Saturday, August 20, 2011
Absurd English law-enforcement lies behind the riots
The most amazing thing about the reaction of English MPs to last week’s terrible violence was how surprised they were. For a country whose criminal law is invariably sympathetic to offenders, nearly always harsh on their victims, and unwilling to pay for adequate policing the surprise is that they were surprised.
Two stories hitting English papers during June and July provide a glimpse of current British law in action.
On June 23 around midnight a masked gang broke down the back door of a home in Salford, in northwestern England. The householder, 59, his son and the son’s girl friend called the police and tried to defend the home and themselves. They managed to stab one of the gang who died of his wounds. When the police arrived they arrested the householder, his son and the son’s girlfriend on suspicion of attempted murder.
On July 11, a headline in The Sun read “Shopkeeper, 72, nicked after `stabbing to death robber.’” Mr. Coley’s Manchester flower shop was closed and he was playing dominoes with a friend when two masked men armed with guns broke in. In the struggle that followed, Mr. Coley’s friend was injured but Coley managed to stab one robber, who later died, while the other fled wounded. The Manchester police are holding Mr. Coley for attempted murder.
Since at least 1953 the English government has insisted that citizens depend on the police for protection and not try to protect themselves. The Prevention of Crime Act of 1953 prohibited anyone carrying an article in a public place with the idea it could be used for protection if they were attacked. If discovered they are charged with carrying an offensive weapon.
Since 1964 self-defense has not been considered a good reason to keep a handgun, even if for those who lived in a remote area. Then in 1998 all handguns were banned. Toy or replica guns are also illegal. A man was arrested for holding two burglars with a toy gun while he contacted the police.
More recently knives with points have been made illegal. A list of prohibited weapons, possession of which carries a 10-year prison sentence, includes not only machine guns but chemical sprays and knives with a blade more than three inches long. An American tourist from Arizona who protected herself from attackers in the subway using her penknife was arrested for carrying an offensive weapon.
The government does not permit even someone who is unarmed from acting forcefully when attacked if his or her assailant is harmed in the process. If a citizen is attacked in the street he is to flee. If a citizen is attacked in his home he is not to injure the attacker beyond what a court later considers a reasonable use of force. If a citizen harms his assailant he will be accused of assault, or, as the cases cited above illustrate, murder or attempted murder should the attacker be killed.
Burglars can sue for damages and the police are careful to ensure they don’t get hurt. This past February the gardeners of Surrey were told they could not use wire mesh on the windows of their sheds because burglers might get hurt breaking in.
Tony Martin, an English farmer jailed for killing one burglar and wounding another with his shotgun during the seventh break-in of his home was denied parole because he would pose a threat to burglars. The career burglar he wounded was granted parole and sued Martin for his injuries. Worse, the burglar was given public funds to pursue his lawsuit.
While law-abiding citizens have been treated strictly offenders have not. Since the 1950s it is only under extraordinary circumstances that anyone under 18 is put in jail. Instead offenders are given a warning, a fine or community service. Since young offenders know they will not be incarcerated there is little to deter them from committing ever more bold crimes. One of those brought to court during the recent riots was an 18-year old who had been hauled before the courts 21 previous times but never jailed.
Sentences for adult criminals have been shortened and they routinely serve only half of these. In lieu of policemen on the beat the English have opted for surveillance cameras. These are much cheaper but all a potential offender needs to do is to wear a hood or mask to greatly diminish their value. English police now dealing with the riots boast they have 20,000 hours of footage.
Even offenders who have been apprehended tend to be let off with a caution or electronic bracelet. This saves money on prison but means they are back on the streets in short order. In 2009 70 percent of burglars the police managed to apprehend avoided prison.
The extent of the tolerance of criminality and refusal to allow law-abiding people to protect themselves has led to an atmosphere where gangs can operate with virtual impunity. The recent, widespread riots, apart from their scale, are not radically different from the violence that has been occurring for many years.
Let us hope the English politicians so surprised and angry at the lawlessness in their cities realize it is time for change, time to permit people to protect themselves and to bring some rigour into the punishment of offenders.
European model a wretched failure
IS this the way, then, that Europe will look from now? Anarchy and chaos in Athens one week? Cars beyond number burned in Paris in another season? And now this terrible, senseless, causeless violence in London and many other British cities?
And everywhere across western Europe, governments bankrupt or nearly so, living beyond their means, unable or unwilling to tell their people the truth about their finances.
And beyond this the strange, undemocratic and illiberal mechanism, vast and inescapable, but also creaking and slipshod and unreliable, of the European super state, unable to help anything but always able to interfere, taking decisions without any irksome recourse to democracy or national sovereignty, adding a new layer of illegitimacy to societies robbed of trust. London burning like the Blitz, and all of it inflicted by the pride of British youth.
There is nothing good in this for anyone. Surely even the angels weep to see that green and pleasant land so reduced.
There is no occasion here for schadenfreude. Europe's tragedy is a setback for all mankind, and especially for that strange entity that we call the West.
To think coherently of the West, you must conceive of it being led by the US, embracing Canada, central and western Europe, Japan and Australia. These nations are all meaningfully democratic. They are all rich, or relatively so. They all run mixed, capitalist economies. And they are linked in a common security network, NATO, or the US alliances with Japan and Australia.
They provide the lion's share of international aid and, though hopelessly outnumbered at the UN, they still provide most of what pass for international norms.
But this is a very poor season in the West. At no time since its core societies were stabilised after World War II has Europe looked so ratty, so impotent, so much at the end of its tether. It still lectures the world on everything from the correct label for cheese to the urgent need to impose more taxes, carbon or otherwise. But it can no longer run its own still fabulously rich societies with even a modicum of efficiency or legitimacy.
The European model right now is a wretched failure.
There is hardly an economist in the world who does not believe European nations that are members of the eurozone would not be much better able to deal with their economic crises if they had their own currencies and their own central banks. But no one in power in Europe can face up to this.
Proponents of the European model can still be heard justifying this mad, anti-democratic centralisation of power on the basis that it helps European nations avoid wars with each other.
This argument, which no one seriously believes, perversely relies on the notion that Europeans are somehow inferior to all the other nations, which avoid war without surrendering their sovereignty to supranational bodies such as the EU.
Of course, Britain is not a part of the eurozone. It still has its own currency. But socially it is part of Europe and in many ways it lives out the European model very faithfully.
You can describe the British version of the model in flattering or unflattering ways, depending how much credence you give its lofty ambitions as opposed to how unlikely you think the model is to fulfil those ambitions.
But the European model, and the British version of it, certainly include a lavish welfare state, multiculturalism, a high level of economic regulation, the eclipse of any special place for religion (especially Christianity), and political correctness.
The last is a shorthand term for a general sense of shame and guilt about the true inheritance of Western civilisation, of shame and guilt for British history, and of a postmodern desire to forever subvert the allegedly dominant narrative of the generation before the baby boomers.
There is no simple explanation of these riots and other nations, the US among them, have their riots too. But the destructive elements of the European model are interlocking and contribute mightily to the British problem.
A big welfare state combined with a regulated economy and labour market, exactly the combination that prevails in much of Europe, discourages marginal employment.
It may seem compassionate to give people money, but passive welfare over the long term is a disaster for the recipient's self-respect, motivation, general morale and ultimately their sanity.
A big welfare system also attracts the wrong kind of immigrants for the wrong kind of reasons. Instead of being attracted by the opportunity to work, some immigrants are attracted by the opportunity not to work but still to receive money for this.
This is especially so if the only part of its tradition a society has retained is its class distinctions, or some echo of them.
Western Europe is also perhaps the least religious society on earth. Christianity, in Britain as in much of Europe, is forever "subverted", which in truth means it is defamed, reviled and mocked.
This is another dimension in which Europe flatters itself as being ahead of the rest of the world, whereas in truth it is merely out of kilter with the rest of the world, with its own history and with the vast preponderance of human reflection.
Schools, universities, local councils and an endless array of quasi-government bodies preach a bowdlerised, ersatz morality, policing language for sexist anachronisms, censoring Enid Blyton, preaching a detached, sterile ideal of tolerance. But amid normal people these blandishments have no authority.
The secular mind may rejoice at the post-religious moment of Europe, and especially of Britain. But an unemployed youth, with no tradition and no real education, with enough money more or less but not many prospects, with no source of moral authority and no help in understanding any basis for right and wrong, nothing to control an impulse, and knowing nothing of British history except that it was shameful and sexist and racist -- how exactly does this youth become integrated and whole, and indeed happy?
Why exactly is it that he doesn't help himself to a night's entertainment attacking ambulance officers and stealing TVs?
The British malaise, the European sickness, have no single, simple cause and no obvious answer. But whatever it is that the gnomes of Brussels have been selling these past few decades, it doesn't work and it has toxic side effects, as Europe shows.
Judging, toleration, and libertarianism
It’s interesting discussing toleration. The ideas that people have about it are many and varied. One that comes up especially often, couched in a variety of terms, goes something like this: “toleration is a sort of wishy-washy multi-culturalist policy, but its basically a good thing because people should not judge others.”
There are 2 problems with this (at least).
1. Conceptually, we do not tolerate what we like or approve of. I don’t tolerate James Blunt’s music. I like it–alot. If I hear Britney Spears’ music or Rap music, by contrast, I can (with some effort) tolerate it. Given this, toleration is only possible where we at least have negative responses of some sort and there is no reason to doubt that in some cases, those responses will be fully formed judgements. I assume multiculturalists do not have such responses to the multiple cultures they seek to include in their dialogue.
2. The very idea that we should not judge others is itself odd.
Persons are rationally autonomous beings. As rational beings, we tend to evaluate things as we are exposed to them–at least the things that stand out to us (for whatever reason). That is what rational beings do. Rational beings do not, for example, merely sense the fallen tree in the road they are traveling on. They sense the tree and then evaluate the situation to determine what to do next. If they sense someone with a chain saw standing next to the tree stump, they are naturally prone to evaluating that situation–perhaps judging that this person must have either stupidly or maliciously caused the tree to fall onto the road. Persons, in fact, can’t fail to judge. Moreover, we want people to judge. I don’t want to read philosophy journals full of nonsense; I rely on the editors to judge the submissions they receive so as to only publish quality work. I most definitely want someone (not necessarily the state) to judge the ability of people claiming to be medical professionals. And legal professionals. And chefs. And … the list goes on. We don’t read things like Consumer Reports, Zagat’s or Angie’s List without reason. We want someone to have done the work of judging.
Conclusion: Toleration is not a multi-culturalist agenda from the left. To know if we can or should tolerate different cultures requires judging those cultures. Sometimes we will dislike or disapprove of those cultures and decide we must tolerate them. Similarly, we will sometimes dislike or disapprove of what other individuals say or do. In both cases, this involves judging them. In many cases (more cases then not, in my experience), we will have to tolerate them if we are genuinely committed to any reasonable version of libertarianism. We can, should, and will, judge. We may or may not say anything based on the judgment. Sometimes–perhaps often–it is wise, polite, or even morally correct, not to. But that is a different issue. And, of course, there will be times (hopefully many) when we like or approve of the person or culture we judge. In those cases, we don’t interfere with them, but we should not confuse the issue by saying we tolerate them.
(I also think we should be clear with ourselves when we judge others–individuals or cultures–about whether we are judging them on some idiosyncratic basis or against objective moral standards. I leave that for discussion on other occasions.)
Attacking press freedom in the name of privacy
"Having made private conduct central to politics, it’s a bit rich for MPs now to slate the press for being obsessed with private peccadilloes."
At the Edinburgh international Book Festival over the weekend, Sarah Brown, author of the Downing Street misery memoirs Behind the Black Door, had a veritable treat in store for her audience. A surprise guest. One can only imagine the anticipation before he made his appearance. And one can only imagine the deflation when he actually appeared, ex-prime minister Gordon Brown, the man with a rain cloud for a hat and a demeanour to darken even the most desolate of wakes.
But Brown is energised these days. He’s got a cause, a target. And he can see that finally, in light of the interminable phone-hacking furore, this target – the press – is on the defensive. Sunday was no different, as once again Brown rounded on journalists and their surfeit of freedom.
So when questioned by an audience member about the phone-hacking scandal, Brown renewed the attack he had made a few weeks ago in parliament. Then, his anger was matched by his rhetoric as he launched himself, figurative fists flying rather than clunking, into the ‘criminal media nexus’ of News International. He talked of the ‘wholly innocent’ men, women and children who had been treated as ‘public property’, and he described how ‘their private and inner most feelings and their private tears [were] bought and sold by News International for commercial gain’.
In Edinburgh on Sunday there was less rage in his attack, no doubt because he was attacking the press more broadly rather than just Rupert Murdoch’s outfit, but his target remained the same: the press’s relentless pursuit of people’s private lives, their willingness to rip an individual to shreds in the interest of a story. ‘In Britain’, Brown said, ‘what the press do if they want to really get at someone is try to challenge their motives and integrity, and try to suggest that they are not the person that they say they are… the way the press acts is that they try to doubt people’s motives and try to suggest we have a malign purpose, and they try to destroy people’s character.’ Brown proceeded to talk of the time when the Sun took photos of him praying at the 2007 Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall and claimed that he had fallen asleep during the sermon.
Specific anecdotes aside, Brown’s criticism is far from unfamiliar. In fact it echoes that of his New Labour frenemy Tony Blair, who in 2007, as outgoing prime minister, decided to criticise the ‘feral beast’ that the press had become, ‘just tearing people and reputations to bits’. In this reading, the press, especially its redtop contingency, is held responsible for nothing less than the degeneration of public life. In the words of a columnist at the respectable Guardian newspaper, the scandal-seeking, profit-driven tabloids have made ‘this a shallower, more selfish country’. Peter Wilby at the same paper prefers to talk of how the Sun et al have ‘coarsened British culture’.
If this narrative is to be believed, the press has not just coarsened and phwoarified British culture, reducing so-called watercooler discussion to celebrity and political sex scandals, but it has also degraded and trivialised our political and civic life. As Blair argued four years ago, the obsession with digging dirt, with seeing the venal motive in every public act, ‘saps the country’s confidence and self-belief’: ‘It undermines [society’s] assessment of itself, its institutions and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future.’ Where there was once trust, now just a corrosive cynicism prevails – and it is all down to the press.
This is not an accusation levelled solely against the redtops. The broadsheets’ increased interest in personality, character and scandal is equally as marked, something writ large in the diminution and sometimes absence of parliamentary reporting from their pages. Given that for most of the twentieth century, between 400 and 700 lines a day were dedicated just to reporting on parliamentary debates, the loss of interest (and lines) is notable (1). In a piece written in 2008 for the British Journalism Review, ex-BBC political editor John Cole wrote: ‘If you seek the reason parliament now stands so low in public esteem, do not look only at the quality of the speeches, which is doubtless as uneven as ever it was, but at the paucity of the coverage.’
The striking aspect of such criticism is that at some level it resonates. The horizons of public life do seem limited. And what has often passed for politics over the past couple of decades does seem increasingly, achingly trivial. Whether it’s current PM David Cameron snapped drinking champagne at, er, a Spectator champagne reception or, way back in 2002, his predecessor Tony Blair supposedly trying to get a prominent position at the Queen Mother’s funeral, the press seem obsessed with appearances, or rather with politicians failing to keep theirs up. Politics seems to have been sacrificed for a forensic examination of personality.
And yet there’s something that really sticks in the craw seeing the political class – helped by a commentariat which thinks itself above tawdry story-grubbing – come together to condemn the press for diminishing public life, slamming it for reducing public virtue to little more than a parade of private vice. And that is because politicians are not the victims of a personality-obsessed press that has grown craven in search of dwindling profits. Rather, those politicians played a key role in making a public and political virtue of private conduct.
In fact, New Labour’s success was as a party more or less born from this elevation of private and personal conduct into the lingua franca of political life. At the time of New Labour’s rise, during the mid-1990s, its promotion of its members’ general decency was no doubt viewed as a pragmatic step. New Labour was seen as simply capitalising on the rot at the heart of the then Conservative government, whose private failings were manifest in the libel and perjury trials of Tory minister Jonathan Aitken and the ‘cash for questions’ imbroglio of his colleague Neil Hamilton between 1994 and 1996. But New Labour did not just take advantage of its parliamentary rivals’ misfortunes. It made being ‘clean’, being of unblemished character, being privately virtuous, into its political cause.
Such was the political importance now being ascribed to the character of politicians that New Labour’s key 1997 manifesto pledge was to ‘clean up politics’ and ‘reform party funding to end sleaze’. In place of the ‘the totalising ideologies’ of yore, as Tony Blair described left and right in 1996, stood politicians themselves (2). Shorn of grand, overarching political vision, what was important was personal conduct, being seen to be morally upstanding.
The problem with this elevation of private conduct into a public virtue is that it made private misconduct supremely newsworthy. If your electoral ticket is based on appearing as white as Martin Bell’s famously white suit, then any journalist worth his salt will try to seek out the stains. The exposure of hypocrisy becomes the objective. New Labour discovered this in the subsequent 13 years of its rule. From the numerous party-funding scandals to ‘peerages for cash’ right up to the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, the cross-party obsession with appearing to be clean, with insisting upon being judged for what one is rather than what one stands for, drove the press to concentrate on what politicians are rather than what they stand for (if anything). And now, with the phone-hacking scandal tainting anyone it touches, even David Cameron, through his appointment of ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson, is having his private conduct scrutinised for, as Gordon Brown put it, ‘malign purpose’.
Yet rather than grasp the diminution and trivialisation of political life in terms of the diminution and trivialisation of politics, its political party-led reduction to character and private conduct, politicians, even fading ones like Brown, feel able to blame everything on the press. And worringly, given the current post-hackgate climate, few are taking Brown up on what looks and feels like an impending clampdown on press freedom.
It probably won’t seem like an assault on press freedom, of course. The talk will be of ‘raising journalistic standards’, of encouraging journalists to concentrate on the ‘public interest’, of becoming less ‘feral’. But take away the soft-soaping rhetoric and the curtailment of press freedom becomes clear: it is a demand that the press be respectable and pursue respectable stories. While stories about MPs’ expenses and ministers’ peccadilloes might not be edifying, better an unedifying but free press than a controlled one full of prescribed stories about how brilliant a carbon floor price is.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
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