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Thursday, 27 June 2013

Cultural Exception and Cultural Exclusion

The 18th century Scottish thinker, James Burnett - more often known as Lord Monboddo (1714 - 1799), held both intriguing and eccentric beliefs and is probably best remembered for the idea that orang-utans could speak but chose not to, for fear of being enslaved. That's quite an interesting idea about the power of words.

Until very recently  the French chose not to speak English, for fear of being enslaved.

I once took part in a residential international conference at the Centre Culturel at CĂ©risy la Salle which had a written policy that all proceedings should be conducted in French. One poorly briefed participant got up and indicated that he would give his talk in English, at which point the French simply walked out. I am sure it still happens.

The exception culturelle is still taken very seriously and the continued protection of the use of French very obvious. It is a double edged policy.

On the one hand, a country of fifty million people can perfectly well sustain a culture in which the language of daily life and culture is French and where foreign books are simply translated and foreign films dubbed  or sub-titled.  In addition, France sustains an Imperial relationship with many of its former colonies around the world and the language of that relationship is French - it was in that language that those colonies were enslaved. No alternatives were permitted (as they were in the Austro Hungarian empire, for instance, and to some degree in the British especially in India).

But protection of the language and culture has its downside even for the metropolitan country. In France, people until recently had to listen to crap pop music because there is a law which said they must. The law is still there but the Internet means it is now less effective - you don't have to listen to rubbish radio stations, you can download the music you want to hear.

And whilst films and novels were done over into French, it didn't happen for academic work - perhaps for the simple reason that there was far too much of it, and all in English. As a result, French universities became  backwaters, lagging behind in both science and humanities, and teaching Franco-centric or simply obsolete material.  French universities simply did not figure on international rankings and still do not.

Computing and the Internet has become a real challenge for the exception culturelle. The common language of the virtual world is English. There is really only one option: Get Over It. (And I say that as someone whose Mouse Mat - courtesy of The London Review of Books - tells me the Alt numbers I need to produce French accents. Eventually, of course, the accents will disappear as they already do in lots of Internet French).

There are, of course, worse examples than France. When right-wing Nationalists got an independent Ireland, they set about trying to make it Irish Gaelic speaking. Combine that policy with that of a Catholic Church which insisted on Latin, and you got a nasty little clerical-fascist "republic" into which it was a misfortune to be born. You were ruled by people who wanted to isolate you from the world - from modernism, democracy, secularism.

Unlike the imposition of Hebrew as the language of Israel, the imposition of Irish Gaelic never really worked - urban areas like Dublin weren't going to give up English so even if the buses were kitted out with signs which gave their routes in Gaelic, everyone with an ounce of sense was talking English - and reading English-language newspapers. And the universities remained English language institutions.

Irish Gaelic is fine as a hobby, and likewise Scottish Gaelic or Welsh, but as a language of a modern society - well, just forget it. You - and this includes the European Union - do people no favours if you encourage them to stick with a very minority language. For those who are native Welsh speakers, there is a very simple and sound educational policy which can be pursued: Welsh as the language of early years schooling and English as the language of  secondary schooling. This is a policy of general applicability. It is one which does not isolate people either from their language of origin or the language they need for adult life. It is very similar to what happens in Scandinavia.

Monday, 24 June 2013

What Is A Criminal Organisation?

In English, the phrase "criminal organisation" is ambiguous. It can mean, "an organisation of criminals" or it can mean "an organisation which is criminal".

The Courts - judges, juries - can cope quite easily with the idea of an organisation of criminals. It's a group of people who can and do commit criminal offences individually but who come together to commit crimes - usually more lucrative ones: He can drive the car, You watch out for the police, and I will grab the stuff ...
Take that to Court and it poses no problem - they are all party to the crime which they conspired to commit.

But an organisation which is criminal is a more difficult concept because it does not reduce to crimes committed by individuals. Nor does it necessarily involve conspiracies.

Let me give some examples of what I mean by an organisation which is criminal:

The United Kingdom's House of Lords.

At any one time, a significant number of its members are using their membership to do things which (by all ordinary standards) they should not do and which would ordinarily be regarded as crimes. They take money to further other people's interests, for example. They claim expenses which they have not incurred. These are not simply individual crimes committed by "bad apples". The House of Lords is so constituted and organised as to make these activities ones which can be pursued easily, lucratively and at low risk. In one important recent instance, Britain's Director of Public Prosecutions (Keir Starmer) announced that he could not authorise the prosecution of Baroness Uddin - who had been publicly exposed for what every right-thinking person would regard as expenses fraud - because she had not obviously breached any rule or standard set by the House of Lords itself.

That conclusion of Keir Starmer's allows you to jump two ways: either the House of Lords is just very lax about its self-regulation or it's very lax because that's the way it wants to be. If the latter is true, then I would call it a criminal organisation even if many of its members are honest, decent and so on. I think the latter is true - they have got the rules they collectively want to have - and I would therefore close down the House of Lords. End of criminal organisation.

In current parlance, people would  more likely describe the House of Lords as "not fit for purpose" - and all I am adding to that is the comment "and that's the way it wants itself".

London's Metropolitan Police

This is a more complicated case. Police forces are often criminal organisations, in some ways similar to Mafias. They become criminal as a result of pressures and opportunities:

London's Metropolitan Police is a highly politicised force, very close to central political power. If the politicians say Jump! the Met usually jumps. In the worst cases, politicians have been known to say, "Fit this man up with a crime!" - this is what happened during the Profumo scandal of 1963 when the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, told the Met. to come up with a crime which Dr Stephen Ward could be prosecuted for. This request seems to have caused the Met. no moral problems and Dr Ward was duly fitted up: see Richard Davenport-Hines' recent book An English Affair for details.

More generally, politicians are anxious to see the police catching those who commit currently talked about crimes - to show a good "clear up" rate for those crimes. This may be easier said than done - unless, for example, you persuade those who have committed other crimes to also own up to the crimes you particularly want "solved" . In return, the police may then say nicer things about you in Court and help you toward a lenient sentence. Failing that, you can always plant evidence. Many drugs convictions have been secured that way.

There are other pressures which push individual officers towards criminality: the desire for promotion, for example.

As for opportunities, the most talked-about one is the opportunity to sell on to the newspapers information you have gathered as part of a police enquiry. At times, this has been seen simply as a perk of the job.

If you took a long run view from the end of the second World war, then the Metropolitan Police would probably come out looking at the very least a bit dodgy if not simply criminal. It has not found ways to protect itself from involvement in crime. If you like, it's not robust enough even though the majority of its officers at any one time are probably honest workers.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland

Recently, the Republic of Ireland closed its Embassy to the Vatican. At the same time as Britain's political class was toadying - unforgiveably - to the late and unlamented Pope Benedict, the Republic of Ireland had finally had enough. The Vatican's Nuncio to Dublin gathered up his skirts and went home, and the Irish packed up and left Rome.

The criminality of the Catholic Church in Ireland has two facets.

At an individual level, the Church had been full of sex abusers and sadists - people (men and women) who condemned thousands of children to lives of fear, pain and self-loathing - often marking them for life or driving them to suicide. The testimonies which have now been assembled and published, thanks to the persistence of the Irish government, are harrowing.

At a collective level, the concern of the Church hierarchy with the Church's "reputation" meant that these crimes were condoned or covered up and that attempts to protest or complain were met with intimidation and punishment.  It is that which marks out  the Catholic Church as a criminal organisation - the drive for institutional self-preservation overriding all concerns of truth, morality, honesty or common decency.

The prevailing attitude and policy over decades was to cover-up and carry on as if nothing was rotten in the institution. Carry on, and with any luck the Pope would promote you.


The trouble with "criminal organisations" of the kind I have just described is that they are very difficult things for the law, the courts and juries to come to terms with since they ask us to attach blame not just to individuals but to organisations. And where blame attaches to an organisation, you can't send it to jail. There are really only two options: you penalise it financially (this is what has happened to the Catholic Church in America) or you close it down  - which is what should happen to the Catholic Church in Ireland. It should simply be made to start over again, from scratch. It is arguable that the same should happen to the Metropolitan Police, and unarguable that it is what should happen to the House of Lords. Since it serves no useful function, it could simply be shut down, its assets put to other uses, and its members sent to their homes. It would soon be forgotten.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

How Are Senior Public Appointments Made?

I cannot claim that this is more than speculation laced with some prejudice. I haven't been interviewed for a senior public appointment since the 1980s (when I was applying for professorships - the universities of Reading and Warwick and Leeds Polytechnic took a look at me). And I haven't interviewed others since the 1990s when I was on panels appointing university lecturers.

Anyway, here are my speculations, triggered by reading about the latest NHS scandal involving the Care Quality Commission:

1. People who apply for senior public appointments include a high proportion - let's say over half - who would not be fit for purpose if appointed; they would be no good at the job. But they want the money and the status or they just want to avoid being sacked from their current job. (Head-Hunting - Sponsored Mobility - is thus a good practice; it broadens the pool of candidates to include able people too modest to advance their own cause).

2. A high proportion of candidates - let's say over half - actually selected for interview would not be fit for purpose if appointed to the job. They would be no good at it, but they are good enough at filling up forms to get through to interview. They also have friends to write them nice references or enemies who want to get rid of them to do the same.

3. The interview process itself is not fit for purpose and is to a significant degree unable to identify and eliminate candidates who would turn out to be bad choices if appointed. This is in large measure due to the practice of what I will call Wooden Po-Faced Interviewing : for example, when each member of the interviewing panel is allowed One Question with no follow-up.

In addition, as part of something probably called an Equalities Policy, members of the panel  will have been told that most of the interesting questions you could ask a candidate may not be asked.

The opportunity for an interview to reveal that someone is decisive, imaginative, firm, or inspiring are deliberately reduced to zero. Likewise, the opportunity for an interview to reveal that someone is weak, muddled, paranoid, or a complete shit.

4. The weakness of the interview process is probably compounded where there are pressures to avoid appointing yet another white male, since the field of choice is then tacitly reduced - white males may be called to interview (that's the Equalities Policy at work) but it's as far as they get (that's the Equalities Policy at work). In the worst cases, there is only one candidate in the room.

5. As a result of all this, at the end of the day maybe half of all senior public appointments are filled by people who just aren't up to the job.

Human Resources has a lot to answer for. Of course you must nurture staff, help them develop, acquire new skills, gain wider experience, prepare them. But Nice Guy stuff is only half the job. The other half is making sure that those who end up in senior public posts can do the job and want to do it, that they are willing to act decisively (and will be supported when they do), that they can think beyond their pension entitlement, and that if they actually have some spark of life about them - well, that that will be at least tolerated by the organisation.

Postscript 20 June: 

I wrote and published the above before the names of those at the centre of the Care Quality Commission scandal were released. Now we have the names - Cynthia Bower, Jill Finney, Anna Jefferson [ I have added them to the labels for this Post] - and you can Google them. Start with Bower and you will very quickly discover that she already had a track record of incompetence before her appointment to lead the CQC and that this was a matter of published comment at the time, back in 2009 ... Next question, Who did the Interviews for this post and made the appointment decision?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Rational Dress

Click on Image to Magnify

Neither Prime Minister Cameron or President Obama is appropriately dressed for the activity in which they are temporarily engaged at the G8 summit. Either they will get paint on their ties or the swish of their ties will smudge the paintings - just look at the length of the President's neckpiece!

The expensively dressed children are not appropriately dressed either. They should be in smocks or aprons or simply old clothes. But nostalgia and fantasy dictate that in British schools children should look as if they just stepped out of the pages of a 1950s Janet and John story set in a fee-paying school. Our Education Minister, Michael Gove, owes his position to his blind commitment to that nostalgia and fantasy. 

School Uniforms are not designed to make children look the same. They are designed to make children look different. In the UK, every school has its own uniform and the visible cost of that uniform allows the viewer to rank the school's social intake or social aspirations. The other day, in a poorer part of south London,I passed a crocodile of very small children walking down the street  and all wearing straw boaters (that's a straw hat with a flat top and rigid sides in case you are not familiar with English social class markers). Straw boaters are expensive, make no mistake, but children aren't made to wear them because it helps them learn. They are made to wear them to show how their school imagines itself.

Some countries with egalitarian aspirations have resisted School Uniform but many have followed the British obsession, despite the strong  probability that the design of British school uniforms was originally entrusted to paedophiles. I doubt there are statistics, but British-style School Uniform must be one of the most profitable lines in global pornography. I don't know whether Mr Gove has ever reflected on that.

Rational Dress is not for the British. I remember my first encounter with Rational Dress was in Denmark. Back in the 1970s, I had arrived in Odense to give a couple of  lectures at the University but had developed tonsilitis. My hosts arranged a visit to a Doctor - a young man in casual trousers, V-necked jumper and OPEN NECK SHIRT WITHOUT A TIE who sat on the edge of his desk to look down my throat. I had never encountered a male doctor - probably any male professional - without a tie before and I still remember this encounter. I also remember that instead of sending me away with a prescription to take to a chemist he looked into one of his drawers and pulled out the medication he wanted to give me. Rationality indeed!

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Name's Hague. William Hague. I'm Looking for a War To Lose

The United Kingdom is again in search of a War it can lose. Things are winding down at the lost War in Afghanistan and William Hague, our Foreign Minister,  is tasked with finding a new venue where we can support our arms manufacturers. The criteria are simple:

- the venue must not belong to anyone who can pose an existential threat to the UK. We don't fight wars in countries which might seriously threaten us
- so it must be poor
- and a long way away
- and the inhabitants mustn't be white, since we are going to kill a lot of them and it reduces Public Disquiet if they aren't white

Natural Resources are possibly a bonus, since we can hint that there will be Economic Benefits to an attack. But from a strictly military (i.e, arms manufacturers' ) point of view, Economic Benefits are irrelevant. In any case, they can be a bit of a mixed blessing. We don't really do investment in infrastructure. We do current expenditure - and firing missiles and bullets is very current. Money in from the taxpayer, money out to the arms manufacturers. And the firms who do Logistics.

Logistics is almost as important as arms manufacturing. When you attack somewhere far away and poor like Afghanistan, there is an awful lot of shipping and trucking to be done. You can't do it all yourself but,fortunately, there are big private sector firms who do it for you. Some of them, helpfully, are American.

Libya was a bit of a disappointment and maybe Syria will provide more scope for Mr Hague's destructive ambitions.

The British Public is gullible but is beginning to realise that we no longer fight wars to win. We fight them to spend.

A radically anti-establishment political party in the UK would do well if it proposed the introduction of a War Tax system. Any time a UK government decided to go to war, it would have to fund the campaign from taxes specifically raised for the purpose. Whatever percentage is needed added to the rate of  VAT for the duration of hostilities (our hostility, you understand).

In this way, the UK might eventually come round to thinking that there are benefits to being a peace-loving nation.