Wednesday, 30 January 2013

George Galloway has a point

The highlight of today's Prime Minister's Questions was undoubtedly David Cameron's blistering response to George Galloway, the rarely-sighted (in the Commons chamber, at least) Respect MP for Bradford West.

Galloway had asked a characteristically orotund question, inviting the PM to "adumbrate" the differences between the "hand-chopping, throat-cutting jihadists" of Mali, currently being suppressed by French forces with alarmingly growing amounts of British support, and the superficially similar jihadists in Syria whom we are currently aiding in their struggle against the Assad regime. He wondered if Cameron had ever read Frankenstein.

Cameron's reply: "There is one thing that is certain: wherever there is a brutal Arab dictator in the world, he will have the support of the honourable gentlemen".

A fair enough point, though one can quibble that George can be equally keen on non-Arab dictators such as the current rulers of Iran. Tony Blair used to say much the same thing about Galloway's support of Saddam Hussein, usually just before he jetted off to Tripoli to have a cosy chat with his friend Muammar Gaddafi about which dissidents the colonel wanted the British secret service to help him round up that week.

But it would be wrong to accuse David Cameron of similar double standards. Not on the day he boards a plane to Algeria to hold talks with the famously human-rights friendly government there about the next steps to be taken against the "existential threat" posed by al-Qaeda linked militants in North Africa. Fundamentalist Islamic militants in Syria pose no similar threat to Western interests (keep up, George, you ought to know this) because they are Salafists, funded largely by our great ally Saudi Arabia. If they want to torch a few churches and stone a few adultresses as part of their purification of the country from the Assad family and its heretical Alawite hangers on, well, that's their business, not ours.

Congratulations to Asma Assad, by the way, on her happy news. I know it's unforgiveable, but Asma evokes in me sentiments similar to those produced in Edmund Burke by the sight of Marie Antoinette in the hands of the French revolutionaries. "Surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision", and all that. In any case, whatever you think of her husband (largely a prisoner of circumstance, I'd say, rather like the hapless Louis XVI, who inherited a circumscribed system that was beyond his power to reform) her children are obviously innocent. The thought of them falling into the hands of jihadi "revolutionaries" is not a nice one. But well, that's the Arab Spring for you. (See also Tahrir Square, home of the People's revolution, where any woman, however impenetrably veiled, now takes her life in her hands. "Muslim patrols" aren't just a feature of East London.)

Galloway has a point, of course. The Malian army, given the upper hand over the library-burning fundamentalists by the French on their post-colonial jolly, have indulged themselves in random killings and revenge massacres every bit as brutal as those perpetrated by Assad's bashi-bazouks, and far worse than anything laid at the door of the official Syrian Army, which has by all accounts remained fairly well-disciplined. As one woman of an ethnic group targeted by government forces put it, "we have stopped wearing our traditional clothes—we are being forced to abandon our culture, and to stay indoors." Well, "there's a risk" of that sort of thing taking place, said the French defence minister with a Gallic shrug. Stuff happens, after all, as the much-missed Donald Rumsfeld used to say.

It's not the realpolitik that offends me. It's not even the hypocrisy. It might be that a sober calculation of the national interest really did require propping up dictatorships against fundamentalist militants in one part of the Muslim world, and supporting Jihadist insurrections against dictatorships in another. It used to make sense to treat Mubarak (in no sense a Gaddafi) as an important and valued ally; just as it now incumbent upon our leaders to make clear that he was a rotter all along and deserves to be in a jail cell. In the case of Mali, Cameron seems to be driven by a combination of the usual Churchill-envy (or perhaps more immediately Blair-envy) and under-the-table commitment to an EU partner that may well be out of its depth. Or perhaps he just wanted to tick Mali off the list published last year of the 22 countries that Britain had never invaded. Whatever. The liberation of Timbuktu, although marred by the destruction wrought by departing Islamists, has been sufficiently exhilarating to produce a rush to the head similar to a lucky streak at a casino. Now is actually the time to get out, not to pile in. As Afghanistan shows as clearly as could be shown, what comes next will be a long drawn-out and infinitely frustrating. The rebels may have run away, but they'll be back.

But interfering in Mali, right now, is almost irresistible. The game's a familiar one. Choose your friends, overlook their atrocities (while playing up the atrocities committed by your enemies), dig out Orwell's dictionary of political clichés ("standing shoulder to shoulder", "freedom and democracy", "bloodstained tyrants": they were all present and correct in 1946) and make out that while the Western world is engaged in an "existential, decades-long struggle against" against this group of extremists, that group of similarly-motivated extremists are freedom fighters. Sometimes it's the exact same people, as when a "terrorist" handed over to Gaddafi for torture turns out to be a key figure in the emergent democratic regime. Oops.

Galloway is right about Frankenstein. The point isn't just that Al-Qaeda, or the Arab dictatorships that the West used to support (or in Algeria's case, still do) are to some extent our creatures, bound to turn against us in the end. The trouble with Victor Frankenstein was that, intoxicated with his own brilliance, he was unable to see that anything could possibly go wrong.
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Monday, 28 January 2013

Free speech, the Internet and the legacy of 1689

Could the internet be the way that both traditional Christianity and rigorous investigative journalism can be preserved for the British public in the future?
asks Rev Julian Mann

Both British Christians and secular journalists have good reason to celebrate 1689. It was the year Parliament passed the Act of Toleration which removed the restrictions on non-conformist Protestants holding church meetings. It was also the year Parliament passed the Bill of Rights, effectively allowing a free press in England, which then extended to Great Britain following the 1707 Acts of Union.

But now 1689 is being put into reverse by the coalition government. If same-sex marriage is passed into law, the Equality Act of 2010 could well make it illegal for a Christian teacher to declare his or her belief that same-sex marriage is wrong or even that it is not on a moral par with heterosexual marriage. Christians in the public sector will be the new nonconformists officially persecuted by the State.

The suppression of a free press in the UK is likely to be a more slow-burning process than the squeeze on Christian freedom of expression. But the Leveson enquiry demonstrated that there is a powerful and wealthy lobby of celebrities who want the British government to stop journalists criticising their moral behaviour, particularly their sexual conduct. That narcissistic celebrity mentality is surely the same as that driving the politically influential gay lobby, who want to stop Christians expressing the Bible's moral teaching in the public square.

If anyone is inclined to doubt that Christians and journalists are in the same boat in the threat they face from repressive political correctness dressed up as an 'equality' crusade, then they need look no further than the recent reaction of a government minister over an article in a national newspaper criticising transsexuals. Former equalities minister Lynne Featherstone demanded that The Observer 'sack' Julie Birchill, one of its freelance writers. It is an intervention worthy of a Carolingian prelate against a non-conformist pamphleteer before 1689.

Thankfully, the advent of the internet makes it difficult for modern governments to suppress freedom of speech, whether Christian or secular. Such sites may have to locate off-shore in the future but it would be hard for the government to stop British people from reading them.

Should the UK press get muzzled, it is important that internet sites do employ proper investigative journalists. Politically correct repression of free speech has a pretext when journalists are cavalier with the truth, are unscrupulous or are professionally incompetent. If the internet is the way of holding the UK executive to account, then that responsibility cannot be left to amateurs.

It may well be that internet users will have to pay for the cost of employing properly trained, professional journalists. But surely the exposure of evil abd the clear and open declaration of the truth is worth the price. It is only powerful mountebanks who will benefit from the suppression of both Christianity and a free press.

Christians know from their New Testament that the powerful religio-political establishment of 1st century Judea was desperate to stop Jesus speaking his mind. At the end of one argument, during which Jesus famously said 'if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed' (John 8v36), his enemies tried to stone him to death.

For the sake of preserving the spiritual and temporal legacy of 1689, Christian communicators and investigative journalists must not make their excuses and leave the UK public to the ravages of powerful liars.

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire -
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Sunday, 27 January 2013

They of all people

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, which has been officially marked in Britain on this date since 2001. Let me say to begin with that I've never been very keen on either the concept or the reality of Holocaust Memorial Day. It smacks too much of official self-congratulation. It gives too easy a platform to politicians, religious leaders and other public moralisers to deliver pious platitudes. It lends itself to unattractive one-upmanship in the game of victimhood and to posturing by politicisers of history (Why not us? What about our genocide?). A crime as enormous as the slaughter by the Nazis of 6 million Jews (and of course gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, the physically and mentally disabled and political dissidents) simply doesn't need an annual day to keep it in human memory. As though it would otherwise be forgotten!

Some anniversaries are the organic products of a nation's history: November 5th, the Fourth of July, Bastille Day. Others attempt to raise the consciousness of the world to a current problem that needs fixing; events such as International Women's Day and Aids Awareness Day fall into this category, though they too can often become pious and self-serving. But Holocaust Memorial Day is neither of these. Rather it attempts to fix an approved narrative of history, one that enshrines the Jews as a victim people. On Holocaust Memorial Day, and throughout the year in schools and documentaries, this sanctified, half-mythologised slaughter is reduced to the status of a trite moral parable. As memories have faded and the number of first-hand survivors have dwindled, Holocaust Memorialism has become an international industry feeding on self-righteousness and guilt.

At the same time, Holocaust commemoration encourages the idea that genocide on the scale of the 1940s is a present danger rather than a unique crime. It leads modern politicians to fancy themselves as Churchill or Roosevelt, and to glib assertions that every foreign bad guy who comes across their radar screen, every Saddam or Gaddafi, is a new Hitler. "Never again!" they cry, even as they fail to prevent smaller genocides from being a recurrent feature of our world. Is it, perhaps, that the Nazi Holocaust, marked out by its cold-bloodedness and systematic industrialisation, is simply too atypical to make it a useful moral lesson?

The most important thing to remember about the attempted extermination of the Jewish people during the Second World War is that it failed. The Jews survived Hitler as they survived the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Seleucids, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition and the Tsars. Within a few short years of the Nazi cataclysm, Jewish people had resumed what seems to be their natural place at the forefront of Western scientific, cultural and, yes, economic life. They also built in the Middle East what is, for all its many shortcomings, a uniquely vibrant democracy. Such things were not achieved through being pitied and being pitiful but by being strong. Israel isn't just a long-desired national homeland for a people who spend most of their history in conscious exile. It's also the greatest possible Fuck You to the Nazis.

But the Jews in the death camps didn't save themselves. They were in no position to fight back, and by and large they did not. Most walked with docility into the gas chambers. Those who survived did so because the combined forces of the Soviet Union and the Western Allies ultimately proved too much for Hitler's once invincible army. They were rescued. It is dangerous to see in the Holocaust a message of good defeating evil, of right prevailing over might. A more pragmatic and useful lesson to be drawn is that a people without the wherewithal to defend itself can end up at the mercy of those who would exterminate it.

Contemplating the Holocaust in today's approved manner can all too easily produce morally absurd utterances such as that by the Lib Dem MP for Bradford East David Ward, who said last week on his blog:

Having visited Auschwitz twice – once with my family and once with local schools – I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.

In what was apparently a clumsy attempt at damage-limitation, Ward later added,

The Holocaust was one of the worst examples in history of man’s inhumanity to man. When faced with examples of atrocious behaviour, we must learn from them. It appears that the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treated.

Because how dare the Jews not learn their lesson? What on earth was the point of killing six million of the blighters if not to teach them the virtue of compassion, after all? And their attitudes pre-Holocaust were obviously in need of transformation. Unlike those of David Ward and his ilk, of course, who care very much about the Holocaust, as proved by their mastery of all the approved soundbites, and are thus in an ideal position to lecture the descendants of its actual victims on how they should respond to it.

Ward has since sort-of apologised for the "unintended offence" that these remarks caused, but it's clear from the tone ("I will continue to make criticisms of actions in Palestine in the strongest possible terms for as long as Israel continues to oppress the Palestinian people") that he hasn't really understood where he went wrong. A fellow Lib Dem, the MEP Chris Davies, is equally at sea, to judge by a series of Tweets he posted yesterday.

Glad that Lib Dem MP David Ward says he will continue to criticise Israeli policy towards Palestinians. He speaks for the vast majority.

David Ward's words could have been better chosen, but why do people who have suffered so much now inflict suffering upon Palestinians?

Lib Dem leadership quite wrong to 'reprimand' David Ward. Makes Nick look like being in Israel's pocket. In fact he is a fierce critic.

Nick will be thanking Mr Davies for that last last one. Not.

Do I really need to spell it out to moral idiots like Davies and Ward?

Firstly, however much you disagree with Israeli policy in the West Bank and elsewhere (and I'm not a big fan) there is no valid comparison between an over-the-top security operation intended to preserve the territorial integrity, indeed the very existence, of the state of Israel, and the systematic attempt by the Nazis to wipe an entire people from the face of the earth. None. It's remarkable how many, especially on the Left, seem to think that there is some equivalence to be made. I remember a deranged outburst on Start the Week a few years ago from the late Eva Figes, who said of the Israelis that, "They're just like the Nazis. They don't have gas chambers, but that's largely because they would be found out."

The Israelis are not like the Nazis. If they were, they would be busy shovelling Palestinians into gas ovens. That's point number one. This really ought to go without saying.

Second, Israel is not "the Jews". And Israeli policy today has no connection whatever with what happened in the greater German Reich during the 1940s. It's a response to a security situation, not a response to a crime of several generations ago.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Jewish people have no special responsibility ("they of all people") not to oppress others, simply because they were themselves the victims of oppression. The conceit is oddly pervasive, despite the fact that throughout history once oppressed people have turned the tables on their former oppressors. Christians no sooner took power in the Roman Empire than they began persecuting pagans (and Christian heretics). The French Revolution soon led to a bloodbath of aristocrats. The people of Tlaxcala, oppressed by the Aztecs, needed no encouragement from the Spanish conquistadors to loot and burn Tenochtitlan in 1521. As Shakespeare's Shylock put it manfully, "If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

It is dangerous and wrong to look up to the Holocaust's casualties and survivors as paragons of victimhood or as moral exemplars. They were just people, caught up in a situation of unspeakable barbarity, but no better or worse than the general run of humanity. Having been persecuted does not make people more noble, more tolerant, more empathic, more sensitive to the plight of others, and there is absolutely no reason why it should. If anything, the reverse should be the case.

That's not to say that among the Holocaust's survivors there were not many extraordinary stories of forgiveness and moral insight, of people who transcended their own horrendous experience to find a universal humanitarian vision. Some of those who lived through the Holocaust or died during it deserve to be acknowledged as saints. But it is asking too much, far too much, to expect all the Holocaust's victims to react like that. A more natural human reaction would be abiding hatred of Germany and all things German. It's asking more still to expect others to be (in Ward's word) "transformed" simply by virtue of belonging to the same ethno-religious group.

But I'm afraid that by institutionalising a bunch of lazy, officially sanctioned moral platitudes in an occasion such as Holocaust Memorial Day, that is precisely the sort of nonsense you're going to get.
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Friday, 25 January 2013

When the church runs welfare

Freedom of religion is a noble ideal. Historically, it is the freedom from which other freedoms flowed: freedom of thought and conscience was first defined, by philosophers like John Locke, as freedom to believe, in opposition to the age-old supposition of kings and governments that they could require the religious adherence of their subjects. Establishing freedom of religion in law, originally in Virginia, was Thomas Jefferson's proudest achievement, and when the US Bill of Rights came to be drafted the freedom of religious observance from government control was given pride of place. Today, the list of countries where religious freedom is most curtailed is a close match for those least free in other ways, with Saudi Arabia and North Korea vying for the top spot.

Like all freedoms, though, it is one that properly belongs to individuals. When institutions demand freedom for themselves there can be a danger that it comes to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of others. We should be particularly concerned when churches and other manifestations of organised religion insist, in the name of religious liberty, on exemptions from laws that apply to others. Conscience must be respected, but not unfair privilege. In the United States, Catholic bishops used the freedom of religion argument to campaign against a measure giving their employees access to contraception as part of workers' health insurance packages. Because the Roman Catholic church officially disapproves of contraception, they argued (largely successfully) that the rights of even non-Catholic employees should count for less than that of the institution. The argument did not even concern the consciences of individual bishops, priests or school or hospital administrators. It was about the "conscience" of the church itself.

And it's not just in the United States, a country which for all the constitutional separation of church of state remains by European standards highly religious, that such problems can arise. Modern Germany, like the UK, is largely secular. Nevertheless, churches continue to wield huge interest in many areas of life and do so largely funded by public funds. It's not "establishment" in the C of E sense of bishops in Parliament, but something in many ways stronger and more far-reaching. Germans who don't formally declare themselves non-religious have to pay taxes to support of their church. If they choose to opt out, they lose any right to a religious wedding or funeral. And even then they may find themselves using public services paid for by the state but supplied by churches and subject to religious authority.

The Roman Catholic Church alone is the second-largest employer in the country, after the government, involved not only in education but in some cases in the provision of basic healthcare. In some parts of Germany, according to a report in Der Spiegel, the Catholic Church operates a near monopoly on social provision, catering for people from kindergarten to nursing home. Spiegel describes this world of church-run institutions as "a state within a state; a cosmos subject to its own rules, which are monitored by the pope and his bishops; and a world in which federal, state and local governments have little say."

It dictates the kind of life its doctors, educators, teachers and cleaning women are allowed to lead. It determines how children are raised. And it also decides -- on its own authority -- how patients are to be treated or, in some cases, turned away.

Your local hospital might well be one of the 420 run by the Catholic church. In one shocking case from Cologne, doctors at two hospitals run by an order of nuns turned away a rape victim, apparently because it was feared that she might need the morning after pill (thus tampering with evidence, perhaps). In fact, the medication had already been prescribed by her doctor. The action was in accordance with the church's principled opposition to anything that might be construed as abortion, but as a source from a women's emergency hotline put it, "a woman who has been raped needs comprehensive assistance right away. She can't simply be turned away for religious reasons in the middle of treatment and consultation." If a hospital can't provide the full range of services its patients might require, it's not doing its job properly. If the Catholic Church can't in conscience cater to rape victims in need of treatment, it should get out of the health business.

But far from being a relic of a bygone era, like faith-based education in Britain, faith-based social provision is expanding in Germany. There are almost ten times as many Germans directly employed by church institutions as there were in 1950, even as the proportion of the population attending services has declined, as it has in the rest of Europe. To a large extent this is the result of a policy of government outsourcing, which in the UK has tended to favour large companies like Serco and Capita. The report notes that "since doctors, educators and caregivers often have no alternative to working for Catholic organizations, they are forced to comply with their guidelines." Employees of church organisations who get divorced, who use IVF or even merely "express sympathetic views toward homosexuality" can find themselves out of a job; German courts "have repeatedly upheld the historical special status of religious orders." This seems very different to the approach of UK courts, who have for example repeatedly ruled against Catholic-run adoption agencies who wished to decline same-sex couples.

Do we really want to see German- or American-style "faithfare" in Britain? Thus far, leaving aside the recent expansion in faith schools (though that is an issue in itself) it has largely been avoided. But for how much longer? This week Demos, once New Labour's favourite think-tank, brought out a slim report urging local authorities to make more use of the "faith sector" in areas such as employment, drug rehabilitation and youth work. Jonathan Birdwell's report Faithful Providers laments the "squeamishness" shown by some councils, complaining that despite the government's Big Society rhetoric, "faith-based providers have seen little uplift in opportunity, often being overlooked due to local authorities’ fears that they might discriminate or proselytise to service users."

Birdwell accepts the assurances offered by the groups he spoke to that they are motivated by humanitarian concerns rather than a desire to proselytise, even though some admitted that they didn't proselytise because local authority rules strictly forbade it. In fact, he thinks the rules are too strict: there is "nothing wrong with service providers openly discussing their faith" with clients who are willing to listen. As for discriminating in employment, for example by favouring co-religionists, Demos seems entirely comfortable with this: "while some organisations spoke about hiring members of their own faith exclusively as employees, we argue that this practice is not discriminatory."

The report is part of a project by a committee chaired by the former Labour minister Stephen Timms and funded by the Bill Hill Trust, an evangelical organisation whose primary objective is "the advancement of the Christian religion." On the right, meanwhile, the same line has been pushed strongly by the likes of Eric Pickles and Baroness Warsi. Part of it comes down to money. In an era of funding cuts, there's an obvious temptation to use people prepared to work long hours for less, or even no, pay to provide social services. If God will provide, after all, the taxpayer has less need to.Demos makes much of the "value for money" and potential "cost efficiencies" offered by faith providers , whose "faith service ethos" it compares to the altruistic motivation fondly attributed to public sector workers in the Leftie imagination. (But public sector workers need pensions and employment protection, and certainly aren't doing it for the love of God.)

Faithfare worked in the 19th century, when groups like the Salvation Army emerged to provide services that the state did not. But society then was much more religious, and few people saw a conflict between religious indoctrination and social welfare provision. If religious charities distingiuished between the deserving and undeserving poor, at least the deserving poor were getting some help. That was progress. Today? Well, perhaps there are some areas where the use of "faith providers" might be justified by pragmatism if not by principle. Drug rehabilitation may be one such. Drug users are typically damaged people with addictive and self-destructive personalities; God can provide a good substitute for the crutch offered by narcotics, and born-again Christians, on balance, are less socially problematic than junkies. Charismatic religion and drugs can produce similar highs. But acknowledging this would require, not just permit, full-scale proselytising of addicts; and this is something that not even Demos seems to envisage.

Interestingly, the strongest criticism of Birdwell's proposals has come from the Left-wing Christian think-tank Ekklesia. Simon Barrow criticises the report's "predominantly functionalist language and assumptions" and worries that Christians might find themelselves "sucked into the role of patching up and rendering workable a system that is based on accepting some fundamentally unacceptable inequalities and imbalances." He would prefer them to exercise a "prophetic" role by condemning government cuts.

Barrow also fears that the religious discrimination already allowed to faith schools could be extended to welfare services. "Imagine a hospital run by groups that reserved the right to give priority treatment to members of their own communities," he writes. That's unlikely, but you don't have to imagine the possibility of a hospital refusing basic treatment to patients based on the theological opinions of its religious overseers. You just need to go to Germany.

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Thursday, 17 January 2013

Screwed by the state

Are undercover police allowed, or even encouraged, to sleep with "targets" as a means of gaining intelligence on environmental protesters and other political subversives?

One would hope not.  Such a practice would be deeply unethical. It would represent a fundamental violation of trust and an invasion of privacy and cast senior police officers in the role of pimps. The people (mainly women) targeted in this way are human beings, and citizens. It's not just sex on the job, and it's not just "crossing a line": we're talking about the emotional manipulation of people when they're at their most intimate and vulnerable, what one lawyer has described as "the sexual and psychological abuse of campaigners for social justice". It can't be right.

But that's what spies do, though, isn't it? Sleep with sources. Everyone knows that. It works for James Bond. That's what Mr Justice Tugendhat apparently thinks, anyway.

He was ruling in an action brought last year by group of women and one man (the cuckolded boyfriend of one such "source") against the police claiming damages for breach of their human rights (under the Human Rights Act) and for civil tort. The case comes after it emerged that an undercover officer, Mark Kennedy, a married father of two, had carried on covert sexual relationships with several women, in one case for six years, while spying on them and their fellow eco-warriors. The revelations caused shock and outrage, along with a fair amount of titillation in the Daily Mail and the Guardian (those conjoined twins of media self-righteousness). Kennedy's superiors in the Met denied that they knew of or condoned his behaviour. An official report by HM Inspector of Constabulary mentioned "indications that Mark Kennedy was becoming resistant to management intervention" and implied that he had been at best inadequately supervised and quite possibly a rogue officer.

Kennedy himself, though, suggested in interviews that sex with environmental campaigners (or "domestic extremists", as the police like to call them) was part of the job, essential to maintain his deep cover and to avoid raising suspicions (there are no virgins at hippy camp), and that his supervisors at least tacitly knew what was going on.

Today's ruling concerns a rather technical point of law, but one with huge implications for open justice where state surveillance of political protest is concerned. When the women initially filed their case, lawyers for the police (The Met, the South Wales Police and ACPO) argued that the officers' activities were implicitly authorised under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Even the sex was covered, whether or not supervisors had known of it, because the act allows for "personal and other relationships" with suspects and unwitting sources of intelligence. The police then argued in court that the case should be heard instead by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a body that sits in secret, where "security" evidence cannot be properly challenged and from which there is no appeal.

Tugendhat found that the human rights claims were indeed reserved for the IPT, and that while the tort claims should be heard by the High Court, this would not take place until the IPT had reached its decision in secret. If the IPT found that the undercover officers had been acting within the scope of RIPA authorisation, indeed, the civil claims might never be heard in open court. This is where James Bond came in. The question was: could intimate sexual relationships form part of an undercover officer's work as authorised by RIPA? Could this be what the act's framers had contemplated? Tugendhat's answer, in part, was that indeed it could, because 007 gets up to that sort of thing all the time.

Here's what he said (at paragraph 177):

James Bond is the most famous fictional example of a member of the intelligence services who used relationships with women to obtain information, or access to persons or property. Since he was writing a light entertainment, Ian Fleming did not dwell on the extent to which his hero used deception, still less upon the psychological harm he might have done to the women concerned. But fictional accounts (and there are others) lend credence to the view that the intelligence and police services have for many years deployed both men and women officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature (whether or not they were physical relationships) in order to obtain information or access.

In other words, he went on, at the time that RIPA was being passed "everyone in public life would have assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the intelligence services and the police did from time to time deploy officers in this way." So yes, RIPA authorisation probably does extend to sex - provided that the relationships themselves are not "degrading".

What a strange argument. James Bond isn't just "fiction", it's escapist fantasy with about as close a connection with the real work of the intelligence agencies as Ghostbusters does to the weekend activities of Hayley Stevens and her friends. It doesn't "lend credence" to anything. The same goes for other spy thrillers. Audiences know that it's not really like that, or even like Spooks. One would certainly hope that legislators do. And Mark Kennedy's "targets" weren't exotic Russian agents with a handbag full of nuclear secrets and the sexual etiquette of a praying mantis, either. Nor were they dangerous international terrorists intent on blowing up airports or shopping malls. They were tree huggers, filthy hippies, largely peaceful activists engaged primarily in democratic dissent, however misguided or naive. Their brand of "domestic extremism" encompassed, at the most, acts of trespass and minor damage to property.

Nor was Mark Kennedy any kind of super-spy, putting his body on the line for the sake of Queen and country. The intelligence he gleaned during almost a decade spent undercover (and under the covers) doesn't seem to have amounted to all that much. He got himself arrested at a demo in 2006. He helped obtain the conviction of 20 protesters at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station for aggravated trespass, all of which were subsequently overturned when his role as an agent provocateur came to light. The HMIC states that he provided "useful intelligence" on an anti-fascist group, a European anti-capitalist protest group and a "network of anarchist groups" set up to disrupt the G8 summit in 2005. That was about it.

If Bond is a reliable guide on the appropriateness of undercover police officers indulging in sexual relationships with people they are supposed to be investigating for political protest, why wouldn't the officers equally at liberty to liquidate their sources when they cease to be useful? 007 has a licence to kill, after all, and regularly uses it to bump off his conquests. Many members of the public believe that secret agents behave like that anyway, and I don't think Parliament has ever explicitly forbidden it.

Part of the problem with Mark Kennedy was that he came to believe that he was the hero of his own thriller, doing things of vital national significance. But then this sort of self-aggrandisement is common enough in the culture of the organisations for which he worked, as typified by the use of terms like "domestic extremism": give something a scary-sounding name, and it is instantly metamorphosed into a serious threat. The last thing we need is High Court judges "lending credence" to their Fleming-style fantasies.

Another thing: apart from a short report in the Guardian, today's ruling has had very little media coverage, despite its potentially huge consequences for the rule of law. I realise, of course, that agents of the state engaging in sexual manipulation against peaceful, and essentially law-abiding, protesters matters far less than what some people on Twitter said about what Julie Burchill said in the Observer about what some other people on Twitter said to Suzanne Moore about what she'd written in the New Statesman. You'd think, though, looking at it from the outside (as I do) that the actual fucking police literally fucking duped activists and then using an obscure legal procedure to deny their victims open justice would interest people who call themselves radical and progressive rather more than a throwaway remark made by one self-identified feminist journalist, or even the genuinely offensive comments made by another high-profile feminist journalist a few days later in her defence, which is at the end of the day just words. You'd think so.

What gives? Is it because Lefties expect the police to behave like fascist oppressors, so it's not really of much interest when they do, whereas when someone identifying as a left-wing feminist uses a left-wing newspaper column to say something contrary to the current approved rulings of the gender police it's a massive scandal? Or are left-wingers simply more interested in arguing the toss about words because, well, very little is actually at stake?
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Sunday, 13 January 2013

Satanic Savile

Today's Sunday Express offered a free paedometer to every reader. It's a remarkable device: just wave it in the general direction of some passing priest, scoutmaster or retired Seventies DJ, and if he's a pervert it'll start beeping loudly enough to warn off any children within earshot. No family should be without one.

Oh no, sorry, it's a pedometer, which is some sort of fitness device, apparently. My mistake. I must have been distracted by the main headline: "Savile was part of Satanic ring".  Jimmy Savile, we're told, "beat and raped" a 12 year old girl during a Black Mass-style ceremony held in a "candle-lit basement" at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1975. That's right: Stoke Mandeville Hospital had (has?) a Satanic temple in the basement, and no-one knows. It's like something out of Buffy. Wearing a "hooded robe and mask", we learn, Savile "chanted Hail Satan in Latin as other paedophile devil worshippers joined in and assaulted the girl." The tale "shines a sinister new light on the former DJ’s 54-year reign of terror," according to the Express. It certainly shines a sinister light onto something.

If you remember anything about the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the late 80s and early 90s, during which children in Rochdale, Orkney and other places were taken from their families amid hair-raising accounts of diabolical rituals, you may recognise the name of the Express's principal - indeed only - source. Valerie Sinason, who describes herself as "a poet, writer, child psychotherapist and adult psychoanalyst", was, indeed still is, the leading proponent of the view that SRA is widespread in Britain. The 1994 book Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse, which she edited, marked the apogee of the UK's Satanic panic. It was not universally well-received, however. In a largely hostile review Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Minnesota, wrote that it was

Useful for anyone who needs a startling, clear demonstration of the amazing ability of 20th century human beings to persuade themselves to believe firmly in utter claptrap and nonsense. Every contributor... is solidly committed to affirming, supporting, describing and explaining the reality of satanic ritualistic abuse and the actual existence of large numbers of people who engage in the most bizarre, weird, impossible and incredible behaviors. The only problem is they are never really found.

Sinason's claims were seriously undermined in a Department of Health report written by Professor Jean Lafontaine, also released in 1994. Lafontaine argued to the satisfaction of most observers that SRA was not so much a crime as a construct of the therapeutic process, as well as an example of modern urban folklore. Thereafter the claims of widespread organised Satanism largely vanished from the front pages and into the more feverish parts of the Internet - the David Icke Forum, for example, where it has long been a favourite topic of conversation. (Indeed, Icke himself exposed Jimmy Savile as a Satan-worshipping paedophile months before the information filtered into the wider public domain.) For her part Sinason has continued to promote her beliefs and has some prominent backers, including the journalist Beatrix Campbell and the Cross-bench peer Lord Alton, who in 2002 a hosted meeting in Parliament at which campaigners including Sinason presented their evidence. She has also been a regular guest on Woman's Hour.

A good impression of Valerie Sinason's approach can be gained from this exchange in the Observer from December 2011:

Sinason insists she doesn't use recovered-memory techniques. "I'm an analytic therapist," she says. "The idea of that is someone showing, through their behaviour, that all sorts of things might have happened to them." Signs that a patient has suffered satanically include flinching at green or purple objects, the colours of the high priest and priestess's robes. "And if someone shudders when they enter a room, you know it's not ordinary incest."

Another warning, she says, is the patient saying: "I don't know." "What they really mean is: 'I can't bear to say.'" A patient who "overpraises" their family is also suspicious. "The more insecure you are, the more you praise. 'Oh my family was wonderful! I can't remember any of it!'"

But what do these Satanic rituals actually involve? Not just sexual abuse, it turns out:

Sinason talks of a popular ritual in which a child is stitched inside the belly of a dying animal before being 'reborn to Satan'. During other celebrations, "people eat faeces, menstrual blood, semen, urine. There's cannibalism." Some groups have doctors performing abortions. "They give the foetus to the mother and she's made to kill the baby."
"And the cannibalism – that's foetuses?" I clarify.
"Foetuses and bits of bodies."
"Raw or cooked?"
"The foetuses are raw."

It's significant, I think, that many accounts of Satanic Abuse uncovered by Sinason and similarly-inclined therapists, including today's story about Jimmy Savile, relate to events that allegedly took place during the 1970s, a time when Devil-worshipping orgies and ritual murder in suburban locations were a common theme of popular horror films. The memories are real enough, in many cases, but they are memories of things seen on TV rather than of experiences actually undergone.

As for the Savile story, Sinason claims to have been told it by one of her patients in 1992. A second alleged victim approached her a year later and described an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy at a house in a wealthy part of London which she had attended as a 21 year old "supposedly consenting" prostitute.

Along with other young women, the victim was shepherded to wait in another room before being brought back to find Savile in a master of ceremonies kind of role with a group wearing robes and masks. She too heard Latin chanting and instantly recognised satanist regalia.

From films, presumably. Although the two stories are made to seem similar, they actually differ significantly, the first being a "classic" case of SRA and the second more along the lines of a kinky party. Interestingly, the other papers haven't picked up on the Express report. Perhaps they sense that it's a Savile story too far. It's very much Express territory, of a piece with the title's long-running promotion of conspiracy theories involving Diana and Madeleine McCann.

One place the Express splash has been greeted warmly is on the David Icke Forum. "What we had all hoped for," said one regular on the site's gargantuan (2000 pages and counting) Savile thread. For the lizard-spotters, the news that Savile's links with organised Satanism has finally broken into the mainstream media is a welcome development after the disappointment of Friday's official Police/NSPCC report. One forum member described the latter as

Utterly insufficient and denying 'clear' evidence of a paedophile ring. It is what they have had to do because Savile was a procurer for the rich and powerful but ALSO I am increasingly certain to say working for British Intelligence. He had to be, he was afforded, and still is after death, such enveloping protection spanning all those years and hospital, prison, royal, foreign access and close interaction with the highest of the 'high'. He possessed links to links to links and used those links to forge further ones with the help and advocacy of the British establishment and the power of blackmail.

That's the Savile conspiracy theory in a nutshell. And to be fair, if Savile was indeed as prolific and monstrous an offender as the consensus now holds him to be, some such explanation of how he managed to evade detection is not wholly implausible.

Most of the press, as yet unwilling to pursue the Satanism angle (or other Ickean themes, for example Savile's strangely close relationship with members of the royal family and senior politicians) have contented themselves with hyperbole. They're helped in this by the wholly uncritical nature of the NSPCC-backed report (pdf), which is based on the dangerous principle that any claim made by a self-identified victim must perforce be true, and by the headline-grabbing comments made by its authors. While most newspapers virtually ignored the much more substantial and balanced report prepared for the CPS by Alison Levitt QC, all gave prominence to the plainly absurd statement by Commander Peter Spindler that Savile had "spent every minute of every waking day thinking about". On the basis of such authoritative pronouncements, The Sun can call Savile "Britain's worst ever sex-beast" without fear of contradiction (who now remembers Fred West?) while the once-serious Times is reduced to breathless tabloidese:

Savile even turned his long-running Jim'll Fix It television show into a vehicle for depravity when he pored through his fan letters to pick out victims.

Amid all this media groupthink, Charles Moore has been a lone dissenting voice. The press, which turned a blind eye to allegations against the old creep while he was alive, so invested was it in the narrative of St Jimmy the tireless charity-worker and quintessential Yorkshire "character", is now equally wedded to the idea that anyone he so much as breathed upon must have been the victim of horrendous abuse. The only serious analysis I've seen is by Anna Raccoon, who apart from her formidable forensic talents has personal knowledge of Duncroft Approved School, which was the source of the highest-profile allegations. There are some highly enlightening comments there, too.

Such voices of balance and rationality are fighting an uphill struggle, though. As far as the British media are concerned, Evil now has a new face, complete straggly blonde hair and a cigar. Whether or not Jimmy Savile worshipped Satan is largely beside the point. He was Satan. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Obesity and Sin

In a piece ostensibly concerned with body image, Giles Fraser has an interesting comment about the relationship between food and sin, how the consumption of excess calories has become strangely moralised in recent discourse. He writes:

It fascinates me that so much religious language is purloined into the lexicography of dieting. Calories are sinful. Eating fatty food is giving in to temptation. Why do we create such a pathology of desire? It's all such nonsense. If anything, the incarnational nature of Christianity should point in the direction of human beings being more comfortable in their own skins and with their own physicality. Yet what great Renaissance artist would dare to depict a fat Christ? Which is odd given that his critics regularly denounced him as a glutton.

He goes on to describe the popular Channel 4 show How To Look Good Naked as "an instrument of torture, every bit as self-flagellating as the Christian mortification of the flesh." At first sight, there's an important distinction to be drawn here: whereas Christian asceticism was supposedly concerned with renunciation of worldly things and a turning towards the transcendent, punishing the body because it was the body, dieting might be said to be propelled by vanity, at the very least by a this-worldly desire to perfect the physical. The end of modern dieting and exercise regimes is in the here and now: in improved self-esteem, in better sexual prospects, in healthier and longer life. All things that the medieval Christian ascetics would have despised.

But I don't think that's enough. Let's go back to Fraser's fascinating suggestion of an overweight Jesus. It's certainly an intriguing iconographic possibility - the only fat Jesus I can recall seeing was in Jerry Springer the Opera. No-one ever accused Prince Gautama of over-indulgence, after all: the whole point, indeed, was that (unlike Jesus, who is depicted as having been born poor) the founder of Buddhism renounced worldly wealth to become a wandering teacher and ascetic. Yet most, though not all, representations of the Buddha depict him as being distinctly on the tubby side. Perhaps the crucifixion is responsible for the iconography of a slim Jesus: to be specific, the very shape of the cross is gaunt; at a basic level it's easier and more natural to draw a thin man hanging from one than a fat man. A fat man on a cross would look fairly ridiculous. Certainly by the Renaissance emaciation was a distinct theme of Christian art, as seen most famously in Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece.

But the earliest depictions of Jesus were not crucifixions. Instead he was shown as Hermes or Apollo, a young and handsome god - no ascetic, indeed, but answering to both classical and modern ideas of physical perfection. So perhaps we should blame the ancient Greeks and their cult of masculine beauty. (Did they have any fat gods? Dionysus was often shown accompanied by a tipsy Falstaffian figure known as Silenus, but I don't think he entirely counts.)

Either way, we can't really blame Jesus for Christian asceticism. But it started too early in Christian history for Fraser to be able to absolve the Church of responsibility. Gregory the Great told the story of a nun who became possessed by a demon when she sinfully ate a lettuce, and Catholicism continues to revere as saints men and women who would today be diagnosed as anorexic. Yesterday, for example, was the feast day of St Paula, a 4th century Roman aristocrat who, after being widowed, "lived a life of severe penance and mortification" and "considered it a misfortune to see the poor being relieved by anyone else’s food". Paula also refused ever to take a bath, which her admirers saw as evidence of her great holiness - though to those who had to encounter her it probably just seemed anti-social. Again we see in ascetic practices a turning away from the body, a hatred of flesh as flesh, which is quite different from the body-hatred we see today, which involves a hatred merely of the particular body which one happens to inhabit. Both, of course, might be regarded as psychologically unhealthy states.

All that said, the use of theological language to describe overindulgence in food is telling, as Fraser is right to point out. He might have added that the language of health-scare isn't just one of personal morality - it also does a nice line in apocalyptic, with the "obesity timebomb" and suchlike standing in for Armageddon. Even more significant is the double-edged psychology involved: it leads to self-hatred in those who don't possess socially approved body shapes, while those who do are able to feel morally superior, to pity, shun and belittle the less virtuous or less fortunate.

It doesn't stop with food, of course: the language of sin and guilt is equally used of other behaviours such as smoking, drinking or carbon consumption. Fraser thinks that "mass culture has generated a debilitating asymmetry between our biological givenness and our cultural expectations of beauty." But this is mainly a consequence of the replacement of religion by health. People used to turn to doctors only when they were actually sick and go to church every week. Now, for vast swathes of the population, religion is just for weddings and funerals, or just for funerals, while the medical establishment with its demographic targets, mass screening programmes and ubiquitous lifestyle advice has taken over the role of the priesthood. Turn up at the doctor with an ingrowing toenail and in all likelihood you'll be interrogated about your alcohol consumption. And then given a penance. It's like going to confession.

It's no coincidence that today's politicians see all these "sins" as things about which they ought to lecture the population, or even to legislate, as we saw yesterday with Labour's Andy Burnham wanting to regulate the sugar content of Kellogg's Frosties. Brendan O'Neill (along with Mr Puddlecote) finds it remarkable that politicians should concern themselves with such essentially private matters as what people eat. He suggests that if a minister or shadow minister "did something like this a few decades ago... People would be bamboozled. They'd think the minister was mad." Perhaps so, although postwar British governments continued with rationing for longer than was strictly necessary. But if that same minister had claimed that what people did in their own bedrooms (and with whom) was the business of the government he would have found a considerable degree of support. It was ministers who believed that people's sex lives were their own affair, like Roy Jenkins, who got a rough ride in the press.

The fact is that politicians have always seen advantage in moralistic finger-wagging, but the subjects of that finger-wagging change. The morality of health - in which smoking, drinking and being fat are seen as personal failings, like being unemployed - has largely replaced the morality of sex*. And moralism this clearly is, although politicians tend to disguise this (perhaps even from themselves) by advancing utilitarian arguments about the cost to the NHS of all the binge-drinking obese smokers. Bourgeois moralism, one might add, given how these "sinners" are usually conceptualised as lower-class Wayne and Waynetta Slobs. Where once politicians promoted the moral agenda of bishops, and feared the church's power, nowadays they defer to the BMA and are all but openly contemptuous of ecclesiastics.

*Apart from pornography and prostitution, obviously.
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Thursday, 3 January 2013

A small row about some Islands

David Cameron will surely be thanking Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, for brightening up what must otherwise be rather a depressing new year by taking out an ad in the Guardian demanding the "return" of the Malvinas.

There are, as I've suggested before, good reasons of realpolitik that might induce a sufficiently cynical British government to give the Falkland Islands to Argentina over the heads of its inhabitants, or better perhaps to sell them.  Maintaining British presence there is pointless and expensive, and harms diplomatic and trade relationships with an area of the world that is of increasing economic importance.  The islands themselves are of almost no strategic significance, and as for the Islanders, they are sufficiently few in number that they could be bought off and given generous resettlement grants should they wish to move to the UK rather than live under Argentinian sovereignty.  Why should the wishes of three thousand islanders, half of whom are recent immigrants anyway, continue to outweigh those of the sixty million of us who live on the British mainland?

The principle may not be a good one (self-determination and all that) but the British government has rarely been above such high-handed colonial behaviour in the past.  Just ask the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, disgracefully kicked out of their own country in the 1960s because the Americans wanted an airbase.  Only a couple of years before the 1982 invasion, Margaret Thatcher dispatched one of her most trusted ministers, Nicholas Ridley, to do a deal with Argentina.  Under the plans, sovereignty would have been ceded and Argentina would have had an offical role on the Islands, but British administration would have continued under a 99 year lease.  British and Argentinian flags would have flown side by side.  The idea was only dropped after it became clear that the Islanders would refuse to accept it and a number of sympathetic MPs on both sides of the House took up the case.

Things are very different today, however.  Kirchner's rather silly letter, which dismisses the Islanders as "a population implantation process" and bases her claim to the islands on events of 180 years ago, was one assumes written largely for domestic consumption.  The Argentinian economy is in an even worse state than Britain's, and there's no more obvious distraction tactic than a bit of nationalistic sabre-rattling.  Still, it's hard to believe that many Argentinians still fall for it.  The exchange of insults is by now entirely ritualistic, Kirchner accusing the British of "colonialism", while demanding the right to colonise an already inhabited country, Cameron in turn "vowing" to defend the Islands as though an actual invasion were on the cards.   In fact, the Royal Navy is so tiny these days that defeating a successful Argentine invasion would be all but impossible now.  But fear not, it won't happen.  Kirchner can attain her objectives much more easily, by creating a synthetic row.

On the other hand, batting away Kirchner's demands offers Cameron an easy win.  At no cost, he can pose as a champion self-determination and, of course, British pride.  Not that he has any choice in the matter.  Politically, conceding to Argentina's demands, even to the extent of acknowledging that discussions are a possibility, would be close to political suicide.  I doubt that even in 1980 the Ridley plan was practicable: it relied upon the Islanders being biddable or, if they weren't, on them being unable to attract the support of British MPs who could see advantage in banging the patriotic drum.  Such a scheme couldn't succeed now.  The effect of the war was twofold.  Firstly, it made the Falklands, a territory of which few British people were even aware in 1982, into a nationalistic obsession almost (though not quite) on the scale that the Malvinas had always been among many in Argentina.  Secondly, it gave the Islanders a moral veto.  Theoretically, Britain and Argentina could negotiate, with any deal being offered to the Islanders in a referendum, without violating the sacred principle of self-determination.  Practically, even starting negotiations would be impossible because the Islanders plainly do not want it and, therefore and more importantly, the British press would never stand for it.  A deal was only possible when most British people had never heard of the Falklands and would therefore not have cared either way. 

A parallel is sometimes drawn with Hong Kong, where the Thatcher government saw little trouble agreeing to hand over several million people to a Communist regime.  But the difference was far more than one of scale.  The vast majority of Hong Kong's population were ethnically Chinese, after all; they happened to live in a British colony, and many of them might have preferred to remain so, but their language and customs were not British.  If the population of Hong Kong prior to 1997 had consisted entirely  of expatriates and the descendants of British settlers, the handover would, I suggest, have been unthinkable.  The Chinese government would still have wanted the territory, of course, but I doubt they would have wanted the people.  It would have been a mess.  Fortunately, the British always had the good sense to keep Hong Kong essentially Chinese.

The Falklands, however, have never been settled by Argentinians or by other Spanish-speaking South Americans.  They are almost monoculturally British, far more than the United Kingdom itself: embarrassingly so, in some ways, which is partly why sections of the British Left would like nothing better than to be shot of them.  That, ultimately, rather than any high-sounding rhetoric about self-determination, is why this and any future British government will be both unable and unwilling to give them away.
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