On dehumanising victims

So three prostitutes have been murdered. They weren’t people, then? They had no lives outside their sexual trade, no families, no loved ones, no hopes, fears or plans? This is not to suggest that their work is irrelevant, or should never have been mentioned, or should not figure in the analysis of the “back-story” of this appalling series of events. But it is intolerable that these women’s lives should be so one-dimensionally dismissed. By focusing so relentlessly on their status as prostitutes, their worth as human beings is systematically dismantled.

There is a ghastly parallel here with the treatment of the alleged killer of these women. Leaving aside what has become sickeningly routine in the reporting of cases like this, when any semblance of a truly fair trial is torpedoed by the quasi-trial of prurient and salacious innuendo conducted in advance by the tabloids, the usual demonisation of offenders continues apace. And so a terrible symmetry begins to emerge. Less-than-human victims, whose very trade it is suggested in some way indicates that their terrifying demise was almost self-inflicted; and a monster perpetrator who is not so much human as embodiment of an evil that has a palpable presence outside of any actual person.

And where does that leave us, the more or less willing audience for this danse macabre? It leaves us distanced and off the hook. We are enabled to ditch moral responsibility in favour of horror-film detachment. Prostitution is nothing to do with us. Those who embark upon such a career sign away their right to our engagement, our sympathy, our understanding. Wickedness is likewise removed from us and bestowed upon a pantomime villain with whom we have no connection, who is not like us in any way, and whom we can safely use as a lightning conductor for our own darkest thoughts and feelings.

There are no winners here.* Certainly not the hapless victims. Certainly not the accused. Certainly not justice, either as an ideal or as embodied in the criminal justice system. And certainly not our collective health.

Perhaps, even worse, by this routinised, choreographed reduction of tragedy into a repulsive entertainment, we ensure that it will be endlessly repeated, as our attention is fatally distracted from the causes and what might be done to mitigate them.

* Actually, I’m wrong about this. There are some winners – the proprietors of trashy newspapers and sensationalist websites who see their circulations peak, and their advertising revenues jump. But their ephemeral benefits reaped from the misery of others will soon revert to the steady income from footballers’ infidelities, talent-show trivia, and soft-porn photography.

Asparagus and a lesson on perspective

It’s spring. And asparagus is in the shops – real asparagus grown in England and in season. Not that asparagus grown elsewhere isn’t real, of course, but simply that imported asparagus for Christmas dinner is a crime against reason and taste. Alas, asparagus has its own unique way of getting revenge on those who would summarily plunge it alive into boiling water, and then smear it with good butter and a little Maldon salt. (You weren’t going to bother with all that fancy hollandaise muck, were you?) It obliges you to piss in solitude, and with a clothes peg on your nose. Such is the obnoxious result of ingesting the spring spears that a London club is reputed to have had to install a sign reminding members that “in the asparagus season gentlemen are requested not to relieve themselves in the hat-stand.” Not all of us are subjected to this vegetable reprisal, apparently, and it is often said that this is because some people lack the enzymes required to break the asparagus down into this particular malodorous set of molecules.

Remarkably, this is no longer thought to be true. The “problem” is not the production of the molecules, but our differential ability to smell them. In an experiment that I would rather not have been part of, the asparagus-eating participants were asked to sniff each others’ urine. And it transpired that those who could smell the disgusting whiff from their own urine could also detect it in that of their fellow participants; whilst conversely those who thought that their own excretory juices were pure and undefiled were equally convinced that everyone else’s were as well. So it is now believed that everyone produces post-asparagus-munching foul piss, but only those with the necessary genome can detect the fact.

I think there is a more general lesson here. We frequently assume that we see the world as it objectively is. In reality, of course, we merely see the world as we see it, and that is often not the same thing at all. There’s a further lesson. When we view the world through the particular lens of our experience and knowledge, there is no way in which we can view it with another person’s experience and knowledge. This is not for lack of looking. The person who is genetically unable to smell the pissy results of their having consumed asparagus will never do so no matter how many times they eat it. And the more often such a person eats it, the more convinced they are likely to be that their piss remains fragrant, and that it’s those who report on the smelliness of their post-asparagus urine that have the problem.

I fear that a similar, albeit not olfactory, blindness is afflicting the coalition’s view of education. This obsession with parents being able to set up schools with government money but outside the state system is born of a perspective rooted in middle-class volition and middle-class means. The very parents whose children attend bad schools are likely to be those with neither of these attributes. These are the very parents castigated for their lack of parenting skills, and lack of interest in their children’s education. One might as well ask those genetically unable to smell asparagus-infested urine to be in charge of sniffing out illicit asparagus eaters (perhaps those that insist on air-freighted spears to decorate their Christmas dinner tables!) If this policy achieves anything, it will merely be the syphoning off of public education funding from those who most need it, and the effective subsidising of the educational aspirations of middle-class parents who in these recessionary, deficit-reducing times might struggle to pay the school fees demanded by the private sector. Freedom and responsibility for some, perhaps, but not fairness.

It’s almost as if God exists…

Marcus Chown is one of my favourite atheists. Not for him the haughty ridicule of people of faith as infantilists with the intellectual capacity of a disadvantaged slug. He shows some considerable restraint in that, since I’m pretty sure that’s a fair description of some of my faith-comrades, but I’m grateful nonetheless. His recent review of Bernard Haisch’s book The Purpose-Guided Universe concludes with, “When [Haisch] looks out at the universe he thinks, ‘Wow, what an amazing place God has created.’ When I look out at the universe, I think, ‘Wow, what an amazing place.’ I suppose you can take your pick.” Hard to imagine a more elegantly dispassionate statement of the choice that confronts us all.

Except, although I claim the mantle of “person of faith”, that’s not the choice that I think I’ve had to make. Or, perhaps to be more precise, I doubt that the choice I have made is the one that is implied by the question Marcus so elegantly posits. To begin with, I’ll bet that anyone confronted with the statement “what an amazing place God has created” would assert that the person making that statement would also agree with the statement “God exists”. How could it be otherwise? Well, because the statement “God exists” is to me an oxymoron. In the existentialist theology expounded by John Macquarrie, itself derived from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, existence is defined as the quality that all the things that exist have in common, and this quality is an aspect of God. If God is simply another thing that exists, albeit a grander and more wonderful thing, then He is merely primus inter pares. (I use the capitalised pronoun “He” as a convention to indicate that he as applied to God is in an entirely different category than the he that might be applied to something that exists. It has no implication of gender, or of personhood.) I am acutely aware of how quickly one can find oneself stuck obstinately up one’s own arsehole when one tries to make distinctions like this, but I never claimed faith was easy. God is not a being, merely one of the myriad things that exist; rather He is an almost theoretical answer to the old, but still fundamental, question, “Why something, why not nothing?” This, I think, is what is being hinted at in the Bible when it says that, “without Him was not any thing made that was made.” So perhaps I would posit a slightly different question from that posed by Marcus. For me there are two possible answers to the question, “Why something, why not nothing?” One is, “Fuck knows.” The other is, “God.” For many people those two answers are, to all intents and purposes, the same. For the person of faith, the answers are fundamentally different.

For a Christian, (well, the slightly idiosyncratic Christian that I suppose I am) the leap of faith is nothing whatsoever to do with a decision about whether or not one believes that God exists – for me a meaningless concept as I’ve tried to indicate above – but rather about whether or not there can be any access by something that exists into the “nature” of existence itself, or to put it poetically, into the “mind of God.” The Christian answer is, “Yes” and that access is provided through the person of Jesus Christ. If it were possible for God to exist, then He would be like Jesus. So, it’s almost as if God exists.

The key point is that we are at the absolute limit of language as a means of conveying meaning. All, and I mean all, statements about God are metaphorical, or poetic, or lateral, or imaginative, or “as if” statements. The problem arises when we mistake these religious statements for statements that are analogous to the ordinary statements about ducks, or rocks, or electrons. So when Marcus Chown says of Haisch that he has “a deep desire to square the science he pursues with his religious conviction” I wonder if that means what it seems to mean. Certainly for me, there’s no “squaring” to be done. Science is science. Religious faith is religious faith. If I have questions about how the universe is constructed, how it works, its history or its physical future, I’ll consult the former. If I have questions about how I should live in that universe, I’ll consult the latter. As a meerkat might say, “Simples!”

Legs, stitches, and Good Samaritans

Today I had what I hope is a benign lesion removed from my leg. As a result I have a couple of stitches, and have to refrain from my usual exercise regime. As surgical procedures go, undoubtedly about as mild as they come. That didn’t stop me entering the doctor’s surgery with some trepidation partly as I’m but a scintilla away from hypochondria anyway, and also because I’ve managed to reach my existing advanced years without ever having been brought into intimate contact with a scalpel and there is always some nervousness associated with doing anything for the first time. I was told that I shouldn’t drive, so I came in a taxi. And then hung about for 15 minutes in a cold Manchester wind afterwards whilst waiting for another taxi to take me back to work. Excessive caution as it turned out, as I’m pretty sure I could’ve run back if I’d needed to, but there we are. As the local anaesthetic has worn off so of course the discomfort has begun to set in, and despite my immediate after-event bravado, I shall be keeping to the “no-sports” ban.

As I thought about my current enforced cycling restraint, I remembered that I’d been in the same situation 22 years ago when I’d last had stitches in, as it happens, the very same leg. Those erstwhile stitches had been occasioned by a very different set of circumstances. In 1988 I decided to cycle from London to Cannes, and in preparation was embarking on a series of longish rides in Kent to get my fitness up, and to see if long-distance cycling was for me. On one of these jaunts I was descending at speed down a steep hill, hurtling with exhilarating abandon towards the A25 not far from Sevenoaks. Exhilaration was soon transformed into something a little more trouser-soiling when my front tyre blew out at what must have been not far short of 40mph, and I began unwillingly testing out my right shin and buttock as substitutes for skis. It was one of those strange experiences when everything seems to be happening simultaneously at ferocious speed and leisurely slow-motion. Eventually I came to a stop, and the huge advantage of it being a very quiet road, which had prevented me from inadvertently inspecting the radiator grille of an on-coming vehicle, turned now into a serious liability as I waited, blood dripping freely, for at least 20 minutes before any fellow traveller came along. When one finally did, he took me off to the nearest village of Brasted, and turfed me out by the local doctor’s. This was a Saturday afternoon, so that was of limited help.

And so it was that I began to hitch-hike towards Sevenoaks. I must have cut a pathetic figure, with torn cycling shorts revealing just a little too much right buttock for comfort – mine or that of any unfortunate observer – and blood still forming garish rivulets down my calf. I’d just reached the outskirts of the village, and was wondering how far Sevenoaks was, and whether they had an A&E department, when my Good Samaritan arrived. He stopped, and asked me what had happened. I told him, and asked him if he was going into Sevenoaks, and would he mind awfully taking me to the A&E there. There was a slight problem with that plan, he explained, as there was no A&E department at the local hospital. And anyway, where was my bike? I’d left it securely locked in a field, I assured him, so that was the least of my worries.

“How far have you come?”

“Er, well, from Wandsworth!”

Wandsworth was a good 25 miles away.

“Look, I know the best thing to do. We’ll go back to the scene of the accident, collect your bike, shove it in the back of the car, and then I can take you to your local A&E.”

“What?! But that’s miles from here! I can’t possibly expect you do do all that. No, please just take me to the nearest A&E, and I’ll sort something out from there.”

“I’ll do no such thing, and you’re hardly in a position to argue, are you? Get in, and shut up!”

He took me to collect the bike. He drove me to my flat to deposit it. He took me to the local hospital. He waited there for 3 hours whilst I was stitched up and cleaned up. And then he took me back to my flat. And with a cheery, “My wife may be wondering what’s happened to me!” (this was long before mobile phones were commonplace) he was gone. I never even found out his name other than his first, and he’d waved away my proffered petrol money with something not far from disdain.

I’ve never forgotten this man’s extraordinary kindness, and my spectacular luck in meeting him in my hour of need. And there was another lesson for me in this remarkable episode. Back in those days I was a fiery lefty – some say that I’ve not really changed – and this was the zenith of Thatcherism, still fresh from her Falklands adventure, and if there was one thing more likely than another to stimulate me into mouth-frothing diatribe it was anything to do with the military. One of the foolishnesses of youth is the tendency to categorise people into one-dimensional goodies or baddies. So for me soldiers were simply bad people who’d chosen a career that enabled them to kill their fellow human beings. So they must be heartless, callous psychopaths. I did find out one thing about my Good Samaritan. He was a serving marine and a Falklands veteran. And if I’m honest, that affront to my naive and simplistic attitude has done me more good than having my leg stitched. It’s certainly lasted longer.

A numbers game

10,874,863. That’s the number of votes won by the Conservatives plus their natural allies, the Democratic Unionists. 15,432,296. That’s the combined votes of Labour and the LibDems. (I’ve restricted myself to including the votes of parties that managed to get at least one MP elected.) For the arithmetically challenged, that’s a majority of 4,557,433 votes for a LibDem/Labour alliance. It seems odd to me that Nick Clegg, the great proponent of proportional representation, should thus even as we speak be trying to stitch up a deal with the Tories so that those 4,557,433 votes should be wasted. That is the logic of the enthusiasts of PR, isn’t it? The votes of the unsuccessful backers of the wrong candidates are wasted votes, aren’t they?

Well, apparently not, since Mr Clegg has declared that the only number that matters is the number of seats won, and that because on that basis the Tories are the largest single party, they have some moral right to have the first shot at government. Er, but I thought that the number of seats won was the evil and twisted consequence of our out-dated and demonstrably unfair, not to mention, Victorian, voting system. And that using the number of seats to construct a government leads to all those wasted votes. It seems to me that there’s a deal of confusion here, and a total lack of consistency. On the one hand the LibDems ostensibly have a position that wants every vote to “count”, but which they are too timid to act on. On the other, the Tories’ position is that numbers of votes are irrelevant, and that only the numbers of seats won is important. But they are making dark noises about the “travesty” that would result if the LibDems and Labour were to be able to construct a coalition with other parties to keep the Tories out of power. This is just as inconsistent, since the first-past-the-post system that they so value for its ability (sometimes) to produce clear and stable government makes any parliamentary majority valid if it can be constructed.

Neither the Tories nor the LibDems are sticking to their ideological guns on this. Our system does not give the right of government to the single largest party, but to the party or parties that can command the confidence of the House of Commons. If the Tories really believed this, they would not protest about the possibility that they might be kept out of power. By contrast, if the LibDems really believed that it’s not seats, but numbers of votes, that should count, then they would be trying to help Labour construct a wider coalition that delivers to the 15,432,296 voters what they actually voted for.

But of course, ideology and principle has nothing to do with it. Both the Tories and the LibDems are interested in power, and in trying to calculate a course of action that will most protect their party interest. That’s not wrong in itself, but I’m fed up with both sides wittering on about their commitments to given electoral systems that both of them are actually denying by their actions. This negotiation is about power now, and party advantage in future. Don’t believe the nonsense about “delivering the government the British public voted for last Thursday”. That’s just a moral fig-leaf to cover the parties’ naked ambitions.

What’s so wrong with first-past-the-post?

Another election, another disappointing showing by the LibDems, another round of calls for fiddling with the system. I can understand the reasoning that lots of votes should translate into lots of seats. It sounds so plausible, so self-evident. But is it?

I’m not so sure. Suppose, albeit an unlikely prospect, that in 100 out of our 650 constituencies the local candidates for a given party achieve some local feat of such overwhelming popularity that they garner every single vote in a general election. And suppose further that in the remaining 550 constituencies, many recounts later, that the winning candidates from a variety of parties all achieve their success by a mere handful of votes. In such a set of circumstances, would the absolute numbers of votes won by by the party with those startlingly successful candidates really entitle them to run roughshod over the more evenly distributed votes in the much larger number of marginal constituencies? Personally, I can’t see why that would be either just or logical. The “problem” with first past the post is simply the problem of distribution of support. And the only problem that confronts the LibDems is that they are not capable in a sufficient number of constituencies of persuading enough electors to support them. But isn’t that an inevitable, and entirely proper, problem confronting any national party? Isn’t it in fact the whole point of the democratic exercise?

What is stopping the LibDems from achieving majorities in a greater number of constituencies? Simply, and brutally, it’s the fact that they’re not popular enough, not persuasive enough. In what way do other parties have an unfair advantage? They have to engage in exactly the same process. They have to persuade a majority of voters in a given place to vote for their candidate. At the moment they happen to be a lot better at it than the LibDems. What’s unfair about that? It’s no argument to say that voting is “tribal”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. If it means anything, it simply means that voters who have interests in common often live in a shared geographical space. And often it’s that very fact that gives them the common interests in the first place. To object to that is really to examine the electorate and to find them wanting. The party was good, but the electorate were rubbish. Very persuasive.

The success of the Greens shows what can be achieved if you simply throw all your resources into one place. Maybe the LibDems should concentrate scarce resources and stop pretending that they can get their message across to the entire country, which it is very evident that they can’t. I have nothing against the LibDems, and have a lot of time for many of their policies, but I don’t buy their hard-done-by sales pitch. The objective in a parliamentary democracy is to persuade a succession of majorities to support you. That applies to every party, neither more nor less. That does not make the votes of those who voted for the unsuccessful candidates “wasted”. It makes them unsuccessful. Sorry, but you backed the loser. As a voter you can try backing the winner next time. As a party you can try to persuade more voters to support you so that next time your candidate is the winner. That’s democracy, folks. To say that the unsuccessful votes are wasted votes, and that the voters in question were robbed, is to say that the losing players in a football match might as well not have bothered to turn up, as their playing was wasted. The losing team might feel that “they was robbed”, but actually they just lost. I’d get over it, if I were you.

Oh fuck it…all right, I’ll tell you.

I’ve so much wanted not to do this. Not to join the multitude of bloggers with their political hearts out there on their sleeves. Not to get dragged into the pointless invective and mudslinging that masquerades as our political discourse. Not to alienate some good people whose insights I value even if I cannot agree with them. Not to acquiesce in the mindlessly reductive sloganeering that would have me choose whether the vapidity of “A Future Fair for All” trumps the inanity of “The Big Society”.

Well, I’ve held out this long, but I can’t hack it any longer. I don’t know what’s really driving my need to confess all, to let my political innards hang out, but its force can be no longer denied. Perhaps it’s the distillation of all my thinking and meditating into that one simple act of putting a cross here rather than there. That feels so totally inadequate a way of expressing myself that perhaps I need to do more, to articulate less symbolically. But one thing’s for sure. Wherever I place my cross, it will be as much a denial of what I believe and hope for as it will be an affirmation of it.

In some ways I’ve been let off this time. If I were to say which of the parties I most believe in, the party that gets closest to responding to my deepest desires for my country, it would be the Greens. But there is no Green candidate in my constituency, and I’m sorry, but the Respect Party’s leaflet that tells me the next best thing for me is to vote for them leaves me utterly unmoved. If I were to vote for a party without the remotest chance in hell of having any influence over our lives in the next five years, it would have to be one I believed in. Sorry, George, but you and your rabble of discontents really don’t fit that bill.

So what, then? You can blame Johann Hari if you like. His glimpse into a Cameron future really does chill the blood. But that would be to credit (or libel – take your pick) him too much. Johann’s piece has merely reminded me of what I really needed no reminding of. That Tories in power bear little relation to Tories seeking office. That their instincts are fundamentally wrong, and that even one-nation Tories (oh, yes, I’m old enough to remember that distinction!) want to help the most disadvantaged only insofar as is necessary to prevent them overly disturbing the excessively advantaged. The LibDems? Nick Clegg’s now wearisome scolding of the squabbling of the “old parties” does little more than make me wonder at how little he seems to know about his own party’s history. “Look at those two at it again” isn’t going to survive even day one of the negotiations spawned by a hung parliament.

No. For all the smashed dreams of Tony Blair’s disastrous leadership, for all the economic legerdemain of Chancellor Brown’s budget conjuring tricks and their significant contribution to the fiscal disaster that now confronts us, and albeit with a heavy heart, it’s Labour again for me.

Because as Johann’s article so eloquently demonstrates, it’s always at the margins that political ideologies bite. It’s the pregnant homeless mother who foots the bill for a paltry £100 Council Tax reduction, and it will be the poorest who pay fastest for Cameron’s unseemly haste to reduce the deficit. ‘Twas ever thus. Labour, if returned, will tighten the screws as well, and their shameless rhetoric on prisons, on immigration, on benefit scroungers, will also result in more suffering for those who suffer too much already. But I believe that they will damage them less.

That’s what it amounts to. Damage limitation. So I’ll be voting Labour tomorrow, but I’m not remotely proud of myself, or of them.