On the horns of a disabled dilemma

The BBC Radio 4 Feedback programme today featured an attempt by a disabled broadcaster to talk about how disabled people and the issues they face are handled on the BBC’s various radio channels. The particular prompt for this was the 50th birthday of Radio 4’s flagship programme concerned with disability, In Touch. The presenter at one stage said something that seemed to me to sum up the dilemma that faces not only broadcasters, but society at large when it tries to deal with the issues of disability. Commenting on the paralympics, she wondered what coverage is given to disability sports when the country isn’t preparing to host the Olympics. And responding to one channel’s statement that they were about to feature the “heroic” struggles of some young disabled people via awards at some sort of young person of the year event, she reflected that “disabled people are not all heroically overcoming insuperable odds, but merely trying to get on with their lives.” Exactly so.

This dilemma is not restricted to disabled people alone, of course, but it is perhaps particularly acute in that context. Should there be special programming by and for disabled people that concentrates on disability almost as a subject in itself, either because the issues that disabled people face, or because disabled people are the actors (not, to be clear, actors in the sense of drama, but actors in the sense of being active) in something not specifically about disability, are the programme’s focus and raison d’être? Or should there be programmes in which disabled people happen to take part, merely because some people happen to be disabled?

I am not disabled, either in my own eyes or in terms of any official definition. I do not listen to In Touch. When I catch it, or similar programmes, by accident I generally (not without a vague sense of guilt) tune to something else or switch off. It is, I think, indisputable that special programmes for disabled people contribute to the “ghetto-isation” of the subject matter and the people. Insofar as those programmes can be seen as catering for a community of interest this may not matter. After all, I don’t listen to Gardeners’ Question Time either and feel no sense of guilt about that. But insofar as I should be concerned about my fellow citizens who are frequently subjected to all sorts of social dis-benefits quite irrelevant to those problems that flow unavoidably from their disabilities, this compartmentalisation is a bad thing. It creates a sort of moral choice about whether or not to be interested in disability when in fact I should be confronted with those matters routinely in the BBC’s output whether I like it or not.

I’m particularly talking here about current affairs, news, documentaries, and other such programming rather than entertainment or drama. Shoe-horning worthy disabled plot lines awkwardly into programmes like The Archers is usually excruciating for all concerned. It’s in no-one’s interests to provide an open goal to the “political correctness gone mad” lobby by quotas, or monitoring content with some kind of target in mind. But it is vitally important that disabled people who are “merely trying to get on with their lives” appear just like anyone else in “normal” situations, or delivering “normal” news or social insight. Sometimes this does happen, but it’s rare, and usually because something exceptional has occurred. I’m thinking of, for example, Frank Gardner appearing in his wheelchair as he recovered from his injuries in the course of duty. I wonder if he’d have been the BBC’s security correspondent if he’d had some kind of congenital or pre-existing disability. Disabled reporters generally seem as rare as hen’s teeth. Unless it’s a programme about disability, of course.

I’m not arguing against some specialist programming on this topic. But I am bewailing the corralling into some kind of quarantined space a rag-bag of disability issues labelled variously as heroic, or victimised, or simply bizarre. Of course this does a great disservice to disabled citizens. Of perhaps even greater importance though, is the way it allows the rest of us to avoid both the specific difficulties disabled people face, and the sheer normality of the fact that some people are disabled. Not that you’d know this from a cursory glance at the schedules.


America’s fixation with judicial killing is inextricably linked with its racist past and present

Yesterday the so-called leader of the free world once more demonstrated just how unfit it is to hold such an office. It killed two of its citizens, the one to howls of international protest, the other to barely a murmur. Troy Davis, a black man convicted of the murder of an off-duty white policeman, was eventually executed after a bizarre and appalling danse macabre in the face of sustained and vocal pressure from institutions and individuals across the world. Lawrence Brewer, a white man convicted of the racially aggravated murder of a black man, went to his death some hours before. There is much in the disparity of the reactions to these two killings to instruct, and in my view, to shame us.

A great deal of emphasis was laid on the unsafe nature of the conviction in Troy Davis’s case. I am not aware of any such misgivings in the Lawrence Brewer case – unsurprisingly since the former protested his innocence to the bitter end, whilst the latter appeared to revel in his admission not only of his heinous act, but of his willingness to repeat it. But the point at issue here is the death penalty itself, not whether it is worse to kill an innocent or a guilty felon. Whilst everyone was building up a head of righteous steam about Davis, and expressing their doubts as to the facts, serious judges in America were sifting that evidence, and they repeatedly found it persuasive. I have no idea if Troy Davis was guilty or not, and nor do you unless my blog has penetrated the inner sanctum of the American justice system, and you’re a Supreme Court judge. To focus on guilt or innocence is, by implication, to support the death penalty for guilty offenders. I, for one, do not.

But Americans overwhelmingly support judicial killing, and not only the mass of the people (as indeed I fear may also be the case in Britain), but the entire political class across the party divide. Republicans and Democrats may be willing to knock seven bells out of each other over the deficit, or the tax regime, but they enjoy a cosy consensus on killing their fellow citizens. When I described the bald facts of yesterday’s cases at the beginning of this post, I specified the racial origin of both offenders and their victims. Why? Because these are not irrelevant details of a coincidental nature, but rather they lie at the very heart of both the killings themselves, and of the world’s differential reaction to them.

Take the latter point first. By and large (I know this is a generalisation, but it’s not without evidential basis) those who oppose the death penalty are liberals (in the American sense) and it’s liberals too who get most worked up about race. It’s easy to ally one’s liberal conscience with the interests of a black man accused (and perhaps wrongly) of killing a white policeman, but it’s rather more awkward to make common cause with a white supremacist who lynched a black man. But race is central to the former point too. A black man convicted of murdering a white man plays into the consciousness of the many white Americans who believe that black people are inveterate criminals by virtue of their blackness per se. It is still the case in America’s southern states that the law enforcement authorities themselves, and jurors too, include many who believe this quintessentially racist ideology. In the same way, Lawrence Brewer’s crime is steeped in the racist history of lynch mobs, segregation, and slavery. Within my lifetime, the USA operated a system of apartheid. This is not ancient history. It is present reality.

But before those British or other European readers of this console themselves with the smug assumption that this is somehow an indicator of a peculiarly American barbarism, they would do well to consider two important points. First, the American racist killing fields were on their home turf, and not, in historical terms, very long ago. In the British case, we took care to ensure our racist killing fields were in faraway places like Asia and Africa. We did not shit on our own doorstep, as it were. But do not run off with the idea that the shitting we did do was lost in the mists of time. Our Kenyan concentration camps also existed within my lifetime.

And second, the American colonies did not invent their southern slavery. They inherited it. And from where. Er, well, that would be from us, I think you’ll find.

The hacking of Milly Dowler: £3M worth of bad?

First things first. Milly Dowler’s murder was unspeakable in its wickedness. The interception of her mobile phone messages, and the cruel way in which their deletion gave unwarranted hope to Milly’s family, was almost equally wicked.

This was the moment when the phone-hacking scandal moved from an intrusion into politicians’ and celebrities’ privacy that few people thought was right, but few really thought was wicked, into a public moral outrage. When phone hacking moved from an almost intrinsic hazard only applicable to the famous few into a sickening exploitation of grief for commercial advantage that could happen to anyone. The demise of the News of the World was a dramatic, but probably fitting and proportionate, consequence for a newspaper which had finally lost all semblance of moral compass.

It is now reported that News International will be making a payment of £2M to Milly Dowler’s family, along with a “personal donation by Rupert Murdoch” of another £1M to charity. The BBC reported this morning that the deal was close to being confirmed, but was still subject to “negotiations” by the Dowler family hoping for more. The sums involved would never have been awarded by a court. They dwarf the payments made to “routine” victims of crime. They do not pay, perhaps as is the case in the frequently large payouts in medical negligence cases, for a life-time of care, or a whole career of missed salary.

I have no idea what the Dowler family intend to do with this windfall, and they may spend it wisely, and do much public good with it. But that’s hardly the point. Presumably it will be open to them to fritter it away on fast cars and extravagant holidays, just as so often do the winners in massive lotteries. But in what kind of grotesque calculus does £2M emerge as the appropriate “compensation” for having been deceived into thinking your daughter might be alive when she was sadly already dead? An appalling thing to endure, but is it really £2M worth of awful? Compare it with, say, the maximum bereavement grant of £25,000 paid to families of fallen servicemen. Of course that grant is not the only money which such families receive, but it’s paltry in comparison with this payout.

In all these compensation cases there’s an element of the unsavoury attempt to tot up the monetary value of some ghastly occurrence. But where those calculations refer to some concrete, real compensation such as care costs, salary replacement, or whatever, in which the event in question leads to expenses that would otherwise not have occurred, or to dependants deprived of income that they would otherwise have received, at least some semblance of dignity remains. But trying to come to some sort of monetary equivalence for a loved one lost or, as in this case, a trauma exacerbated unnecessarily is surely fraught with more difficulty that that of simply accounting for costs.

In the same news bulletin that reported on these “negotiations”, yet more terrifying information about the plight of Somalian drought and civil war refugee victims emerged. Is it too churlish of me to wonder if that £3M could not have been better spent? To wonder, also, if the “thousand shocks that flesh is heir to” are worth more if the flesh in question is Western and rich?

A blog post for “Organic September”*

I’m not a Luddite, and I don’t think eating GM foods will damage my health: but I still don’t want GM agriculture, and here’s why

I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with being accused of ignorance, or sugar-coated sentimentality, or some kind of generic resistance to progress whenever I read why it is that, in the view of its proponents, my objections to genetically modified food are without foundation and entirely lacking in merit.

It’s a common enough practice in the dark arts of political dispute to knock down arguments that one’s opponents have never deployed, whilst refusing steadfastly to engage with the arguments that they are in fact deploying. It’s no coincidence that this tactic is so prominent in the GM debate, since despite the apparently scientific, fact-based nature of the dispute, it is actually an intensely political argument that has little to do with science at all.

Let me begin by dealing with the plethora of straw men put up to obscure the real issues in the debate.

  • First is the hoary old business which so helpfully explains that we’ve been genetically modifying food since the beginning of agriculture, and that without genetic change we’d still be eating grass rather than rice, or wheat, or oats. Yes. Absolutely correct. 100%. And your point is? No-one that I know has ever denied this utterly self-evident fact.
  • Second is the idea that GM is just a way of speeding up the selective breeding that has produced the modified food organisms that we already know and love, and that my objections are merely the equivalent of being frightened of speed, a bit like those in the 19th century who insisted that travelling at 35mph would be more than the human frame could stand. Well, no it isn’t; and no, they’re not.
  • Third is the accusation that I’m scared, not only of speed, but of all technology and that I live, and want everyone else to live, in some kind of idealised 18th century. A Luddite who probably can’t use a computer, and who insists on using a slide rule and a table of logarithms whenever I feel the need to multiply two numbers together. Wrong. I love my smart-phone, and indeed love it rather too much, if you were to ask my wife.
  • Fourth, my ignorance of basic biology is so profound that I’ve swallowed wholesale the scare tactics of the Soil Association and its fellow-travellers, and all I need is the re-assurance that GM foods have all the nutrients that conventional foods have. I never doubted it, if by nutrients you mean the big three of fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
  • Finally, in this run-down of non-arguments, I read that my objections to GM technology are pure middle-class, western self-indulgence. I live in an economy of cheap and plentiful food, where I’m able to soak up my excessive income by paying rip-off prices for nostalgic food-stuffs, and I should be heartily ashamed of myself. Instead, I should be thinking about my poor comrades in developing countries, battling against climate change and drought, to whose benefit all this GM fervour is really directed. Excuse me whilst I duck beneath this low-flying pig.

So if these objections are ones that exist only in the minds of pro-GM zealots, what are my actual concerns?

First, political and economic. Despite all the altruistic-sounding hubris from GM commerce about feeding the world, adding nutrients to tackle deficiency disease, or creating drought resistance in climate-change stricken countries and making deserts bloom, the mundane truth is that so far at least the technology is more about patents and selling products than it is about saving the human race from starvation. Genetically modifying an organism to be resistant to a herbicide manufactured by the same company locks farmers into that company’s products. It makes 3rd world farmers dependent on 1st world technology companies. It reduces rather than increases the sum of genetic diversity, and pushes the entire world’s food production even further into dependence on an increasingly narrow range of cultivars from an already narrow range of food plants. This is adding to food insecurity, not reducing it.

Second, ecological. GM proponents are constantly saying that the novel genes inserted into the DNA of crops grown in the open environment are not capable of spreading into wild populations, or even into non-GM crops. GM plants, we are told, are sterile and cannot create modified progeny. Yet we heard last year that every sample of wild canola studied in the US now has GM markers from the GM canola grown ubiquitously in that country. It matters not whether this particular transference has any deleterious effects, but it is surely not over-imaginative to wonder about the transference of herbicide or pest resistance into wild populations. That is not the impossible scenario that the GM-mongers have constantly insisted that it is. Even if that were not to happen, one thing we know about pests is this: that they have become pests because of their ability to adapt. Pesticide resistance in pests is already well-known. Why should pests not become resistant to the molecules that novel GM genes produce in GM plants? Our experience indicates strongly that this is more rather than less likely. We do know how to minimise losses to pests though, and it isn’t via  expensive patented super-plants. It’s via much simpler things like rotation, crop diversity, avoiding vast monocultures and the like. Unfortunately such things do not bring much in the way of profits to agri-business.

But third, and most basic of all, my objections are based in biology. When plants or animals are bred traditionally, the kind of ensuing genetic change is strictly circumscribed. Reproduction is not just about molecular genetics. In higher organisms it’s also about the, er, mechanics of sex. If I smear elephant sperm on the styles of wheat flowers, I’ll have to do it for a rather long time, like eternity for example, before wheat starts growing big flappy ears. It’s true of course that “primitive” organisms such as unicellular or viral species have a much more laissez-faire approach to genetic exchange both intra and extra species, and indeed if they didn’t GM technology would be impossible. Higher organisms on the other hand have developed all kinds of sophisticated ways of trying to prevent this genetic free-for-all, and disease rather than advantage is the usual consequence when they fail. More than that, the very definition of a species is that community of organisms that can breed with each other, and produce offspring that can also interbreed.

So what, you may ask? Sex is a kind of way of maximising genetic variation whilst at the same time disciplining the rampant genetic exchange that exists in micro-organisms. Sexual reproduction has vastly increased the rate of variation and speciation, but it’s done so within limits. Evolution has come up with this elegant balance just as it has in so many different ways throughout the ecosphere, where for example the interplay between predators and those suffering predation enables both species to persist. So sex is as much about control as it is about novelty. On the one hand, genetic “data” is allowed to mingle and evolve, whilst on the other it is protected from corruption.

Let me offer an analogy from a very different kind of data control. I’ve spent a lot of time designing database interfaces for operational staff. The point of committing the huge overhead of resources that designing a user interface requires, is to ensure the integrity of the data held in the system. The user interface prevents access to some bits of data, controls what kind of new data can be added, makes sure that it’s complete, prevents people randomly deleting stuff by mistake, amongst other similar control activities. The DNA in our genes is a bit like the data in a database. The organism needs to be able to access the data, but it also needs to be able to rely on it. Inaccurate data in a database may give rise to misleading results; in genetics it tends to give rise to disease. The species barrier is a bit like the user interface. Some bits of data never come into contact with each other, because, as I flippantly pointed out earlier, elephant sperm cannot get access to the germ cells of a wheat plant. There is no genetic free-for-all. A database that consists of “naked” data in a spreadsheet is not going to stay fit for purpose for long. Anybody can open a spreadsheet and start altering or deleting data. Very soon, the data will be useless. This is my fundamental concern about GM. It takes the genetic data of the biosphere and starts mucking around with it just like a rogue user let loose on naked data without controls or validations. And it does so within an arrogant assumption that we know all the consequences of what we are doing, and that we’ll be able to stuff the genie back in the bottle if it all goes horribly wrong. It might be worth taking that kind of risk if we had no other options, but we do have other options. They just don’t appear to offer the same opportunities for making profit.

And so I believe I have sound reasons for resisting GM in the open environment (and whilst many do not apply in the setting of a secure laboratory, even then we do know that “secure” is easier to say than to achieve) and they are not based on ignorance, or fear of technology, or romantic hankering after bygone ages, or any other of the things that I and other GM sceptics are accused of. On the contrary, it’s because I do know something about biology and genetics that I’m not going to swallow the GM companies’ self-serving, patronising attempts to sooth me.

* Some ideas in this blog post have appeared here before: I apologise if it all seems a bit familiar!

The dangers of letting it all hang out

There’ve been two acutely embarrassing blunders recently, from entirely different walks of life, but united in the way that, momentarily, they have drawn aside the thin veil that usually separates our real thoughts from how we publicly present them. United, too, in desperate attempts to put the genie back in its bottle by means of an outpouring of hypocrisy and po-faced seriousness. The first, and it has to be said the more amusing of the two, was the advertisement for a Liverpool hospital anaesthetist which was signed off with all the “usual rubbish about equal opportunities employer, etc.” The second, and more cruel, was an alleged email from the Chief Executive of Manchester City Football Club to one of the club’s player’s mother and agent who is suffering from cancer.

Both have precipitated a great and morally outraged hoo-ha as much driven by schadenfreude as by concern for the principles. And both have seen the authors or their representatives turn cartwheels, in the hospital case, of extravagant and humourless apology, or in the footballing case, of denial and shifting the blame onto unnamed minions. What the cases have in common is their eliciting of the pretence that somehow or another the blunders are evidence of almost unbelievable and entirely exceptional callousness or cynicism. This pretence seeks to comfort us all, and make us feel that we would never be guilty of such ghastliness. The official responses collude with this sanitised view of humanity, expressing breathless incredulity that such heinous acts are even possible, and setting forth the existence of a great and uncrossable gulf between the evil momentarily displayed, and the organisations’ real purity. They would never do such things, and they can’t believe that anyone else would either. Poppycock.

Those of us who work in organisations that recruit staff all know that the great long lists of commitments to equality between ever increasing and exotic sub-divisions of humanity are largely worthless. At the best they are expressions of vague goodwill to all, well, men, obviously not excluding women or those of uncertain or changed gender. At worst they are hypocritical formulae that are there to provide a gloss of equality over a substrate of indifference. Anyone of us, in our more honest moments, might have scribbled an instruction to “add the usual equal opps rubbish” to our HR departments, with the not unreasonable expectation that someone would translate this rather than transliterate it. It would express not cynicism about the principles of equality in employment, but rather a weary acknowledgement that such outcomes are a lot more difficult to achieve than is the attaching of hopeful and codified postscripts to advertisements.

The Manchester City chief executive of course denies sending the offending email at all. At the risk of a libel case, let me just say that his explanation of a hacked email account sounds a lot less than convincing. The club is in dispute with the player in question, and with that player’s agent who happens to be his own mother. The CE is writing, not to the mother, but to a colleague who is fronting the negotiations. The club is apparently not entirely convinced by the agent’s protestations of cancer. The email is written within that context, and jokingly accuses the club administrator of being heartless. I have no knowledge of the facts in the case, and make no judgement about the cancer sufferer nor how “ravaged” or otherwise she might be. The true blunder is in including the agent on the list of recipients, more than in the content of the email. It’s one of those ghastly occasions when a private and almost scatological “joke” becomes open to the butt of it. Appallingly embarrassing. Proof of exceptional and callous inhumanity? Of course not.

When we get all worked up and exercised about these sorts of events, it generally indicates one of two things. And maybe both. We are unspeakable hypocrites who see only the mote in others’ eyes whilst remaining relentlessly blind to the planks in our own. Or we’ve got an axe to grind, a political point to make, or an enemy to embarrass. It doesn’t generally indicate that a new and hitherto unplumbed depth of human depravity has suddenly been reached. So perhaps we could all calm down and carry on.

Cameron’s “tough love” is neither tough nor loving

In a post-riots reprise of his earlier injunction that we should all “hug a hoodie”, the Prime Minister now styles himself as the dispenser of “tough love”. Along with Michael “whack’em in Latin” Gove, Theresa “shoe fetishist” May, and Iain “poor law revisited” Duncan Smith, the big guns of the cabinet are going to let them eat cake. Well brioche in fact, I don’t doubt.

At least, that would probably be a more honest assessment of the government’s social policies. The PM waxes eloquent about there being a “shortage of not just respect and boundaries but also love”, requiring on the one hand the “need, when they cross the line and break the law, to be very tough”, whilst on the other, well, that hand seemed rather empty. Michael Gove is rushing around trying to make all schools like the way he remembers his own school days, which seem to be straight out of Jennings. His “free schools” – which certainly aren’t free since we’re all paying for them – are much more prominently engaged in acting as an escape valve for middle class parents who want to opt out of the state system but don’t want the inconvenience of paying fees than they are as ladders out of the quagmire that the “120,000 most troubled families”, who according to Mr Cameron were largely responsible for the rioting and looting, have apparently allowed their children to wallow in. Iain Duncan Smith (I can never quite decide if he’s hopelessly muddled but decent, or just plain vindictive) is busy embarking on a set of reforms to the benefits system that will have much more deleterious consequences for these very families than for just about any other section of the populace. And Theresa May is more interested in exemplary punishment than she is in almost anything else, apart from shoes, obviously.

The government is not being tough, at least, not with the right people. Bankers will now be allowed to continue to put us all at risk for longer, as notwithstanding the Business Secretary’s protestations, a hasty retreat is beaten in the face of their remarkable cheek in suggesting that unless they’re allowed to continue gambling the economy won’t grow, and everything will go pear-shaped. Just a little reminder that everything is already pear-shaped largely because we’ve had to make up a lot of fantasy money to repay the fantasy debts that you lot landed us with in the first place.

And the government’s not being loving because in almost every area of policy the very support mechanisms that might embody that love are being dismantled, sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction. For sure, many of those being prosecuted as a result of the riots are guilty of rank opportunism. But many more are guilty of incoherent, misdirected “rage at the machine”, born out of a hopelessness and an inadequacy that has been visited upon them, not chosen by them. Our children need bread: the government is content to let them eat cake.