About Billy Gotta-Job

Blogger on this and that; and faceless bureaucrat by day.

Woolwich: a terrifying symmetry

When a British soldier is hacked to death in broad daylight on a crowded street by two black Muslim men, it is hard to imagine a more fertile opportunity for the explosion of anger, outrage, and emotion that has inevitably ensued. The pattern is as tragic as it is predictable. The tearful, almost unbearably poignant press conference by the relatives of the murdered soldier. The protests by the English Defence League. The clichés by the politicians. The generally even cruder clichés from the press.

And so the familiar narrative takes shape. An innocent British soldier is attacked by crazed Muslims, but this isn’t anything to do with Islam, in case you thought it was. On the contrary, it’s only fundamentalists who’ve been brainwashed by internet radicals who do things like this, a point rammed home by exhaustive contributions by more cuddly Muslims asserting their undying solidarity with Britain and the British. In the meantime, the security forces will inevitably have had the perpetrators on some sort of list at some time or other, and will be accused of negligence. The explicit motivations expressed by the perpetrators – in this instance exclusively referred to as “perpetrators with bloodied hands” – are dismissed out of hand. This, we are assured, not only has nothing to do with Islam, it also has nothing to do with Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, or any aspect of British political or military behaviour. But most of all, we mustn’t waste any time or sympathy on the psychopathic killers, still less listen to them, but rather lavish all our attention on the brave victim and his family. This will ensure that we are able to focus on symbols and emotions that are consistent with the narrative that we are intended to absorb, whilst keeping us well away from anything that might undermine it. Set up in this way, the clear implication is that anyone who doesn’t swallow this narrative hook, line and sinker, is a callous bastard that doesn’t care about the brave soldier or his family.

Well, I don’t accept this narrative, and I do care very much for the soldier and his family. The agony of expecting your husband to be home for the long weekend, thinking him to be as safe as houses in the capital city, and then having to imagine his being butchered without mercy on the street, is beyond description, and beyond imagination.

But that is exactly the point. The horror of what has taken place demands that we do something to make it less likely to be repeated, not more likely. And this tired narrative, pitting the lunatic Islamic butcher against the innocent family man and brave soldier, all the while requiring that we firmly insert our fingers into our ears so as not to hear what the killers said in plain speech, is only going to make its repetition ever more likely.

Rather than refusing to listen to, or even acknowledge, what the killers said on the pretext that such publicity is exactly what they wanted, and that they must not thus be rewarded, we should listen very hard indeed. Michael Adebolajo, according to the BBC yesterday, is “28 years old and left college in 2001. He is said to come from a very devout Christian family but converted to Islam after college. He is described as having been bright and witty when he was at college.” He said to an unbelievably brave passer-by that “you people will never be safe…Remove your governments, they don’t care about you.”

These are not the words of a madman. Whatever else Michael Adebolajo is, he is evidently not a lunatic. Until we’re really prepared to try and understand what drives a “bright and witty” student to such an unspeakable act of barbarism as he carried out in Woolwich on Wednesday afternoon, then we will never work out how to stop his successors, as successors there will undoubtedly be.

What is clear, is this: that this young man has lost all ability to distinguish between real human people – that young and unsuspecting soldier – and the things that those people have come to symbolise for him. And I firmly believe that in a ghastly and symmetrical way, the narrative we are constantly enjoined to internalise does exactly the same thing back. Michael Adebolajo is no longer a human being, but a lunatic, a mere symbol of all we fear and abhor.

I feel deeply for Drummer Rigby and his family. But I feel just as deeply for Michael Adebolajo and his.

France and gay marriage

Earlier this week, the long and fractious debate in France about “mariage pour tous” finally came to an end when the new law was ratified. Gay civil marriage in that country will soon be permitted. It’s been a tough ride. French society is pretty much split down the middle on the issue, and although support has grown over time, at least a third of French citizens are vehemently opposed.

France has for some time had the equivalent of British civil partnerships (called the civil solidarity pact, about as French a name for an institution as it’s possible to imagine), with the major difference that these arrangements are also open to straight couples. But marriage is a special institution in France, bringing with it a raft of rights and privileges, especially over money and property, that are not available to civil unions.

But above all, French marriage is about children. When I got married in France, notwithstanding that neither I nor my partner had the slightest intention of bringing any children into the world, and quite possibly not the means, either, most of the ceremony was about bringing children up, and the responsibilities of parenthood. The marriage certificate is contained in a dinky little book entitled “le livre de la famille” with special pages in which we could enter the details of our sprogs. To be honest, it reminded me of nothing more than the service history you get in the book that comes with a new car. Have a child, get your log-book stamped.

So in France, marriage is to do with children, and this is what has caused so much heartache and controversy. The right of gay couples to live together in legal union is not really at issue. What is at issue is that marriage brings with it the legal right to adopt children, and to seek “artificial” means to conceive them. I put that word in inverted commas because its meaning has become pejorative, but I mean it here in its original and literal sense: that artifice has to be used because the usual biological mechanism is not available.

As those who’ve read my blog before will know, I’m a supporter of gay marriage. In a secular society, it is no argument to say that God forbids or disapproves of gay relationships, even if He does, which I very much doubt. France has long celebrated and jealously guarded its secular constitution. All marriages in France are secular, and the church has no part to play in the legal process of marrying. For sure couples can, and often do, rush smartly from the mairie to the church, car horns blaring, to have their secular marriage blessed by the curé.

So in France there isn’t the problem that’s created in England by the fact of the established church, with its priests as authorized as secular registrars to perform the legals at a marriage. I’ve argued here before that if we could have a fully secularised version of marriage, then the arguments of the church in particular, and Christians in general, that gay marriage is an oxymoron, would fall away. In effect, I’ve been arguing that the position in Britain should be the same as that which already pertains in France. I believed that this clear separation between the secular and the sacred would make gay marriage an uncontroversial issue. Well, I’ve rarely been so wrong. The opponents of gay marriage in France have been involved in violent protest (albeit violence that has been disowned by moderate opponents) and if anything emotions run higher there than here.

No, it’s not gay relationships that are really at issue: it’s all about children. And I fear this is a much more thorny question. It’s easy to dismiss the opponents of the legal recognition of gay relationships as simply homophobic. Many of them are sincerely of the view that God’s disapproval is the basic issue, and that active gay relationships are sinful and that’s all there is to it. Regardless of their sincerity, this fundamentally religious objection to gay marriage is illegitimate in a society where only a small minority are actively religious. Even as a person of faith myself, I can see that this argument is irrefutable.

But the issue of children is more difficult. If someone argues that adoption by same sex couples, or the artificial conception of children for the benefit of same sex couples, is wrong because it’s against some God-given rule, then that is easily dismissed in the same way as the argument against gay marriage in principle. But that’s not what a lot of French society is arguing. The argument is about whether it’s in the best interests of children to be brought up in a same-sex family. Even more fundamentally, it’s about whether it’s right to procure children specifically in order to satisfy the wishes of same sex couples to have offspring. You do not have to be homophobic to ask that question. I have the same problem with surrogacy in general, as much for heterosexual couples as for homosexual ones. My concern is about the use of children to satisfy the desires of adults, when those children have no possibility of choice in the matter.

It’s a great pity that all these things have got so mixed up and intertwined. It’s unhelpful to try and unpick these difficult and complex matters by the use of name-calling. Because I have serious concerns about the issues of children and family life, that does not make me a homophobe. I am crystal clear that people of the same sex should be able to get married. I am not remotely as clear that this should automatically include the right to adoption or surrogacy. Maybe it should. But I’ll not be dragooned into agreeing that that’s the case merely on pain of being insulted.

Pope Francis vs Archbishop Justin: God vs Mammon?

It’s quite unusual for a new Pope and a new Archbishop of Canterbury to be appointed in quite such temporal proximity, and it rather invites comparison. Justin Welby seems to have no potential skeleton in his ecclesiastical cupboard to compare with Francis I’s alleged conspiracy with a fascist military dictatorship, but in a way that merely underlines another contrast in their CVs. Justin has hardly any ecclesiastical back story of any kind, dubious or otherwise, having been a bishop for only months rather than years.

In what follows, I am not making any kind of personal criticism of either pope or archbishop. But I am struck by the symbolic contrasts in their respective appointments. Pope Francis’ reputation other than that of possibly cosying up to dictators is altogether more wholesome. He is widely described as modest, humble, and one to eschew the trappings of wealth, power and high office. He travelled on public transport in Buenos Aires, and declined to wear the ermine-trimmed shoulder-wear he was offered on being elected pope. His first public pronouncements have emphasised the need for a “poor church serving the poor”. How long this admirable outlook will be able to survive the inevitable disjuncture with papal palaces, sumptuous ceremony, and all the other worldly accoutrements with which the papacy has entangled itself for centuries remains to be seen. But the virtues for which he was elected pope seem to be spiritual first, and managerial second.

Compare the selection of Justin Welby. The key qualities for which he was chosen seem altogether more worldly. His experience as an oil executive seems to have been considered of much greater significance than his patent lack of experience as a bishop. His key tasks, it would seem, are considered to be more to do with managing the seemingly unmanageable fissures and disputes within the Anglican Communion than to do with any orientation of the church around a principle as basic as poverty. Let me emphasise again that in making this point I am not criticising the Archbishop, nor am I suggesting that his appointment was not a good one. He has certainly not shied away from taking on the Government on the issues of welfare reform, and I think that augurs well.

But I do think that the contrast I have drawn is not insignificant. In many ways both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have pressing internal problems to address: for the former pre-eminently that of sexual misbehaviour and its mismanagement, whilst for the latter it’s the corrosive disputes about gay priests and women bishops. Faced with such serious concerns, Anglicanism has chosen a manager from secular society, whilst Roman Catholicism has chosen a Jesuit concerned with fundamental principle.

It’s perhaps unfair to suggest that one has chosen God, and one Mammon. However, if either Church is to be able to overcome its current difficulties, the Roman Catholic hierarchy will need to show much greater managerial skill than it’s shown recently, whilst Anglicans will need to be less obsessed with sex, and more concerned with the Gospel. Perhaps Francis would have been a better Archbishop of Canterbury, and Justin a better pope!

Sex, the Church, and the Cardinal

Oh dear. Yet again the Roman Catholic Church has managed to bring itself into disrepute over sex. One feels the need to mangle Oscar Wilde: that to make a right royal sexual cock-up once might be considered a misfortune, but to do it repeatedly, indeed constantly, looks like carelessness. Not that carelessness even begins to cover it. The Church has managed, at every turn, to substitute rules for principles, obfuscation for clarity, and lies for truthfulness.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s catastrophic fall from grace, in a display every bit as spectacular as that of any unannounced meteor over Russia, seems almost to have been designed to concentrate all the Church’s confusions and dishonesties over sex – and gay sex in particular – into one super-saturated droplet of self-destructive poison.

Christianity’s moral principles could, at root, be distilled into two precepts: that we should consider others’ needs before our own; and that what we want is frequently not good for us, and even less good for others. Or, to put it more biblically, we should love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves, and love God even more than we love ourselves. When applied to our sexual behaviour this means simply that we are not at liberty to indulge our sexual desires merely for our self-gratification, and that to do so is to put at risk our own health (in a holistic sense, not merely in the sense of disease) and that of our sexual partners. This is, in itself, quite a sufficiently counter-cultural position to take in a society that seems increasingly to want to sexualise everything, and to idolise (in its literal sense) the obtaining of sexual pleasure and satisfaction. It was never necessary for the Church to over-egg that pudding by adding prohibitions on particular sexual acts, or particular couplings – still less for it to relegate sexual activity itself to some sort of barely permissible pastime that can only be justified by the procreation of children.

But the Church has got itself into a right old mess. It’s created a male-only environment, and then been gobsmacked to discover that it has attracted a lot of gay men. It’s demonised homosexuality, and then looked aghast as its gay priests have found themselves obliged to conduct their sexual lives undercover and clothe their public lives in layers of hypocrisy. Having created a sexual underworld, it now discovers that its secrecy and denial have permitted it to be colonised by paedophiles and all kinds of other purveyors of sexual deviancy.

Seen in this light it’s hard to know if Cardinal O’Brien is more victim or more perpetrator. His hypocrisy in speaking out so vehemently against homosexuality whilst, apparently, indulging in that very activity in his private life, is indeed breathtaking. But at the same time, it seems to me, he has been as it were entrapped by an institution that has simultaneously both created a homosexual culture, and also denied the validity of homosexual expression. It can surely be no surprise that such contradictions have produced so much damage and human tragedy.

The cardinal’s sin isn’t really his hypocrisy, still less his homosexuality. It’s his lack of moral courage. Ultimately, I can’t condemn him. He is a victim, no less than those priests who so belatedly exposed him. Indeed, they are all victims of a Church that has got it all wrong about sex. And until it starts to get it right, there will be more sexual scandals, more cardinals exposed, more priests abused, and more victims in the pews.

Speeding towards destruction

So Chris Huhne finally admits that it was true all along. Despite all his denials (“All I want to say is these allegations are simply incorrect”: May 2011. “I am saying there is no truth in those allegations”: July 2011. “I am innocent of the charges”: February 2012) his lying and deceptions have now caught up with him. He was driving his car when it fell foul of a speed camera on the M11. He did ask (perhaps pressure?) his then wife to lie on his behalf. And today, he has pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice. A right royal mess, and a devastating demonstration of that tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.

I do not know by how much Mr Huhne was speeding at the time of his offence. But unless he was rampaging along at 150mph, weaving and dodging through the traffic like the roadrunner on heat, I doubt very much that the original offence was all that heinous. Not many British drivers can now say that they’ve never been caught breaking the limit. I’m not suggesting that speeding is of no consequence, but no-one could possibly claim that it’s not an everyday occurrence. I’ve been done for driving at 55 in a 50 zone, and I don’t consider myself any the less capable of doing my job, any the less reliable as a person, or particularly morally bankrupt. So I would not have been lining up to throw stones at Mr Huhne had he simply paid the penalty fine, taken the points, apologised, and got on with trying to make our energy greener.

But he didn’t. One wonders why. I don’t doubt that the answer to that conundrum is at least in part to be found in flaws in his character. In the arrogance of power. In the hubris of a man who thinks that the normal slings and arrows that beset the rest of us do not apply to him. But ironically there is perhaps one mitigation that applies to a politician that would not apply to others. In his internal calculation there was no doubt a weighing up of what admitting to a speeding offence might do to his political career. One can imagine the capital that would be made by his political opponents (fair enough, one might say) but also the ghastly hypocrisy of the press and media in general. There would have been calls for his head; the protestation that any politician guilty of even a minor legal infringement is somehow morally corrupt to their very soul; the insistence that standards must be made to apply to a cabinet minister that none of the rest of us could possibly live up to. It is one of the least attractive aspects of our modern culture that we want to throw stones regardless of the glass that surrounds our own conduct.

That’s a mitigation, certainly, but it’s not a sufficient one. Mr Huhne deserves the ignominy he now suffers, but I daresay doing the right thing may have been easier for me than it was for him. He has had many, many opportunities to come clean. He has dismissed them all with a breathtaking and haughty disregard.

Intertwined through all this has been the added spice of marital misbehaviour. His then wife, now furiously spurned, has even entered “marital coercion” as her defence against her own part in this sad and prolonged saga. And that brings us to the saddest, most poignant, and tragic element of the whole sorry business. In court today were read out the heart-rending text exchanges between Mr Huhne and his angry and embittered son, Peter. His father’s sacrifice of his family to his career and his lust has understandably destroyed their relationship, although one hopes not for ever. The texts had some relevance to the case, to be sure, but it was not necessary for anyone to draw public attention to them. However, if there were ever anyone on whom one could rely to do what is unnecessary, and also cruel, tasteless and hypocritical, it is the self-styled Guido Fawkes. He lived up to his pitiful reputation with sickening aplomb.

Of all the flawed human beings whose frailties this case has so unerringly flung into the searchlight of public scrutiny, I suspect that it is Guido Fawkes, aka Paul Staines, who is the most despicable, and the least sympathetic.

Death is less bitter punishment than death’s delay….

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At  some moment in the early hours today, my mum slipped off the sofa. She was still there when the carer came in the morning. Finding your client dead must be a daunting aspect of a job that’s already under-paid, under-appreciated, and largely ignored by wider society – unless some shock-horror example of callousness brings it into the sudden glare of publicity, only to fade back as quickly as it emerged when the fierce competition of a European referendum, a celebrity unmasked, or a helicopter crash swamps the headlines once again. And so my heart goes out to that carer, someone who has done her best to make mum’s last couple of years easier.

I’ve charted my mum’s struggle with dementia in a number of posts here. Mostly it’s been a constant, but measured, decline. But suddenly, a couple of weeks before Christmas, mum began to deteriorate sharply. It was, in my brother’s words, as if “the will to keep on seem[ed] to have evaporated.” I’d arranged some time ago to take mum out to dinner on Christmas day, and I wondered long and hard if that was still a good idea. But we went anyway and, as you can see from the photo, I think she enjoyed herself within the limits of her confusion and chronic fatigue.

It turned out to be something of a swan song. By the time we got home she was exhausted, and the rest of the day was very difficult. By the time she went, eventually, to bed she was distraught, anxious, and more confused and desperate than I’d ever seen her before. Ovid was clearly right. Death’s delay is every bit as cruel as death itself.

This isn’t the time to think about how hopelessly inadequate our society’s care for the elderly is. It’s a theme I’ll return to, but not now. For the moment I’m sufficiently employed in trying to make some sense of my pot-pourri of conflicting emotions. Sadness, of course. But also a kind of mixture of guilt and sorrow that mum should die alone, to be found slumped on the floor by a stranger. Anger too, pointless anger, at the dementia that hollowed out my mum’s spirit and left her a tiny fraction of the woman she’d been. Gratitude for that last Christmas together, with all its bitter-sweet contradictions.

And further back, admiration for her fortitude in the almost 20 years that she kept going after my dad’s death. No liberated feminist my mum; her life was in her own lights a duty of support to my dad’s vocation, and losing him deprived her, too, of much her sense of purpose.

But this isn’t about me, and my confused emotions. It’s about her life. The love and support she’s always given me and my brothers, even if we didn’t always deserve it. How she used to let me scrape the uncooked cake mixture from the bowl, or eat the rind off the bacon like a blackbird (me, not her) with a worm. Winter tea-time of fried egg and baked beans. The delicious agony of opening the doors of a glittery advent calendar, waiting for Christmas to arrive. The invaluable lesson thus absorbed that travelling is usually better than arriving. How she so expertly trod the tightrope between allowing me absolute freedom to live my life as I wanted, whilst never making it seem like she just wasn’t interested. Her unselfishness. Her hopeless inability to give directions to a driver, particularly in her home-town Middlesbrough where, if mum was to be believed, every road seemed to lead to every destination.

So much to remember. So much to be grateful for. And everything there may be to regret – my fault, not hers.

Thanks mum. I love you very much.

After Jimmy Savile, Cyril Smith: paedophilia and moral panic

As the nation continues to be in the grip of lurid headlines and deafened by the sound of erstwhile heroes crashing spectacularly from their pedestals, I, probably foolishly, attempt to become the Blondin of the blogosphere. For to talk or write about the sexual exploitation or abuse of children and young people in terms other than vituperative outrage, blanket condemnation, or one-dimensional simplification, is to walk a tightrope strung perilously above the roaring Niagara of public opinion in full flood. It seems that any attempt to look at the issues analytically, or with any degree of nuance, risks falling into the churning waters below, smashed on the rocks of the accusation that one is trying in some kind of way to offer an apologia for an aspect of human nature and behaviour that is only fit to be comprehensively and uncompromisingly denounced and excoriated. That indeed it isn’t an aspect of human behaviour at all: such perpetrators are always and self-evidently sub-human, and worthy only of the epithets “beast” or “monster”. That, at least, surely cannot be true: the very fact that so many acts of paedophilia are coming to light, that so many victims are finding their voice, and that so many high-profile people are being exposed as perpetrators, must give the lie to any notion that this behaviour is either uncommon or not a real and present aspect of human nature.

I want to suggest that, however difficult, repugnant even, it may be to look at paedophilia as a spectrum of behaviours which extends from the most bafflingly depraved to acts that are only marginally outside the bounds of acceptability, this is an analysis that we have to undertake. In current debate this is virtually impossible, and the very term paedophilia is being applied in a completely indiscriminate way to everything from Jimmy Savile’s hand uncomfortably high on a young girl’s thigh, to a psychopath that abducts a small child, and then brutally rapes and dismembers it. It should, surely, be possible to say that the latter is not only not the same as the former, but also very much worse, without being open to accusation that you are proposing that the former is of no consequence, or merely quaint.

Perhaps many would follow me thus far. But I think there’s further to go, and my tightrope walk is not over yet. I’m not at all convinced that the same act is always and everywhere morally equivalent. I’ve written before on the uneasy and complex relationship between morality and legality. A great deal of the current unease about paedophilia is focused on the way the law has been seen to fail the victims. In the Cyril Smith case in particular, when it is now revealed that the police on two separate occasions produced detailed dossiers on his behaviour and sent them to the prosecuting authorities, and yet it was decided to do nothing, it’s hardly surprising that serious questions should be raised. However, I think that looking at all this merely through the prism of the law is not always very helpful. The law often rests on just the sort of either or, black or white, binary thinking that leads to the notion that all paedophilia is the same, and all equally morally culpable. To give an example from elsewhere in the criminal code on sexuality, an over 16’s sexual relations with a 15yr old girl are rape by definition (statutory rape) even though everyone knows that many such relationships are consensual, and not rape at all in the usual sense. Sexual relations between an over 16 man and a, say, 15 year old boy, are in a similar way child sexual abuse by definition, regardless of circumstance, consent, or anything else. I remember as a 14 year old in the late 1960s a notorious incident at my boys-only minor public school, in which a teacher was suddenly spirited away after he was found with one of my fellow pupils in the toilets. I have no idea whether the teacher was turned over to the police, nor was I close enough to the boy in question to know exactly what was going on in those toilets. But I do know that the boy did not see himself as a victim of sexual abuse, but rather as a victim of interference of a different kind: he loved that teacher, and was distraught at his own loss, and at the likely consequences for his adult lover.

The point I’m making here is not that such a relationship is perfectly all right: apart from anything else I don’t know enough about it to know whether this toilet activity was a French kiss, or full-blown sodomy. Does that even matter? Personally, I think it does. The boy also left the school shortly afterwards, and I’ve hardly given the incident a second thought until this latest publicity. For all I know his attitude may have completely changed since his immediate response as an unhappy lover. He may have been psychologically scarred ever since. Were he now to have the opportunity to see that teacher prosecuted, he might grab it with both hands. I’d be surprised, but that’s hardly the point.

What is the point, I believe, is this. The latest, and by any standards spectacular, revelations have brought paedophilia back to the top of the nation’s consciousness. On my Facebook timeline yesterday was a drawing of a scaffold, with the caption calling for “paedophiles to be hung – prison’s too good for them”. I was shocked to think that someone that I am Facebook friends with (all people personally known to me, and to whom I have chosen to grant that status) should think that paedophilia justifies the return of capital punishment. Perhaps, even worse, was their assumption that all right-thinking people would agree with them.

Well, for the record, I don’t. And that’s largely because I realise that, whether we like it or not, paedophiles are neither uncommon nor non-human. And further, that not every act, in every set of circumstances, that might meet the legal definition of child abuse is equally heinous, or in the same moral ball-park.

And that sound, by the way, is of this blogger plunging headlong into the seething waters of the Niagara falls…