Thursday, July 31, 2014

From bad to worse

Richard Dawkins, when not talking about evolutionary biology, is a bit of a tit. The particular tittish thing he has just done is write the following tweet:
Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.
He was doing this, apparently, to illustrate logical thinking. Which was pretty straightforwardly dumb of him for a start: if you want an argument about the application of cool reason, don't illustrate it with rape analogies. Equally, for the love of God, don't start calling some types of rape 'mild' because that really is both insensitive and ignorant.

Tom Chivers writes a fairly good piece here on why the example should never have been used. But he also makes the claim that it's impossible to determine whether one rape is 'worse' than another unless you have yourself been raped:

...those of us who have never been raped telling those who have which ones are worse, with no reference to anything other than our own assumptions, is insensitive at best and utterly crass and devoid of empathy at worst.
I'm not sure that I'm a fan of that approach. Tom wrote an excellent piece on Ebola the day before. But who is he who has never had Ebola to tell people who have how bad it is, with no reference to anything but his own assumptions, so to speak? Well, he's someone who's researched the topic, presumably read survivors' testimony, has awareness of the general topic of illness etc. In other words, he's an educated observer. If people can't make value judgements without having physically experienced the subject then the scope of discourse gets pretty limited.


In any event, when discussing the relative severity of criminal actions, we actually do have a fairly objective assistant: the law. All rapes are serious. Some have aggravating factors that make them more serious. Some have mitigating factors that make them less serious (although the only specified mitigating factor is that the "Victim engaged in consensual sexual activity with the offender on the same occasion and immediately before the offence" - which reads to me as being more about the perpetrator's belief in consent than anything else). But that again is almost what Dawkins was saying - the fact that some offences are more serious than others does not make those others trivial.

Where he went wrong, of course, was in talking about "mild date rapes", because there really are no such things. But then that's because he's a tit.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Tories, Tariffs and Trade

There's an interesting piece by Phil Collins in the Times today about the historic fault line running through the Conservative party. This is identified as those who seek an "open" policy against those who want a "closed" policy, as defined by Tony Blair in his recent speech at Blenheim Palace. Collins identifies three issues over which the Tories have split:
In 1846 the Conservative party split over whether it should allow corn to be traded freely or whether the merchants should be protected. The market-minded liberals, those in favour of opening up to the world, left the party.
The same fissure opened again when Joseph Chamberlain resigned from Balfour’s government in 1903 to campaign for preferential tariffs for the colonies. He was opposed by, among others, Charles Thomson Ritchie, the chancellor, who put the Adam Smith-inspired case for free trade...
The argument over Europe reared up again in the late 1980s when Geoffrey Howe, with the worst famous speech on record, began the process that ended in the political slaughter of Mrs Thatcher. The uncivil argument carries on to this day. It has to, because there can be no reconciliation between those who wish to be open and those who wish to be closed.
I thought I'd written about this before, but if I have I can't find it (although I did leave a comment on Sunny's old site on exactly this point) - the Tories have split 3 times on the issue of free trade vs protectionism. Corn Laws; Imperial Preference; and Europe. On each occasion, after splitting the party, the protectionists lost the argument and either left the party or changed their views.

I find it odd, therefore, that both Collins and Blair, when drawing up the line of battle, seem to get the protagonists mixed up. In the current Tory split, it is quite clearly the pro-Europeans who are following the protectionist standard. Indeed, the parallel with Imperial Preference is pretty stark - both were preferential trade areas, supported by external trade barriers. Both were designed partly to shore up political association and partly to defend high cost economies from low cost competitors. In abandoning the remnants of Imperial Preference (the Commonwealth Trade Area) for the EEC, the Tories were switching the form in which they supported protectionism, rather than changing their view on it.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Much ado about chucking

Stuart Broad has got himself into a bit of trouble, by commenting on a picture of Saeed Ajmal tweeted by Michael Vaughan. Vaughan tweeted "you are allowed 15 degrees of flex in delivery swing... #justsaying", and attached a blurry picture of Ajmal in mid-delivery. This is what that picture looks like:


Broad replied, commenting that it had to be a fake picture, and later said that “Bowlers can bowl very differently in a lab while being tested compared to needing wickets in the middle”. Ajmal has, of course, had his action tested before by the ICC and was found to be within the permitted 15 degrees of flex allowed (anything less than this is invisible to the naked eye). It's virtually impossible for a spectator to analyse a bowler's action in real time (and I can't remember the last time the cameras did an analysis in slow-mo of one of the more controversial spinners). It doesn't help, of course, that they also tend to wear baggy long-sleeved shirts, although anyone not wearing one in county cricket in May probably comes from a latitude significantly to the north of Faisalabad. But on gut feel, Ajmal is one of those that doesn't quite feel right. To see why, keep the picture above in mind when looking at a picture of his release point:


That arm looks pretty straight to the naked eye and (even given the angle from which the top photo was taken) is definitely more than a 15 degree variation from the one above. This isn't, incidentally, to say that Ajmal is chucking - as I said above, it basically takes work in a laboratory to determine the actual degree of flex. It's just that it looks as though he is to the naked eye.

But then, it looked like Murali was chucking to the naked eye, and he definitely wasn't. I saw him bowl for Channel 4 in a full arm cast, and it still looked like he threw it. Murali had double-jointed wrists and a permanently bent arm - the combination made it look like a throw even though it wasn't. Murali's example, however, has caused a proliferation of unorthodox actions.

Shane Shillingford
 
Johann Botha
 
Sachithra Senanayake
 
Sunil Narine
 
Some of these have been called for it (Shillingford had his quicker ball banned by the ICC, Botha his doosra), some haven't (Senanayake had his action cleared back in 2011, although Aggers clearly disagrees...). Does any of it matter? Doesn't it just add to cricket's rich tapestry? Weeelll...
 
Part of me wants to agree: all the bowlers listed are exciting and skillful, and their bowling makes cricket more interesting. On the other hand, if we're going to ignore it when spinners chuck it, why can't pacemen just stand at the crease and hurl it at that batsman like a pitcher? I've played against bowlers in club cricket who blatantly threw it, and it gives them a heck of an advantage. For spinners it makes it much harder to detect which way the ball is turning; for quicks, the ball is that much quicker through the air than you're expecting.
 
One thing that is perhaps a little odd is that the people who were so exercised when Stuart Broad didn't walk for a nick to the keeper (which isn't against any law of the game) aren't equally exercised by the possible breaking of law 24(3) which says that a ball is only fairly delivered if:
once the bowler’s arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely from that point until the ball has left the hand.
UPDATE: To nobody's great surprise, Senanayake has been referred to the ICC for having a dodgy action. He can then be cleared in a lab, and return to action, pleasing and convincing nobody either way...

Peccaverunt

There's a very heartfelt article in today's Times by Matthew Syed on the atrocity on the steps of the high court in Lahore. A pregnant woman was battered to death, by her own family, in the midst of a large crowd (including scores of policemen and lawyers) who did nothing to help or to intervene. Her "crime" was to have married a man of whom her father disapproved. Chances of a successful prosecution of anyone for the lynching must be pretty small. Syed, who is half Pakistani himself, sees only one way for this sort of barbarism to be countered - in Pakistan or in the UK
You cannot win against this kind of barbarism by being nice. You can’t win by beating a strategic retreat, as Sotheby’s plans to do by withdrawing nudes from arts sales because they are terrified of offending Middle Eastern clients. Fundamentalism is too fierce, too implacable, it takes too deep a hold on those who are infected by it, to reach any kind of compromise. Trying to find an accommodation with fanaticism is like trying to cuddle a virus.
This is not a new problem. 150 years ago, in a newly conquered province of the Raj (remembered now, if at all, principally for a Latin pun in Punch magazine) the British Governor General Sir Charles Napier was tasked with imposing law and order on a society with an entirely alien culture and value system. As his biographer (and brother) Sir William Napier recorded in his history of Scinde:
Whenever a woman was guilty of infidelity, or even suspected - and that suspicion was excited by trifles, and often pretended from interested views - one man would hold her up by the hair while another hewed her piecemeal with a sword. To kill women on any pretext was a right assumed by every Beloochee [i.e. Baloch], and they could not understand why they were being disbarred.
While remembering to keep in mind the inevitable problems of orientalism and so on (in other words, that this is a very partial history from a particular source), the attitudes identified should not be terribly surprising - their residues remain in modern Pakistan and elsewhere. I suspect that the general's response would not be considered acceptable today:
A man had been condemned for murdering his wife; his chief sued the general for pardon. "No! I will hang him." "What! You will hang a man only for killing his wife!" "Yes; she had done no wrong." "Wrong! No! But he was angry, why should he not kill her?" "Well I am angry; why should I not kill him?" This conviction of their right to murder women was so strong and their belief in fatalism so firm, that many executions took place ere the practice could even be checked; but finding the general as resolute to hang as they were to murder, the tendency after a time abated, and to use his significant phrase "the gallows began to overbalance Mahomet and predestination."
There may be a lesson here for us (though not that the answer is the return of capital punishment). It is not just that "culture" is not an excuse for murder; it is actually an exacerbating factor. Courts and prosecutors need to be more severe on cultural or "honour" killings than they are on "normal" murders, precisely because while "ordinary" murderers do not commit their crimes under the delusion that it is an acceptable (indeed desirable) thing to do, "honour" murderers do.

Where we are faced with cultural behaviours that are drastically contrary to our own cultural values (and these sadly mostly relate to the treatment of women, from "honour" killings to FGM) the state needs to act almost disproportionately heavily. The message needs to be unmissably clear that this is not how we do things here. Charles Napier is probably more famous for his actions against suttee (although in a predominantly Muslim state that would have been less prevalent than elsewhere in India):
He also put down the practice of suttees, which however was rare in Scinde, by a process entirely characteristic. For judging the real cause of these immolations to be the profit derived by the priests, and hearing of an intended burning, he made it known that he would stop the sacrifice. The priests said it was a religious rite which must not be meddled with - that all nations had customs which should be respected and this was a very sacred one. The general, affecting to be struck with this argument replied, "Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pyre. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs!" No suttee took place then or afterwards.
What Napier did was, obviously, imperialism: the imposition of British laws and cultural values on a non-British state. But to follow a similar trajectory in the UK against similar attitudes towards women would be almost the opposite of imperialism: it would be the fierce and principled support of a culture and a way of life that people come here to seek, and that people already here have every right to expect to be defended.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The N word

Somewhere high up on my bookshelves I have three copies of the same book. This is what happens when you merge libraries with your wife, and then get several boxes more from her grandmother. Each copy has a different title. The oldest one (which came in from the grandmother) is called Ten Little Niggers; then there's a US copy called Ten Little Indians; and then there's my old copy from the 80s called And Then There Were None. It's a pretty good book actually, though like all Christies the attraction wears off slightly when you know who did it.

Does the above paragraph make me a racist? I don't think so, although things might be different if I displayed the oldest copy prominently in my window, or made loud harrumphing noises about how it was better in the old days before all this political correct nonsense came along. The reason I ask is (obviously) because of the brouhaha over Jeremy Clarkson's apparent mumblings of a playground jingle of equivalent antiquity - the eenie, meenie, miney, mo one.

It might be worth going on a small diversion here. The current 'anti-Clarkson' narrative is that though he initially denied saying it, he's now admitted to mumbling it, which is just as bad. As Dan Hodges says:
But yesterday he explained that he had, in fact, tried to “mumble” the word. Then, to his horror, when reviewing copies of the unbroadcast footage, he found “it did appear I had actually used the word I was trying to obscure”. Or, to put it another way, the reason it appeared he’d used that word was because he had indeed used it.
'Putting it another way' in this context apparently meaning 'to say something completely different', because what Clarkson has actually said is that he didn't say the word: he mumbled under his breath instead of saying the word. In the note he wrote to the producer he said:
'I didn't use the N-word here but I've just listened through my headphones and it sounds like I did. Is there another take that we could use?'
"This word is so bad that I didn't use it" seems to me like a different story to "Saying nigger is just fine, says racist bigot". Anyway, I'm not sure that this really amounts to anything very much more than that the left don't like Jeremy Clarkson, and will cheerfully grab at any stick to hit him with.

More interesting (slightly) is the argument between Dan and Frank Fisher on Twitter, a medium renowned for its appropriateness for developing complex arguments. Dan's line is that the simple use of the word 'nigger' is itself intrinsically racist. That has the benefit of clarity at least, and used as an epithet the word is unquestionably offensive. Frank's point in response is that whether or not a word is racist depends on the context in which it is used, and the intention for which it is used.

The standard line trotted out here is along the lines of "rappers say nigger all the time; how can it be racist if black people say it?" I am, to say the least, unconvinced by this line of argument (although in fairness, Fisher's point is not actually if they can say it, why not me? but rather, does singing their lyrics make me racist? which is surely a harder question). But it does highlight a hole in the iron 'use = racism' argument. Can it be racist to use the word when discussing whether old books should be edited to reflect modern values? Surely it can't, or you end up in a Kafka-esque situation of not being able to say the word you think should or shouldn't be changed (as I'm sure you know, a major character in Huckleberry Finn is called Nigger Jim and I am, for example, pretty damn sure that Tom Chivers isn't a racist.

So, if it can be acceptable in some circumstances for even a white person to say nigger (including, I hope, in discussing the topic at all, otherwise I'm in trouble myself), is it acceptable to recite an old playground rhyme that includes it? Autre temps, autre mouers after all, and the fact that my grandmother went into shops to ask for bootlaces in nigger brown didn't make her a racist (she was, incidentally, quite definitely racist, but it wasn't the bootlaces that made it so). Well, no I don't think that it is. There may be some limited circumstances where using the word is effectively unavoidable, but school-age doggerel isn't one of them (the version I used said tigger anyway).

Of course, the funny thing here is that despite Dan's hyperventilation, Clarkson clearly agrees with this - that's why he didn't say the word, and when it sounded as if he had he made sure another shot was used. Dan's written a column despairing over the normalisation of casual racism when the story is actually that a popular right-wing broadcaster didn't say the word in question, but has grovelled because a discarded shot sounds almost as if he did. This is more a David Howard story (forced to resign for saying niggardly) than a Ron Atkinson one.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What do they know of culture...?

There's a rather joyous line in Phillip Collins's Times column this morning, that rather wonderfully eviscerates Michael Fucking Rosen's even more than usually stupid and pompous 'open letter' to Sajid Javid.
How can a man who has spent his life in banking, asks Mr Rosen, begin to understand poetry? I wonder if Mr Rosen is acquainted with the work of the employee of Lloyd’s, Mr TS Eliot.
But then, pitch defiles and even a brief career in banking can entirely destroy any chances of a career in the arts. Just ask PG Wodehouse...

Thursday, March 06, 2014

How can we condemn Russia when...

How can we condemn the Soviet response to the famine in the Ukraine when so many are jobless and desperate in the west?

How can we condemn Soviet expansionism into Eastern Europe when the western powers consolidate their empires in the Far East?

How can we condemn the Soviet intervention in Hungary, when Britain and France tried to the same in Suez?

How can we condemn the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, when America is at war in Vietnam?

How can we condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the West supports Pinochet?

How can we condemn the Russian incursion into Ukraine, after the American wars in Iraq & Afghanistan?

At least Hobsbawm was actually in the pay of Moscow when he shilled for them.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Harriet Harman & the NCCL

Is this a story or isn't it? On the one hand, it's been public knowledge for 40 years that the Paedophile Information Exchange was affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties, and that some senior Labour politicians cut their teeth in the NCCL. On the other, it just kinda has the hallmarks of a story doesn't it? Senior politicians, paedophiles: that tends to be a combustible mix.

The reason that this didn't feel like a story (at least until Harman and Ed Miliband turned it into another 'isn't the Daily Mail beastly?' campaign) is principally that it's not new. But there's something odd in how happy people seem to be to accept the old autre temps autre moeurs excuse on this one. Sure, the 70s were odd, sure the NCCL had a 'no enemies on the left' policy that brought in some rather uncomfortable fellow travellers, but you know? Things were different then. What's odd about this is that often the same people shuffling their feet and mumbling it about the NCCL feel very different about Jimmy Saville and Operation Yewtree. Which is it? Do we sweep our weird pasts under the carpet, or do we prosecute them with the moral fervour of the present day?

In terms of the meat of the story, there are really three principal charges. The first is the simplest one: PIE were affiliated to the NCCL. This is usually defended as a generic 'everyone could be an affiliate' - Harman has said as much here. But I'm not sure this entirely washes. The NCCL were asked to clarify their relationship with PIE in 1977 and said:
The NCCL has no policy on [the Paedophile Information Exchange’s] aims – other than the evidence that children are harmed if, after a mutual relationship with an adult, they are exposed to the attentions of the police, press and court.
Which is a lot closer to support than a generic 'anyone could join'.

The second charge is that the NCCL supported the PIE's principal policy of lowering the age of consent. The defence here is twofold. The first part is that this all happened before Harriet Harman joined the NCCL, which is sort of true but only sort of relevant (Patricia Hewitt, for instance, was in charge of the NCCL at this point). The second is that this was all part of the campaign to equalise the age of consent for gays and straights alike, and that opposing it was part of the prevailing homophobia at the time. Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, horseshit. The NCCL proposed lowering the age of consent to 14 in any circumstances, and also to 10 if it "was demonstrated that [consent] was genuinely given", which is basically jaw-dropping.

The third charge is that Harriet Harman signed a letter from the NCCL in which it campaigned for the law against child pornography to be loosened. It's the only one of the three charges that really strikes against Harman herself, and it's also the one with the best defence - it was a classic civil liberties defence against censorship. Not all naked photos of children are pornography (as a million white pile rugs with post-bath babies in parents' albums can confirm) and it would be ridiculous to prosecute on that basis. That said, the proposed catch, where photos would not be illegal unless the photo "caused the model physical harm or pyschological or emotional disorder" looks a bit loop-holey to me.

There's nothing exactly slam-dunk in any of this as far as Harman is concerned (although it does rather underline how loopy the left was in the 1970s), although the questions are a bit more pointed for Dromey and Hewitt. I think there are legitimate questions though (not least, 'what the hell were you thinking joining an outfit that had these blokes in it?') and it's daft to try and wriggle out of it all as a 'smear campaign'.

There's one point about Zoe Williams's article defending Harman that does need addressing though.
It is extremely easy to taint anybody with anything, so long as you set your bar of what's reasonable and proportionate low enough – as McCarthy found in America, as the German right found when it tried to paint the Green party as a gathering of paedophiles. (To halt anthropogenic climate change? Good plan!).
Yes, about that. The German left was even more flat-out batshit crazy in the 60s and 70s than the British left, and the Green Party in particular was definitely infiltrated by paedophiles in the 70s and even the 80s. Danny Cohn-Bendit's 'hilarious' story about getting toddlers to wank him off was very much not an exception, even for him. Here he is (and remember this man is the leader of the MEP group that includes the UK Greens and the SNP) again:

At nine in the morning, I join my eight little toddlers between the ages of 16 months and 2 years. I wash their butts, I tickle them, they tickle me and we cuddle. … You know, a child's sexuality is a fantastic thing. You have to be honest and sincere. With the very young kids, it isn't the same as it is with the four-to-six-year-olds. When a little, five-year-old girl starts undressing, it's great, because it's a game. It's an incredibly erotic game.
You don't have to be Joe McCarthy not to want that under your daughter's bed. But then, Cohn-Bendit's never really had to explain this to his  German or French voters, so maybe that isn't really a story either?