Monthly ArchiveNovember 2006
If ever the name of an organisation was a misnomer then its that of the latest peddlers of the unscientific snake oil of creationism, ‘Truth in Science‘, which, according to the Guardian, is currently claiming that its ‘resource materials’ are in use in 59 secondary schools in Britain despite the government having made it clear that:
“Neither intelligent design nor creationism are recognised scientific theories and they are not included in the science curriculum.”
Jim Knight, Minister for Schools, Department for Education and Skills (November 1 2006)
The article even quotes Nick Cowan, head of chemistry at Bluecoat school, in Liverpool, as having said:
“Just because it takes a negative look at Darwinism doesn’t mean it is not science. I think to critique Darwinism is quite appropriate.”
Nick is correct in his statement inasmuch as it is not wrong to attempt to critique Darwinian evolution and that the mere fact that a particular theory might take a negative view of the theory of evolution by natural selection does not, on it own, mean that they theory is not science, but where he is sadly mistaken to the point of calling his professional competence as a science teacher into question in, seemingly, implying that the so-called theory of ‘intelligent design’ is any way a scientific theory.
Intelligent design is not a scientific theory, it is a deliberately conceived and contrived attempt to introduce a teleological argument into the teaching of science where no such argument belongs; creationism re-drafted and re-modelled to fit into the cracks between extant scientific knowledge and understanding of the nature of the universe.
So, for the benefit of Nick and any other science teacher who might have a received these materials from ‘Truth in Science’ and have been taken in by the false suggestion that the supposed ‘theory of intelligent design’ is in any respect scientific, let me clarify matters for you and explain precisely why it is not science.
To begin at the beginning with a dictionary definition of science:
(a) The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
(b) Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena.
(c) Such activities applied to an object of inquiry or study.
You’ll note the important qualification in point (b), ‘restricted to a class of natural phenomena‘, i.e. phenomena that can be explained and accounted for by entirely natural means. Any phenonmenon that relies on a supernatural explanation, whether this is a god (or gods), fairies, pixies, elves, goblins, leprechauns, Gandalf, Harry Potter or an infinite number of precariously balanced turtles, is not science.
That, at least, should be fairly simple to understand - and if you’re a science teacher and you cannot understand that then, frankly, you have no business calling yourself a science teacher.
Why is ‘intelligent design’ not science? Well I’m glad you asked.
The first reason why it is not science is that it cannot be tested experimentally; one of the so-called theory’s main proponents, Michael Behe has conceded precisely that point.
There is no experiment one can conceive of that can be used to test the supposed theory of intelligent design. The only possible empirical proof would be to observe the designer at work and in the actual act of ‘designing’ an organism - ‘god’ would have to provide proof of his/her/its existence in order to prove the validity of intelligent design, which, were it to happen, would negate entirely the concept of faith - one has no need to believe in the existence of supernatural being if that being provides absolute proof that they exist.
Second, the supposed theory of intelligent design makes no predictions, in fact it is impossible to predict in advance the actions of the supposed designer.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection does, by complete contrast, make predictions. It predicts that for given species the process of natural selection will, over time, serve to encourage, support and reinforce those traits and characteristics that are most advantageous to the survival of the species. A tiger has a striped body because in its natural environment that colouring confers a survival advantage. A striped tiger is better camoflaged than one with a plain colouring, similar to a Lion, and therefore better able to get in close to its prey without attracting the prey’s attention, making it more successful in hunting its prey; eating being one of life’s little prerequisites for survival.
Darwin’s theory provides both a rational explanation for why tigers have striped and an explanation as to how that particular colouring evolved to become the ‘natural’ colouring of tigers - it also explains precisely why different species of tiger, living in different environments, have different colourings, variations on the basic theme of stripes.
Intelligent design makes no such predictions and offers no such explanations, it merel proposes that tigers were specifically designed to suit their environment, but there is no fundamental reason why that should be case; the hypothetical designer could just have easily have designed the tiger to be bright blue with orange sport, purely as a matter of whim.
Third, intelligent design propose no new hypotheses of its own. In fact intelligent design has only one hypothesis that it applies to anything and everything - the ‘designer’ did it - and as has already been shown such a hypothesis is incapable of being tested experimentally and make no predictions against which the hypothesis could be tested.
Taken together, these three faults demostrate that intelligent design in not falsifiable, it does not admit to the possibility of a contrary case and is, therefore, not science.
On its own, this is sufficient to rule out the suggestion that intelligent design is in any material or abstract sense a ’scientific theory’, however there is one further flaw in ‘intelligent design’ that logically and conclusively demonstrates that it is not a scientfic theory, a flaw that resides in the central concept of the ‘theory’, that of the suggested existence of a designer.
Who is this supposed designer, and where did they come from?
Remember, a scientific theory cannot rely on explanations derived from the supernatural - a phenonmenon that can only be explained in supernatural terms is not scientific but theological and, therefore, has no place in the science classroom. We can, therefore, immediately rule out any consideration of any view of ‘intelligent design’ predicated on the concept of ‘Theistic Realism‘, as proposed by Phillip E Johnson (another key figure in the promotion of ‘intelligent design’, which holds that all true knowledge must begin with the acknowledgement of ‘god’ as creator because he believes that the unifying characteristic of the universe is that it was created by ‘god’. Such a view is in no way either empirical or naturalistic, rather it is an attempt to redifine science outside of naturalistic constraints.
As a final ‘clincher’ Johnson’s ‘authority’ for this worldview is based solely on scriptural references, thereby demonstrating conclusively that this is theology and not science.
If one rules out the possibility of ‘god’ as designer, this being thoroughly and obviously unscientific, one is left only with the concept that the alleged ‘designer’ must be something other than a ‘god’, a being of some desciption (and of considerable intelligence, far beyond the present capacity of the human race) but nevertheless one whose existence in fintie in space-time and who in neither entirely omnipotent nor omniscient.
The possibility that such a designer could, hypothetically, be a corporeal being, an extra-terrestrial or extra-dimension entity of near unimaginable intelligence - but not ‘god’ - is the Trojan Horse that proponents of ‘intelligent design’ have used to weedle their way into the classroom, despite the fact that, as in the case of Phillip Johnson, if you push the issue hard enough then what you find is that they what they really mean when they talk about a ‘designer’ is ‘god’.
In fact, neither the term ‘intelligent design’ in its current usage, nor the present ‘theory’ came into use until after the US Supreme Court ruled, in 1987 (in Edwards vs Aguillard), that a Louisana State law requiring the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in state schools was unconstitutional as it was intended to advance a particular religion in violation of the US First Amendment. Crucially, in its ruling in this case, the Supreme Court stated that the:
“teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction”
As a matter of no great coincidence, Stephen C Meyer, the founder of the Discovery Institute, the best known organisation dedicated to the promotion of ‘intelligent design’, claims that the term ‘intelligent design’ emerged at a conference in 1988 called Sources of Information Content in DNA, and was been coined by Charles Thaxton, the editor of Of Pandas and People, which was published in 1989 and is generally consider the first book on ‘intelligent design’, although as has since emerged, early drafts of the book used the term ‘creationism’ throughout, only for this term to be replaced, almost entirely, by the term ‘intelligent design’ in the final, published’ version of the text.
This, if it demonstrates anything, shows that ‘intelligent design’ is not more than creationism repackaged to fit the Supreme Court’s ruling in Edwards vs Aguillard.
But getting back to the designer, the question one must ask, if the hypothetical designer is not ‘god’, is where exactly did this designer come from?
Did they perhaps evolve elsewhere in the universe/multiverse, in which case their supposed intervention in our own existence serves only to place us one, step (or more) removed from evolution. It would not, however, invalidate Darwin’s theory of evolution, defeating entirely the primary objective of the proponents of ‘intelligent design’.
Was there, perhaps, another designer who designed the designer who designed us?
Such a hypothesis can lead only to one of two conclusion, each of which is self-defeating. Either the chain of designers must resolve itself to an ‘ultimate designer’ who ‘popped’ into existence from nothingness in an act of spontaneous self-creation - this would, again, make this designer a ‘god’ and negate any possibility of ‘intelligent design’ being anything other than theological in nature - or one must postulate the existence of unending sequence of designers stretching away to infinity.
This latter possibility is called, in formal logic, a reductio ad absurdum (in English, a ‘reduction to the absurd’) - the proposition that each designer must themselves have been designed by another superior designer in strict hierarchical sequence leads one to an absurd outcome of an infinite series of such designers, each superior to the last (or inferior if one moves down the chain). That the original premise leads to an absurd outcome is considered to be logical proof that the original premise is false.
It is, therefore, not possible that a hypothetical ‘designer’ can be anything other than a ‘god’ - although this is not necessarily the Christain ‘god’ either - irrespective of whether that designer is the one with a supposed immediate responsibility for the design of life in this universe, or an ultimate designer removed by an unknown number of steps from that which is supposedly our our designer.
One cannot logically postulate the existence of an intelligent designer who is not, in addition, a ‘god’, such that it follows, logically, that the supposed theory of ‘intelligent design’ is one entirely dependent on a supernatural explanation of the nature of the universe and, therefore, wholly unscientific.
(Hat Tip for the Guardian story to Labour Humanists)
Much as I have a deep and abiding loathing for ‘reality’ television, and not just artificially induced freak shows like Big Brother but also those interminable earnest documentaries about people with disabilities that all convey the same message - it’s okay to gawp as much as you like as long you feel sorry for them - the one kind of reality show I will occasionally watch is the kind where they get a bunch of people to have a DNA test as part of going in search of the ‘roots’ and identify where in the world they actually come from.
Don’t get me wrong here, I still couldn’t give a shit about the ‘personal stories’ of the people fatured in the programme, that’s just window dressing. No, the bit I like is the pay-off, the bit where they sit down with the scientist to get the results of the test, because its at the point that you’re reminded that the universe has a wonderfully perverse cosmic sense of humour as you watch the biggest twat on the show get their come uppance:
So, give me the news. Where do I come from? I’m a descendent of the Masai, aren’t I? I’ve always felt a reall affinity for them so that must be my roots coming through.
Well it must be West Africa then? Some noble tribe of great warriors who once ruled large tracts of Nigeria or the Gambia?
Well, where am I from then? Come on, tell me…
Well. I don’t know how to put this but…
Well, according to the test, you’re from Chingford.
The very first of these kind of shows I saw ran pretty much down these lines. It was the young guy who was really into the whole ‘back to Africa’ thing and who took the test as means of vindicating his sense of ‘Blackness’ whose main ancestor turned out to be a White European. And even when they did another test as traced a different part of his ancestry to a tribe in West Africa, giving him the opportunity he wanted to indulge his romantic notions of heritage, he promptly went out there, chose himself an African name, which he took from a historical tribal leader who sounded like he was ‘the business’ - the whole ‘great and noble warrior’ thing - only them to discover afterwards that this historical figure was also one of more notorious slavers in the tribes history and they there, was therefore, even chance that he might the one yo have sold his real ancestor in slavery.
It’s the cosmic humour of moments like that that I really like, in fact a recent programme on the same basic theme, that I unfortunately didn’t see, managed to top that first programme by revealing that Garry Bushell, of all people, has a genetic ancestry traceable to sub-Saharan Africa. Garry Bushell has black ancestors, just how poetic a piece of cosmic justice is that.
The serious point here is that more often than not, when people start harping on about ancestry and their ‘roots’, in particular, what they’re talking about isnot reality but some sort of romantic fantasy about their origins that, more often than not, has little real basis in historical fact - hence we have Oprah Winfrey announcing that she believes herself to be a Zulu, even in the face of Zulu historians pointing out that:
If there were Zulu people taken as slaves they would have most likely been taken eastwards by Arab traders or to South American colonies.
Those who ended up in North America, say in Mississippi where Miss Winfrey comes from, were mostly of West African origin.
The whole ‘Back to Africa’ thing is, for the most part, no more than a modern myth, a romantic fantasy whose real roots lie not in Africa but firmly in Europe. In anthropological terms there is nothing particularly special or remarkable about the nature of African tribal society prior to European intervention on the continent, any more than there was about the Incas, Aztecs, Native Americans, the various tribes of the Amazon, the Celts or even Cro-Magnon man. The dream of going back to Africa to find one’s own noble heritage is a European myth, one born out the European Enlightenment and Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ and then pumped up out of all sense of by 18th/19th Century Romanticism and the Romantic nationalism of the all-too German Johannes Herder and Johannes Ficter.
The harsh truth in all this is that idea that one has ‘noble’ roots is, for the most part, about as real as the belief in past-life regression under hypnosis, particularly when the latter leaves someone firmly convinced that they used to be Cleopatra or, even better, Guinevere (a character for whose existence we have no historical evidence at all).
The relevance of this to current events is, of course, the news that Tony Blair will, today, express his ‘deep sorrow’ for Britain’s role in the slave trade; Blair being particuarly good at apologising for historical events for he cannot be held responsible - he’s already apologised for both the Irish Potato famine and the expulsion of Jews from England by Edward I - but not for his own contemporary screw-ups.
Blair is, apparently set to say;
“It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time.
“Personally, I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was - how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition, but also to express our deep sorrow it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.”
…But stop short of offering a full apology in case that gives rise to a claim for reparations, which rather emphasises the complete absurdity of this whole situation.
Reparations for what, exactly? For one’s ancestor having been transported as a slave some 200-300 years ago? The idea is completely absurd. If we’re going to pay reparations to the descendents of slaves, assuming those decendents can offer satisfactory evidence of their ancestry, then why stop there - why not pay reparations to the descendents of all those British people who driven from the land by the various enclosure Acts leading up to the Inclosure Consolidation Act of 1801. Maybe we should compensate the Roman Catholic Church for its losses arising from the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII or sue the present Italian government for negligence of the Roman Empire in leaving Britain undefended in the 4th Century AD and causing the Dark Ages.
Watching this debate unfold, in anticipation of next’s year 200th anniversary of the ‘abolition’ of slavery in the UK one cannot help but marvel at the pure sophistry of the debate.
For one thing, historical accuracy seems rather thin on the ground in this debate.
Next year is not the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery but of the outlawing of the trade in slaves. No one was emancipated by law in 1807, instead the 1807 Abolution of the Slave Trade Act simply imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found abord ship, in all a very New Labour way of going about things, although its not clear whether Wilberforce, who led the campaign against the slave trade in parliament, ever got around to talking about summary justice, on the stop fines or ABSOs for slave traders. We didn’t actually get around to putting an outright end to slavery until the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833, so for around 25 years, the legal status of slaves was akin to that of endangered animal species today - you can’t transport them from the ‘wild’ but it was okay to keep them as long as their were bred in captivity.
And contrary to popular myth, Britain was NOT the first European nation to abolish slavery; that honour goes to France and to the Jacobin National Convention, which abolished slavery on Feb 4 1794. If you really want to see how slavery was first abolished by a European nation, then one needs to read up on the history of the Haitian revolution and, in particular, the history of Toussaint L’Ouverture, one of least know and yet most remarkable figures to emerge from the French Revolution; a slve who emancipated himself by first teaching himself to read and then teaching himself the art of war (and generalship) from the works of Julius Caesar before leading a revolution that eventually fought off Napoelon’s efforts to reintroduce slavery to Haiti and create the first Black republic. By way of contrast, the story of the abolition of slavery in Britain seems, well, all rather tame and uninteresting.
Then there’s the overweening hypocrisy of those demanding a full and formal apology for the slave trade. To illustrate the point, the subject on an apology for slavery was featured on this morning’s BBC Breakfast news in its usual fashion - i.e. a pair of talking heads on the sofa. As I was getting my daugther ready for school at the time, I wasn’t paying too much attention to the conversation until the subject of the African end of the slave trade, which is still alive today in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, was brought up, at which point the Black ‘talking head’ responded in stentorian tones to the effect that you can’t condemn Africans for the actions of the few ‘collaborators’, so slavery was all the responsibility of the European who instigated it in the first place, before wittering on about genocide.
All of which is complete and utter rubbish. Africans were trading in slaves both internally and with Arab slavers long before latter day Europeans got involved in matters. Slavery did not begin in Africa will the arrival of Europeans into the picture, and the involvement of African tribes in slavery was anything but confined to a few supposed ‘collaborators’.
Terrible as the conditions aboard European slave ships were, a 20% death rate in transit was about average - and, of course, conditions hardly improved if one survived the journey - the slave trade was not genocide, which, to remind everyone, is defined as, ‘the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group’.
And, equally, its absurd to suggest that Britons (or Europeans) have some collective responsbility for the slave trade, when the vast majority the British population of the time were treated only marginally better than slaves by their own ruling class - unless those who buy into this warped interpretation of history somehow think that my one ancestors, or at least that branch of my family that earned a crust first from digging canals and then working on them, we all given personal african slaves to mind their shovels while they hacked away at the ground with a pickaxe.
Both the exculpatory nonsense about African involvement in slavery being confined to a minority of collaborator and the characterisation of the slave trade as genocide are modern myths with no real basis in fact or historical reality; the former, in particular, being the product (again) of Rousseau’s idealised ‘noble savage’ coupled with the myth of the existence of a pan-African ‘racial conciousness’ that was popularised by the ‘Back to Africa’ movement, particularly in the US but whose history stretches back only as far as the early part of the 20th Century and the influence of Marcus Garvey.
Unsurprising, a quick trawl through the newspaper opinion columns finds Yasmin Alibhai-Brown picking up on this issue, and reminding me of point I really need to pick up with Sunny Hundal and the New Generation Network, this being the urgent need to remove from the public discourse around race and identity the half-baked sub-Marxian view of racial ‘politics’.
Alibhai-Brown’s article drags out all the usual tropes of this strand of thinking for a good airing, starting, as usual, with an attack on the mercantile class that profited most directly from the slave trade.
Last week I was in Bristol to deliver a lecture marking 200 years since the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. On the way to the venue my host and driver said there had been a blazing controversy in the city over the naming of a new shopping mall.
The burghers wanted to honour the old merchant class who had brought prosperity to the city. Anti-racist inhabitants objected because many of the most successful traders were slave trade profiteers who deserve posthumous dishonour not fresh accolades. The Royal African Company, a collective of avaricious venture capitalists had bases in this city, as well as Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull and London. Go to Bristol’s Venturers House and see in stone the pride and self assurance of slave traders who called themselves Christians.
Alibhai-Brown error, here, is one that is so common place as to have become the epitomy of banality in discussions of history - she judges the actions of the mercantile class of the 18th Century by reference to modern beliefs and modern ethical standards of behaviour, as if to suggest, somehow, that in profiting from slavery they were perfectly aware that what they were doing was wrong and unChristian to boot.
This is far from being the case. The prevailing Christian worldview of the time was one in which the world operated within a highly stratified social hierarchy ordained by God. A place for everything and everything in its place - and the place of Africans, and other indigenous people, was at the very bottom of the pile and ripe for exploitation. There is no sense in which the mercantile classes of the time were acting contrary to their Christian beliefs, because the manner in which Christianity was interpreted at the time entirely supported their actions. It’s not that an 18th Century slave trader would disagree with the moral worldview expressed by Alibhai-Brown, they simply wouldn’t recognise it as its based on an understanding of the world and the nature of society that did not exist at the time and which arose only in the wake of the Enlightenment, the philsophical developments of which made it possible to challenge, and eventually, overturn the ‘old order’. And even that took time as some of the more lauded figures of the Enlightenment period were slave owners; Thomas Jefferson being just one example. I wonder, would Alibhai-Brown consider him worthy of ‘posthumous dishonour’.
It makes no more sense, rationally, to condemn from hindsight those who profited from the slave trade in the pre-Enlightenment era any more than it does to condemn the civilisation of Classical Greece for its acceptance of pederasty as a social/cultural norm. To compare either to a modern sense of morality is to compare apples and oranges.
Before launching an assault on the moral character of the mercantile classes of the 18th Century, Alibhai-Brown would do well to reacquaint (or perhaps simply acquaint) herself with Isaiah Berlin’s work on the history of ideas and, in particular, his work on (and biography/analysis of) Giambattista Vico.
To compound matters further, it seems that Alibhai-Brown hasn’t been paying much attention to Blair’s unabashed propensity for faux public contrition:
Just recently I wrote that an abiding tradition in this country is that it never apologises for its policies, past or present, however devious and destructive. Well this morning has broken like the first dawn. The self-righteous leader who never says sorry has proffered fulsome contrition, even though it will leave many natives gnashing their teeth.
Which turns out to be a rather embarrassing omission as in its main coverage of Blair’s upcoming statement it provides a handy list of past apologies, even if it does miss the apology for Edward I, but then that was at a private event to mark the 350th anniversary of the lifting of the expulsion, by Cromwell, so I suppose it doesn’t quite count.
* POTATO FAMINE
In 1997 Tony Blair said sorry for Britain not doing more to relieve suffering from Ireland’s 19th-century potato famine.
This year some 300 First World War soldiers shot for refusing to fight (many of whom were shell-shocked) were pardoned.
In 1995, the Queen officially apologised to the largest Maori tribe in New Zealand for the devastation wrought on their land in the 1860s.
* AMRITSAR MASSACRE
In 1997 the Queen visited Amritsar in the Punjab, scene of a massacre of up to 1.200 people in 1919. She said it was “distressing”, and said: “History cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise.”
Moving on with her arguments, she tackles the thorny question of reparations head on (and badly):
For some protesters, this expression of sorrow does not add up to a proper apology. There is always a wedge of the ne’er satisfied in our colourful democracy. For other rejectionists, Blair’s expressions are meaningless because they come not with a blank cheque for reparations to the descendants.
This demand is not preposterous and I have thought long and hard about back payments for this crime against the stolen folk of Africa. In the end I concluded it would satisfy nobody and would lead to inter-state quarrels and corruption and worse. We could do something imaginative and, perhaps, offer university grants for a thousand deserving Afro-Caribbean students every year for a decade. That would do some good.
So her prescription for a salve for our guilty consciences is a thousand university scholarship for African-Caribbean students (tsk ‘Afro-Caribbean’, Yasmin? That’s so un-PC). So that’s £3 million straight out of the gate in tutition fees, for starters, before we get on to the question of whether our contrition demands that pay a maintenance grant as well.
And who, exactly, is to pay for for this prescription? Do we, as taxpayers, pick up the tab, or is this something that only those descendents of the profiteering mercantile classes should be charged with paying for? And, while we’re on the subject, what’s you’re suggested repayment period for this cultural ‘debt’? 10 years? 20? 50? In perpetuity, perhaps? How long will it take to wash away the ’stain’ on Britain’s character?
Yasmin doesn’t say, but then I doubt she’s really given this as much thought as she claims, at least in terms of the pacticalities of such a scheme.
You might think that, having already pumbed the depths of absurdity, there is little prospect of Yasmin digging herself any deeper into a hole - and of course you’d be wrong.
Most profits of the Atlantic trade went to British and US operators and investors. Their role and greed made them the worst villains of the practice, no question.
Well, actually, there’s an interesting question in its own right. Britain certain got rich off the back of slavery, for time, and those profits certainly assisted in the ‘construction’ of the British Empire, which, at its height, ruled over something like a quarter of the globe. But…
One of the historical facts about Empire that rarely, if ever, gets a mention these days, when we’re all supposed to be ashamed our Imperial past, is that the profits of Empire flowed in more than one direction. At its peak, in the mid-late Victorian period, around a third of Britain’s capital was invested overseas, most of it in the colonies of the British Empire. How much of that capital investment filtered down to the indiginous populations in a beneficial form of the Empire is anyone’s guess, but what it does show is that in economic terms, the impact of the slave trade was not quite the one-way street that its often presented as being.
But then, the culpability of British merchants is only half the story:
However, some money was made by African trappers and sellers of their compatriots and the Atlantic slave trade could not have happened without the collusion of these middlemen. It is appalling that the west African countries where slaves were stored and packed into ships have made little attempt to open up this history to genuine and honest scrutiny. These were their sons and daughters.
Again we enter the realms of passing judgment in hindsight based on cultural values and social mores that did not exist at the time, such that the history of the slave trade is largely removed from its proper historical context. But that’s not quite all that she has in mind here:
If you can still find it, read the book The Atlantic Sound by the precise and poetic British black writer Caryl Phillips. He went to Liverpool, Elmina in Ghana (also a thriving slave port) and Charleston in the US where one-third of African men, women and children were taken to be sold into bondage. All three places were in denial about the scale and savagery of the business.
In Ghana, Phillips met an African-American émigré who told him: “To go deeper into the psychological and historical import of the slave trade is not what most Africans want to do.” An academic Dr Ben Abdullah seriously opined thus: “You must not be too romantic about slavery. It was a terrible thing but many of the Africans who left were not good people.”
There are two very different and interesting views in that second paragraph, both of which Alibhai-Brown characterises as being ‘in denial’.
The views of the unnamed African-American émigré perhaps deserve such a characterisation although she rather misses the significance of the suggestion that going deeper into the psychological and historical import of the slave trade would be undesirable. This has little real bearing on how African’s perceive their historical role in this trade; the majority, one doubts, give it too much thought being rather more concerned with getting on with their lives. It does, however, nicely emphasise the hypocrisy of those, in Britain, who are most vocal in demanding an apology for the slave trade and, particularly, those who buy into and promote the exculpatory line that seeks to minimise the public perception of African involvement in this trade to that of a few ‘collaborators’.
The central message here is one of ‘don’t look too closely - you might discover that things are not all that they appear and that Africans are not quite the universal victims we’d like you to think they are’.
By contrast, Dr Ben Abdullah, appears to offer a more rational view of the slave trade in noting both that there is an element of romanticism surrounding the slave trade, as far as African involvement goes and implying that not all those who were transported to the Caribbean and North America were necessarily ‘good people’. This suggests that, at least in part, the slave trade may have been used in West Africa as a means of ridding themselves of their ‘criminal element’ much as Europeans once transported their own criminals to the colonies as a means of punishment. While it would be undoubtedly the case that the ‘judicial’ process by which such decisions we taken would fall some considerable way short of modern standards of justice this does suggest that, at least in part, the African view of the apparent ‘utility’ of the slave trade was not so very different from our own at that time and that there may have been rather more mutuality in the arrangements between African tribal societies and European slave traders than is usually admitted, at least publicly.
Frustratingly, Alibhai-Brown neglects to provide sufficient information about Dr Ben Abdullah to enable his views to put into context against his academic background - how much store one might place in his opinions will naturally differ according to whether his academic credentials mark him out as having some expertise in the history of the slave trade, or not, but as far as one can reliably tell, it seems likely that the Dr Ben Abdullah, cited here, may well be Dr. Mohammed Ben Abdullah, a Ghanian and the country’s former secretary of Culture and Tourism and head of its National Cultural Council.
Alibhai-Brown’s contention that African’s are in ‘denial’ about their own role and involvement in the slave trade throws a nicely-weighted paradox into her article. To explore fully and honestly the historical realities of the slave trade in Africa is to being to light an uncomfortable truth that is entirely of keeping with the romantic myths harboured by the ‘Back to Africa’ movement, the idea that no one society, African, European (or Arab) is entirely innocent here. Where this takes us is towards what one might consider Africa’s ‘dirty little secret’, a historical reality in which European slavers did not so much instigate the trade in African slaves as provide a pre-existing, indiginous, slave trade with a new, and profitable outlet for its services.
African involvement in supplying slaves to European traders was rather more organised than the ‘collaboration’ myth suggests. Alongside an informal trade in slaves in which bounties were paid to ‘freelance’ raiding parties, the European traders of the time also entered into formal trade agreements with the coastal African Kingdoms for the supply of slaves, this being far from the picture that some are keen to promote at this current time. But then a full and open acknowledgement of the existence of an indiginous African slave trade, which was endemic across most of the continent long before Europe took an interest, and its role in servicing the ‘European market’, beyond the deliberately minimised view of this trade as comprising only a few ‘collaborators’ is not exactly the view of the slave trade that those demanding currently demanding an apology (and whom Alibhai-Brown professes to support) actually want the public to see.
There is rather more going on here, by way of denial, than simply Britain’s own perception of its role in the slave trade, indeed it seems entirely possible that those now demanding an apology for slavery are as much, if not, more in denial of the historical truth than those who built their personal (and corporate) fortunes on the back of the trade.
The idea that Europeans bear exclusive culpability for the slave trade, like everything else in the debate, is a modern concept, one derived from the same strand of sub-Marxian analysis of ‘racial politics’ that also holds that racism is function of the prevailing social hierarchy and the relative position of a specific ethnic group in the global power structure derived from that hierarchy, i.e. it springs from the same well that holds that ethnic minorities cannot be racist, only prejudiced, because they do not belong to the dominant ethnic group is society.
This is complete and utter rubbish; the result of a lazy transposition of race/ethnicity into Marxist notions of class-consciousness, the proof of which is manner in which adherents to these notions promote a view of Africa (and Africans) as a single, homogeneous cultural unit rather than a continent whose people are rich is variety and diversity like almost nowhere else on earth.
The last point of note in Alibhai-Brown’s article is one that needs to be met head on, that of the alleged ‘generational impact’ of slavery:
In America, African-Americans are still the most poor and uneducated, caught in crime and drugs and victims of overt white racism. Bill Clinton was a rare president who understood the generational disadvantages left by slavery. In his time, America started to recognise the history. In England - and yes, I do mean England - campaigners, black and white, are slowly breaking through the walls of stubborn rebuttals and denials.
This seems to be a common theme amongst those seeking not only an apology but reparations:
Ester Stanford, the secretary of the Rendezvous of Victory Campaign, said: “This statement of regret does not go far enough.
“What is now required is a dialogue about how we repair the legacies of enslavement, and we’re talking about educational repairs, we’re talking about economic repairs, family repairs, cultural repairs, repairs of every kind that we need to recreate and sustain ourselves - it will cost.”
Rendezvous of Victory, it transpires, is a Marxist organisation, of sorts, which styles itself as being ‘inspired by the vision and words of Aimé Césaire‘, a french left-wing intellectual whom, much as I loathe the term, could best be described as ‘fellow traveller’ - indeed their website exhibits all the classic signs of left-wing pseud-ism, and then some:
…our Heritage Learning movement that seeks to continue and advance globally, the historical work of Communities of Anti-Slavery Abolitionist Resistance….
…We hope you enjoy the journey through our pathway charted in the footsteps of the legendary Ananse. For, ours is a portal of journeying not only cybernetically but also spiritually into the Anansekrom web of Anti-Slavery Abolitionist Heritage Learning. As well known in traditional Afrikan folklore that became one of the weapons of Anti-Slavery Abolitionist Resistance, Ananse the Spider, links through its own natural worldwide web of global communications, various generations not only of Afrikan people of the continent and diaspora but also all of humanity in the universal quest for the Truth that will set all free in Mind, Body and Soul.
Loosely translated, what all that actually means is, ‘we’re a bunch of pretentious twats’.
There is a very basic problem with this general concept of ‘generational disadvantages’ arising out of slavery and, in particular, the idea of ‘repairing the legacies’ of enslavement - it is impossible to say definitively what these disadvantages and legacies are.
We’re dealing, here, with an argument that is entirely counterfactual in the sense that its impossible to say quite what course Africa, and its many different cultural/ethnic groups might have taken in the absence of European intervention, whether this is in the form of slavery or, a little later on, by way of colonial rule.
It is impossible to assess the real legacy of slavery or even say that such a legacy exists given that there is no benchmark against which assess its impact and no means by which we can isolate its effects, if any, from a myriad of other social, cultural and hsitorical factors that have gone into creating the position in which African-Caribbean communities find themselves today.
The Rendezvous of Victory website includes an article that purports to explain impact and legacies of ‘chattel enslavement’ that rather nicely encapsulates the problem with this strand of thought, not least by its opening sentence:
The human misery, economic exploitation and social disorder caused by Chattel Enslavement are impossible to quantify.
What a great opening line - slavery was a bad thing, just don’t ask us to explain how bad it was because we don’t really know… and as you might expect, its all downhill from there.
There are some ‘higlights’ in the article that are worth mentioning, if only for the paucity of reasoning they exemplify, for example, there is this:
…the trade in African peoples was about plunder and brutality and a complete lack of respect for the human rights of Africans who were enslaved.
The problem with this being, of course, that European society had no real concept of human rights until the end of the 18th Century (and the Enlightenment) such that argument is entirely moot - how can one respect something that one cannot conceive of?
It removed Africa’s young and healthy workforce, as well as destroyed agriculture and industry and increased political and military conflict among African states, which was largely encouraged by European traders as a way of acquiring slaves. It forced people to move away from their homes, their communities, their farmlands and from any kind of economic stability they had.
The first thing to say is that this sounds rather more like a description of colonialism than the slave trade, in terms of the presumed impact on agriculture and industry and it is equally facile to talk in terms of African ’states’ as the concept of the nation state had barely taken root in Europe at this point in time, let alone found its way to Africa. And as for the assertion that European intervention increased political and military conflict between the putative African ’states’, such a view is only sustainable if one accepts that the slave trade arrived in West Africa with European traders, when the reality is that is endemic long before Europe provided a new trading opportunity, and indeed persists today in some parts West and Sub-Saharan Africa.
And to add to this already discursive mix, we also have:
Racism as we know it today began as a justification and rationalisation by some sections of European society, of man’s inhumanity to man. The difference in complexion and appearance between Africans and their European oppressors made it possible for advocates of slavery to popularise the idea that Africans were a lower form of human life, or not even human at all.
This is, to some extent, correct, in the sense that the origins of the modern concept of biological racism lie, ironically enough, in changes in the prevailing Christian worldview arising, first out of the Protestant Reformation and then latterly from the influence of the Enlightenment, giving rise to the view that ‘all men were created equal’. Africans, logically, then had be recharacterised as ’sub-human’ in order to justify the continuation of slavery while remaining consistent with the newly adopted Christian precept of equality. However, far from clarifying matters, this muddies the waters even further as it poses the question of whether one can legitimately ‘blame’ the alleged generational disadvantages experienced by African-Caribbeans on slavery, for giving rise to the modern ideas of racism or whether the fault lies instead with the failure of society to reevaluate its ideas on race in the wake of having abolished slavery, and therefore removed the original raison d’etre for racism.
None of this takes us any closer to a rational explanation as to why we should now offer an apology to, and compensate, the descendents of those who were transported to the Caribbean and Americas by the slave trade or how financial reparations might somehow set everything to rights - it won’t, in fact the one wholly accurate statement that Alibhai-Brown makes in here article is this one:
In the end I concluded it would satisfy nobody and would lead to inter-state quarrels and corruption and worse.
Apologies for historical events that now are no so far in the past as to be well beyond living memory serve no real purpose at all. save that of providing a sop to those who harbour wholly romantic and unrealistic notions of their own heritage and identity. No one will be any better off for receiving such an apology and to bow before such demands is to reinforce the idea that one can play the politics of victimhood to one’s own advantage and not only get away with it but benefit from it, an idea that is already far too prevalent in Britain today.
If, nearly 200 years on from the abolition of the slave trade, we have any real duty at all to those who were transported from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas (and to their descendents) that such a duty extends only so far as to give a full and accurate historical accounting of their stories and to learn the lessons of history and ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of our own ancestors - and nothing more.
Apologies are meaningless - what matters is that we remember and we learn, and that we use that construct a better future and not wrangle over the past.
* BTW, I don’t really blame Alex Haley for any of this, I just thought it would make for a nicely provocative and attention grabbing title.
Can’t find it online as yet, but when/if it does show up the Indy has a pretty naff four page spread in the ‘Extra’ section on police blogs consisting of a half column of editorial and a bunch of material lifted from various blogs, including most the usual suspects (PC Copperfield, Intelligence Detective, even the sadly missed World Weary Detective) and given the usual half-arsed ‘look we got if off the internet’ presentation - blocky monospaced font and fuzzy pictures all dressed up in Mac-a-like windows.
One hopes the Indy have observed the usual niceties and got their cheque book out before publishing other people’s work.
The material lifted from the police blogs is pretty much what you’d expect if you’re familar with them, blunt, honest to the point of brutality and, like many public service blogs, exhibited no small measure of gallows humour - this being precisely what makes them worth reading. Police blogs may give the PR obsessives in the upper ranks an attack of the vapours but they put a human face on policing in ways that the senior ranks could not even conceive of - if police blogs convey a common message, it’s that coppers are real people too.
Naturally, the editoral column includes the usual denunciation of police blogs:
Inspector Simon Hepworth, of West Yourkshire Police, is one officer who believes the unregulated thoughts and rantings of underlings - who claim they are officers of the law - are threatening to undermine the work of the police. Writing in Police Review magazine, he argues: “Part of our role is to fight fear of crime… or reassurances, as long as they remain credible, bring matters back into proportion and thereby improve the quality of life for the general public.
“It is not particularly helpful in this respect to write that ‘only three officers are available to cover a borough of 100,000 residents’, to quote one blog. Even if it right [sic], is the public any better off knowing?”
Ignorance is bliss, eh?. Of course, Simon’s belief in the palliative efficiacy of police reassurances is heavily qualified by the phrase, ‘as long as they remain credible’, or to put it another way, ‘as long as no one is actually a victim of crime and then has to wait three days for a copper to show up to investigate’.
Elsewhere we find that far from providing public reassurance, the police are demanding new powers to arrest demostrators who cause ‘offence’ including the power to proscribe protest chants and slogans.
Yes, its the return of the Met’s assistant commissioner, Tarique Ghaffur, who’s last foray into media relations involved called for the criminalisation of flag-burning and who’s been pushed front and centre of this issue, no doubt, in the mistaken belief that if they route this illiberal crap through an ethnic minority officer, then at least the can’t be accused of racism, that or Ghaffur’s angling for a transfer to the Moscow police, where he’ll slot in nicely.
There are two obvious problems here, first the Police are ‘demanding new powers’, i.e. gettting completely above themselves - their job is to enforce the law, not make it.
Second, the demands amount to the further criminalisation of free expression and setting up the police as a kind of official state censor, roles characteristic of a totalitarian police state not a liberal democracy.
It’s seem therefore, that I have to agree with Inspector Hepworth in one respect, the unregulated thought and rantings of police officers are undermining the work of the police…
…not when they’re voiced on blogs but when illiberal twats like Tarique Ghaffur are allowed to brief the media.
It seems that Iain Dale has clearly forgotten Denis Healey’s First Law of Holes - when in one, stopping digging - and has taken a stab at a defending the Tory Party’s attempts to get young people to connect with their inner tosser.
What those of us over thirty have to remember is that this is not aimed at us. It’s aimed at what David Davis last year called the iPod Generatioon - Insecure, Pressured, Overtaxed and Debt-ridden. So before we have a knee jerk reaction [fnarr] against the words used in this innovative campaign let’s just remember who its target is.
Iain, my eldest son is fourteen years old - too young to be overtaxed and debt-ridden, certainly, but within what one might consider the ‘iPod Generation’ and with GCSEs on the near horizon, certain pressured and insecure at times.
In other words, a member of the generation that this is supposed to appeal to.
So, naturally, when I got home from work last night I took the liberty of showing him your vision of what it means to connect with people via the internet, to obtain his opinion as to whether it really was just the kind of thing that would engage his attention…
…around 10-15 minutes later, when he’d managed to catch his breath and stop laughing, he finally succeeded in rendering his considered opinion.
“It’s a pile of patronising shit!”
The problem with the site is not that its critics are too old to understand what really appeals to young people but that the site is crap.
A blinged-up, chaved-up Ooompa Loompa is not, in the eyes of young people, a means by which one can teach social responsibility but a suitable candidate for a happy slapping and your entire internet stategy a complete joke from start to finish going right the way to Gideon’s recent speech on ‘Politics and Media in the Internet Age’ in which he begins by stating:
I want to talk to you tonight about Nick and his world.
Nick is a 25 year-old teacher. He doesn’t really watch much TV, except for episodes of Scrubs he downloads using LimeWire and then watches on his PSP. He met his girlfriend, Susie, through MySpace. She lives in Canada but they talk every day using Skype. They both love music but neither of them listen to the radio. They download the latest tunes from BitTorrent and send each other funny videos they find on YouTube.
Look, let me illustrate the problem by annotating Gideon’s comments for you.
I want to talk to you tonight about Nick and his world.
Nick is a 25 year-old teacher. He doesn’t really watch much TV, except for episodes of Scrubs [he has no taste in comedy otherwise he’d be downloading The Simpsons, The Daily Show or Curb Your Enthusiasm] he downloads [illegally] using LimeWire [wrong system, he’d use BitTorrent for video] and then watches on his PSP [with its tiny little screen, as opposed to watching Scrubs on his 19″ LCD monitor, laptop with its 15″ screen or burning it to DVD to watch it on his 42″ Plasma Screen TV]. He met his girlfriend, Susie, through MySpace [He’s a socially inadequate loser]. She lives in Canada [far enough away not to have figured out yet just how a big a loser he is] but they talk every day using Skype. They both love music but neither of them listen to the radio [really, one might think they’d use internet radio]. They download the latest tunes from BitTorrent [illegally, again] and send each other [links to] funny videos they find on YouTube [so they’re into videos of cats falling into ponds and idiots falling out of shopping trolleys and trying to make their own home made versions of Jackass. Most of YouTube is no more than ‘You’ve Been Framed’ on steroids and you don’t even get paid £250 for videoing someone making a complete arse of themselves].
And my point is?
Simply that Gideon hasn’t got a fucking clue what he’s talking about and his researchers are shite as well.
Look, Iain. I’m a firm believer in giving people fair warning so I should point out that shortly after posting yesterday’s missive on your party’s invitation to find my inner tosser - no thanks, btw, it make the keyboard sticky - I toddled off (figuratively speaking) to my domain registrar and picked up the domain name ‘twat-it.co.uk’. You can guess what’s coming next…
In any case, if anyone’s the expert on the internet and tossers it’ll be your own Party Chairman. Don’t suppose he’s got a few copies of “Anally Yours”, “When The Boyz are Away the Girls will Play”, “An Ass Lovers Dream”, “100% Anal # 2″, “Giving Ass”, “100% Interracial #3″ or “Asian Divas #5″ going spare?
It all happened quietly and without fanfare but for those of us who care about such things history will recall that this was the week the the Independent bowed to the inevitable and dismantled their subscription firewall, having finally come to appreciate what us humble bloggers have been saying all along; that the value in being talked about freely far outweighed the (presumably) meagre sums of money that the Indy were eeeking out of their pay per view system.
The upside to this new arrangement should be immediately obvious - if you’ve a few minutes to spare, go and catch up with the musings of the excellent Matthew Norman and the ascerbic wit of Simon Carr immediately, you won’t regret it.
It also means, joy of joys, free access to possibily the best serious columnist currently writing in any of the upmarket dailies; Dominic Lawson.
Dominic Lawson? Praised by a lefty? Has the world gone mad?
Not as far as I’m concerned.
I like reading Lawson’s columns for the Indy, not because I necessarily agree with his opinions (often I don’t) but simply because I find his to be a writer who invariably puts up a good argument based on a strong, logically constucted narrative. I respect that and, reading his work, am always left with the impression that one could have a very good, if challenging, debate with Lawson. A real debate. An exchange of ideas and genuinely, and forthrightly, held opinons.
Its that which makes his columns so appealling, even if one disagrees with his views.
It certainly hasn’t hurt his standing in my eyes, either, to discover this in his current column:
I rather enjoyed the retort of the blogger known as Mr Eugenides, who commented: “Personally I find it pretty grotesque that a couple of dozen Cabinet ministers can spend £550bn of hard-working families’ money between them. I think we need a debate about that, not the bonuses paid to some private-sector bosses. Their remuneration, however exorbitant to the rest of us, is none of Peter Hain’s fucking business.”
Not only is Lawson aware of bloggers, always a good start, but he’s actually read and is quoting, in his own article, the estimable Mr Eugenides.
That - other columnists take note - is how to begin a new era of online openness on the right foot.
Personal Unity on 24 Nov 2006
It seems that your humble correspondent has inadvertantly found themselves drawn into a dispute between Oliver Kamm and Neil Clark which his gone far enough to result in a minor bout of legal ‘fisticuffs’ courtesy of a one-time visitor to MoT (or possible its predecessor, TalkPolitics) who styles himself as George Courtenay.
For those seeking to understand the backstory to all this, these are the relevant posts.
Oliver Kamm - Neil Clark (21 November 2006)
As far as the genesis of this matter is concerned my understanding is that Mr Kamm and Mr Clark harbour rather divergent interpretations of certain events that took place during the course of the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s and have, on occasion, debated their difference of opinion in an open and rather robust manner.
As a great believer in free expression this is, I consider, an entirely healthy manner in which to address matters of dispute and take no issue with either party.
The actions of the pseudonymous “Mr Courtenay” are, however, a rather different matter entirely - as some may recall I had the rather dubious ‘pleasure’ of his company on a small number of occasions, having made critical remarks regarding articles written by Kamm, and found him to be an insufferably arrogant and ill-mannered troll.
Whether Courtenay has any direct association with Oliver Kamm I cannot say with any certainty, in part for the simple reason that I have never felt the need to query the matter with Kamm, but mainly because Oliver has never once struck me as the kind of man to rely on others to fight his battles for him and, as such, I am confident that were he to have anything to say on the subject of my own comments, he would make use of either the comments facility here, or his own blog, to post a response.
I should also note that despite the rather creative suggest made at Neil’s blog as to the possibile origins of the name ‘George Courtenay’, I do not for one second accept the suggestion (made in comments and not by Neil) that Mr Courtenay may be David T of Harry’s Place, or indeed any of the other regular contributors at HP. Again, it is simply not their ’style’.
If Kamm and Clark wish to debate their differences online, or even in a court of law, that is a matter for them, and them alone, and not not in which a third party has any real business in interfering, a principle that is seeming lost on Mr Courtenay, who appears to have taken it upon himself to contact the editor of a newspaper for which Mr Clark writes (he is a professional journalist) by email, as follows:
From: George Courtenay [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] Sent: Monday, February 20, 2006 1:33 PM
To: [email omitted]
Cc: Neil Clark; Oliver Kamm
Subject: Neil Clark sources
I see you have published an opinion article by Neil Clark today. That’s all good to print a range of views but you may be interested that Oliver Kamm of the London Times has been investigating Mr. Clark’s use of sources.
Mr.Clark doesn’t say the same thing in his new article but as he’s lied to other editors I’m bringing it to your attention.
(Gawab.com, Courtenay’s email provider, is an Egyptian-based free webmail service and, therefore unlikely to be of relevance to efforts to ascertain his identity).
Neil also notes in the same post:
UPDATE: Within hours of Kamm’s allegations being posted on his blog yesterday, the editor of the Australian newspaper received another such email, linking to Kamm’s piece. I’ll leave readers to draw their own conclusions as to such a remarkable coincidence.
If there is a sensible conclusion to be drawn here it is only that Courtenay is, first and foremost, a troll and, second, that his general mental state must be considered potentially dubious. I doubt very much that Kamm appreciates his attentions any more than Clark, and all the more so if he’s even seen ‘Play Misty for Me’.
In all, there is a dynamic here that I do not like. Courtenay has, in his actions, exceeded the bounds of acceptable behaviour, not least the long-standing convention amongst ‘netheads’ that disputes that start online should stay online and not cross over into the real world.
Having crossed that line, I have no qualms if offering what little assistance I can to Neil should he wish to pursue further action against Courtenay, being in possession of both the times of Courtenay’s comments on this blog and, more importantly, the IP address from which the comments were posted, one of which is clearly his home address and another almost certainly his place of employment. If Neil would care to leave an e-mail address at which I can forward the information to him, I will be only too happy to do so and I would suggest that he then either raises the matter with the Police as a issue of harassment or makes an application to a relevant court for an order instructing the ISP’s in question to disclose Courtenay’s real identity, or at least the identity of his employer, as a necessary precursor to a civil action.
Any one who believes that the civil liberties objections to the introduction of identity cards and the near unchecked growth of the database state and the surveillence society are ‘shockingly feeble‘ or a very middle-class disorder would do well to take the time to read both the Information Commissioner’s Office’s ‘Issues Paper: Protecting Children’s Personal Information’ and the Foundation for Information Policy Research’s report on which it is based, Children’s Databases – Safety and Privacy before writing off such concerns.
Towards the end of the Victorian era, a number of loosely related pseudosciences underwent a surge in popularity, the best known of which were those of physiognomy and phrenology. Both purported, falsely, to enable their practioners to make judgments and even predictions about the character of individuals based solely on certain physical characteristics, either the outer appearance in general, but particularly the face, in the case of physignomy, or the shape of the head in phrenology. Both drew their popularity, in part, from false attributions that were used to suggest that these pseudosciences had been validated by what were, at the time, some of the newest and most modern (and fashionable) advances in science; Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection and the emerging social science of Psychology and both found their way into, amongst other things, the developing field of criminology, where it was suggested that they could be used not only to identify criminals but also to predict which individuals would, and would not, possess crimial traits or tendancies.
Both were, of course, complete and utter rubbish.
One concern is what we might call ‘e-discrimination’. In the past, it has been well documented that children who were black, or from poor neighbourhoods or travelling families, suffered disproportionate police attention because of the expectation that they would be more likely to offend. The expectation could easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. A system that attempts to predict which children will become delinquent, by totting up negative indicators from health, school and other records, runs the serious risk of recreating the same problems – especially as the information, analysis and professional opinions it contains will be made available to many of the public-sector workers who come into contact with the child. A perfectly law-abiding youngster from a difficult home background, who has perhaps struggled to overcome learning and health difficulties, may find at every turn that teachers expect less, and that police attention is more likely. As the causes of this discrimination are online, the youngster cannot mitigate them simply by dressing neatly and being polite. The data and algorithms used as a basis for discrimination might not be accessible to the victim (whether practically or at all) and thus a victim of unjustified discrimination might end up with no recourse. This raises serious data protection concerns relating to the appropriateness of collecting, processing and retaining the data.
Children’s Databases - Safety and Privacy, pp2
Nor is the criminal-justice community happy. Britain’s most eminent criminologist, Professor David Farrington FBA (whose work has been used extensively to justify the children’s database program) sounds a warning note:
“Caution is, however, required. In particular, any notion that better screening can enable policy makers to identify young children destined to join the 5 per cent of offenders responsible for 50-60 per cent of crime is fanciful. Even if there were no ethical objections to putting “potential delinquent” labels round the necks of young children, there would continue to be statistical barriers. Research into the continuity of anti-social behaviour shows substantial flows out of – as well as in to – the pool of children who develop chronic conduct problems. This demonstrates the dangers of assuming that anti-social five-year-olds are the criminals or drug abusers of tomorrow, as well as for highlighting the undoubted opportunities that exist for prevention.”
Children’s Databases - Safety and Privacy, pp3
Now, perhaps, do you understand why civil libertarians are so concerned about these developments?
This is not paranoia speaking, but experience.
Given the capability to monitor almost every aspect of a citizen’s life, the state will ultimately find a way to do just that no matter how much it promises not to at the time that the monitoring systems are constructed. All it takes is time.
Justifications can be found, maybe even manufactured. Safeguards can be rolled back and then dispensed with. The state’s use of surveillence, monitoring and profiling will expand to meet its technical capabilities; after all if it has those capabilities, why not use them to their fullest extent.
When the collection of DNA samples was first introduced in the 1990’s, the Conservative government of the day imposed strict regulations, which required the Police to destroy any samples and profiles obtained in the course of an investigation that were found to have no relevence to the case.
The Police disregarded the law and retained those profiles.
By the time this came to light, the government had changed and New Labour was in power. How did they respond to the revelation that the Police had disregarded the law in order to compile a DNA database containing profiles individuals to which they had no legal right?
They changed the law not only to permit the retention of DNA profiles but applied these changes retrospectively to legitimise what the Police had already done.
That’s not speculation, that actually happened within the lifespan of this present government.
How then can we trust a future government to abide by commitments given now as to how these systems will, and will not be used?
We can’t. In fact due to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty and the principle that no parliament may bind a successor we cannot build in any safeguards against the future use, and abuse, of these systems by the state.
Physiognomy, or rather its modern equivaltent, profiling, appears to be back with a vengence.
(hat tip: Not Saussure)
Oh for fuck’s sake!
Here’s Cameron in the Graun ‘launching a new internet initiative because politicians urgently need to find new ways of engaging with the public’.
Right now, our political culture is undergoing unprecedented transformation. The old answers will not work in a new age, and political parties need to understand the forces that are stirring within society if they are to keep being relevant.
Right, so we’re straight into Cloney Blair mode. Tinfoil helmets at the ready, folks, the toff’s going to be talking about something ‘modern’.
There are two fundamental and mutually dependent factors that are contributing to this shift. First, we are in the early stages of the internet revolution, and evolving with it is a whole new age of political communication and engagement.
Oooohhh shit! Looks like those bastards over at ConservativeHome have explained to him what a blog is and shown him fucking YouTube.
Before, politicians and the mainstream media believed that when we talked people listened. Now, there are 57m blogs - that means 57m new newspaper editors. Every minute, 15 new user-generated videos are uploaded on to YouTube - that means 450 new news items during the time of an evening news bulletin.
WTF? User generated videos on YouTube a minute are news? Can you imagine Trevor McDonut presenting the YouTube news?
And tonight’s main headlines again…
YouTube has obtained exclusive footage of two parka-wearing dickheads miming to ‘Wonderwall’ and a teenager being pushed down a canal tow-path by his mates in a shopping trolley.
And finally… In Sunderland, today, Dwayne Bloggins successfully entered the Guinness Book of Records having broken the world record for the most rockets fired successfully out his arsehole in one minute.
More on News at Ten, later, including exclusive film of his record-breaking attempt.
Could it possibily get any worse? Well it does…
Second, and linked to this, we need to understand that young people are not disengaging themselves from the political arena. In fact, the reality is that they are getting more involved than ever before. Social networks such as MySpace and Bebo bring together people not through common geography, but through common interest.
Oh fuck! He’s after the ‘Yoof’ vote - this is going to be bad.
This week, we will be launching “sort-it“, an innovative and provocative internet-based campaign designed to encourage young people to think about their own social responsibilities. The first issue we have chosen is personal debt, but many more will be addressed in the months ahead, such as racism and homelessness.
WARNING. WARNING. WARNING.
MIDDLE-AGED TOFF TRYING TO BE TRENDY ALERT!
DO NOT PANIC. GO HOME. WATCH COUNTDOWN AND WAIT FOR THE ALL CLEAR.
They’ve called the website what? SORT-IT!
Mwahahahahahahahahahahaha! Oh fuck me this is priceless - straight out of the 80s Yoof TV pisstake in the Young Ones that had Ben Elton presenting a programme called ‘Nosin’ Around’.
Still, as they’ve helpfully provided a link to
nosin’ around sort-it, I suppose I might as well go and have a look.
Cameron’s going to teach young people about fiscal responsibility using an orange permatanned sitcom chav in a 1980s Miami Vice suit who’ll being encouraging young people to explore their inner ‘Tosser’ (that’s the bit of you that make’s you spend all your money on crap and get into shitloads of debt - what we used to call ‘capitalists’.)
Oh fuck me! Cameron’s big idea for ‘connecting’ with young people via the internet is a fucking bling-ridden, mockney, Oompa Loompa.
What else can one do in the circumstances but…
Even by the usual standards of Home Office casuistry you’d have to go some to top Liam Byrne’s current article on Comment is Free, which he also manages to drop right in the middle of week long debate on the politics of race and identity.
Deporting illegal migrants is not populist, apparently, its ‘progressive’ - and to prove the point he notes that:
Immigration is either one or two on the public’s issue list, depending on which poll you read.
…which looks rather like a populist argument, doesn’t it.
It’s also, apparently, definitely NOT ’some kind of craven pandering to a tabloid agenda’.
So we can be sure that Liam hasn’t noticed today’s headline in the Daily Express, ‘55,000 Migrants Claiming Benefits’.
Of course, as is invariably the case when it comes to the screamsheets, things aren’t always quite what they appear, as once one gets past the usual tendentious bollocks at the start of the article:
AROUND 55,000 East Europeans who have flooded into Britain to work are getting millions of pounds a year in benefits.
More than one in 10 Lithuanians, Poles - like those pictured arriving at London’s Victoria coach station - and others are receiving state handouts.
One finds that the actual breakdown of benefit claimants from Eastern Europe is…
35,448 receiving child benefit at up to £17.45 a week…
…which is, of course, a universal benefit paid to all families with children under the age of 16.
According to the most recent statistics from HM Revenue & Customs, 7.4 million families currently receive child benefit for a total of 13.2 million children, and as one suspects that the figure of 35,448 cited by the Express is the number of children for which child benefit is being claimed and not the number families making claims, this amounts to a staggering 0.26% of the total number of children for whom child benefit is paid.
Wow, that’s really going to put the system under major strain.
17,512 getting tax credits which could be between £1,365 a year for a single worker and £5,300 a year for a couple with children.
The operative phrase here being ‘worker’ as someone doing a low paid job.
There are also 353 in line for income support (at £57.45 a week), 859 in line for jobseeker’s allowance (also at £57.45 a week) and 32 in line for state pension credit (at £43.55 a week).
So, out of 510,000 migrant workers who’ve entered the UK from Eastern Europe since 2004, a whole 1212 are currently unemployed and ‘in line’ for receiving welfare benefits… possibly… maybe… look, what ‘in-line’ actually means is not that they’re actually receiving benefits but that they’ve made a claim which has been allowed to progress through the system to be assessed, i.e. they’ve not been turned down automatically as being ineligible for benefits outright.
Council housing is also being provided for whole 128 migrants and local authorities are providing housing support for a further 524 - one would guess this to mean simply helping them find somewhere to live.
So a quick bit of maths shows that out of 510,000 migrants, less that 20,000 are receiving, or might receive work-related benefits, leaving 490,000 out there working in Britian’s economy, generating profits and paying taxes, give or take any that couldn’t find suitable work and have since gone elsewhere.
Still, I suppose ‘490,000 Migrants Pay Income Tax’ is not the kind of headline that fits the prejudices of the Express and its readers.
But that’s, to some extent, by the by as what Liam’s talking about is illegal and not legal migration and the craven pandering to a tabloid agenda in the latter area is already done and dusted in terms of the restrictions that will imposed on migration from Bulgaria and Romania when they joined the European Union.
So why, pay tell, is taking a tough line on immigration a ‘progressive’ policy?
Well, according to Liam its because illegal immigration is not a victimless crime, in the sense that it support exploitation by unscrupulous and conniving businesses and an ‘industry’ in people traffiking run by organised group.
So it’s not a victimless crime, but in the main it’s the illegal migrants who’re the actual victims, here.
So the logic here seems to be that a tough policy on immigration is progressive because it enable us to deport the victims.
Looking a little further down the article we find a few more examples of the government’s ‘progressive’ approach to immigration.
Crimestoppers will help us take information from the public.
Or as Stalinists used to call it ‘denunciation’…
…a much bigger detention estate will mean more can be held
More detention centres… and to cap it all…
…we will consult on how to keep to a minimum abusive judicial review applications that simply frustrate legitimate deportations.
There’s a Latin phrase that leaps to mind here… ah, yes! Habeas Corpus. Yes our wonderfully progressive government is looking for a way to restrict the right of habeas corpus in immigration cases.
All wonderfully progressive, eh? And don’t think that Liam’s finished yet…
Together we have to find a solution to a big problem. Remittances from foreign workers are second only to foreign direct investment in value for the developing world. But for European nations, committed like us to international development, we need help from states taking back their own people who are here illegally. Providing passports and permission to return is one of the single biggest barriers to removing immigration offenders.
As Labour thinks ahead, the global challenge of migration is perhaps one of biggest issues that has changed since we took power. The 1997 manifesto devoted 135 words to immigration. But, in the months to come, we shouldn’t be afraid of arguing today’s policy with confidence. It is rooted in a fairness that is fundamentally Labour.
What’s particularly irritating about this article is not only the obvious absurdity of trying to sell a policy in which the ‘victim’ (as identified by Liam) may be first denounced to the state, then incarcerated, denied their rights under habeas corpus and finally deported on the basis of it being [allegedly] progressive; but its complete and utter banality.
One gets the definite sense that it really doesn’t matter what the policy is, it could just as easily be the restoration of hanging, the use of torture, the reconsitution of the Star Chamber or the cancellation of Christmas, somewhere along the line a colourless drone of junior minister will be despatched to tell us that we’ve all got it wrong and the policy is really ‘progressive’, ‘fair’ and ‘rooted in Labour values’ as if, on hearing that, we’ll all just think to ourselves, ‘Oh well, that’s alright then’. The one consolation here is that at least Liam doesn’t use the dreaded ‘m’-word, modern, although he does get pretty close to it at the end by talking about immigration as one of biggest issues that has changed since we took power.
A genuinely progressive policy on immigration has to begin with the question, ‘why are people coming here illegally in the first place’, to which the answer is the same that it always was - to escape poverty and try to build a better life for themselves. (The clue’s in the name, economic migrants).
Economic migration is driven, unsurprisingly, by economics and, more particularly at the present time, by the manifest failings of the much-vaunted doctrine of globalisation, which far from offering free and open trade and, therefore, prosperity, for all, has been for the most part a one-way street in which developing countries have been forced (with their arm pushed firmly up their back) into adopting a uniform package of economic ‘medicine’ by the IMF and World Bank consisting of financial austerity, privatisation of key industries, public services and utilities and the opening of domestic markets to exploitation of Western corporate interests while America and Europe continue to play the same old game of protectionism, subsidies and self-interest.
Even acts of apparent philanthropy are locked firmly into the preservation and promotion of corporate interests and corporate capitalism. Bill Gates may be committing part of his personal fortune to tackling the spead of HIV and that age old killer, malaria, in Africa but look a little more closely and you’ll find that Bill’s largesse comes at a price; the unquestioning acceptance of the WTO’s TRIPS agreement on intellectual property, of which one of the main beneficiaries just happens to be Microsoft - another major supporter of and beneficiary from TRIPS, unsurprisingly, is ‘Big Pharma’.
The progressive way to tackle the issues of economic (and illegal) migration is not by more draconian law and tighter border controls - as ever these are only the symptoms of the problem - but by tackling its main causes; poverty and lack of economic opportunity, at source.
It is the simplest of equations to understand - many, if not most, of the people we’re now trying to deport would have had no need to migrate to the UK in the first place if only they could have made a decent living for themselves in their country of origin.
It was the grand old Fabian, George Bernard Shaw, who opined that ‘youth is wasted on the young”, and every so often one comes across evidence to support just such a contention, as in the case of this “strategy for taking on the Tory leader” posted on the blog of Compass Youth.
There are times when the aphorism that one must sometimes by cruel to kind is not merely justified but an absolute necessity, so lets get the cruetly out of the way first by deliberately picking on the title of the piece.
Cameron’s open goal: A strategy for taking on the Tory leader By Daniel Elton of Compass Youth
…aged 13 3/4.
Quick presentational tip here, Daniel. If you want to be taken seriously (and I assume you do) then try not to present the title of your article in way that make it look like a piece of GCSE coursework. Trust me, here, it doesn’t help.
Okay, now on with the
essay, errm… strategy.
David Cameron is the first Tory leader in living memory that could be described as trendy. He is reaching fashionable urban intellectuals, a key part of the Blairite coalition, and Labour are rattled.
Now hang on a second, Daniel.
For starter’s ‘trendy’ is a quality that’s very much in the eye of the beholder. Okay, so you do go on to qualify that statement by noting that the ‘trendy’ group he’s reaching are ‘fashionable urban intellectuals’, i.e. what pretty much everyone living in the real world outside London and the Home Counties would refer to as ‘a bunch of effete twats’.
That aside, yes, I would agree that Cameron is noticably chasing the same bunch of muesli-eating, open-toed sandals and Chelsea tractor liberals that Blair went after during the late 1990’s. i.e. he’s playing New Labour at their own game, which is really the observation you should be making.
As a footnote, ‘in living memory’ is a tad problematic as well as this, conceptually speaking, rather depends on how old your audience is. Sir Anthony Eden, for example, was considered to be extremely fashionable in his time in much the same upper-middle class circles that Cameron is now appealing to and would certainly be thought to be within the living memory of many older members of ourt present society.
But he is ignoring another crucial part of the New Labour coalition - low-paid white collar workers and skilled workers, or C1/C2 voters. It was these voters, especially southern ones, who helped make Labour electable again by switching from the Tories in the 90s.
Ah, yes. The return of Basildon man.
By wooing the urban elites, Cameron is leaving a vacuum on the rhetorical and policy stages. Labour has the opportunity to construct a rhetoric that unites the urban elites and C1/C2 voters and justifies policies true to the party’s heritage. But to understand what that rhetoric is and what those policies are, Cameron’s strategy has to be explained.
Labour has the opportunity to construct a rhetoric that unites the urban elites and C1/C2 voters and justifies policies true to the party’s heritage???
Tip number two, Daniel.
Find yourself a copy of Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ - to make life easy, check the sidebar here.
Read it. Read it again. Digest what it has to say. Read it again.
Now try to apply what Orwell has to say to your own writing.
I’m not about to bore everyone with Daniel’s analysis of Cameron’s ’strategy’ to woo the Islington set, suffice to say if you can recall the the approach that Blair took in builiding the ‘New Labour coalition’ between 1994 and 1997 then you immediate reaction will be the same as mine: same shit, different party.
What Daniel’s analysis misses, as does most of the assessments of Cameron emanating from Labour think-tanks (and bloggers) is that there might be just that bit more to Cameron than meets the eye, and certainly more than simply stealing Blair’s clothes.
Michael White, writing in today’s Guardian seems to get it:
When a promising young Tory MP urges his party to discard the social policy thinking of Sir Winston Churchill in favour of Polly Toynbee’s it may be time to concentrate…
…The real culprits, who rejected the One Nation Tory orthodoxy of 50 years, were Margaret Thatcher and acolytes like John Moore, who famously declared in 1989 that absolute poverty was over in Britain.
Daniel, one suspect, has the excuse of youth for failing to recognise the critical subtext to Cameron’s reform of the Tory’s policies and, at least in terms of opinion polls. He is simply too young to remember how the Tories operated in the pre-Thatcher era and has, therefore, no real benchmarks against which to assess Cameron.
There is, in this, the serious risk that we underestimate Cameron, not because we fail understand what Cameroon is doing but because we fail to place Margaret Thatcher into her proper context as a Tory leader.
Conservatism, in its traditional sense, is a doctrine of pragmatism and, unlike liberalism or socialism, distinctly unideological in character.
It was long said of the Tories that they considered themselves to be the natural party of government. And, indeed they did. However, this belief was rooted not in any presumption of ideological superiority over other political parties but simply in the belief that this was the ‘natural order of things’. Tories govern, in their own minds, because that is the role to which they are best suited and which they naturally occupy within the prevailing social heirarchy of British society.
Thatcher was not, in philosophical terms, a conservative. She was a radical, albeit one of the political right rather than the political left. Moreover, she and others amongst her supporters and acolytes, notably Keith Joseph, introduced into the Tory party something that it had never really had before; ideology. In terms of her impact on (and legacy to) the Tory Party, that was her reall innovation; one might almost say that she ‘infected’ the Tory Party with ideology and that the parties travails in the post-Thatcher era stem largely from its stuggle to shake off this infection.
Before Thatcher, Tories did not believe in changing society, merely in maintaining social order and does whatever was needed to keep society ticking over nicely, which is why, following the Attlee government of 1945-51, successive Tory leaders from Churchill through Eden and MacMillan to Heath did almost nothing to challenge or overturn the main social changes wrought by that first post-war government. The Tories more or less bought into the welfare state, even though Churchill raided the newly created National Insurance system to pay for his programme of road-building and, therefore, both undermined one of the key planks of the Beveridge report and laid the seeds for today’s impending pension ‘crisis’. They bought into Keynesian economics, accepted the nationalisation of key industries and the creation of the National Health Service, not because they necessarily believed in any of these things or had any great ideological attachment to them but because, at the time, they worked and worked well enough not to make change a necessity.
This is simple pragmatism, the doctrine of ‘if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it’.
This is what Michael White recognises in identifying Thatcher as one of the ‘culprits’ who rejected ‘One Nation Tory orthodoxy’ and the fact that he refers to Thatcher in those terms in article that deals with Cameron’s potential reforms of Tory social policy suggests that he is beginning to that there may be a little more to what Cameron is doing than simply emulating the tactics of New Labour that swept Blair to power; that, in actuality, his underlying agenda may well be to ‘cleanse’ the Tory Party of the ideological afflictions visited on it by Thatcher and restore to the party its traditional pragmatism.
Cameron may well represent not a ‘New Toryism’ to parallel ‘New Labour’ but simply a reversion by the Tory Party to type - and in one sense, Cameron, as an Old Etonian scion of the aristocracy, is already just such a reversion.
To be fair, Daniel does (sort of) flirt with an understanding of this possibility in noting:
Up until the 1970s around three-quarters of the middle-class voted Tory and many did so out of a sense of respectability.
Although there is rather more to it than that, and efforts to analyse how the Tories (allegedly) ‘lost’ Professionals does suffer from two rather more fundmantal flaws.
First, it appears to disregard entirely the effects of Thatcherism and of ideology individualism during the 1980’s, which he seems to think was little more than an anti-60’s backlash - presumably what we used to call ‘Yuppies’ were either a figment of my (and everyone elses) imagination or else they disappeared in around 1991/2 having reached a state of social nirvana arising out the discovery of muesli and open-toed sandals.
Second, the entire passage is completely and utterly patronising in its tone, as in:
Up until the 1970s around three-quarters of the middle-class voted Tory and many did so out of a sense of respectability.
They [the middle classes] went to church once a week, or at least at Christmas and Easter, followed Cricket and Rugby Union rather than Football and Rugby League, and watched the BBC rather than ITV. For these people, voting Conservative was just another facet of a respectable life.
This line [’Back to Basics’, ‘Victorian Values, etc.] had served the Tories well in the 80s, when an anti-60s backlash was in full flow. But it was not ideal once a segment of society that worshipped youth and had dabbled in free love came into its prime.
So there you have it - the key to building a liberal, tolerant and humane society is a bit of guilt-free shagging.
Little wonder that Don Paskini calls the article ‘Spectacularly bad‘.
‘The Don’ raises a number of pertinant points, none more so than his observation that ‘the individual policies suggested are ones which would not work very well’.
Quite right too. In fact, to offer Daniel another little tip, if you’re going to attach figures, and especially sums of money, to policies, then its usually a good idea to do ‘the numbers’ first an not simply pull figures out of your arse.
A British Universal Inheritance, of lets say £10,000 paid out to each citizen at the age of 21, to start them off in life, could be funded by inheritance tax. The age, figure and whether spending should be restricted to housing, education, entrepreneurship etc, could be debated. The important point would be that citizens would take responsibility for their lives. Rather than some children being given a head start because of mummy or daddy, or Cameron’s paternalistic welfarism.
If introduced today (well starting from next April to keep with the tax year) a ‘British Universal Inheritance’ of £10,000 would cost something of the order of £8 billion, and, in fact, if one has a bit of play with the projections on the ‘population pyramid‘ provided by thr National Statistic Office then the number of people becoming eligible for this payment would generally bottom out at around 700,000 a year, give or take the number of (presumably) ineligible migrants in that figure, so we can safely assume a minimum cost for this policy of around £6.5 billion a year - but only if this payment remains static and does not increase in line with either inflation or earnings.
The Treasury’s current ‘take’ from Inheritance Tax is around £2.5 billion a year.
One doesn’t need to be an economist to figure out where to problem with this suggested policy lies.
I don’t wish to be too harsh on Daniel, not least because a dare say that some of the ideas that I (and most of us) probably harboured at his age would seem equally daft when looked at with the benefit of experience and, of course, one of the best ways to learn is by making mistakes and learning from them.
What I would, perhaps, suggest though is that, for time being he might consider being a little more circumspect in his aspirations and try tackling something a little less ambitious than ‘a strategy for taking on’ David Cameron - maybe take one of the specific policy ideas he suggests and work it up in a bit more detail and see how it goes.