Friday, 9 December 2016

Character building through the noble sport of hooliganism

Sport, as we have all known since Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, is a great builder of character: teamwork, loyalty, persistence in the face of adversity, leadership, strength, endurance - the list of positive character traits it encourages is endless.

By "sport", I don't mean watching sport. I mean participating. Throwing oneself into the action, shoulder to shoulder with one's teammates, winning or losing - taking the knocks - together.

Sports come with a social structure to them too. Not just socialising at the 19th hole or the cricket tea, valuable though these occasions are, but a whole social world. Clubs (is there a more British word than club?), youth programmes, A teams and B teams, managers, coaches, veterans, clubhouses, fixture lists, hon secs and so on. How many people spend valuable hours of their lives not just playing sport, but encouraging the next generation or simply doing the admin? All of that, too, builds character.

And don't forget that all of amateur sport is done because of, for want of a better word, love. When someone turns up on a Saturday morning to teach rugby to children, or spends her evenings arranging next season's match fixtures, or shouts themselves hoarse urging the team to one final effort - what's it all for? Glory, honour, self-respect, self-sacrifice, duty - in a word, love.

You knew all this already. But perhaps you didn't know that football hooliganism is a character building sport in its own right too. "That decade as a hooligan allowed me to grow into somebody that I wouldn't want to change for anything – it made me a better person," someone says here. It's possible, isn't it?

Monday, 5 December 2016

Who said this?

"... the geopolitical stance of the US towards Russia over the past 15 years has been atrocious. The idiocy with which Nato and the US have promised friendly regimes such as Georgia or Ukraine military support, has given Putin an excuse to tear up all agreements with the west. By adopting an aggressive and imperialistic attitude to Russia, Obama and Clinton have allowed Putin to justify his stranglehold over his own people. Whereas Trump, as a businessman, understands the importance of the deal. He has already said that he won't endorse wars that doesn't think he will win. That’s why he opposed the 2003 Iraq War — it wasn’t on humanitarian grounds. He doesn't want to have a constant love affair with Putin, he just wants to cut a deal with him."

Yanis Varoufakis, that's who. 

Putin is probably the biggest winner of recent developments in the world. Trump in charge in the US, Fillon or Le Pen (both amenable to Putin) in France, potential escalation in US-China tensions, Russia increasingly looking like part of the solution rather than part of the problem in the Middle East - all of these are pro-Putin developments. I bet he was shorting Italian bank shares too.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The "achievements" of Cuba

Are not entirely imaginary, but have been achieved at great cost. Think of the educational and health benefits as being like Eastern bloc countries and their Olympic medals: some were won fair and square, some were not, but you have to ask 'was it worth it?' about all of them. For example, on infant mortality:

"Cuba does have a very low infant mortality rate, but pregnant women are treated with very authoritarian tactics to maintain these favorable statistics,” said Tassie Katherine Hirschfeld, the chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma who spent nine months living in Cuba to study the nation’s health system. “They are pressured to undergo abortions that they may not want if prenatal screening detects fetal abnormalities. If pregnant women develop complications, they are placed in ‘Casas de Maternidad’ for monitoring, even if they would prefer to be at home. Individual doctors are pressured by their superiors to reach certain statistical targets. If there is a spike in infant mortality in a certain district, doctors may be fired. There is pressure to falsify statistics."

Read it all here.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Outside the bubbles - UPDATED

No doubt you are all busily peering outside your bubbles to see what is happening in other people's. I'm here to help you.

First, you've got to do this properly. Don't just go to the Guardian for a guide: "It looks like Jason Wilson assumes that all religious people are some form of conservative — and nobody in The Guardian's editorial chain of command knew enough about religion to counter him." Oh dear. The Guardian's guide to the Dark Side goes awry.

This article says it is about Steve Bannon, who is well outside your bubble, but it's not really so you can safely read it whatever bubble you are in. The article is about the contrast between Zionism and the diaspora Jewish identity, and is interesting. It would also be interesting to know more about other disapora groups: what do NRIs in Silicon Valley think of Hindutva? What about émigré Kurds or Iranians? The traditional British Costa del Sol-type diaspora has been caricatured as (ironically) not very internationalist. But everyone thought the majority of the modern British diaspora would be pro-EU. Anecdotally, that seems right, even in Hong Kong.

If you really want to know about Steve Bannon then read his actual words here, from a talk given at a conference focused on poverty hosted by the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican. What a weird bubble he must be in to be interested in that kind of thing.

Here's Slavoj Žižek, in an interesting bubble of his own. I'm not quite sure whether he would be happy with Europeans giving very large amounts of money to refugees so long as they stayed at home. I think he would have been happy with Saddam Hussein running the Congo. Possibly. Possibly that's a multi-bubble preference.

While you are surfing these new bubbles, please do keep an educated sense of proportion. "This mass forgetting leaves us with few analogies for any new event, save those provided by pop culture; when a populist demagogue is propelled into power, Americans can only debate whether they will be a.) Hitler, or b.) not Hitler, without asking whether they could be Peisistratus, or Sulla, or Justinian, or Komnenos, or Andrew Jackson." Or Berlusconi. Or Peron. Or Chavez.

UPDATE: but in fact, it looks pretty nice inside the Bubble (SNL sketch).

Wednesday, 23 November 2016


"On 14 June 2016, the resident judge at Exeter Crown Court stayed all further proceedings against M, at 97 years old the oldest defendant so far to have stood trial in a Crown Court in England and Wales.
Following pre-trial legal argument, the trial judge ruled that some allegations should be stayed, due to the loss of documents and the impossibility of now having a fair trial. The Crown challenged the decision, unsuccessfully, in interlocutory proceedings in the Court of Appeal ([2015] EWCA Crim 1928). ... M suffered from a catalogue of age-related ailments, and a range of special measures were introduced. Statements had to be read out to M as he was virtually blind. Audio amplification equipment was used as he was 90% deaf. M’s powers of processing information and recall were inhibited by Parkinson’s disease, requiring unnatural pauses in the evidence as each question and answer had to be repeated. M’s short-term memory was greatly diminished, and at the beginning and end of each court session the evidence had to be summarised to him by counsel. Court sitting was limited to 45-minute sessions, with a maximum of four sessions a day. Sitting days were often much shorter on the advice of ever present doctors and court appointed intermediaries.

Two trials progressed to jury verdicts. Both resulted in acquittals. Undeterred, the Crown sought a further trial, and was only prevented from doing so with the judge’s intervention in staying all further proceedings.

Read the whole thing here. Pretty shocking, right? In England, in 2016, hounding an old man like that?

Well, maybe. As you will have guessed, this is a case involving allegations of historic sexual abuse. I'm pretty sure that 97 year olds who were active but uncaught burglars in the 1950s are safe now.

It's an extreme case and I am doubtful that there was much public interest in this prosecution. I can think of better uses of taxpayers' money. But perhaps the law is in fact in the right place on this point. 

One of passages covered by an ellipsis above was this: "M was headmaster of a boarding school in the 1960s and 1970s. He had been tried four times for similar allegations in the 1970s. All previous proceedings resulted in acquittal or dismissal of charges. Complainant pressure led to a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) review in 2013. Witnesses were re-interviewed and enquiries made to identify further potential evidence. Fresh allegations emerged, including from two further complainants, now pensioners, who had provided character evidence for M in the 1970s proceedings. They now alleged abuse by M from their childhood in the 1950s." That puts a bit of a different spin on it, doesn't it?  Imagine you were a complainant in one of the 1970s cases who saw (presumably) your fellow pupils lie to support the defendant, a man who (so they all have now said, I assume) abused them. There's something to be said for vindication in a case like that, and better late than never.

Moreover, there's something to be said for the law saying that you can never rest easy if you commit crimes such as those. What would we think if someone could wait (say) 20 years and then turn around and say "aha! I got away with it!"? Is it wrong to say that if all the guilty child abusers lose some sleep worrying whether the past will catch up with them then a little bit of justice is done?

The article I've linked to above is a good and sensible one. It's a good example of how looking at the nuts and bolts of a legal process can be more interesting than the theory. The issue seems to be that the public interest does not put much weight on the condition of the defendant, and surely even (especially?) in a case such as this it should do. There is a good reason for that: everyone is entitled to a fair trial, and some people are so ill or disabled that they can't fairly defend themselves. And I do mean everyone. Let me repeat: M has been repeatedly acquitted of serious allegations; please consider that he is the real victim here, of malicious or of innocent errors that have led to him being unjustly hounded for serious accusations over the decades.

So read the article and form your own views, or at least your own doubts.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Zadie Smith's 7 year old did not know what a priest is

From an interview with Zadie Smith:

"Given that the world feels so fragmented, have you thought more recently about the famous Forster phrase, “only connect,” which is the epigraph to Howards End, and is, in part, a call for connection between people?

Yeah. It’s so easy just to fall through the gap because there’s the lack of collective experience. I was making my children watch There’s No Business Like Show Business because Nick was out of the house so I could get away with it. It’s a slightly terrible musical from the early ’50s. In the middle of it, one of the characters leaves the family act and becomes a priest. My daughter said, “What is a priest?” I thought, Jesus, when I was 7, is there any way I wouldn’t have known what a priest is? I don’t think so, just because you had a collective culture, the TV, but also our community, the church at the end of my road. You would’ve known.

It’s like wow, that’s a big gap, clearly that’s a quite serious thing not to know at 7 that there has been, in fact, our whole society is founded on a faith that she only has the vaguest idea of. She’d heard of Judaism just about, but that was it. That kind of thing is quite shocking to me. I don’t know. It’s atomized. I have no answer. It’s curious to me to watch it happening in my children. They’re kind of piecing together a world. They can’t even go through the record collection as we did and think, Oh there was the Beatles and there was the Stones and here’s Ella Fitzgerald. They only have this iTunes, which just seems to be a random collection of names and titles. There’s no pictures, no context, no historical moment. It’s so odd.

An arresting answer to a question almost as fawning as it was asinine.

In the era of Trump, elite bubbles, mutual incomprehension and so on, there's a lot of obvious points one can make about this story about an educated family that divides its time between New York and London not knowing what a priest is. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.