No right to choose is unfettered, not even a woman’s

Nadine Dorries, poster-girl for the Christian Right, and hate-figure for just about everyone else, has been attracting even more flack than usual in the last day or so, always supposing that such a thing is possible, for her success in persuading the Department of Health to to back the campaign to ensure that women seeking abortions are offered advice that is “independent” of agencies that also conduct terminations. The claim is that there’s a financial conflict of interest if an organisation which charges for abortion services (charges not to the woman in question, usually, but to the health service that purchases the care) is also giving advice to women wondering what to do about an unwanted pregnancy. For a government generally committed to “one-stop shops” and critical of disjointed service provision in which several agencies are taking on different parts of a single service, this conversion to a sort of “fire-wall” between advice and subsequent care is a little odd.

But it’s not odd, because it’s a smoke-screen. The debate is not really one about formal independence, but one about the rights and wrongs of abortion per se. And insofar as independence comes into the debate at all, the independence in question is not financial, but ideological. Anti-abortionists want advice to be independent of those who believe that abortion is a right, a matter only for individual women and the choices they wish to make. Pro-abortionists want advice to be independent of those who believe that abortion is morally wrong. Both sides are dissembling, engaged in a skirmish about a technicality because we’re not able to have an open debate. It’s simply not possible to think about the rights and wrongs of abortion, its tensions, its moral and social dilemmas, without being accused either of moral decadence, or (if you’re a man, at least) misogynistic and reactionary authoritarianism.

That’s not all. The debate about abortion has become embroiled in other debates, most notably about homosexuality, that the Christian Right are also obsessed about. The antics of Nadine Dorries and her crew are for Christians what the Stalinists were for communists. Anyone who, like me, is open about their Christianity has to spend most of their time distancing themselves from a variety of crack-pot notions that are not only unpleasant, but very unchristian to boot. So, for the avoidance of doubt, I do not believe that homosexuality is a sin, nor that abortion is always wrong. Which doesn’t mean that it’s always right.

And there’s the rub. Absolutism is pretty much always wrong, dangerous and unhelpful. I don’t distinguish between the absolutism of the Roman Catholic Church, and the absolutism of those who claim that in abortion it is only and always about a woman’s individual right to make whatever decision she sees fit. Absolute truths are generally absolutely mistaken. The idea that a fertilised human egg is already a person is fanciful, and to pursue that fancy in the face of a woman who does not want to continue the pregnancy no matter what the circumstances (abusive relationship, rape, foolishness even) is entirely unreasonable. On the other hand, to suggest that an individual woman has no responsibility to wider society, is entirely free to do whatever she likes, is to flirt with an individualism that is reminiscent of Thatcher’s infamous denial that society exists at all.

We are all members one of another. We have responsibilities to one another that transcend our individual desires. To be sure, the desire of a woman not to have a baby requires a very high standard of proof indeed if it’s to be over-ridden, but that doesn’t make it impossible in principle. Ultimately it is not a woman’s right to choose. It is society as a whole’s balance between competing rights that must prevail, in this as in anything else that affects others beyond the individual. By making it impossible even to question, for example, the maximum legal limit on abortion without accusing the questioner of being some kind of oppressive ogre bent on crushing women and returning them to back-street abortions, we disable debate on things that matter to us all.

I have no right whatsoever to impose my religious commitments on you. None. But I am a member of this society, and I’m entitled to raise questions without being abused, or accused of supporting things I do not support. So, for the record. I support abortion in principle. I worry about the balance between foetal viability and the legal maximum for abortion. I do not believe that the balance is a matter only for the woman in question. There. I’ve said it. A woman’s right to choose is not an absolute right. String me up if you want to. And Nadine Dorries is still an idiot.

Either Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Nafissatou Diallo behaved disgracefully. Now we’ll never know which.

It’s been reported that the prosecutors in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case have applied for the charges to be dropped. This outcome had been widely anticipated, and it follows a frankly unseemly apology for criminal process. We’ll never now learn the truth of DSK’s guilt or innocence, nor whether or not a poor woman’s life has been appallingly abused by a rich and powerful man. In every sense this is the worst possible outcome.

But if we can’t learn the truth, perhaps we can learn something else. From the moment the French politician was dramatically bundled off a plane at the last minute before it took off, and a tearful and traumatised woman was paraded before the world’s media, the entire process has been more circus and soap opera than it has been dispassionate search for the facts. The public playing-out of the drama was never anything to do with justice. Rather, the half-digested and repeatedly-leaked factoids of the case have been assembled into a number of contrasting and pre-determined narratives.

First, we have what might be termed the “feminist” narrative. In this version, a woman is always a victim, and a man is always an aggressor. The drama is not about sexual misconduct, but about power. Rich white man versus poor black woman. Oppressor versus oppressed. Powerful versus powerless. This story was just too good to miss for those for whom this narrative already had resonance. The facts came a poor second to a morality tale crying out to be told.

Second, we have the “Gallic” narrative, or perhaps more broadly, the “New World-Old World” narrative. Thus the French press saw the narrative as a ritualised humiliation of the francophone world at the hands of the anglophone one. The outrage was again nothing to do with the sexual behaviour of a politician, but rather about the crass, tasteless upstart having the temerity to insult the sophisticated, suave hauteur of its cultural betters.

And third, we have the “titillation” narrative, where the sexual athleticism of DSK, his wife’s long-suffering support for him, the queue of others lining up to bring further accusations to light, the sheer pornographic frisson of oral sex, inter-racial liaison, and older man and younger woman sexual activity, together provided a rich tabloid diet in which facts were unimportant and peripheral, and sensationalism crucial and central.

Perhaps we can learn that justice is not served by attempts to wrap the facts around pre-existing prejudices of whatever kind. Perhaps we can learn that justice is not served when public spectacle usurps quiet investigation. Most important, we must learn that when we put our desire to be entertained above the real lives of those we want to entertain us, then truth and justice are the first and last casualties. I have no idea whether DSK is a bad man, nor whether Nafissatou Diallo is a wicked and manipulative woman. Nor, I suspect, do you, no matter which of those positions was the one you held. But I’ll bet you held one or the other. And that’s the tragedy.

Apparently my job is killing me. And not in a good way.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this infographic, but it’s rather striking. Enough to make you feel the need for a sit-down in fact. Hang on…

But at least I’m slouching at the required angle, so I suppose there’s hope for me. And bollocks to all those teachers who told me I was ruining my back by not sitting bolt upright. Just one of the many lies I suffered at their hands. Whilst I’m on, I might also mention that despite a lifelong tendency to sit on radiators when it’s cold, I still have haven’t developed haemorrhoids. Glad to have cleared that one up.

Sitting is Killing You
Via: Medical Billing And Coding

Facebook “inciters” didn’t so much get a sentence as a whole bloody paragraph

So two independent Facebook users (i.e. there was no conspiracy between them) have been handed down 4-year gaol terms for inciting others to riot. They weren’t very successful: they proposed a meeting place and a time, but no-one turned up. Four years is within spitting distance of the minimum term for rape. Both defendants also pleaded guilty, so presumably these prison terms had already been discounted, and would otherwise have been even higher. If they weren’t discounted, one might reasonably enquire why not, since this is the usual procedure.

Let’s repeat that salient fact: they pleaded guilty. They have recognised that they committed an offence, and I am not suggesting otherwise. My complaint is not with the prosecuting authorities for bringing the cases to court. My complaint is about the severity of the sentences. I’m happy to bet that they’ll be reduced on appeal, but that’s hardly the point. Indeed, that would make this initial decision even worse, since even more public money will be needlessly wasted.

There are many reasons for arguing that these cases should have attracted sanctions at the lower end of the sentencing scale, not the higher. Generally, defendants are punished more for what did happen rather than what might have happened. There was, as already noted, no conspiracy between these two defendants, nor between either of them and anyone else. Their Facebook messages were not the result of a plan, but of the foolish desire to be involved in events that were happening in any case. The messages were not even meant entirely seriously: one defendant at least said it began as a joke.

So are there any countervailing reasons why a stiffer than average sentence was indeed appropriate? The aggravating factor seems to be the riots themselves. The defendants diverted police resources at a time when they were already over-stretched, and that’s by no means a trivial aspect of the case. I think that is pretty much the limit of justifiable aggravations.

All the other matters that are being wheeled out as justifying these draconian sentences appear to me to be weak at best, and entirely illegitimate at worst. The public is baying for blood as it were, but it is no business of the judiciary to satisfy such desires. The fact that a social network was used to convey the messages is not in itself any reason for taking a harsher view of this case than a similar one using more traditional means. The infamous “Twitter joke” trial earlier in the year demonstrated just how paranoid the authorities seem to be about social networking. Just because Facebook has many millions of users does not mean that many millions of users will see a given message, or take any notice of it if they so. God knows that I’d be delighted if my tweeting got me even a tiny proportion of Twitter’s many millions to read this blog, but let me assure you, it doesn’t. And most disgraceful of all are the widely reported efforts of politicians to pressurise the judiciary into giving exemplary sentences in the aftermath of the riots, and to throw sentencing guidelines out of the window in the process. We have a separation of powers in this country for good reasons. The judges must brave public opinion and tell the politicians in no uncertain terms to mind their own business. This particular judge seems not to have done so, more’s the pity.

A short, angry post on using the word “feral” in the context of rioting

Feral. From the Latin fera, meaning a wild beast. The media have been having a field day recently, bringing this normally rather recherché word into unusual prominence. We hear about “feral youth”, rioters described as “feral rats”, the “rioting feral underclass”. I could go on and on. Apart from wondering whether or not it might be possible for commentators to think of their own ways of expressing their thoughts, rather than simply copying each other with lazy ease, I think this language reveals something deeper than its casual users realise.

The word feral is one that applies literally only to animals (and plants, but most probably don’t realise that) and to apply it to human beings is to suggest that those people are merely animals, too. By using it we draw a sharp and sneering distinction between us as civilised and them as animals.

We will not move far towards dealing with the very real problems the recent unrest reveals if we think about those who’ve rioted as being sub-human, and on the same level as troublesome cats in Rome, or pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Words frame our thinking, and using this kind of word betrays us.

As mum’s Alzheimers progresses, an unpalatable decision looms nearer

Alzheimer’s disease brings many conundrums in its wake. Some personal, some practical, all imponderable in one way or another. When I visited yesterday, I was confronted in different ways by two of them. My somewhat despairing tweet read, “Why, when I know my mum can’t help it, is my default response to her dementia one of irritation?”, and many of my good Twitter friends sent encouraging and guilt-dispersing responses for which I was most grateful. On reflection though, worrying about that puts far too much emphasis on me and my feelings, which are ultimately irrelevant. This is not about me. It’s about my mum, what’s best for her, and when what’s best might be in terrible conflict with what she wants. It’s the practical things that need to take precedence, and need to absorb my energy and intellect, not my personal failings or inability to deal with things or put them in perspective.

So what was the practical conundrum that came into sharp focus yesterday? It’s digital switch-over in mum’s neck of the woods, and analogue broadcasting is about to cease, and for some channels, has already ceased. My brother went to the local TV retailer to ask what he needed to do. As he lives sans télé he’s not in a strong position when it comes to knowing anything about the issue. He was told – with considerable restraint given that he was asking someone who makes his living by selling televisions – that it wasn’t necessary to buy a new set owing to mum’s great age: a government scheme would provide her with a new aerial and digital decoder for nothing. So he called the organisers of the scheme, and they confirmed it was indeed so. He told them on no account to contact mum directly as she’d be totally confused, but rather to arrange their visit through him. They agreed to do so. It was with some surprise then that he went round to mum’s to find the old aerial propped up by the front door. He asked her if anyone had been round. No, no-one had called. Inside he discovered a hole in an internal wall, a new digi-box, and a set of instructions. This must all have happened within the previous hour, and yet mum had no recollection that someone had been into her house, clambered over the roof, drilled a hole, and given her a quick lesson in the wonders of digital technology. My brother knew that this had happened though, because the forgotten visitors had left a “quality control sheet” on which they’d ticked a number of boxes reassuring the world that they had done all this, provided the lesson, and that my mum had been entirely satisfied with the service thus provided.

Except that she wasn’t. My mum insists that television is of no interest to her, and that she never watches it anyway. And if she does, she only ever watches BBC1. Only the last bit is true. The installers had left the television still only receiving the remaining analogue channels, among which BBC1 is not present. In place of BBC1, my mum was entertained by Brownian motion and unpleasant hissing. For all that this might frequently be an improvement, my mum was not impressed. My brother’s profound ignorance of all things televisual rendered him unable to assist. He told mum that he’d seek advice. In the meantime, she’d not be able to receive BBC1, but that wouldn’t matter, would it, as she never watches the telly?

Well, apparently mum’s need to watch the telly is greater than she’s prepared to concede. Within hours, my brother was inundated with calls from concerned neighbours and friends. My mum was standing at the garden gate, stopping complete strangers, and telling them that her TV wasn’t working. She invited these unknown passers-by into her home, to see if they could fix the offending equipment. Some of them even left helpful notes about what they’d done, and what they’d not been able to do. Fortunately, after some messing about, I was able to sort it all out. My mum now has 100 channels and more, of which she’s not interested in 99. But at least, when she turns on the telly, her beloved BBC1 appears. I’ve hidden the remote control. She’s no idea how to use it, what it’s for, or why it exists. Random pressing of the buttons of this alien life-form is unlikely to be helpful.

And so this small crisis is over. But it will doubtless be replaced with another, and another. It’s hardly a good idea for a confused 91 yr-old to be inviting strangers into her house. It takes only something such as this to disturb mum’s routine, and lead her into risky and potentially very dangerous territory. At the moment, she lives alone with visits from carers (who deal with her mountain of probably pointless medicines), and my brother’s regular watchful attendance. She’s happy there, if happiness can be said to consist of constant wandering from room to room, of endless adjusting of cushions, of repeated visits to the loo just in case. But the rooms she visits are her rooms, the cushions are her cushions, and the lavatory seat her lavatory seat. I’ve visited too many homes for the elderly, seen too many old people staring vacantly out of unknown windows, listened to too many desperate expressions of fear and confusion, observed too many strangers tending too many weary, empty husks of humanity, to want to inflict such modern torture on my mum.

But for how long? When do the risks of everyday life for a demented old lady become too great to be permitted to continue? Where does our duty lie in trying to balance today’s happiness against tomorrow’s risk? What would we have felt, what would the inevitable inquiry have concluded, had one of my mum’s unexpected and unknown amateur television engineers bludgeoned her to death, and stolen every last remnant of her possessions? I don’t know. I really do not know.

David Starkey’s wrong, but the “racism” tag doesn’t illuminate why

David Starkey is many things, and I suspect that one of them is attention-seeker. If so, he’s been remarkably successful via his interview on Newsnight yesterday. Ever since, there’s been the usual queue of well-meaning people lining up to castigate him as racist. The problem with this is that it’s a debate finisher, particularly for those on the left. It’s pretty much akin to “paedophile” (and if by that you think I’m saying that black people and paedophiles are equivalent, I suggest you go and cool off in a darkened room) in the sense that once someone is accused of an attribute like that we no longer need to listen to what they are saying. The word alone is enough to signal to us that they are beneath contempt.

But Starkey’s error is less heinous and a lot more straightforward than the epithet of racist suggests. He can now involve himself, as indeed he did in the interview last night, in pseudo-profundity and sham complexity. Starkey as serious historian daring to face the reality of race that others are too scared to do. Codswallop.

His mistake isn’t so much that he’s made a gross generalisation that fails utterly to see that there is no such homogeneous, monolithic thing as “black culture”, although it is that, too. It isn’t even that he’s displayed some sort of blanket hostility towards black people, because he didn’t. It wasn’t that he was talking from complete ignorance (the accusation most repeatedly chucked at him in the interview) although his knowledge is based more, I suspect, on hearsay than on direct experience. And it certainly wasn’t that he had the temerity to suggest that race had some part to play in the week’s events because I certainly believe that it has. No, his mistake is much simpler and more basic. It is the inversion of the direction of causality.

Insofar as David Starkey had a case at all, it was that a certain glorification of material acquisitiveness, and of the acceptable role of criminality as a route to achieving those acquisitions, is expressed in some rap music. (Unfortunately he didn’t say anything as nuanced as even my précis of his argument: he went straight for “black culture” as a shorthand, and one that was bound to be as offensive as it is misguided.) He then went on to suggest, ludicrously in my view, that white young people had signed up to this materialist manifesto along with their black comrades, and as a result had decided to “shop with violence”. The plain suggestion was that if there hadn’t been rap music, gangsta culture, a sort of sublimation of Britishness by an alien blackness, then our young people, black and white, would never have even thought of going on their consumerist rampage. Arse before tit is about the most generous comment one can make.

If there is a materialistic strain in some rap music (and there is) it’s the result of something, not the cause of something. It’s the result of a deeply materialistic mainstream culture holding the almost sacred nature of acquisition in the faces of those that it simultaneously conspires to exclude from the means of satisfying that acquisitiveness. The solutions lie in both unseating the gods of capitalist consumerism, and in opening up legitimate means to sharing in social objectives for all groups in society. I’m prepared to bet that increasing opportunities for gainful employment for black and white youth alike would be a lot more effective than trying to stop “white” young people becoming “black” young people via the dubious means of listening to rap. In fact, almost any real solution would be more effective than a solution born out of David Starkey’s bizarre and unfounded fantasies.