Friday, November 30, 2007

His Dark Materials

Nice to see the ever-reliable Catholics trying to make sure The Golden Compass is the most successful film since The Passion of St Tibulus.

But the complaints are inane as well as predictably counterproductive: the sinister Church authorities of Philip Pullman’s story are from a world in which Calvin became Pope.

The resultant institutions and doctrines – a fictional hybrid, historically extrapolated and laced with Pullman’s own supernatural inventions – can surely be depicted scathingly without it being taken as an indictment of actual Catholicism.

Pullman’s an atheist, but he has rich knowledge of Christian theology and all sorts of mythology on display in his books – which are certainly not atheistic. What they are is anti-authority, and if people fear such a message then that tells you all you need to know about them.

I loved the books. If you’ve not read them, imagine Lord of the Rings with characters – plus plot twists, engrossing writing and conceptual depth. The film(s) can’t possibly be as good, but that still leaves a lot of room for being very good indeed.

Unbearable rudeness

A mighty insult to Islam has been delivered in Sudan this week. The slur is, in effect, that Islam is the kind of religion whose adherents cannot bear to see a ‘kaffir’ woman allow children to vote to name a cuddly toy after one of their classmates (who in turn was named after the prophet Mohammed) without locking her in jail and then throwing her out of the country.

This is certainly an overgeneralisation, but for too many adherents, it’s sadly true.

There’s a moral here about how different worldviews interact. If you allow one group to set the terms of debate, then there’s nothing to stop them from using cries of ‘offence’ to constrain what can be said ever more tightly, as ‘respect’ blends into deference, appeasement and obedience.

Giving someone the power to decide when they’ve been unacceptably ‘offended’ creates the moral equivalent of the Salem witch trials.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

In praise of channelled donations

Do we trust political parties to handle the donations they get with the utmost propriety? Should we have to?

What about this: all contributions of declarable size (£5,000+) should have to go via the Electoral Commission, who would perform any necessary checks before passing the money on to the relevant party.

Putting this responsibility in the hands of an impartial body – rather than party fundraisers who are always under pressure to bring in as much cash as they can – might well slow things down a bit, but it would nip a lot of things in the bud right at the start.

Other reforms are needed as well, including caps on donations and spending, but this could be a handy way of breaking the cosiness of some donor–recipient relationships. Rather than the current set-up, under which parties solicit the money, cash the cheques and then declare them along the line, this would make it clear up front that any large contribution is an essentially public act.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Labour’s worst week since last week

One day, when I’m really bored, I’m going to trawl through the internet and find out how many ‘worst weeks ever’ the government has had. But not today.

Today I’ll just note that Labour really does need to get its act together sharpish. David Cameron’s claim today that Gordon Brown’s premiership so far has been “disaster after disaster” is clearly theatrically OTT– is this latest funding scandal really more serious than the loans-for-honours affair or the Ecclestone million or the many grubby shenanigans the Tories used to get up to? Would a hypothetical Harriet Harman resignation (if things go that way) be so much more damaging than Peter ‘I am a fighter not a quitter, apart from those two times when I quit’ Mandelson?

Is this government’s responsibility for Northern Rock at all comparable to the last government’s for Black Wednesday? Are the two missing discs a greater calamity than the 2001 FMD outbreak or the 2000 fuel crisis? Is a ‘part-time’ defence secretary more of a disgrace than the Iraq pre-war dossiers – or the arms-to-Iraq business, or sitting out Bosnia and Rwanda?

Why isn’t Labour being attacked for spiralling unemployment, soaring hospital waiting lists, crumbling schools and the like? Because these things aren’t happening. Even a partisan such as me can fault the government for all sorts of things, including some serious things. But, to use a god-awful cliché, most of the fundamentals are sound.

The sorts of blunders and failures and scandals popping up now aren’t, I think, qualitatively different from all sorts of things that happened under Blair, Major and Thatcher. ‘Discgate’ is an arguable exception, but given the lack of evidence that a single person’s details have fallen into the wrong hands, it may be that the only thing to fear here is fear itself.

But the media mood is such that Brown is taking a series of hits and a narrative of failure is building up. The longer this goes on, the harder it’ll be to get the initiative back.

So: get your act together. Start making the running.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Selection implies rejection

Geoffrey Alderman brings us a performance of two utterly standard moves in the grammar schools debate.

(1) In the face of an academic study, he replies with his own personal experience of school and growing up, from which – naturally – wider conclusions can be safely drawn.

(2) He ignores the fact that selection implies rejection: for every grammar school, there are two secondary moderns. Given “the reality of differential access to the educational opportunities grammar schools provide”, he suggests:

The antidote is, of course, to build more schools of this type, and, thereby, to restore to all today's youngsters the same advantages that I enjoyed - free - 50 years ago.

Yes, let’s have more selective schools. Then “all” children will be able to go to them.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Shooting the messengers

I argued a while ago that a referendum on the new EU treaty agreed at Lisbon would be a bad way of resolving Britain’s overall relationship with the EU, as the vote would be asking a specific question on a given set of proposals – which sits very uneasily with the supposed aim of settling the more general matter.

My point is borne out by UK media responses to the Danish government’s proposal for a referendum on joining the euro (plus a couple of other areas covered by the country’s Maastricht treaty opt-outs).

The Times spins the story thus:

Britain faced further isolation within the European Union yesterday after Denmark announced that it was giving its citizens the chance to vote in a referendum on its relationship with Europe.

That’s a weaselly phrase there at the end, deftly blurring the distinction between one EU issue and another.

The Guardian, whose broader attitude to Europe is very different from the Times, takes a similar line on this:

Denmark will hold a referendum on the country's relationship with Europe, its prime minister said today. The decision increases the pressure on Gordon Brown to honour the Labour party's 2005 manifesto pledge to hold a similar referendum in Britain.

There’s the same phrase about this being on Denmark’s “relationship with Europe”, sweeping the vital details under the carpet to suggest a parity (“a similar referendum”) with the British decision on the Lisbon treaty.

These are two of the country’s quality papers. And this is the mere proposal for a future referendum in another country. Yet still, the muddying of the waters from specific to general to different specific is almost instantaneous.

Trying to separate out different EU issues and have an intelligible referendum campaign on one but not the others would be pretty much impossible in the UK media. They are so used to thinking in political rather than policy terms (where issues are significant only for feeding into broader impressions of parties and individuals), and so set on reporting with a very broad brush, that the necessary focus is beyond them.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fair and balanced thanks

In light of Chris’s timely celebration of Americana – in which he rightly praises US television – a contrast occurs to me. Now and again you hear people (I’m particularly thinking middle-class liberal Brits) ponder along these lines:

Say what you like about America, but a country that produces The Simpsons can’t be all that bad.

But you never hear this:

Say what you like about Fox, but a vast media empire that produces The Simpsons can’t be all that bad.

So, on this day of thanksgiving, I heartily declare: God bless Springfield! God bless America! And God bless Fox!

Footy silver linings

  • McClaren is gone. Thi-i-i-i-ings can only get better.
  • Angry bigoted hooligans looking for extra scapegoats can’t possibly blame the Jews.
  • We’re still better than Andorra!
  • The Scots didn’t qualify either, after their humiliating defeat by, er, Italy.
  • We won’t be subjected to weeks of painfully tenuously football-themed ads on TV next summer.
  • We won’t have to watch David ‘I’m An Ordinary Bloke’ Cameron and Gordon ‘I Love Ingerland’ Brown trying to out-fan each other.
  • We’ll be able to go to a pub on a Saturday afternoon and actually have a conversation.

Grayling vs the Mohists

[Update: a clarification from AC Grayling (see below) has rendered this post pretty much redundant.]

I generally agree with a lot (but not all) of what AC Grayling has to say concerning religion and morality. His latest article, on the conflation of those two things, particularly in schools, is no exception.

Most of his argument seems excellent. But then as an aside, he throws in this nugget:

the New Testament (whose "love thy neighbour" was anticipated by several centuries by Mohism in China, without theological reward and punishment to back it up)

Half an hour ago, I hadn’t heard of Mohism, but learning new things is always nice, so I followed the link Grayling gives to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry. Some extracts:

An objective standard is needed, one that is not morally fallible in the way that any particular individual or cultural tradition might be. The Mohists propose that we can find such a standard by considering the attitudes of an ideally impartial, benevolent, and reliable moral agent: Tian (Heaven, nature, the sky), whom they revere as a personal god.
…they seek a reliable role model or paradigm against which they can compare their actions and practices. This is why they can propose, as their highest fa or ethical standard, not a normative principle, but Heaven itself, considered as the highest, most reliable moral agent in the natural order.

The Mohists justify their consequentialist ethics by appeal to the intention of Heaven (Tian), which they believe is the objective criterion of morality—utility. Among their reasons for obeying Heaven's intention are gratitude for its gifts, fear of punishment, and their belief that it is the noblest, wisest moral agent in the cosmos.

Gamma minus, professor SEP [see comments below].

A game of two bloody awful halves

Parliamentary statement by the Minster for Sport:

Mr Speaker, I should like with your permission to address the House on the matter of the England football team. Last year, the identity of the team was somehow placed in the care of a junior FA official who was originally hired as an assistant but, it now transpires, found himself with responsibility far in excess of his ability.

It appears that this individual judged the team’s status to be secure while delivering a pre-match pep talk last night. However, he was neither qualified nor experienced to make this assessment and, in any case, whether this was accurate or not, the team’s identity was lost in the tunnel en route to the pitch.

Eleven players, who had been independently assessed as competent prior to the match, found themselves unable to muster more than the occasional moment of adequate team play. I can confirm that they had been sent through a process of unregistered coaching techniques, and their abilities were not delivered as they should have been. Additional concerns exist over selection criteria and the wasteful despatch of the squad into a needless friendly last week.

Mr Speaker, I will add some background for context. Similar losses have happened over the previous year. Last October, for instance, a match that had been certified as a comfortable win over Macedonia was misplaced somewhere in Manchester.

And while in transit to Croatia just days later, another match was quite negligently lost. FA investigators have still not been able to discover where these games, and the three points that were supposed to accompany each, went. It is feared that the points may have fallen into foreign hands.

Some millions of England fans had been securing their own identities against that of the national team, and I appreciate their very reasonable fears that that their identities may now be at risk as well. I wholeheartedly apologise for what I accept is the worst breach of footballing security since the Taylor incident in the early 1990s – which occurred, one might note, under a Conservative government. But I can assure the public that urgent steps are being taken to find out exactly what went wrong and to remedy the situation.

Clearly, the overpromoted official concerned was himself at fault, and we are launching a full inquiry to establish how the FA’s recruitment procedures – supposedly designed to weed out incompetence – failed so badly. We will be investigating the suggestion that he found himself in this position as a result of the ‘English jobs for English workers’ policy that was adopted after the departure of the previous incumbent (an EU economic migrant).

I would urge England fans that there is no need for them to withdraw their support, but as a short-term precautionary measure it may be wise to avoid conversations with grinning Croats, Russians and most especially Scots.

Looking ahead, I have been advised that there will be qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup beginning next year, and it is hoped that these will provide a chance to regain England’s identity as a leading footballing nation. We must, of course, take immediate measures to ensure that we are fully able to seize this opportunity.

So, thanks to our special relationship with the Bush administration, I can announce that we’re sending Steve McClaren to Guantánamo Bay. Mr Speaker, I commend this post-match analysis to the House.

(Tomorrow I shall return to deliver a statement on how costly exposure to the sub-prime player market has led to the nation’s footballing prowess being systematically overvalued since the 1970s.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Slipped discs

A small blunder can cause such large and sudden waves.

For all we know, these discs could be in the hands of the World Alliance of Terrorists, Paedophiles and Internet Fraudsters, who are even now plotting to ruin us all with the data they have hacked into. Or, for all we know, the discs could have fallen down the back of somebody’s desk, sitting harmlessly until they’re eventually found.

There’s no doubt that the junior official concerned was seriously at fault for the breach of HMRC procedures. HMRC have said that the official acted “completely outside their job remit” and “should have forwarded it on to someone else - another group of civil servants at a more senior level”. This individual’s line manager (or whoever else was responsible for making sure they stuck to the rules) may also have been in the wrong. We shall have to see what the inquiry finds.

But just as there’s no reason to think that the lost data has fallen into the wrong hands, so is there no reason as yet to think that there’s direct ministerial culpability for this.

Don’t take my word for it: the opposition attacks on the government over this have been – absolutely rightly – outraged at the incompetence involved, but also extremely thin in terms of what should have been done differently.

Hence George Osborne could only demand that Alistair Darling should “get a grip and deliver a basic level of competence”, and David Cameron today can only urge Gordon Brown to “show some broad shoulders, be the big man and accept some responsibility” (a pre-scripted soundbite; Brown had personally apologised moments before).

But even so, scathing rhetoric is appropriate: Darling and Brown are the guys at the top and this potentially (possibly still actually) harmful breach of procedure happened on their watch. ‘Operational matter’ or not, it’s good for ministers to get hauled over the coals so that their motive to make sure that ‘we do not tolerate failure in this organisation’ is kept sharp.

Nick Robinson seems to have it right:

I fail to see the relevance of job cuts or unopened post or low morale at HMRC to this. Employees should know that data protection is sacred and if they don't there should be systems in place that ensure they alone cannot make serious errors.

And preaching the gospel of sacred data certainly is a duty that goes right to the top.

A final thought: if the discs had arrived safely and the unauthorised copying and sending then come to light, it would have caused a minor fuss and no more. But no less a failure would have occurred. The intensity of the headlines reflects luck and uncertainty rather than the quality of performance by HMRC.

Hopi Sen’s schooldays

Go and read this now. Don’t be drinking coffee while you read, or it will spray out of your nose.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The lump-of-freedom fallacy: gay rights and the right

While reading a post by Sunny (plus the comments) over at Liberal Conspiracy, I suddenly realised something.

It’s intermittently puzzled me why many on the right (certainly not all) object to legal equality for gay people. I mean, assuming that they have a clear ideological reason rather than just a prejudice shrouded in rhetoric. Because one thing that seems to epitomise the right is their yearning that the state not take freedoms away from private individuals – freedom to drive a 4x4, freedom to keep one’s own money, freedom to hunt foxes, freedom to offer employees a pittance to work in dangerous conditions for long hours…

But there may be some semblance of a reason. If so, it’s a bad reason.

A quick detour: the lump-of-labour fallacy is the idea that there’s only a certain quantity of employment available, and so technological automation or economic immigration will produce unemployment. But the truth is that, through positive effects such as higher productivity and lower inflation, such changes can benefit the economy and lead to higher employment.

What about gay rights, then? Well, if you listen to those (more prominent in the ‘land of the free’ than the UK) who campaign against gay marriage, you’ll hear the charge that such a thing would threaten the institution of marriage, as enjoyed by ordinary straight-talking straight folk. And, on this side of the pond, there are similar complaints about gay adoption rights damaging ‘the family’ or, this week, that making it easier for lesbian couples to use IVF would undermine fatherhood.

No. Letting a gay couple marry does not reduce the ability of any straight couple to get or stay married. Letting a gay couple raise children does not reduce the quality of parent-child relationships in any other family. There is no ‘lump of freedom’ that malicious lefties wish to redistribute from straight to gay. Following the little logic of the argument through, the fallacy is embarrassingly obvious. Perhaps it’s just prejudice after all.

The only ‘freedom’ lost by extending gay rights is the freedom of homophobes to live in a country with laws different from those passed by elected representatives – in other words, the selective, privileged freedom to control others. But true liberalism has to be egalitarian.

So, I’m with JFK – freedom is not diminished for some by granting it to others. Quite the reverse:

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.

Monday, November 19, 2007

How not to stop a war

Peter Wilby argues that “the British press... failed badly to expose the flimsiness of the case for going to war in Iraq”.

Norm responds: “The issue of whether or not to go to war in Iraq was debated as fiercely and extensively as just about anything in recent memory, and the voices against were many and to be read and heard at every turn.”

But they could both be right.

What if the anti-war voices, dominant in the pages of the Mirror, Guardian and Independent, and far from invisible in most of the other papers (not to mention the BBC and Channel 4), were simply incompetent? What if, rather than dissecting Hans Blix’s reports in relation to the provisions of resolution 1441, they devoted too much of their time to shouting about poodles, cowboys, oil, Islamophobia and whose name the whole business was in?

What if, like so very much of the media (left and right, TV and print, ‘quality’ and ‘popular’), the anti-war movement had focused excessively on personalities rather than policy detail?

If so, then despite having been heard at every turn, they still could have failed badly.

If you try to boil an issue down to nasty warmongers and innocent victims, and you don’t put Saddam Hussein in the former category, you’re likely to have trouble getting traction.

Just an idle hypothesis...

Holy Fathers 4 Justice

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor complains that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

proposes to remove the need for IVF providers to take into account the child’s need for a father when considering an IVF application, and to confer legal parenthood on people who have no biological relationship to a child born as a result of IVF. This radically undermines the place of the father in a child’s life, and makes the natural rights of the child subordinate to the desires of the couple.

Legal parenthood for people without a biological relationship to the child? Excellent, we have an argument for the banning of adoption.

And come now, Your Eminence, you don’t mean “people” – you mean lezzers. And you don’t mean to give us this vague waffle about “natural rights” – as well you know, it’s God’s law. Stand up for the courage of your convictions, man.

Another of our old friends has piped up too:

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith declared that the legislation would drive a "nail in the coffin" of the traditional family, adding that "another blow will have been struck against fatherhood".

Listen, chaps: the way other people choose to organise their personal lives is none of your business, and if they can provide a loving, stable environment then that’s better than a lot of straight married couples manage. If ladies succumb to Sapphic sinfulness, then you should feel free to think disapproving thoughts all you like, and indeed voice them (pompously if you like, but politely if you please). If you take pleasure in giving the matter a great deal of vivid contemplation, then good for you.

If you’re worried about the social standing of fathers, then do something about all those TV ads that make dads out to be lazy, bumbling idiots.

But please: don’t try to impose a nationalised monopoly on the right to declare what is and isn’t a family.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tough on the causes of crime (i.e. women)

Imagine, and I apologise for the subject matter, that you’ve been gang-raped 14 times by seven men.

The case comes to court, and your attackers are given prison sentences of up to five years each. You, however, are convicted of breaking the law on male-female segregation laws, and you are sentenced to 90 lashes.

Would you appeal the sentence? I probably would. So, imagine that’s what you do.

As a result of the appeal, the rapists get their sentences doubled. The court also decides that the 90 lashes for you was inappropriate. So, it’s changed to 200 lashes. Plus six months in jail.

Are you happy now?

Welcome to Saudi Arabia, the land of shared values.

Here be monsters.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Foreign jobs for British workers

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give you a quote – I won’t tell you who it’s from, but maybe you can guess – and then I’ll ask you a question about what the quote means.

And in Britain where once there were three million unemployed, there are today more men and women in jobs than ever in our history - for the first time over 29 million people in work. And we will continue to intensify the reform of the new deal, remove every barrier, show we can have flexibility and fairness together to advance to a Britain of full employment in our generation. …
As we set out on the next stage of our journey this is our vision: Britain leading the global economy – by our skills and creativity, by our enterprise and flexibility, by our investment in transport and infrastructure – a world leader in science; a world leader in financial and business services; a world leader in energy and the environment from nuclear to renewables; a world leader in the creative industries; and yes – modern manufacturing too – drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers.

How would you interpret that last bit? (a) ‘We’re going to restrict the right of foreigners to work here’; or (b) ‘We’re going to give extra training to British people so that Britain will attract more skilled jobs’.

Clue: the speaker has spent ten years as a leading member of a government that has overseen a rise in economic immigration and has also put a lot of effort into training people as part of an employment-boosting strategy.

Have a think. Because if it’s (b), then most of the criticism of that last line has been completely misplaced - and indeed it might have been better put as ‘foreign jobs for British workers’. Doesn’t sound so punchy, though. Bloody multinationals: coming over here, hiring our workers…

Power and engagement in foreign policy

The Independent once again demonstrates that it’s unable to think about foreign affairs expect through the medium of protesting about the Iraq war.

Its editorial sneers at David Miliband’s speech yesterday on the future of the EU as “strangely belligerent”, and harrumphs: “do we really want to export European values through ‘the hard power of troops’, as he implied? Have our leaders learnt nothing from the disaster in Iraq?”

This is asinine and dishonest. Miliband’s speech was wide-ranging, with much discussion of issues such as trade, enlargement, climate change, international development and cultural diplomacy. The overarching theme was the need for the EU to become more outward-facing than it has been. The passage from which the Independent selectively (mis)quotes actually reads:

We can use the power of the EU – the size of our single market, our ability to set global standards, the negotiating clout of 27 members, the attractions of membership, the hard power of sanctions and troops, the power of Europe as an idea and a model – not to substitute for nation states but to do those things to provide security and prosperity for the next generation.

He does indeed address the EU’s limited military capability, and argues – in the context of multilateral peacekeeping missions – that “we must… strengthen our ability to respond to crises in a more comprehensive way”.

He mentioned the EU-NATO work in Macedonia and EU peacekeepers in DR Congo (and could have added the deployment of UK troops to Sierra Leone) as examples of how military power can have beneficial humanitarian uses rather than being a tool of ‘neocon’ imperialism. The Independent does not – will not – see this.

The speech sits well alongside Gordon Brown’s earlier in the week, discussing failed states and massive human rights abuses:

With the systematic use of earlier Security Council action, proper funding of peacekeepers, targeted sanctions - and their ratcheting up to include the real threat of international criminal court actions - we must now set in place the first internationally agreed procedures to prevent breakdowns of states and societies.
But where breakdowns occur, the UN - and regional bodies such as the EU and African Union - must now also agree to systematically combine traditional emergency aid and peacekeeping with stabilisation, reconstruction and development.

Prevention is much better than cure. And he’s utterly right that “the international community should be ready to act with a standby civilian force including police and judiciary who can be deployed to rebuild civic societies”.

And even the shrillest of Blairophobes should detect a readiness to learn from, and move on from, the last few years in this (from Miliband):

There is limited value in securing a town if law and order breaks down as soon as the troops move on. There is limited gain in detaining terrorists and criminals if there is no courthouse to try them in or jailhouse to hold them in.

But there’s another objection. The Times’s Bronwen Maddox judged that Milband had moved “beyond ambition to delusion” in portraying “the EU as a tool waiting to be deployed in the service of his own favourite causes of climate change and the righting of distant injustice”.

This soars, majestically, past the point: Britain has long been unable to shape the world by whim. Both speeches are therefore wholly infused with the understanding that British foreign policy has to be pursued in partnership with like-minded allies. Splendid isolationism will allow us to have full control over our aims, but usually too little power to achieve them. But if we form alliances and are active in international organisations, we can move things – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – in the direction we want.

Engagement and cooperation – whether Britain’s in the EU and other institutions, or the EU’s across the world – are the only way to get things done.

Update: There’s another entertaining misrepresentation in the Indy editorial. It concludes:

But most disappointing of all was Mr Miliband's desire to diminish the EU. The Foreign Secretary predicted that "Europe will be less important in the world of 2050 than it was in the world of 1950". It certainly will be if all our future foreign secretaries are as lacking in ambition as the present one seems to be.

What Miliband said was that “economically and demographically Europe will be less important…” And given GDP and population growth rates, it’s hard to argue otherwise – and it’s hard to argue that his speech will contribute to this. Or is it?

Perhaps if too many of us spend our time reading and blogging about Milibandian speechifying, the European economy will collapse. And, if too many of us go around talking about the need to develop a new EU geostrategy, procreation opportunities may be lost to us…

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ho ho ho

Bit busy today. Here are three things that made me laugh:

Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe… wants an inquiry into whether foreign players are to blame why the England team is doing so badly. They are indeed to blame - they are better than us. (Chris Dillow)

Confirmation bias is everywhere once you start looking for it… (Kris-Stella Trump)

Swift Boat Veterans attack Hillary’s Vietnam record (Olly's Onions)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


While saying, “I’m really pleased with my new mug – it’s that bit bigger than the old one, so there’s much less risk of spillage,” it is imperative not to spill your tea.

It’s doubly important not to spill it twice.

Mischievous statements and the rule of law

I hadn’t quite grasped the scale of Pervez Musharraf’s ‘coup within a coup’. The state of emergency, the dismissed judges, the arrested opposition activists – these have been well covered in the media.

But on top of this, last Saturday the law was changed to give the army powers to court-martial civilians:

the Army can now try civilians on charges ranging from treason, sedition and attack on army personnel to ‘assaulting the president with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power’ and ‘giving statements conducive to public mischief’.

The new law will be retrospective, dating back to January 2003.

(Via Irfan Husain.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Homeopathy: there’s nothing in it

Jeanette Winterson has a (possibly) peer-reviewed article in today’s Guardian, arguing in favour of homeopathy. She begins with an anecdote of a time when she was ill:

My desperate publisher suggests I call Hilary Fairclough, a homeopath who has practices in London and Penzance. She sends round a remedy called Lachesis, made from snake venom. Four hours later I have no symptoms whatsoever.
Dramatic stuff, and enough to convince me that while it might use snake venom, homeopathy is no snake oil designed for gullible hypochrondriacs.

A neat turn of phrase, but actually very apt. Given the massive dilution that homeopathic ‘remedies’ use, I’m sure there was absolutely no snake oil (or any other snake product) at all in the bottle that Winterson had.

She says: “I admit it is hard to talk about what it is that homeopathy actually does, or why it works.”

No, it’s easy. What’s hard is to argue that it does anything more than deploy a placebo effect. The official story, of course, is that homeopathy “follows the ‘like by like’ premise - that tiny dilutions of the ‘problem’ can prompt the body to effect its own cure”.

This sounds a little bit like the principle by which vaccination infection works, but in the latter case there’s a coherent and superbly documented mechanism: the immune system can successfully deal with a weak – but real – dose of a disease’s causative agent, in the process producing the antibodies that make it easier to fight any future infection. It’s essentially preventative. Homeopathy isn’t. And of course, the quantities of infectious agent used in a vaccine are non-imaginary.

Objections to homeopathy begin with what are viewed as the impossible dilutions of the remedies, so that only nano amounts of the original active substance remain, and in some cases are only an imprint, or memory. Yet our recent discoveries in the world of the very small point to a whole new set of rules for the behaviour of nano-quantities.

“Imprint”. “Memory”. The bottle of homeopathic remedy one takes home may well have precisely zero molecules of the supposed active agent, but despite being diluted into annihilation, what remains is somehow held to ‘remember’ this ingredient.

There’s no scientific evidence that this happens, or known physical mechanism by which this could happen (Winterson’s subsequent hand-waving about nanoparticles notwithstanding – like the intelligent design mob, homeopaths pounce on anything not currently completely understood and try to erect an altar there to their god of the available gaps).

Furthermore, any homeopathic remedy will have had quantities of many other substances polluting it at some stage, and yet the ‘memory’ of these is supposed to be forgotten.

On top of this, the effect that the alleged active ingredient (or more accurately ‘egredient’, given that it’s been diluted away) has is something operating not at the physical/chemical level but, supposedly, at the level of any of a number of malaises experienced by the patient. This means that an apparently undetectable microphysical phenomenon responds directly to the intentions of the people preparing and prescribing the remedy – perilously close to a belief in psychic powers.

In reality, though, homeopathy works via the intentions and hopes of the patient. In fairness, I must note that Winterson addresses the ‘just a placebo’ charge head-on, citing almost one published study:

I am sure that there is a placebo effect in homeopathy, but it is a fact that many of the people who end up visiting a homeopath do so as a last resort, when nothing else is working. That such people often see an improvement suggests that the remedies themselves are contributing to the wellness of the individual.

Rubbish: desperation breeds faith. And you really don’t need a lorryload of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo to explain the placebo effect. However, such specious blather can be very handy in actually bringing the effect about.

Council tax referendums

The Tories are proposing that if a council wants to increase council tax by more than some threshold rate, it will have to have a referendum. Using my new iCrystalBall, I’ve been able to see how councillors will react to this system…

Cllr Smith: We want to raise council tax from £1000 to £1050, but if we go over £1040 we’ll have to have a referendum, which we might lose. Then we’ll have to knock £10 off next year’s bill as a rebate.

Cllr Jones: OK, let’s go ahead with £1050 and then if we lose the vote, we can just make next year’s rise £10 more than we would have done. That’ll cancel out the rebate.

Cllr Smith: You mean make next year’s £1110 rather than the £1100 we’d probably have gone for? But then we’ll have to have another referendum, which again we’ll risk losing.

Cllr Jones: True enough, but in that case we can just keep rolling it over.

Cllr Smith: But won’t people realise and kick us out at the next council election?

Cllr Jones: Don’t be stupid. Regular democratic elections are no way of holding politicians to account. That’s why the Tories have made us more locally accountable by forcing this referendum rule on us: it’s so that there can be more local discretion over our decisions.

Cllr Smith: Hang on – weren’t we free to hold referendums anyway, over and above standing on a manifesto for election regularly?

Cllr Jones: Yes, but you can’t seriously think that this is the sort of thing that can be left to local discretion. Have you met us? We’re a bunch of lazy, useless halfwits concerned only with protecting our own fiefdoms and milking our publics. So, now we’re going to be told from Westminster how to make ourselves democratically accountable to the people who elect us anyway. I like to think of it as top-down localism.

Cllr Smith: What if we want to cut services so we can fund a tax cut bribe, though? Won’t we have to hold a referendum on that too?

Cllr Jones: Of course not. We can cut all we like, as tax and public spending are now officially bad. The new electoral law recognises this by insisting public votes be held based on this premise.

Neil Hamilton: an apologist

Neil Hamilton’s political career collapsed after allegations that he had taken cash in brown envelopes to ask questions in the House of Commons.

Given his latest column in the Daily Express, it seems clear that he was unfairly accused. Mr Hamilton does not, it appears, want any contact with anything brown:

Enoch Powell was my friend for 30 years. He was no racist.

Immigration is out of control and millions of indigenous Britons feel like foreigners in their own country.

On current trends, ethnic Britons will cease to be the majority group in Britain sometime in the next century.

Oh, how are the lowly fallen.

(Hat tip: Oliver Kamm.)

Consent and sex education

Usually I like to pour scorn on the Conservatives; usually, they deserve it. But on the matter of rape some qualified bipartisanship may not be a bad idea.

The conviction rate, as David Cameron points out, is far too low. He doesn’t offer anything in the way of a policy to improve this, but it’s a huge and complex question, and one hopes a future policy review will be useful. Even raising the issue is always worthwhile.

There are plenty of hurdles at which the process often falls: according to a January report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary [PDF, p8], from a third to a half of court cases involving adults result in acquittals. But before that, between a half and two-thirds of reported cases don’t go beyond the investigation stage. And more than three-quarters of rapes are never even reported to the police.

Cameron talks more broadly about the need to change social attitudes (which of course is right), and one concrete proposal of his I agree with the spirit of – while regretting that he doesn’t go further:

And we need our schools to talk about consent to sex when they teach sex education. I know there are some parents who have concerns about sex education, and they should reserve the right to opt their child out. But I believe that sex education, when taught properly, is extremely important. It should not be values-free. That must mean teaching young people about consent: that 'no' means 'no'. At the moment, this is not even compulsory in the sex education curriculum. This has to change - and it will change with a Conservative government.

I should say that I have no knowledge of the current sex education curriculum, but I’ll take his word for it.

But there’s a really disappointing tension between his recognition that this “must” be “compulsory” in the curriculum and his deference to parents’ “right to opt their child out”.

Cameron’s colleague Theresa May is right to say: “Boys need to be educated that no means no.” This is needed. Sex education in general is one thing that relates to making children into good citizens and preparing them for life, rather than focusing on exams and league table places. It’s not trendy political correctness, it’s not promoting licentiousness, and it should not be optional. It should not depend on the prejudices and sensibilities – often the religious views – of parents.

Just as Jehova’s Witnesses shouldn’t be able to stop their children from having vital blood transfusions, so parents shouldn’t be able to stop their children learning about the vital social, moral and legal issue of sexual consent.

This is a politically tough nettle, and the more parties willing to grasp it, the better.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Danny Finkelstein, on his Times blog, recently invited readers to take part (tongue preferably in cheek) in the Government’s vague quest for a national motto.

Many, many suggestions were made, and a selection appears in today’s paper – including my own: “Promoting ahistorical unity myths since 1066”.

Others I like include: “Less stuffy than we sound”, “Once mighty empire, slightly used”, “We strive for valiant defeat”, “Sorry, is this the queue?” and “Americans who missed the boat”.

I’m pretty sure that every single person in the country knows that this national motto idea is ridiculous anyway (Gordon Brown and Jack Straw included). Invented traditions can work, but I think you need a reasonably deferential, homogenous culture for them to work. We don’t have one of those. So the only way any motto could get any popular traction is if it were already familiar to a lot of us. We’re looking at something in the territory of “A green and pleasant land”, “It’s a free country” or “This precious stone set in the silver sea”.

Actually, I really do like this from Churchill, although it’s not one of his better-known quotes: “The further back I look, the further forward I can see.”

Relatedly, I’m thinking about replacing the strapline at the top of this blog. The current one’s getting a bit tired, I think, and arguably it was never that awake to start with. I’m toying with “Positive, constructive, and focusing on the issues – not like those other bastards”… but any suggestions welcome.

Super-cleaners vs middling managers

Chris Dillow imagines a parallel world:

In it, office cleaners are very well paid. This is because most people believe a clean office is vital for an organization’s productivity.

Managers, on the other hand, are paid decently but not massively: their organisational skills are certainly valuable, but it’s not seen as worth a fortune – and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to spot the rare super-managers reliably.

Chris argues that:

the forces of demand and supply that cause high or low salaries can be ideological constructs. In our parallel world, ideology creates a high demand for cleaners and low one for bosses. In our actual world, things are reversed.

Say Chris is right. If so, then there’s probably too much inertia in the system for this to change easily – even if some people realised their ideological mistakes. Markets treat well-paid managers and poorly paid cleaners as a sign of a good business model (attract executive high-flyers, but keep other costs down), and variations from this are liable to be punished by falling share prices. Furthermore, if most of the market sticks with the existing view, then a merely reasonably paid managerial job will be hard to fill.

Ideology isn’t an abstraction; it seizes people’s minds, often subtly, and shapes the world through them. As Joan Robinson said: “Ideology is like breath: one does not smell one’s own.”

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Cameron brings back Jonathan Aitken

Ex-Cabinet minister, serial liar, wielder of the simple sword of truth, bearer of the trusty shield of British fair play, born-again jailbird, intermittent UKIP supporter and spurner of Carol Thatcher’s charms Jonathan of Arabia has returned unto us!

Should take some of the heat off Lord Ashcroft’s tax status, eh?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Pakistan teeters

Just as there’s a rare, tiny glimmer of light in Burma, Pakistan moves in the opposite direction.

Ali Eteraz thinks that the better analogy for Pakistan may be pre-1979 Iran – in which case we should probably start being terrified:

Dictators are incapable of eliminating extremism. A dictatorship is afflicted with the original sin of having seized power with violence, and therefore has no moral authority to speak against those who employ violence. A dictatorship is bereft of the psychological calm that comes from being popularly elected and lives life like an anxious little demon, spraying bullets wildly, without aim or purpose.

Michael Currie Schaffer, though, thinks he knows where ‘President Pervez W Busharraf’ is getting his rhetorical inspiration from.

And the ever-useful Power and Interest News Report judges:

With the November 3 decision to declare emergency rule, Musharraf has alienated the professional, political and Islamist forces in the country. His ability to remain in power comes from the support of the military, which itself appears to be divided.

The bottom line is that the United States has supported Musharraf because he has been the most stabilizing factor in the Pakistani equation. However, now that it is clear that Musharraf's rule itself has become a destabilizing force, Washington will likely seek alternatives to its policy of supporting Musharraf even though few, if any, exist.

One blood-chilling alternative is suggested by Marty Peretz. If Pakistan is indeed likelier than Iran to be the place where Islamist extremism acquires nukes, desperate measures might be required:

if Pakistan descends further into the inferno that I expect, it is the responsibility of the United States… to secure the nuclear stockpile and 
the manufacturing facilities and laboratories that underlay this nightmare. Does the U.S. possess a practical scenario with this as a goal?

I really doubt that it does. Pakistan is twice the size of Iraq and has six times the population. I wonder how much luck a ‘securing’ force would have in explaining its good intentions to the disparate sections of Pakistani society that have been living under a US-backed dictator.

Partition was supposed to make Pakistan a nation rather than a mere state; it increasingly seems that Pakistan is a cauldron instead. Some painful compromises are going to be needed to turn the heat down and restore first calm and order, then a more liberal democracy, and slowly, eventually, a stable national settlement.

Holding fast to our freedoms

It’s a basic fact of human existence that placing yourself inside a fast-moving metal box on wheels endows you with super powers and the wisdom of Solomon. Why governments fail to recognise this and give motorists extra rights accordingly is the great mystery – and scandal – of our age.

In the face of the suggestion that breaking the speed limit by a lot should result in more penalty points than breaking it by a bit, there’s been the predictable uproar from Safe Speed, the self-styled “road safety campaign” whose primary aim seems to be the abolition of speed cameras. It turns out that they don’t just dislike this idea as well, but they don’t like speed limits at all.

Their press release says:

We all know that it's important that no on should drive too fast, but the speed limit cannot tell us what too fast is.

Quite right too. Tarot cards, pig’s entrails and how much of a hurry you’re in are much better guides to what too fast is.

Drivers will rightly be concerned that they will be faced with losing their licences for six months after two perfectly routine cases of driving safely. We all know that exceeding the speed limit isn't automatically dangerous.

Quite right too. And jumping a red light isn’t automatically dangerous either, if your good, plain, down-to-Earth common sense tells you it’ll probably be all right. Likewise, driving while drunk won’t automatically cause a crash, and firing a gun randomly into the street won’t necessarily kill anyone.

Why can this fascist nanny state of ours not understand that most of us are much better drivers than average, and that we’re quite capable of judging our own safety standards?

This is where the logic of ‘social responsibility’ can take you.

(Declaration of interest: my dad was knocked down by a van this week. No major injury, thankfully.)

(Second declaration of interest: I use roads and am made of flesh and bone.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Fictional empathy: we can’t help ourselves

Ophelia Benson (followed by Norm Geras) has been wondering why we care about fictional characters? Obviously there has to be a certain quality of representation involved, but even so: we never truly forget that the people we’re seeing on a stage or screen, or reading about in a book, are not real. They don’t exist and the things that are ‘happening’ to them don’t actually happen either.

(One distinction neither Ophelia nor Norm draws is between a moving biography and a moving work of fiction. In both cases what you’re getting is just a performance or just spoken/written words, so even if biographical you’re at a remove from the events. But I think the interesting question is about why we can be as touched by constructions we know to be imaginary as by reconstructions we know to be accurate.)

Ophelia reckons it’s down to the fact that we’ve evolved as social animals, and as a result “we have this hypertrophied faculty of thinking and feeling about the interior worlds of other people - so hypertrophied that it works even (or especially) on people who don't actually exist”.

I think that’s right. Young children often attribute intentions, emotions and other mental states to inanimate objects; I myself am sometimes tempted by the thought that my computer is consciously trying to thwart my every move.

And yet… we know, at every point in the experience, that these fictional characters aren’t real. The anthropomorphising infants don’t know any better, and when they do, they stop thinking about objects in this way. So why does the feeling persist in adults who do know better?

Have a look at this. Hopefully you’ll have seen it before:

This is the Muller-Lyer illusion. Which line is longer? The bottom line looks longer, but of course they’re both the same. The optical illusion is produced by the inward/outward angling of the fins at the ends. Certain built-in unconscious expectations about perspective and size affect the way we see these lines, whether or not we know better and try to see them otherwise.

I think our fictional empathy is a bit like that. We’re presented with what may very superficially seem to be real people undergoing real events. Our theory-of-mind faculty comes into play, but it does so in a way that defies, at least partly (we can always redirect our attention) conscious control and better knowledge. Our emotions are being produced essentially intertwined with – not as a result of – our comprehension of the narrative.

And I think there’s another factor. Norm suggests that:

part of the power of fiction is that we take it as telling us something credible about real people. So though the characters are fictional rather than real, might it be that what happens to them we take as embodying things that either have really happened or could really happen to real people; and so, through the characters, we sorrow for others, rejoice or whatever, in a more abstract way?

This makes sense too. When we encounter a real-life instance of, say, heroism or compassion, we are emotionally affected. No surprise there: it’s real. But what if some of that emotional reaction is not just about how taken we are by so-and-so’s particular bravery, but rather relating to how glad we are that such bravery can exist, and how this is symbolically inspirational as well as specifically laudable?

I think such reaction to the abstract often does play a part in our reactions to the particular. And so, this generalised part of the emotional response could well carry over into our responses to fiction: an example need not be real to be a good example (as I’ve argued in a very different context before).

Curiously, I think, the converse of this process happens at the same time: we not only generalise from fiction to the world as a whole but also draw specific parallels or contrasts with ourselves. One thing I’ve long found is that a good piece of fiction leaves me thinking about it for some time after; a great piece of fiction leaves me thinking about my own life as well.

(Update: Mick Hartley and George Szirtes have also posted their thoughts on this, and very interesting thoughts they are too.)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The strongest links

Today I’m very tired – still slightly reeling from Friday night excess somehow – and so I’m not really up to blogging properly. So while I wrestle with my bad karma, here are some other things you might fancy clicking on:

Anticant ponders the links between individual self-images, demonisation of ‘enemy’ groups and the shifting of blame.

Paulie can’t decide whether it’d be good or bad for the “rabid” tendency in the Tories to quit the party en bloc. Do help him out.

Ashok Karra muses that friendship is “perpetual risk”, and so people ready to abandon their friends are being over-cautious rather than reckless and flighty.

What do you get if you mix a bunch of lefty bloggers together, add seasoning, heat gently, and then get rid of the crappy cooking metaphor? You get a Liberal Conspiracy. Could be interesting.

Jason Burke reports on the political intricacies of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

Ebonmuse considers mortality, ignorance and humility, and argues that pasting a fairytale on to the mysteries of existence is not just a poor answer, but worse than no answer at all.

Henry Farrell refers us to an academic paper on the internal problems faced by terrorist organisations. At least they don’t have to deal with their members going on strike to demand an above-inflation rise in the number of heavenly virgins they get.

Matt brings us the joys of metric time. Now, if only there were some sort of unelected bureaucracy, preferably based in a foreign city named after a sprout, to impose it on us.

Hillary Clinton has a foreign policy. And, according to her, it’s very good indeed. (Ditto John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.)

Meanwhile, it seems that Dick Cheney is turning into his boss.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Me good word learning make happens

Andrew Adonis, schools minister, has this to say on the subject of raising literacy standards:

Initiatives like Every Child a Reader is designed to provide these important interventions.

Yeah, I know: it’s a cheap shot. Let me make it a tad less cheap by saying that there are two grammatical errors in that sentence. What’s the other one?

(And yeah, I also know that smugness is never attractive. Good job I’m a looker, too.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Tories accidentally promise EU referendum

While raging against Labour’s refusal to hold a referendum on the EU treaty, they’ve been very cagey about whether they’d hold one if they win the next election – presumably after the treaty has come into force.

Numerous Tory Europhobes are demanding a retrospective vote as a matter of principle, but David Cameron has been deeply reluctant to concede one, knowing that such a move would take his party into the politically very tricky territory of full-blown renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership.

But yesterday the Tories published a poster as what they must have thought was a jolly jape, apologising for the lack of an election that day and promising that all sorts of wondrous improvements to the country would be “delayed until the election of a Conservative Government”.

One of the things the poster says will follow their election is, yes, “A vote on the European Constitution”. Oops.

Well? Is that a commitment or just an aspiration? Or should we not believe their PR at all?