Selected reading

April 29, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Y’all have my apologies if there aren’t too many words typed over the next few days. I’ll hopefully get some more time over the weekend.

  • If you only click one of the links on this list, make it Aida Edemariam’s piece on Sean Hodgson, a man who served 27 years in prison before his conviction was quashed.
  • Also click-worthy is Al Giordano’s piece on the spread of swine flu, and the suspicion that bad (ie cheap) farming practices might’ve been to blame.
  • Mark Easton asks whether it’s time to abolish compulsory retirement.
  • Joshua Foust writes about the response to the Taliban among ordinary Pakistanis.
  • Nicholas Schmindle knows how to save Pakistan.
  • Joshua Keating describes how the Obama administration is trying to work around Congressional restrictions on how it deals with Hamas.
  • We’re apparently halfway to causing the really, really bad type of climate change.
  • James Hrynyshyn asks whether we’re seeing the beginning of the end for coal.
  • Geoffrey S. Corn is sceptical about whether the authors of the torture memos could have a successful prosecution brought against them.
  • And one day we’ll all live in a Camera Obscura video:

The politics of Pulp

April 28, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Music, Art, Etcetera, New Labour | 3 Comments

Jarvis 10

In the world of popular music, being called a Tory remains as hurtful as having your band compared to Ocean Colour Scene. Just leaving aside the number of songs strummed against Thatcher or pop’s role in movements against war and racism, the word ‘conservative’ isn’t just laden with assumptions about your politics, but about the music you make. For decades now, the word’s been used to infer that the art you produce is corporate, pro-establishment, staid, formulaic and conformist. In short, if you’re a Tory, you definitely don’t rock.

So when Jarvis Cocker gave an interview to GQ magazine where he seemed to say that a Conservative government wasn’t just inevitable but ‘necessary’, it wouldn’t be long before it was followed by a carefully-worded clarification. “In no way am I supporting or suggesting that a Conservative government is a good thing, far from it,” Cocker states. “Rather, what I intended to get across was that, in the absence of any real alternative, a Conservative government at this point unfortunately seems inevitable.” I think it’s safe to assume that he isn’t turning into Bryan Ferry.

This is comforting because, as Sunder notes, Cocker’s work with Pulp did much to keep class in the public consciousness at a time when it was being written-out of the rhetoric of New Labour and barely noticed by a Britpop crowd which was getting high off the hype of ‘Cool Britannia’. But what made the band’s records as interesting as they were cherished was that there was much more complexity to their themes than you’d find in the simplistic tubthumping of most political music.

There’s no denying that the social commentary in Pulp’s songs had its share of revolutionary sentiment. On Different Class’ ‘Mis-Shapes’, he conjures the image of a disadvantaged people rising up to claim what they feel is theirs (“Just put your hands up, it’s a raid! We want your homes. We want your lives. We want the things you won’t allow us”). Likewise, in ‘I Spy’ he voices a wronged working class man who seethes with contempt for his bourgeoisie ‘betters’ and plots his revenge (I can’t help it: / I was dragged up / My favourite parks are car parks / Grass is something you smoke / Birds are something you shag / Take your Year In Provence / and shove it / up your arse).

But there’s also the strong sense in Cocker’s lyrics that his isn’t a politics which relies on a state bestowing better lives on its people, but where the people sieze the means to achieve change for themselves. This comes across most strongly in This is Hardcore’s “The Day After The Revolution”, where he tramples on the old lie that “the meek shall inherit the Earth” by spitting “The meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all / if you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more” and telling his listeners that “the revolution begins & ends with you”. His belief in the untapped potential of the working class is also striking in the preceding “Glory Days”, where he laments “Oh, we were brought up on the space race / now they expect you to clean toilets / when you’ve seen how big the world is / how can you make do with this?”. If he sometimes comes across as scornful of indolence & sloth (such as on this song and Different Class’ “Monday Morning”) it’s more out of frustration at this potential going to waste.

But if I could pick one song which I think best encapsulates Cocker’s worldview and his weary, remorseful outlook on British politics, it would be found on one of Pulp’s lesser known efforts. The last song the band ever released was a footnote to their Greatest Hits collection called “The Last Day of the Miner’s Strike“. Based on a reminiscence of industrial unrest in the 1980′s, it’s a song which could be read as either an anthem or a lament; a dream of what might’ve been possible “if we just stick together” or the reality of what was lost in the decades since their failure. “The last day of the miner’s strike was the Magna Carta in this part of town”, he sings, hinting that futures are now fixed, that possibilities are narrowed and alternatives reduced. Labour or Tory. Tory or Labour. Switching from one colour to the next without ever really expanding the palette.

No, Jarvis won’t be wearing a blue rosette any time soon, but Labour should still take the time to ponder why he, and many progressives like him, doesn’t feel at home in either party.

Selected reading

April 27, 2009 at 7:43 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Because Monday evenings never make for good bloggin’:

  • Reacting to the sinking of the plans for Titan prisons, David Ramsbotham argues that now is the time for prison reform.
  • Mark Easton discusses Britain’s treatment of the children of asylum seekers.
  • Juan Cole tries to reassure some of the worried hand-wringers on Pakistan.
  • Bernard Finel argues that Afghanistan is irrelevant.
  • The NYT has a sad story about mounting attacks on Hungary’s gypsy population.
  • Kristin Bricker has a very long but worthwhile piece on the drug war in Mexico.
  • Israel will be calling this global flu outbreak ‘Mexico flu’ rather than ‘swine flu’. Why? Because pigs aren’t kosher. No, this isn’t a wind-up.
  • It didn’t take long before the conspiracy theorists started claiming that this outbreak was actually created by bioterrorists.
  • And say what you like about Hillary Clinton (and I could say plenty), but this heartfelt defense of women’s reproductive freedom is very impressive.

The visible poor

April 26, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Posted in British Politics, Media, Working Class Britain | 11 Comments

It’s the first summer of a shiny new century and you’re stuck scrubbing floors. You work the graveyard shift in a town centre McDonalds and spend each slow-moving hour sweeping, wiping & rinsing. Alone among a swathe of swaggering drunks, you stop only to ask them to stub out their cigarettes; to take their feet off the formica furniture; to grovel apologies about being unable to offer refunds when they drop food on your freshly-mopped floor.

Towards the end of all this light entertainment, a disheveled-looking couple stagger through the door and head straight for the disabled toilet. Because you’ve abandoned all hope of stopping non-customers from using your loo, you leave them be and go to empty another bin. About 15 minutes later and it’s time for you to clean the toilets. Still engaged; you step back onto the restaurant floor and loiter by the door. Eventually there’s movement; the woman exits first – adjusting her denim skirt & straightening her hair – followed by her frowning companion. He peers down his jeans, zips up his flies and shouts across the crowded restaurant: “Fuckin’ hell bitch, you’ve given me herpes!” You go into the toilet and stick the used condom in the bin.

By sharing this story, I’ve just indulged in a stereotype which is as old as class itself. It’s a portrait of the working class as moral degenerates: crass, boorish, feckless and shorn of the same standards of morality which are shared by respectable England. They claim benefits as their birthright and spend what they do not earn; they fight and steal and drink; they create kids the rest of us have to feed and proceed to fuck them up just as badly as they were fucked up by their own parents. They are the underclass, the lumpenproletariat or, as Orwell Prize Winner Jack Night describes them, the ‘evil poor’.

In politics, the naming of things is always a sensitive topic and Laurie Penny took great offense when she saw such a grim adjective used to describe some of society’s most disenfranchised. A couple of brief – but important – points need to be made in the writer’s defense: in the offending post, he was referring only to a subset of the poor, and it’s important to recognise that the people he describes are real and their behaviour creates problems for the normal, law-abiding majority. But one thing which came to mind when reading Laurie’s piece was the unsettling suspicion that the people Jack writes about are more accurately described not as the ‘evil poor’, but as the ‘visible poor’.

Last year, I noted the Rowntree Foundation’s report that domestic poverty is a very low priority for the British media. Its news value is pitifully low, real life depictions/descriptions of poverty are practically non-existent and on those rare occasions when it is covered by the media, it’ll often be in connection with a story about crime. As a consequence, the poor are often represented by a motley crew of crooks and thugs standing trial for violence, drug dealing, theft, anti-social behaviour, or hiding a little girl under a divan bed. They are, of course, a minority, but their actions so dominate the reporting on deprived communities that the only time someone in the law-abiding majority will meet the press is to be asked about the people committing crimes. As we saw in the case of Shannon Matthews and the subsequent shaming of Dewsbury Moor, this practice can bring whole towns into disrepute and cast suspicion on those who live there.

The broader political consequence of this is that it leads the conversation in a frustratingly right-wing direction. Because the discourse around deprivation often obsesses on the behaviour of the poor rather than the structural explanations for poverty, this gives greater authority to those on the right who argue that a reliance on the welfare state is the cause of our social ills. And so solutions are put forward to cut benefits and make those kinds of reforms currently being proposed by this Labour government, because that will give them the ‘responsibility’ they’re so sadly lacking. In the end, it’s all a recipe for bad policy.

It wasn’t Jack Night’s intention to cast all poor people alongside the boorish, thuggish minority he described. But because of the way it reports on impoverished areas and the fact they’re so often represented by thugs and thieves, our media isn’t quite so guiltless.

The sinking of the Titans

April 24, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 5 Comments

I first wrote about the foolishness of Labour’s ‘Titan Prisons’ policy almost a year ago, and have returned to it on several occasions since. Anyone with a passing interest in the state of the British prison system will recognise that many jails – particularly the larger ones – simply aren’t fit for the purpose of ensuring inmates don’t reoffend, and the idea of warehousing 2,500 convicts in the same place looked certain to ratchet-up a reoffending rate which is already unacceptably high. For many of us, building titans would’ve poured kerosene on a problem which the government was already failing to tackle, and so today’s news that the plans have been shelved feels very much like a dodged bullet.

Considering all the words I’ve typed and all the exasperation spent, you’d think I’d be jubilant that the titans have been sunk; alas, as Eric Allison points out, today’s announcement doesn’t easily lend itself to celebration. For one, nobody who considers themselves well-versed in prison policy believes this is a u-turn of principle; rather a reflection of the fiscal constraints which this government (and those to come) now operates under. If they had the money to build these wreckless warehouses, Labour would most certainly have done it, regardless of the near-unanimity from experts that it was a foolish endeavour.

Secondly, the reported alternative of building five new prisons, each with a capacity of 1,500, shows Labour is still committed to its fetish for incarceration and proves that the government wastes far more of its energy concocting new forms of imprisonment than it does expanding, broadening and deepening our efforts towards ensuring those who leave prison don’t go on to commit crimes. This alternative idea might not be as bad as Titans, but it’s certainly a replication of everything that’s wrong with the current consensus.

Above all, the news demonstrates that Labour’s policy-making might have been altered by the credit crunch, but its policy assumptions most certainly haven’t, and most likely won’t until at least the point when it’s out of power. Talk about wasting a good crisis…

Legalise drugs, save money

April 23, 2009 at 9:11 pm | Posted in Drugs | 1 Comment

I don’t know whether this is a flaw or a strength, but frequent visitors will notice that I tend to fixate on issues for several weeks before moving on to something else. I did it with the US elections, with the conflict in Gaza and with the fight over Pakistan’s SWAT valley; more domestically, I’ve done it on the issues of prison reform, reform of the asylum system, the welfare state and domestic violence. Sure, I always return to these issues every once in a while, but more often than not they’re squeezed between some other new issue which I’m reading feverishly about.

I often wonder whether this habit comes across as a kind of skittishness; as if I don’t have the discipline to devote myself entirely to one topic and instead skim superficially over issues which always require more words than I’m able to give.

For what it’s worth, the reason I do it is to keep myself interested as much as anyone else. Most of what I write is based on information, arguments or analyses I didn’t know existed beforehand, and so the act of blogging is also an act of learning something new. On top of that, I like the space blogging gives you to develop interests over many months and years, with this site basically acting as a repository for different thoughts or events or scraps of information which can be dug up at a later date. I’m not sure if that’s what Iain Dale intended when he invented the political weblog, but it works for me.

Anyway, let’s cut the self-obsessed meandering and return to my Latest Blogging Obsession: the War on Drugs. I realised last night that whilst my last two posts on the topic (the disastrous consequences of prohibition in Mexico and the benign effects of decriminalisation in Portugal) were tangentially related to ending prohibition in Britain, this place was still missing something more Anglocentric which could give the argument greater force. By happy coincidence, earlier this month the drug policy group Transform released a cost-benefit analysis on the effects of prohibition to the tax payers. It makes for incredibly instructive reading.

In 2003, the Cabinet Office estimated that the harms arising from drug use cost the taxpayer £24bn a year, £16bn of which was from acquisitive crime (ie an addict mugging an old lady in order to get his/her fix). On the occasions it’s been challenged on whether it makes sense to be spending all of this money, the government has replied that the costs far outweigh any benefits which may be brought by legalisation. No, they’ve never conducted a thorough study to prove this is the case and have never intended to; we’re just supposed to trust them.

So how can legalisation reduce the acquisitive crime which stems from addiction? Mostly because of this:

markup

Supply chains and subsequent mark-ups for cocaine and heroin in the UK (Click to enlarge)

The image above shows the average price of cocaine & heroin at every stage of distribution from the farm in Columbia through to some dimly-lit inner city street corner in the UK. As you can see, the price mark-up is quite extraordinary, and reflective of several factors: global prohibition, the risk involved at every stage of the supply chain and the cost of protecting one’s territory/supply chains through force, coercion, human trafficking and bribery. The logic of this report is simple: legalisation should dramatically reduce the street value of these substances and as a result lead to a drop in the billions we spend prosecuting acquisitive crime. As the table below shows, the costs for heavy users of the most addictive class A drugs can run into thousands of pounds a month, which then costs us billions every year when they turn to crime to pay for it.

The estimated cost of drug use for a heavy user in 2003/04 (click to enlarge)

The estimated cost of drug use for a heavy user in 2003/04 (click to enlarge)

At this point, it’s worth remembering one of the key findings from Glenn Greenwald’s report on Portugal. There, decriminalisation removed the legal stigma of drug abuse and led to more addicts seeking treatment. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that the same thing could happen if the British state legalised drugs.

So how much money does Transform think taxpayers could save through legalisation? Well, it’s important to recognise that without the kind of information-gathering abilities which only a state can possess, much of this relies on estimation, but the group has used the best available evidence and come up with four different scenarios:

scenarios

As you can see, even with a 50-100% increase in drug use under legal regulation (a scenario which seems unlikely given Portugal’s experience), the state could still save somewhere between £4bn and £7bn that it currently spends on prohibition. Are these figures innacurate? It’s difficult to say, but they certainly make a strong case for a thorough cross-departmental review to determine how much money could be saved.

It’s getting late, so I’m going to wind this post up and try to write something more succinct over the weekend, but for now I’ll leave you with this as a well-worded explanation of why legalisation/decriminalisation is an issue which deserves far more rational policy debate than it currently receives:

Current approaches ignore the basic finding that the policy of prohibition itself is the direct source of what is perceived as ‘the drug problem‘ – specifically the vast majority of drug-related crime – rather than drug use per se.  The Government has also repeatedly failed to acknowledge that prohibition is a policy choice, not a fixed feature of the policy landscape that must be worked within, or around.

The political context of these analytical shortcomings cannot be ignored. Whether it is an ideological commitment to prohibition, investment in populist drug war posturing, or fear of the domestic and international policy implications of questioning the status quo, there are clearly substantial obstacles to mainstream policy makers moving forward on this issue that have nothing to do with rational policy analysis and debate.

English fail

April 22, 2009 at 8:42 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

There’s nothing quite like opening yourself up for ridicule. Here’s what I wrote in the post below:

There’s plenty of good stuff among the winners, among them Lane DeGregory’s story in the St Petersburg Times, whose story about an abandoned 7-year-old girl managed to strike the difficult balance the heartbreaking subject matter and broader questions about psychology & child development.

This coming from someone who was longlisted for a writing prize. Good grief.

I can assure you that the piece linked to remains very good and worthy of your time, even if that disastrously-written description failed to do it justice.

You can see why I’m not writing anything substantial today, can’t you?!

Selected reading

April 22, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

winter18

  • The winners of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize have been announced. The photograph above, taken from the campaign trail of the US elections, was one of many which won Damien Winter the prize for feature photography.
  • There’s plenty of good stuff among the winners, among them Lane DeGregory’s story in the St Petersburg Times, whose story about an abandoned 7-year-old girl managed to strike the difficult balance the heartbreaking subject matter and broader questions about psychology & child development. In a year when pronouncements about the death of newspapers have been so widely-pronounced, the Pulitzer again demonstrates what’s good about this profession. [Edit]
  • Dafna Linzer reports that dozens of prisoners held by the CIA are still missing, and their fates are unknown.
  • In a sobering assessment, Journalist/historian Gareth Porter argues that the U.S. lacks the capacity to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.
  • Cuban Americans are apparently appreciating the overtures of the new US administration.
  • Related to yesterday’s post, Tom Lloyd asks what the War on Drugs is actually achieving.
  • Today is Earth Day. Always eager to mark such occasions, here’s Joe Romm about why it should be scrapped.
  • Stacey Palevsky relates a story about the fight to release Deborah Peagler, a woman who was sentenced for killing her husband, even though she was subjected to long-term domestic abuse.
  • Boris Johnson confirms that he won’t fund the planned rape crisis centres in London.
  • And apparently there was some Budget thing. The New Statesman has a round-up of reactions.

Doomsday averted: drug decriminalisation in Portugal

April 21, 2009 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Drugs, International | 3 Comments

For those of us who want to liberalise Britain’s drug laws, a continued source of frustration has been our inability to offer evidence about what the benefits might be. Sure, we can all point out the failure of our war on drugs, we can highlight the lives that have been claimed everywhere from Mexico to Guinea-Bissau, and we can make some rational assumptions about how ending prohibition would reduce the burden on the state, as well as its power to imprison & invade the privacy of individuals.

We can say all of that, but the fact remains that our arguments about the benefits to society have always been untested. The vast majority of developed countries also practice some version of the war against drugs, and so there’s been little data to show what might happen if we changed the law. As a result, the doomsday scenarios of prohibitionists have always had the upper hand, and their habit of wielding ‘common sense’ like a cudgel continues to scare enough people into believing that liberalisation is just too terrifying to be tried.

But this month, something important happened. In the United States, the libertarian Cato Institute issued a paper by the estimable Glenn Greenwald on the effects of decriminalisation in Portugal. Given the prestige of the institution, the repute of the author and the thoroughness of the research, it should be essential reading for people on both sides of the debate.

First, some background. In the late 1990′s Portugal’s drug problem had reached crisis point: drug use had escalated dramatically, and with that the number of drug pathologies, incarceration for drug use and the amount of money the state spent trying to eradicate the problem. Nothing they tried had worked, and so the government of the day effectively outsourced the problem to a committee of policy makers, who were charged with making recommendations about how to reduce the damage. They concluded that no amount of ‘crackdown’ policing or sentencing would effectively reduce drug use, and it certainly wouldn’t do nothing to reduce the harm caused by drugs. There was, they decided, little alternative but decriminalisation.

Naturally, the plan was incredibly divisive, and the prohibitionists offered the same arguments we hear in Britain today; that drug use would rocket; that the country would become a magnet for drug tourism; that crime would overwhelm the country and the economy would suffer.

But as Greenwald’s report demonstrates, none of those terrible predictions ever came to pass. Since they decriminalised drugs in 2001, most of Portugal’s European neighbours have reported net increases in drug use; by contrast, Portugal can boast that its drug problems have been contained. The level of drug use has stabilised, but has actually decreased in several demographics, including the crucial 15-19 age group. From 2001-2005, Portugal had the absolute lowest lifetime prevalence rate for cannabis and the fifth lowest for cocaine. If you’re looking for high rates of drug use, you won’t find it in the country which decriminalised drugs.

Since calling off the hunt against users, the country has also managed to substantially improve health outcomes. Now that undergoing drug treatment doesn’t mean you have to incriminate yourself in criminal activity, greater numbers of addicts are coming forward, and the state has become more able to provide treatment thanks to the reduced burden of prosecuting them. At the same time, drug-related deaths have decreased, infection rates for HIV and hepatitis are down thanks to safe needle exchange, incarceration of users is non-existent and Portugal never became the destination for drug tourism which opponents feared. None of this could have been achieved with criminalisation still in place.

Eight years on from decriminalisation, and a policy which divided the country’s politicians has now become a cross-party consensus. By understanding that no amount of harsh penalties will stabilise its drug problem, Portugal has achieved net decreases in use among important age groups and also improved treatment and health outcomes for addicts. Doomsday well and truly averted.

No, Portugal is not America and nor is it Great Britain, and I’d agree that you can’t simply transplant one country’s policy into another without serious thought. But the Greenwald report offers compelling evidence that the nightmare scenarios offered by its opponents have simply not come to pass, and has provided those of us who see no virtue or utility in the current system with compelling reasons for why change is necessary.

For slightly more detail than the summary offered in this post, the report can be found here; Cato’s summary can be seen here; Greenwald blogs about the report over at Salon; and is interviewed by the folks at libertarian mag Reason.

Selected Reading

April 20, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

There’ll be some proper sentences here tomorrow, but since there’s not much chance of me finishing the post I’m currently writing by the end of the day, here’s some stuff to click:

  • So it turns out that Durban II went exactly the way a lot of people suspected. Well done to those who walked out on Ahmadinejad, though it’s a missed opportunity that he wasn’t pelted with shoes.
  • Conor Foley worries that the prosecution of the President of Sudan is more about politics than hard evidence of genocide.
  • James Hrynyshyn on the problem with Twitter.
  • Andrew Sullivan has more on the torture memos.
  • Like Seth Freeman, I’m not sure that Israel building a ‘museum of tolerance’ on top of a Muslim cemetary is a particularly sensitive thing to do.
  • You can get funding for anything these days: Scientist Wants To Test Abraham Lincoln’s Bloodstained Pillow For Cancer.
  • At The F Word, Laura Woodhouse shares a piece on feminism & motherhood.
  • I like the sound of the Lib Dems’ tax plans.
  • And at FP Passport, Joshua Keating asks the most important question of the day: does Jackie Chan really hate freedom?

That’s it, I’m afraid. There’ll be more tomorrow.

“You killed your own fans”: The Sun and the misremembering of Hillsborough

April 19, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Posted in Media | 5 Comments

"The Truth"

It’s a story which has been retold many times in the past week. On 1st December 2006 Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of The Sun and author of the biggest lie in that newspaper’s history, spoke before a business lunch in Tyneside and revisited his reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy.”I was not sorry then and I’m not sorry now,” MacKenzie said. “All I did wrong was [to] tell the truth”. Contrary to those facts which were established by the Taylor Report, what happened, MacKenzie claimed, was that “there was a surge of Liverpool fans who had been drinking and that is what caused the disaster. The only thing different we did was put it under the headline ‘The Truth’. I went on World at One the next day and apologised. I only did that because Rupert Murdoch told me to.”

In the days and weeks which followed, MacKenzie’s contortion of history ripped the scabs off old wounds and caused an outpouring of anger and hurt among Liverpudlians, supporters of Liverpool Football Club and – most unforgivably – the families of the ninety-six victims. Phil Hammond, then chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group and a fan who lost his 14-year old son in the tragedy, spoke for many in the city when he said “It has been proven that the story was a pack of lies yet here is all these years later peddling his lies on the after-dinner speaking circuit. Why doesn’t he come and tell the families this to their faces?”

The controversy rumbled on for weeks; fans wanted to know why the BBC still used him (and continues to use him) as a serious pundit, internet message boards seethed with contempt, and he was even challenged on it during an edition of Question Time. But the disgust on Merseyside was given its fullest expression a month later, during an FA Cup match between Liverpool and Arsenal. At the start of the game, the Kop end held up a mosiac bearing the words “THE TRUTH” and for six minutes (the length of that ill-fated game in Sheffield) chanted in one voice “Justice for the 96″. As a show of solidarity and defiance, I’d never seen anything quite like it.

As The Guardian found out this week, over two years after MacKenzie retracted his apology and exactly 20 years since the disaster, Liverpool’s strength of feeling against The Sun remains strong, passionate and unyielding. Yellow ‘don’t buy The Sun’ stickers are a common sight on matchdays, newbie fans are remonstrated with if they’re found reading it and any advertising carrying the paper’s logo is swiftly defaced. The banishment of the newspaper from the lives of Liverpool supporters is sustained, systematic and taught to anyone who passes through the Shankly Gates.

Attempting to understand why their paper’s name remains mud, some at The Sun have developed the theory that the anger is, in part, due to the fans’ belief that justice has never been served. A few weeks ago, managing editor Graham Dudman wrote: “Despite some members of the Hillsborough Family Support Group publicly accepting our apology, it made little difference on Merseyside where the community has to live with the knowledge that no police officer or ground official was ever convicted for the mistakes that led to the tragedy.”

I won’t deny that there’s a small element of truth to this; in most tragedies you’ll often find blame ascribed to one person, even when responsibility should be shared between others – Bin Laden for 9/11, Bush for Katrina, Gordon Brown for this recession. Since there hasn’t been a prosecution for the fatal errors that were made, much of the blame has been funnelled towards The Sun and its brash, unapologetic former editor. That said, it’s still an epic stretch of the imagination for the paper’s leadership to feel they’ve been made a scapegoat.

Feelings of hurt and betrayal can be sourced back to many different causes, but in my own opinion, the anger directed at that newspaper is rooted in something very different than simply misdirected rage. In the 80′s and 90′s, Liverpool fans became more dispersed than at any time in the club’s history. As the most successful club in England, they’d attracted millions of supporters outside of Merseyside, and because of the economic hardships the city endured during this time, a lot of Liverpudlians had to leave to find work elsewhere.

As a result, you had fans transplanted into areas where they’d encounter people without their specialist knowledge of the club’s history, and who’d bought into the stereotype of scousers as thuggish car thieves who would only get up in the morning to collect their giro. Outside of Merseyside, myths about Hillsborough are still commonplace and there are still those whose memory of that day is unerringly similar to the depiction in The Sun.

Of course, it’s easy enough to inform & correct some idiot in your workplace or pub or on an internet forum; it’s impossible when it’s a crowd of thousands. When you go to an away game and hear a loud minority of opposition fans singing “you killed your own fans, you killed your own fans”, it really hits you in the gut.

For those who were fortunate enough not to have lost friends or loved ones among the ninety-six, what hurts almost as much as the deaths themselves, almost as much as the lack of justice for the dead, is the misremembering of that tragedy; a misremembering which paints the victims as the aggressors and casts a callous question mark over the epitaph of “innocent casualty”.

As the biggest newspaper in the country, in an industry where fidelity to the truth is the only standard which matters, and in an age where smears were not easily debunked, Liverpool fans hold The Sun responsible for this mangling of history, and that will remain for as long as lies are told. If that sounds like a harsh verdict, if your reply to this explanation is simply “it’s time to move on”, just remember this: this whole mess could’ve been avoided. All they needed to do was tell The Truth.

The Torture Memos

April 17, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International, Terrorism, U.S. Politics | 2 Comments

Guantanamo

From the moment Barack Obama became President, there was much debate inside his party over how the new administration should investigate and prosecute any crimes committed by his predecessor. Of the two most widely-discussed proposals, liberal activists argued for a Special Prosecutor to take action against officials at all levels of the government, from CIA interrogators who conducted torture to anyone in the White House or Justice Department who may have sanctioned it. Others have embraced Sen. Patrick Leahy’s idea of establishing a bi-partisan ‘Truth Commission’ which would try to lay out the facts as impartially as possible, but with the primary aim of establishing truth rather than prosecuting crime.

Thus far, neither of these proposals have materialised, but following the release of another round of DoJ ‘torture memos’, the case for an independent inquiry becomes much stronger – as does the conflict between the pursuit of truth and the search for justice.

The four memos released by the Department of Justice are at once shocking and unsurprising. They shock not just because they provide further evidence of the depths the Bush administration sunk to, but because of their clinical, legalistic, matter-of-fact descriptions of depravity. That said, the steady drip-drip-drip of leaked stories and accusations from Guantanamo detainees have already prepared us for much of what is contained in these documents, and to that end, they only serve to confirm what many people suspected.

But what will keep this story running for months – maybe years – to come are the important questions these documents dare us to ask. As Spencer Ackerman writes:

What the memos leave unclear is how much the CIA jumped into the torture game and how much the Bush administration pushed it. The memos are written to be responsive to the CIA lawyer — the malefactor going to the priest to give his work absolution. They’re written to guide the interrogators. But they leave unclear — as does most of the narrative so far — who’s compelling Rizzo in the CIA counsel’s office to keep pushing for more. The senior leadership of the agency? The heads of its directorate of operations, which overseas the interrogators? The Counterterrorist Center leaders? Without this information, we don’t have a clear sense of moral culpability for the torture. And then we’ll need to know what kind of pressure they were under from the Bush administration. Who was pressured? Who was eager to comply? Who resisted? Who pressed his or her colleagues into acquiescence or insubordination? All of these questions are related but separate to the question of legal culpability.

Reacting to the release of the memos, President Obama argued that this is a “time for reflection, not retribution”, and warned against ‘spending our time and energy laying blame for the past’. A nice sentiment, perhaps, but he must surely know that by releasing these memos, the call for more information, for investigations and for the commencement of criminal prosecutions is becoming irresistible. According to Glenn Greenwald, there is clearly enough evidence already in the public domain to prosecute several individuals for war crimes, and that’s without anything like the kind of far-reaching investigation which is now being demanded.

But the Obama administration remains reluctant to talk about prosecutions, and for a number of reasons. First, I think the (admittedly rather weak) Nuremberg Defense reflects a desire to (a) avoid embroiling a department which should be fighting terrorism in accrimony & accusations, and (b) to avoid a repeat of the situation where someone like Lynndie England was made a scapegoat for abuses which went much higher up the chain of command. Second, the ultimate responsibility for sanctioning these acts of torture looks likely to rest on some very senior figures in the CIA, the Justice Department, and possibly the White House itself, and with that comes the risk of engulfing the Obama administration in the kind of highly-charged partisanship not seen since Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

By releasing these memos, I think the Obama administration is attempting to reveal the truth of America’s torture regime whilst (for now, at least) resisting the call for justice. I can’t see how this will succeed in the long run; these revelations have only prompted calls for more information, and as Guantanamo Bay begins to close down and more inmates tell their stories, the administration will be forced to reveal even more about what the prisoners were subjected to – and who was ultimately responsible. The steady trickle of horror stories about the Bush administration’s brutality hasn’t stopped yet, and those responsible may yet drown in it.

Purnell’s plans for alcoholics

April 16, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 1 Comment

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear a new government proposal for reform of the welfare state, I have to pause for a moment and ask: is this a policy or a headline? For example, when Hazel Blears announced that ‘hit squads’ armed with rubber gloves would be banging on parents’ doors to make sure their kids are ready for school, just about every observer – and probably Blears herself – knew it wasn’t going to happen, but made for a nice headline. Similarly, Caroline Flint’s threat to turf the workless out of their council homes and the government’s plan to make the jobless pick litter both failed to materialise, but at least they ended up in the papers.

So when James Purnell promises/threatens to make unemployed alcoholics seek treatment or lose their benefits, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask whether this story falls into the same category. Because when you think hard about how it would be implemented, you’re left with the irresistible suspicion that it’d either be appallingly intrusive or completely unworkable.

The idea’s apparently been palmed-off to Glasgow University to figure out how it might work, and the first question they’ll face is: how is the state going to define what makes an alcoholic? Are they going to abide by the medical definitions and judge it according to physical & psychological dependency, or will they just pick a number of units drunk per week and define that as the booze barrier? And if they did decide to judge it according to units, how many would you have to drink for the state to label you an alcoholic? Certainly, if they set it as low as the current recommended daily allowance, half the country would end up in A.A. meetings at some point.

Even if they resolve that question, that certainly isn’t the end of their problems. The next difficulty they’ll have is: how is the state going to identify alcoholics? The people who work in job centres are perfectly good at their jobs, but those jobs only involve following pre-approved computer procedures for eight hours a day. None of these people are trained in medicine or psychology, and therefore won’t be qualified to label people as alcoholics, much less terminate their benefits for it.

How does the government get around that? Will they subject every claimant to a full medical? Will they perform breathalyzers on everyone who walks through the door? Or will they be more discreet, and just ask staff walk around council estates with clip boards and ask them to count how many cans of Special Brew are left in recycling bins?

I suppose you could ask them whether they’re alcoholics, but how many people who are ever answer affirmitively? If you deny your addiction to your friends, your family and even yourself, you’re hardly going to open up to someone you only see once a fortnight and who only knows you as a name on a computer. And before we start going down the lie detector test route, we should note that this has already been torn to shreds.

Lastly, if you’re going to do something as serious as terminating someone’s benefits for not attending treatment, you better make sure that you’re offering the best treatment possible. Addiction is an incredibly tough thing to overcome; failures happen regularly, and often to people much better off than the unemployed. We have to realise, too, that alcoholism doesn’t simply happen out of idleness, and that it’s often intertwined with other factors: depression & other mental illnesses, low self-esteem, learning difficulties, social exclusion & sometimes even disability. If these people need help, then it’s in society’s interest to provide that help, but nobody should lose their benefits because the treatment programme they were ordered on was ineffective.

I don’t know, maybe I’ll be proved wrong & the government will develop a system which resolves all these problems and unanswered questions. But if they can’t, the best we can hope for is that this story joins the long line of hyped-up ideas which worked well as tabloid headlines, but were simply too unworkable to become real policies.

Selected Reading

April 15, 2009 at 10:04 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

(Photo pinched from The Guardian)

I spent a few hours at Hillsborough this afternoon, which explains the lack of proper posting. It’s strange; for years, I’ve lived under the assumption that the tragedy of twenty years ago was something people here had chosen to either forget or misremember. Seeing the number of local people leaving flowers, flags and scarves at the memorial and the entrance to Leppings Lane – some of them kids who weren’t even alive 20 years ago – proved that I should’ve known better. It was an incredibly moving afternoon.

Anyway, here’s a few links:

  • Still on Hillsborough, Sunder has a lovely personal reflection, and Dan at The Third Estate provides a Liverpudlian perspective. Whilst I was still on holiday, I caught Saturday’s special edition of Football Focus on the anniversary. It’s a useful – and frequently touching – reminder of what was lost, and I’ve embedded the video on my Tumblr site.
  • Reacting to the news that the government wants to introduce compulsory volunteering for teenagers, Stuart Dakers argues that young people don’t owe society anything.
  • Slate asks: why did the White House give the Washington Post the ‘scoop’ on the Obama dog story? I ask: why did they get such a weird-looking dog? And why would journalism consider the dog story a scoop in the first place??!
  • Danger Room reports that there have been 20,000 civilian murders since the start of the Iraq war.
  • Elections have consequences: Israel’s new Foreign Minister, the seriously odious Avigdor Lieberman, is not welcome in Egypt.
  • Folks at the Washington Independent went to take pictures of the right-wing ‘tea parties’ in DC. In case you’re interested, this is by far my favourite placard. Don’t know what all this ‘tea party’ fuss is about? Rachel Maddow will explain.
  • And Elizabeth Dickinson explains Ron Paul’s rather unique plan for fighting piracy.

Lastly, I’ve fiddled with the blog layout a bit and put myself on Twitter. Yes, I’m a complete sell-out.

Building the argument for prison reform

April 14, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 1 Comment

It’s been nearly two weeks since my last post on the subject, so by now I’m sure you’re all gagging for another riveting instalment of Prison Reform News! By the time I’m done, you’ll probably be wishing I’d stayed on holiday…

To start, today’s report in The Guardian about the government’s failure to rehabilitate offenders underscores three oft-repeated points. The first is that the efforts of charities and third sector bodies towards trying to achieve something in this area are being constrained by two major problems: the prison service is too overstretched and overcrowded for rehabilitation efforts to be effective, and the government has a habit of interfering with any programmes which might prove embarrassing when they’re distorted in the tabloids. One such example, a planned comedy workshop in Whitemoor prison, clearly had potential benefits for developing inmates’ personal & social skills, but it was cancelled solely because Jack Straw thought it’d look bad. So government needs to be a lot braver on that score and, if necessary, just swallow one or two bad headlines every once in a while. I mean, it’s not like they’re going to spoil all the adulation they’re currently basking in, is it?

The second point is that it should again highlight the need to think seriously about ways to incentivise rehabilitation within the prison system. Reducing the level of reoffending should be prioritised as a matter of public safety, and it’s a little odd to note that this is an area where Conservatives are thinking/talking more progressively than Labour; David Cameron has previously made positive noises about creating some kind of league table system, and the Aitken report includes incentivisation as one of its key recommendations.

The last point is the shortest, and, I would hope, most obvious: if you’re failing in your efforts to rehabilitate offenders, you’re not being ‘tough’ on crime – you’re incubating it.

Moving on, and whilst I was on holiday, the government published yet another consultation document on giving prisoners the right to vote. Such has been Labour’s foot-dragging on the issue, I won’t hold out much hope that this will be achieved before the last election (by which point a Tory government will certainly scrap it), and I sympathise with the Prison Reform Trust’s rather weary, grumpy response. But since I’ve done the rights & wrongs of the government’s position to death, I’ll instead pick up on recent comments about the way this campaign has been fought.

In different ways, both Sunder Katwala and Norman Geras identify a real problem among those of us who want to extend the vote to prisoners: our arguments often fall flat to anyone who’s agnostic on the issue. The piece Geras links to is probably the worst I’ve read, but Sunder is equally right to note the respective weaknesses of Juliet Lyons & Johann Hari’s positions. As I’ve commented before, because of the strength in numbers of those who shout the opposing view, there’s a danger that penal reformers direct their arguments only to likeminded friends, and speak/write as if the virtues of their position are self-evident. So when someone asks “why do you want to give prisoners the right to vote?”, the answer which comes back is often only slightly less circular than “because prisoners don’t have the right to vote”.

However, when you try to break out from this circularity and speak of specific benefits to society from extending the franchise, you encounter another set of problems; Sunder is certainly correct to imply that Lyons and Hari’s arguments about how prisoners would engage more with politics – and politicians with prisoners – are overstated and unproveable, and even if those benefits were disproved, both writers would still argue for extending the franchise on principle.

I’m not sure that I’m going to be any more effective at constructing an argument which wins over the doubters, but what I would say is that it must be situated in the context of the current state of the our prison system. Under Labour, our imprisonment rate has become the second highest in Europe and 62% of prisoners go on reoffend, at a cost of over £12 billion. The length of an average sentence is a completely unproductive 3 months, prisons are increasingly being used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and there are unacceptable levels of drug use, self-harm and suicides. At the same time, Labour’s only moves towards reform have been concerned with how to incarcerate prisoners more cheaply, not how to effectively reduce reoffending.

The system needs reform, but there will never be any votes in liberalisation whilst the issue is so completely smothered by ‘get tough!’ tubthumping. The most we can be sure of about extending the franchise to prisoners is that it will finally put votes in prison reform, and give those reform groups the chance to claim the democratic mandate which are available to every other political lobby. Beyond that, under habeas corpus, we have the right to challenge the state’s justification for our imprisonment. It seems to me entirely logical that we should then – even if found guilty – be able to challege the conditions under which we are imprisoned. The best way of ensuring that accountability remains the ballot box, and without it, there is no incentive for the state to improve those conditions.

That still might not be an adequate justification for some, and it’s always going to be an uphill struggle to convince people why we should give rights to those who have committed terrible crimes. The reason I keep at it is because I regard the prison system as absolutely crucial towards constructing a serious left (or liberal-left) alternative to the current criminal justice system. When Labour finds itself out of power in a few years time, these will be vitally important discussions to have.

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