November 9th, 2009

The case for forcing birth control on unfit mothers

The Dutch are odd. They seem so moderate, so practical, so sensible – a nation of considerate egalitarian cyclists – yet they take their virtues to extremes. They pursue common sense to a fault. For instance, there are plenty of arguments in favour of mercy killing, yet few nations feel quite able to make it legal. The Dutch did, with enthusiasm, long ago. The same is true of legalising cannabis and prostitution. Another example of this tendency emerged last week. Reports hit the blogosphere that a Dutch socialist politician, Marjo Van Dijken of the PvDA party (the social democratic Labour party), is putting a draft bill before the Dutch parliament recommending that unfit mothers should be forced by law into two years of contraception. Any babies wilfully conceived in that period should be confiscated at birth. Unfit mothers would mean those who have already been in serious trouble because of their bad parenting. There is, I suppose, a grain of common sense behind all that, but Van Dijken has taken it to what seem like scary extremes. One imagines Dutch do-gooders on bikes, descending on all the imperfect mothers of Holland and bearing away their babies in countless bicycle baskets, like totalitarian ex-post facto storks. In person Van Dijken sounds less alarming. She explains that the professionals who come into contact with families in difficulties all say the same thing. They see the same problems repeated again and again in certain families. It’s obvious from when social workers are forced to take the first child into care that it won’t be the last. Dijken’s idea is to try to prevent a new pregnancy in a family whose existing children are already in care until the situation has improved enough for them to be able to come back home. Two years might be a suitable period. If, after the suggested two years of compulsory contraception, the family is still not safe for children, the contraception order could be extended by a judge’s review. “If there’s a better way, a less invasive way, I will never mention my proposals again,” she says. If hers is not the answer to the problem, the question remains: what should be done about unfit parents? Children are increasingly being damaged by them. At the extremes, chaotic mothers who are prostitutes or addicts or mentally ill or just what my own mother called inadequate are condemning their children to the same miserable and disordered lives. Man hands on misery to man, as Philip Larkin wrote, and so does woman. Less extremely, many children are also being damaged by parents who are not so obviously unfit, but still bad enough to do serious harm. On Friday questions by Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, revealed that more than 4,000 children aged five or under were suspended from school in Britain because of their troubled and violent behaviour. Of the 400 suspensions of children aged just two and three, 310 involved physical assault and threatening behaviour. Numbers of exclusion in all groups under 11 are increasing, mostly because of uncontrolled or violent behaviour. According to Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, nursery and primary schools are seeing more parents who have simply lost control: “It’s down to poor parenting.” Very bad behaviour at school at an early age is just the tip of a disastrous iceberg; hidden under the surface lies a future of illiteracy, unemployment, crime, broken relationships and unhappiness. Even before children of unfit parents get to schools, their destiny is blighted. Increasingly scientists are beginning to understand that neglect retards cognitive development or impairs it – as with the extreme cases of children in Romanian orphanages, who have never recovered from the personal and sensory deprivation they suffered. Language skills and social skills not learnt in infancy may never be learnt; trauma will be hard-wired into the brain. In plain English, an infant whose mother never reads or plays with him or her, who is constantly uncertain what will happen next and whether he or she will eat, or whether the mother will be enraged or demanding or high, is a child with a permanently damaged future. The cost of bad parents to such an individual is terrible, but it is also very high to the rest of society. Given all that, it cannot be right for inadequate mothers to go on giving birth to babies who are destined to be damaged and to inflict damage on others. Equally, it seems wrong to think of interfering with a woman’s freedom to have a baby. So we are left with the question of which evil is greater – interference with the mother’s freedom or the damage to her child and to society. As John Stuart Mill said: “To bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society.” A moral crime, I agree. But Mill goes on to say that “if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the state ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent”. Taxing unfit parents, rather than temporarily sterilising unfit mothers, might seem more acceptable. But there are several glaring problems with this solution, too. Such parents won’t have any money to tax. And besides, the most unfit parent of all is the state; in this country its nurslings are condemned to exceptionally high rates of illiteracy, poverty, crime and mental illness. On Mill’s argument, the state here ought to be taxed for the disastrous treatment of its “looked-after” children. A simpler way to reduce the number of damaged children would be to give parents incentives not to have more than two children; after two, benefits would be withdrawn and larger housing could be withheld. It seems to me unfair to deny people any children at all. But it might be right to reduce the number to two. That would be fairer to taxpayers than expecting them to support families larger than their own and it might persuade genuinely unfit mothers that it is not in their interests to keep producing babies; they will be better off without. It is time that, like Van Dijken, we started asking these extreme questions.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 8th, 2009

Busy-bee MPs have lost their real purpose, so let’s cull some

In these dark days we all try to find little moments of amusement. Fortunately there is plenty of laughter still to be had at the MPs’ expenses comedy. Now that Sir Christopher Kelly has published his plans to punish MPs for their greediness and their silliness, and consign them to miserable backstreet bedsits, we can all sit back and enjoy their squeals of unselfcritical outrage. What is much more fun, though, is the fury of the MPs’ wives at Kelly’s idea of stopping them working for their husbands. Suzy Gale, married to the Conservative MP Roger Gale, is leading a cross-party group of MPs’ wives — and a few husbands who work for their spouses — who intend to protest vehemently. There have been tantrums in the Commons tearooms and talk of joint legal action. Suzy Gale says Kelly’s proposal is a mess and “we are jolly cross”. Now that’s telling them. How I laughed. I haven’t heard that expression since I left the hockey fields of my old-fashioned girls’ school rather a long time ago. We must not judge people by their dialects, I know, but a mature and educated woman, wife to a veteran legislator, who uses such a locution at such a time can only be called out of touch. Another political female who is comically out of touch on such matters is Helen Goodman, the work and pensions minister. Kelly has recommended that MPs should no longer be allowed to charge for cleaners or gardeners on their expenses. In response to this, Goodman solemnly announced last week that women would be put off standing for parliament unless they could have cleaning ladies on expenses. What’s more, she is accusing Kelly and his reforms of sexism, because it is women who usually do the family cleaning. The best of the joke is that she earns more than £96,000 a year as a politician at Westminster. I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to her to do as the rest of us do and either clean up ourselves or pay for a cleaner out of our own taxed income. Out of £96,000 one might have thought that should be feasible. How on earth does this minister for work imagine other working women manage? Perhaps she somehow doesn’t understand that there are millions of women and men out there who are sorting out their domestic cleaning without handouts from the taxpayer and also managing to confront domestic sexism, should they encounter it, without governmental support. A woman who can’t make her husband help with the housework, one way or another, or handle it on her own is hardly likely to have the political skills one might expect even of the humblest backbencher. Yet this is the calibre of minister that the present system does and must raise up. The funniest thing of all, though, is so many MPs’ passionate protests at the unfairness of all this. “Well,” the rest of us can say, grinning widely, “now you know what it feels like. You, at our expense, have been imposing unfairness upon all the rest of us, in all aspects of our lives, so fast and furiously that we could hardly keep up with the growth of our resentments and your injustices. Of course there’s been a great deal of unfairness to MPs. But if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t dish it out.” What emerges is that we no longer have any clear idea of what an MP is for. All sorts of ill-considered assumptions have led us to the point where we feel obliged to support an MP with his spouse and children, in two households, complete with constant travel, assistants, childminders, gardeners, cleaners, white goods and all the rest. The true cost must be ferocious; it’s normally something only the rich can do. Yet until now the public has not objected to this dubious idea. Most people do object to the sleight of hand by which parliament tried to pay MPs enough to cover all this through the back door of expenses. Even so, it seems, many people still think MPs ought to be able to have a full family life in two places — London and their constituency — and travel constantly as a family between them, but perhaps without any domestic cleaning. Kelly’s idea that MPs should accept a hotel room or bedsit when away from home on parliamentary business has seemed harsh, even to those who loathe politicians: it would be rather gloomy and would be all too likely to encourage yet more adultery and home-wrecking among MPs, who are oddly prone to it anyway. However, given that the MP system is more than ready for creative destruction, if we started from first principles and asked what an MP is for, we might arrive at some radically cost-cutting conclusions. Why is it necessary for MPs to spend so much time in their constituencies anyway? What do they have to do? And why live there? In my view, MPs waste huge amounts of their time and our money in their surgeries, doing things other people should be doing, and doing better: advising people on their problems with planning, healthcare, social services, schools, racism and sexism, dealing with minor grievances and eccentrics and acting — in some places — as paralegals for large numbers of constituents who are having citizenship difficulties with the Home Office. MPs should not be social workers or amateur therapists, or ombudsmen or paralegal outreach workers. They should be something different. But what? Members of parliament once had a function in making Westminster listen, occasionally, to the voice of the shires, the pits, minorities and the concerns of the people they represented. With mass communication and focus groups, that’s no longer necessary: such things can be better done by professionals, and are. MPs once had the function of thinking and voting independently, according to their best judgment. With the parliamentary whipping system, that is now impossible, at least for anyone aspiring to real power above the back benches. MPs once had the function of deciding the main policies of the country. With the growth of the European Union, most of that has been ceded to Brussels. The truth is that the constituencies don’t need them and Westminster doesn’t need them, or at least very many of them, and there’s no good reason we should pay so many so much. We do need more of the best minds on select committees, and more of the ablest from the real world outside. But generally we need fewer MPs, much less of their time and a great deal less of the expense of them. That is a cheering thought.


November 2nd, 2009

A golden chance for the BBC to return to what it’s good at

Now is the time for all good men and women to stand up and defend the BBC. Of course it is true that Auntie has turned into a greedy, confused vulgar old bat. The people looking after her are greedy, confused and irresponsible themselves, but she must be protected.

The BBC was, and could easily be again, something to be proud of, a force for good and unique in international broadcasting. It would be a great national loss if the Ross-Brand Radio 2 scandal were used as an excuse to destroy Auntie by all those who would love to see her brought down.

I share the general view that it is unforgivably nasty and cruel to torment a harmless man, publicly on air, by insulting him and his granddaughter in messages on his answerphone. The recording of these messages is much worse than the edited reports: Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand were like a pair of psychopathic school bullies on acid and even suggested that their victim might kill himself.

It is a mystery to many millions, and to me, that anyone should for an instant consider broadcasting such a piece of sadism, let alone the BBC. But Ross and Brand have their defenders. Such stuff has an enthusiastic audience and so the editors at the BBC must have thought at the time, when they decided to let this programme go out. Defending Brand and his show last week, Noel Gallagher of Oasis said: “You know what? There’s now a massive divide. Them and us.” That’s true and the BBC was on the wrong side.

Admittedly the waters are slightly muddy.

It is not so far clear, from the BBC’s own website report, that Andrew Sachs did refuse to give his permission to use the material. It may not be relevant that his granddaughter works as Voluptua, the Goth vampire stripper, for the group Satanic Sluts, has boasted about her liberated lifestyle and had indeed slept with Brand. And it is important that the BBC and its artists should be free to be offensive, within reason, or as people now say “edgy”, although if in doubt they can rely on the commercial media to take up the burden. It’s not as though sexual innuendo, bullying and abuse are underrepresented on the airwaves, edgy or not. Even so, the whole episode is without a doubt bad enough to call the future of the BBC into question.

This could be a wonderful opportunity.

Bloated old Auntie could at last be subjected to tough love and restored to her former glorious purpose by a strict new regime of self-denial and self-discipline. Instead, we see media jackals hovering.

Commercial television would love to be rid of the unfair competition suffered from the BBC – and understandably so. It is entirely wrong for a public service body such as the BBC to compete, with taxpayers’ money, against private sector media groups. So it’s hardly surprising that they welcome the corporation’s disastrous embarrassment.

Meanwhile, television apparatchiks and the great and the good come up with all sorts of hopeless tinkering to sort this injustice out, such as top-slicing – each one more complex, tedious and unworkable than the last. You cannot share out bits and pieces of the BBC’s public sector protection to the private sector. It always was a self-contradictory nonsense.

In all this the forces of commercial competition are supported by those who see no need for subsidised television at all – a motley collection of latterday Mary Whitehouses, extremist free marketeers who obviously don’t see much foreign television and those who wrongly think the BBC’s political bias is reason to shut it down.

Indeed it is quite hard for the BBC to defend itself these days. Quite apart from general dumbing down, vulgarisation and liberal bias, it has had plenty of scandals. As John Humphrys pointed out on the Today programme last week, there have been three in only a couple of months and each time the trustees talk about tightening editorial control. They are doing it again, having been astonishingly spineless throughout this drama. To hear Sir Michael Lyons, the top trustee, on the radio last week, or Sir Christopher Bland before him, is to hear what is wrong with the great and the good in our day – ineffective, overcautious, overprotective and with all the decisive elan of Dickens’s Circumlocution Office or, as Kelvin MacKenzie put it last week, “a diamond-encrusted dud”.

Meanwhile, the BBC has put out a remarkably nasty comment about the Queen and her genitals. And to my astonishment in Little Dorrit, Andrew Davies’s lavish BBC adaptation of the Dickens novel, a genteel Victorian lady was made to remark to a single gentleman that she thought Chinese ladies were different “down there”. Apart from being the most sensational anachronism, it is astonishingly vulgar – typical of the vulgarisation of the BBC, even in its best work.

I still believe that the BBC could rise like a phoenix from the ashes of its reputation if it tried radical simplification. The corporation should drop most of what it does. It shouldn’t be providing silly chat shows, game shows, local radio, pop stations, breakfast television, bought-in programmes and all the low-skilled, low-grade rest. The simple way to make these cuts is to remain firmly on the right side of Gallagher’s divide – the side of civility and maturity, of high standards, of education, even of elitism, of fairness and decency, of the good and of the best. That’s what the BBC is for.

First of all, it should abandon the commitment to serving every audience, a pledge made long before the explosion of the commercial media: others can do that. Besides, plenty of audiences are actually undesirable, such as the hard porn community and the paedophile community and the Wossy apologists.

The BBC should ignore them and serve audiences that need protection from the cold winds of the market or the stale breath of populist taste; it should dump programmes that others do as well unless it can do them better and stick to doing well things that others do badly or not at all. Quality news, documentaries, drama, education, religious programmes and comedy come to mind.

This would save the BBC millions and since, as Mark Thompson, the director-general, said not long ago, the BBC is “wallowing in a Jacuzzi of cash”, it ought to be able to do a lot less a great deal better. How about some value for all that money?

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 1st, 2009

Making Dramas Out of a Crisis

Just as fact is often stranger than fiction, so reality is sometimes more theatrical than theatre. Both Lucy Prebble’s acclaimed new play Enron and David Hare’s The Power of Yes deal with recent financial disasters and both suffer from the problem that what has been happening in reality is so spectacular and so complex that it defies the confines of drama. The greed, the vanity, the recklessness, the bizarre financial vehicles, the creativity, the pathological dishonesty, the unforgivable ignorance, self-deception and political irresponsibility all demonstrated by real people who are still alive (apart from a few suicides and heart attacks) have no need of the embellishment of the imagination. The financial and political forces driving all this are too difficult to explain within the conventions of a play. A better medium for such messages may be the documentary film. Several excellent documentaries have been produced about various aspects of this crisis. These have been enlightening and mesmerising, challenging one’s memories and ideas in a way that the best theatre does. For example, BBC2’s documentary about the fall of Lehman Brothers, The Love of Money, easily outshone The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, a BBC drama released at the same time about the same events. Reality — the real dishonesty, anger or shock on real people’s faces, coupled with a well-scripted factual explanation — was much more gripping than drama. Similarly, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, an independent documentary from 2005 about the spectacular rise and fall of the energy company, is both more startling and satisfying than Lucy Prebble’s version. That is not to say her Enron (at the Royal Court until 7 November) is not enjoyable. It’s easy to see why it has already had a huge success in Chichester, and will soon (most unusually for a Royal Court play) be transferring to the West End. The production is slick and fun and funny, rather in the way that Caryl Churchill’s 1987 Serious Money was a delight — singing and dancing with energy and visual imagination. As Enron develops, three blind mice appear inconsequentially at times. They are the members of the board, blind to the massive fraud being concocted. Meanwhile, the hubristic chief executive and his crazy finance director are feeding masses of toxic debt to menacing red-eyed raptors in the corporation’s basement, while upstairs the dealers dance frantically in the hysteria and exhilaration of the bubble in which they exist. The Lehmans are two corrupt twins in a single suit, the chief accountant is a ventriloquist and the lawyers are blind. In the midst of this constant agitation and exuberance, the chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, superbly played by Sam West, blossoms like a poisonous plant from nerd into charismatic master of the universe. This is very theatrical, but as an attempt to explain how the climate of the times made the Enron crash possible, and how the scam succeeded for so long, it didn’t do nearly enough. To turn the chairman, Ken Lay, into a bumbling Texan bore without much involvement when in fact he was wholly complicit, is to diminish both the story and its explanation. Perhaps that is because the writer felt any more complexity would have damaged its theatricality. David Hare approaches this problem in precisely the opposite way. He doesn’t even attempt to give his subject theatrical life. The Power of Yes: A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis (Lyttelton until 10 January) is less a play than an animated lecture. It is spoken journalism with visual aids, in a set which most of the time is barely more than a lecture hall. As Hare’s character says at the beginning, “This isn’t a play…It doesn’t pretend to be a play.” What we get is a playwright painstakingly trying, from a position of almost total ignorance, to learn how the crisis came about. From such a low starting point, he questions economics teachers, intellectuals, bankers, traders, hedge funders, civil servants, journalists — many of them actually named, such as “George Soros”, “Howard Davies”, “Ronald Cohen”, “Adair Turner”, “David Freud” and other real people, who presumably okayed the words Hare puts into their mouths — and he arrives at the best, fairest, simplest and clearest explanation of the whole thing that I have come across (apart from Bird and Fortune’s immortal comic explanation of subprime loans, to be found on YouTube). There will certainly be those who don’t agree with every aspect of Hare’s “story”. And I am not sure that a theatregoer with very little previous knowledge of this subject would be able to follow him right through. But it is certainly worth the effort. As one might expect, nobody comes out of this well, not even the relatively good guys. One who comes out particularly badly is Gordon Brown. Hare’s characters skewer him without mercy and “Hare” appears to accept their evidence. “Brown was completely uninterested in regulation,” says “Howard Davies” (an actor playing the real-life first chairman of the “light-touch” Financial Services Authority, which Brown set up). “He never made any criticism of anything we did.” Another character says, “Brown was happy with the City so long as it generated huge amounts of cash” — an incredible 27 per cent of his total tax take, according to another. “It was his cash cow. Of course he wasn’t going to regulate it.” “Howard Davies” and “David Freud” strongly blame Brown for “stoking up the boom, just when he should have been doing the opposite”, for a general election that never happened. “You say Brown is clever,” says “Freud”. “I don’t think he’s clever.” All this is extremely interesting for those interested in such things (and the house was packed). But it isn’t theatre. And if not, should it be in a theatre? To ask that is perhaps unfair to the production and to the actors, who managed to prevent a very dense text from being boring. But shouldn’t such a creation be presented in the Royal Geographical Society debating chamber or one of this country’s great civic halls? Or is it, on the other hand, a new departure in theatre proper, which theatrical conventions can perfectly well accommodate? The theatre of explication, perhaps? Journodrama? What David Hare has written is something very hard to find anywhere else — a demanding, well-considered analysis intended to enlighten and arouse a passionate response, and meant to be shared in public. If that is not theatre, it is close.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 18th, 2009

Whatever age children start school, teaching will be dire

Education, education, education. Last week the chief executive of Tesco, the country’s largest private employer, said publicly that school standards were “woefully low”: teenagers leave school unfit for work and employers “are often left to pick up the pieces”. Sir Terry Leahy, the Tesco boss, is not alone in taking this bleak view: the head of the Confederation of British Industry said many of its members shared Leahy’s opinions. The chief executive of Asda commented that “no one can deny that Britain has spawned generations of young people who struggle to read, write or do simple maths”. We do not need these top employers to tell us this. We know. The evidence for it is so familiar. Occasionally I wonder what, after all his promises, Tony Blair feels about his government’s betrayal of schoolchildren. Last week he was spotted in Westminster Cathedral visiting the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Perhaps he was hoping for divine intervention on this and other matters. Earthly intervention was on offer last week, however. Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University published his long-awaited independent review of primary education on Thursday and made some radical suggestions. His team’s view of what has happened in primary schools under Labour is exceptionally bleak: the report finds that successive ministers have imposed on teachers an unprecedented degree of control in a system with “Stalinist overtones”; it accuses the government of introducing an educational diet “even narrower than that of the Victorian elementary schools”. What the report recommends is delaying formal education until children are six, concentrating before that on play-based learning; abolishing Sats and league tables and replacing them with assessments by teachers; extending teacher training; and introducing more specialist teachers for subjects such as languages and music. One can only say, along with poor illiterate Vicky Pollard of Little Britain — an icon of failed education — “Yeah but no but yeah but no.” Yes, of course “formal education” isn’t necessary or desirable for five-year-olds, if “formal” means what it usually does. Yes, of course the best education for young children should be fun and playful and interesting to them, if that is what a “play-based curriculum” means. Of course many children can easily be put off learning for ever by excessively formal education. Of course it is true that better, more enjoyable teaching is the way to improve attention and discipline among little children, rather than stricter rules. Of course the current curriculum for five-year-olds is absolutely daft in its manic, stupid, unrealistic scope — try reading it. Of course Sats are worse than useless and should be dropped. Of course league tables have been counterproductive. And of course it is true that this government has tried to micromanage teachers’ every working minute, driving many of them out of the profession; the word “Stalinist” is right. Yes but no but: none of this is simple. I oppose any rigid, narrow education that blasts the joy of childhood and destroys children’s natural longing to learn — the teaching style of a Victorian elementary school. But I don’t believe that the teaching children get in year 1 these days is at all formal, in that sense — rather the reverse. I don’t imagine you see that kind of formal primary education anywhere now, except in private schools. What can the report be getting at? I suspect that at the root of its objection to “formal” education is a dislike of the government requirement — much ignored — to teach all children phonics from year 1; that is, from the age of five or so. Primaries have been too focused on the three Rs, the report says, to which one can only reply that if this is true, there is something horribly wrong with their focus — a clear case of aiming low and missing. One does not have to be Thomas Gradgrind to believe that a primary education that doesn’t teach all children to read, quickly and well, within a year is a failed education. A child who can’t decode words confidently at seven is a child handicapped for life. That doesn’t mean all children must start at four or five or six — many are not ready in any way, although others may already be fluent readers at three and four. But phonics itself — at the right age — can, with a well-trained, charismatic, fun-loving teacher, be good fun, as well as fast and efficient. It is forbiddingly formal only in the hands of poor teachers. Everything depends on the quality of the teacher. A bad teacher can put any child off anything. A bad teacher will be bad at play and play-based teaching, too, yet many have already retreated into it, imagining, wrongly, that it is easier. It is harder. Doing it badly — leaving deprived children who can hardly talk to grunt at each other in little groups — is worse than useless. Bad teaching is at the heart of all this. It’s true the Labour ministers have tried to micromanage teachers in every way, but there was a reason. They recognised, like their predecessors, that there were too many inadequate teachers getting poor results. But rather than sack them or revolutionise teacher training, they chose to try to make education teacher-proof by micromanagement. Daft, but understandable. Micromanagement is what you do when you don’t trust the employee. What’s wrong with the Alexander report, for all its right-minded ideals, is that its proposals depend on trusting teachers. And the truth is that teachers here and now cannot as a group be trusted. That’s why the curriculum and league tables and Sats were originally introduced, counterproductive though they proved. I apologise to the many good teachers out there. But the system has been brought low by poorly qualified, trained and motivated teachers, supported by their unions. Between them they managed to subvert the literacy hour, for example. Ask any turnaround head teacher what the most important change has to be and it is invariably to sack the bad teachers first, which is always extremely difficult. Poor teachers have been tolerated too long: the Alexander report says there is no evidence for Ofsted’s claim that schools now have the best cohort of new teachers in history. No single thing is more urgent, or more neglected, in education policy today than to put a bomb under teacher training and the outdated, lazy orthodoxy that has almost wrecked English teaching traditions. That’s what is most needed. Teacher training, teacher training, teacher training.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 11th, 2009

Barack Obama should never have accepted this tainted prize

How we laughed when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize. It was like giving a man a gong for helping to put out a fire that he himself had been stoking up. It was almost as funny as the news in 2007 that Tony Blair had been appointed a special peace envoy to the Middle East — yes, the Middle East — on behalf not just of the United States and Russia but also of the United Nations and the European Union. For those who enjoy gallows humour, the regular appointment of mass murderers and kleptocrats to the UN’s human rights commission is also quite amusing. How do all these circles get squared? What makes these international bigwigs put together all these preposterous deals? One thing is reasonably clear, through the fog of war and diplomacy, and it is that there is nothing reliably noble about the Nobel prize. Many of the people who ought to have won it didn’t. Several who certainly shouldn’t have won it did, such as Yasser Arafat and Le Duc Tho of communist North Vietnam. So I should not have been surprised to hear that Barack Obama has been offered the prize. What does surprise and sadden me is that he has accepted it. Like millions of other people, I admire Obama. I, too, was caught up in the general elation that a country with a shameful history of racism, my father’s country, could find a clever, well qualified, eloquent and charismatic candidate who was also black and then vote him into the White House. I thought then, and I still hope, that he may achieve great things. RELATED LINKS Obama’s Nobel prize is snub to Bill Clinton However, the glaringly obvious point is that Obama hasn’t achieved anything very much yet. As his Texan predecessor might have said, so far he has been all hat and no cattle. That is hardly surprising as he has been in office for less than 10 months, but it is both foolish and wrong of him to accept a prize for something he has not achieved. Perhaps he wanted it because two eminent fellow Democrats, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter, have got one too. As an American commentator said, it is like accepting an Oscar now for being likely to make an Oscar-winning movie next year. It casts great doubt on Obama’s judgment and integrity — can’t he see the Nobel nonsense for what it is? — and gives comfort to his critics. It makes this apparently decent man complicit in the sentimental ruthlessness and meaningless verbiage of most international bodies. But perhaps, for all Obama’s appearance of being better than them, he is really one of them, not one of us. It is anyone’s guess what the Nobel peace prize people are really up to. If it is odd to give out the prize before the winner has reached the goal, it is odder still to nominate him when he has barely crossed the starting line: the committee’s nominations for the Nobel peace prize this year had to be sent in by February 1, only 12 days after Obama had become president. Obama did almost nothing of any importance during those 12 days at the tail end of the Nobel nomination period. This is very Alice in Wonderland — all prizes to be declared before the start. It is also the way of the wicked old world and for that reason it is something a good man should be seen to avoid. Can it be that Obama is already intoxicated with the exuberance of his own celebrity? For that is all he is so far — a well-meaning super-celebrity. The Nobel people claim they are trying to promote what Obama stands for; they want to endorse his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy” and to encourage people to “go along with his concept of zero nuclear power”. They also claim there’s nothing new about awarding the prize for good intentions; that’s why Willy Brandt got it and Mikhail Gorbachev. One of their number said the committee wanted to encourage Obama, another said his win would help Africa. One can only feel grateful that they did not offer it to encourage Tony Blair for his high-flown rhetoric in his early days about healing the scar that is Africa and generally speaking about saving the world. The story of Blair is a cautionary tale that the Nobel committee ought to have studied before choosing Obama to bear the unbearable burden of world peace. Like Obama writ small, Blair came to power in Britain on a powerful wave of euphoria as an eloquent, decent man who really cared about people and who promised that his government would be whiter than white — I apologise to Obama and to black people generally but that is how Blair expressed his moral aspirations — and all kinds of people believed in him. For reasons I cannot understand, Blair quickly became much admired among international power brokers — and still is. But the inescapable truth is that he left office in deep moral disgrace, having (among other things) tricked his country into a terrible war; even the Nobel committee might have been embarrassed had it made the mistake of offering the untried Blair an anticipatory peace prize in 1997. I don’t mean to suggest that Obama is anything like the discredited Blair. But anything is possible. Stuff happens. The Nobel committee betrays an astonishing political naivety in endorsing Obama as a man of peace when the world is so unstable, the choices before him so imponderable, the power of the American establishment so unavoidable and when we still know so little of his real calibre. I can’t help suspecting there are other explanations behind this award. I suspect it isn’t about ideas or policies so much as about feeling. It’s about a feeling which is usually considered adolescent — the emotional hunger of the groupie. Adults now, more and more, seem to display the emotional incontinence of the teenager; in the case of Obama, this is made all the more acceptable because he is black. I suspect that Obama appeals to Nobel committee members, as to countless others given to hero-worship, both for the stardust he gives off and for the feelgood effect he has just by being black. Idolising Obama means you are a good person. This is inverted racism but I suspect it’s there: would a white man, just like Obama but not black, have been offered this prize? The question constantly asked by Sacha Baron Cohen’s subversive Ali G character keeps coming back to me: “Is it ’cos I is black?” And the answer in this case is probably yes — another excellent reason for Obama to turn down this prize and to earn his laurels for himself.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 4th, 2009

Glitterati throw their ugly halos around Roman Polanski

If Vanessa George, the nursery school paedophile convicted last week, were somehow to escape from justice here and stay safely in some other country for 30 or so years and turn during that time into a celebrated writer or film maker, lionised internationally for her talent and charm, I wonder what her glittering friends would say then, in 2040, about her terrible crimes of today. Would they insist that she is such an outstandingly gifted person and a delightful friend that no one should now hound her back to justice for what she did? Would they say that what she did, all things considered, was not so very bad? Would they protest with all the power of their celebrity that it is unfair to hold her to account now so much time has passed and now that the children in question want to avoid reliving in court the distress of what she did to them — although it probably wasn’t, ahem, quite so terrible as all that? Of course they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t dare. And this obvious point serves to prove another one that ought to be obvious but somehow isn’t: it is quite wrong for anyone to claim that Roman Polanski, the film director, ought, for any reason, to be let off legally or morally for his paedophile crime of more than 30 years ago. I accept that having unlawful sex with a child of 13, although entirely wrong, isn’t quite so monstrously unnatural and repugnant as sexually assaulting tiny children. All the same, what Polanski did to a young girl would strike most people, then and now, as truly vile. I wonder what all his showbiz friends would think if a middle-aged Polanski penetrated their unprotected little daughters, especially if it involved alcohol, sedatives, oral sex and buggery as well, as Polanski’s victim has always claimed. Actually, I don’t wonder. They would go insane with rage. They would use all their PR powers to make an example of him. So it is distinctly odd that, forgetting the innocence of their own darling daughters, they have rallied to Polanski’s defence. In response to his arrest last weekend in Switzerland, celebrities such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch, Harvey Weinstein and Robert Harris called indignantly for him to be freed at once. So did Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland, and two French ministers. Whoopi Goldberg, the actress, actually claimed, in his defence, that she knew “it wasn’t rape-rape”. All this is difficult to understand, particularly when it comes largely from the world of artists — writers, actors, film makers and so on. What is supposed to distinguish artists — the claim they make for themselves — is a profound commitment to truth and feeling. In the name of truth and feeling they can usually be relied upon to rally together against the abuse of power and, indeed, pride themselves on their role as defenders of the weak and as moral arbiters. So why is it that the truth-tellers feel so passionately determined to protect a self-confessed child abuser? Admittedly, the truth may be a bit of a casualty here, partly because the American system of plea bargaining tends to muddy the moral waters. Polanski decided in 1977 to plead guilty to one crime in order to avoid facing many more and worse charges; it is hard to know, in such cases, what a man really is, or considers himself, guilty of since he is more concerned with a deal than with the truth — and so is the court. Charged at first with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy and a lewd and lascivious act (oral sex) upon a child under 14, and giving illegal drugs to a minor, he then, under the plea bargain, admitted to unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 14, but fled the United States before he was sentenced. The girl, now a woman who says she has forgiven him and doesn’t want him to be locked up for ever, still stands by her story that he’s guilty of all the original and horrifying charges. Polanski made her a large out-of-court settlement some time ago. All one can conclude is that whatever happened was bad. No mother or father would want anything like it done to their pubescent daughters. What would make it far worse is their little girl being put upon by a scuzzy old showbiz goat more than three times her age, who likes banging random chicks in glitzy showbiz pools and pads: Mulholland Drive, where it happened, was called “Bad Boys Drive” by Hollywood sophisticates. As even Goldberg said: “Would I want my 14-year-old having sex with somebody? Not necessarily, no.” So why the cries of outraged support from bohemia? There is a horrible irony in the way Polanski’s defenders talk of his family’s horrible suffering under the Nazis, as if his victimhood somehow excused his victimising someone else. And would those supporters argue that Nazi war criminals should also be allowed to put their crimes behind them, now so much time has passed, and live free from fear of prosecution and retributive justice, particularly if they are rather talented and charming? Of course not. What seems to be going on here is an overwhelmingly powerful loyalty between members of a narrow caste — the glitterati. What distinguishes this super-privileged clique is that most of its members made their way into it by their own talent and hard work, so they have a great sense of entitlement and — to judge from their attitudinising — a huge and unselfcritical sense of moral superiority. They are not restrained by colonial or class guilt, nor in many cases by a rigorous education: they feel that what people such as them want and like and think must be pretty much okay because of who they are — beautiful, talented, charming, successful and so on. Other people’s rules — different people’s rules — don’t necessarily apply. The instinctive solidarity within the super-successful castes is quite remarkable. You get exactly the same thing among bankers and masters of the universe, among top Eurocrats and probably among the few remaining Nazi criminals lurking in South America. How else can one explain the scandals of greed and corruption that Eurocrats tolerate among themselves but which they would denounce with genuine contempt among other people? The word hypocrisy is quite inadequate; this is an extreme form of cognitive dissonance — the state of believing mutually exclusive things at once without recognising it. Sociologists call this blindness to the flaws in one’s friends the halo effect, a rather unfortunate term in this case. But it’s no excuse for condoning paedophila in any of its forms.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 20th, 2009

Saints alive, all this religious tolerance has gone too far

St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower who died in 1897, has achieved a ghoulish immortality here on earth. Some bits of her long-dead body, carefully divided to share among the faithful, have been touring the world to popular acclaim for years, and now some pieces of her thigh and foot have arrived in this country, to a reception that an excited priest has understandably called “massive”. Beginning at St John’s Cathedral in Portsmouth last week, these bones will travel to 28 places in England and Wales, and if the first stop is anything to go by, they will get the rapturous welcome of a rock star. Thousands of the faithful descended on Portsmouth and queued patiently for their turn to touch the casket containing the bones, or rather to touch the glass that contains the casket. Touching is the point. One old man rubbed two angel figurines against the glass, saying: “I do believe in the power of objects like this.” Relics are magic. They are supposed to have magic powers. Many of the people visiting the relics of St Thérèse, if not all, visit them precisely because they are hoping for magic, in other words a miracle, conferred on them by touching a magic object. That is partly why relics are very good business. Many who visited Portsmouth were praying for miracles, especially for healing, and though many prominent Catholics speak guardedly of such things, the church does not discourage the idea — rather the reverse — that miracles and miraculous healing are possible. After all, St Thérèse could not have become a saint if she had not in the church’s eyes achieved a miracle or two — in her case miracles of healing, of which she is a patron saint. As Norman Price, deputy head steward of St John’s, said last week: “I believe if people’s faith is strong enough, miracles can happen. With her faith and guidance, then maybe, yes, things will happen.” And as the Bishop of Portsmouth said: “I think England has been sceptical about relics in the past. But perhaps not now.” To the agnostic all this seems pre-scientific mumbo jumbo, on a level with voodoo fetishes or the Buddha’s tooth in Sri Lanka. In primitive thought, objects do indeed have mana, as anthropologists call it — supernatural powers. One might say that it hardly matters; we all have our follies and if people here choose to believe that a statue in Southall of the Hindu elephant god really did suck up milk from votive saucers in 1995, they are and ought to be free to do so. It wasn’t so long ago that Europe was almost awash with gallons of the milk of the Virgin Mary, treasured by the faithful. And fellow citizens ought usually to be polite enough to keep their critical thoughts to themselves, in the name of courtesy and mutual tolerance. However, there is a difference in this case. The Catholic Church is actively encouraging people to hope for miracles of healing. These reliquary jamborees can only inflame irrational expectations in people who are suffering and suggestible. Surely it cannot be right to do so. Any face cream promising much lesser miracles — merely the disappearance of wrinkles — would soon fall foul of trading standards officers and have to be withdrawn, to protect the innocent public from being deluded by the false claims of charlatans. Why, then, have the media been so uncritical about this mass deception? Years ago I spent many months in the BBC trying to make television documentaries about supernatural healing, including Christian healing. After a great deal of research and countless visits, conversations and false trails, I had to accept that I could not find one single example of Christian healing (or any other supernatural healing). There were plenty of claims, but very little evidence, and certainly no evidence that would stand up in a documentary. What I did find was something that shocked me — the bamboozling of frightened, suffering, suggestible people by Christians who offered them the hope of a miraculous cure, if their faith were strong enough. Religious tolerance is difficult in such cases. The intolerant, triumphalist atheists have never appealed to me. I cannot see why it is so important to them to denounce other people’s religious beliefs so aggressively. I don’t know why people who pride themselves on their rationality can be so irrationally sure that they are right; absolute certainty is not a rational position. Besides, Catholics and Christians generally are very often a force for good; most of what’s best in our society is built upon Christian foundations. All the same, there comes a time when even a peaceable agnostic feels roused to indignation. For me it was last week, at the news that the Home Office has seen fit to let the bones of the Little Flower into Wormwood Scrubs prison. This almost defies belief. For, in allowing this, with all the due process and deliberation of bureaucracy, the government is conferring respectability on such relics. And in so doing, it opens wide the gates of reason to let into any public place any and every fetish or juju that any religious group claims is part of its spiritual life. The laws on equality and religious respect will require it. What the starry progress of the relics of the Little Flower has done for me is to remind me that we have in this country rather too much religious tolerance. The truth is that many religions — perhaps most — have certain doctrines and beliefs that are not merely irrational but sometimes dangerous and unacceptable. At this very moment there are religions, with countless adherents in this country, that teach that people can truly be possessed by demons, which must be exorcised, perhaps violently; that witches exist and must be punished or killed; that God has created women inferior and subject to men; that women are unclean and must be excluded from certain places and roles for that reason. These beliefs — held until recently by most of Christian Europe — are actually against the law in this country and contrary to the universal declaration of human rights. Yet the duty of religious tolerance persuades us to overlook this fact. It persuades us to ignore the truth that religions are not really equal, in the sense that they are not equally benign or harmless. Some religions do promote unacceptable things, while others peddle false hopes here on earth. I would not dream of suggesting that the government return to the ancient tradition of suppressing religious freedom. But I think we should insist that the Home Office does not lend any extra official respectability to religious hocus-pocus of any kind. Superstition, like St Thérèse, has a curious immortality on earth.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 13th, 2009

We are all child abusers now – until we can prove otherwise

We have an incoherent attitude to freedom in this country. We imagine that we value freedom above almost everything else and yet at the same time we are neurotically averse to risk. Every time something terrible happens, such as the murder of a child, the public clamours for something to be done to ensure that such a thing never happens again. Such unspeakable suffering must not have been in vain; inquiries must be held and systems must be put in place; all such risks to children must be eliminated. Yet the harsh truth is that risk is the heavy price of freedom. That includes risks to children. The greater the freedom, the greater the risk. And, equally, the more the attempts to curtail the risk, the lesser the freedom. Last week produced a perfect example of this contradiction. There was uproar about an authoritarian plan to protect children from the risk of paedophile abuse. It emerged that rules will come into force next month under a vetting and barring scheme run by a new quango called the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). All adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who work with children or vulnerable adults, either as an employee or as a volunteer, will from November 2010 have to apply to be vetted by this quango to prove there is no known reason they should not spend time with children. The minions of the ISA may withhold registration if they suspect an applicant might cause physical, emotional, sexual or financial harm to children or vulnerable adults. Failure to register and to get, in effect, a certification of innocence will be liable to criminal prosecution and a fine of £5,000. Of course it is reasonable to vet adults who work with children and vulnerable adults. Therefore, a great deal of vetting goes on under existing schemes affecting about 6m people. What’s new about this vetting and barring scheme is that it will affect many more people — about 11.3m adults — because volunteers are now to be included. That’s what so rightly causes outrage. Volunteers for these purposes are not just quasi-employees; they are all kinds of people, including you and me, in our attempts to do someone else a good turn. Informal arrangements between parents will not, supposedly, be covered but anyone else taking part in activities involving “frequent” or “intensive” contact with children or vulnerable adults — quangospeak for once a week, three times a month or overnight — must be registered with the ISA. It is no exaggeration to describe this astonishing development as treating all adults as potential criminals: we are no longer innocent until proved guilty but guilty until certified innocent by the state — and, worst of all, in our moments of trying to do good. Imagine what this will do to feelings of neighbourliness and trust. No one will know whether a communal garden committee or a regular visit to someone with learning disabilities will come under the rules. And what about that holy of all co-operative holies, the school run? From now on it will be awkward to ask for help and awkward to offer. Who will want to subject herself to the scrutiny of the vetting-and-barring workers and their arcane judgments and risk a rejection, since we don’t know quite what’s involved? What we do know, though, is that they can take police information and unproven allegations into consideration. Some of the unintended consequences of this new legislation became clear when Philip Pullman and other children’s writers discovered that soon they will be unable to give talks in schools and libraries without being registered with the ISA. Pullman will refuse to continue on that basis and he will not be alone in giving up something of huge value to others in protest at an intolerable, insulting intrusion; as he says, it is not only ludicrous but “dispiriting and sinister”. While we are assured that all this surveillance will not be directed at informal private arrangements, such as parents agreeing to give lifts to other people’s children, I for one don’t believe it. Delyth Morgan, the children’s minister, appeared on the Today programme to be quizzed on this very point by John Humphrys. He forced the Labour peer to admit that a well-meaning dad could easily fall under the ISA rules if he merely took a couple of local children a couple of times a month to matches at a nearby football club. The minister wriggled painfully on a pinhead of quango definition and insisted that if all the other parents concerned made private agreements with him, then he wouldn’t need to be registered. But she had to admit that if someone at the club happened to ask the dad if he would include someone else’s child on his regular run, then he would have to be investigated by the vetters and barrers. Anyone can see that there’s hardly any difference in practice. It is easy to see which way all this is drifting, especially as all concerned agree that the adults most likely to abuse children are people they already know well. So in an ideal world of total risk avoidance, by the logic of the vetters and barrers, it would make much more sense to investigate close family members as prime suspects. Why, the risk-averse might ask, are close family arrangements exempt when it’s there you’d expect the worst? I suspect they may well not remain exempt for long. How can the vetters and barrers be sure that grandma can be trusted with the neighbour’s toddlers? However, as the unlucky minister pointed out defensively, all this new surveillance is a response to public outrage following the Soham murders; it was recommended by the inquiry that followed and she is entirely right in thinking that if something like Soham happens again, the public will vent its outrage on the government for not preventing it. So the government is damned either way — both for exercising too little control and for exercising too much. Those who cannot accept great risk cannot clamour at the same time for great freedom, because the greater the freedom, the greater the risk. Sadly, this truism doesn’t work the other way round. It isn’t always true that the lesser the freedom, the lesser the risk. There was plenty of surveillance in place that could have kept tabs on Ian Huntley in Soham; it failed because of gross incompetence. The same is true of the deaths of Baby P and Victoria Climbié. Yet more surveillance and more intrusion by our over-mighty state will not control all of the guilty few: it will simply punish the innocent majority.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 6th, 2009

Forcing vile parents to have their babies adopted will stop this evil

What two very young boys did in April to two other little boys in a wood near Doncaster is unspeakable. It is difficult to talk or write about. Yet what those children did demands a response; in particular it demands an answer to the question of what, if anything, can be done to stop something so unspeakable ever happening again. There is a case to be made, unfeeling though it sounds, for saying there is nothing much that can be done. We already have an extensive network of social workers, health workers, mental health workers, probation officers, police officers, teachers, foster parents, government early years schemes, social care experiments, outreach projects, charitable endeavours and all the rest, designed especially to protect the vulnerable. All those agencies were supposedly in place specifically to protect children such as the Doncaster boys and their victims. The system failed terribly in this case and not for the first time. Doncaster social services knew the boys well, yet failed them and many other children at risk, seven of whom have died since 2004. The police ignored warnings from neighbours. But the truth is that all systems fail at times. Human error is always with us and there are always weak links in any chain. Even so, the system here is a comprehensive attempt to protect the vulnerable; there is little reason to believe that a lot more of it would work any better. Besides, any more state intervention might well begin to seem too much; at moments like this, it is easy to forget that the system has very considerable powers over our private lives already. And cases like the attack in the Edlington woods are extremely rare. Related Links * How to catch them before they go feral Such libertarian arguments usually tend to appeal to me. However, in this case they seem quite inadequate. For although such terrible behaviour is indeed rare, its underlying causes are not rare at all — causes which lead inevitably to countless lesser crimes and cruelties. The picture painted of the home life of the two Doncaster boys is seen in countless households across the country: a drunken, drugged-up mother who gives her children cannabis to keep them quiet, who doesn’t talk to them or feed them or clothe them, who allows the men in her life to beat them and terrify them, who makes her indifference to them quite plain and who begs social services to take the children off her. Not every child who suffers such neglect and abuse turns into a pre-teen torturer or murderer, but every single one will suffer irreparable damage, which in turn will be passed on to others. As Auden famously said: “Those to whom evil is done do evil in their turn.” And the reason is one that is only beginning to be understood: the neglect and abuse of babies and children damage them not just in some loose psychological way, as everyone has always assumed. It also damages them physically; it permanently affects the development of their brains, leaving them with cognitive and emotional impairments that will cause grave problems to themselves and others. There is a large body of academic literature on this subject: the fact that people’s minds, feelings, understanding of others and general ability can be permanently damaged is no longer controversial. Oddly enough, it seems not to be widely known, although the phrase “Romanian orphans” makes the point for many people. But this view is now widely accepted in social work circles here, following studies done for the past 15 or so years in America and elsewhere. “Our brains are sculpted by our early experiences,” one scientist wrote in 2000. “Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes a brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds.” Sigmund Freud was right: the first three years (when major brain development occurs) are crucial. People tend to talk of children like the Doncaster boys as evil, or of bringing them to justice, or of giving them extended therapy. I believe this is irrelevant: because of increasing scientific understanding of the forces of both nature and nurture in determining our choices, our ideas of evil, blame, personal responsibility, treatment and punishment are increasingly out of date and inadequate. The Doncaster boys can hardly be blamed; they scarcely knew what they were doing or appreciate it now; they are not as others are. And while they should be locked up and kindly treated — perhaps for ever: the reoffending rate for outfits such as the ones they will go to, at £210,000 a year, is 78% — they may be beyond help. For the future, however, there is something that should be done, especially for the babies at obvious risk of permanent damage from disastrous mothers, although in a country with great traditions of freedom such as ours it is hard to feel very confident about it. Perhaps it might really be best if such babies were compulsorily taken away at birth and adopted. Had Baby Peter survived living with his mother, he might well have grown up to be something like the Doncaster boys, but if he’d been adopted at birth he might have grown up undamaged. Enforced adoption is a horrible idea. But the alternatives being considered seem to me unlikely to be of any more use than social services — patchy at best. Early intervention is the idea favoured by almost everybody at the moment and Iain Duncan Smith is hoping to get cross-party support for it; the government is already running Family Nurse partnership pilot schemes, copied from America, to intervene in problem families early enough to stop the damage. There are some obvious problems with this approach. The schemes depend on intensive support from dedicated health visitors. Yet there is a desperate shortage of such people and numbers are falling; 20% of them are over retirement age. And while their care is supposed to be intensive, in practice it involves either weekly or fortnightly visits. This is better than nothing, of course, but hardly likely to do more in extreme cases than ring alarm bells. And fostering for problem children has been notoriously unsuccessful. We could do something, if we as a society would accept some extreme intrusions into our personal freedom. And if we can’t tolerate such measures, then I think we have to accept there is indeed not much we can do to stop something like this happening again, or to stop other lesser evils going on all the time. What price freedom?