Monday, June 17, 2013

The Stephen Fry Thing

If you want me to tell you, with utter contempt, to fuck off then don't throw any complicated insult at me. Just wait until my depression is biting and patronisingly suggest I just "pull myself together".

Putting aside any ancient debate about the mind-body duality, I sense that the seat my my Self, the essence of who I am lies in my brain. It resides in the physical structures, the incalculable connections of matter and electricity, bathed in a complexity of barely-grasped chemicals. And yet....out of this physical mess arises that most potent of things – "me", and all that the Self creates. The sublime to the profane, the highest creativity to the basest depravity. It is a miracle.

And we all have struggles within ourselves. In many ways, each of us lives in perpetual conflict. There are private wants and public demands, moral uncertainties and intellectual clashes. What we may glibly refer to as "the Self" may be more akin to a maelstrom than an oasis of serenity that moves through the world. This is what it means to be human.

Sometimes these conflicts can cause us pain, make us sad. We resolve the issue, bury it, or walk away from it. Such sadness is but an outgrowth of the individual struggling through a complicated and sometimes difficult world.

And this is a far cry from depression. This is not a "war of the Self", it is almost a war against the Self. For the essence of who we are, that delicate substrate of chemicals from which Self emerges becomes tainted, out of balance. This is depression, the illness.

And I sense its approach. I have always pictured it as some type of many tentacled Leviathan, a Beast that slumbers deep in my brain and I feel the foretelling when it awakes and opens its malevolent eye. It is an intangible cloud that appears on the horizon of my consciousness. And sometimes it bites. Hard. The Leviathan injects darkness across every fold of my cerebellum, bathing the whole of my vista with a sense of despair that makes my very bones ache, every cell in my body pleading for release from an unsourced pain.

This is depression. It is an illness.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

On Liberty

It has to be admitted, there are very few of us who get worked up over a little monument sticking out of a field on the banks of the river Thames. Very, very, few of us. That this spot marks the beginning of the rule of law and freedom from arbitrary State tyranny is not a matter that impinges on the consciousness of the masses. Indeed, the monument was erected by the American Bar Association – our indigenous monument being contained in jokes and riddles. "Where did King John sign the Magna Carta?"

I've often imagined the showdown between the King and the Barons in some sort of Pythonesque script. Burly bearded landowners surrounding a tyrant and being as pleasant and civil as only the very well-armed can be, gently telling him to wind his fecking neck in. It was arguably one of the most important moments in Western history. For whilst Hobbes, Locke, Mill described, defended and proposed, these semi-literates actually acted. And King John didn't sign it "at the bottom" – he affixed his seal. Just to satisfy pub-quiz addicts....

The relationship between Government and the individual is the most important in our lives. For whilst our parents, teachers, partners may send us to bed without supper – and variations on the theme – the Government insists it is the possessor of all legitimate power – and by that mean naked force and violence. Only the Government can drag you from your sofa and throw you into its deepest dungeons and claim authority to do so.

And it claims the authority from us, The People. The odd flaw in that carefully woven lie is that, once in power, the Government can do whatever the hell it likes. Literally. There is nothing – apart from their threadbare consciences – to stop MP's passing a law tomorrow to have 1 in 10 people shot on sight. No court can prevent it, no Constitution exists against which the acts of Government can be matched and found wanting. The Barons cornered a King claiming such powers and took them away. We have allowed a Parliament to resurrect the Divine Right of Kings and cloth it in procedure and baubles, blinding us to our own needs for liberty and our fear of tyranny.

Which is why the monument at Runnymeade was erected by American lawyers. Americans get it – that Governments may be necessary, but they are never to be trusted. The whole edifice of the American constitutional arrangements are designed to limit Government and to draw the line in the sand that separates my life from their interference.

The British have never appreciated this. Even in the face of the most outrageous insults by Government – including detention without trial, secret courts and complicity in torture – we Brits bumble along persuading ourselves of the essential benevolence and broad incompetence of Government.

This is exemplified around the PRISM revelations (though I never forgot ECHELON...), with the sanguine "well, if you've got noting to hide..." argument so glibly rolling from so many tongues. It infuriates me, because our individual liberties, our private lives, should not have to be justified. My life is mine to dispose of, not the Governments. It is for the State to have an overwhelming need on the part of society to justify any intrusion, not us being compelled to think of reasons why the State should not poke about in our closets. Such is the dangerous British state of mind, that we elevate the State above the individual without so much as asking to check its credentials.

I write this on my sofa, my homicidal cat farting next to me and the sun pouring through the window. I await the opening of the local coffee shop, and then I will later spend the day with @fmsalexandra/The Editor in a sunny enclave. To you, this is the mundane, it hardly raises anything so grand as concepts of "liberty" and your relationship with the State.

But I spent most of my life waking up to bars, steel doors and having the minutiae of my life ordered by servants of the State. Liberties were taken. Violence was inflicted. My mail was censored, my phonecalls listened to, every piece of paper in my cell searched and read. Pulling back my foreskin – under threat of force - for some bureaucrat to check for contraband is as close and personal a relationship as you can get with Government power.

Those years of having any liberty denied and controlled, what little being dangled by petty minds, has given me a deep appreciation of both liberty and the relationship between the individual and the State. Which is why I am angry. Angry that most of us reduce Magna Carta to a general knowledge question, and shrug away the erosion of our privacy and liberty with a shocking indifference.

When I lead the prisoners union, I recall John Hirst – the blogger "jailhouselawyer" – dusting off Magna Carta in the face of the Governments refusal to address the prisoners votes judgement from the courts. Such was his fury and frustration that he resurrected the clause regarding any breach of Magna Carta – the right to wage "lawful rebellion". On my and the unions behalf, John declared legitimate war on the Government. It gave me a few sleepless nights – shades of the gallows before me for treason – but now I cannot help but wonder....

The time to challenge the States erosion of the sphere of private life is always here. But in these uncertain times, perhaps the time to assert our right as individuals in the face of Government intrusion is – now.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Probation Thing

Somewhere in the answer from the Parole Board ordering my release there is a slightly woeful passage pointing out that my Probation Officer will have their work cut out. It seems that am "challenging". Not that this is related to risk, the Board pointed out, but still – hard work to deal with.

You won't be surprised when I revealed that I am no great friend of the Probation Service. Each week I have to take half a day to trek to my nearest office and spill my gits to my State appointed keepers. It is not a situation I enjoy. And the purpose of this? It is politics, PR. For there is not a shred of evidence that supervising Lifers in the community has reduced our reoffending rate one iota. Zilch.

So when I am asked to sign a petition opposing the Government's proposals to privatise the heart of the Probation service, I had a cynical chuckle. There was even a moment when I was in discussion with one of the private companies intending to bid for Probation contracts. Welcome to the Dark Side.....

But I am, I hope, more reflective than that. Just because the Probation Service is the political tool used to molify an aggressively anti-prisoner public doesn't necessarily mean that the Probation Service is utterly useless. Dealing with Lifers is a miniscule portion of its workload and it would be cowardly of me to condemn the whole edifice due to my views of their relationship with me and my peers.

The Government proposes to put up for auction the majority of probation work, that is with criminals who are not assessed as being "high risk". Amongst others, G4S is interested in these contracts.

My – improbable, maybe – objection to this is that the Probation Service has met every target set by Government to reduce reoffending. Indeed, it is a fact that the reoffending rate for those under supervision is the lowest level ever.

I hold no brief for Government and its bureaucracies. As a general proposition, I think Government can screw anything up. And yet the Probation Service is not merely performing well, it is possibly one of the best performing public services.

In planning to break up this service and sell it, the Government is acting out of pure ideology. There is no evidence whatever that the private sector can do as well, let alone better. Indeed, the discussions I was in with the private sector revealed that they hadn't any clue how to even begin to do the job of probation.

In their ideological frenzy, the Government has blown its cover. If it had the slightest interest in reducing reoffending and protecting the public, it would allow all qualified parties to bed for future contracts. But, and this is the tipping point for me, the Government is barring Probation Trusts from even bidding for the work. The only people with any expertise in this work are being specifically forbidden from being involved in it.

I love change, I revel in innovation. These are qualities that the private sector excel. But the are attitudes, not areas of specific expertise in themselves. Allowing the private sector to bring some of its methodologies and attitudes into the efforts to reduce reoffending may well be a good idea. Yet the way the Government is about to destroy the body into which the private sector can inject its expertise.

Reducing crime is an interesting and often hypnotic political mantra. After all, who could disagree with that aim? And yet there is the temptation for policy makers to forget that every point on their charts, every number on their tables of data actually represents genuine and individual suffering. Crime is not an aggregate for politicians to toy with and manipulate, it is the collective pain of individual victims.

And the danger is, thanks to Chris Grayling, that when the laments of these victims to cut crime are wailed into the air in the hope of some genuine understanding and purposeful response, the people who respond will not be the successful dedicated specialists who have been labouring at this effort for a lifetime. Instead, the door will be opened by an underpaid, undertrained private sector worker who will be as concerned with cutting costs as cutting crime.

Writing this has been the product of a personal struggle. I hope that my lifetimes experience as a vocal critic of the Probation Service can only add some depth of meaning where my fumbling wordplay has failed. Save the Probation Service – and keep cutting crime.

Child Abuse.

"David Cameron's statement said he was "sickened by the proliferation of child pornography." DISGUSTING".

Are you just a regular bod, bumbling along through life? I am, pretty much. And, like me, that statement may cause your brain to judder for a microsecond as you try to unravel its implications. Is someone really complaining that our Glorious Leader is disgusted by kiddie porn? Is this a quote from someone who feels their ability to watch child abuse is being outrageously circumscribed by the State?

I'm not identifying the source, except to say its someone whose official career was dedicated to fighting child abuse. The quote is merely illustrative and a jumping off point for my annoyance and bafflement. He is not – despite the initial impression – annoyed that the PM is speaking out against child abuse.

Unless you are au fait with the politics and terminology of child sexual abuse – "CSA" to those in the know – then like me you wouldn't appreciate the source of this outrage. It turns out that the words "child porn" are a source of angst, objects of pain and because of that subject to a campaign which renders them verbotten from the language. Don't worry, you can still use the words "child" and "porn", but just not together.

Perhaps, like me, you scratched your head and wondered- pour qua?! Because whenever I hear the words "child porn" I know precisely what it refers to. It means pictures of children in a sexual context. And, being children, by both moral and legal definition this is firmly in the category of "abuse". "Child porn" means pictures of children being abused. Is anyone not following me? Do any of you think otherwise when you see those words?

Those campaigning against the term "child porn" are insisting that what we all understand by it is that it is consensual, because of the word "porn". I never have. Have you? What I understand by "porn" is sexual material intended to titilate. It is not a comment on its legality or moral status, anymore than adding the word "porn" to "rape" or "animal" makes it all kosher. No one has sat at their keyboard and thought, "hmmm, because its porn it must be okay"...and then searched for "child porn".

I dislike being told by a group of campaigners what I understand or mean by the words "child porn". I know it means abuse, you all know its abuse. But so wrapped up in their own view of the world have they become that when the PM uses it in the context of denouncing child abuse someone calls it DISGUSTING. Note the capitals. That's the extent of this misplaced attempt to warp our language.

And because these campaigners insist that what WE understand by "child porn" is that its consensual, as if we think abused kids are a succession of Jenna Jameson mini-me's, they take umbrage. Because they are rapidly persuading themselves that what we believe is that "child porn" is okay, they are feeling demeaned and insulted in having their suffering minimised.

I am not persuaded. Everyone knows that "child porn" equals pictures of child abuse. None of us ever thought otherwise. And I dislike any group telling us what we mean, wrongly, and then feeling insulted.

I think this is one of the most specious and manufactured campaigns ever, an outgrowth of some "survivor" ideology and in no way a reflection of reality. In case anyone is in any doubt about the abusive meaning of "child porn", the clue is in the name: "CHILD porn". We are not idiots. Feel free not to tell us what we mean when we know damn well.

And feel free to note the important stuff and not some bizarre lexicological debate. The Prime Mnister is decrying child abuse on the internet. That's quite important, it may lead to significant policy changes. But such is the circular, inward looking view of some people that he is abused because of their focus on the language Cameron used. Talk about wood and trees....

And in case you're wondering, the terms insisted upon instead of "child porn" are – images of child abuse, child abuse images, and variations on the theme. I offer them to you so you can avoid the seminological hole I found myself in – and just in case you were thinking that the words "child porn" meant it was all legal and consensual.

Just in case....

Friday, June 7, 2013

Rape, AIDS, and Cockwombling

No, I don't know what it means, but being labelled a "cockwomble" is the mildest of the insults heaped upon my head of late. It sounds quite friendly though, doesn't it? Never have I been so determined to ask people to think – and never have I seen such clear reasons why they need to.

Recently I have been out and about on Twitter and bumping into stranger than usual folk. Regular readers will appreciate that I do challenge the status quo around all things criminal justice and that do so for very good reasons. Chief amongst these is that when we call for the full weight of the State to be brought down on individuals, we should do so with great care and with an eye to that most nebulous (and fragile) of ideas, Justice.

And I write with some consideration to the fact that criminal justice is not an abstract, it is the aggregation of the pain of a vast number of individuals. Equally, I know that when some issues are discussed then people engage with their gut long before they engage their brain. Even so, I was taken aback by the response to my dabbling in sexual politics and the place of sexual offences in the panoply of wickedness.

It began when I saw a campaign headed "I believe her", propagating the view that all rape victims should be believed. I assumed even the dimmest or most ideological could glimpse the flaw in that idea – sometimes an accusation is false. To simply "believe" is to throw out the justice process, essentially renders the trial process pointless. Thought everyone would appreciate my concern.... Well. They didn't. People – mostly women – popped up from the wilder regions of the ideological landscape and accused me of being a rape-apologist and a danger to women.

It always fascinates me that when you question someones position, they often assume that you hold the opposite view to them. In questioning "I believe", therefore, in their minds I was coming from the perspective of a crazy rapist. Feeling massively insulted I did explain that surely a campaign to have all allegations properly investigated would be a far better – and just – proposition. Alas, to no avail. The abuse flowed freely – never from me – and being said to look as if I have AIDS was one of the milder comments.

As an experience, this was something I found shocking. And I've spent my life in a rather robust environment. It's not as if I'm a stranger to harsh words..... Although, in the prison environment, if you were to suggest someone was a nonce – wrong un – sex offender – then it was a declaration of war. You substantiate it, withdraw it instantly, or be prepared for a beating. It's a very, very serious thing to say. Not on the web, it seems, where being nonced-off is a mere flip across the keyboard.

Stupidly, instead of engaging and exploring the issues I was blasted by this wall of ideology. Some woman cheerfully told me that they hated all men, and that all men were either rapists or rape-condoners. Imagine a guy saying something like that? It was a mindset which I couldn't fathom and which wasn't interested in exploring my views.

Rape victims can get treated shockingly badly by the police and the whole criminal justice process. Some of this can and should be addressed, with better interviewing techniques and more professional investigations. Some suffering may be inevitable, no matter what our sympathy – in the trial process, for instance. If you are going to accuse a man of such a terrible crime as rape, you need to prove your case, and be challenged on your evidence.

For the women who attacked me, this was inflammatory stuff of the highest order. Due to trials, some men – "rapists" – "got away with it". That the alternative seems to be to just throw men into prison on a nod escaped them. By even attempting to explore these nuances and balances, I became a rape-apologist. Period. Either bought into their views lock, stock or I was on the side of the abuser. To them it's simple. That my actual interest is "justice" for all involved is a subtlety of thought and intent that no one wanted to hear. Ideology smothered thought – the most dangerous of situations.

No sooner had the bruises from that begin to fade, some damn teacher was reported as being cleared to teach again despite having being caught with indecent images of kids ("child porn" is now a forbidden phrase, seems it implies consent....). All hell broke loose. Most seemed to want him chucked in prison – he received a caution – and never allowed near kids. There were knees jerking all over the internet.

I asked two questions. What useful purpose would be served by throwing him in prison? And why assume he's an actual danger to kids? Because – hold onto your hats – sex offenders come in a multipilicity of shades. And evidence shows that many who use images of abused kids (which this wasn't) stay at that level, they never commit "contact offences". So – did this guy present a risk to his potential pupils? For attempting to open the door to this discussion, the ex MP Louise Mensch has called me an apologist and defender of paedophiles.

Child protection, rape, all crimes are horrible. Instinctive responses may not be the most fruitful ones. We need to talk about these things – for the sake of the very victims people claim to care about.