Thursday, August 25, 2011

Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Sentences without verbs.

Some people were perplexed by Dave "Call Me Tony" Cameron's attempt to draw a line from what-he-calls-health-and-safety to rampaging mobs of poor people stealing plimsolls from shops.

We have all agreed that it's quite silly to require children to wear protective headgear when playing conkers, and the fact that no one does require children to wear protective headgear when playing conkers doesn't make it any less silly, but its quite hard to spot how that sort of things causes a riot. "It says caution, may contain nuts on this packet of peanuts! Quite unnecessarily! I think I shall go and burn down a theater!"  Was his idea that bobbies-on-the-beat couldn't go and club rioters like baby seals (as a certain columnist in a certain paper helpfully put it) because they had to fill out risk-assessment forms first?

Regular readers of this column, estimated to now to be well into double figures, will have had no problem spotting what was going on, and, come to think of it, don't really need to read the rest of this article. But for anyone coming here for there first time:

The right wing propaganda machine is heavily committed to a conspiracy theory in which Health and Safety, and Human Rights are -- along with Global Warming -- more or less synonymous with Political Correctness, and Political Correctness a cover-story for a secret communist plot to bring down Western Civilisation. What all four have in common is that they force people to act against something called Common Sense: indeed, believers in the conspiracy theory hold that Political Correctness means "whatever is contrary to Common Sense." I am sorry to keep banging on about this: but it really does seem to be the central unthink which is driving the far-right's project and Dave's speech about "fighting back" against The Riots is full of it.

He doesn't use the expression "political correctness gone mad" or "cultural marxism" in the speech, but he does directly claim that there are certain things which "you just can't talk about" nowadays. The things you just can't talk about are, of course precisely those things which Prime Ministers have been rabbiting on and on about since at least the time of Robert Walpole. (Note to self: Horace Walpole was someone entirely different.)
"We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said – about everything from  marriage to welfare to common courtesy.

Sometimes the reasons for that are noble – we don’t want to insult or hurt people...

So you can’t say that marriage and commitment are good things – for fear of alienating single mothers.

You don’t deal properly with children who repeatedly fail in school – because you’re worried about being accused of stigmatising them.

You’re wary of talking about those who have never worked and never want to work – in case you’re charged with not getting it, being middle class and out of touch."
So. The Conservative Party have never before talked about children doing badly at school, single parents, the family, good manners or right and wrong but under daring Dave they are jolly well going to start doing so right about now.

Note the passive voice, by the way: you may "be accused" of stigmatising less clever children if you notice that they are doing badly at school; you may "be charged" with being too middle class -- but there is no hint as to who the accuser or the charger might be. Non Specific Man is out to get us.  
To be fair to Cameron -- and just typing those words makes me feel dirty -- his comments on human rights are reasonably nuanced. Human Rights: Good Thing. Some People's Interpretation of Human Rights Act: Bad Thing. If he has got some concrete idea about how a "bill of rights" would differ from a "human rights act" then I'd be happy to listen, or at any rate, read a leading article in the Guardian by people who have listened on my behalf. [*]  I'm sure he didn't remotely want or expect that DAVE DECLARES WAR ON HUMAN RIGHTS headline in the Nasty Express.

Yet even here he can't help drifting into the language of the Conspiracy Theory.

The truth is, the interpretation of human rights legislation has exerted a chilling effect on public sector organisations, leading them to act in ways that fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.

It would be nice to hear one concrete example of how human rights have made public organisations do nonsensical things things and things which are plain wrong. He doesn't, because there aren't any.

However when it comes to health and safety, there is no nuance:

It is s exactly the same with health and safety – where regulations have often been twisted out of all recognition into a culture where the words 'health and safety' are lazily trotted out to justify all sorts of actions and regulations that damage our social fabric.

Exactly the same as what? Twisted by whom? Trotted out by whom? Damaged in what way? What is a social fabric, in any case?

Of course there is scope for grown ups to disagree about how dangerous a world we care to live in. Dave would presumably be quite happy for his child to lose the odd finger in a woodwork accident; someone else might think it quite sensible to make the teacher think before the lesson about what could go wrong and how to stop it from doing so. But how, forsooth, do we get from "We think there should be a qualified life-saver near places where children go swimming" to "damaging the social fabric" to "burning down shoe shops". 

The language veers toward the mystical. A vague thing -- "human rights" "health and safety" -- has a vague, metaphorical effect -- "corrosion", "chilling", "damaging the fabric" on a vague thing -- "society" (which does not exist but needs to be bigger). He can't give a concrete example of how we are more rusty or colder than we used to be; but he takes for granted that this cold rusty damagedness had something to do with a few hundred cross people causing a lot of damage. None of it makes the slightest sense unless you already believe in a literal Human Rights Brigade working to destroy civilisation by making us all reject common sense.

I don't know to what extent David Cameron believes in the Frankfurt Conspiracy Theory. (Melanie Phillips thinks he's one of those actively working towards the downfall of civilisation, remember.)  But the language -- of a creeping ideological thing that is chewing away at society and will shortly destroy us all -- clearly draws on the same mythology.
David Cameron is not Melanie Phillips., and Melanie Phillips is not Anders Breivik. But I am afraid that moderate right wing lunatic gives spurious credibility to violent right wing lunatics. It's no good being a little bit in favour of human rights, or a little bit skeptical of the idea that health and safety means the end of society as we now know it. You have to denounce the whole fantasy; just like you'd denounce someone who believed in the Procols ofthe Elders of Zion. There is no human rights culture. There are no elf and safety fantatics. There is no political correctness brigade. The Queen is not a telepathic alien lizard. Nothing is eating away at the fabric of society and no-one banned Christmas. Mild mannered politicians who perpetuate fantasy worlds are part of the problem.
[*] Surely a British Bill of Rights will either say the same things as the European Human Rights charter, or else different things? If it says the same things, then lawyers who are inclined to bring frivolous cases will be just as able to do so under a Bill of Rights than under a Human Rights Act. If it says different things, then UK citizen will have rights under the European Human Rights charter that they don't have under UK law; which means that they'll be able to be appeal to Strasbourg when they've exhausted the UK legal process, as they did before 1998. Have you thought this through. At all?

[**] Except in so far as "common sense" means "whatever I feel like doing at a particular moment". It is quite possible that Tony-Lite feels frustrated when he wants to grab a quick headline in the Nasty Mail by kicking a scary looking foreigner, possibly one with a prosthetic hand, out of the country and the courts insist on checking the letter of the law and hearing all arguments on both sides. But that's an argument against the whole idea of due process, not against human rights per se.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Remember, Tony Blair created New Labour because Britain was broken.

Specifically in order to deal with an outbreak of child on child murders in the north of England (outbreak being hear defined as any number greater than zero.) Regular readers of this column can undoubtedly set it to music. The murder of little Jamie Bulger was the Ugly Manifestation Of a Society That is No Longer Worth of the Name and a Hammer Blow to the Conscience of the Nation.

It is disingenuous to claim that this was just a single ill judged speech, though God knows its joyous to hear Tony admitting he was wrong about anything ever. But it was a central part of the argument behind a silly book called The Blair Revolution Can New Labour Deliver by someone called Mandelson. As PM, Blair said quite plainly that it was the problem of law and order that made him dream up New Labour.

Blair's solution to the collapse of society was elegantly simple. He dreamed up ASBOS and gave the police powers to march sub-humans to the cash machines and fine them on the spot. The idea was that letting bobbies on the beat dish out formal embarrassing punishments on the spot would replace the shame of being disapproved of by your neighbours.

He also changed the system of unemployment benefit so that unemployed yes people would no longer get help paying the bill by right, but would instead have do something to earn that yes payment -- whether doing unpaid work or attending a course or volunteering. There would be no third option of staying at home and doing nothing, remember.

And his other three solutions were education, education and education: compulsory literacy hours, because not all trained teachers realised that it was part of their job to teach children to read; parenting orders that would force feral families from hell to take care of their children in the approved middle class fashion; parents of truants deprived of welfare payments and kicked out of council houses; and compulsory citizenship classes in which feral chavs from hell would be have it explained to them straightforwardly that murdering toddlers was really not on.

So. No one staying at home doing nothing and getting paid for it; feckless parents punished; everyone made to feel part of their community; naughty people named and shamed and too embarrassed to get into trouble again; schools where children couldn't read properly closed down on the spot. A veritable New Jerusalem of common sense and hard work to replace the ugly blows of a broken hammer that is not longer yes worth of its y know conscience. Which stood for thirteen glorious years.

So tell us, Tony: how did all that turn out?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

just walked from temple meads to home along stokes croft. felt a white guy probably shouldn't go through st pauls by himself right now

everything entirely quiet, but there is a post-carnival feeling mixed with a sense of nervousness and a police presence like i've never before seen in this country

i nearly typed "my" country silly, silly me

it grieves me more than i can possibly say to see cafe kino, the "here" book shop, the arts cafe, the sally army shop and the croft vandalized (the croft isn't my sort of pub, usually, but they did a folk season a few years back and its the place i first heard all my current idols)

pretty much everything you people have read here over the last twelve months was written or at any rate drafted in kino so maybe you should feel slightly violated as well.

can't deny a certain schaudenfraud in seeing tescos boarded up again, I admit

presumably the guardian thinks its the fault of the tories and mail thinks its the fault of foriegners and melanie phillips thinks its the fault of the bbs and computer games. i have absolutely no intention of adding my voice to the storm of bullshit and anyway i wouldn't be able to make myself heard if i did

only set down this set down this

the may riots were largely about the inhabitants of stokes croft and gloucester road reacting to a percieved invasion of their community, by a nasty corporate supermarket and several hundred men with horses and judge dredd custumes. this was an attack on the community by people outside it.

at the time of the may riots there was a credible rumour - we should probably put it no stronger than that - that a tescos sercurity man had expressed the opinion that everyone who lived on stokes croft was street scum who should be killed by normal people

i don't often play on my r.p accent but i did get a laugh at the public meeting by saying that i didn't think that i fitted the standard imager of a street scum

certainly, there were lots of forum comments in the evening post, and on twitter, saying that the people who lived on the croft, the people who objected to tescos, the people who think that chris chalkley's campaign of purposeful graffiti and street art was a good idea were street scum, rats, hippies, crusties, dole monkeys etc etc and that after the riots the next step was to drive us out of the area

just be careful what you wish for, that's all

Thursday, August 04, 2011

As someday it may happen...

as some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I've got a little list; I've got a little list
of society offenders who might well be underground
and who never would be missed; they never would be missed

The BBC reports that "a Conservative MP...believes the death penalty is the proper punishment for certain crimes."

"Mr Turner, who represents the Isle of Wight, said "My instinct is that some crimes are so horrific that the proper punishment is the death penalty....A few people commit acts so evil they are beyond understanding, for example Ian Brady, the Moors murderer; Roy Whiting who abducted and killed eight-year-old Sarah Payne and, more recently, those who tortured and were then responsible for the death of Baby P, Peter Connolly."

There was a time when "Tory MP supports hanging" would not have been News: it was the sort of thing you'd take for granted, like "Labour MP Supports Trades Union" or "Bishop Believes In God". So I suppose we have advanced some distance since the 1980s.

But still, there is something morbidly interesting about the MP's remark.

In the last calendar year, five criminals have been sentenced to the most severe punishment which a civilized country knows how to inflict: to spend the rest of their lives in prison. In England, we call this a "whole life tariff". In America it would be called "life without parole". The "tariff" is the least amount of time which the criminal will have to spend in prison before he can apply to be released. A less heinous murderer might be given a "life sentence" with a "twenty year tariff" -- in American terms, "20 years to life". (My knowledge of the American criminal justice system is based on once having seen an episode of a courtroom drama on Channel 5 while setting the video for something else, so it may not be accurate. My knowledge of the English system is based on Crown Court, and completely reliable.)

Presumably, it is these five individuals -- the ones who got the worst possible punishment under the present system -- who would become eligible for ritual asphyxiation should the Isle of White Terminator get his way. When someone talks about restoring capital punishment, you might expect that they would mean "I think that the ultimate sanction of life imprisonment should be replaced by the even more ultimate sanction of being killed."

But you would expect wrong.

Four out of the five people on the Terminator's shortlist were not sentenced to the ultimate penalty which is available as the law now stands. Roy Whiting, who we can all agree is really not very nice at all, was initially sentence to Life Without Parole by a judge; David Blunket, Home Secretary and Daily Mail fan, changed this to "50 years to Life", and it was further reduced to "40 years to life" on appeal. That's a long time in gaol, but falls short of "forever". The victim's mother thought that the sentence was far to lenient, and said that life should mean life. But it didn't and it doesn't. If Whiting didn't get the worst possible sentence in a system which excludes capital punishment, why on earth imagine that he would be eligible for the death penalty were it to be restored?

"Those who tortured and were responsible for the death of Baby P" were very nearly as nasty; but none of them was sentenced to life without parole. There was a very good reason for this: none of them were convicted of murder. They were convicted of other, lessor charges, like child cruelty and causing or allowing the death of a child in their care. Very serious and horrible, but not as serious and horrible as murder. The child's mother was sentenced to between five years and life in prison; her boyfriend to between twelve years and life in prison; the boyfriend's brother to between three years and life in prison. (*)

So: how is the Terminator's system going to work? Is his plan is to kill all the people who would otherwise have got "whole life tariffs" -- which would amount to 6 hangings so far this year, giving Texas a run for its money. Or his his plan to send people sentenced to "5 years to life", like the mother of Baby P, to our shiny new British death row? Another mad Tory (Phillip Davies) actually goes so far as to say that we should have the death penalty for all murder, in which case we'd be talking about more executions in England than in the whole of the rest of the world put together. (**) Have they actually thought this through? At all?

The Terminator is not completely without a heart. He is quite worried about executing innocent people. (I've never really understood this. If the death penalty is such a good idea, then surely you ought to be perfectly comfortable with a certain amount of collateral damage?)

"Like many people I have concerns about the possibility of wrongful convictions, so perhaps we should consider whether before a death sentence could be passed, a higher standard of evidence would be needed than 'beyond reasonable doubt' which is used to secure a criminal conviction. Some people have suggested that there should be proof 'beyond the shadow of a doubt' before a death sentence could be passed."

But, you utter cretin, that is precisely what "beyond reasonable doubt" means. In civilised countries "probably guilty" and "almost certainly guilty" mean the same thing as "innocent". A witness saw you running from the scene of the crime: but it was dark, and she didn't get a good look at you, so there is a reasonable possibility that she could be mistaken, so even though we think you dunnit -- even though we are pretty sure you did dunnit -- we have to find you "not guilty". "Pretty sure" isn't sure enough to send someone to prison.

How is the Terminator's new system going to work? A witness definitely got a good, long look at you and is 100% certain that the person she saw at the scene of the crime was you: there is no reasonable doubt that you were there. Aha -- but now we have to take into account unreasonable doubt. It's theoretically possible that you have an evil twin that your mother never told you about. And that your evil twin cuts his hair in the same way as you, and has a tattoo in the same place. I am found next to a murdered body with the knife in my hand; thirteen witnesses swear that they saw me stab the victim; and when the police arrive, I say "I'm glad I killed the bastard". Aha, but it's theoretically possible that a Cartesian demon caused all the witnesses to have a clear and distinct hallucination. So I am not guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. So I walk free. Hooray! 

It's absurd.

I'd be fascinated to know which criminals who are currently languishing in jail Mr Terminator thinks are not guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and what he intends to do about it. Or maybe he really thinks that high security prisons are four star holiday camps which innocent people are quite happy to be sent to?

I am not going to waste your time with arguments against capital punishment, any more than I am going to waste your time with arguments against throwing people into ponds and burning them at the stake if they weigh as much as a duck. It's a comically farcical notion: England, a pariah nation, withdrawing from Europe and forming a cosy little thanatos club with Texas and Iran.

But why did the Terminator pick on Ian Brady (criminally insane), Tracey Connolly (not convicted of murder) and Roy Whiting (not given a whole life tariff) for his little list of people he'd like to kill? Why not John Cooper or Andrew Dawson?

So far as I can see, he is arguing, not just for the reintroduction of capital punishment, but for a complete rethink of how we define crime. At present we have an offence -- "killing someone" -- and we have a range of mitigating and aggravating factors which make that offence more or less serious. The Terminator thinks there is a special ontological category of "acts so evil that they are beyond understanding".

So how to we find out who fits into this special category of "evil"? If we wanted to put it nicely, we could say that evil people are the ones who attract a special degree of outrage and horror from the general public. Never mind what the law says about mitgation and aggravation and the definition of murder. Ordinary people are genuinely horrified by what Tracey Connolly did (tortured and killed her own baby, or allowed other people to do so); they are not particularly horrified by what John Cooper did (killed four grown-ups). If the law at present says that Cooper gets a worse punishment than Connolly, then the law is an ass. The law is there to express the emotions of the common people, not some hi-faultin notion of "justice".

If we wanted to put it less nicely, we would say that Sarah Payne, Baby P and the Moors victims are the kinds of  photogenic victim particularly beloved of the tabloid press. The Terminator is simply proposing that we should kill Murdoch and Dacre's favourite pin-up boys for evil. He's making a vaguely argument shaped noise in the hope that his picture will appear alongside that mugshot of Ian Brady in a funny suit, so he can say "Brady. Bad man. Me no like bad man."

Calling it populist bullshit would be unkind to both people and bulls.

And that's very suspicious. Three weeks ago, the News of the World got closed down and the whole world discovered just how filthy the organisation to which Thatcher, Blair, Brown and Cameron paid homage really was. Even in its death throws, the News of the World continued to position itself alongside the Sarah Payne brand. Two weeks ago two filthy tabloids were convicted of contempt of court (and eight had to pay compensation) for -- lets put this quite plainly -- attempting to get a man convicted of a murder which he had had literally nothing to do with. And this week, the lunatic fringe of the Conservative party starts drawing up a list of people they would like to strangle -- people whose only qualification is that they are hate figures of that same tabloid press. It's okay, they seem to be saying. The News of the World may have gone away, the bobbies may be arresting its staff, but we still have faith in its made up world of holy angels and evil monsters.

In the 1950s, we pretended that we had to kill people because it was the only way to stop people from killing people. Hanging was not about revenge we said, oh no, no, no, no, its all about protecting society. Alfred Pierrepoint changed his mind about capital punishment, rather late in the day, precisely because he didn't think it was really doing any good. "I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge," he is supposed to have said. But the Terminator has completely abandoned this utilitarian argument. He doesn't attempt to argue that a neck tie party on the first day of every month will make any difference. We know it won't: he knows it won't. Executions aren't meant to "solve" anything. 

So how does he work out who is in this special category of  "people I want to kill". This is the really scary part. You may remember that, earlier this year, David Cameron "argued" that we should choose one method of counting votes over a different method of counting votes because he had a "gut feeling" that system A was less British than system B. Not maths: not psephology; gut feeling. Similarly the Terminator knows that hanging is the proper punishment for some kinds because his "instinct" tells him that it is.

What does "proper" mean, anyway?  Appropriate? Conforming to acceptable social standards? Fitting? But to say that you think that people who talk in the dinner queue should be given a firm slap on the leg because a firm slap on the leg is the appropriate or fitting punishment for people who talk in the dinner queue tells us absolutely nothing accept that you approve of it. It's not an argument. It's a tautology. We should execute people for the kind of crimes that people should be executed for, because those are the kinds of crimes which people should be executed for. We have to kill people because some people should be killed. It's a bypass. You've got to build bypasses.

Some people, for example, Melanie Phillips and Anders Brevik, believe that a sinister cabal of Cultural Marxists (including the BBC, David Cameron, and Barak Obama) are on the point of bringing down Western Civilisation. Their plot, you will recall, is disguised as Political Correctness. Believers in the conspiracy say that Political Correctness is in direct opposition to something they call Common Sense: indeed, many of them define Political Correctness as "whatever goes against common sense". Common sense; gut feeling; instinct: things that I feel to be true, but cannot at any level, justify or articulate. Faith: not faith in God, or in an ideology, or a party line, or a leader -- faith in whatever happens to be going through your head at a particular moment.

"I did what I felt was right."

It is a strange vortex that we are being sucked into: a phantom zone where argument and logic and cause and effect vanish. Where there is no longer "morality" in the sense of "the codes taught by churches and philosophers". Where there is only the will of the people, schooled Rebekkah Brooks or Piers Morgan. Where we rewrite our judicial system from the ground up, not based on learning or study, or principle, or logic, or evidence or the teachings of some great man, but on common sense. Gut feeling. Instinct. What our genitalia tell us this morning. These are the kind of weird, emotion driven un-men who stalk the back benches of the House of Commons. Pray that they never get within custard pie throwing distance of the cabinet office.

(*) Ian Brady is a complicated and messy example, but also ancient history. He committed his crimes when capital punishment was in force, but was tried and convicted after it had been abolished; had he been tried a few months earlier, he would certainly have been hanged. He technically hasn't been sentenced to life without parole, but has confessed to murders other than the ones he's been convicted of; and in any case he's criminally insane. It's hard to know why anyone can be bothered to say "I think that a man in a lunatic asylum ought to have been hanged 40 years ago".

(**)  I expect he really means "We should kill everyone convicted of murder, but some crimes which are now called murder should stop being called murder." A bit like how "everyone should go to university" turned out to mean "we should start to refer to sixth form colleges, polytechnics, further education colleges and night schools as "universities"