NEWFRED

 

Ride of my life   (31.7.10)

If you didn't catch it last night on BBC Four, I recommend watching the writer Rob Penn travel the world buying components for his dream machine (which ends up costing over £4,000). Ride of My Life: The Story of the Bicycle also gives a short history of the bike, which remains the most efficient mode of transport ever invented — possessing a fuel consumption equating to about 630MPG.

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North Korean team shamed   (31.7.10)

Remember what I was saying about the power of sport to "break down barriers"? Yeah, that.

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Woe is Woolas   (27.7.10)

A court hearing has been set for Phil Woolas, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth. On 13 September, in the Oldham Civic Centre, an election court will hear corruption allegations for the first time in 99 years. Woolas, who retained his seat by just 103 votes, stands accused of publishing false information about his Liberal Democrat opponent, Elwyn Watkins. Woolas's campaign literature posed the question "Why are the extremists urging a vote for Watkins?" and alleged that Watkins had received "illegal" foreign donations. If Watkins' challenge is successful, Woolas will be automatically stripped of his position as a Member of Parliament, and will be barred from office for three years.

While in government, Woolas was one of the more odious Labour ministers (and that's saying something). His political career will be marked by his contemptible handling of the settlement of Gurkhas while he was Immigration Minister in 2009. This culminated in a face-to-face confrontation with Joanna Lumley, and the government's comprehensive climbdown over the issue. Before that, Woolas grabbed headlines in 2008 by publicly attacking lawyers and charities working on behalf of asylum seekers, accusing them of "playing the system".

Woolas has a record of slandering and penalizing the most vulnerable people in British society. I'll be looking forward to his appearance before the election court in September; it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

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Rape and anonymity   (26.7.10)

The Ministry of Justice confirmed today that the law will not be amended to guarantee the anonymity of defendants in rape cases. This is contrary to the text of May's coalition agreement and contrary to both the established policy and 2010 election manifesto of the Liberal Democrats. This volte-face means the perpetuation of an unjust asymmetry between defendant and complainant in rape cases, and serves only to compound the other unjust asymmetry concerning rape in England and Wales, namely, its sexist legal definition:

A person (A) commits an offence if:

(a) he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,
(b) B does not consent to the penetration, and
(c) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

For the record, this is the current Criminal Prosecution Service guidance on prosecuting the offence:

Definition of rape section 1 Sexual Offences Act 1956 (Archbold 2004, 20-5)

The offence applies to the rape of a woman or the rape of another man.

The offence of rape was restated in Section 142 of the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994 to include anal sexual intercourse with another man without consent. Where anal intercourse takes place without consent, you should charge rape contrary to section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and not buggery contrary to section 12 of that Act.

Following R v R [1992] A.C. 599 and the removal of the word "unlawful" from the definition of rape it is clear that a husband may be prosecuted for raping his wife.

A boy under 14 is now capable in law of sexual intercourse - Sexual Offences Act 1993, sections 1 and 2 Archbold 2004, 20-23.

A woman may be convicted as an aider and abettor.

Rape is legally defined as a crime only a man can commit. This is out of step with contemporary understandings of the term, with the central importance of consent, and with the principle of sexual equality. But let's put those issues to one side for now, as they concern complex legal definitions, the technicalities by which such definitions can and cannot be amended in a case law system, and the most important question, "what's in a word?"

Instead, let's just consider the issue at hand. Since the current law concerning this offence is so imbalanced, we are bound to ask "what is the most just way for the law to be enforced?" As things currently stand, when a person makes an accusation of rape, their identity is protected from public view, but the identity of the defendant is not. This is, prima facie, in violation of two familiar moral principles about how crimes should be prosecuted.

First, equality before the law: everyone living under a particular legal system should be subject to its provisions, its enforcement, and its prosecution equally, i.e. with no regard for their race, sex, sexuality, status, etc. In a court of law, this is reflected in the convention that both defendant and claimant identify themselves to the court and have an equal opportunity to make and defend the case. The present situation contradicts this principle, because it allows a complainant's identity to be protected, in the full knowledge that the accusation alone will have an impact on the defendant's public profile that it will not have on their own.

Second, innocent until proven guilty. Granting anonymity to a complainant but not a defendant is a very strange implementation of this principle. It seems to prejudge a case simply based on the fact that an accusation has been made, but with no regard for the fact that there has been no conviction. Objectors will say that in other criminal prosecutions, defendants do not get anonymity simply because they are yet to be convicted. This is true: "equality before the law" does not imply "anonymity before the law," and similarly, "innocent until proven guilty" does not mean "anonymous until proven guilty". However, neither does this principle of "anonymity" generally apply to complainants; where the prosecution of rape currently differs from all other criminal prosecutions is that the complainant does receive such legally mandated protection.

There is, of course, an area of complexity here that I have skated over. The person who makes an accusation of rape is not the claimant in any criminal action that follows. The case is brought not by the accuser, but by the Crown; so the status of the accuser becomes one of a witness. This goes some way to explaining the dilemma that the government is currently experiencing; after all, protecting the identity of witnesses in sensitive cases is a well-established practice, and one that is generally in the interests of justice.

But this technicality is not a good enough excuse for the current state of affairs. For a start, witness protection generally begins where there is a specific threat to a witness of physical intimidation or murder, for example in the prosecution of violent drug cartels. In the absence of these threats, it is in the interests of justice that witnesses be identified, because it makes the legal process more transparent and scrutiny of the case more reliable. Since these threats do not usually exist in the prosecution of rape cases, a better reason needs to be found for granting anonymity to the accuser.

I have not said anywhere in this post that I disagree ipso facto with anonymity for those who accuse men of rape. There are good arguments for it: encouraging victims who have been raped to report the crime to the police being the strongest. Yet the current law and its implementation is unfair. It establishes a double standard of treatment between defendants and complainants which only compounds the general unfairness of rape law itself. If it is considered justified for the identity of accusers to be protected under these circumstances, the same protection must be given to defendants for the sake of the fairness of the legal process. The current convention exposes only one side of a case to public scrutiny; this is achetypally unjust.

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Hurricane passes over   (24.7.10)

Snooker legend Alex Higgins has died. Rest in peace. You were, as Dave Hendon says, "a complete one off".

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No Tiffin for Griffin   (22.7.10)

BNP Leader Nick Griffin probably doesn't understand the irony of his own outrage today. He complains that he has been singled out and excluded from the hospitality being offered to others, simply on the basis that he is different and in the minority. One rule for me, he says, and another rule for everyone else. Hmmm. I wonder if any British Indians have ever felt that way about Griffin's politics? Or, for that matter, any gay people, women, disabled people, black people, Pakistani people, Chinese people... oh, you get the picture.

Doubly ironic is the fact that, on this occasion, Griffin is right. The palace should not have bowed to political pressure and revoked his invitation. He is, highly regrettably, an elected representative of this country, and we, the electorate, are responsible for having elected him. He is right that the same rules should be applied to him as to any other elected politician, and it is clear that on this occasion they have not been. What's more, it is important that we, the electorate, should have to bear all the uncomfortable repercussions of having elected this idiot, including the embarrassment of witnessing him wallowing in his anachronistic far-righteousness at a royal garden party.

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The right to give offence   (15.7.10)

Or rather, the liberty (or liberty-right) to give offence. The difference? A right expresses an absolute entitlement to something, for example, not-to-be-tortured; a liberty expresses the fact that I have no duty not to do something. And liberties can be viewed as rights because having-no-duty-not-to-do-something necessarily implies that others have no right-to-prevent-you-from-doing-that-something. (Though they may legitimately use their own liberty to try and stop you, they have no enforceable right to stop you doing that something per se. Their right, like yours, is simply to exercise their liberty.)

Now, there is a seemingly widespread fallacy in operation around supposedly liberal democracies that there is such a thing as "the right not to be offended". There is no such thing. The latest example of this fallacy in action is Scotland's new Sexual Offences Act. This Act contains a clause outlawing "indecent communication". Needless to say, for fear of immediate arrest, I will not be visiting Scotland until this clause is repealed. The rationale for the law is basically expressed by the conviction that there is "the right not to be offended", so let's put this to the test.

Suppose I set out to offend you by means of an "indecent communication", right here, right now. Here it is: "Alex Salmond has a face like a scrotum." You read it and take offence. Now, have I just violated your rights? Am I now a criminal because I did not seek your consent before unleashing my indecent communiqué? I hope that your moral intuitions match mine in this case. Because one thing I'm sure of is that most of the time I shouldn't set out to offend you in this way. It's not good to offend people willy-nilly, just for the fun of it. But another thing that I'm equally sure of is that I absolutely have the right, or rather the liberty (liberty-right), to offend you in exactly this way. And I'm also equally sure that you absolutely have the right, or rather the liberty (liberty-right), to give me a piece of your mind over my outrageous display of rudeness and bad taste. What you don't have the right to do, however, is to prevent my utterance, any more than a government has the right to criminalise my saying it.

The right (liberty-right) to give offence is one essential tool in a toolbox helpfully labelled "freedom of expression". Without such a right (liberty-right) to give offence, I could not have made my point in the previous paragraph. Of course, most of us hope that people will use the tools in their toolboxes appropriately. But the indisputable fact that people often use them inappropriately is no grounds for their summary confiscation from society.

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Leaving Toulouse   (11.7.10)

I'm sat in Toulouse Blagnac Airport, with a light suitcase and a heavy heart. It's been a great trip: an engaging conference (more about which another time), an eccentric auberge, a succession of genuinely interesting room-mates, fantastic weather, a catch-up in Bordeaux with an old friend, and this morning the joy of hearing some A-MAZING improvisations on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St Sernin Basilica. The latter was an unexpectedly emotional experience, perhaps because the music so effectively complemented both today's Gospel reading (the good Samaritan) and the sensitive and intelligent homily that followed it. The simple but profound themes of that passage of scripture are also those of Emmanuel Levinas's philosophy: the responsibility for others that must always divert my route; the dignity and contingency of our differences; and the irrecusable and universal moral demands that are made of us by the presence of suffering in the world.

Cavaillé-Coll Organ, St Sernin Basilica

Gare Bordeaux St Jean

La Terrasse Saint Pierre Restaurant in Bordeaux

Gare Bordeaux St Jean

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Eglise St Exupère de Toulouse   (11.7.10)

Eglise St Exupère de Toulouse

Eglise St Exupère de Toulouse

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סֶלָה   (9.7.10)

Sela

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Holocaust Memorial in Toulouse   (9.7.10)

Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial   Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial

This is a very effective and understated Holocaust memorial: its shape is a subtle star of David; it is not labelled or signposted; the raised text is very discreet; and the texts themselves are poignant representations of the questions asked by so many real human voices.

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Le Dialogue   (9.7.10)

Le Dialogue

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Wet Williams   (9.7.10)

Seven years on from the original Jeffrey John saga, and apparently Rowan Williams has learnt nothing. I'll quote Michael Hampson, as I have done before:

The real tragedy [...] is the complete failure of integrity on the part of the liberals. On the single-question test of orthodoxy — "What is your attitude towards homosexuality?" — their silence and ambivalence show more sympathy for the dangerous cult of contemporary fundamentalism than concern for the truth or for the good of the world and its people. The truth, and the dignity of homosexual people everywhere, have been sacrificed "for the sake of unity" to the cult of fundamentalism. The latest sacrifice at the time of writing is the Anglican Communion, now officially a worldwide anti-homosexual organisation. It has carried out the first two expulsions in its history — the United States and Canada — for refusing to discriminate sufficiently against homosexuals [...] This is not a price worth paying "for the sake of unity": it is a betrayal of the very heart of the gospel.

Here's a novel idea: why don't we just appoint (better, elect) church leaders based on how good they are at the job, not based on factors outside of their control? Sadly for the Christian faith, society is ahead of the church on this one. The church has lost its moral authority not primarily because of the closed-mindedness and malice of the conservative fringe, but because of the spinelessness of the liberal consensus. It's going to be an interesting week...

(I posted about this issue more thoroughly last year. Oh, and here, here, and here.)

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St Sernin Basilica in the morning sun   (9.7.10)

St Sernin Basilica in the morning sun

St Sernin Basilica in the morning sun

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Toulouse City Hall   (8.7.10)

Toulouse City Hall

Toulouse City Hall

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Quelle chaleur!   (8.7.10)

Whoa, it's hot today in Toulouse. I don't envy the guys in the Tour de France! It's 5.30pm and currently 37C outside according to Google. A combination of this heat, a darkened lecture theatre, uninspiring papers, and double-dosing on hay fever tablets resulted in my skipping half of today's conference. Not much to be done in this weather except to sit and drink water/beer. Speaking of which, I'm currently sipping from a can of "8.6 Original Bavaria" blond. Only thing is, its ABV is 7.9 and it's from Belgium. Whaaaaa?

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Grand Orgue, St Etienne, Toulouse   (7.7.10)

Grand Orgue, St Etienne, Toulouse

This is the perilously cantilevered Grand Orgue in le Cathédrale St Etienne de Toulouse. Note the cracks down the wall. I would not feel safe up there bashing the pedals! Still impressed with my little Kodak V550. In spite of being a compact and five years old, it still managed this picture inside a very dark building with the ISO ratcheted up. Your average compact would have gone all grainy and then crashed.

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L'Extrême-Gauche   (7.7.10)

L'Extrême-Gauche

Graffiti at Le Mirail Université

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The Wo/Man Who Mistook His Wall For Facebook Chat   (6.7.10)

The Wo/Man Who Mistook His Wall For Facebook Chat

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The Wankys   (6.7.10)

The Wankys

"Saint Ardenne Chaos Hardcore", too!

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C'est parce qu'une chose est juste qu'elle est loi   (6.7.10)

C'est parce qu'une chose est juste qu'elle est loi

By contrast, here is some sage graffiti. "Something is not just because it is the law; something is the law because it is just." I suggest a better formulation in English (and perhaps French, I don't know) would be: "Something is not just simply because it's the law; something should be the law because it is just." Better to make the normativity of the statement plain; after all, we are dealing with two kind of normativity here: what one is legally required to do, and what one is morally required to do in the interests of justice. Sound though this artist's formulation is, the statement still leaves open a third question: are there situations in which the pursuit of certain moral duties must subjunctively perpetrate injustice and break the law?

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Childhood   (5.7.10)

The BBC quotes Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology and Speaker Of Sense on all things related to childhood. The most recent occasion I heard him Speaking Sense was when that idiotic "report" about the sexualisation of children was released in February. He says:

Today, every childhood experience comes with a health warning. We need to get past this. Overcoming risk is an essential part of developing our personalities.

If he sells a T-shirt, I want to buy it. We can add to this, though: it is not only overcoming risk that is essential, but also facing risk, sometimes facing insurmountable odds, facing the risk of death, facing risks that there is little prospect of overcoming, facing death itself: these are all enduring characteristics of the spirit of humanity. How risible to witness children locked up in their own homes precisely in the name of "freedom", ie, in the name of "protection" or "care". How insulting to those who have actually suffered, who have truly faced the risk of death, who have challenged the longest odds in concentration camps and under tyrannical governments, to witness the very liberties they risked death for being sacrificed in the name of liberty itself; to witness those who question the very perniciousness of this trend being accused of somehow doing wrong by their children. Life is risk; to live a meaningful or worthwhile life is often to expose oneself to the risk of violence, to risk death in the name of right.

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La propreté c'est le viol   (5.7.10)

La proprete c'est le viol

"Property is rape." A classic piece of French student graffiti! Toulouse Le Mirail Université is full of these slogans. But this one struck me as particularly unintelligent. Because rape as an act is rather more similar to theft, ie, to a violation of property, than to property itself. An act of rape contravenes a person's property rights concerning their own body. So, the graffiti artist is perhaps trying to make the rather more nuanced point, "Property can be obtained by theft (ie, by rape)". And yet this nuance implies, correctly, that property can also be obtained by means other than theft, ie, by just means. S/he would therefore have to accept that it is not the concept of property that is at fault, but rather some specific mode of appropriation. It is therefore the unjust violation or denial of property to persons that s/he should protest, not property itself.

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Cycling in Toulouse   (5.7.10)

I arrived in France (for the first time in 18 years) with the prejudice that this would be a better place for cycling than the UK. So is it? Well, yes and no.

Why yes? Well, before I departed Manchester, I'd resigned myself to the sad prospect that I would have to go ten days without cycling. As it turns out, here in Toulouse there is a bike hire system called Vélo Toulouse that ensures you can cycle everywhere you want -- and not just in the city centre, but far out into the suburbs. (A colleague from Ireland told me today that they have the same system in Dublin.) It works like this. There are bike stations all over the place (pretty much on every other street). At each station, there are racks of bikes electronically locked. At each station there is also a machine which will sell you tickets to ride; they last either a day, a week, a month or a year. A week's subscription costs €5. Within that time, you can pick up and drop off bikes at any station. The first half hour of each ride is free; after that you get charged about €1 per hour of use. It's a cheap and simple public transport solution, and a great way to explore the city. It's also well used -- you see people on these bikes everywhere.

Why no? Well, the cycle network is pretty appalling. In some places it is better than your average British road, while in others it is noticeably worse. Just like in Britain, cycle "lanes" abandon you in the middle of complicated junctions. As for the advanced signals for bikes at traffic lights -- what a waste of time! They are barely visible, and generally change at the same time as the main signal anyway. And even when they do change in advance, the crossings are often still busy. (The Conservatives have talked about introducing them in the UK before now; I hope they don't! Spend the money on proper cycle routes or, failing that, make bigger advanced stop line boxes and paint them bright red.) The signing is certainly worse than the UK. This afternoon I had to reverse my poor bicycle down a motorway slip road, much to the consternation of French drivers. I rather enjoyed it. And speaking of drivers -- they really *are* worse. I thought Brits' all-too-regular indulgence in the mortally dangerous manoeuvre of overtaking bikes before nearside turns was bad, but the French seem to have turned this quintessentially bad piece of driving into a form of art. In a country that is allegedly so laid back, this is quite a paradox. Like François Mitterand at the wheel of a rally car. Thankfully, the Vélo Toulouse bikes go so slowly that evasive action is possible.

No doubt things would be easier on a proper bike and once I'd got used to driving on the right. But all the same, it wouldn't be any better than Britain.

Papeterie La Mucca   (5.7.10)

Papeterie La Mucca

Papeterie = stationer (il y en a beaucoup à Toulouse! Mais je n'ai rien acheté, parce que ma valise débord déjà!)

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Cafe Rouge, Toulouse   (3.7.10)

Cafe Rouge, Toulouse

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Paisley's Wager   (2.7.10)

Last mention of the Pope for a while, I promise. But you know things are bad when you find yourself agreeing with Ian Paisley. Of course, Mr Paisley has a record of calling most people he meets "anti-Christ"; but I suppose if you level that accusation often enough, you're bound to get lucky every once in a while. "Paisley's Wager", or something.

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Newfred is where Andrew Wilshere blogs about
politics, religion, human rights, music, and photography