange: money that can be exchanged for food, or put in the bank, or spent on otherwise unaffordable books. But all he "loses" is a substance which a healthy body can regenerate in a matter of hours. Indeed, there are positive health effects to blood donation, so the paid donor benefits twice.

There's no logical reason why paid-for blood donation should make Rowan Williams, or anyone else, particularly queasy. It's not like selling a kidney which you can never get back. Blood may be essential to life, but it strikes me as a less intimate product than sperm or eggs, in both of which there is a lively market. If you donate sperm, you're not merely giving up a renewable bodily fluid, you're offering your genetic identity, you're giving away your (potential) children. If you donate your eggs, you're doing all that and undergoing an invasive medical procedure and giving away something of which your body has a limited supply. And the result is not to save life but merely to add to an already overpopulated planet.

It is, nevertheless, interesting that selling one's blood is quite legal in the US, whereas in most states prostitution - which does not represent the commodification of the body but rather the provision of a service - is against the law.
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