Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Knock down ginger

Actually, while we're thinking about that JME paper, the rather plaintive defense of its publication by the editors is something of a classic of its type. Bear in mind that we're talking about a paper that called for the legalisation of infanticide for social reasons.

What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.

What on earth did they think the online response would be to a paper that specifically denies that newborn babies are people and argues on that basis that it ought to be permissible to kill them? This is the internet for God's sake, you might just as well argue that little kittehs ought to be tied in sacks and put down the waste disposal.

What the response to this article reveals, through the microscope of the web, is the deep disorder of the modern world. Not that people would give arguments in favour of infanticide, but the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values.

I think that self-designated liberals should probably distance themselves from the idea that 'liberal values' include infanticide, however reasoned the arguments in its favour.

The perils of a logical conclusion

You see, this is what happens when you think something through to the end.

A leading British medical journal has published an article calling for the introduction of infanticide for social and medical reasons.

The paper itself is here, and it's worth a read, not least for the jaw-dropping starkness of its conclusions.

It might be maintained that ‘even allowing for the more optimistic assessments of the potential of Down's syndrome children, this potential cannot be said to be equal to that of a normal child’. But, in fact, people with Down's syndrome, as well as people affected by many other severe disabilities, are often reported to be happy.
Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion.

So, because raising a child with Down's syndrome casts a burden on the family and on society, it should simply be permissible to kill that child? Um, wow.

Except, of course, that this is already the case. What is the difference between a 9 month foetus and a 1 day old baby? Not a lot, and certainly nothing so morally absolute that the killing of one should be fine and dandy, and the killing of the other result in a life sentence. If you are in favour of late-term abortions for reasons of the disability of the child, it's quite hard to form a coherent moral objection to the post-birth killing of them.

They take it further too. After all, late-stage abortions are permissible if the birth would create a grave risk to the psychological health of the mother, even if there is nothing wrong with the baby itself. Why should this be different after the birth (and I say after the birth, the authors of this report refer to the first "few weeks after the birth")? Newborns aren't, in fact, people at all - they are "potential persons", because they are yet to "make aims and appreciate their own life". Leaving aside the fact that this description applied to me throughout my teenage years, the bleakness of this analysis is quite startling. If a newborn baby isn't a person, then it has no right to life, and killing it cannot be said to cause it harm.

If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all. So, if you ask one of us if we would have been harmed, had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is ‘no’, because they would have harmed someone who does not exist (the ‘us’ whom you are asking the question), which means no one. And if no one is harmed, then no harm occurred.

I'm not a great follower of ethics (I'm a Middlesex man myself), but there does seem to something of a gap in this reasoning. The problem, however, is that for most of the arguments you might wish to run counter to this the pass has already been sold. If you're in favour of the right to an abortion, then you don't believe that the foetus is a person. Most of the reasons for this apply equally as well to a newborn as to a foetus. Therefore, it should be no more or less permissible to kill a newborn baby than it is to kill an unborn baby. Or, as the paper puts it:

If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.

There'll be a bundle of outrage over this, I have no doubt (the editors have already reported death threats and online abuse, which, you know, duh) but I think on the whole I agree with Will Heaven over at the Telegraph: the argument "if abortion is morally permissible, then so is infanticide", is likely to play better with people who are pro-life than people who are pro-choice.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Rainbow warrior

I miss the Times. Actually, I don't any more, because I pay for it. But still, the paywall has (for all its good reasons) led to the virtual online silencing of what remains the best comment team in the press. And that means that the following line, from Hugo Rifkind, just doesn't get the appreciation it deserves:

Remember the inaugural mayoral election of 2000? Remember the sheer implausibility of an electoral battle between a man who looked and sounded exactly like Zippy from Rainbow (Ken Livingstone) and a man who looked and sounded exactly like George from Rainbow (Frank Dobson)?

I am never going to be able to look at Ken Livingstone in quite the same way.

Sean Penn is a twat

Well, he is isn't he? Not for his grand-standing leftist politics - he's an actor, and as we know it's the job of an actor to read the newspaper and the say what they read as if it's their own opinion. No, what really classifies him as a grade-A dickwad is stuff like this:

This is not a cause of leftist flamboyance nor significantly a centuries-old literary dispute. But rather a modern one, that is perhaps unveiled most legitimately through the raconteurism of Patagonian fishermen.

I've tried, but I just can't read that sentence without wanting to give the author a slap, and tell him that he's not as clever as he thinks he is. Incidentally, for those who want to know just what it is that those piscine fabulists are talking about, I'm afraid that's their final mention. As for this:

Let's recap: the UK was indeed engaged in diplomatic resolution discussions with Argentina until the Argentinian people were themselves betrayed by their own leadership's diversion, and the UK's unfaltering support of a dictator who had live rats inserted into female genitalia and electric probes placed on the testicles of men in Chile simply because they had elected for a life, identity, and leadership of their own choosing.

So... General Pinochet invaded the Falkland Islands? Or, did he force Argentina to invade the Falkland Islands? Or was it the UK's support for Pinochet that made Argentian invade the Falkland Islands? Or is it, in fact, that Pinochet has very little to do with this debate, and is being crow-barred into it because he's nasty? See for instance here:

The UK and General Augusto Pinochet (with ultimately timid support from the US) along with the diversionary invasion by the former Argentinian regime, did a fine job of leaving little room for that argument on today's world stage.

Along with? And what is this obsession with Pinochet? Chile's assistance to the UK was definitely welcome, but it was limited to support for reconnaissance aircraft. Penn is asserting moral equivalence (and that's if you're being generous) to the invading forces of a dictatorship and the military response of a democratic nation.

I think the main problem Matt Stone and Trey Parker had was that it's virtually impossible to satirise the self-satisfied idiocy of actors. After all, Penn's article is basically an extended version of this:

Last year I went to Iraq. Before Team America showed up, it was a happy place. They had flowery meadows and rainbow skies, and rivers made of chocolate, where the children danced and laughed and played with gumdrop smiles.

UPDATE: Alex Massie makes the same point with considerably more finesse here.

Abortion: were we all just not paying attention?

I've written before, ages ago, about the moral dilemma induced by the abortion debate. I've had two children since then, watched them wriggling on the ultrasounds and felt them kicking in my wife's tummy. Unsurprisingly, on a personal level, I'm veering ever more towards the Worstallite position that this is a baby, and that killing babies is wrong.

From a moral perspective then, the news that sex-selective abortions are happening in the UK is pretty unpleasant (especially as I have two daughters and, let's face it, it's usually the little girls who are getting killed here). But from a legal perspective? Theodore Dalrymple has an article in the Telegraph noting the obvious truth that whereas the wording of the Abortion Act 1967 seems restrictive (two doctors need to sign off; there needs to be risk to the health of the mother) the reality is that it has been interpreted so widely as to allow abortions below 24 weeks for any reason whatsoever.

If the consultants offering sexually selected abortions should be struck off the register, so should a probable majority of British practitioners. Their only extenuation is the fact that any termination of pregnancy is safer than a continuation of it: but this is surely sophistical, and not what the framers of the law intended.

This is probably true. My old law lecturer (for the namby-pamby CPE, rather than the full-blown Tabland experience) had this as one of his well-worn shop stories. He was sat next to Kenneth Robinson (Minister for Health in 1967, and the man who introduced the Abortion Act in the first place) at dinner shortly after the Act had been given assent. "So," he said, "abortion on demand eh? Quite a step."  "No, no, no," said Robinson, "you don't understand at all. There are all sorts of safeguards to prevent that. You need two doctors to sign off, and there must be a real health issue for it to be permissible - we don't want this to be some sort of post-facto contraception!" "Hmm," said John, "let's see how that turns out."

And he was right (with whatever degree of esprit d'escalier you care to attribute to him). The so-called safeguards are meaningless, if the point is accepted that any birth is riskier to the mother's health than termination. This is hardly a new point - the Act was passed more than 40 years ago, and the way it would be interpreted was clear very shortly afterwards. If people are genuinely shocked that women are getting abortions for sex-selection, then they really can't have been paying attention. If you don't need a reason to get an abortion, why should it matter what people's reasons are?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rick Santorum

I don't get American politics - that much is blindingly obvious. In my defence though - Rick Santorum? Really? As Peter Foster says, there's something a little disconcerting about someone who follows his beliefs through to their logical conclusions:

The latest Santorum pronouncement to send shivers along the pews is his remark this weekend that pre-natal testing (amniocentesis) is part of an Obama-backed plan to “cull the ranks of the disabled in our society” through the rising number of abortions that result from the tests.

It's actually rather hard to argue with this - the whole point of amniocentesis is to flag up any foetal abnormalities that might be there, with the obvious conclusion being that it might just be better to terminate. If you believe (as Catholics sort of have to) that the unborn are people too, then what is the moral difference between this, and a policy of eugenics? That's just the sort of question that I prefer not to think about too hard, for fear of disagreeing with my own conclusions.

The problem for the Republicans is that the role of standard-bearer for impractical ideological purity is supposed to be filled by Ron Paul; it is, in other words, supposed to be a sideshow and not the main event. As right-wing outriders go, Santorum has the hallmarks of a Goldwater, rather than a Reagan. And we know where that leads.

Monday, February 20, 2012


I don't have much to say about internecine wranglings in the Labour Party, other than to say I sincerely hope (for the good of the country) that whichever side Hopi Sen is on loses (I am always reaffirmed in my loathing for the Labour Party by the way they treat those - Sen, Tom Harris, Peter Watt etc - who appear sane and reasonable). But, in a report into Progress up on the Left Futures site, there is a line of simply glorious, Soviet 'he who controls the past, controls the future' revisionism that I thought it deserved repeating:

The only known member of the Advisory Board is former Minister and anti-Brownite plotter Alan Milburn.

I can think of a few defining characteristics of Alan Milburn but, given what happened during the election campaign of 2005, I'm not sure 'anti-Brownite plotter' would be one of them.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Fighting Fantasy - Greek Edition

This is quite simply superb.

There may be more irritating things in life than someone brandishing a ludicrously simplistic solution to a horrendously complicated problem, and then branding anyone who demurs as some sort of idiot, but it's hard to think of any off hand.

There are problems that do not have any pleasant solutions: Greece's economic position is one of them. A choice between internal devaluation to restore competetiveness and disorderly default and subsequent external devaluation is not one between two attractive alternatives.

Benefit cuts

One of the difficulties facing opponents of the Coalition's plans for cutting benefits is that I'm not sure most people quite realised what was on offer.

As an example, there was a bit of an outcry when Cameron proposed an end to lifetime tenure of council properties. But my reaction, and the reaction of a lot of people was "lifetime tenancies? What the hell?" Frank Dobson still lives in a council house - so does Lee Jasper. How the hell can it ever be right for someone on a six figure salary to live in a council house?

Similarly, the sob stories here, designed to demonstrate the intrinsic unfairness of capping housing benefit payments, make my eyes pop. This line, for example, is supposed to show just how mean the policy is:

The philosophy behind the new cap seems to be "if you can't afford to live here, don't expect to live here".

I used to live in Westminster. Then I had a second child and I couldn't afford to live in a property large enough for all of us. So I moved out, and now commute for over an hour to my job.

Until November, Amira, 39, was renting a flat near Edgware Road for £812 a week, with her four children. She is not currently working because her youngest child, aged one, is unwell and receiving treatment at Great Ormond Street hospital, and her rent was met in full by housing benefit payments. When her landlady realised that the family would no longer be able to afford the flat when the £340 weekly cap was introduced for three-bedroom properties, she decided not renew the tenancy.

£42k a year on rent? Entirely paid for by the taxpayer? Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fairy stories

I love reading to my children. It's one of the absolute, unqualified joys of parenting. Before my elder daughter had a choice in the matter, bedtime stories tended to derive from two sources: the Just So Stories and Winnie the Pooh. Sadly, now that she's nearly three, she has a vote and so stories nearly always have to have princesses in them.

Luckily, most traditional fairy stories do have princesses - or at least adequate princess substitutes - and so the book of Grimm has been added to the repertoire, together with Hans Christian Andersen. As a result, I have some sympathy with those parents who apparently refuse to read fairy stories to their children, on the grounds that they are too scary, and teach bad lessons. The first story I read my daughter was the Tinderbox, which starts with the cold-blooded murder of an old woman for requesting a bargain to be honoured, and ends with the whole-scale massacre of an entire court.

This should not, I feel, be treated as an unambiguously happy ending.

Nevertheless, there's a reason that these stories, and ones like them, have endured for so long - children still adore them. The language is super; the violence is sufficiently cartoonish and over-the-top that (I hope) it doesn't read across into every day life; and the length and complexity of the stories told are excellent for concentration spans and language development. The only downside is that when she was cross with me the other day, she said "No Daddy, be off with you!" like some Victorian grande dame.

No: I fundamentally disagree with sugar-coating fairy stories. They are both part of our heritage (even though, technically, they're mostly Scandinavian) and a whole sight more fun to read than bowdlerised, sanitised stories about nice people doing nice things. The only exception to this is the Little Mermaid. Our version of this one lacks the 'happy ending', and as a result is so unremittingly bleak and miserable that I can't read it. But then, that's for my own sake...

Monday, February 06, 2012

Below the Line

As the British Dude says, the key driver in falling employment in manufacturing is the rise in productivity created by the harnessing of new technology. Charlie Brooker gives a good example of this from a non-manufacturing context here. Charlie is working on a technique that's well known in reporting, but is relatively new in political comment: out-sourcing your work to random idiots on the internet.

Last time we saw this, he dedicated the bulk of his column to hilarious tweets his followers had come up with. This time, he's circumvented even this limited amount of research and just printed out part of a Daily Mail comment thread. With hilarious consequences.

Now, think about this from a resources perspective. Before the internet age, none of this article would have been possible. The original report on which the Mail's article was based would either never have been carried out (since it is itself little more than an advanced form of trolling) or would at least have remained in Brock University, Ontario, in the obscurity it so merits. Without the wearying, miserable phenomenon that is the anonymous comment thread under newspaper articles, there would have been no stupidity for Brooker to cut and paste.

In the time it would have taken to research and write a comment article himself, an aspiring comment journalist can whip up at least five lazy, choir-preaching pieces derived exclusively from sources no more than a quick google away. No wonder employment (and pay) is falling on Fleet Street.

More Falklands nonsense

There seems to be something about the Falkland Islands that continues to get under the left's collective collar. It's almost like an obsession with reversing the result of the '82 war. Two recent examples in (inevitably) the Guardian and the Independent. Peter Preston in the Guardian advocates Britain selling out the Islanders directly to Argentina on the basis that they are too expensive:

But what can we, the taxpayers of Britain, offer as option B? Do we want to keep paying and paying as the decades roll away? Paying to sustain a little colony that can't grow and prosper without fear. Shouldn't we be allowed to say what future we can afford to offer the Falklands beyond a status quo we can't sustain? Our choice for them.

He adds that there's no possibility of Britain holding on for 300 years to a geographically non-proximate colony next to a country that wants to annex it.

Philip Hensher is, to give him credit, marginally less pathetic - rather than simply surrender the Islands, he proposes to sell them to the Argentines:

We've got absolutely no money. I really doubt we have much stomach for another Falklands War, and then another. They are clearly passionately keen to acquire some territory with rich resources, high GDP and as much sentimental value as you can maintain for something 300 miles from your coastline. It might be worth a lot of money in the future, but actually we could quite do with some money now, this second. Perhaps we can suggest to President Kirchner that half a trillion pounds would be quite a reasonable sum for this archipelago of 778 mostly charming islands. They wouldn't have to pay all at once.

Well, we may be a touch financially embarrassed at the moment, but we're a heck of a lot richer than Argentina ($368bn as against $2.2trn annual GDP). Both arguments advocate giving up the sovereignty of the Falklands in part because of the inherent merit of the Argentina's claim to them, and in part in order to avoid the inevitable humiliation when Argentina invades and we are unable to recapture them. Both parts of this are flawed to the point of imbecility.

Legally, there is essentially no argument. Argentina's claim rests on a successor claim from the Spanish Imperial claim (making complaints of British colonialism slightly odd), and a decade of sporadic occupation in the 1820s. Britain's claim to sovereignty rests on a de jure occupation since 1690, de facto occupation since 1833, and the fact that the population of the Islands all but unanimously want to retain British sovereignty. It's that last point that is the clincher - and makes the 'realist' arguments run by Preston and Hensher (and previously Simon Jenkins) all but untenable. As I said last time this came round:

The inhabitants of the Falkland Islands are full British citizens. There can be no transfer of sovereignty unless they agree to it. And they don’t. It can be inconvenient, democracy, but we are stuck with it. The Guardian may deplore that fact, but that’s where we are.

Still true.

There's a further point to be made too - there's a lot of talk about how, should Argentina repeat it's 1982 invasion, Britain would now be unable to respond due to its lowered defence budget. Well, the UK spent $72bn on defence in 2011. Argentina are currently increasing their defence spending - by 2015 it's projected to reach $5.5bn. The Argentine Navy consists predominantly of relics from the 1980s, the Air Force of re-conditioned Skyhawks from the 1970s. HMS Dauntless, currently serving off the Falklands, is about the most advanced piece of military hardware Britain has ever deployed, not to mention the 4 RAF Typhoons and the Trafalgar class nuclear submarine also around and about. If anything, the military disparity is further in Britain's favour than it was in 1982.

Ultimately, Argentina's continued agitation about the Falklands is perpetuated for internal political reasons - that's why it peaks around election time. Britain should maintain its policy that questions of sovereignty are a matter for the Islanders themselves, and stay on the lookout for anything more serious than sabre-rattling.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Puppy love

Since having kids I have basically descended into the sort of mushy-headed sentimentality that would have got me drummed out of the Corps. Even making allowances for that, and given that it's a Friday afternoon, this is an article that you ought to read:

If a tutor or a therapist has worked with Iyal in the dining room a bit too long, Chancer moves between the visitor and the boy, clearly relaying: We’re done for today. From two floors away, he will alert, flicking his ears, tuning in. Sensing that Iyal is nearing a breaking point, he gallops up or down the stairs to find him, playfully head-butts and pushes him down to the floor, gets on top of him, stretches out and relaxes with a satisfied groan. Helplessly pinned under Chancer, Iyal resists, squawks and then relaxes, too. The big dog lies on top of the boy he loves, and seals him off from the dizzying and incomprehensible world for a while.

Go read the whole thing.

Primary woes

I stand rather in awe of my once and future co-contributor for his ability to be so positive about Mitt Romney's candidature n the Republican primaries. He's always seemed to me to be so much the safe choice that he may as well have faut de mieux tattooed on his forehead. He is, in short, a younger Bob Dole with two arms. But then, Dole really was the best choice in 1996 - it was either him or Pat Buchanan (or Steve Forbes, or... who again?). And, once you strip out Jon Huntsman (who I like, but was barely even a serious candidate this time round), Romney is unquestionably the best choice for 2012.

But is that really such a high benchmark? Look who he's up against. We can exclude dear old Ron Paul for reasons I covered four years ago (although I might upgrade the line about "the faint whiff of paranoid states-rights bigotry" to something a bit stronger), and the various loons and no-hopers have helpfully cleared off, leaving a field of Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Even of these, Santorum looks like a busted flush - he's lost the battle to be the social conservative representative. So it's really Mitt v Newt. Matt Taibi gives a handy shorthand comparitor here:

If Romney is a scripted automaton who could make it through a year's worth of marital coitus without one spontaneous utterance, Gingrich is his exact opposite – taken prisoner in war, Newt would be blabbing state secrets without torture within minutes, and minutes after that would be calling his guards idiots who lack his nuanced grasp of European history, and minutes after that would be lying to two of his captors about an affair he had with the third.

As Sherlock Holmes almost said, "when you eliminate the impossible, whoever is left, however uninspiring, must be the candidate". The Republicans had better hope that Barack Obama finds running on his record a lot harder than 'all that hopey-changey stuff'.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


I am pre-disposed to agree with Alex Massie on most things (except Graham Gooch. Headingley 1991 was one of my formative cricket memories...). And in any event, my visceral reaction to the decision to de-Sir Fred Goodwin was that this, basically, wasn't right. As Alex says:

Reversing a previous ministry's decision simply because not doing so proves awkward or even embarrassing is a pretty poor precendent.

The Forfeiture Committee decided that:

Both the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury Select Committee have investigated the reasons for this failure and its consequences. They are clear that the failure of RBS played an important role in the financial crisis of 2008-9 which, together with other macroeconomic factors, triggered the worst recession in the UK since the Second World War and imposed significant direct costs on British taxpayers and businesses. Fred Goodwin was the dominant decision maker at RBS at the time.

In reaching this decision, it was recognised that widespread concern about Fred Goodwin’s decisions meant that the retention of a Knighthood for “services to banking” could not be sustained.'

As Alex says, that's probably more of an argument for not giving knighthoods to bankers until they retire (or become chairmen). Rough justice then, and perilously close to mob justice. RBS was by no means the only recklessly managed bank, nor was Fred Goodwin the only executive at RBS.

But then I suppose that's rather the point. A Chief Executive, like a destroyer captain, is responsible whether or not he's to blame. Fred Goodwin was richly rewarded both financially and with what might be termed the trappings of office for his apparent success. His knighthood was awarded for his contribution to the banking sector; it's not obviously unfair that it should be taken away for precisely the same reason.