Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Rennard the Fox?

Chris Rennard, to judge from the photographs, not exactly an oil painting (unless it's the one Dorian Gray kept in the attic, of course). He looks like a younger version of Eric Pickles. But perhaps I'm being unfair, and in person he's blisteringly charismatic, or at any rate able, like the famously ugly and famously popular with the laideez John Wilkes, to talk away his face in under twenty minutes. On the other hand, I may be being unfair to Mr Pickles.


The precise number of women who claim to have been at the receiving end of Rennard's unwanted attentions (and of course he denies the allegations) is changing all the time. The figure of ten was quoted this lunchtime on Radio 4's World At One. The programme featured an extensive interview with one of them, so far known only as Susan, who described being propositioned rather clumsily by the peer at a training conference in Peterborough. He touched her leg and tried to invite himself up to her room.  That seems to have been about it. It was an unpleasant enough experience for someone who plainly didn't relish the attention, and one that, by her own account, left her a bit shaken.  Entirely unacceptable behaviour on his part, of course. Come the revolution, only attractive men will try to hit on women, and then only when they've already said yes.

Susan's main complaint seems to be that the man who tried to have his wicked way with her, even though he eventually took No for an answer, was also deeply involved in the selection of Lib Dem parliamentary candidates. She was worried that she could have "knocked my chances of any future success in the party by having said No."

She said:

Of course men do try it on, but this is a man with an almighty amount of power. At the time he held the purse-strings for any winnable seat, and he could choose which were the starred seats... So this was a man who could control your future, and if he said, "I'm not too sure about this candidate," people listened to him, and people still listen to him, because he has commanded a great deal of respect.

The implicit allegation here is that Rennard was using his position to operate a casting couch for would-be female MPs. Susan understood (though of course nothing of the kind was said) that had she agreed to sleep with his lordship it would increase her chances of getting on in the party, or alternatively that if she didn't sleep with him her career would be damaged. As yet there's no evidence whatever to justify this suspicion on her part. It's one thing to suggest that Rennard was a sex-pest (which of course he denies); quite another to claim that he was offering favours in return for sex. Establishing the truth of the claim would be difficult. It would, for example, involve asking women who have succeeded in being selected for winnable seats in the past decade or so whether they slept with Chris Rennard. I can't imagine many Lib Dems wanting to go there.

But who knows? There's a quote in the Mail from an anonymous "Lib Dem insider" who spoke to Jo Swinson, now Equalities Minister, as long ago as 2004. That was before Swinson, then just 24, was even an MP, though she was already a rising star in the party, famous among other things for wearing a pink T-shirt with the slogan "I am not a token woman". The source said: "Jo Swinson said to me that Rennard had an issue about women but you have to put up with it if you want to get on in the party." The following year she became the youngest MP in the House of Commons.

According to the Mail, Swinson stands "accused of assisting with a cover-up that rivals the Catholic Church’s approach to abuse allegations," which seems a bit OTT. Until now, Swinson has had impeccable feminist credentials, for example spearheading a drive to ban adverts featuring airbrushed models. But then, as I'm sure she realises, you don't get very far in feminism by being sisterly with other women.

Sex and power always make for an unstable mixture. It's easy to tell a story in terms of vulnerable young women being exploited by older, predatory males; and perhaps this narrative itself is part of the problem. To take one obvious example: it was so easy to fit the Bill Clinton/ Monica Lewinsky affair into that stereotype that even commentators disgusted by the President's behaviour ended up by pigeon-holing her as a bimbo. As a result, her subsequent life has been entirely defined by that one incident, or to be more precise by the fallout from it. If the story had never come out, who knows what might have become of her? She might even be a Democratic congresswoman by now, whatever helping hand Clinton gave her on the way up long ago outweighed by her own achievements and hard work.

As for Lord Rennard, I can't help wondering how he imagined that he could get away with his sleazy behaviour towards women over so many years. Unless, of course, his clumsy advances didn't always meet with such a negative response. Two aphorisms: "Politics is show business for ugly people" (variously attributed to Jay Leno and the political consultant Paul Begala, though it may well be older) and "Power is the greatest aphrodisiac" (Kissinger, supposedly). Little known outside the Lib Dems, inside the party Rennard had about him an almost shamanistic aura as a strategic mastermind and fixer, a man with a Midas touch when it came to the arcane art of fighting and winning by-elections. He was a party celebrity, who brought with him the buzz of potential power and personal success. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a few ambitious and impressionable women (the two categories are not mutually exclusive) were genuinely turned on by his wandering hands and quivering flesh.  Though it's important to stress that he denies the allegations.
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Friday, 22 February 2013

One Year Later: Why We Made a Gospel Version of Pussy Riot's Punk Prayer

This is a guest post by Irreverend James



You’ve heard of Pussy Riot, but have you ever actually listened to the music? It’s brash, raw, performance punk. Not exactly my cup of tea. Or so I thought, until I read British poet Carol Rumens’  translation of Punk Prayer on the Guardian’s website:


Congregations genuflect

Black robes brag gilt epaulettes

Freedom’s phantom’s gone to heaven

Gay Pride’s chained and in detention…


Forget the cup, I thought. I’ll take the entire kettle. Here you have protest music in its purest form. Challenging the collusion between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian State. Something had to be done with this. And something has. But first, a little back-story you likely haven’t read before.

Last February 21st,  Pussy Riot called out Vladimir Putin in terms that could not be ignored. By then, he had rigged elections, set up a puppet in his stead to avoid having to rewrite the constitution, then had it rewritten anyway so that he’d be in de facto power for all of 24 years (instead of the constitutionally mandated 8). Now he had the Orthodox Patriarch declaring him “a gift from God”. Though most Russians could see through the charade, they acted as Americans do in regards to congressional redistricting and lobbying: they shrugged, sighed in disgust, and went back to playing with their smart phones. Except Pussy Riot. Their prank was meant as an electro-shock. As we all know, it did not go over well.

Since their highly mediatised trial – and in part because of the West’s infatuation with the girls – the backlash in the Russian mainstream has been eerily similar to the beating Red-State America gave the Dixie Chicks in 2003 after they made an innocuous – and in hindsight, rather justified – statement about then-President Bush. Few Russians are fans of Pussy Riot and fewer still would dare speak up in their defence. Indeed, the zeitgeist in Russia today reeks of French Freedom Fries:  it is depressingly fatuous, unhealthy, cheap and badly mislabeled. It’s okay that Russia is a kleptocracy; but it is definitely not okay for you to call it that.

Most relevant to us is the fact that Pussy Riot were ultimately charged and sentenced by the Russian State with crimes against religion. In doing so, the government managed to shield itself from accusations of political prosecution. What, us? No, we’d never!

It’s much like those dozens of investigative reporters who keep getting accidentally murdered. The message to everyone else in Russia is quite clear. Delve into corruption – be it governmental or otherwise – and you may not get to see your next birthday, though no irrefutable proof will ever be found that your execution-style suicide was anything more than a robbery gone afoul. Ask me again why all those Russian cars have dashboard video cameras.

What’s shocking to me about this case is not only that the Russian judiciary is fatally flawed, but also that religion is once again muddying the socio-political waters. While refusing to back down from their criticism of President Putin, the convicted Rioters have apologized for offending the faithful with their reference to “Holy Shit”. We didn’t mean to blaspheme, they’ve said, it was merely collateral damage. The reason for their backpedalling? Religion in Russia today is akin to Religion in America. It is not to be trifled with.

And just like it’s not well received in America-the-Faithful to call out Scientologists as delusional, Latter Day magic undergarments as goofy, and the Bible, Qu’ran and Torah as historically significant works of utter fiction, so is it not well received in Russia to sing punk songs against authoritarianism in an Orthodox Cathedral.

Only we’re Canadian. So don’t mind if we do.

You can download the song for free here: www.criticalmasschoir.com/punkprayer

In solidarity,

IRREVEREND JAMES and the CRITICAL MASS CHOIR

a Montreal-based subversive gospel music band. www.irreverendjames.com - freethink everything.
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Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Mantel on Kate: Mean but not meaningless

Thank goodness for the Daily Mail. I awoke this morning to outraged headlines about Hilary Mantel, who had apparently "launched a scathing attack" on Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, comparing her, among other things, to "a jointed doll on which rags were hung." The Mail had swiftly rounded up some people prepared to be outraged, including the boss of one of Kate's charities, in return for some free publicity. By lunchtime, David Cameron, far away in India, had "waded in", as they say, describing the comments (or at least the version of the comments that was put to him) as "completely misguided and completely wrong."

But the hive-mind of Twitter had been on the case long before, having come to the conclusion that this would be an excellent topic for today's ritual Mail-bashing. And I, meanwhile, had had a chance to look at what Mantel had actually written, and spoken, at length in the London Review of Books. Needless to say, this was no scathing attack on the former Miss Middleton. Rather, it was an discursive treatment of the public image of royal women, drawing on her extensive knowledge of history as well as a comparison between Kate and Diana. It offered some memorable vignettes, such as a function for writers at Buckingham Palace at which most of the guests tried desperately to avoid the embarrassment of having to talk to the Queen, while the servants failed to offer them a plate for used cocktail sticks. "The queen's revenge," thought Mantel, as though it were anything to do with her. There's a good line about Marie Antoinette: "one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny." We also learn that a genetic condition may have been behind both Henry VIII's difficulty in fathering a healthy heir and the fact that in middle-age the once dashing monarch turned into a monster.

In discussing Kate, Mantel was talking less about the Duchess herself than about how she is fitted into media templates, "draped in a set of threadbare attributions", in the absence of any clearly-defined personality. She writes that Kate "appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen." There is indeed something curiously identikit about her public persona: a perfectly pleasant young woman, much like perfectly pleasant young women are supposed to be, with nothing exceptional about her apart perhaps from an elevated ordinariness. Even the compliments offered by the people outraged in the Mail had a bland and formulaic air, as though in confirmation rather than refutation of Mantel's essay. To the prime minister she was "bright, engaging and a fantastic ambassador for Britain." The charity boss described her as "engaging, natural and genuinely interested"; she asked "really good questions, the questions of someone who wants to learn."

What was it that Mantel said? "Presumably Kate was designed to breed in some manners. She looks like a nicely brought up young lady, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ part of her vocabulary." In other words, "engaging".

The worst that can be said of Hilary Mantel is that she is as guilty of the same objectification of which she accuses the media. To her, Kate is not so much a clothes-horse or a walking womb as an illustration of the childishness and artificiality of public discourse around, and expectations of, royalty:

When her pregnancy became public she had been visiting her old school, and had picked up a hockey stick and run a few paces for the camera. BBC News devoted a discussion to whether a pregnant woman could safely put on a turn of speed while wearing high heels. It is sad to think that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow, but that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken. And in the same way one is compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.

Which is true as far as it goes, but rather overlooks the fact that Kate herself is an entirely blameless woman, doing her best to make sense of her bizarre role in national life, "engaging" indeed, and that however bland her public persona may be she herself presumably has feelings: some of Mantel's comments seem gratuitously mean.

At the root of Mantel's problem with Kate is regret that she's not Diana. Nor is she Marie Antoinette or Anne Boleyn, both of whom, you won't need reminding, ended up losing their heads. Diana, of course, lost her own head in a more metaphorical but no less fatal manner. In comparison with such divas, Kate is too dull for this novelist's interest:

she appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation.

Diana was "fitted to be the carrier of myth," thinks Mantel: a character of archetypal power who brought with her the archaic numinousness of royalty. Kate, on the other hand, is fit to open supermarkets and carry an heir, but that's about it.

The same might be said of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour, a parallel that Mantel fails to draw explicitly, though she does mention her in passing in the second part of the essay:

No one understood what Henry saw in Jane, who was not pretty and not young. The imperial ambassador sneered that ‘no doubt she has a very fine enigme’: which is to say, secret part. We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina. Along with the reverence and awe accorded to royal persons goes the conviction that the body of the monarch is public property. We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all.

Which, it seems to me, is precisely what Hilary Mantel is doing to Kate.

Kate's lack of a vibrant personality may be her greatest asset. She has something of the freshly-scrubbed quality of the earliest Diana. But Diana was a 19 year old virgin when she was thrust into the spotlight. When she finally married Prince William, Kate was a whole decade older. Yet she was almost equally devoid of a past. She had spent all that time (apart from a brief hiatus) first as Official Royal Girlfriend and then as Princess-in-Waiting. There were no previous long-term relationships to complicate the picture or pique tabloid interest. Though her face and figure were already world-famous, she was almost as blank a canvass as her deceased mother-in-law had once been when she stepped out of her wedding coach.

It must be said, though, that this is just as true of Prince William, who despite a lifetime in the public eye has accumulated no visible personality quirks, has provided no fodder for the tabloids, has had no other long-term girlfriends and hasn't even ever been drunk in public. If Kate is a "shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore" - well, so is the future king, though in his case the wardrobe is entirely functional and semiotic: well-cut suits, military uniforms, black tie, the fatigues he wears when flying his helicopter. If he is spared the constant scrutiny his wife attracts for her dress (and undress) it is at the price of having no real public image at all. He is a cipher.

He is not a cipher because of his sex or royal status. His father is not a cipher: he has a sharply defined persona, both comic and tragic, that had already assumed its well-known lineaments when he was the age that William is now. The eccentric opinions, the tortured public introspection, the seemingly interminable wait to "fulfil his destiny" as king. The British royal family is not short of cartoonish personalities. Think of Prince Philip, or Harry, or Princess Anne. Prince William alone has his grandmother's aloofness and unknowability, though not her aura of alien unapproachability. In Kate, he has found a consort as bland and self-effacing as himself. No doubt this is why they get on so well (c.f. Charles and Diana.)  They are walking, talking cake decorations, which makes them probably the perfect royal couple, in a world where the function of royalty is to smile, act pleasantly and to provide some nice pictures to look at.

Hilary wonders if monarchy is "a suitable institution for a grown-up nation." I don't know, either, not because I'm unsure about the monarchy (it's silly) but because I'm far from convinced that we live in a grown-up nation. Such is the infantilised nature of our public life that it has become the preserve of the blandly inoffensive. It used to be said, following Bagehot, that the purpose of monarchy was to be decorative and the purpose of politicians was to be utilitarian and "efficient". But in those days there were politicians like Disraeli, or later Churchill, personalities far more vivid and even "decorative" than any modern royal. David Cameron is to politics what Kate and William are to royalty. He too might have been precision-engineered on a production line, and his conception of his own role closely resembles that which he ascribed to the Duchess of Cambridge: as "an ambassador for Britain."
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Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Glamorous fashionistas: the right kind of sexism

An unlikely feminist ally
Unlike his near-contemporary in the Vatican, Rupert Murdoch shows no sign of wanting to relinquish his grip on his huge multinational empire.  But he takes a similarly spare and pontifical approach to Twitter.  So when he suggested that in future naked breasts might be replaced in the Sun by "glamorous fashionistas", many took it as a sign that Page 3 was on the way out. 

Murdoch himself professes to be amazed that his ruminations could be considered "breaking news - Typical OTT reaction by the UK PC crew. Just considering, as we do every page daily Buy it and see...."  I assume he's not that naive.  He knows what attention his gnomic utterances invariably receive.  His timeline attracts hundreds of unsolicited comments every day.  He very rarely replies to any of them, but he chose to respond to a suggestion from anti-Page 3 campaigner Karen Mason (who goes by the name of @Kazipooh) that the feature was "so last century".  And in doing so, he put the future of Page 3 under a bigger question mark than Clare Short managed thirty years ago by her attempts in Parliament to get it banned.

These days, of course, Page 3 is little more than a charming anachronism, much like Uncle Rupert himself.  Its abolition would represent above all the embourgeoisement of the Sun, a step in the direction of the Daily Mail.  The Mail has always preferred glamorous fashionistas over naked breasts.  Dropping Page 3 in favour of pictures of celebrities in dresses isn't going to hasten a feminist revolution: at least not the feminist revolution that Page 3's opponents claim they would like to see.  But it would signal an attempt to appeal to middle class female readers in preference to its traditional, but shrinking, market among the male working-class.  The main losers would be the "glamour models" themselves, for some of whom Page 3 used to offer a route to easy and otherwise unobtainable fame and the possibility of dating a footballer. But there's always reality TV. 

Hadley Freeman doesn't think getting rid of Page 3 will lead to a feminist utopia.  It isn't even the main problem: "Page 3's sheer obviousness makes it one of the less viciously misogynistic elements in the British media."  She's thinking, of course, as Guardian writers obsessively tend to, of the Daily Mail, whose sexism she proceeds to enumerate: paparazzi stalking of actresses, an obsession with celebrities' weight, the ever present implication that women  "exist only in relation to men and children".  But she also acknowledges the important truth, which is that both the perpetrators of and the audience for the Mail's sexism are women.

As she writes:

The issue of the paucity of female bylines in the British media is, to my mind, something of a canard considering how much misogyny is uttered by so many female columnists, especially on the tabloids, who often act as Trojan horses for the paper's condescension and cruelty.  Publications that are explicitly aimed at women, such as the Daily Mail's Femail and the women's section in the Sun, generally consist of little more than body obsession and female celebrity snarkiness.

Her mistake is to imagine that Page 3 is "the most stupid example" of a more general media sexism. It's an entirely different kettle of fish: an increasingly anomalous example of sexist imagery designed to appeal to men.

Mail Online's "Sidebar of Shame", with its parade of cellulite, celebritiy break-ups and creepy obsession with six-year-old Suri Cruise, is of course notorious.  Who have we today?  Kelly Rowland, who was apparently "in tears" after a birthday lunch with Beyoncé.  Kim Kardashian, of course, who like Kate Middleton is pregnant (but, unlike Kate, you're allowed to stick a camera at her swelling tummy).  Lauren Goodger.  Naomi Grossman.  Rita Ora.  I'm afraid I haven't heard of any of those women. Nor have I the slightest interest in the fact that Katy Perry apparently has a new boyfriend or that "chic" Emma Watson has been snapped wearing knee-high leather boots.  But then I'm not the intended market.

Feminists tend to see the attitude towards women exemplified by the Mail in terms of "misogyny" and, at a slightly more abstract level of analysis, as part of a societal set-up in which women's behaviour and bodies are "policed" for the benefit of men.  Men have little or nothing to do with it, however.  If anyone is oppressing women (and that's an open question), then largely it's other women.  So if women are indeed being treated in the media as existing "only in relation to men and children", the problem lies in a quirk of female psychology - which the mass media finds it profitable to exploit - rather than in patriarchy, capitalism, male supremacy or any other feminist boo-words.

Why would heterosexual women objectify other women in such ways?  Plenty of reasons.  Human beings are primates, and primates are intensely hierarchical.  In our culture, weight, attractiveness, relationship status and so on are important status-indicators for women.   Sizing up the competition is something that men and women equally indulge in, but it may express itself in different ways because society still has subtly different expectations of the sexes.  At the same time, many psychologists argue that women are, on the whole, more interested than men in the maintenance of social networks.  Knowing the names of other people's children (especially when they're the children of high-status individuals), enforcing community norms via mechanisms of shaming and emulation, and gossip are all ways in which women can indulge this deep-seated need for making connections.

But I'm leaving something out, as indeed is Hadley Freeman.  Take another look at the Sidebar of Shame.  It's not all women; there are men there, too.  Today there's Steve Martin, who has become a father for the first time at 67; pretty-boy Ashton Kutcher (cuddling up to girlfriend Mila Kunis at a basketball game); someone called Aaron Paul who has bought a new house; the actor Mark Wahlberg watching his young son dribbling a basketball; and "Denise Welch's toyboy fiancé Lincoln Townley" who is "undergoing tests after being rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack."  That one is especially interesting: for what is a toyboy fiancé if not a man viewed solely in relation to his female partner.  The same might be said of "business Anton Kaszubowski", whose presence in the Mail is due not to his own achievements in the world of (I discover) internet gambling but because he's currently to be seen in the company of a retired Spice Girl. 

And it's a rare day that the Mail doesn't offer its readers a glimpse of David Beckham, either in a pose redolent of sexual objectification or (more often these days) with his wife and children.  Just like the women whose media image Hadley Freeman complains of.  So when she writes, "Once a female celebrity has children, she is always, in the eyes of the media, a mother first and foremost, no matter what else she accomplishes, but a man is always a man," she is quite wrong.  A man isn't "always a man"; in the Mail or even these days the Sun he's as likely as any female celebrity to be judged on the basis of his looks or by reference to his partner and/or offspring.

A glamorous fashionista?
I don't think all this means that men are being seen as sex objects.  It just means that they are being judged (by women) in the same terms that women are invited to judge female celebrities.  Sexual objectification of women by men is increasingly frowned upon in polite society, or at least in the mainstream media; these days, the only acceptable reason to display naked or highly semi-naked female flesh is to condemn it.  In the Mail, raunchy pictures of (it tends to be) Rihanna exist primarily (or at any rate ostensibly) as illustrations of the dangers of a "hyper-sexualised" society and the supposed pressures on young girls to look or act in sexualised ways.  And it's not just Rihanna.  Even a fairly demure advert featuring a back view of Keira Knightly is too much for the maiden-auntish standards of the Advertising Standards Authority.

Meanwhile, sexual objectification of men by women is scarcely admitted to exist; instead, the constant message offered by psychologists (as representatives of "science") to readers of these titles is that female sexuality isn't "visual" in the way that male sexuality is assumed to be.  Sexual objectification of men by gay men (cf Tom Daley) is permitted to exist de facto while never being referred to explicitly.  That's a paradoxical loophole, however, largely made possible by the prevailing view of gay men as respectable citizens whose principal desire is to get married.

Despite all the claims of a hyper-sexualised society, then, the overwhelming message from the media is that overt sexuality is bad and dangerous: that men who enjoy to looking at semi-naked women are misogynist dinosaurs in want of re-education, while women who make a living by taking their clothes off for photographers are simulateously victims of oppression and bad role-models.  Sex sells, but disapproval of sex sells even more.  Disapproval of sex illustrated by sexy pictures sells best of all.  But what is really being disapproved of is a failure of social conformity.  It's not just that Page 3 had become irrelevant in terms of the way that women are presented in the mainstream media.  The campaign against Page 3 is actually part of the same censorious mindset that lies behind the Mail and its Sidebar of Shame.

It's testimony to the success of that mindset that Rupert Murdoch now believes it may be in his commercial interests to replace the seaside postcard sexuality of Page 3 with a parade of "glamorous fashionistas", who will be presented not for the delectation of men but for the critical appraisal of other women.  Which is indeed feminist progress of a sort, I suppose.

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Monday, 11 February 2013

Benedict XVI: Quitter

What do you call an ex-pope? Papa Emeritus? Pontiff-Ex? Maybe in Joseph Ratzinger's case, Ex-Benedict? I hear his official title will be Cardinal Ratzinger, Emeritus Bishop of Rome. So the name goes along with the job. Presumably someone else will be taking over the official Twitter account, too.

Unlike Rowan Williams, who has retired in the fullness of his health and vigour well before the official age of 70 and will no doubt pop up from time to time to offer the world nuggets of his wisdom (Heffers in Cambridge is charging punters £12 a ticket to come and hear him talking about his favourite books in a couple of weeks' time), Ratzinger is likely to vanish into the Vatican monastery currently being spruced up for him, or into some future old pope's home. He is going, after all, because by his own account his physical and (perhaps this is more significant) mental strength have deteriorated "to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me." I suppose he might recover sufficiently, after a long rest, to write his memoirs. He could probably do with the money. I don't think there's such a thing as a papal pension plan.

In other words he doesn't want to repeat the drooling spectacle of the last days of John Paul II. Some unkind souls might suggest that Benny was already past it when he got the job seven odd years ago. But then by that stage JPII had been sunk in decrepitude for so long that most younger people struggled to recall a time when the pope wasn't a doddering old wreck. Perhaps that's why Ratzo was elected: while not actually senile, he at least looked plausibly pontifical. He came to the role fully formed, unlike his predecessor who during his first decade might easily have been mistaken for an East European mafia boss, were it not for the robes.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the departing pontiff. On one hand, he was a distinct improvement on his horribly overrated predecessor, who by most objective accounts was a fanatical and egotistical paedophile-enabler who turned the papacy into a creepy personality cult. His books as pope were collections of soupy platitudes with titles like Crossing the Threshold of Hope and his open-air masses closely resembled convocations presided over by the late Sun Myung Moon, albeit choreographed with rather less taste. He was quite sound on communism, I suppose. But, unlike Benedict, he protected notorious paedophiles including Maciel Degollado of the Legionaries of Christ and Austria's Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer. The present pope's record in the matter isn't spotless, but he did at least belatedly (around 2000) recognise that the child abuse scandal was deadly serious and attempted to address it, which John Paul never did.

Ratzinger, moreover, is a proper intellectual, who writes proper, well-considered books and has an excellent taste in music. He has some charming foibles, such as a love of obscure papal regalia discarded by his modernising predecessors, but by and large he's a serious man out of place in these superficial times. I can really relate to comments he made the other week about social media - though I also recognise that they are hopelessly naive:

Often, as is also the case with other means of social communication, the significance and effectiveness of the various forms of expression appear to be determined more by their popularity than by their intrinsic importance and value. Popularity, for its part, is often linked to celebrity or to strategies of persuasion rather than to the logic of argumentation. At times the gentle voice of reason can be overwhelmed by the din of excessive information and it fails to attract attention which is given instead to those who express themselves in a more persuasive manner. The social media thus need the commitment of all who are conscious of the value of dialogue, reasoned debate and logical argumentation; of people who strive to cultivate forms of discourse and expression which appeal to the noblest aspirations of those engaged in the communication process.

Of course, much of what he stands for is repellent: he has called same sex marriage an "offence against the human person", continued his church's lethal opposition to the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS, given pep talks to the American bishops on the need to destroy President Obama's healthcare reforms. His vision for the church has involved reaching out to disaffected Anglicans (the kind who imagine that the likes of Rowan Williams and now Justin Welby are somehow liberals) and the neo-Nazis of the Society of St Pius X, but excluded many forward-thinking Catholics. His papacy marks a full-scale repudiation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Second Vatican Council which met a full fifty years ago. His greatest supporters on the Internet are found among reactionaries and fogeys, whose love for Ratzinger is often expressed by pouring uncharitable and unChristian bile upon Catholic leaders closer to home. I don't just mean Damian Thompson.

Still, I've always admired his style (those red shoes! those hats!) and his steadfast refusal to compromise. And his age, I think, was a positive asset.

Personally, I'm all in favour of gerontocracy. It worked well for the Soviet Union, after all: it was only when (inspired, perhaps, by the evident popular success of JPII) the Russians went for the dynamic young Gorbachev that things began to go tits up. The Americans, meanwhile, stuck with the increasingly confused Ronald Reagan and proceeded to win the Cold War without really trying. Who set modern China on the road to its current prosperity? Why Deng Xiao Peng, who was probably born a nonagenarian. Meanwhile, our own current enthusiasm for young and telegenic leaders has brought us Blair and now Cameron.

The Papacy was one of the last institutions on earth to uphold the ancient principle of dying in office. Other ancient churches feel the same way: last year alone saw the deaths of Pope Shenouda III of Egypt at 88 and Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria, who reached the grand old age of 98. We still have the Queen, of course, who seems in no hurry to follow the example of Beatrix of the Netherlands who is preparing to step down in the spring at 75. For her, we're always told, the Crown is a sacred trust given to her by God at her coronation; only death can dissolve her marriage to the kingdom. But presumably the Pope felt much the same way. The divine right of kings is a long-defunct concept, even in Britain (where succession is officially based on descent from the Electress Sophia of Hanover). But the divine appointment of popes is official Catholic doctrine: the cardinals meeting in conclave are supposed to discern the will of the Holy Spirit in their deliberations. Prince Charles, who will probably be our official representative at the installation of the next pope, might be thinking such wistful thoughts.
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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Marriage Man: Cameron and heterosexual civil partnership

Never do the right thing for the wrong reasons.  You invariably end up by alienating your friends, annoying the people you're trying to court, and looking like a stinking hypocrite, all the while tying yourself up in the knots of your own inconsistency.  Observe David Cameron's predicament over same sex marriage.  The principle might be good, but the government's proposals are rushed, incoherent and, I increasingly believe, prompted by expediency.  Let's look at one glaring problem with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.  In Prime Minister's Questions this lunchtime, Cameron admitted that the reason his government has refused to consider granting heterosexual couples the right to enter into civil partnerships, as their gay counterparts will still be able to after same-sex marriage is put into law, is that he fears that it will undermine marriage.

"Frankly I'm a marriage man," he said.  "I am a great supporter of marriage. I want to promote marriage, defend marriage, encourage marriage... I think we should be promoting marriage rather than looking at any other way of weakening it."

Cameron thus confirmed the opinion of Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner (the C of E's man in the Commons) who suggested in yesterday's debate that  "policy makers considered that allowing heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships would undermine the institution of marriage."  A little later, Christopher Chope recalled a conversation during which the prime minister had expressed his distaste for "marriage-lite".

I have suspected as much for some time.  There is, however, another possible explanation.  Ben Summerskill, of the gay campaign group Stonewall, suggested at a Lib Dem fringe meeting in 2010 that opening civil partnerships to heterosexuals could cost the Treasury up to £5 billion in pensions and other entitlements.  This would only be true, of course, if there were many heterosexual couples who would like a civil partnership (and are prepared to accept all the rights and obligations of marriage) but who nevertheless don't want to get married.  Presumably they want the legal protections without the historical baggage of sexual inequality and bourgeois conformism that the word marriage implies to some people. 

If there are many such couples (as opposed to those who might prefer a civil partnership if offered the choice, but are currently getting married anyway) the why should a government and a prime minister desirous of promoting commitment want to prevent them?  Here's what David Cameron said in 2011 in his Conference speech announcing his support for "gay marriage":

Yes, it's about equality, but it's also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.

Civil partnership might look like "marriage-lite" to Cameron,  but it still represents real, formal, long-term commitment, something the prime minister says he wants to encourage, and is as difficult as marriage to dissolve.  The number of marriages being contracted each year has declined by a third in the past forty years.  If the prospect of civil partnership entices more couples to formalise their relationship - and there's a whole other debate that needs to be had about the rights of cohabitees - insisting on marriage or nothing is counterproductive.  And if it is about saving the Treasury money, as Summerskill believes, then Cameron's talk of prioritising commitment sounds rather hollow.

Until yesterday the official explanation for  creating a new legal anomaly was that there was either no demand or no "identifiable need" for legally registered opposite-sex partnerships.  This justification was flimsy in the extreme.  If there's no need for straight civil partnerships, because heterosexuals can gain the same legal protections by getting married, by the same token there's no need for same-sex marriage.  This, of course, is precisely what opponents of same-sex marriage argue, even those who opposed civil partnership when it was first introduced.  But the fact that marriage and civil partnerships have a similar effect is not the point; not if you support same sex marriage it isn't.  As for there being no demand, there clearly is.  In countries where equal civil partnerships have been introduced, such as France, they have proved very popular.

Cameron's statement is consistent, I suppose, with his earliear claim in that "I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative". Civil partnerships were a Labour innovation, after all. But it's not consistent with either logic or fairness to continue to offer civil partnerships to gay couples who don't want to get married, while at the same time telling straight couples that it's marriage or nothing.  Nor has the government explained how its proposals are consistent with Article 14 of the European Convention, which specifies that laws concerned with human rights (in this case, the Article 8 right to a private and family life) must be "applied without discrimination." 

One of the striking ironies of yesterday's debate was many upholders of traditional marriage grasped these points very well, and were even prepared to consider radical solutions.  Matthew Offord said that the government's proposals would lead to "greater inequality" and were "hardly fair."  If we were truly seeking equality, said Andrea Leadsom, "surely we would also be legislating for heterosexuals to enter into civil partnership."  Craig Whittaker suggested renaming civil partnerships "state marriage", open them to everyone, and keeping "traditional" religious marriage "for its true intended purpose."  Christopher Chope preferred to abolish civil partnerships entirely.  Roger Gale proposed something even more radical ("I do not subscribe to it myself"):


The argument is that if the Government are serious about this measure, they should withdraw the Bill, abolish the Civil Partnership Act 2004, abolish civil marriage and create a civil union Bill that applies to all people, irrespective of their sexuality or relationship. That means that brothers and brothers, sisters and sisters and brothers and sisters would be included as well. That would be a way forward. This is not.

That would indeed be logical.  It would also be very difficult to implement.  It would imply a major change in marriage law, stripping the Church of England of its historic right to conduct weddings, for example, and requiring couples who wanted a religious marriage to go through two ceremonies.  Nor would it be in keeping with David Cameron's desire to defend traditional marriage.  As a way of dealing with the anomalies created by allowing same-sex marriage it seems like overkill.

Abolishing civil partnerships would be much easier.  Existing partners might be left alone (assuming they didn't want to "upgrade" to marriage) or they could be offered a choice between converting their civil partnership to a marriage or reverting to their former state.  No new civil partnerships would be created.  That would, no doubt, disappoint some couples; but as a quid pro quo for offering marriage on equal terms to everyone it seems a price worth paying.

I still think that allowing everyone the option of a civil partnership is the fairest and most liberal way to go.  Indeed, civil partnerships could be extended in other ways: to relatives (for example two siblings sharing a house, one of whom would otherwise face crippling death duties when the other died) and to arrangements involving more than two people.  That way, the state would validate, but not proscribe, people's living arrangements.  Marriage would remain confined to two non-relatives in an (assumed) sexual relationship.  If David Cameron wants to prioritise it he could offer tax incentives, as he has often promised but so far failed to deliver.

The current proposals are surely unsustainable.  A case involving a heterosexual couple refused a civil partnership is already before the European Court of Human Rights.  Now that the government has promised to legislate for same sex marriage, how can that case possibly be defended?  Cranmer raises another intriguing point: there are apparently proposals being debated in Brussels for mutual recognition of marriage and partnership across the EU.  It "would see all marriages and civil contracts conducted in any EU country become legally binding in all other member states".  So a heterosexual couple wishing to have a civil partnership will be able simply to pop across to France or the Netherlands for the weekend and fill in the paperwork.
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Friday, 1 February 2013

Michael Gove, "Hero of government".

Michael Gove has had a few bad headlines this past week. Members of the Commons Educations Select Committee complained that his plans to replace GCSE's with a new English Baccalaureate (EBacc) threatened to "wreck the stability" of the exam system, as the Indepdendent gleefully reported. In the Guardian, Suzanne Moore accused him of "destroying our school system" and of committing the fearful crime of never having been a teacher. The "entire education system," she wrote, "is now one vast experiment without any aim except the reach of Gove's ambition." The "hawkish neo-con" is trampling on her children's "hopes and dreams", she wailed.

These complaints are remarkably short-term, and should be set against Gove's actual game-plan.  The world is changing rapidly, and few of the education secretary's detractors seem to understand how or why.  This week I've been attending a series of lectures by Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt on where it's all headed, connectivity-wise: he summoned up a near future where criminals specialised in virtual kidnapping and "virtual honour crime", where parents would give their children weird names in the hope of getting them a high ranking on Google search and repressive governments will find it easier to control their populations but harder to commit atrocities with impunity. Too much to really summarise, but you can watch the first lecture on YouTube.

In 2011, Schmidt gave the McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, during the course of which he lamented the decline in computer science in British schools.   Since the glory days of Acorn's BBC Micro way back in the 1980s computing had largely been replaced by IT ("teaching how to use software, but with no understanding of how it is made.") Britain was "throwing away its great computing heritage", said Schmidt. This Wednesday, however, he had better news to relate. He was thrilled to discover that "you have a hero in your government. His name is Michael Gove."

Gove had just announced that computer science would be one of the basic scientific subjects in the Ebacc. A DfE spokesman suggested that millions of children would now become "active creators and controllers of technology instead of just being passive users." It "will help restore the spirit of Alan Turing and make Britain a world leader again." Eric Schmidt was just as effusive. Gove's move was "phenomenal news", he told the audience (some of whom predictably groaned); it was a "key decision" that in future decades will be seen to have secured Britain's future economic development.

So three cheers for Michael Gove, who once again has shown himself to be one of the most effective and far-sighted members of the government. Far from trampling on the dreams of Suzanne Moore's children, he might just have secured their, and all of our, futures. Read the rest of this article