The Politics of Fear

I’m always suspicious of puritans. There was something stuffy about the air in which Owen Jones argued that “the Tories aren’t actually evil”, just “cruel” and “unforgivable”. It masquerades as a concession while remaining firmly wedded to the presumption that those with different political outlooks ought to be “defeated”.

All the same, conservatism doesn’t mingle well with populism. The Home Office’s twitter account is an outright disgrace:

And in case you didn’t know what a true British arrest looks like – because you’re a disgusting illegal – they even include a photo to remind you:

They even blur your face – so you know that you are as meaningless and devoid of character as any other capped transgressor of immigration law.

Nasty, sick, and brutish. Selective figure-thumping designed to win votes from the far-right – irrespective of the fear and social antagonisms it merrily brews.

The same awful rabble-rousing politics has also been found, can you believe it, in what the government had hoped would become a new billboard scheme, currently being piloted in a number of London boroughs:

Thankfully, it’s unlikely that the campaign will continue. But that does nothing to hide the fact that the British electorate are finally giving in their most base and selfish instincts, and that party political officials can only jump to capitalise upon them.

Update: I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me, but @JackofKent suggests that the Twitter campaign could be challenged on the grounds of contempt of court:

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Politics is division. Get over it.

Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer – critics of “Islamization”, as they call it, as well as founders of various anti-Islam foundations – were recently banned from entering the United Kingdom. It is the conviction of the Home Office that they are much worse than those who would overthrow the very constitution of this country.

In its letter to the duo, they invoked the “Unacceptable Behaviour Policy” as justification for barring them from British territory – that is, actions of speech that might foster inter-communal division; despite the long-established tradition in which stability is almost always hostile to liberty. Consensus is democracy’s most vicious opponent – and it’s patronising and degrading for parliamentarians to be making the arguments of decent Muslims for them.

“Freedom of speech” can’t ever be absolute, legally, because many existing laws can be broken through verbal and written communication: contempt of court, plagiarism, incitement to murder and breach of confidentiality to name a few. “Hate”, though, can only ever be a thought crime – the definition and origin of all totalitarianism governance.

That Geller and Spencer are irritants incapable of separating “moderate” Muslims from their fascistic counterparts should have no bearing on whether or not they are allowed entrance into the UK.


Madness is a Messy Affair

Ian Brady’s ongoing plea for sanity registers some important contentions with legal prosecution. Here, I’ll look at a few of their psychiatric implications.

This is him today, with Myra Hindley the murderer of five children in the early 1960s:

Ian Brady in Court

Click for source. Hindley’s dead.

Since 1985, Ian Brady has been clinically insane. That he soon might not be, seeking as he is the chance to commit suicide in a regular prison, is testament to the awkward authority held by criminal psychologists: because they represent that attempt by the modern state to incorporate the individual, with his emotional and ritualistic instincts, into its own process for calculation and systematisation, a conflict between the gradient reality and binary bureaucratic world that interprets it.

Bleak though this is, so much hinges upon a declaration of sanity: it is the distinction between the validation of a person’s outlook and its relegation to the condescending majesty of the clouds. But the delusion is ours if we pretend the outcome is in anyway proportional to the assessment.

In some ways, the mental eclipse being classed as mentally ill is more severe than death: by relying on the highly subjective interpretative techniques of psychiatry, it can transform someone’s life irrespective of broadly understood hard, powerful evidence. The BBC has a few such examples: Stuart Harling found that “hurling papers from the dock and shouting threats” somehow lacked persuasive force, the jury rejecting his plea to insanity. But it is also suggested that in instances where the punishment may be capital punishment as many as 22% of pleas are fabrications. How many have escaped the system, and how many miscarriages of justice has it made inevitable?

When Brady was first diagnosed, he now says that he was “method acting”; he understood the necessary prerequisites to be moved to a mental hospital, and exploited their shortcomings. If true, then something ominous is apparent: a sane person may rationalise his way into insanity only to be trapped like a fly in a jar. Suddenly every word uttered is the confirmation, however bleak or sublime, of a madman’s madness. It is the intelligent man’s dystopia.

In ‘Science as a Falsification’, Karl Popper described Freudian psychoanalysis and Adler’s “individual psychology” as “simply non-testable, irrefutable. There was no conceivable human behaviour which could contradict them. This does not mean that Freud and Adler were not seeing certain things correctly; I personally do not doubt that much of what they say is of considerable importance, and may well play its part one day in a psychological science which is testable. But it does mean that those “clinical observations” which analysts naïvely believe confirm their theory cannot do this anymore than the daily confirmations which astrologers find in their practice.”

Psychology, Popper might agree, is empirical in its scavenge for laws: but it would rather create more than challenge the ones it discovers. By virtue of focusing on the atomised individual, psychiatric diagnoses can’t rely on objective analytical frameworks. The common tests, regulations and analyses to which the patient is subject simply cannot hope to account for the idiosyncrasies of the insane; it is a process inviting paradoxes that neither the sensationalist media nor its audience would feel qualified to investigate. But the result of this, ironically, is that scientists are more likely to make existing disorders seem so complicated that they become impossible to challenge – the prevalence of “multiple personality disorder” in the United States, at a rate ten times higher than in India, is one such illustration. Psychiatric treatment risks failing as a science of falsification.

There’s a more moderate parallel in conspiracy theorists, here, and how society tends to treat them: consider Alex Jones, whose apostolic promulgations are so obviously deranged that no comment he ever now makes can affect the real world. He believes he has uncovered the workings of the Bildenberg illuminati or some other such global order; even the non-partisan BBC’s Andrew Neil invited him onto his show to call him a “madman”. But in Jones’ mind the colours are reversed, not negated: the rainbow begins with violet rather than red, but it is a rainbow all the same. His worldview finds consistencies where none exist to normal minds. But just as this process can produce those society reveals as geniuses, like Einstein, so can it throw him to the bins and mock them as they gnaw on forgotten food. Jones typifies the boy who cried wolf when he really believed he saw a pack of them. It is this which the law’s psychiatry needs to be able to explain. No mean feat.

That the psychiatric experience has proven so ready to change does not offer much comfort here. In 1967, David Cooper wrote in his introduction to Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation that “madness has in our age become some sort of lost truth”; for him and his fellow anti-psychiatric contemporaries, sectioned patients were victims of authoritarianism, junkies being freed minds representing narcotic rebellion against the law. For all the obvious paranoia for which polemics were the cover, R.D. Laing’s “alternative” psychiatric hospital at Kingsley Hall proving ephemeral, a number of changes were brought about to official hospitals. Patients were treated less as material objects, and the utilisation of “labels” lost some of its simple ease and flippancy. The assumption that all mental disorders were biochemical was recognised as fruitless. However, these changes proved symptomatic of a system still struggling with its own internal rationalism, its purpose, methods and ideas able to offer visibly less than the legal system demands of them.

None of this is to undermine the good that psychiatry and psychology clearly have to offer, of course. The trouble is that we still have no idea how to quantify it, which is worrying: a great deal hinges on an institutional process that many aren’t confident is even scientific.

(Tomorrow, I might try and touch on a few of the other legal and moral questions that Brady presents. At a godlier hour.)


The Paradox of Learning Russian…

… is that there’s less and less that one would be able to say:

A former friend of mine – gay of course, and of course he kept it secret from all his family, as is common practice in Russia – said to me: “What on Earth made you come out? How stupid! Nobody was planning to shop you. The morning paper wasn’t running an investigation.” I didn’t know what to answer. I couldn’t even explain it clearly to myself – what made me stand up and tell everyone, on a TV show, in a country where they kill gay people for being what they are: “Here I am. I too am gay.” Do you think I wasn’t afraid? That I didn’t feel ashamed? That I didn’t regret ruining my career?

I’m afraid even now. I’m afraid of going into an empty entrance to a block of flats. I’m afraid of walking down a side street at night. I am afraid. And a little sorry that I probably won’t be allowed to continue working. They won’t let me go back to television. I’m afraid and sorry. But I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of now.


Learning the American Way

The American Revolution

The First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

For non-UK readers: following an outbreak of “unethical” press behaviour last year, involving widespread hacking and police bribery, Lord Justice Leveson was called upon to chair a committee into press standards and issue recommendations for cutting out nasty journalism. The current Press Complaints Committee has failed to uphold “civil” standards and protect people from the wrath of news empires, we’re told: and for that we need statute to protect us.

But what politicians have refused to make clear is that “press standards” have absolutely nothing to do with crime. Bribery and hacking are already illegal;  the disgrace was that pre-Leveson they hadn’t been enforced. That’s changed. 60 arrests have already been made in the past few months. The problem is not with the press; it’s with enforcement of criminal law.

So – bring on the shambles!

In his wry legal voice, there seemed something politely sensible in Leveson’s suggestion that “an explicit duty for government ministers to uphold and protect the freedom of the press should be enshrined in law as part of any legislation setting up a new watchdog”. Sound good? It does, until the paradox: parliamentary legislation that would regulate the press cannot by its very definition guarantee its freedom. It is impossible. It does not matter whether this watchdog is “independent”; however the committee is composed it will be obliged to enforce parliamentary law. It would mean compulsory arbitration, the prototype for state licensing of publishing which England hasn’t had since 1695 and which every dictator has wanted since 1439.

Leveson InquiryLeveson, Jefferson – they roll off the tongue so well together. But no matter how slimily he posits himself Leveson is not Jefferson. There are some pleasantly superficial parallels with the First Amendment, are there not? Don’t give in: the American Constitution is not the government; it is the (nearly) unalterable document that defines the government and its institutions. The United States, in other words, defines the press only insofar as it tells the government what to keep away from; Leveson wants to bring it under the law’s influence to “protect” it. And the liberal defence is terrifying.

There are worrying omens afoot: the most liberal proposition for press regulation before the House of Commons is that of a medieval royal charter at the behest of a decaying Privy Council. Cameron, our chief oracle and unlikely hero, has managed to string together a deal with Labour and the Liberal Democrats that prevents anything in the press being accountable to Parliament. We are told, probably with more than a tooth of truth, that Cameron was persuaded out of his support for regulation by Murdoch’s grovelling fear of losing his right to unethical behaviour.

But who cares? I’m unashamed to be on the side of Murdoch. He is a symptom of crony capitalism, not a free press. It was either Cromwell or Washington who told us never to take away a liberty in the fear that it might be abused; and it was Orwell who told us that just because the right-wing press says something doesn’t make it wrong. Liberals shouldn’t let their dislike of illiberal publishing magnates cloud the political class attempting to push through the most illiberal law since capital punishment.

Cameron’s royal charter is a bloody mess; but it’s at least a relatively harmless mess. Labour and the Liberal Democrats should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, trying to push through press regulation for the sake of a brief moment of partisan triumph with populism masquerading as the defence of civil liberty.

If I can recommend something more by Nick Cohen.


Does the Death Penalty Trivialise War?

It was at his 2004 State of the Union Address – in the midst of an ongoing hunt for those pesky WMDs – that George Bush declared:

I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all. They view terrorism more as a crime – a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments. After the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, some of the guilty were indicted, tried, convicted, and sent to prison. But the matter was not settled. The terrorists were still training and plotting in other nations, and drawing up more ambitious plans. After the chaos and carnage of September 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States – and war is what they got.

Exaggerated – and I trepidly suggest fictitious – claims of a link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam aside, the language here is telling. “Justice” has always been the most obvious choice of populist rhetoric; its ambiguities are concealed by the universally agreeable passion it provokes. Central to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of a just war was its “just cause”: as soon as justice is given common definition both in statute and in the popular worldview then so many actions and institutions are legitimised.

And look at the delicate euphemism behind Bush’s speech: we will meet the challenge of “chaos and carnage” with our own, with more than “legal papers”. I keep trying but I can’t imagine Blair ever saying this. Both are devout Christians, so you might have thought such moral-stuffed language would come merrily; so it’s a cultural distinction. Specifically, the attitude towards capital punishment. Polls do occasionally show majorities or pluralities of Brits in favour of it for the most abominable crimes, but that’s never true of the political classes. The fact that it’s far more acceptable in America makes banging the drums a little easier, wouldn’t you say? It’s easier to imply that justice will be violent when “an eye for an eye” sits behind a constitution.

What was always so remarkable about the American revolution was how mob warfare did not become mob rule in triumph. Unlike France later on, America built its institutions around strict codes, establishing a state subservient to absolute laws that derived their authority from secular rather than religious morality. But I find the death penalty to be an excess of this. The constitution should never have been revered – since it took a civil war to drive out slavery – and the elimination of murder as a form of justice would I think improve it that little bit more. It makes war far harder to justify.

For example: people like myself, for whom it is contemptuous that a state might assume so great a moral authority than it can kill its citizens, find an anti-war position instinctive. To support the killing of the foreign “enemies” to which Bush alluded conflicts with the view that death should never be an instrument of justice. It’s sometimes made more bearable through talk of “collateral damage”, where death is recognised but it’s penciled in coolly without the shallow confidence. In other words, paradoxes have to be overcome before a war is supported, and so it makes it all the more important to weigh up reality against idealism; war would have to be a last resort, and it would have to be purely strategic. No gleeful yodeling at the death of an enemy, no talk of “justice”. Only pure, cold, calculated facts.

Or at least, one can hope.