Friday, 28 June 2013

Invisible Girl

The case of the Girl Who Ran Off With Her Teacher (and Who Cannot Be Named For Legal Reasons) isn't over yet, despite the fact that Jeremy Forrest has been put away for a wince-inducing five and a half years.  It's now reported that the police have arrested a woman (unnamed, but assumed to be related to the teacher) on suspicion of attempting to pervert the course of justice by acting as an intermediary between teacher and pupil while he was on remand.

The suggestion is that the girl's oral evidence was influenced in some way. During sentencing, the judge pronounced that she "had clearly received assistance" - the evidence for which seems to be that her account under (unusually friendly) cross-examination was more helpful to the accused than the pre-recorded statements in the police interview that were played to the court.

But if the girl did change her story (in the direction of falsity) because she wanted to support her lover/abuser's version of events, then it's not only the woman who acted as go-between who's guilty of conspiring to pervert the course of justice.  So is the girl.  She'd be guilty of perjury too.  It's strongly rumoured, too, that the girl was herself threatened with arrest during the course of the trial because she was reluctant to testify.  Whether or not her strong feelings for Forrest will survive his lengthy imprisonment, which will last at least until she's well over 18, no-one has tried to deny that today she still believes herself to be in love with him and that the trial was entirely against her personal wishes.  She was no more coerced to say nice things about Forrest in court than she was coerced to go to France with him in the first place.

Does this matter?  It's telling that there's no real public consensus surrounding this crime and its aftermath.  There's an official view, of course, the police/Guardian/NSPCC view according to which Forrest is an abuser (even a "paedophile") and the girl is his victim; and there's an alternative view, to be found in comment sections on social media sites, which sees it as essentially a romantic tale of doomed love in which both the girl and her "abductor" appear as victims, the villains being the law, the child protection establishment and even the girl's own family. 

I think both views are probably wrong, or at least one-dimensional, but before I try to offer a better one let me return to the matter of the latest arrest, which seems to me key.  The official version, according to which the girl is the victim, implies that the main aim of the prosecution is to protect her by jailing the man who abused and abducted her.  Thus even if she didn't desire the legal process, it was for her own good.  On this view, it must also be for her own good that mortifying details of, and claims about, the sex-life of a 15 year old girl are relayed in open court and reported breathlessly in the media ("8 times a night"), even if her name remains taboo. But if the new police investigation were to lead to the girl herself being charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, could this be said to be for her protection too?  Clearly not.  It would, though, show plainly that the case isn't, and never was, about her. 

She's the invisible girl not just because she can't be named for legal reasons, but because her own wishes and personal narrative were either rejected or ignored by the justice system.  The inevitable result was her objectification.  Had she co-operated with the police, denounced her abuser and recognised (with a maturity perhaps beyond her years) the objectively abusive nature of the relationship, then she might have been the star witness.  As it was, the evidence she gave was discounted (the judge referred to the teacher's "spurious defence" and  called the girl's testimony "very different in content from her original account and designed to support it").  It's usual these days for the victim of a crime (or the family of a murder victim) to have a Victim Impact Statement read out in court before sentence is passed.  There was no statement from the girl (how could there have been?) but there was one from her mother who was thereby cast into the role of "true" victim.  Yet to configure the mother, from whom the girl "was taken" by Forrest, as the victim in the case is to redefine the girl, not as her own person, but as her mother's property.

The mother's statement was, indeed, all about her, and highly melodramatic: describing how she was grieving because "the daughter I knew is dead" (the two aren't on speaking terms); how she felt "like the worst mother in the world" and that she had "failed as a parent"; how she (not the girl) had been robbed of "part of her childhood" because she won't get the chance to "dress her up in a party dress for the school prom".  The uncharitably inclined might notice a certain consonance between the personality thus revealed and the complaints the girl herself made in court that her mother had been preoccupied with a new pregnancy and hadn't been paying her much attention.  And behind that one can detect signs of a family dynamic that was in trouble well before Jeremy Forrest turned up on the scene.

(Once we've agreed that Forrest's behaviour in having a sexual relationship with an underage pupil is completely unacceptable - I think we can agree on that at least - the matter of motive is still open.  Did he - does he - have a thing about emotionally vulnerable teenage girls which led him to target her for his own selfish reasons, or was his folly (as his sister has maintained) provoked by his own emotional immaturity and depression, which may have led him to feel a genuine emotional connection with a girl who was going through a rough time at home?  I don't know; I suppose only time will tell.)

In passing sentence, Judge Lawson was content to treat the girl with a mixture of condescension and annoyance, rejecting her account while portraying her as the passive object of Forrest's improper lusts, ignoring the possibility of her own agency in the events that unfolded.  (This is a different question from that of consent, which legally she couldn't give.)  While he expressed some sympathy for her predicament - having to give evidence in a high-profile court case, for example - he showed no comprehension of, or interest in, the obvious fact that seeing her (in her eyes) lover jailed for a long period for a relationship in which she considered herself a full and consensual participant was likely to be the cause for her of considerable misery, not to mention guilt.  (That she was seen sobbing and mothing the words "I'm so sorry" when the jury returned its verdict is evidence enough of that.)  But then, to reiterate, it's not about her.

Hadley Freeman had a piece in the Guardian that I almost agree with, and which comes close to getting the point.  It's not a romantic love-story, she argues, but nor is Forrest another Jimmy Savile.  Rather he's "an emotionally immature, selfish and foolish man who couldn't cope with the adult responsibilities of marriage and sought out a young girl with approximately the same level of maturity as him."

Language is important. Just as describing Forrest's tale as a love story is unhelpful, so is dismissing it as yet another Savile-esque shame. Both takes are extreme and possibly only harden his and the schoolgirl's resolve to be with one another in the face of incomprehension. This was an abuse of power, and I'd be willing to bet that similar versions happen more often than we know, in situations where men – some of whom will be weak and immature – work with emotionally vulnerable woman. Dismissing Forrest as an aberration and a monster is easy; acknowledging just how common he might be is far scarier.

Close, but it doesn't quite reconcile the conflict between the official narrative of abuse and (her) victimhood and the popular narratives of star cross'd lovers - which, as Freeman notes, some of the media coverage might almost be designed to reinforce.  Both are in their way misleading attempts to shoehorn real-world events into a pre-packaged narrative, whether a legal/child protection account of predatory sexual behaviour or a Romeo and Juliet-style romance.  (The girl herself made the smartest comment on this in a Tweet reported in the Mail: "Of course it's not Romeo and Juliet.  That's a fucking tragedy.  They both died".)  But forcing facts to fit a stereotype isn't just misleading; it's also inevitable.  It's how the law makes sense of the messiness of the world, and it's how people make sense of the messiness of their lives.  Stereotypes are the lenses through which we view the world.  And they construct society.

So to ask, "Is Jeremy Forrest a foolish lover or a dangerous abuser?" may be the wrong question, because he's both.  Just as the girl is both the victim of a predatory older man and the victim of an oppressive and soulless legal process.  Objectively, the official narrative is true: society needs to be protected from teachers who overstep the proper boundaries of a professional relationship with their charges.  Objectively, the girl is a victim of abuse.  Subjectively, it is a story of mutual attraction and support.  Subjectively, the villains are the police, the judge and the girl's mother. 

Subjectively, the sentence was far too harsh because Forrest lacked the malicious intention which would justify a long term of imprisonment; and because from the girl's point of view this "abusive" relationship was the most thrilling and emotionally enriching thing that ever happened to her.  Subjectively, one might predict (and I very much hope I'm wrong about this) the severity of the sentence will have a more deleterious long-term effect on her than on him, especially if feelings of guilt and thwarted love lead her to waste years of her young life loyally waiting for him and for the resumption of a relationship whose long-term prognosis is not good (here's what happened in an uncannily similar case ten years ago).   Objectively, it was about right.  He knew what he was doing was wrong, he knew that it was illegal, and a strong deterrent message must be sent out to others who might be tempted to overstep the boundaries.

The law is objective.  The law, even in the era of victim impact statements and much rhetoric about putting victims first, must pursue the wider interests of society rather than those of either the victims or the perpetrators of crime.  Protecting society ranks higher than doing justice, even, which is why people accidentally caught up in riots can be sent down for years for walking off with a bottle of fizz.  Jeremy Forrest threatens the social order and the prevailing official consensus, based as it is on an expert (and objective) view of child protection.  The girl in her passionate attachment to a teenage crush is no less of a threat, which is why she must be the Invisible Girl.
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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Young people reject religion: society somehow survives

Some evidence has emerged to test the Chief Rabbi's hypothesis that a society without religion is doomed to moral and social collapse. "You cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact."

A new YouGov poll confirms that religion among the younger generation is in headlong retreat. A mere 25% said that they believed in God. A further 19% said that they believed in a "greater spiritual power", while a full 38% now claim to have no religious or spiritual beliefs at all. The remainder were agnostic. Essentially, then, this is a non-believing generation. 10% said that they attendend religious services at least once a month (this is quite close to the long-term average for the population as a whole), but the majority (56%) said that they never went. In perhaps the most significant rebuff to traditional religion, 41% thought that it was the cause of more harm than good in the world. Only 14% (a considerably smaller figure than that for belief in God) thought that religion was, on balance, a good thing.

So much for Dr Sacks' contention that Dawkins et al have failed to get their message across.

Has this absence of religious faith produced a generation of shallow hedonists or depressed, angst-ridden nihilists, as the Chief Rabbi would presumably expect? Not a bit of it. For the survey confirmed that young people today are in most respects more levelheaded and conventional (if somewhat more selfish) than their predecessors. Two thirds looked forward to marriage and children. No fewer than 70% expected (perhaps over-optimistically) to one day own their own home. Slightly more than half thought that "the traditional role of the family" had declined in modern Britain. 30% thought this was a bad thing, but almost a quarter disagreed that the family was in trouble at all. In other words, a clear majority expressed approval for traditional family structures. (They also expressed fairly negative feelings about immigrants and benefit claimants.)

The Chief Rabbi might want to take comfort from these findings. Society is evidently not collapsing for want of religious practice and belief. As for non-believers who hope that a decline in religion would lead to a radically new type of society, they are probably wrong too. There was very strong support for same-sex marriage among young people, confirming that this particular argument, though not quite over, is largely settled in the long term. But even that, scandalous as it remains to religious traditionalists, is essentially a conservative idea: at root, it is about assimilating gay relationships to a traditional monogamous norm (a less tendentious way of putting this is to say that gay people are just as conventional as everyone else).

Religion isn't a necessary conduit for traditional values, it seems. Communal norms can just as effectively be transmitted in other ways: through families, in schools, in the media and through social networks. Perhaps earlier societies did need religion to keep people on the straight and narrow. Modern society may have alighted upon other, more effective methods.
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Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Atheists are welcome in the modern Girl Guides, but anti-monarchists are not

So God is no longer part of the Girl Guides. Following following a consultation exercise, the Girlguiding Association has dropped the traditional commitment to "love God" from the Guides' Promise. Henceforth, humanists and atheists will be welcome to join. Presumably though they will need to believe in something. New recruits will now promise to "be true to myself and develop my beliefs", a feelgood phrase that might cover anything from evangelical Christianity to environmentalism to belief in alien abduction. Belief is belief and therefore a Good Thing.

Cristina Odone is predictably outraged; it's as bad, she thinks, as according Druids equal rights in the workplace. But it's a big win for the British Humanist Association. "We wholeheartedly welcome the progressive step that Girlguiding have taken today of making their movement genuinely open to all," says BHA chief exectutive Andrew Copson in a press release. It's their biggest triumph since the Atheist Bus Campaign. Certainly, the new promise no longer requires any *religious* belief. But another contentious phrase is still there. Girl guides must still promise to "serve the Queen." So atheists may be welcome in the Association, but republicans apparently are not.

I tackled Andrew Copson about this. He admitted to being conflicted: "I'm republican but recognise current constitution is a monarchy and so Queen does embody state." But why on earth should joining the Girl Guides entail swearing allegiance to the state? As spokesman for humanists rather than for republicans, he doesn't have to take a formal position about such things.

Up to now, Guides have promised to serve Queen and country, a time-honoured, almost unconscious formulation. But "country" is now to be replaced by "my community". The GGA explains that in the consultation "members understood and could relate to serving the community more easily than the country." Community, though, is a slippery word. It can be both inclusive and exclusive - is "my community" everyone who lives in my area (the local community) or just the particular sub-group to which I happen to belong or into which I happen to have been born? The word has the potential to divide as well as to unite.

"Country and community" would have been stronger, more inclusive and avoided alienating girls with doubts about the continuance of an hereditary monarchy. So why stick with the Queen? The organisation says that the consultation demonstrated a "clear commitment" to retain this part of the promise and that "Girlguiding is very proud and honoured to have Her Majesty the Queen as our patron." But it also suggests that the Queen is a symbol for service to country - something we're told was dropped because it's supposedly too hard to understand. If the real meaning of the promise is indeed a pledge to serve the country, to remove the word "country" is a recipe for confusion.

The monarch is much more a symbol of the state than a symbol of the country. Indeed, the language of the British state is suffused with the fiction that it is the personal plaything of Elizabeth Windsor. Judges, MPs, police officers and anyone wishing to adopt British citizenship must swear a personal oath of loyalty to the Queen, whether they agree with her constitutional position or not. Her Majesty's Government (elected by the people, but pledged only to serve the Crown) oversees Her Majesty's prisons (some of which are now run for profit by contractors) even as it discusses privatising (but not renaming) the Royal Mail.

So it's true that service to the state is often disguised as service to the Queen. On the other hand, it's most unusual to have to swear allegiance to the sovereign on joining a private club, even one that enjoys royal patronage. The Scouts and Guides may be almost unique in this. "Country" is broader and more inclusive than the state. One can be loyal to one's country without having a particular fondness for the state's constitutional arrangements: just ask a Scottish nationalist.

To "serve the Queen" is a particularly nebulous concept. Fighting in the army might be considered "serving the Queen", but few if any Girl Guides are called upon to do that. Perhaps a fortunate Girl Guide will find herself on the fish counter when the Queen makes a rare foray into a supermarket as part of a royal visit. In general, though, the notion of public service as service to the monarch is at best confusing, at worst downright pernicious. The Crown may be a metonym for the state but the Queen is clearly not a synonym for the country as a whole. Rather, Crown and country exist in opposition or dialogue. Such rights we possess as citizens have historically be wrested from monarchs or, at best, graciously conceded by them.  I believe there was once a civil war fought on the distinction between King and nation.

Keeping the Queen while ditching God sends a message that religious scepticism is acceptable in a diverse society but questioning the constitutional status quo is not. As an awestruck nation awaits the miracle of a royal birth, as nostalgists drool over memories of the Ruritanian pageantry of the last coronation and Prince Philip's bowel becomes the subject of anguished public debate, it's easy to imagine that the monarchy has replaced Christianity as the wellspring of social cohesion and morality in 21st century Britain. Is that an altogether healthy mindset to inculcate in young girls?
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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Chief Rabbi versus the barbarians

In the current issue of the Spectator, the outgoing Chief Rabbi has been lamenting the decline in the intellectual quality of atheists. AC Grayling, he seems to be saying, is no Hobbes, Christopher Hitchens can't measure up to Voltaire, and no-one (certainly not Dawkins) can match the "world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche". Instead, most of the atheists who have been selling books over the past decade haven't managed to get beyond trumpeting the shattering news that evolution works and that religious people sometimes do bad things in the name of God.

 "Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues?" he wails -- the "real issues" being, of course, the sort of unresolvable "big questions" that make for a fun Sunday morning's viewing for people who aren't in church reassuring themselves that Someone has the answers.  The underlying assumption is that the most fundamental questions in the universe are those that happen to be psychologically important to human beings.

Jonathan Sacks doesn't mention Alain de Botton, a professed atheist and pop philosopher whose recent book suggested that (since everyone agrees that religion isn't actually "true") it would be more worthwhile to snaffle some of religion's good ideas than just to laugh at Creationists, which is mostly what Dawkins seems to do with his time. That might be because de Botton doesn't really measure up beside today's atheist big-hitters, inferior to Hobbes and Nietzsche though they undoubtedly are. Or it might be because Sacks is uncomfortably conscious that his own analysis is in its way as cynical and utilitarian an exercise as de Botton's own.

By which I mean, Sacks' case for religion is an entirely pragmatic one. He's not saying, at least not here, that the purpose of religion is to worship God in the ways that God desires to be worshipped, and to obey God's commandments because, well, they are the commandments of God. He's not even hinting, as his scriptures repeatedly proclaim, that those who obey God will be rewarded and those who defy God will be punished. He's merely repackaging the familiar argument that says that people need religion to be moral and society needs religion to be stable. "Only religion," runs the headline, "can defeat the new barbarians."  Or as Sacks writes in his conclusion, "I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other."

This is religion as Noble Lie. It may not be true, the theory runs (though perhaps it is - who knows?) but people need it: it gives meaning to lives and authority to morality. That's what really matters: "you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact." Sacks praises Nietzsche for his nihilism, for his invocation of the Will to Power, not because Sacks wants us to worship strength and despise forgiveness and humility (quite the reverse) but because the logic of his argument requires Nietzsche to be right. You cannot have atheism and gentleness, atheism and altruism, atheism and tolerance, because the source of all these positive virtues is religion (or perhaps God: it's not quite clear). The only logical choice is between God and Hitler. "Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust."

This is a terrible and immoral argument. Immoral because of its essential dishonesty (the only honest reason to practise a religion, surely, is belief in God) and terrible because it's just not true. Most atheists manage to lead perfectly moral and decent lives; not all religious people do. There's simply no correlation (at least, no positive correlation) between the religiosity of a society and its social harmony, levels of tolerance, compassion. Look at Denmark and Sweden, which are among the most secular countries on earth. Look at Afghanistan and Somalia, which aren't. Look at the difference between Ireland in its decades of near-theocracy and state-sanctioned clerical abuse and Ireland today. Is that a story of regression?

It is, I agree, intuitively plausible to argue that people need a religious structure to underpin their morality, just as selective memory causes people (especially as they get older) to exaggerate the virtues of the past. But there's simply no evidence that this is so. Sacks quotes Heine's 1843 prophecy that without the restraint of Christianity Germany's "martial ardour" and "the mad fury of the berserk" would be reborn, as prophecy that did indeed seem to be fulfilled in the 20th century. There's an extent to which social Darwinism (a bastardisation of Darwin's own theory of natural selection, it need hardly be said) fuelled the mindset that led to the First World War, and later Nazism. But Germany ultimately recovered its moral bearings without undergoing a religious revival. The country is far more secular today than it was at the time of the Third Reich, to say nothing of Nietzsche's own time.

"Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation," warns the Chief Rabbi. So how was the deeply religious Ivan the Terrible not restrained, or that warrior of Christ Vlad the Impaler, or the Crusaders who made the streets of Jerusalem run with blood? Tom Holland has a lovely story in his blood-drenched book In the Shadow of the Sword about one of Lord Sacks' co-religionists, Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar, the last Jewish king to reign in Arabia and a man famous for his piety. When Yusuf conquered the Christian city of Najran amidst much slaughter, he had the daughter and granddaughter of a woman who dared to challenge him killed in front of her and their blood poured down her throat before she herself was beheaded. Par for the course in those deeply religious times.

"The history of Europe since the 18th century has been the story of successive attempts to find alternatives to God as an object of worship, among them the nation state, race and the Communist Manifesto," writes Sacks. Indeed it has. It has also been a story of increasing material wealth and moral improvement, from the abolition of slavery to the abolition of (except in the more religious American states) of capital punishment. Modern dentistry is a fair compensation for the loss of religious fervour, is it not?

Nevertheless, for Sacks, "the costs are beginning to mount up". There's the banking crisis, his belief that "marriage has all but collapsed as an institution" (that must be why gay couples are so anxious to get married, I suppose) and supposedly increased levels of depression among young people. "This is what a society built on materialism, individualism and moral relativism looks like." No mention of porn, surprisingly. But we are assured that "religious people, Jews especially, are more fearful of the future than they were."

Sacks believes that "our newly polarised culture is far less tolerant than old, mild Christian Britain". This is, at least, arguable. There's much less racism and much more acceptance of people's different sexual arrangements than there used to be. On the other hand there is, certainly on an official and corporate level, more imposition of conformity and less tolerance of dissenting points of view. Diversity of appearance seems to come at the cost of uniformity of opinion. Kenan Malik has written brilliantly about this. But of course, clampdowns on free expression are usually justified in the name of protecting religious people from offence, so it's hard to see how this helps the Chief Rabbi's argument.

But it all comes back to the idea that a society that isn't underpinned by a strong religious faith is no match true believers. "Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies." It's a thought echoed in the old Al Qaeda saying that "we love death more than you love life". Sacks here resorts to a rather dubious historical parallel:

Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion’. The barbarians win. They always do.

There were indeed Romans of the 1st century BC who thought that their society was in a state of moral decline from the days of its pristine republican virtue, when men like Cato the Elder upheld the sternest of patriarchal values. But history tells a different story: even half a century of titanic civil wars did nothing to undermine Roman domination of the Mediterranean, and the empire that emerged from Octavian's ultimate victory lasted for hundreds of years, decadent as it often seemed to be. It's a strange parallel in many ways. When Rome did finally fall to the barbarians, it was not the sceptical philosophy of Epicureanism that was to blame, though Gibbon did think that the empire's adoption of Christianity played some part.

On the other hand, Sacks may not be wholly wrong. A society with a strong religious (or other ideological) underpinning may well be more cohesive and more sure of itself. There is an intellectual and moral flabbiness about the modern secular West, with its institutionalised posture of relativism and its reluctance to give offence. It can result in capitulation to bullies - a willingness to condemn, for example, the Danish cartoons more than the disgraceful violence that accompanied protests against them. There are dangers when the state steps into the role once played by religion as moral end-stop and superego. The chief advantage of God, after all, is that he doesn't exist (or at least, he acts as though he doesn't) so is less of a threat to liberty than a state that aspires to both omniscience and omnipresence. The increasing replacement of trust by supervision and regulation (because trust can be, and will be, abused; because "never again") has terrible side-effects, though I don't see quite how the decline of religion can be held responsible for it.

There are other downsides to secularism that Sacks doesn't mention. There's a deadening, somewhat puritanical and certainly prosaic quality to secular culture; atheism really can't do art. There's also the propensity of the religious to out-breed the secular, and the ultra-religious to out-breed the moderately religious. One sees it, for example, in the way that Israel is now being changed by ever-growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews who want women to sit at the back of buses.

But demography is not morality, and even religious believers in most Western countries (even Catholics) have far fewer children than they would have done a century or two ago. And that points towards Sacks' main confusion. We don't actually live in a secular culture, even if religious practice has become a minority activity. We live in a society that has been built, a culture that has been enriched, by the secular and religious alike. Religious believers played a full part in the Enlightenment, in the scientific revolution, and in the social progress of the past two and a half centuries. Malthus and Mendel were both priests; Shaftesbury and Wilberforce were Evangelical Christians. Such people may have believed that they did what they did out of religious conviction or for the glory of God, just as others who made equally great contributions to Western society believed that they were doing so in opposition to religion. But ultimately it didn't matter, because ultimately whether someone believes in God or not makes surprisingly little difference.
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Tuesday, 11 June 2013

TalkSPORT sends Tom Holland to Bantanamo Bay

Tom Holland, bestselling historian and keen amateur cricketer (a select few may be aware that he once hit a Six) was scheduled to come on TalkSPORT this afternoon to plug a book about (and written by) his cricket team, the Authors' XI.  Yesterday he seemed quite excited at the prospect:

But it was not to be.  Last night he received an email from the producers telling him his appearance had been cancelled.  And not because listeners to the Hawksbee and Jacobs show aren't interested in cricket.  Not even because they had been warned that all Tom really wanted to do was talk about his Six (in which case one might have forgiven them).  No.  Apparently they were worried that the author of Rubicon and, more recently, In The Shadow of The Sword, was too controversial.

In The Shadow of The Sword did cause something of a stir when it was released last year, largely because it discussed (among other things) the early days of Islam.  When a documentary based on the book, Islam: the Untold Story, was shown on Channel 4 there was even more of a fuss, with some Muslims taking issue with the film on historical grounds and others abusing the author on Twitter.  Channel 4 even cancelled a screening of the film it had arranged for journalists after taking mysterious "security advice".  But neither that, nor even the truly ominous sight of journalists like Charles Moore lining up to congratulate Holland for being "brave", sufficed to turn him into Salman Rushdie, or his book into The Satanic Verses.  He continued to tour the country promoting the book, give interviews, present afternoon history shows on Radio 4 and cheerfully debate with Muslims on Twitter, all while working on a new translation of Herodotus.  Not to mention playing cricket.

He was, it is true, briefly dropped from the Authors XI earlier this year, but the selectors quickly realised their mistake and, in any event, there was no suggestion that intimidation from outraged Muslim cricket-fans had played any part in the decision.

So why is Tom Holland suddenly such a hot potato?  Why is a radio station that once employed George Galloway as a phone-in host suddenly scared of the merest hint of controversy?  And what made them think that controversy was likely to ensue?  Holland was, after all, coming on the show to talk about cricket and was most unlikely to have even mentioned In The Shadow of The Sword (now out in paperback, and a terrific read, by the way.)

On Twitter this afternoon, Tom was bemused:

He doesn't know why TalkSPORT cancelled him.  "I think they Googled me and got into a state, worrying I might be a security risk," he speculates.   "It's utterly weird.  Beyond weird.  Comic.  I think they think they're being PC, when actually they're being the precise opposite."

Quite. If the station was acting pre-emptively to head off presumed Muslim anger, they must have a very low opinion of Muslims.  Nor does this kind of hypersensitivity do anything to further soical harmony or good community relations.  It is in fact a form of Islamophobia: irrational fear of Islam in its most basic and literal sense. 

As far as I can tell, there were no threats, or even complaints, in the run-up to Tom Holland's planned cricket-themed appearance on TalkSPORT.  But perhaps they feared a boycott, or imagined that Anjem Choudhary and his mates would picket their studios.  ("Behead Infidels who talk about Cricket!")  Or was the threat something more oblique -- maybe they envisaged EDL supporters phoning in to congratulate Holland, not on his celebrated Six, but on his "brave" stand against Islam, which of course would have been highly awkward for everyone, but hardly 9/11.

The station told me, in a somewhat noncommittal statement this afternoon, that they had been "keen to feature" the book, but when Bloomsbury put up Tom Holland they became concerned for their listeners  (why?).  Apparently there were "concerns regarding controversy around Tom Holland's previous work and so it was decided not to go ahead with the feature." Which, of course, reveals almost nothing beyond the fact that any "threat" was entirely a product of TalkSPORT's imagination.

Tom Holland's reflection: "They don't seem to be employing the sharpest knives in the cutlery drawer."
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Thursday, 6 June 2013

Why do women enjoy shaming Kate Winslet?

The happy news that Kate Winslet is expecting a child by her third husband, a man who likes to call himself "Ned Rocknroll", has attracted some rather catty coverage. In the Mail, Alison Boshoff takes aim at a "celebrity paradox" whose "glossy composure" and "English Rose charm" contrasts with her "spectacularly chaotic private life", the evidence for which is not only that, aged 37, she's already on her third husband but (more significantly, I think) that she will boast a child by all of them.  "Even by the easy-come, easy-go standards of modern showbusiness," claims Boshoff, "to have chalked up three marriages and three children by three different men, all before you hit 40, is going some." 

Indeed, we're told, Winslet has been subjected to online abuse by "middle-class mothers" (the Mail's target demographic, of course) who have been calling her "3x3" and comparing her to Ulrika Jonsson, who has managed the even more striking feat of giving birth to four children by four different men.  It's a sign of the amnesiac times we're living in, incidentally, that Winslet's creditable determination to uphold the great Hollywood tradition of serial monogamy (she has another four men to go to match Elizabeth Taylor's matrimonial tally) should lead to comparisons with a minor television personality.  The woman has an Oscar, for God's sake.

Still, we mustn't imagine that Winslet is a slut.  As Boshoff goes on to explain, "People who know Kate say her problem is simple: she's a hopeless romantic who loves to be in love and as never outgrown girlish dreams of finding a Mr Absolutely Right."  Not that that means she's blameless, though.  "Nothing in her upbringing can be blamed for causing this skittish nature," Boshoff tuts.

The Telegraph's Judith Woods also has her claws out, adding her own charming little concern-porn angle.   In her eyes, Winslet is that worst of all modern sinners, a bad role model.  Won't anyone think of the children?

What her daughter, in particular, makes of Winslet’s revolving-door relationships can only be guessed at. But to the outside world, Kate, it just looks tacky.  Three children by three different fathers doesn’t look good on anyone. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: to have children by two men may be regarded as a misfortune, to have children by three looks like carelessness.  I know that you are a woman of grand, towering passions and deep, gushy emotion, but you are steering perilously close to clinching the Ulrika Jonsson Dysfunctionality Award for Services to Broken Britain.

Wood goes on to compare Winslet's private life to an episode of Shameless.  But tempting as it is to assimilate a multi-millionairess to a "benefit scrounger" living on a council estate, the type whose taxpayer-funded breeding regularly brings the Mail out in convulsions, the difference is stark.  Winslet's children will lack for nothing.  Her wealth and talent allows her the freedom to follow her romantic star.  She doesn't depend financially on the men she leaves behind any more than she depends on the state.  Therefore she's under no obligation to settle for what she considers second best, or to stay shackled to a marriage after the passion dies.  Lucky her. 

What's really tacky, of course, is all this SEO-friendly moralising.  A response by Zoe Margolis flags up the slut-shaming and double-standards involved in censuring a woman's sexual choices in a way that would never be done to a man.  As she quite rightly says,

Women are routinely chastised for how they look, what they do for a living, whether they have children (or not), and who they are intimate with, with rules that do not apply to men. Can you imagine Woods feeling the need to write an article about a male celebrity describing him as having “revolving-door relationships” that are “tacky”? Or accusing him of being a bad father just because he’s having another child with a different person?

And she goes on to draw a political message:

Writing a personal attack on a woman, celebrity or not, contributes to women’s oppression; these type of comment pieces – which feature all too regularly in the press and across blogs now – impact how women are treated in society: when women fear judgement if they don’t conform to the sexist stereotype of how they should behave, it means they are not free.
But in condemning "this sexist double standard," Margolis omits to mention that the authors of these pieces are almost invariably women.  As are the presumed readers - not to mention the "middle class mothers" making snide remarks on Facebook.  The underlying feminist assumption is not simply that women are oppressed, but that women are oppressed by men and by the phallocentric, hegemonic structures (aka "the patriarchy") by which men have always ensured their dominance.  I don't imagine that most men care two hoots about Kate Winslet's private life. 

Rather as in the case of the fashion industry, which is also said to oppress women but which also appears to an outsider to be largely run by and for women, one is left wonder, then, how it can be that women have so obligingly done the patriarchy's work for it, without any discernible shove from the men?  Is it all a subtle strategem cooked up by the patriarchy's equivalent of the Bilderberg Group?  But perhaps the problem should be put differently.  If, as seems more likely, this sexual oppression of women through the medium of slut-shaming and gossip is a quintessentially female phenomenon, is there anything that can usefully be done to prevent it?

The fashion industry is a useful parallel.  Much is said and written about how fashion imposes certain bodily ideals on women, which leads to a lack of confidence and self-hatred among the vast majority who don't measure up.  Although men, too, are these days increasingly being subjected to some of the same pressures, the fashion industry is frequently denounced by feminists as tool of sexual oppression.  I doubt it.  Few people will have been really surprised by another story the other day, which found that women spend much longer getting dressed and made up for a night out with the girls than they do for an evening with their husband or boyfriend - and, indeed, that most will freely admit the elements of friendly competition and group bonding that these grooming rituals involve.  But of course.  It stands to reason that you'd rather make an effort getting dressed for someone who's likely to appreciate it. 

Homo sapiens is a hierarchical species, and oppression and hierarchy still tend to be intra- rather than inter-sex.  Men oppress men, playing out complex games of dominance that ultimately have very little to do with impressing a potential mate.  Women oppress women, policing their behaviour, punishing deviation and imposing stringent social norms on their sisters (the feminist movement is no exception here). Doubtless there are good evolutionary reasons for all this: the threat posed by "predatory" women eyeing up other women's men, perhaps or the way that promiscuous women might lower the price of sex to men to the disadvantage of "good girls". But given that such rationales no longer apply to the modern sexually egalitarian West, it's surprising that slut-shaming remains such a popular sport.

What is easiest to miss, though, is the sheer pleasure that comes from discoursing disapprovingly on the social and sexual mores of other people, whether they're your friends, those scuzzy people who live down the road, or glamorous celebrities you read about in the papers.  Jealousy, disapproval and the thrill of intimate gossip all come together in an irresistible combination.  In that sense, Kate Winslet is just like that feckless single mother who enters her twenties with four differently-sired infants and a council flat. 
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Monday, 3 June 2013

Why isn't everyone talking about Shirley Williams?

In the Sun (reproduced in the Mail) today, Shirley Williams describes being sexually assaulted during the 1970s by "more than one" Labour cabinet minister.

She doesn't name names and she doesn't go into much detail, beyond saying that she had spent "a great deal of my youth being pursued by senior gentlement" and that some of the incidents were "much worse than groping".  As to why she didn't report the assaults, she resorted to the kind of reasoning we've heard from TV and radio presenters: that she was given to believe that such behaviour was par for the course, politics is "not a soft business."  Which is true enough.  She might have slapped them, though.

It's odd in any case, given these personal experiences, that Shirley Williams remains a strong supporter of Lord Rennard, who has been accused of various types of sexual harassment by several women.  Possibly she really does think that such behaviour is something that women just have to put up with.  I'm even more surprised that this hasn't been a bigger story.  Here we have allegations that more than one Cabinet minister engaged in fairly serious sexual assault on another leading politician, assaults which they both expected to, and did, get away with.  It's possible, given the passage of time, that Williams' assailants are all dead (but then why not name and shame?).  Even so we are dealing with misbehaviour in very high places, which ought to garner more attention than the doings of half-forgotten DJs or comedians of the same era.

If someone as prominent, as self-assured and as politically astute as Shirley Williams had to submit to the unwanted gropes (and "much worse") of her male colleagues, what of less powerful women?  What of all the researchers, secretaries, lobbyists and journalists that make up the Westminster ecosystem?  What stories and scandals must be buried there.  If power is the greatest aphrodisiac, as they say, and if politics is show business for ugly people, as they also say, then we should expect a veritable Pere Lachaise of skeletons to be rattling around the Westminster cupboards.

When you consider how casually sexist and male dominated the House of Commons was even twenty years ago, to say nothing of the 1970s, it would be remarkable if Shirley Williams' experience was uncommon.  Famous, respected, even revered Parliamentarians of all parties might well turn out to have been inveterate sex pests.  So far, though, there's been nothing like the rush of revelations (or, at least, stories) about the BBC that emerged in the wake of the Jimmy Savile. Perhaps no-one's even interested.  While there remains intermittent and half-hearted interest in alleged highly-placed paedophile networks (arrests are always in prospect, but never seem to materialise) today's extraordinary, first-person account of sexual assault by one of our most enduring public figures has caused barely a ripple and raised scarcely an eyebrow.

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