Tag Archives: the-Guardian

Told you so..

Today’s Guardian has a piece looking at the effects of the French burqa ban. In a nutshell:

France’s burqa ban: women are ‘effectively under house arrest’
Since France introduced its burqa ban in April there have been violent attacks on women wearing the niqab and, this week, the first fines could be handed down. But a legal challenge to this hard line may yet expose the French state as a laughing stock.

I have to show off about my predictive skills here, although anyone with at a week’s experience of living on this planet could have predicted the outcome.

But still, in June 2009, I said…

Some members of the public will demand police action against women wearing burqas. At the very least, insulting women as they go about their daily lives will become more, not less, common. Burqa-wearers will be afraid to appear in the street.

…Exactly the consequences that today’s Guardian report talks about…

There’s some shame for atheists in this story

Secular France has a complicated relationship with the veil. In 2004, all religious symbols including the headscarf were banned in schools. Even among Sarkozy’s opponents there are very few feminists or socialist politicians who would defend the right to wear niqab in a country where secularism is one of the few issues that still unites a fragmented left. Barely a handful of people came to Notre Dame cathedral to protest against the law in April. (from the Guardian)

I refuse to see how interfering with women’s chosen modes of dress “for their own good” can be in any way feminist.

It makes me really uncomfortable to see secularism used as a smokescreen for racism.

I thought I was at least in favour of the French banning all religious symbols in schools but I’ve started to even reconsider that, when I look at it logically. I hardly think it’s a battle worth fighting. It’s basically unenforceable without causing religious believers to become even more entrenched in their sense of having a beleaguered cultural identity.

How do you define a religious symbol in order to ban it? What are the boundaries of religion?

What about an innocent wearing a piece of jewelry with a Chinese Buddhist symbol? The English youths tattooed with Maori warrior symbols for gods they’ve never heard of and couldn’t pronounce even for real money?

Does it only count if you know what the symbols mean? In that case, most wearers of religious insignia would be OK.

What if you know what the symbols mean but just don’t believe in them? (I’m looking at you, all you people with silver rings carrying Egyptian ankhs.) You might have bought a tourist T-shirt printed with a scene from the Sistine Chapel. You might be wearing a reversed cross as a fashion item. You might even be wearing a religious item ironically (like the plastic rosaries incomprehensibly fashionable a couple of years ago)

More seriously, what about dreadlocks? They can be read in dozens of different ways. Locks have religious significance for some rastas. They also have several forms of cultural resonance for many people wearing them who wouldn’t subscribe to the religion – from people who see them as symbols of African heritage to eco-warriors. Some people wear them for purely aesthetic and fashion reasons. Are they banned in French schools? Would they be acceptable for people who could prove they didn’t follow the religion?

However you follow through these ideas, they become nonsense.

If secularist are to subscribe to the idea of banning religious artefacts worn on the body, how can we be sure that any given object doesn’t have religious significance?

By the way, this might be the time to mention that I have recently joined a religion which venerates the holy lounge suit. We are a small religion but utterly fanatical. All men in our faith are required to wear a lounge suit, with the tie of the Eternal Cosmos wrapped around the neck in a complicated knot that represents the interconnectedness of all life.

I sincerely trust that this doesn’t cause more than minor inconvenience in the French parliament.

Health Ministry of Truth

Combining theThe War against Terror with The War Against the National Health Service, the UK Home Secretary is about to propose that doctors be co-opted into the TWAT, by reporting on potential terrorists amongst their patients.

Doctors and other health professionals will be asked to identify people who are “vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism” as part of the government’s redrawn counter-terrorism programme to be detailed on Tuesday. (from The Guardian)

In a departure from recent government style, it seems that, for once, the Lib-Dems aren’t even being used as a human shield for this particular mad idea. Theresa May is putting it forward herself.

Theresa May and her advisers didn’t grow up in Fairyland, so they may have had occasion to visit a doctor. In which case, they should have noticed that, although doctors ask patients some very personal questions indeed, they don’t normally ask about plans to carry out suicide bomb attacks.

Doctors are indeed often too busy to ask where we stand on the single transferable vote or the extension of the eurozone. How wonderfully relaxed must some surgeries be, if doctors can take the time to engage their patients on a wide range of political topics and rank their answers on an extremism scale?

Temporarily ignore the monstrousness of treating medical confidentiality as a disposable luxury. This plan doesn’t even make sense in pragmatic terms. Potential terrorists can avoid getting caught by it by the simple expedient of not discussing their views with doctors. Can this be beyond the wit of even the stupidest terrorist?

Do we really have an Oxford-educated Home Secretary who believes that a terrorist will walk into his local surgery and says “I’ve got a bit of a sore throat but I’m planning an explosive attack on a plane this week and I’d hate to miss it”?

Genius

Facing the dole because of the cuts that have made the IMF so pleased with the Condem government?

(Who knew the IMF had a UK vote? To be honest, I prefer IKEA’s furniture.)

Well, you can now retrain for an easy and rewarding new career as a science journalist, thanks to Martin Robbins in the Guardian who has provided a template for any and every science article you’ll ever write.
This is a news website article about a scientific paper

It’s brilliant.

Eztra: I forgot to mention the links which are pretty funny too.

Enviro-product savings

Review of the products featured on the Guardian’s eco-store today

Green Product Even more astonishingly green alternative Rating out of 5
Dyson Air multiplier An electric fan that looks like an i-phone, if Henry Moore had designed one in a fan format.
Cost: £199
A folded piece of paper waved about in front of your face with a fanning motion.
Cost £0
A minus number too huge to compute
Intellipanel A remote control device for switching off things connected to your tv so you don’t leave them on standby.
Cost: £29.95
Get up and switch off at the set and/or the wall
Cost £0
minus 3
This would be lower-rated than the elegant fan, except for the fact that it’s so much cheaper. At least the fan serves a purpose.
Organic beetroot juice Liquidised beetroot juice and a bit of apple
Cost:£3:09 per 740 ml bottle or £17.38 a case
Grow organic beetroots and apples. Stick them in a blender Cost: a couple of pounds per case equivalent.
(Or, even buy beetroots and apples and liquidise them. That might push the case cost up to a fiver.)
3
Shipping (unreturnable?) glass bottles all over the country marks it down. But at least it’s food and it’s organically grown and so it’s not really adding to the world sum of useless consumer goods that will be landfill in a year.
2 Recycled Grolsch bottles (turned upside down and with their ends cut off)
Cost: £12.95
No, I can’t imagine why you’d want one, either – let alone two – but, it’s easy enough to work out how to do it. Turn a Grolsch bottle upside down. Wrap a hot wire round the base and watch the bottom fall off. Sand it down a bit if you don’t want to cut yourself.
Cost: The cost of 2 bottles of Grolsch, plus you get to drink the beer first. A 20pack of Grolsch costs £20.99 from Drinksdirect. So, that’s under £3 for 2 full bottles of beer.
Or indeed Free, if you already have empty Grolsch bottles. Or any other bottles, as far as I can make out.
1
At least it aims to reuse an existing product. I’d mark it up if standard glass recycling didn’t already exist. But then I’d have to mark it down again for the fact that it implies that the outcome of recycling beer packaging costs the consumer 6 times the cost of the beer in its original container.
Pants to poverty men’s underpants
Cost:£15
Buy normal underpants at about £1 and give ten pounds straight to a development charity if you need to feel that your underwear purchase is doing some global good.
Cost: £11
3
I don’t like the way that “charity” seems to involve paying massively over the odds for things, when it is unlikely that much of the cost ends up where you thought it was going. So, we all pay to feel better about world problems rather than to solve them.
Owl Wireless Energy Monitor (or – as they used to be called – an electric meter.) This shows you how much electricity you are using, so you will see how much it costs and use less (Replacing the traditional electric bill then?)
Cost: £29.95
Switch things off without getting a digital readout first. (Or if you really want to see numbers while you do it, look at your old-fashioned meter occasionally. or look at a digital watch display occasionally and remind yourself that digits mean “Switch something off”)
Cost: £0
1
Glow in the dark brick Stores up solar power in the day to light up an acrylic green brick.
Cost: £13
Can’t think of a way to make this at home. The only obvious alternative is just not to have one. That seems to be working out quite well so far for most of us.
Cost: £0
0.5
I am quite taken by the idea of having a glowing green brick. But despite the sop to my conscience provided by its use of solar energy, I’m still going to have to ruthlessly decide that I will try to manage without one.

Greenwash, don’t you just love it?

Making up numbers

Nothing provides more authority to a policy than supporting it with made-up numbers, it seems. Here is a shameless example:

The communities department estimates that it costs each taxpayer £35 a week to keep people in affordable homes, and it is argued the tenancy for life is an inefficient use of scarce resources. from the Guardian

I don’t know how much income tax you pay but I’ve just worked out – very roughly, based on the allowances and basic rates on the HMRC site – that a single person earning £20k a year pays £52.03 per week in tax. So, the Prime Minister is saying that 67% of this tax goes to “affordable housing”?

And £20k isn’t a great wage. (It’s slightly below the median wage but easier to calculate from.) But it’s much higher than minimum wage.

Millions of people earn minimum wage. A yearly minimum wage is £12,234.40 (from October 2010 anyway, when it rises to £5.93 an hour) So a single person on minimum wage will pay £22.53 tax a week. The magical £35 a week is 1 and a half times their entire income tax bill.

This doesn’t just defy credibility. It spits in its face with a mocking sneer.

These numbers seem to be targeted directly at that section of Middle England which expresses views of the kind that can be seen at their most typical on the brilliant Speak You’re Branes site. (Ie., people dumber than a box of nails. )

The imade-up numbers may be used to obscure the fact that Cameron’s plan actually implies evicting tenants if they have an empty bedroom or if they earn wages.

Cameron did’nt even bother to explain how this is supposed to cut down on the imaginary costs. In fact, he gave a pretend-egalitarian, justification for this mad policy: that there are millions of needy people on waiting lists. .. who would presumably then move into the vacated houses and … start eating up their own share of the taxpayers’ £35 a week.

This makes no sense at all as a deficit-reduction plan – even if the numbers were real. And even if the social consequences wouldn’t be predictably horrific.

Cuts in housing benefit – to a level lower than the “affordable” rents charged by many social and private landlords – already threaten to put thousands of unemployed and disabled people into serious arrears and to drive many into homelessness. When these people are joined by workers earning a bit more than minimum wage and older people whose children have left home or whose partners have died – i.e. the people Cameron is presenting as stealing taxpayers money – it looks as if tent cities will have to start springing up all over the country. We might then get to see what a truly “broken Britain” looks like.

Numberwang on the web

The Guardian has a Data Blog with the subtitle Facts are sacred..

Tempting as it is to wander round the epistemological byways here (What’s a “fact,” for a start?) I’ll spare you that. Instead I’ll express bafflement about the factualness of some specific facts on government websites posted yesterday.

A decorative graphic has blobs to represent the costs of UK government websites. There’s a clickthrough button to get the data from Manyeyes.

The data is shocking, on first view. For instance, it seems to have cost the UK taxpayer £154 for every visit to the Cabinet Office site. Cue horror. Except that these appear to be made-up numbers, with the calculations done on a solar powered calculator sitting at the bottom of a deep well.

Here are a few columns that I took from the data, applied simple maths to and lo! most sites cost a few pence per visit.

I’ve left the original numbers so you can work out costs per visit yourself. I’ve shown my calculations on a blue background.

Details from the govt webcosts spreadsheet
Details from the govt webcosts spreadsheet

I fear I’m doing the post a disservice when I scroll down and find a link to Google docs that offers the full data. Download the full list as spreadsheet doesn’t work for me but, when I look at the data on this sheet, it makes a lot more sense. Costs per visit are down to pence rather than tens of pounds. Not that I can replicate this either. But I get a lot closer.
UK govt web costs, as held in google docs

Ah ha: At the end of the Guardian post there’s a caveat:

UPDATE: an error in the cost per visitor column has now been corrected

Sorry, not when I looked at it it. Which, surely must be after it’s been corrected, or else I wouldn’t be able to see the correction note.

In any case, the original costs are dubious. Some of these sites must be new and have not got a full year’s data. The basis on which any given department has costed its sites might be wholly individual. I am forced to conclude that these are pretty well just made up numbers from start to finish. Although that doesn’t excuse the failure for anyone to notice that a simple division has been borked.

Any reader would gasp at the idea of sites that squander 3 week’s unemployment benefit on each visitor. That “information” sticks in the mind. Few readers would be finicky enough to look at the detail.

It says Facts are Sacred in bold letters at the head of the post. You could be forgiven for absent-mindedly taking it that someone had made sure that these were sacred facts.

A paranoid person might easily assume that the release of such spurious data was part of a propaganda offensive to convince UK voters that the public sector is so bloated and wasteful that the planned public sector cuts will not affect anything important. They’ll just involve stopping stupid and wasteful spending….

Like the imaginary huge (6-year-salary!) redundancy payments to inherently idle public sector workers that another Guardian blogger treats as a representative of the true position. Then characterises the head of a public sector union as a rabid militant for opposing the destruction of his member’s jobs and employment conditions.

I initially, and charitably, assumed this was a random Comment is Free post, maybe by a freelancing Daily Mail journalist.

But it appears that the writer is a senior figure in the Guardian. He was the Guardian’s political editor for 16 years. From his profile:

Michael White is assistant editor and has been writing for the Guardian for over 30 years

I see I have been spending £300 every ten minutes on buying the Guardian and it’s only ever worth it on the increasingly-rare days when Charlie Brooker is side-splittingly funny and Marina Hyde isn’t engaged in electoral enthusiasms for former presenters of shows about amusing vegetables. I begin to think a 40% cut in my Guardian spending is long overdue.

Evolutionary agony

The Guardian has an “evolutionary biology agony aunt.” This doesn’t appear to be a deliberate joke.
The agony auntiness is basically standard newspaper-standard morality, dressed up in an evolutionary biology overcoat.

Readers send in their problems. So far, none of these have seemed to relate to the types of arcane technical or theoretical issues that you’d expect to worry evolutionary biologists.

The “problems” seem to be the dull wrangles between conscience and desire that we all experience, though you would hope that fewer of us share the problem-sharers’ capacity for self-justification.

To paraphrase one: “I am a good catch and my wife can’t breed any more, doesn’t evolutionary biology require me to get a younger model?”

Amazing that people with no capacity far self-knowledge can apparently survive into middle age. Obviously human intelligence wasn’t really that important to the survival of our species… (well, until now, anyway, what with climate change and ecological devastation, and all … )

Is this garbage there to give aid and comfort to creationists? It pretends that biology can somehow replace human morality. It misunderstands basic concepts of evolution, in ways that you would normally expect from the Discovery Institute.

I guess I’ll take it as a joke after all.

Xtreme bingo

Get your playing card for the great new game of “Domestic Extremist Bingo” from the Guardian Online.

Not sure how to claim your prize, sorry, but there seems to be a £9 million jackpot up for grabs.

So get marking those cards.

No prizes for spotting comedian Mark Thomas in there, either. But you can have him as your starter, so you don’t have to actually see him at a protest to cross him off your scorecard.

Breaking news:
Sorry kids, it looks as if the Information Commissioner has finally tried to spoil your fun. By actually spotting the outrageous nature of the information in this Guardian story .

Fiddling while Rome burns

There are more than enough depressing/infuriating/worrying news items to rant about here – climate change; wars; torture; erosion of civil liberties; random shootings; economic chaos; and so on ad nauseam. Which is why it’s all the more satisfying to be able to indulge in a completely irrelevant piece of spleen-venting, about someone that I’ll never meet and about a subject that is of no importance to the rest of the world.

Julie Myerson is a well-paid and successful writer who threw out her 17-year-old son, leaving him homeless and penniless. Then she wrote a novel about him and what a bad lot he was. Which got loads of publicity (to which I am foolishly contributing) as it turned out that lad, now 19, was less than pleased. It was also revealed in today’s Guardian that she was also the writer of a drivelly column (in the routinely unread Family Saturday supplement) about living with teenagers.

Her excuse for this throwing-a-child-on-the-street action – which would surely have brought normal people to the attention of Social Services – was his alleged addiction to smoking weed. (I kid you not)

Since then, she has been in all the tabloids. Her stance has been seen by some as “tough love” and plenty of other parents have been moved to tell their stories in the media. In the course of this media spectacle, the boy has even been allowed to express some of his feelings about his adolescence having being treated as book-promoting fodder.

Unfortunately, he’s not a professional writer so he hasn’t had the privileged access to the media. He’s only been able to talk about what the theft of his life has meant. He hasn’t been able to discuss how he feels about being so massively let down by the people who were supposed to care for him, for instance. Unlike his mother, he hasn’t been interviewed sympathetically on shows like BBC Breakfast. Unlike his mother, he’s the one whose prospects of getting accepted – by his peers, potential employers, and so on – as an autonomous adult have been shattered.

Now, this letter in today’s Guardian expressed, much better than I can, exactly what you would assume any sane person would feel about this, so I’m repeating it in full:

I worked for many years as a child psychologist and never came across any examples of severe behavioural problems in adolescents caused by cannabis use. What I did come across constantly were adults with appalling parenting skills who wished to attribute their children’s behavioural difficulties to food additives, ADHD, peer-group pressures or anything else which might distract from their own responsibility for the situation. Some teenagers do indeed become hard to handle as they get older. Some lose interest in satisfying their parents’ aspirations. Some listen to loud music. In general trying to get along with them as best one can and making sure they get plenty to eat is the best policy. Splattering complaints all over the media, inventing addictions and throwing the young person onto the streets is generally less successful. I would not recommend any parent to take the Myerson’s advice on bringing up children.
(from Greg McMillanrey Edinburgh)(I added the bold)

But this seems to be something of a minority view. For instance, A Smith says

I would like to thank Julie Myerson for having the courage to talk about an ordeal that is shared by probably thousands of loving families in this country.

Well, Julie, here’s some “tough love” from me – OK, this might just seem like unsought destructive verbal abuse, but I may have to refer to “pots” and “kettles.” (“You can dish it out but you can’t take it” and so on.)

When I saw you on today’s BBC Breakfast, I instantly thought how much I would hate to be trapped in a lift with you. You seemed completely self-obsessed, not to mention on the verge of a breakdown. You seemed so manically self-justifying, that I would have been sympathetic, were it not for the fact that you still don’t understand that you have done anything wrong to your son. You were just having a “me, me, poor me” fest. It was disturbing and baffling that people were emailing and ringing to support you, as if lots of shit parents were trying to block their innate awareness of their responsibilities by all joining in to make the blatant shittiness seem normal.

I can’t believe that you ever took your son’s real feelings into account at any stage in his life. I think you and your husband can’t relate to anything that doesn’t fit into your “perfect family” fantasy world. (Oh, we’re such a wacky family! Aren’t we lovably chaotic? So child-centred. We’re always pushed for time. And our teenagers swear! Tee Hee! And it all revolves around ME. )

As soon as your son started becoming an adolescent, it threatened your control of this imaginary world. So you scapegoated him for pretty average adolescent behaviour, then you decided that there was no blame to be attached anywhere except for the fact that he smoked weed.

Picking on one family member and making them bear the responsibility for any conflict in the home is using a scapegoat to dump all your own problems. This is pretty disgusting bullying in any circumstance. It’s indefensible if you do it to your own kids. Why did you give birth, ffs, if you weren’t going to respect your offspring?

Emotional abuse is emotional abuse, no matter how middle-class and well-paid you are and no matter how skillful you are at using the media to carry out your abuse and to collude in it, it’s still abuse.

Creating an absurdity

I see that mouthy atheists are to blame for the spread of creationism. ROTFL. * chortle immoderately * etc

Well, so it says in the Guardian special on the rise of creationism.

They also claim that the aggression of the new atheists is helping them. They paint Dawkins as a “recruiting sergeant” for creationism because he links evolutionary thinking with atheism. “He has been a real help to the ministry, ” says Randall Hardy.
Creationists argue that the new atheists are fuelling the dogmatism; Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford and a theistic evolutionary, last week threw that accusation back at them. “Creationists totally misunderstand the Bible,” he said. “Genesis is in the business of story, myth, poetry, metaphor. They [creationists and atheists] feed off one another. The debate has an unreality about it. Those of us who are not fundamentalists can’t find a place.”

Thus, even the relatively sane Bishop of Oxford puts atheism and creationism in the same conceptual “fundamentalist” box. And the full-blown creationist believes that -people who believe in God think they can’t believe in evolution, just because Dawkins links evolutionary thinking with atheism,

That is giving Dawkins much more influence than he can possibly dream of having. I refuse to believe that most people have even the vaguest ideas about evolution. Nor that more than a tiny minority of the population have ever read the God Delusion or even watched a Dawkins tv programme. (You would think that, almost by definition, people stupid enough to believe in creationism are too stupid to read erudite books or watch demanding tv)

Indeed, even the article undercuts the implications that there are grounds for this “Blame atheists for creationism” viewpoint.

Almost all Christians used to go along with the idea that Genesis was a bit suspect on dates, and that the six days of the Bible were metaphorical, with each day representing a vast geological age. The majority of Anglicans, theistic evolutionists who have no difficulty in believing in a Darwinian God, would still abide by that. But the publication in 1961 of Henry Morris and John Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood, which set out to give a scientific demonstration of the literal truth of the Bible, emboldened those who refused to accept evolution.

1961? Dawkins was 20 then. I’m pretty certain this predates The God Delusion by a few decades. Well, Wikipedia informs me that the God Delusion was published in 2006.

What on earth was fuelling creationism in the intervening decades, then, if noisy atheists are to blame now?

Or are we to start dating the “New Atheism” in creationist terms, so that we are to accept not only that dinosaurs walked with men but that an undergraduate Dawkins managed to spark the rise in creationism with his strident atheist complaints?

This article does provide creationist “answers” to two questions that have long baffled me.

  • Question: Why didn’t Noah take all the dinosaurs into the ark if humans and dinoasurs were all happily living together?
    Answer:

    Creationists, who argue that the world was created no more than 10,000 years ago, believe dinosaurs and man co-existed in the pre-Flood period (they date the Flood to around 1,600 years after the creation), that there were dinosaurs on the ark, but that they were eventually wiped out by the changes in climate which followed the Flood.

    Ah, it wasn’t that Noah just didn’t like dinosaurs. (Mentally upscale the conceptual size of ark needed, from one the size of France to one the size of Asia) He did his level best to save them but somehow they proved unable to survive in a changed environment. (Oh, you mean, like evolutionary processes?)

  • Question 2:
    What have creationists got against the biological sciences that they don’t have against mathematics or physics or geography?

    Answer:
    It seems that biology is nothing special. They are indeed just as willing to abandon all sciences where they conflict with the Bible.

    …..virtually all existing science has to be rewritten – and the creationists are ready to do the rewriting. The speed of light, Rosevear argues, used to be 300 times faster than it is now – necessary for creationists to explain cosmology and the distance of other solar systems from our own; the great cataclysm of the Flood explains the formation of sedimentary rock and the distribution of fossils; …

The Guardian writer either assumes that almost any reader will see the creationists as self-evident nutters or he lacks the most basic information-processing skills. For example, he uncritically reports “findings” from all those surveys (e.g for Theos :-)) that supposedly show that sizeable minorities of the population are creationists.

And his naivety seems incomprehensible when he says this:

British creationism is surprisingly independent from the far bigger, better funded, more vocal, highly politicised movement in the US, where creationists and intelligent design organisations (often a front for Christian creationists) are fighting perpetual legal battles to get creationist teaching into the classrooms of state schools.

The Portsmouth Genesis Expo may be a saggy old cloth cat to the Cincinnati Creation Museum’s roaring lion. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t manifestations of the same species, seen once in tragedy (Creation Museum) ; the second time in farce (Genesis Expo).

If I had to choose between whether to blame “The New Atheism” or the media (who present the opinions of lunatics as if they have some validity, in a “two sides to every argument” distortion of the concept of balance) for the rise of creationist lunacy, I know where I’d lay most of the blame.

.

UK Liberty coalition – not before time

The forthcoming Convention on Modern Liberty gathering on 28 February will be a …. call to arms, to all parties, to resist the government’s attack on our liberties, rights and privacy. “(from Henry Porter in the Guardian)

Supported by the Guardian, Rowntree Trust,Liberty and Open democracy, a host of people, including well-known lawyers, writers and MPs from all parties, will discuss the way that

the patterns we see in the Coroners and Justice Bill, ID card laws and the Communications Data Bill (which will allow the government to seize and store every text message, email, phone call and internet connection) tell us that our democracy is under serious threat.

Woohoo. At last. Almost brings a tear to my eye to see a disparate range of people coming together to challenge the encroaching authoritarianism of our country.

There are events throughout the UK. Details on modernlibertynet It isn’t cheap to attend these but you can access news on a blog, facebook, twitter, and so on.

More morris dancing for me

This is almost a national emergency from my perspective. Morris dancing is in danger of disappearing, according to today’s Guardian.

Morris dancing, one of those ancient traditions that seem to be cherished and derided in equal measure, is apparently on the verge of extinction, we learn today with a plea from the UK Morris Association.

I admit to being in something of a minority but I love Morris dancing. Argh, I see that I share this passion with the leader of the tory party. This causes an automatic gag reflex and an unfamiliar feeling of self-doubt, until I realise that sharing a liking for, say, rhubarb with someone wouldn’t mean that you agreed with anything else they thought. In any case, lots of more acceptable people love it, like John Hegley who has a poem/video-of-stills on the Guardian site.

The first time I saw real morris dancers, I must have been about 6. There was an implausible May Day festival in the suburban-ish council estate where I lived. There was Maypole dancing and people were playing lutes and tabors (well some ancient instruments, anyway) and singing folk-songs. I was completely entranced. It was as if all my favourite storybooks had suddenly become magically true. The mysterious medieval child world that I tried to inhabit in random clumps of scrubland – making inept bows and arrows and concocting magical potions from weeds – was being acted out in front of me.

And, mind-blowing joy, there was a procession – troupes of Morris dancers.

They were real Morris dancers – all men, mostly half-pissed, half of them exotically bearded, dressed in brilliant colours, marvellously synchronised in their movements and doing incredible feats of strength and agility. While trailing multicoloured ribbons and waving bells on sticks.

Ludicrous, terrifying and beautiful, all at the same time. Does life get much better?

From cotswold morris dancers site
From cotswold morris dancers site

I picked this picture at random from cotswold morris dancers site. Here’s a link to the Morris ring.

Put them in the stocks

The average person is not a criminologist. This is as obvious as saying that the average person doesn’t have many skills in dentistry. You’d think long and hard before you asked a random person in the street to fill one of your molars.

So, I’m pretty gobsmacked by a cracked new plan to give the public the opportunity to vote on punishments for convicted criminals.

Research carried out by the Cabinet Office has persuaded her that greater community engagement would not encourage vigilante activity or excessive punishments. (from the Guardian)

Yeah, right.

The mad ministers supporting this plan are keeping it for minor offences, because they know full well that letting rabid local prejudices determine the penalties for more serious crimes would lead to some horrific outcomes. But this implies that people found guilty of minor offences are likely to get less fair treatment than people convicted of major crimes. They might have the details of their offences posted online, for instance.

Smith feels that although the police are becoming better at informing local people about the progress of prosecutions, too many people “disappear” into the criminal justice system. She argues that “justice seen is justice done” and is backing plans for courts to set up local websites informing people of the fate of criminals and cases.

So, commit some minor offence and it is posted on the net for your friends, family, boss and any potential employer to find forever. If you assume that one offence of disorderly conduct should ruin your chances of getting employment for life, then fair enough. However, I thought that the possibility that people could incur a penalty and return to normal life after paying it was inherent in any concept of justice.

Anyone who thinks that it’s OK that getting found guilty of any minor offence means that you’re branded a criminal for life had better get used to there being a huge marginalised group of people with less than no chance of ever getting legitimate work. So, basically, forced to commit crimes to survive.

There are so many things wrong with this plan, I could rant for days. For example, penalties would be decided locally, so would clearly vary from place to place. Sentences are supposed to “reflect communities’ interests”. What if you lived in an area where most people oppose your race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, style of dress, or whatever? Would you get fair treatment. Or where you are really popular with the local “community leader”? Or vice versa.

What sort of people will feel they have a right to vote on the penalties for petty crimes? Smug bigots, busybodies, self-appointed community leaders, Daily Mail readers and so on. Is their thirst for vengeance going to be assuaged or fed by getting the right to lord it over petty offenders? Obviously not. They’ll see no reason why their solomonic wisdom shouldn’t be applied to more serious offences. And it’s hard for the government to argue that it’s OK to go down the medieval route for low-level crimes but that serious criminals should be protected by 21st century laws.

The government is already treating the opinions of people with expertise and training in dealing with petty offenders – the probation service – as irrelevant. On 30 December, the Probation Officers Union NAPO expressed unease with the government decision that people doing community service should wear reflective jackets that announce that they are serving a sentence.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, said organisations, including churches and charities, that offer unpaid work placements for offenders had become wary of using the vests after incidents of offenders being abused by the public, including missiles being thrown at them. “Many of these organisations are faith-based groups who believe it is not their role to oversee humiliation,” he said, adding that in one area a group of youths had chanted “nonces, smackheads, lowlifes” at one work group. (from the Guardian)

Well, yes, public humiliation is not actually acceptable as a penalty. I am pretty sure that the EC Human Rights Act and international law say something about “cruel and unusual” punishments. And that’s in terms of NOT using them.

The justice minister, David Hanson, fuelled the debate last night by saying he rejected the results of the Napo survey and expected all 42 probation areas to implement the introduction of the high-visibility clothing. “The public expects to see justice being done, and this is what the jackets achieve,” he said.

Hmm. NAPO claim to have evidence that offenders are being bullied and that charities don’t want community service workers to be stigmatised BUT the “justice” minister won’t accept this. He’s not interested at all really. When it’s a question of buying the Daily Mail reader vote, centuries of painfully developing a more humane justice system can go by the board.

“The public expects to see justice being done,” my arse. Is there any evidence for this, at all? Must we assume that the same imaginary people who are badgering Jaqui Smith for the opportunity to have an ID card are also badgering the Justice Minister to provide visible evidence that people convicted of minor offences are being punished? If this is the public’s expectation, it hasn’t been met for a good few centuries. The public used to get to see criminals thrown to the lions in Ancient Rome and to see public executions in pre-modern Europe. Is a public execution a reasonable expectation? Many people were so enraged against the parents of Baby P that they would have felt that execution was reasonable . Would they have the right to watch this over the internet if the death penalty was restored? Failing that, surely the public won’t be satisfied until they can watch Baby P’s murderers in jail on 24 hour webcam over the Internet.

Would this be OK with the minister, if the public’s need to see justice being done is so paramount?

Comically ironic that the case involving a search of a Tory MP’s office (over systematic leaks by a senior civil servant) has had most of Parliament enraged at the shocking suggestion that they could be subject to the same laws as everybody else. The incident seems to have well nigh destroyed the career of the police officer in charge, in sharp contrast to the very limited career damage suffered by senior police officers after the mere shooting of an unarmed Brazilian. Ironic also that the Blair era cash for honours investigations managed to go absolutely nowhere but brought complaints about the waste of public money on pointless police investigations… .

Silly me. There is one rule for MPs and another for the rest of us. So, I would like to share with MPs the mantra of the onward march of UK repression “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.” :-D