Friday, 31 October 2014

Friday Fungus: Halloween! Why witches fly on broomsticks...

Ah ergot, driving us all mad for centuries (and killing us). The active ingredient in this fungus that grows on cereal crops is pretty similar, in chestry and effect, to LSD. So, not surprisingly, people used to to take a trip - on a broomstick:

A number of Spanish witches admitted during their inquisitions that they engaged in night-flying. This is because witches would use hallucinogenic drugs to get high and make them believe they were flying. Their way of administering the drugs was rather novel even by modern day standards.

The hallucinogenic they used was called ergot, it came from a mould that grew on rye bread. In high doses ergot is fatal, but small amounts would lead to extremely intense experiences. Therefore, in order to avoid the risk of death, witches looked for alternative ways to absorb the drug quickly into their blood stream.

The most effective way, and the one with the least ill-effects, was through the female genitals. Witches would rub an ointment made with ergot onto the end of their broomsticks and quite literally sit on it.

So there you go - that's how witches fly!

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Can we have a feminist outcry about this please?

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From the report - a flawed report, for sure, but valuable nonetheless - by Labour MP Anne Coffey and commissioned by Greater Manchester Police. If we want to know one of the biggest reasons why we're failing to protect girls and young women from rape and abuse try this:

In a normally confidential file, prosecutors spell out how a young abuse victim dressing in provocative clothes was enough for them not to take the case to court.

It states: ‘The victim is known (as highlighted by social workers) to tend to wear sexualised clothes when she is out of school, such as cropped tops.’

‘While her age at the time and the date of the decision are not given, it gives two similarly disturbing examples for prosecutors not proceeding with abuse allegations. One said how a girl’s “unsettled background” made her “far from an ideal victim”’, while another pointed out, “I note her father has referred to her to a social worker as being a slag, saying she is responsible for what has happened”.

Can we be clear about this once and for all - how a girl dresses, how she speaks and how much vodka she's consumed are not invitations for men to rape her. Yet that is precisely what the police, social services and the prosecutors are saying. And, as a result, rapists are getting away with it. These are girls - children - and we've a duty to protect them. We aren't.

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Can we still trust the police?

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This report worries me:

Police investigated the political beliefs of a grieving woman – including her views on human rights and the war in Afghanistan – after she complained about the police’s handling of the death of her mother.

The police also claimed that the woman appeared to be mentally ill and placed her on an official register for vulnerable adults without consulting any medical professionals. They later conceded that she was not mentally ill.

Internal police documents reveal how Sussex police compiled a 14-page secret report on Eccy de Jonge, a philosophy academic, shortly after her 83-year-old mother died in a road accident.

The police carried out “full intelligence checks” on de Jonge and gathered comments she had posted on media sites.

It seems to me that this is an abuse of power plain and simple. Perhaps the police here were over-zealous and the woman in question was persistent in her complaints. But the defence put up is equally disturbing:

“There are objectively no credible grounds on which to base an allegation of police officers being engaged in secret operations against the complainant or seeking to protect any officer involved in the tragic road traffic collision.

“In fact, we have done everything to seek to resolve allegations in a fair and proportionate way and attempt to act in the complainant’s best interests.

“Officers are entitled or expected to have discussions as to how to address complaints, make decisions, or how to attempt to make progress with fatal road traffic collision victim’s relatives – this is not evidence of nefarious dossiers, collusion, or protectionism.”

Now there may be more to all this than meets the eye but I fail to see how trawling through someone's life to see if they're 'anti-police' is not why we employ police officers. And more to the point the spokesman is wrong - we know this because the police did compile a 14-page document that did not relate in any manner at all to the matter under investigation (a complaint about the handling of a road traffic fatality).

This story reminds me that the police probably haven't got enough to do, are not subject to sufficient scrutiny and have more than sufficient powers. We are told that "if we've done nothing wrong, we've nothing to fear" - the woman in this case did nothing wrong yet the police used their powers to set about compiling a hatchet job - we do have something to fear after all.

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Thursday, 30 October 2014

More politics should be local - if we want people to understand it and take part


Sam Bowman from the Adam Smith Institute has written - taking this piece from Ezra Klein as his text - about ideology, ignorance and information. Sam observes:

The vast majority of the public is shockingly ignorant of basic political facts, with the informational ‘elite’ also happening to be the more closed-minded. The alternative to closed-mindedness may simply be to be extremely uninformed.

I find this interesting because, as I am deeply embedded in an ideological system, I see the degree to which this lack of information dominates. Our debates are couched in terms of what will appeal to the voter (or a section of the voter audience) regardless of whether the position is backed by facts. We even - as evidenced by the Government's response to a Home Office report on drugs - lay claim to being evidence-based when we aren't, usually through a process of circular reasoning and appeals to our preferred 'experts'.

Because modern government is complicated, modern politics is also complicated (and, as Sam says, the world is complicated too - but then it always was). And since most people are not interested in politics, most people are ignorant of the 'truth' about the "basic facts" that inform political debate. The individual's typical engagement with politics is either half-hearted (turning out to vote) or driven by a specific and urgent threat to his interests or in response to something that has damaged him personally.  As Tip O'Neill put it, all politics is local - and there's nothing more local than our own garden gate or our own family.

We choose to be shocked that people don't know how many immigrants there are, how much money we spend on foreign aid and how much it costs us to be a member of the European Union. Yet why should we expect the ordinary voter to know these facts when they are of no significance or interest to them in their daily lives? Indeed, those people can respond with a different set of facts that are just as important (to the individual voter) that we wouldn't reasonably expect the political elite to know - vital information like when the school parents evening is, how much money is there to pay for Christmas or buy a family holiday and where the local farmer plans to build a new barn.

Now the voters know there's a link between the everyday things that fill their lives - work, family, friends, the neighbourhood - and those grand questions debated on the Sunday morning politics shows they don't watch. But they struggle to see that link. They see little connection between the electing of politicians and the bins getting emptied or there being a village school.

However, this is better than the reverse situation - the typical politician or pundit makes no effort to connect the grand and sweeping debate about the economy, immigration and the welfare state to the specific concerns of those ordinary voters. We pretend to understand the link, to see the connection between the decisions the DWP, Home Office or Treasury make and the everyday lives of the people. But in truth there is no link, we are constantly shocked by the sub-optimal (I'm being kind here) outcomes of the decisions taken under our political system, yet fail to realise that it is our technocratic preference for 'evidence-based' politics that creates this problem.

Since we are talking about politics rather than ideological choices, I'll put to one side Sam's suggestion "... that less cognitively-demanding ways of making decisions, like markets, may be even more valuable than we realise", and talk instead about Tip O'Neill's dictum - all politics is local. This means that, if we want to make politics more comprehensible, we need to frame the discussion at the level of people's interests - at the local level. To be parochial, the precise numbers or type of immigrants matters little to people in Cullingworth but the fact of immigration does. And people want to debate the issue on the basis of how it affects them not in the manner of pundits on Newsnight bashing each other over the head with competing statistics.

The solution to our dilemma about information, if not to immigration, is to make more of our politics local, to devolve more decision-making down to the local level and to conduct debate and discussions about political issues within that local context. Tip O'Neill was a Boston Democrat in a state dominated by the Democrats but he knew that, not only was politics contested within his party at the local level, but there was always the possibility of a Republican winning if those locals thought he was the better man. And for all that O'Neill was a national figure, he still returned to the place that elected him - what happened there, what was said to him there, how his voters behaved informed his politics.

Tim Worstall has touched on this issue a few times in talking about Denmark:

We'd want their taxation system as well: the national income tax is 3.76% and the top national rate is 15%. True, total income taxes are high but the rest is levied by the commune, a political unit as small as 10,000 people. At that scale, taxation is subject to the Bjorn's Beer Effect. If you know that it's Bjorn who levies your taxes, Bjorn who spends your taxes and also know where Bjorn has his Friday night beer, then he's going to spend your money wisely. Otherwise he can't go out for a beer on Friday, can he?

And I would add that people talk to Bjorn - not about those grand matters beloved of our ideological punditry but about the wall that's falling down, how granny didn't get seen by the doctor quickly enough and about the smell from the chicken factory. Moreover, the people talking to Bjorn know he can do something to fix their problem. Here in Cullingworth, while I can sort some stuff out for folk, much of what bugs them is decided a long way away by people they don't know who more-or-less speak a different language. And those decisions taken a long way away mean I can speed up granny's appointment or stop the smell from the chicken factory.

If we want a more comprehensible politics we need to get the decision-making (and the money) down to that local level where people really can influence how those decisions are made. This isn't about educating stupid voters or bashing our foreheads at their utter idiocy - the default reaction of our punditry - but about a politics that matters to the voter by actually touching on the reality of their lives. But I guess the pull of those Sunday morning politics shows will win - politics will carry on being incomprehensible, still be irrelevant to the lives of the typical voter. For all the talk of localism and devolution, politics will remain something played with by fine folk a long way away from the voter and those fine folk will continue to think the voter stupid because he doesn't know some statistics or gets a fact wrong.

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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The progressive left don't believe in free speech - and will redefine speech to pretend otherwise...

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Free speech is important. It's not just me saying that most people think free speech is one of our core values:

When asked what British values are, the most-chosen answers from all respondents were: respect for the law (69%); respect for free speech (66%); democracy (64%); respect for private property (62%); and equality between men and women (61%).

Now I know we can argue over what we mean by values but there's no doubt that most people have been raised with an essential belief in free speech. The problem comes when we begin to discuss what we mean by this free speech. Do we actually mean that people have the right to say whatever they like free from consequence? Take this comment from Norman Tebbit:

‘I’m not a particular friend of Leon Brittan, but this gentleman could equally well get up and accuse me of things like this – and I wouldn’t care for that. In fact I’d probably go round and smack him on the nose.’ 

This comment was in the context of parliamentary privilege - a peculiar form of free speech where there are, quite literally, no consequences. But in the context of free speech the words that upset Norman Tebbit enough for him to 'go round and smack him on the nose' are protected whereas the consequential physical violence isn't. However, in most circumstances, if we can demonstrate that the words spoken are untruthful, offensive and damaging then we have recourse to the law to get them withdrawn and to secure compensation.

None of this restricts free speech. You are quite at liberty to libel someone but you do so at the risk of having to withdraw the words and pay the offended person. However, we have added some other constraints on free speech within the criminal law through, for example, the Racism and Religious Hatred Act 2006. These constraints take the form of acting in response to words seen as incitement (in the case of the Act above, incitement to hatred). We have also seen constraints placed on 'offensive' or 'threatening' speech where it is broadcast or published including via social media like Twitter or Facebook. And finally we have direct and specific restrictions on free speech in the form of bans and controls on certain forms of commercial speech. The best example here is the ban on advertising tobacco products.

So while we say free speech is important we have allowed limits to be placed on speech that mean it is not always free and unlike the USA we have no First Amendment merely the goodwill of parliament in protecting our freedom. And this allows people to play a game of redefining what we mean by speech in order to justify censorship. Here's Anshuman A. Mondal setting out the premise for his justification of such censorship:

However, in his seminal book How to Do Things with Words, the Oxford philosopher J L Austin developed something known as 'speech act theory'. He argued that there were two broad categories of speech: the first, which he called 'constatives', are simply descriptive and informational; the second he called 'performatives', and they don’t simply say something, they do something. These forms of speech are therefore a kind of action.

In my book Islam and Controversy: The Politics of Free Speech after Rushdie, I argue that the giving and taking of offence are performative speech acts in Austin’s sense. They act upon the world and the work they do is political insofar as they aim to establish a power relation between offender and offendee. Put simply, to offend someone is to subordinate them, to put them down. Conversely, to take offence is to draw attention to that subordination.

So we have two sorts of speech - one (facts and figures or stuff like that) Mondal would allow to be free while the other (opinions, observations and exhortations) should be constrained because to use such language is an act of oppression. Mondal argues (from his premise based on one philosopher's work) that the second type of speech isn't speech but action and thereby no different from Norman Tebbit's smack on the nose. Thus:

If some forms of speech are actions, then it follows that restricting or regulating them does not necessarily diminish freedom in speech in general, just as restrictions on some acts – say, robbery or murder – do not jeopardise freedom as such. Otherwise, the only true freedom would be anarchy.

Now this may be an entirely circular argument since you have to accept Austin's philosophical position that certain types of speech are actions, but it also raises a definitional problem because you have to set the boundary between speech that is protected and speech that isn't. And it is clear that Mondal intends this definition to be in the hands of the offended person - if they are offended then the speech should not be protected. Not only has Mondal redefined speech but, in doing so, he also redefines freedom (or rather suggests there is more than one sort of freedom):

If giving and taking offence is the idiom through which struggles over freedom and equality are being articulated in contemporary society then a society that desires a balance between freedom and equality is perfectly entitled to restrict and regulate offensive speech acts, either by legal means or through moral pressure. This is not the threat to freedom of speech that some might take it to be, but rather a shaping of the kind of freedom we, as a political community, believe to be desirable.

In essence we have the progressive dilemma - a vocal assertion of civil liberties combining with the desire to control the words people use through fiat. To square this particular circle it is essential to redefine both parts of the term 'free speech'. Thus some speech is redefined as action (not objectively different from a smack on the nose) and freedom is framed in the context of equality rather than individual autonomy. Neither of these new definitions make sense to the ordinary person, we are in a world where it isn't possible for a black person to be racist or a woman sexist.

Lastly such a redefinition hands to others an absolute power over what is said - I cannot predict whether what I say will 'offend' because the choice to be offended is not in my control. Moreover, Mondal want certain protected groups to have a monopoly in the use of law to police that offence. It is commonplace to see someone who isn't actually 'offended' by some speech arguing that the speech is 'offensive'. In effect no speech is protected and what we understand as free speech ceases to exist.

The result of this is that things that needed to be said don't get said for fear of someone badging what is said offensive. And this has enormous and damaging consequences for our society. Free speech is important, too important to be defined by whether or not someone is offended by that speech.

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Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Why everyone is right about immigration...

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City-AM published a piece of mapping showing - or purporting to show - the lack of relationship between high levels of immigration and UKIP voting habits.

The results are similar across England and Wales, with Ukip's key messages on Europe and immigration hitting hardest in the areas with the fewest immigrants. 

Now I could quibble with the conclusions made about the map since the Boston area clearly shows some of the highest proportions of residents with a non-British nationality and UKIP is pretty strong there - it's one of the places where they've a better than evens chance of winning in next year's general election.

But this isn't the point I want to make. Rather I want to argue that only relatively small numbers of immigrants are needed to alter people's perceptions of immigration. So we'll start with this statement from the article accompanying the maps:

Ukip's first elected MP, Douglas Carswell, represents the coastal seat of Clacton, where residents with a non-British nationality make up between one and three per cent of the population.

Clacton's electorate is 67,447 - is 1-3% of these people are not UK citizens that's 1349 adults, Add in children and we've between two and three thousand immigrants in Clacton. I'm going to guess that these immigrants are concentrated in the parts of the constituency with low cost housing, often (and this is especially true of seaside towns) close to the centre of town. There'll be a shop saying 'Polski Sklep' or similar that caters for the community. One of the pubs in town will become a gathering place and there'll be a collection of lurid and overblown stories about crime or violence. Someone, somewhere will say the town is being 'swamped' by 'these people'.

So while folk like me who say that immigration is far less of a problem than people make out are right, it's also true that these perceptions - the impact of immigrants on how people see a place - are true. People do see that their town has changed, and don't always see that change as being for the best. And we shouldn't dismiss such botheration as 'xenophobia' or 'racism' or those who express concerns as narrow-minded little Englanders (or whatever chosen pejorative us who know better have selected).

If there is a solution then it lies in getting to know the immigrant, in breaking out from the 'Parallel Lives' situation that described Bradford after the riots of 2001. Now I think a good deal of the onus here is on the immigrant to respect local culture, mores and rules - it is completely unreasonable for us to be expected to change the way we talk, act or otherwise behave so as to accommodate immigrants. But this also means that one of those old customs - being a good and welcoming host - applies. And this is down to us who already live here.

Three years ago I wrote about the village where I live:

Friday night, Cullingworth Conservative Club and it's quite busy. There are a few blokes who've chosen to watch the rugby here rather than at home as well as the usual Friday night collection. Some people are playing dominoes in the corner, others are playing snooker and the rest are sitting or standing to talk and drink.

All very typical of that English culture which presents such a barrier to those from different cultures we might say. But let me invite you to take a little closer look - and to discover why the separate development theory of multiculturalism was wrong.

Stood, pint in hand, with the rugby watchers is Manu - newsagent, Parish Councillor, avid Bradford City fan. Across the lounge sits another middle-aged Asian lady with her friend - her white, bottle-blonde friend. Occasional side conversations are held between her and others passing by - some older, some younger. Friendly exchanges about shared experiences in village, mutual acquaintances and other such matters of moment.

Among the domino players is Pete - Chinese takeaway owner and former ping-pong player. Pete's also on the club committee and, while his accent's a bit impenetrable after a few lager & blackcurrants, he's as much part of the Club and the village as anyone else.

I'm pretty sure that, if I put my head round the corner past the one-armed bandit, there'll be a selection of the Brown clan - mostly third or fourth generation in the village and varying in colour from dark brown to a good sun tan. And sitting with them will be friends and neighbours, girlfriends and boyfriends - also native to the village but with a paler hue.

And there will be others less noticeable among the crowd. People whose parents arrived after the war from Eastern Europe, for example. Beyond the Club, there's a Muslim lady who's our GP, there's 'Smiler' who owns the general store and many others who - like me - aren't from the village. Yet we seem to get along alright. There aren't all that many fights - and these won't usually result from racism.

This is the sort of world we should aspire to and it isn't served by wanting to stop all immigration now nor is it helped by telling anyone who expresses worries about immigration that they're thick xenophobic racists.

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Monday, 27 October 2014

In which the left remind us they hold the electorate in contempt (if they vote the wrong way)


I've no time for UKIP at all. Not only are their policies confused, swaying from gung ho libertarianism to proposing frightening degrees of state control, but the Party's strategy is entirely defined by Nigel Farage's desire to damage the Conservative Party. I find UKIP's approach almost as opportunistic as the old Liberal Democrats - chap down the pub complains about the smoking ban and UKIP want to scrap it. And when he moves on to not liking gay people getting hitched UKIP bounce onto that bandwagon.

But it's not the bloke in the pub's fault that UKIP act as an echo chamber for his prejudices, he's just doing what he has always done - sounding off about the ills of the world. And some of what he says is right - the smoking ban killed thousands of pubs along with the jobs of people who worked in those pubs, the EU is an undemocratic and unaccountable nightmare we'd be better off without and there are too many jobsworths at the Council.

But disagreeing with that bloke isn't a justification for being rude about him, for treating him with contempt. Yet this - and the poster above reminds us - is exactly how the left think we should campaign against UKIP. By calling the people who vote for that party "thick". Now I know this is the default view that the typical Guardian reader has of the working class or lower middle class voter, perhaps it reflects a deep disappointment that some of those voters no longer dutifully vote Labour as they're supposed to do (this may reflect the fact that the Labour candidate they're given - middle class, university educated, full of fancy words - doesn't hold or respect those voters' values). But it displays an utterly appalling arrogance.

If the left really want to respond to UKIP (rather than hope enough damage is done to the Conservatives that Ed Miliband gets to be PM on the votes of a third of the electorate) then they need to start listening to what the bloke in the pub is saying. Responding to his concerns about immigration, trying to understand why he's bothered about gay marriage and discussing what's wrong with the EU. Calling him thick is to guarantee that he'll carry right on voting UKIP. Why on earth should he vote for someone who thinks he's an idiot and isn't prepared to listen to what he's saying?

These are ordinary voters who are worried about things they see around them. They aren't stupid, they're not thick and they deserve our respect. If the left can't do that it deserves to be wiped out.

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