Thursday, April 29, 2004

2004.121 There is really no need to be squeamish 

I want to talk about a certain kind of journey. If you look at a beautiful youth or maiden, say in a swimming pool, you will see smooth, tender flesh covering an attractive slim body. Let us concentrate on the trunk of such a person, which is divided into the chest or thorax, and the belly or abdomen. The external trunk of one of these young creatures (let’s say it is a youth called Daniel) is shapely and lightly muscled, marked out by neat features such as nipples and navel. We do not think, as we gaze admiringly at it, of what lies hidden beneath the surface of Daniel’s skin, which is an amazing collection of organs and tubes, constantly at work and always in motion.

That word motion is appropriate here. The eleventh definition of it in OED2 is-
The involuntary action of the intestines, leading to discharge of their contents; an evacuation of the bowels. Also, chiefly in the plural, that which is evacuated; the fæces.
You will have realised that the journey I am thinking of is one that occurs inside the body even of a beautiful youth like Daniel. It is the wonderful journey a piece of food takes when it travels from the mouth to the anus.

I hope you were not startled by my sudden use of that word anus. It is not one we are very comfortable with, and this fact has long bothered me. It troubles me because that part of our anatomy is but one of the many features that make up that wonderful composite known as the human digestive system. None of us could live for a week without that system, yet few of us give it the respect which is its due. We make jokes about it. We are ashamed of it. We jeer at its audible and olfactory manifestations. We do not rebuke or correct children who stupidly snigger and sneer and bully over it.

Let me now say a little about that journey. Forgive me if I get technical for a moment; it seems necessary. Digestion is the sequence by which food is broken down and chemically converted so that it can be absorbed by the body’s cells and used to maintain vital bodily functions. In order to sustain themselves, all organisms must obtain nutrients from the environment. Some serve as raw materials for the synthesis of cellular material; others (e.g., many vitamins) act as regulators of chemical reactions in living cells; and still others, upon oxidation in living cells, yield energy.

Not all these nutrients are in a form suitable for immediate use by the body; some must undergo physical and chemical changes before they can serve as energy or cell substance. Through the act of eating, or ingestion, nutrients are taken from the environment. Many nutrient molecules are so large and complex that they must be split into smaller molecules before they can be used by the organism. This process of breaking down food into molecular particles of usable size and content is called digestion. Unusable components are expelled from the organism by a process called egestion, or excretion.

I could go on about the functions in the digestive process of the liver, the pancreas gland, the colon, the small intestine, the large intestine – and even the anus. It is not necessary to do that for my present purpose, though in outline it should be a part of every child’s education (that would put a stop to the sniggering). What I want to urge is that we should all be more grownup about the manifestations of that wonderful and essential digestive process. The end product is designed by nature to be unpleasant – just so that we shall not make the mistake of putting back into our body matter which has been carefully sorted out and ejected as being of no use to us. We should not argue incessantly about which euphemism to employ for the places we use for excretion, the organs involved, or the end-product. There are good onomatopœic Anglo-Saxon words available to us (our ancestors were more forthright). If we shrink from using those there are accurate biological or medical terms. There is really no need to be squeamish or embarrassed.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

2004.120 An age-old problem 

Two items on the same page of the Times for today [page 47] draw attention to an age-old problem very much troubling us still, the clash between Islam and Christianity. Geoffrey Rowell reminds us that 800 years ago to the month the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell to the forces of the Fourth Crusade, designed like the other three to wrest Christian holy places in Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the grip of what were seen as infidel Muslims. For almost a thousand years Constantinople had existed as a city of the Roman Empire, or its successor in the east the Byzantine Empire. Now the Latin successor to the Roman Empire, headed by Pope Innocent III, took over from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios III, who had little interest in supporting the Crusades.

Latin rule ended in Constantinople when the Byzantines took over again in 1261. Their hegemony then existed until the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks in 1453. The city remains part of Turkey, though since the reforms initiated by the secularist Kemal Ataturk after the First World War the Imams and Mullahs have struggled to assert authority.

The other Times item concerns Monawar Hussein, recently appointed by Eton College as its first Imam - indeed the first in any of our public schools. Monawar Hussein told listeners to the BBC World Service that extremist Imams in Britain are ‘a handful, a very small minority’. Most come from abroad, and Monawar Hussein offered a strange explanation for their malign activities-
‘They are not able fully to express the Islamic tradition in the [English] language, so that the younger people don’t understand what Islam is about and that’s when people who have a political agenda use Islam to further their agenda.’
This I cannot swallow. The fact is that, in numerous places all over the globe, terrorist suicide bombers are inflicting terrible casualties on civilian populations for one reason only, namely that they believe Allah tells them to do it through words written in the Koran. It is no use saying that the majority of Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding, even though that is no doubt true. It is what the minority do in the name of their religion that concerns us.

The thousands of innocent people who have suffered from Islamist suicide bombers in recent years are entitled to say that there must be something wrong with a religion that gives rise to such horrors. The trouble may be that the Imams and Mullahs do not keep their religion up to date, as the Christians have done in recent centuries. It may be that Islam claims to be all-embracing, covering every aspect if its followers’ lives. I do not know the answer, which is one for Muslims themselves to seek out. But they need to find it very, very quickly. The non-Muslim world is already impatient.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

2004.119 Economical with the truth 

The third edition of the HMSO official publication MI5 The Security Service has the following to say on Peter Wright’s ‘Wilson Plot’ allegations-
In his book Spycatcher, the former Security Service officer Peter Wright claimed that up to 30 members of the Service had plotted to undermine the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson. This allegation was exhaustively investigated and it was concluded, as stated publicly by Ministers, that no such plot had ever existed. Wright himself finally admitted in an interview with BBC1’s Panorama programme in 1988 that his account had been unreliable.
It adds the following about Wright’s claim that Roger Hollis was a Russian mole-
It was claimed that the former Director General of the Security Service, Sir Roger Hollis, was a Russian spy. The Trend inquiry of 1974 cleared Hollis of that accusation. Subsequently, the evidence of the former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky confirmed this judgment.
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster achieved fame when he used the phrase ‘economical with the truth’ in the Spycatcher trial in Sydney in 1985-87. Now he says [Times 14 April 2004] that this was not original but that he derived it from Edmund Burke, who said-
Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever, but, as in the exercise of all virtues, there is an economy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it for longer.
Armstrong says that the phrase has a much longer history, and goes back to St Augustine, who said that, if a Christian was asked ‘by a child, or a non-Christian, whether it was not the case that the Christians worshipped three gods (the Trinity), it was a justifiable economy, or reserve, with the truth to reply: “No, Christians worship one God”’. Armstrong adds that Cardinal Newman observed-
As Almighty God did not all at once introduce the Gospel to the world, and thereby gradually prepared men for its profitable reception so, according to the doctrine of the early Church, it was a duty . . . to observe a great reserve and caution in communicating to them the knowledge of ‘the whole counsel of God’. This cautious dispensation of the truth . . . is denoted by the word ‘economy’. It is a mode of acting which comes under the head of prudence . . . The principle of the economy is familiarly acted on among us every day. When we would persuade others, we do not begin by treading on their toes.
So, says Lord Armstrong, economy with the truth is an exercise of prudence or temperance. ‘Its practice is not merely an inescapable but often indispensable element in our dealings with each other: as both Burke and Newman said, a virtue.’

This is all very well, but whether he intended it or not (and apparently he did not), what Armstrong originally said about being economical with the truth has given the English language a phrase with a meaning slightly different from the one it bears in the sources he mentions. What he originally said caught on because it is virtually untranslatable yet fills a gap in the English language. I would say it means something like ‘uttering a half-truth as if it were the whole truth, with the object of misleading’. In an English jury trial a witness swears to tell 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth'. One who is economical with the truth in the Armstrong sense remembers the first, but forgets the second, of these three essentials.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

2004.118 John Mortimer: a lawyer who despises his profession 

I hold every man a debtor to his profession, said the sixteenth-century lawyer and philosopher Francis Bacon. Many people have been rude about the law, not least Charles Dickens. Famously, he made Mr Bumble say the law is an ass, and remarked sourly that the one great principle of English law is to make business for itself. But then Dickens was not a member of the learned profession of the law.

We do not expect people who are members of that profession to bite the hand that feeds them, so it was a surprise to read John Mortimer in the Mail on Sunday for 18 April. His opening sentence was ‘Nothing is more boring than studying law’. It was George Eliot who said that general statements are generally wrong, and this one certainly is.

Entering Balliol in 1946 after five years’ wartime service in the RAF, I still could not decide what I wanted to do with my life. I chose to read Modern Greats, otherwise Politics, Philosophy and Economics. That seemed to be a broad base, offering plenty of choice when it later came to settling on a career. However most of the friends I found myself making at Oxford were law students. I was fascinated by their endless talk of the knotty problems that lawyers are called on to decide. So I switched to that and have never regretted it. It turned out to be my natural forte, though the law of crime was only a small part of the fascination.

Mortimer goes on to say that law becomes interesting only when it is released from the grip of academics and applied to the lives and problems of real people. I myself became an academic lawyer at Oxford, so I know Mortimer’s statement is nonsense. Not only do academics find law interesting, indeed absorbing, but most of the time they are concerned with the problems of ‘real people’, whatever that term means. Does Mortimer mix with unreal people? I wonder where he finds them.

Mortimer was reviewing the autobiography of a man who did not stick at his career as a barrister, Harry Mount. Using the sort of tiresome pun that seems to afflict the law, he titles his book My Brief Career. Mortimer says Mount was unlucky in choosing chambers which specialised in civil law, particularly ‘extremely boring cases concerning rights of way and building permissions’. But such cases are only boring to the sort of people who are bored by them (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln).

I am tempted to say that John Mortimer would have been better suited to some other profession, but that would be absurd considering his brilliant career as an advocate. I have watched John Mortimer in court. Juries were putty in his hands – particularly when he defended in obscenity prosecutions.

But there we have it. Juries are found in criminal courts, and it was in these that John Mortimer found happiness – and wealth. His wonderful creation Rumple is Mortimer in disguise, and a pretty thin disguise at that. But the fact that Mortimer found interest only in the criminal side of law does not justify him for slagging off the rest. It just shows up his limitations – but then we all have those.

Monday, April 05, 2004

2004.117 Putting it into perspective 

In the hope it might cheer up people who are naturally worried about the current terrorist threat, and as a form of Easter greeting, I reproduce below an item about William Michael Rossetti (WMR), brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti the painter. It reminds us that throughout history since the invention of gunpowder in AD 850 people have been trying to blow up other people – and often succeeding.

WMR lived to be ninety (from 1829-1919). In Who Was Who his entire career is described in the following words: Entered Excise Office, 1849 (it doesn’t say when he left it). Like Anthony Trollope in the Post Office, WMR seems to have spent most of his time writing books, though instead of novels he wrote literary biography. He was not highly thought of, being described by William Morris as ‘an idiot’. I glean the latter item of information from an article by Osbert Sitwell on Sir Edmund Gosse in Horizon [April 1942], from which the following anecdote comes.
It was in the 1870s, when the words “Italian anarchists” bore for the British bourgeois mind the same significance as “Russian Bolsheviks” carried fifty years later. Bombs were their medium, and hardly a day passed, it seemed, on the Continent without an explosive removal of some popular [surely ‘unpopular’?] monarch or grand-duke, or the mysterious and pointless blowing-up of a crowded arcade. Moreover, at the particular moment to which this story refers, some of these miscreants, still wearing their ideological livery of flowing black cloak and sombrero, were said to have found a refuge in England, and to be planning an outrage in London.

One winter evening, then, Gosse boarded a crowded horse-drawn omnibus outside that notorious haunt of foreigners, the Café Royal. It was so crowded that Gosse had to stand. As he looked about him he saw WMR, whom he knew well, attired in the huge black cloak and the large black hat which he always affected. Remembering that a paragraph had lately appeared in the papers stating that WMR had turned atheist, Gosse bent across one or two passengers and called-‘Mr Rossetti! Mr Rossetti! Is it true that you have become an atheist?’

In a slow, pompous, very clear voice that rolled out each word loud above the reverberations of the traffic, WMR replied-
‘No, Mr Gosse, I must differentiate. My daughter, here, is an atheist. I am an ANARCHIST!
At this moment, the bus stopped, and the occupants of the seats, panic-stricken by the conjunction of WMR’s cloak, Italian name and self-confessed creed of destruction, fled into the street. Gosse took one of the rejected seats and was able to travel home in comfort.
I am now going to depart from the haunts of computer and internet for an Easter break.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

2004.116 A new way to treat the delinquent young? 

On 3 April 2004 Adrian Turner, editor of the weekly Justice of the Peace, wrote a wise editorial headed CRIMINALIZING THE YOUNG. He started by referring to his editorial of the previous week in which he wrote approvingly about ‘lifestyle punishments’ for delinquent youths, such as confiscating their mobile phones. These punishments would not criminalize them, while still hitting where it hurt.

Mr Turner went on to plead for a new start in the way the law treats misbehaviour by children and junior adolescents. He mentioned the recent case of R. v G., where two boys of 12 and 11 were subjected to the full rigour of the criminal law for a childish prank. They threw lighted paper under a wheelie bin then left the scene, artlessly assuming the flames would quickly go out. In fact damage to the extent of £1m was caused.

The problem of inappropriate treatment, says Mr Turner, lies right at the heart of the youth justice system.
We need to ditch the criminal law and the accusatorial system completely if we are to make any real progress. We have forgotten to treat children as children and their misdeeds as ‘misbehaviour’ rather than ‘offences’ . . . To treat young people in the same way as adult offenders simply encourages criminal career development. We are indeed criminalizing an entire generation. Moreover it will not end there. Social alienation and disadvantage tend to pass down to the next generation.
I agree with Mr Turner. Last year I had an article in Justice of the Peace [at p. 784] entitled ‘Criminalizing Children Under the Sexual Offences Bill’. In a previous blog (FBBB22) I commented on this aspect of what has since become the Sexual Offences Act 2003. My website has the text of a voluminous Briefing on the way that Act criminalizes children.

In general the law treats children under the age of ten as incapable of committing a criminal offence. Once a boy or girl has attained that age he or she is then treated as being just as capable of plotting and committing a crime as any hardened lag. A sensible rule that mitigated the severity of this approach, known as the doli incapax rule, was abolished in 1998 - a change that was in my view misconceived. Here is a brief explanation.

At common law, that is without the intervention of any Act of Parliament, a child aged 10, 11, 12 or 13 is presumed mentally incapable of committing a criminal offence unless the contrary is proved by the prosecution. This is known as the presumption of doli incapax (meaning ‘incapable of doing evil’). Under it the onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the child was aware at the time that what he or she was doing was seriously wrong, and not merely naughty or mischievous. This presumption was abolished in England and Wales by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 s 34.

I propose that on its tenth birthday a child should not be suddenly plunged from statutory innocence into being treated as a full-scale criminal if it is naughty. Instead, until the child has reached adulthood, misbehaviour should be dealt with by the state (if the state needs to intervene) on the same lines as it would be by an enlightened parent or teacher. Probably the appropriate agency would be Social Services, adapted to impose suitable punishments for childish wrongdoing. Another key question is whether the enactments creating offences would need to be modified or replaced.

The details have still to be worked out, and I haven’t space to go further into them here. But I am convinced that reform on these lines is both feasible and desirable.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

2004.115 Joy in Heaven 

One of our current masters, Mr Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality, today decreed that multiculturalism in England has ended and that we are to return to being a monoculture. I rejoiced at this news, as I was taught in Sunday School that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons (Luke xv 7).

In 1989 I wrote an article which began-
By one of those strange transformations, resembling the sleight of hand used by magicians, England has suddenly been converted into a multiculture. (Or so we are led to believe by those who orchestrate the social consensus of our time, and disregard the fact that this consensus was quite different a generation ago and will be different again a generation hence.) No one asked the people if they wanted this conversion. It was foisted on them by certain mysterious but powerful persons who know what is best for us and see that we get it.
I went on to examine just what multiculturalism involves.
Its essence is that within the one locality two or more distinct cultures seek to flourish alongside each other, while each remains separate. It is not a case of the original exclusive culture assimilating the incoming cultures. That is a familiar phenomenon, not conflicting with the idea of a monoculture. No it is rather the idea that the incoming cultures will jostle for possession with the host culture while insisting on retaining their own distinctive features as they live exclusively among themselves. Their motto is sinn fein (ourselves alone), which was earlier adopted by the republican movement in Ireland.
Now one of the ‘mysterious but powerful persons who know what is best for us’ has decreed that this multiculturalism adventure has failed and must be abandoned. In his interview in today’s Times Trevor Phillips claimed that recent ethnic immigrants ‘have become British and changed what being British means’. Asked whether multiculturalism is not the whole point of the Commission he runs, he answered: ‘Not any more. The word is not useful, it means the wrong things’. When asked whether we should kill it off he answered-
Yes, let’s do that. Multiculturalism suggests separateness. We are now in a different world. What we should be talking about now is how we reach an integrated society, one in which people are equal under the law, where there are some common values – democracy rather then violence, the common currency of the English language, honouring the culture of these islands.
That is a good description of the monoculturalism which until recently prevailed in England, and now (courtesy of Mr Phillips) resumes its sway.

Friday, April 02, 2004

2004.114 On All Fools Day 

Politicians tend to be very bad at justifying their existence to the voters. I was reminded of this when on All Fools Day 2004 I watched the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party Charles Kennedy making of himself what the day rendered appropriate. This distressing exhibition was broadcast on the BBC2 television programme Newsnight, and took place at Chatham before an audience of about thirty non-voters in the 20-something age range. Gavin Estler was the interlocutor.

I break off to say that the OED2 defines interlocutor as ‘the compère in a troupe of nigger minstrels; the man in the middle of the minstrel line who questions the end men’. It also reveals that there was published in 1880 a book by E. James called The Amateur Negro Minstrel’s Guide. How times change!

After that inconsequential interlude I return to Mr Kennedy. The point of the short programme was to draw attention to the uncomfortable fact that the proportion of British citizens voting in elections is declining rapidly, and to see whether anything can be done about this. Mr Estler ascertained at the beginning that only two members of the audience had voted in the 2001 general election. Would this number, when applied to the next general election, have increased by the end of the programme? It seemed a golden opportunity for Mr Kennedy, who has been ailing of late.

Gavin Estler tried to elicit from the audience what it was that put them off voting. Nobody seemed to be very clear about this. One person said that MPs in the Commons behaved as if they were members of a cosy club. Someone else grumbled that they tended to be noisy and rowdy, intent on scoring points off each other. A third person thought the House of Lords should be abolished,, so that decisions were taken only by people who had been elected. That was, he insisted, what democracy required.

How did Mr Kennedy deal with this? He grumbled that we do not have a fair voting system (meaning that he wants the unfair system known as proportional representation). He complained that the LibDems get only two Prime Minister’s questions to ask, whereas the Tories have six. Asked by Mr Estler about his health he stoutly asserted that it was good. He sought to gain approval by stressing that his party had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. He made it clear that he worked very hard for the country – just about as hard as his frame would stand. The audience listened in silence. There was no applause at any point.

That was it really. Mr Estler took what in church circles would be called the leaving collection and found that the number of members who were likely to vote in the next general election had apparently dropped from two to one. Then they all went home.

What should Mr Kennedy have done? As one might expect given today’s educational system, the remarks made by members of the audience displayed an abysmal ignorance of the British constitution. Clearly they knew nothing about the principles of representative government. Now was the chance to teach them.

If I had been Mr Kennedy I would have told these young people how the country is divided into constituencies of about 60,000 electors, how in each constituency volunteers form constituency associations open to everyone who supports the party in question, how these associations democratically choose a candidate to represent the party in parliamentary elections, how the candidate with more votes than any other gets returned as the MP (what could be fairer than that?), how that MP represents all people in the constituency and not just the winning party’s supporters, and how every constituent has the right to attend the MP’s surgery and get personal problems dealt with. I would have explained that the House of Lords is needed as a revising chamber, and how the system of legislation works. I would have proudly told them that this is an excellent democratic system, to be proud of. They are jolly lucky to have it, and should support it with their votes.

If I had been Mr Kennedy I would have used a bit of oratory. I would have shown some conviction in our excellent system. I would not have been afraid to take on the role of teacher when faced with these ignorant young people. At the end, they might all have cheered me to the echo and promised to do better in future.

Or then again they might not.

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