‘Progressives’ on the proverbial pole.

June 11, 2011

Just a quick note on this story I saw in The Independent’s sister paper i yesterday. The linked version is a little bit different to the one I saw but it’s the same gist. Tony Blair is basically warning Ed Miliband away from moving Labour to the left of politics.

Tony Blair has warned Ed Miliband not to allow Labour to drift to the left under his leadership and declared that the party must continue to modernise in order to regain power.

Admitting there was “a risk” of Labour turning back to left-wing policies, he said: “There is a pattern that the Labour Party and indeed other progressive parties follow – they lose an election then they go off to the left, but I meet a lot of the younger Labour people now and that gives you great cause for optimism about the future.”

He says the left is old fashioned and that the party must continue to modernise. So the right is modern? I don’t know about that. And he implies too that young Labour activists tend towards the right of the party, but that’s not what I’ve seen from my experience at all.

Notice, too, the cynical ideology of New Labour: don’t do what you think is right, do what you think the voters will like. Don’t try to persuade the public about what you think the country should do, just move along with public opinion, wherever that takes you. In my opinion progressive parties have done far too much of that already, it’s why we have someone who describes himself as progressive saying that the 50p tax rate will disincentivise people to work. It’s why whilst Damian Green is pandering to the racist right by sending immigrants home – even those who, bucking the xenophobic stereotype, work and contribute to the economy – and Gordon Brown is apologising for calling a bigot a bigot, the only acceptable public discourse about immigration is on how best to reduce it.

In his book, Mr Blair argues that traditional left-right boundaries are breaking down and that to be successful, today’s politicians need to “rise above partisan politics”.

Blair’s philosophy seems to be that the left shouldn’t have progressive policies if they don’t think they’ll get them elected, but why would a progressive want to get elected if once they’re there they don’t implement progressive policies? It’s this cynical pole-climbing and contempt for the electorate that turns people off from politics, not ideology.

More on Catholic abuse and Bill Donohue

May 23, 2011

I’m an avid viewer of an online American news show called The Young Turks. I don’t always agree with it, but it’s much better than the mainstream news and particularly on things like corporate lobbyists and tax avoidance, they’re usually bang on the money. Today I saw this video of theirs from last week in which the regular hosts Cenk and Ana comment on a new study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice:

I think that that commentary is completely unfair. First of all Cenk says that “there’s never been a dumber study in the history of mankind” and then criticises it based on the conclusion. That’s not the way this works. If you have a problem with a study you criticise it based on the method, or you look at the data and see that the conclusion isn’t supported, you don’t just say it must be wrong because it might be counter-intuitive.

Perhaps more importantly, the conclusions of the study that Cenk cites aren’t really the focus of the report. All I’ve read is the press release and the conclusion section of the full report (pg 118 onwards), which I don’t think is a huge amount to expect from someone doing a commentary on the content of a report, and the impression I was given is completely different to what they’re saying in the video. It’s as if they’ve formed their opinions from mainstream news outlets, which I wouldn’t expect from them. The main conclusion of the report is that there’s no single factor that could explain or predict abuse in the clergy, or in other words, that a lot of different things contributed to the high level of abuse.

The report does not say that the 60’s being a more “socially permissive time, and… Woodstock and all that” was the main reason for the abuse. What one of the authors of the report does say is that “the increased frequency of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s was consistent with the patterns of increased deviance of society during that time.” Now if Cenk doesn’t believe the level of abuse in society went up in the 60’s and 70’s (and I’ve no idea if it did or it didn’t), then that’s a valid basis for criticising the report, but don’t just exaggerate the claim that’s been made, that was just one of many factors.

Ana gets it right when she says that the report found that homosexuality and celibacy had no significant effect on the likelihood of abuse, but then turns that on its head (as if she thought they would) by dismissively saying the report blames it on the lack of “seminary training and emotional support to prevent them doing what they did”. It’s sort of true, the report says that a particular part of seminary training called ‘Human Formation’ was quite important, but it wasn’t just telling the priest not to rape children, as Cenk later implies. Basically what The Young Turks does here is pull out a couple of things that the report names as factors, and act as if the study is blaming the abuse on those factors, when actually the main conclusion is that no one factor can be identified as the cause.

But enough about the video, what about this conclusion that homosexuality wasn’t a factor in whether a priest abused or not? Given Bill Donohue’s tendency to blame the gays on every occasion when talking about this, will he stop making that claim now that he’s seen this report?

Of course not, it’s Bill Donohue.

Bill grandly states that “a homosexual is defined by his actions, not his identity”, and that therefore when the report says that tendency to abuse didn’t correlate with identity as a homosexual, they were missing the point. Obviously the abusers must be gay because they abused post-pubescent boys. Except that that is not what the report said. It concluded (emphasis mine):

Sexual behavior before ordination predicted sexual behavior after ordination; however, such conduct only predicted subsequent sexual interaction with other adults, not with minors. The clinical data do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity or those who committed same-sex sexual behavior with adults are significantly more likely to sexually abuse children than those with a heterosexual orientation or behavior. (p119)

So even if homosexuals are defined by their actions rather than their identity, homosexuality still doesn’t correlate. The report did name some other factors that did have an effect (emphasis mine):

Individual characteristics do not predict that a priest will commit sexual abuse of a minor. Rather, vulnerabilities, in combination with situational stresses and opportunities, raise the risk of abuse. Like non-priest abusers, the majority of priests who sexually abused minors appear to have had certain vulnerabilities to commit abuse (for example, emotional congruence with children or adolescents), experienced increased stressors from work (for example, having recently received more responsibilities, such as becoming a pastor), and had opportunities to abuse (for example, unguarded access to minors).

But rather than focus on those, Donohue decides to blame teh gayz. Maybe he should take a look at these factors, particularly the opportunity to abuse. Maybe his oft-cited fact that most of the victims were post-pubescent males has less to do with priests being homosexual, and more to do with the fact that priests have more access to post-pubescent males, since altar-servers tend to be post-pubescent, as do children in boarding schools. Maybe his flagrant homophobia is clouding his judgement. Just maybe.

Ken Clarke and rape sentencing

May 18, 2011

Ken Clarke, the UK Justice Minister, has given several interviews today, in the first of which he appeared to downplay the seriousness of rape. Here’s a full transcript.

Recently I’ve been lamenting not writing enough on feminist issues (there are only so many times you can say “yeah, the patriarchy’s shit”), and this is quite a good opportunity. Unfortunately I find myself, to a small extent, having to defend Ken Clarke. A lot of the coverage and criticism so far has concentrated on the fact that he said date rape wasn’t as serious as ‘proper rape’ or ‘classic rape’ as he apparently later went on to describe it on Sky News. But actually, I don’t think he said that at all, and there’s certainly a compelling case that some of his more vocal critics are fully aware of that fact. I would argue that his comments are bad enough in the first place that there’s no need to overplay it.

So for example, I’ve just watched BBC News at 10, and they played this part of the interview:

Derbyshire: So is date rape not as serious?

Clarke: Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes. But date rapes, as you are quite right to say very old experience, of being in trials, they do vary extraordinarily one from another and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances.

which gives the impression that he’s saying date rape isn’t serious. That would be an absolutely shocking thing to say, not least because I’m pretty sure that’s the most common form of rape. But actually this earlier part of the interview is very important:

Derbyshire: Under your plans that woman could find… that woman could find the rapist back on her street in a year and a bit. It’s an insult to her isn’t it?

Clarke: The rapist is going to be….very light sentence for a…a year and a bit?

Derbyshire: Yes. A rapist gets five years.

Clarke: Rapists don’t get… rapists get more than that.

Derbyshire: Hang on a minute. Five years on average, yes they do Mr Clarke, yes they do.

Clarke: That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds.

which makes clear that when he’s talking about ‘date rape’, he actually means statutory rape. Now I don’t think it’s a hugely controversial thing to say that when an under-16 has willing sex, that’s not as serious as what most people would colloquially refer to as rape, but that’s the comment that was twisted and used against him. That’s a bit unfair.

But he’s not getting off this altogether. There are lots of other things wrong with what he said, and I’m not particularly familiar with the way statutory rape is classified so I’m sure there are other things wrong with it that I won’t have picked up on. But there are lots of people, and I’m ashamed to say it’s mostly men, and amongst my friends it’s the usual suspects, who seem to think that all he’s said is that there’s a difference between a young couple having sex when one of them’s underage, and a rapist hiding behind a bush, and that therefore his comments were fine. That’s not true.

Fairly superficially, it is eye-opening, to say the least, to discover that our Justice Secretary apparently isn’t familiar with the difference between date rape and statutory rape, to the extent that he doesn’t correct himself despite using the term ‘date rape’ several times. As I say, when he’d had that mistake pointed out to him later in the day, he went on Sky News and talked about ‘proper rape’ and ‘classic rape’. That is mindnumbingly stupid, it’s like he’s begging for the media to rip into him.

He also fumbled considerably when he was confronted with the sentencing guidelines for rape which say the minimum sentence is 5 years (page 25), and the sentencing range is 4-8 years. He then repeated again what he had said earlier about ’18 year old boyfriends’ which isn’t at all what the interviewer was talking about. That indicates to me that our Justice Secretary also isn’t familiar with the sentencing for rape.

And that’s not to mention that, when confronted with the short sentences actually given for rape – the figure of the 5 year average sentence which Victoria Derbyshire says comes from the Council of Circuit Judges – I couldn’t tell you if it’s accurate, but when confronted with that figure, Clarke’s first instinct is to downplay the seriousness of the offence that it refers to by saying that it also includes the 18 year old boyfriends that he keeps going on about. That is indefensible, for several reasons. It’s not even true for a start, because it’s unusual for a case like that to result in a prosecution, so it doesn’t have a significant skewing effect on the figures. Additionally those cases of statutory rape which do get to court quite often involve other factors like coercion and peer pressure, for example, so they’re still serious crimes. Just because it’s statutory rape doesn’t mean it’s not serious.

In all this criticism of his comments, there has been one part that’s been largely skipped over. In his comments on Sky, he said:

“Newspapers are using rape to add some sexual excitement”.

Are you fucking kidding me?! Again even on a superficial level, what kind of a moron uses the phrase ‘sexual excitement’ and ‘rape’ in the same sentence? That is so insensitive! He could have said so many other things, he could have said that the newspapers were using rape to make the story more emotive, or to distract from the fact that this sentence reduction plan affects all crimes, or countless other things that would have been less offensive that what he said.

In addition to that, he completely misses the point of the criticism that’s been made, and this criticism actually deals with the policy itself rather than just his comments. The people focussing on rape aren’t doing so as a way to get press headlines. The objection is that in his plan to halve sentences for a guilty plea, an exception should be made for rape because the sentence for rape is already so pitifully low.

Now I actually hope that Ken Clarke isn’t fired, because if he were then I’m afraid we’d get someone worse. Clarke doesn’t believe in just banging people up, he takes an approach to law and order that’s refreshing to see from the Tories, he’s very vocally opposed to the war in Iraq, and of course he’s pro-Europe, which means he’s a counterforce to the xenophobes in the government. Ultimately, however, a justice minister should know that when you’re in an interview and the subject of rape comes up, your first concern should be encouraging victims to come forward and getting the conviction rate up. Today’s comments will only do the opposite.

Electoral Reform 2

May 1, 2011

So having covered a daft flyer from the No campaign, I’ve since been given a flyer from the Yes campaign, and it’s also terrible. It’s a shame because it’s such an easy argument to win, and the Yes campaign have failed spectacularly put across their argument. There are a number of dodgy claims on the flyer, some of which I’ll address in turn:

“A ‘No’ vote in May tells the politicians we’re happy with business as usual – expenses scandal and all.”

Not particularly. The expenses scandal has nothing to do with the electoral system at all (AV wouldn’t prevent it so if you’re voting for it for that reason you’re a bit of an idiot) and it’s clear regardless of which way the referendum goes that people were pretty pissed off about MP’s claiming for a moat around their house and things like that.

The flyer then goes through its 3 reasons to vote yes:

1) It will make all MP’s work harder for support because they have to get 50% of the vote.

Not really. It’s not as if come election season candidates are just throwing votes away by lazing around because they think they only need 30% of the vote – they take as many votes as they can get. What it may mean is that they will have to appeal to a wider section of the electorate and try to get another party’s second votes, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, if it means that candidates stick to the middle ground and refuse to be controversial, and to a certain extent they do that now anyway to get as many voters as possible. We’ll have to see how that pans out.

2) It will make your vote count.

“AV lets you show your support for any candidates you think are up to the job. So if your favourite candidate doesn’t win you can still have a say.”

This is correct but they’ve phrased it in such a ham-fisted way that it plays straight into the No campaigns hands in saying that it’s unfair and that it gives the supporters of unpopular parties an extra vote. They should have stayed well away from the individualistic point of view (after all, it won’t make any one person’s vote count any more than anyone else’s, unless those people don’t give a second preference) and instead explained that whichever candidate is elected will represent the spectrum of opinion much better than under the current system. That is one of the strongest arguments in favour, and instead the Yes campaign patronises the voter and says it’ll ‘make their vote count’, whatever that means.

3) It’ll tackle the ‘Jobs for Life’ culture – “it makes safe seats less safe.”

That might be true but not in any significant way. The safety of a seat depends not on how much of the vote they have to get, but on how likely voters are to change their voting behaviour, so actually it might not do anything of the sort, it just adds another complication to predicting results, more than actually making a seat less safe. But this is kind of a repetition of number 1, surely? Could they not think of another argument? How disappointing!

AV’s not a particularly great electoral system but there are 2 good arguments in favour of it. As I’ve already said, it’ll mean that the elected representative of a constituency represents the opinions of their constituency better than under the current system. It’ll also mean that noone is forced to vote tactically as they are now. I will be able to vote for the party I like rather than voting to keep the party I dislike out. That’s not to say it’ll get rid of tactical voting altogether, as in some situations a party with a particularly good campaign team can knock out their closest rival in the first round, but it’ll be a great improvement on First Past the Post.

And these points aren’t difficult to make! I already showed in my last post the cartoon about tactical voting, but there are also good visual illustrations of my first argument, two of which are below. I find it particularly offensive when the Yes campaign assumes the electorate is too stupid to have it explained to them in any way other than appealing to simplistic populist arguments involving the expenses scandal, because if they think the electorate’s too stupid to understand AV then that’s one good argument against bringing it in! It’s almost as if they don’t want to win.

Electoral Reform

April 21, 2011

I got a leaflet through my door the other day from the No to AV people. For background, the Liberal Democrats wanted electoral reform, and the Tories didn’t, and as a compromise in the coalition agreement, they decided to have a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, which noone really wanted anyway.

There are a few lies that have been spread, not only through leaflets like the one I received, but also online and in the press, but there’s one in particular that I want to put straight to bed. That is the argument that “under AV the candidate who comes second or third can actually be elected.” It’s been illustrated in several ways but in the leaflet I received it had a picture of a finish line of a race, and an arrow pointing to the last person saying “the winner under AV”. Here’s a similar poster:


Now this is extremely misleading. I agree, and I’m sure everyone in the Yes to AV campaign would agree, that the AV system shouldn’t be used in trying to determine who can run fastest or box better. But in politics, we are not trying to determine that, we are trying to find the candidate who represents the views of the constituency the best, and that isn’t necessarily someone who get the plurality of the votes.

Let’s have a very hypothetical example. In Racistville, Sussex, there are 4 candidates: the BNP, the Greens, the Lib Dems, and Labour. The BNP get 30% of the vote, the Lib Dems get 25%, Labour get 25% and the Greens get 20%. Under the current system (probably one of the least democratic in the world), the BNP would win. Does that mean that the BNP best represent the views of the people in Racistville? Of course not! The policies of the other parties are much more similar to each other than to the policies of the BNP. Now I’m using the BNP specifically for that purpose, because it’s very obvious, but the same is true in all constituencies. I would imagine the BNP would be the last preference of all the other voters.

By taking second and third preferences into account, we can find a candidate that everyone is ok with, rather than a candidate that a minority prefers, but the majority might hate.

This cartoon explains it quite well:

I’ll be voting for AV, if only because it means I won’t have to keep voting Labour just to keep the Tories out. My constituency is a Labour/Tory marginal, and if I voted for the party I actually prefer (the Greens, at the minute), then that makes it easier for the Tories to get in. That’s the opposite of what I would want, so I’m forced to tactically vote. Under AV I wouldn’t have to.

Bill Donohue lies again

April 13, 2011

Via Pharyngula.

Remember Star Wars Episode 1? And Boss Nass, the King of the Gungans? Something about that slimy incomprehensible fat sack of crap reminds me of Bill Donohue:

One of the original 3 on the crotch-kicking list, Bill Donohue is the President of the Catholic League, who I’ve covered before on this blog, and he’s at it again. Defending abusers, that is. In this article released today, not only does he accuse those filing complaints of doing it for ideological or financial gain, but he once again blames homosexuals for the abuse crisis in the Church.

The refrain that child rape is a reality in the Church is twice wrong: let’s get it straight—they weren’t children and they weren’t raped. We know from the John Jay study that most of the victims have been adolescents, and that the most common abuse has been inappropriate touching (inexcusable though this is, it is not rape). The Boston Globe correctly said of the John Jay report that “more than three-quarters of the victims were post pubescent, meaning the abuse did not meet the clinical definition of pedophilia.” In other words, the issue is homosexuality, not pedophilia. (6th paragraph)

No, that is a lie. As I’ve covered before, it is absurd to use the John Jay report to say that the majority of abuse victims have been postpubescent males because the John Jay study only reported on victims under the age of 18. So even by his own logic, he is saying that if the victim is post-pubescent then the abuser is not a paedophile but a homosexual, and then he’s arbitrarily cutting off his dataset at 18 years of age. Studies done into abuse generally show that the majority of victims are adult females. Surely, then, it must be a heterosexual problem?

There are further problems with this claim that Donohue keeps spouting from his flabby jowls. The fact that a victim is post-pubescent and male doesn’t make the abuser homosexual. Abuse is rarely a case of the abuser just being hopelessly attracted to the victim, and indeed Margaret Smith, a John Jay criminologist who worked on the study has said that “the majority of the abusive acts were homosexual in nature. That participation in homosexual acts is not the same as sexual identity as a gay man.” It seems to me that opportunity to offend might have a much bigger impact on who the victim is.

Now let’s not forget that a man with a doctorate in sociology from New York University should be “not unacquainted with how to read the social science data” as the big man said himself. And yet, curiously, he has managed to misread the social science data. And despite having been corrected on it many times, he’s still coming out with the same tired old lies.

The man’s a joke. When will he realise that people don’t care if the victims were post-pubescent or not, or if they were male or not, or if they were raped or abused in some other way? People aren’t angry because of the (probably false) perception that there’s a higher incidence of abuse in the Church than elsewhere, they’re angry because when it was reported, it was covered up in a huge number of cases. And Donohue thinks pointing that out equates to persecution.

Problems with privatisation

March 31, 2011

I was having a good day today. It’s sunny, it’s my first real day off in… I don’t even remember how long, and I watched a couple of films which I haven’t done in a while. Then I went online and saw this story from the Guardian. Ken Clarke, the Conservative Justice Secretary in the Westminster government, has outlined his plans to introduce the first private prison in the UK. I’m astounded. Maybe this has been developing for a while but if so I haven’t noticed it. I thought this was the kind of thing that happened in crazy libertarian states in the US, not here.

Of course the usual argument is there, that a private prison will cost less money, without compromising on standards. How? How do they go about saving money without affecting what they do? Somehow the word ‘private’ has become synonymous with the word ‘efficient’. It’s a complete myth! Here’s why, and I’ve said it a million times before: there are 2 forms of efficiency. The first form is money spent vs money gained, which is what the private sector is concerned with, and the second form is money spent vs societal gain (note, not necessarily anything to do with money). This is the kind of efficiency that public services should be concerned with. The problem with using private companies to deliver public services is that there’s a huge level of inefficiency in the shareholders. It’s there for profit, so a big chunk of the money goes into a few individual’s pockets, which doesn’t happen in the public sector.

If they are saving money somewhere, how are they doing it? The only way I can see is by compromising, if not on the service delivered, then on the conditions of their staff, because if they’re saving by changing food suppliers or whatever, then the government can do that too, those savings aren’t available exclusively to the private sector.

Here’s another problem with privatisation, the easier access for corrupt forces:

2 judges in America were jailed for taking $2m in kickbacks from a company that owns a private prison, in return for sending children there for petty crimes. This is the kind of thing that becomes a real possibility when you’re dealing with individuals in it for the money instead of people there to deliver a public good. I don’t want to go down that road.

So let’s just make a list of the potential problems with private prisons:

  • A large chunk of public money goes into private pockets
  • Mythical efficiency savings
  • Real possibility of a ‘race to the bottom’ – delivering lower quality services at a lower cost, ostensibly saving money, but in reality it’s just a veiled cut to services.
  • Ease of passing blame onto a private company in case of error, rather than the government accepting it.
  • Ethical problems and conflicts of interest involved with imprisoning people for profit.
  • Increased possibility of corruption/lobbying.

That’s just off the top of my head.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with this news. The company that’s been chosen to take over this prison in October is G4S, a private security company which has also recently been given a contract with the Scottish Prisons Service to transport prisoners. What’s the problem with G4S? Well, not only have they been involved in conflicts with unions over working conditions across the world, but they’re also complicit in the Israeli occupation by providing security to illegal settlements, equipment to Israeli prisons where Palestinian political prisoners are incarcerated, and has even been accused of supplying torture instruments to Israeli prisons. 200 Palestinian prisoners have died in Israeli custody either from medical negligence or by torture.

And that’s yet another problem with privatisation. You’re aligning yourself with companies that are only in it for the money, which have no moral scruples and which could be doing all kinds of unethical things. That’s something that I don’t think our government should be involved in.