The Guantánamo illusion, Richter in the US and think tanksby Prospect / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
Freedom of speech
Geoffrey Robertson writes persuasively on the need to protect press freedom. However, he is misguided in both the targets of his ire—Ed Miliband and Ivan Lewis, who called for a public inquiry—and in his conclusion.
Writing in the Guardian in July, Robertson himself was eloquent on the need for an “urgent” public inquiry: “There must be an examination of the culture of the tabloid press, the bribery and corruption… the total failure of self regulation… the inadequate training of journalists,” he said. But now his proposed remedy, of “simply leaving [media regulation] to the law,” would be even worse than what we have now. Why? Because it is a solution available only to the super rich. Costs in libel cases can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds: according to a 2008 report by Oxford University’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, the costs in England are around 140 times the European average.
In parallel with the Leveson inquiry, we have the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill being pushed through parliament. This abolishes conditional fee arrangements—“no win, no fee”—which will make it almost impossible for ordinary people to sue for libel. People like Milly Dowler’s parents would not be able to pursue their cases—and we would still be hearing the tired claims that the press seek only to hold the rich and powerful to account. If only that were true.
Helen Goodman MP Shadow minister for culture, media and sport
Closure of Guantánamo, for which Anthony D Romero calls, would be only symbolic: the structures and networks that prop up and profit from its existence would remain. The prisoners, guilty or innocent, are trapped in a terrible battle between the traditional desire for a free society and the quest for national security at any cost. There are no winners in this game; America lost the moral high ground a long time ago and the ever-elusive objective of eliminating terrorism has not, and can not be achieved.
Contessa Kopashki Via the Prospect website
What are think tanks for?
Your think tank of the year awards seemed nothing more than an exercise in mutual back-slapping: congratulating institutions for impressing other institutions with their apparent cleverness. With growing irritation I finished the article wondering what exactly think tanks really are, what do they really do, who funds them (the taxpayer?), what value do they have for us, the lumpen proletariat, and most of all why governments and large organisations cannot, as they once used to, do their thinking for themselves?
Mark Williams Presteigne, Powys
Schools are on the front line of the battle for every person to have a fair chance in life, regardless of where he or she was born—and this government’s education record raises deep questions over its commitment to giving the poorest children a better start in life.
Labour’s “Building Schools for the Future” programme wasn’t perfect, but it promised every child the privileges previously reserved for private schools. The education maintenance allowance wasn’t perfect either, but it promised young people that they would never again have to cut short their education because they couldn’t afford to pay. The government has cruelly taken those promises back. If your school is being rebuilt now, you’ve probably gone private. Once again, we will see students dropping out early because they cannot afford to study. Meanwhile academies are no longer targeting the poorest areas, removing a key support for disadvantaged families. We will pay for this for generations to come.
David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and shadow minister for higher education
Is Pinker right?
Steven Pinker argues that the human condition has improved over time—so instead of warning of decay and decline, we should just be content that, on the whole, everything is better than a few decades ago. Does he not consider the possibility that it might be because people think about the present, and point out possible pitfalls, that things have improved on the whole? Surely nothing will ever improve if we just appreciate “democracy, science and cosmopolitanism” and keep our mouths shut.
Behind his seemingly positive statement is a severely anti-democratic and oppressive implication: that the masses should just be happy about their lives, while leaving the running of society to experts who know their history and know what they’re talking about.
Mario Bisiada Manchester
John Gray’s review of Steven Pinker’s book misses the point. While Pinker’s explanations may not quite stand up, his argument still requires serious attention. I live in a city of about 500,000 people. The average yearly number of murders is six. If the death rate from violence in a hunter-gatherer society like the Hiwi applied, I believe the number of murders would work out to 2,500 per year. Such a discrepancy is worth more than a reflexive dismissal.
J Trudel Via the Prospect website
More responses to Steven Pinker’s and John Gray’s articles here and here.
Bring Richter to the US
Gerhard Richter, of whom Sebastian Smee writes, is the best painter alive, and has been for several decades. Whatever despairing pronouncements Richter might have made about his own inability to realise paintings that redeem the art of painting, it is obvious he loves the medium itself, an essential condition for any painter worthy of consideration. (I would guess he loves the smell, sight, and feel of paint in all of its varieties and values his time in the studio above all else.)
As a “naturalist,” his drawing, brushwork and compositional skills are self-evident, and as an abstractionist his intelligence makes most of his competitors’ tropes (and gifts) seem limited. His painting is dramatic, without resort to histrionics. He is also a curator of visual memory. I just hope that the exhibition, all or part of it, eventually comes to the United States.
Terrence O’Keeffe Via the Prospect website
Death becomes us
It’s odd that Sarah Murray does not regard her own body, or the constellation of “organic matter” referred to as Sarah Murray, as a tangible legacy of her father’s presence in the world.
Similarly, she fails to acknowledge that the customary veneration of mortal remains isn’t all of a piece. Even in Mexico, the Day of the Dead varies widely in its observance. While quite an elaborate fiesta in some states, such as Michoacán, it’s largely considered a quiet “family day” at home in Yucatán. That said, there are still some villages in the region where families discreetly remove bones from tombs and give them a nice cleaning and polishing—despite local authorities routinely making a show of decrying the practice as “unsanitary” and, worse yet, “old-fashioned.”
Hugo de Toronja Via the Prospect website
Just too many?
The November cover story argued that the 20-year silence on population growth is “calamitous for the environment and poverty.” Here are a selection of responses. Many more can found under the article:
Bronwen Maddox makes a convincing case that public-sector experts turned their backs on the population issue after the intervention of conservatives and feminists at the Cairo conference in 1994. But was this entirely a bad thing? Remember the harm done in the 1970s: egged on by western governments and pressure groups, coerced sterilisation became a pattern all across Asia. Chinese women were forcibly taken from their homes to be sterilised, while Sanjay Gandhi ran a vast campaign of rewards and coercion to force 8m poor Indians to accept vasectomies. Yet we now know that bottom-up forces, chiefly public health improvements and economic growth, generally reduce birth rates even faster than top-down coercion (which bodes well for Africa, with its recent rapid growth). The availability of contraception is necessary, but not sufficient. Maybe the inattention of the international quangocracy is not always a bad thing.
Matt Ridley, author of “The Rational Optimist”
The contrast of articles in the November issue was startling. First: are there too many people and not enough resources? Then, the shocking image of an obese Chinese girl and the question—“will there be enough insulin?”—with only a brief mention that diabetes can be avoided: “diet is crucial.” It seems some of the population is consuming at least twice as much food as they need, while others starve.
Marion Wells Aldeburgh, Suffolk
I live in Australia, an affluent country with strong social security programmes, a well-developed superannuation scheme and good healthcare. Without these things, there are many reasons to have large families—not least that one in five children die before they reach their fifth birthday in poorer countries, and that many children also die from disease, dehydration and malnutrition. If such countries, if you find yourself unable to work, and have no family to care for you, the only hope is the generosity of your local community—and this support will be very limited in times of famine. While we must improve access to contraception, we must also recognise that children are the only hope some people have for improving their chances of survival.
Richard Via the Prospect website
It was good to see an article on population, but sadly it did not answer the question: “Just too many?”
If there are too many of us already (and there is much evidence to support this conclusion), then talk of “reducing [the rate of] population growth” has to become “how can we humanely reduce the number that already obtains?”
We also need to recognise the concomitant decline in biodiversity, for there is no doubt that the accelerating species loss is as a direct result of rising human numbers.
It is true that for too long we have pushed this issue into the long grass. But this is not simply a technical problem solvable with yet more hardware. It is social, political and economic, and must be addressed in like manner.
John Gamlin East Bergholt, Suffolk
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In the November issue Geoffrey Robertson equates press freedom with free speech. Every citizen has an equal right to free expression but the press is not free: they expect to be paid. A newspaper should contain mainly news that is informative and preferably accurate. Far too much reporting is partial, misleading or just the opinion of the writer. Press regulation may be dangerous but are newspapers “fit for purpose” under the Sale of Goods Act?
Robert Heath Bristol
Peter Kellner makes a much needed point about the way in which the results of opinion polls can be distorted by the wording of the question asked. But even more important is the way in which unjustified significance is read into the results of surveys—mainly by the press.
Opinion polls on voting intentions are subject to margins of error—in most cases at least plus or minus two percentage points for each party. But such qualifications are virtually never mentioned—it would spoil a possible good headline.
Thus the Independent headlined the latest version of its own “poll of polls”: “Ed Miliband sees lead over Tories cut to just one point.” Since September, Labour had gone from 39 to 28 per cent.
But the following results are all possible within those figures: Labour was leading in both months. There was a dead heat in one month, Labour led in the other. Labour led in September and Tories in October […] Incidentally, Professor John Curtice of Plymouth University, who compiles the statistics for the Independent by adding up the figures from all the polls in the most recent month, told me that combining them in this way does nothing, or little, to reduce the margins of error.
Mr D R Cole Winchester
In fact is a terrific compendium of the useful and arcane. However, it appears to have fallen into the trap, beloved of tabloids and politicians, of confusing correlation (in this case TV viewing and life expectancy) with causation. Please continue to delight and confound us with facts not speculation
Simon Harden Tideswell
Death becomes us
Spiritual or not, I believe the last wishes of the deceased offer something for both sides. We’re surrounded by death, and yet our own is unknown to us. The narratives in our head are empty; the state of death leaves no answers behind. These last acts [of mourning] are a step into each others’ worlds, a completion for the living and the dying. Their end is material because we are material. Their presence is holy because they’re the center of our world. These last words are crucial for an atheist. The instructions we leave behind regard life: live on, go here, carry me with you—or decide yourself. They’re our only aid against a dissolution that’s incomprehensible.
Michael Gover Sheffield
Isabel Hilton is right when she says that the Chinese Communist Party is determined to conceal its role in China’s post-revolutionary history. But not, according to Mobo Gao, Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide, for the same reasons. Gao, who wrote a book about changes in his native Chinese village, and has done field work in Jiangxi and Shanxi provinces, argues convincingly that the dominant popular perception of China’s past is very different from that of both the CCP and Isabel Hilton.
Under Mao, he says, agriculture and industry made big strides and all Chinese people benefitted hugely from improvements in education and especially of course health. Contrary to Hilton’s claim, the Cultural Revolution was not an attempt by Mao to cling to power, but an ideological conflict within the CCP in which State Chairman Liu Shaoqi blamed the resurgence of capitalism on collusion between local Party cadres and remnants of the old landlord class, while Party Chairman Mao held the revisionist upper echelons of the Party responsible. But even during this period of political unrest, agricultural production increased by 46% (1965-1975).
After Mao’s death, and the trial of the Gang of Four, the Party dismantled its socialist policies, undermining the economic security of the masses through rural decollectivisation and the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. While creating mass unemployment and lowering wages in the burgeoning export-oriented coastal industries, Party officials enriched themselves through the illegal acquisition of peasant land and state factories. It is rampant Party corruption and its loss of its egalitarian idealism which is deeply resented by hundreds of millions of impoverished farmers, urban squatters and factory fodder. Protest is manifested through the rise of the New Left in China, the panicked leftward turn of President Hu Jintao in scrapping rural taxes, the anti-government sentiment ubiquitous on the increasingly accessible internet, and the tens of thousands of “public order incidents” each year (87,000 in 2005 alone). No wonder, if Professor Gao is right, that the CCP fears its own people, and wishes to hide its past.
Neil Thomas Cardiff
What Alice did
At last! An article about Lewis Carroll that doesn’t try and “explain” everything about Alice. That man Freud has a lot to answer for.
Annie Morgan Via the Prospect website
We at Green House cannot entirely agree with Bronwen Maddox when she says that the recent Prospect think tank awards demonstrated that “plunging markets and revolution have prompted radical new thinking.” In one sphere at least that verdict seems questionable: it was noticeable that no green-leaning think tank featured on any of the shortlists mentioned for any of the awards—a disappointing state of affairs given the central importance of environmental policy to the current UK government (rhetorically at least) and to any serious approach to our current problems which looks beyond the short term.
The award winners, admirable though their work is, work very much within the established terms of the debate, at a time when the fundamental premises of capitalism are being called into question very widely and when talk of economic collapse is not confined to the tents outside St Paul’s. It was this failure of the political commentariat, which prompted a group of influential environmental thinkers and writers to launch Green House in mid 2011. Green House differs from existing think tanks in that it sees its work as not just presenting policy options for tinkering but offering deeper challenges to the mainstream so as to “reframe” the debate. It has already published three substantial reports; this month, it will be presenting evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on the green economy; and in January we will launch a new report on giving a political voice to the largest disenfranchised group currently affected by our political decision-making – unborn future generations.
Rupert Read, Chair, Green House and Ray Cunningham, Associate, Green House
On page 9, your Stephen Pinker tagline: “The world is much less violent than it used to be.” But on page 13 your quote from The British Journal of Criminology, if accurate, indicates that a young black American male today has 100 times the risk of a violent death compared with the average European citizen between 600 AD and 1800 AD. Risk of violent death for a monarch was “700 times greater than that of their subjects and 7 times greater than young black American males today.” So who is wrong—Pinker, the British Journal of Criminology, or you?
Michael Gover Sheffield
Of course, pleasing as the statistics on the decline of violence are, it is worth remembering we still live in an age of weapons of mass destruction which, a few minutes of madness could render them entirely out of date.
Laurie McGuiness Via the Prospect website
The desire for everything to be measurable and so every claim refuted or supported by data is understandable but sadly a flawed wish. Violence is inherently an abstract concept. The idea it can be reduced to a number(s) makes about as much sense as claiming that “envy has quantifiably increased.”
Alex Via the Prospect website
Just too many
Perhaps the threat to the planet from overpopulation should, for two straightforward reasons, not be exaggerated. Most human sexual activity is not procreatively motivated—therefore, within a generation, humans could significantly reduce their environmental footprint by eliminating unwanted pregnancies. No coercion is desirable or necessary: fertile humans, when heterosexually active consensually, have simply to agree whether or not they want to start families or to increase present sizes of their families. Hardly rocket science?
More complicated is that liberals and conservatives are both partly right and partly wrong about sexual morality. Liberals who insist that what happens between consenting adults is a matter purely for the consenters are right to be advocating freedom of choice and privacy. Conservatives are equally right to censure unwanted pregnancies and to condemn the neglect or abandonment of parental responsibilities. Some influential liberals are reluctant to acknowledge that unwanted pregnancies and parental irresponsibilities are abuses of sexual freedom. Some influential conservatives will not accept that consensual sexual activity of any kind should be nobody else’s business, provided this freedom is exercised responsibly—with regard to family planning—and observes the legal age of consent.
A sexual morality to counter global population increase and to approve the private but responsible fulfilment, according to justified social expectations, of diverse sexual impulses can be summarised concisely: that all sexual activity involving procreative risk should be accompanied by the friendly but firm whisper of social conscience: “Have fun, please, not an unwanted child.” Religion already teaches how, starting with infants, to nurture the voice of conscience.
Many people will no doubt protest that such a transparently secular ethic violates their deepest and most cherished beliefs. Concerning this basis for protest, there is a fundamental philosophical question to consider about the role of values. Is that role predominantly to endorse and defend beliefs and traditions uncritically—especially when these happen to be deeply entangled with personal and collective identities? Or is our moral inheritance producing a sometimes constructive debate, globally, about what criteria to apply for evaluating and re-evaluating outcomes of deliberate human action where moral issues arise—in this case, securing a safer and better future for the planet?
Contra Nietzsche, existing values do not so much need replacing; a less revolutionary approach is continually and energetically to re-apply our moral inheritance with more discrimination and keener intelligence—our purpose being to elucidate, make headway with and resolve problems and challenges that have moral dimensions. Thus our moral inheritance, through adapting more pragmatically to whatever moral issues we encounter, would evolve and keep refreshing itself rather than stagnate and become increasingly toxic, as Nietzsche rightly warned.
Martin Bradley Tamworth, Staffordshire