On a personal note…

October 28th, 2020
by Chris

I need to apologise to those who have subsribed to the blog. There hasn’t been much material of late, and I’m not all that confident that I can promise to do a lot better in future.

Partly, that’s due to the fact that I keep writing a few lines and then realising that it’s a topic I’ve already written about on the blog. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m just finding life (and particularly thinking) difficult in the face of various things over which I have no control. Yes, I try to use the Serenity Prayer (“God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”) as much as possible, but most days see me shedding a tear or two in the face of that inability, and finding the weight of these things making everything harder.

Covid is not the most prominent one of those, but it does present an underlying dis-ease, particularly in the face of a government which doesn’t seem to me to be dealing with the pandemic particularly competently. OK, I have well in mind that government has been presented with an extremely difficult set of problems; as I’ve written before, Covid presents something close to the most difficult set of parameters for a pandemic which I could have contemplated inflicting on my emergency planning colleagues back when I was active as a civil defence scientific advisor. The lag of three weeks or more before an infection results in a reliable indicator (i.e. death), the fact that many people are asymptomatic, the difficulty of testing reliably for something which is genetically a cousin of the common cold, the lack of a complete picture of the means of transmission (albeit, the last two are becoming clearer with time), all of those make the life of emergency planners more difficult. As if it wasn’t difficult enough balancing the preservation of life (and, increasingly it seems, long term health) against severe economic disruption…

No, the things which are really weighing on me remind me of my daughter’s favorite white-knuckle ride at Alton Towers back when she was small, and demanding that daddy take her (my wife and son get vertigo stepping off the kerb, so weren’t candidates!). It’s very simple – you get strapped into a carriage, several people abreast, in two rows (raked so you have a good view forward) and are steadily winched up to the top of a tower, at which point the carriage tilts forward so you have a really good view down quite a long way to a hole in the ground (where the message “don’t look down” is prominently painted) and pause – for a random number of seconds. Then they drop you. Of course, once through the hole in the ground, the carriage is guided by rails back to the horizontal fairly quickly, and the whole thing is actually very safe indeed.

Brexit strikes me in that way. We’ve been effectively stuck in the carriage looking down on the drop for four years now, since the referendum result in 2016. Up to the 2019 election, there was actually some slim hope that we could winch the carriage back down the way we’d come to at least some extent, but that hope was extinguished with an 80 seat majority out of a 1% increase in the Conservative vote (as the Brexit Party withdrew from all the seats winnable by the Conservatives and their vote collapsed) and Boris Johnson proceeded to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement to remove the possibility of a customs union – and refused to ask for any extension of the transition period. Short of a revolution, there is now no serious hope of anything much better than throwing away every trade agreement we have (a “no deal”); anything which remains possible will be minimal, and certainly not include a customs union. (To clarify, the lack of a customs union means that a massive volume of our imports and exports, which is to and from the EU, will be subject to customs; the backlog of lorries at both sides of the English Channel is estimated to be something around 100 miles worth, and the delays in excess of two days. This will make fresh food imports very difficult, at the least, and will no doubt deter many suppliers from trying to negotiate the barrier, even if duties on the goods and the paperwork to go with that didn’t do that.)

So, the country will drop from the metaphorical tower on 1st January 2021. The difference is, we don’t have any guide rails or tunnel, and it may effectively just be like a 100 metre drop onto solid concrete. The anticipation of this has already reduced the UK from #4 in global exports to #11 (behind Mexico). We will have food shortages. We already have medicine shortages (in anticipation, again) and that could well kill at least three friends.

We may even have a revolution, and I’m averse to revolutions, as they tend to kill a lot of people and rarely produce the result the instigators wanted. But as I sit here, I’m not sure that isn’t actually warranted by the severity of the shock the country faces.

And, if that wasn’t sufficient, there’s climate change. I will probably not live long enough to see the bottom of the drop from the tower on that one, as it will probably take 20-30 years, and I doubt I’ll live that long, given my underlying health conditions, even if Covid doesn’t do the job earlier. But, constructive noises in the UN notwithstanding, I just don’t see the international will to take the kind of steps necessary to avoid a catastrophic rise in temperature, sea level rises, widespread crop failures and, of course, the collapse of the world’s economic systems.

The international will is not there despite the fact that Covid has shown us that we actually can reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to avoid catastrophe – but at the cost of really major economic effects. Chiefly, it seems to me, it’s not there because the most prominent emitter of carbon in the world, the USA, is collectively a climate-change denier. Will that change in the event of a Biden victory? I don’t know. I don’t have much confidence in India or Brazil either. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had much confidence in China either, given that they were massively expanding coal-fired power production, but there have been some signs that they may be at least somewhat onside, and they do have the advantage of a totalitarian government which can act, and act fairly quickly.

But as things stand, I think my children are likely to be living in a “Mad Max” style post-apocalyptic landscape, assuming that they survive the transition, and that much of the major achievements of Western civilisation will have gone the way of Atlantis. And that would represent the failure of everything I’ve ever hoped for from civilisation and technology.

Up to 2013, I lived 17 years with major depressive illness (before some factor, whether it was different antidepressants, the confidence that my doctors were actually listening, working a 12 step programme or constant prayer, brought me out of that). In the latter years, the only emotion I could muster was “it’s all wrong” as anhedonia set in (OK, with occasional bursts of anger). Rationally, I see much the same picture now – what, I ask myself, is the point of anything?

Emotionally, however, I don’t seem to be quite in the same position, deo gratias. So there are some blog posts. But please excuse me, as producing anything is a mountain to climb…

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Divine self-investment

September 23rd, 2020
by Chris

Tripp Fuller, best known for the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, has written his first academic book in “Divine Self-Investment: An Open and Relational Constructive Christology”, which as a long time supporter of the podcast I just had to read.

Bob Cornwall and Jay McDaniel have already written excellent reviews of the book from their particular academic positions, so I see no need to repeat their thoughts, beyond agreeing that this is a book displaying deep scholarship. Tripp masterfully explores pairs of similar but subtly contrasting Christologies in successive chapters, weaving his way through the subtleties and coming up with an approach to a harmonisation in each case, with a final overall construction.

I wish I’d had it on my editing pile, as repeatedly Tripp comes up with some facet of Christology which I’d have liked to engage with in more depth, but he sensibly went with a publisher more known for academic titles than I work with. That’s where I’d like to direct my main response, though; I generally find myself editing books which are more in the “popular theology” bracket, similar to Tripp’s earlier book on Jesus in the “Homebrewed Guide” series (and I recommend that unhesitatingly as well). As Jay McDaniel remarks, this is not a “popular theology” book, it’s an academic one. Viewed from the point of view of an editor who is always looking to make books accessible to the maximum audience, this is not, to my mind, wholly beyond the lay reader; Tripp has, even when doing serious academic work, an engaging and easy style.

Admittedly, had I been editing it, I might have argued for maybe a dozen additional footnotes as concepts arose which I felt the reader in the pews might have some difficulty with (or difficulty in appreciating the subtlety of), but that is relatively few in a book of this depth. With that very slight warning, I can unhesitatingly recommend reading it if you have any interest in developing a robust open and relational Christology.

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My dad’s little victory

August 15th, 2020
by Chris

My father, Donald Eyre, would have turned 100 last week. Sadly, he missed out on that by a little under 19 years. He has, however, been very much in my thoughts as the VJ commemorations have taken place this week, because the East was where he spent most of his wartime service.

He joined the RAF while at Oxford University, and found himself in the control tower at Scampton airfield for a while; his eyesight precluded flying duties. As he put it to me, he then made the cardinal error when in the services, and volunteered without knowing exactly what he was volunteering for, and found himself packed off to the Oriental School in London to be taught Japanese. We were very short of Japanese speakers.

The course was intensive and, to my mind, brutal. List of 50 words; learn those and we’ll test you on them tomorrow. Next day, a list of another 50 words; learn them and we’ll test you on both lists tomorrow. That continued for some weeks, by the end of which the list of words had reached 10,000, at which point the students were told that that was greater than the vocabulary of most tabloid newspapers, and they were therefore qualified as interpreters. At that point, he was packed off to India, where the 14th Army was fighting to prevent the Japanese getting into India.

He then had a rather idyllic year, socialising with friends, making new friends (including a very close relationship with a young Indian girl who sadly died very young – and had she not done so, might have been my mother), hiking in the foothills near Simla and generally having a rather “cushy” billet – the reason was that at that point, almost no Japanese had been captured, so there was no call for interrogators or interpreters. He did, however, improve his time by learning Japanese characters to go with the spoken language, so got a small amount of work reading Japanese scripts.

Things warmed up for him in 1944 and definitely into 1945. He started to get a lot of work interrogating. While I failed miserably to get from him much of the content of those interrogations, one story he had struck me forcibly; he was tasked with interrogating a fairly high ranking officer, of samurai background – and the officer didn’t understand him. This puzzled him, as lower ranks had had no problem undertanding him. Then a ploy came to him, and he selected a lowest ranking private to come into the interrogation with him; he then asked the private to repeat to the officer what he was saying (which, of course, was in Japanese). The officer’s response was amazement, and he asked the private how it was that he was able to understand English.

The reason was that, from the officer’s point of view, it was inconceivable that an Englishman could speak Japanese, and so he was not going to understand (and he never actually did). The private, who didn’t have the intellect to think up something like that, just responded to someone speaking words he understood. Later on, dad would take the opportunity to say a few words to Japanese tourists when we came across them, often when on holiday ourselves, and I could see the moment of incomprehension on them as this obvious Englishman addessed them in their native language, but in every case they realised that yes, they did understand him – and frequently the famously impassive Japanese face became all smiles. By then, of course, there had been an allied occupation force in Japan for some years, and plenty of English and American people who had learned Japanese.

The one incident which he did tell me of which impressed me most was towards the end of the war. By that time, the 14th Army (which my dad had huge admiration for, in particular Orde’s Chindits) had made great progress through south east Asia, and my father was regularly being flown in to captured airfields to interrogate the senior officers. On one such occasion, the plane landed and dropped him off, and then took off again for another location – and, standing on the tarmac, he realised that there were no non-Japanese faces among the people who came to meet him. As it turned out, the ground forces hadn’t quite got that far, and the airfield was still uncaptured.

However, it also proved that the Japanese were so disspirited by then that the commandant surrendered the airfield to my dad. A few hours later, some ground troops turned up, and were ribbed unmercifully about how a single Flight Lieutenant had captured an entire airfield and didn’t really need a couple of platoons of infantry. Though he was extremely glad to see them!

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“You’re a brick, Peter”

August 9th, 2020
by Chris

I keep seeing debates about Matthew 16:18-19 in various locations, always on the basis that someone who is Catholic is trying to say that these verses prove beyond doubt the primacy of the Catholic Church. To remind you, those verses say “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Many years ago, I found to my delight that Jesus was making a pun when he said this. I got there via the French “Tu es Pierre, et sur ce pierre je batirai mon eglise”, and wondered about the original. In the Greek original, the words of verse 18 are “kago de soi lego hoiti sy ei petros kai epi taute te petra oikodomeso mou ten ekklesian”. Note “petros” and “petra” – these are both forms of the same word, and the different endings are purely because they are used as different parts of speech in Greek, whereas French and English don’t have case endings. I was more delighted to find that in Aramaic, which is no doubt the language Jesus was speaking in, both words are “cephas”, which was definitely a name by which Peter was known, so it was definitely a pun whether he was speaking Greek or Aramaic – or even Latin, because the pun works in Latin as well. I liked Jesus even more, knowing he was at least on one occasion a punster.

The thing is, Peter always seemed to me a most unlikely person to be given authority over all the other disciples (and that isn’t what the passage says in any event). He is portrayed in the gospels as being – well, slow on the uptake would be a polite way to put it. Granted, Paul describes him as one of the pillars of the early church, the others being James and John (and I note not only that there’s no indication that Peter was at the time even “primus inter pares”, but also that he was still being slow on the uptake with respect to food…

Casting around for some way of translating into English such that the pun was still there, however, I encountered something interesting. I considered “Rocky” initially. Jesus talks elsewhere of building a house on rock, a solid foundation, and that would be a natural link. However, he also talks of spreading seed on rocky ground, where it doesn’t germinate well – and that, to me, encapsulates much of the character of Peter as presented in the gospels. He’s very solid, but telling him things doesn’t always bear fruit. “You’re a rock” isn’t a commendation of your intellectual acuity, let’s face it.

I also considered a more common building material where I live, brick. Again, you can say that someone “is a brick” indicating that they’re solid and dependable – but you can also say that they’re “thick as a brick”, and that meaning might just creep into the first for those with keen ears.

I don’t know whether the same kind of dual meaning attached to such words in the koine Greek or Aramaic of the first century (and we have no native speakers to ask these days), but, to me, the passage says rather forcibly that Jesus is underlining that the dunce among his disciples is also foundational for them.

But what of verse 19? Catholics want to say that only Peter (and his successors) have the keys to the kingdom and the ability to bind or loose. But that’s not what the passage says; the fact that Peter has that power is by no means exclusive of the other disciples also having that power. One can, indeed, look back at Jesus’ words to his disciples earlier in his ministry and deduce that they all had that power and maybe had “had ears to hear” already, and it may be that Jesus was underlining the fact that yes, the most dense among them (rocky, brick-like) also had power.

Yes, even Peter. And even the Catholic Church. Not, however, to the exclusion of anyone else – after all, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all the disciples in Acts 2.

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How to stop being human

July 23rd, 2020
by Chris

Toby Buckle has done an episode on dehumanisation on his Political Philosophy podcast which I strongly recommend. OK, it’s rather over an hour, but I think well worth a listen. It takes him some time to get there, but in the last third of the podcast he raises an issue which has been troubling me a lot.

An absolutely standard response from people with significantly more conservative political view than mine to the multiple examples which have come up of mainly black people being shockingly treated by police, mostly in the US but also in my own country, has been that “they’re a criminal”. Not that they have at some point in their lives done something which is against the law, but they ARE a criminal. Somehow, this seems to excuse treating them as not entirely human, not entitled to the same respect for life and limb as the rest of us – and I note that in both our countries, the principle of “innocent until found guilty” applies, and similarly previous conduct is not generally considered a sufficient reason to believe that a crime has been committed on this occasion (in the UK, it is something which is not allowed to be raised by the prosecution before a verdict except in special circumstances).

This even extends to suggesting that people are already excluded from being treated as citizens with all the normal rights of a citizen because they have “failed to comply with an order” of a law officer (which has sometimes included arguing that the order is not lawful), because they have crossed the street at the wrong point, because they have a defective tail light on their vehicle… Or, of course, because they are black, and therefore conform to a description in which the only salient point of similarity is “black man”, or on the somewhat spurious basis that they are more likely to have committed a crime because they are black (or, in this country, sometimes west asian) – which is, I suppose, statistically correct, but neglects the fact that they are still, at worst, only around 5% likely to have committed some provable crime. Indeed, sometimes, just standing in the street (or on their own property) or walking along the wrong street at the wrong time, or having no home seems sufficient. There is a clip from “Not the Nine O’Clock News” from 1979 which is satire – but these days, it has come to look so much like actuality as to be painful to watch.

Our theory, in both countries, is that if someone does commit a crime, the court sentences them to some punishment and when that is expired then “their debt to society is paid”. But neither country actually practises this; ex-offenders find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to get a job, for instance, (unless they lie on job applications and so commit an offence of fraud) which propels them straight back into crime. In the UK, despite the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which is designed to underline this principle by making it legal for people not to mention a conviction after some years have passed (varying depending on the offence and sentence), insurers can ignore this (which means ex-offenders can’t get insurance – and sometimes not having insurance is an offence), employers sometimes find devious ways round the provision, and any position involving a position of care for others (particularly children) also circumvents the Act. In the USA, not infrequently, ex-offenders are denied the vote as well (it is notable that the European Court of Human Rights has determined that voting is a human right which should as a general rule be retained even by prisoners serving a sentence, something which the UK signally fails to implement). This is, of course, not to mention the forced labour in the US prison system, which is effectively a modern slavery.

So, it appears that in both countries, although far more so in the US than the UK, we are creating individuals with only partial human rights, only partial citizenship – and, if you are effectively allowed to shoot someone without being prosecuted and jailed merely because they are “a criminal”, that is effectively a form of outlawry, stripping away the most fundamental human right of all.

It’s worse than that, however, if you’re a Christian (and even these days, a majority of people in the UK self-describe that way, and a massive proportion in the US). I could rehearse the list of instances from the gospels where Jesus made it clear that no-one was outside the circle of humanity, the circle of his followers, and indeed “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”. Women, children, the disabled, members of foreign occupying forces, collaborators with the invaders, heretics, foreigners, even members of a hereditary enemy country were all to be included. However here, I want to concentrate on one instance, the thief on the cross. “Today you will be with me in paradise” is fairly unambiguous – the man was a condemned criminal and hadn’t even clearly repented his crime, but he was still included. It is not open to us as Christians to treat “criminals” as less than fully human, fully Children of God.

Just to underline this, St. Paul had some words to say in Romans 3:10-12 (inter alia) on the subject of criminality, borrowed from either Psalm 14 or Psalm 53: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” If there is any temptation in our minds to say “Ah well, I am not a criminal”, we should read that – and ask ourselves whether we have ever contravened a traffic regulation, fudged our taxes a little or employed someone for cash (conspiracy to commit tax fraud), overstated an insurance claim, puffed up our resume to get a job or overstated our achievements in order to get social approval, or, perhaps even been standing on or walking down the wrong street at the wrong time – and that’s only considering laws which we actually know about, given that almost no-one knows all the law – ignorance of which is no excuse (“ignorantia juris haud excusat”).

OK, I’ve always thought that Paul was overstating with the entirely laudable aim of stopping people being complacent and lacking in self-awareness and self-criticism. I’ve met a very few people who I suspect have never, at least in adult life, broken any law. Not many, to the extent that I think they constitute maybe 0.01% of the population. I am definitely not one of them, and I deeply suspect anyone who claims they are (those in that category are not likely to boast of it, I’ve found). Thus I cannot subscribe to the Calvinists’ “total depravity” – but would argue that, when it comes to the law, the overwhelming likelihood is that each of us is guilty of some “criminal” act – and there need be no intention. George Floyd tried to pay with a forged note which he almost certainly didn’t know was forged, something which I once did (but obviously without the dire results he suffered). In the eyes of the “but he was a criminal” brigade (who I suspect of being closet Calvinists) that made me a criminal too.

And, apparently, being a criminal means that you don’t have the rights of citizens (in the US, definitely including life). You don’t have the rights of humans (under the European Convention on Human Rights definitely including life). You don’t have the right to be treated as a child of God. as all of humanity is. Or as Christ – missing from the categories in Matthew 25:31-46 is “When did we treat you as less than human?” and “When did we shoot you because you were a ‘criminal’?”, but they should possibly be there in a 21st century version.

Of course, eventually they crucified Christ because he was “a criminal”. Perhaps it’s time to stop crucifying Christ?

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Privilege, white and other

July 9th, 2020
by Chris

Let me be honest, I find “white privilege” somewhat difficult to accept for myself. I’m very happy to admit my privilege from being male and from being able to fit stereotypical roles of gender and sexuality. I’m extremely conscious of my privilege from having been born in the Britain of the immediate post-war period (my children, sadly, lack some of the privilege associated with being born in that time slot, though they share the privilege of being British and, until very recently, European). Likewise the privilege of being born to middle class parents who encouraged education and supported me through quite a lot of it.

But whiteness? That one is difficult, and I suspect it’s difficult to a significant extent because of where I live. I noticed a facebook post from a friend recently which asked “when did you have your first black teacher?” and, for me, the answer was “never”. I never had a black classmate either. One rather salient reason for this was that there were no black people living in my town in my youth. There are, I think, three living in town now, which makes them approximately 0.01% of the population. Equally, there are no black people in either of the churches I go to regularly, and it isn’t the result of any lack of welcome from the church, it’s just that the only person in town who is black and a Christian goes to a gospel church 30 miles away. I know this, because she used to be a client of mine before I retired.

I found it particularly interesting to go through the questions in this facebook post regarding “white fragility”. I had to answer “yes” to several of them – and, indeed, this whole post may just be a display of “white fragility”. Maybe – but I don’t know. Part of my unease about being called “white” is that it isn’t a label I would normally attach to myself (nor is “black” a label I would use as a generality; there is a huge difference between people who have a skin tone which would commonly be described as “black” and even that isn’t remotely conclusive, as very many people who are genetically at least somewhat “black” and thus lumped into that category are lighter-skinned than, say, the average southern European).

So I definitely fall into the category of using “not all white people”, and of feeling defensive when it’s raised as a category, and (unfortunately) rather sensitive to a range of things which are these days being labelled as “racist” which I don’t think are. I feel similarly defensive when, as is happening quite a lot in some circles, people talk disparagingly about “boomers” (and yes, I am, by birth date, a “boomer”, which is similarly a generic term which I have never associated with myself and which I don’t find useful as a categorisation). I suspect, however, that my feelings are amply reciprocated by a lot of people who are labelled “black” but who would just prefer to be identified as, for instance, “English” or “British” or “European”. Though any of those categories has its own downside when you think of historical treatment of non-English/British/European people; those I am, I think, rightly sensitive to being problematic (and “English” is more problematic than the others, given that English mistreatment of others began with the Welsh and the Scots, and then moved on to the Irish – and that last one is arguably not yet a purely historical issue…). But then, I’m sensitive to the fact that having the label “Christian” lands me with a share of collective guilt for past treatment of Jews, Cathars, other Christians, Muslims and – well, anyone not of the flavour of Christianity which someone adheres to as well.

In relation to the whiteness of my hometown, our first non-white family (Chinese) arrived in town when I was about 11, and opened a Chinese restaurant and then a takeaway. Half of that family became clients of mine, and the matriarch of the family was a neighbour until recently. Another family moved in rather later, and also became clients. We then got a crop of Indian restaurants and take-outs, but by and large they commuted from a couple of nearby cities which have a large Indian and Pakistani origin community. Nonetheless, I did some work for a couple of them.

So I should have known if there was any police or other official maltreatment of them, and barring the fact that I thought some planning problems I resolved for one of the Pakistani origin takeout owners were the result of prejudice (which was a card I had in mind but didn’t need to play), I don’t think there was much. There may well have been some subtle discrimination at play which they didn’t think to mention to me, though. Indeed, given the propensity of humans to make derogatory references to any perceived physical peculiarity, I’m sure there was.

There was definitely considerable police maltreatment of homosexuals and later of the trangender people in town, which I tend to think go together with racism, and I did act for several of them in resolving complaints. I saw that reduce massively during the thirty years I was in practice here. Thus, I don’t think our police force were particularly paragons of virtue, but I am confident that they’ve got better than they once were. I’ve just no particular reason to think that they were systematically racist in the way that the Metropolitan Police were found to be in 1999, or the way I was instrumental in proving Cleveland Police were between 1997 and 2007 (yes, it took that long to bring home a result which convicted one policeman, had two disciplined internally, including an Assistant Chief Constable, and caused the resignations of two others); in that case they were racist against one of their own, manufacturing a criminal case against a Pakistani origin officer who complained of racially motivated harrassment, and even getting him convicted; it took 10 years before not only was he reinstated and the conviction overturned but he was also compensated. OK, I didn’t actually manage a finding of “institutional racism”, but I’m confident I proved it.

In areas where there is a significant black population (notably London – see the finding against the Met), I’m confident there is still a problem, as Akala says in this clip. I like the fact that he centers his argument on the existence of a caste system rather than purely on racism, though, as while I don’t see all that much overt racism locally (probably because there aren’t sufficient people of colour for it to be significant – as I remarked in a previous blog post, one primary problem I see fuelling racism is that people are scared, and it’s difficult to be scared of a very small minority). There is most definitely discrimination based on caste (or class) here; as I mentioned, I’m privileged to have been brought up in a middle class family compared with people from lower class families (and I have in mind a cutting video featuring some of the best comedians of recent years here), but I’m very conscious of the even greater privilege enjoyed by people who are upper class – and I really dislike the entitled, Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge educated rich people, who are considerably over-represented in our current government. Akala also refers to the “chavs” who used to occupy the slot now peopled by black people; that slot, where I live, is still almost exclusively occupied by white people. A significant number of them come from the last major wave of immigrants to settle locally before the middle of the 20th century; they have Irish surnames and tend to be Catholic… and, growing up, there was among my parents’ generation a low-level racism against the Irish which was compounded in the 60s when the “Troubles” started and Irish people were not infrequently blowing up English pubs…

It’s tempting to think that I may be privileged in that I live in an area where there aren’t significant communities of other races, and thus there isn’t the same opportunity for people generally and the police in particular to express racism. I’m not so sure about that – my general feeling is that I rather envy those who live in more racially and culturally diverse areas. I like cultural diversity, it’s stimulating and interesting.

That brings me back to never having had a black classmate (or, indeed, a classmate of any very different cast of countenance). At school, people were picked on for having much more subtle differences – and the one which springs immediately to mind was a couple of friends I had who had red hair. Not only the children but also the teachers seemed to have a conviction (totally unfounded) that red hair indicated a tendency to violence and an ungovernable temper, and both of them suffered as a result. Of course, neither of them was particularly violent, nor did they intrinsically have bad tempers, but they were still the first to be blamed for any fight they were close to, and I felt a keen sense of injustice on their behalf. I suppose I was enjoying “brown haired privilege”, though it’s just as difficult for me to think in that way as it is (based on my environment) as about having “white privilege”.

Me, I was picked on for having spectacles and for being rubbish at anything requiring running or connecting with a moving object, notably all ball sports, and also for being “a swot”. OK, I was pretty good at every academic subject and I read a lot; those were courtesy of my upbringing (see above) and of having a fairly keen intelligence and, in those days, a very good memory, near-eidetic (it isn’t nearly as good these days!) but the term “swot” indicated someone who worked unduly hard at academic stuff, and, in truth, I didn’t – I just found it easy (I didn’t start finding things academic difficult until my second year of university, at which point it would have been a good thing if I had developed “swot” tendencies…)

It came to seem to me that people will discriminate on the basis of physical (and other) differences irrespective of whether they are connected with “race”, and that that is a bad thing even if it isn’t “racist”. You might say that the bulk of people are racist even when there’s no-one to be racist towards. For myself, while I might notice someone’s hair colour in passing, I’m not going to regard them as “a red headed man or woman”; to me it’s an incidental. Likewise for someone’s skin colour – and in both cases, that’s unless someone appears to be regarding them unfavourably on the basis of their appearance. And, for my anti-racist friends, I’m afraid that I am at least somewhat colour-blind. I may not notice someone’s red hair, and equally I possibly won’t notice someone’s darker-than-the-average skin tone – indeed, I not infrequently haven’t noticed (for instance, in “City Homicide” it was a surprise to me to find after several episodes that the character Duncan Freeman played by Aaron Pedersen was “indigenous” and was called “black”, and in an episode of NCIS I remember noticing that an actor in an early scene was a marine, from his haircut and general bearing, but I hadn’t noticed that he was black until it became a part of the plot – though, in my defence, he was fairly light skinned). OK, Nyakim Gatwech’s skin colour I would notice… it’s an absolutely gorgeous shade (and she’s an absolutely gorgeous woman).

Nyakim Gatwech- the queen of darkness : pics

Apparently, though, it is now not permissable to not notice someone’s skin colour, to be “colour-blind” in this way. My own feeling is, frankly, that unless it’s obviously an issue in a particular situation, it’s more correct to be colour-blind than hugely colour-sensitive – after all, I don’t want people labelling me “white”, and I tend to assume that others probably don’t want people labelling them “black”. But there are, clearly, many circumstances still where colour IS an issue, and there I’ll pay at least some attention to it – particularly if the issue is that someone is discriminating on that basis, stereotyping or making derogatory remarks.

I suppose, at the end of the day, I find it difficult to use the word “privilege” when, to me, that word indicates that I benefit from some characteristic of upbringing or genetics which are not shared by the general population. There are plenty of those I’ve benefited from (as I’ve indicated above), but not being picked on because I’m from a minority which is considered different in some way is not, to me, a privilege – it’s an issue of rights which are being denied to others, but which I enjoy. To steal wording from the US Declaration of Independence, everyone should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and unless you agree with an old friend of mine who claims there is only one fundamental human right, the right to be given privileges, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness aren’t privileges, they’re rights. In the case of black people – and those of a variety of other skin colours and other markers of difference – those rights are being denied. Life in the case of George Floyd and many others, liberty in the disproportionate number of black people jailed in both the US and the UK and the pursuit of happiness in the significantly reduced chances of personal fulfilment and the incessant belittling – well, everywhere where there are minorities.

That is clearly wrong. It is also clear to me that Jesus particularly singled out all of those whom society did not treat equally as being “the first”, those to be preferred, so it is my Christian duty to try as best I can to ensure that their right to life, liberty and happiness are at least as well-protected as my own. But when someone says “white people should renounce their privilege”, I read that as saying that white people should not have the right to life, liberty and happiness either. That would also be wrong.

Now, a tailpiece.

The current level of interest in this subject stems from the murder of George Floyd (and I have no hesitation in calling it murder – in the very thin possibility that it wasn’t murder, I think the onus is on the defence to prove that, given that the action of the police was clearly calculated to cause harm).

In 2019, police in the United States killed 1004 people. In the same year, police in England and Wales killed 3 people, police in Japan killed 2 people, and police in Denmark killed none. Much of the blame can, I think, be laid squarely at the feet of the level of gun ownership in the States, but not all. I am substantially convinced that, in the Floyd case, racism was a major player in the treatment he received. In the UK, it equally seems the case that, if you are arrested by the police, you are significantly more likely to be physically mistreated than if you are white (just as you are ten times more likely to be subject to a “stop and search” without there being any actual suspicion). I am not, therefore, convinced that our police are significantly less racist than the US police seem to be; it’s just that our mistreatment doesn’t tend to end up with deaths.

As I outlined in my previous post linked above, one factor seems to be that the US police are frequently terrified – of people in general, it seems, but of black people in particular. It seems that they are frequently trained that way. US police dramas don’t seem to me to paint a very different picture – the urge to present the most dramatic events, there, seems to involve gun battles in a very large proportion of instances (something which many UK crime dramas manage to avoid completely). I am appalled by this; my observation has always been that scared people make bad decisions – and I am extremely conscious of the fact that there’s a huge asymmetry between US police who are excused shooting on the basis, effectively, that they are scared and US citizens, particularly black citizens, who are expected to be particularly compliant in the face of gun-waving officers and not, under any circumstances, display any behaviour which might possibly make an officer more nervous.

I suffer from a General Anxiety Disorder, and the likelihood that I would panic in the face of armed policemen shouting at me is fairly high (in other words, I fall within another group of people, those with mental health conditions, who fare particularly badly at the hands of police, both in the USA and in the UK), but I would anticipate that even without a GAD, the likelihood of panic when faced with that kind of stress is significant. I have largely trained myself not to go down either of the “fight” or “flight” routes in stressful circumstances, but to adopt the “freeze” reaction, but even that would, it seems, not be safe in the US, as I might not be “complying with police orders”. It seems obvious that in the US, both “fight” and “flight” options would be much worse than “freeze”, but “freeze” is still not safe.

The thing is, you can be trained to operate rationally in very stressful circumstances (at least, most of us, absent a GAD or any of a number of other mental health conditions), and it seems that US police in particular are not being trained that way and/or not being selected on the basis of successful learning from such training (in the UK, those officers who are permitted to use firearms are specifically trained that way, and fail the course if they don’t show sufficient stability under stress, though officers more generally are not trained and selected that way, which has led to some horrible miscalculations with people in custody).

And, it seems to me, you can particularly be trained to reject any use of deadly force where there is no proximate threat of harm to anyone. Such as when someone “fails to comply with a legitimate order” or is running away.

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Contrarian results

June 21st, 2020
by Chris

On facebook, there are four or five people whose posts I see regularly who I have so far refused to block, despite the damage this policy is probably doing to my blood pressure. I fancy that I ought to know what bizarre stuff there is going around out there, and not confine myself to my own like-minded bubble.

They have in common a tendency to put forward conspiracy theories without adopting the extreme level of suspicion which they ought, as otherwise reasonably intelligent people, be directing at things which would need a quite startling degree of collusion and cover up among very many people. If they were a tenth as sceptical about the conspiracy theories as they are about anything which governments or scientific establishments come up with, they would be abandoning virtually all of these far-fetched ideas. They have in common a liking for the term “deep state”, and a tendency to see anything which excites public opinion as being a “psyop” by the “deep state” intended to produce that change in opinion – which leads them to suggest that, for instance, the children at Columbine and George Floyd were “crisis actors”.

See what I mean about my blood pressure? I find such suggestions deeply offensive to the dead and to their surviving relatives.

Incidentally, if you’re reading this post and you’re one of them, please don’t take the fact that I don’t comment disagreeing with one of your posts and/or posting a fact check as any indication that I agree with it. I virtually certainly don’t agree with anything you post unless I actually say so in a comment. OK, it’s not completely unknown! I just haven’t time to contradict all that bull, and I do need to stop my blood pressure going any higher.

And what is this obsession with Bill Gates and George Soros being evil masterminds bent on world domination through some labyrinthine plot? I grant you, before they stopped their main money-making careers having, as you might say, “won capitalism”, and turned to philanthropy, I regarded their business practices as fairly evil, but now? Is their ultimate sin the fact that they have turned to trying to benefit others by the use of their vast fortunes? Clearly, neither has any need to indulge in byzantine plots, they can just go out and buy a government or two straightforwardly. Why not concentrate on Bezos, the Kochs or the Waltons, who show no signs of wanting to benefit society?

Anyhow, that’s a preamble. What one of these people said recently (and has repeated several times) was that it was evidence that Covid 19 was a fraud (by the deep state again, no doubt) that everyone had stopped talking about it after George Floyd’s murder, so it was obviously just something trivial blown out of proportion, had blown over, and was nothing to be concerned about. That’s against the background that in the USA, where all but one of my contrarian bugbears is located, the number of active cases continues to climb, and the best that can be said of the death rate is that it might have plateued at something around the 500 per day mark.

Of course, to anyone not enmeshed in the fantasy that CV-19 is “just ‘flu” or something of the sort, it is clear that the news outlets have got bored with Coronavirus; killings, marches, beaten protestors and toppled statues are much more interesting than the daily progression of deaths, and to a great extent, that’s the case with the general public as well.

But there’s something in operation which worries me here. Please don’t misunderstand me; the death of George Floyd was horrendous, should absolutely never have happened – and particularly should not immediately have been attended by a lot of people trying to suggest that it was somehow “his fault” and that the policemen involved were not, at the very least, exhibiting depraved indifference to his life and could be excused by procedures or perceived threat levels. All of that was just insulting to anyone who viewed the footage, and particularly to George. It has been high time for as long as I can remember that American policemen stopped shooting black men, women and children in circumstances where there was no reasonable cause to do so, and it is entirely right that there should be a wave of public sentiment in favour of Black Lives Matter.

The thing is, I suspect that much of this wave of sentiment is a displacement activity. There is nothing which can be done by most of us to fight coronavirus, and, indeed, nothing is what most of us should still be doing in countries like the US and the UK where the curve has not yet gone back down to low levels (and yes, I appreciate that very many of us cannot afford to be idle any longer, and that there is ever-increasing suffering as a result, particularly where governments have not supported the wages of those who have been prevented from working).

But doing nothing is against all our instincts; we want to be out there taking action, fighting, seeing tangible results… and in protesting and taking down statues, we can do that. I would dearly like to be out there marching in solidarity with my black and brown brothers and sisters, but I really can’t, as I’m still in total lockdown with underlying health conditions which mean that, if I catch the virus, I’m probably dead (I fed my conditions into an estimator, which came back with an 81% chance of death, which is probably an overestimate, but still not something I want to risk testing at the moment).

The trouble is, all the statistics seem to show that those of us with black or brown skins are far more likely to die of the virus than those who have white or yellowish skins, underlying conditions aside, and I have a huge fear that a major result of all this pent-up need to take action will be the deaths of more of those which the demonstrations are designed to help.

That would be a very sad result – but in its own way, contrarian.

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Hearing the people sing

June 2nd, 2020
by Chris

I am looking at my facebook feed, full of images of riots in the US, and recalling “Do you hear the people sing?” from Les Miserables. Les Miserables is set in part against the background of the Paris riots of 1832, which were a failed revolution. The song is wonderfully stirring… and the end point is that almost all of those involved in the riots (and manning the barricades) die. The riots were unsuccessful, were overwhelmed by the use of the army, and produced a backlash of repression for some years.

That said, there were not one but two revolutions in 1848; the first was unsuccessful but destabilised the government, the second set up a republic (the “second republic”, the first republic having been the result of the more famous 1789 revolution). In elections for a president following that, Louis Napoleon (grandson of Napoleon I) was elected on a landslide as a populist candidate, and three years later, faced by a term limit and the end of his presidency as a result, staged a coup d’état and declared himself Emperor as Napoleon III. He lasted until an ill-advised war against Prussia in 1870, attempting to prevent German unification; the Germans took him prisoner and Paris declared a third republic. That held until World War II, and in a way during the war in Vichy France (the Southern part of France which was a puppet state of Hitler’s Germany).

In 1946, after German occupation during World War II, the fourth republic was declared (the third being completely discredited by capitulation and the Vichy régime), but this was short-lived and was reconstituted into the fifth republic in 1958. That was a presidential republic originally modelled around Charles De Gaulle (as a strong populist leader again), and that survives to the present day.

Keen observers will notice that this history includes at least five revolutions and two coups d’état (Louis Napoleon and De Gaulle). Most of the revolutions involved significant loss of life, and the 1789 one was particularly bloody.

I am not a great fan of revolutions… people get killed (and I’m not cut out to be a fighter, have huge reservations about any use of violence, feeling slightly guilty in not going completely nonviolent as I’m sure Jesus commanded, and would probably be among the first dead if I involved myself in one) and, as the French experience shows, they rarely result in something significantly better than what preceded them, at least in the short term. The French just kept on doing it…

It is therefore with much sadness that I notice people from both the left and the right (and including the current US president) talking of revolutions with a kind of glee, and the clear fact that agitators from both left and right (but predominantly from the right) are frequently turning peaceful demonstrations into riots; the police response in many places is draconian, meeting peaceful protestors with life-threatening force. I have been encouraged, however, by several videos of police chiefs and whole police departments joining protestors rather than gassing them, baton charging them and shooting them with rubber bullets. My own view from seeing the UK police handling protestors is that it is absolutely fatal for the police to be the first users of force; that is calculated to make a riot out of a protest, though agitators can also achieve that.

Let me turn to the root cause of this unrest, the murder of George Floyd. I have viewed several piece of video of this, amounting in total to rather more than the eight minutes and 46 seconds during which a policeman knelt on Floyd’s neck. I have been distressed and outraged by some facebook contacts who have attempted to justify the police actions here, and I am writing as a retired lawyer, albeit not an American lawyer. Yes, I appreciate that the law differs between the two countries (for instance, we don’t have degrees of murder or manslaughter here) but the basics of the two systems stem from the same root, and the principles are generally very similar except when the Constitution comes into play.

So, firstly, the alleged offence was paying with a counterfeit note. I’ve done that myself, innocently, and the result was that I took back the dud note (in order to complain to my bank, from whose cash machine it had come – no joy there, though) and paid with another note. I note that the owners of the store he paid in have said that they thought he probably didn’t know it was counterfeit. Is this, I ask myself, a serious enough allegation to warrant multiple armed police officers manhandling someone? I certainly wouldn’t have thought it was. I am, inter alia, very keen on the principle of “innocent until proved guilty” which applies in both systems, at least notionally. So, from my point of view, Floyd was presumed to be innocent.

Then came allegations that he was a “known criminal”. Again, having a criminal record does not negate the “innocent until proved guilty” principle. It’s irrelevant, just mud-slinging (and in the UK, is something which cannot be brought up in court until someone is found guilty of the offence currently alleged). I could mention that other reports indicate that Floyd was a well-respected youth worker with local churches, which is not exactly the “known criminal” profile. That, too, looks to me like a piece of mudslinging, and one irrelevant to the circumstances in any event.

The original Medical Examiner’s report came close to making my blood boil. Indeed, I remarked to an American friend shortly before the result of the second post mortem became known that I’d gladly come out of retirement and travel to the States for the opportunity to cross-examine the ME. It reads to my eye (and I am very used to reading such documents) like an attempt to find any possible way in which the death could be de-linked from the police actions without actually adverting to the fact that Floyd had had his neck knelt on by a fairly substantial policeman (and other parts of him knelt on by two others) which, medically, is something which is extremely dangerous. Indeed, in my country there is some unfortunate case law arising from the restraint of a prisoner in a police station in which he was similarly compressed and died – and that prisoner, who was white, was a paranoid schizophrenic having a psychotic break, and thus particularly difficult to restrain or calm down. (Heads rolled as a result, and police procedures were changed). Floyd displayed absolutely no such signs of violent struggle, though I noted that my correspondent wanted to say that he had struggled…

It is significant to me that the whole time, Floyd was handcuffed, behind his back. He was therefore in no condition to offer very much threat to anyone. He sat quietly for some time on the ground in this condition.

Then came the allegation that he was refusing to get into a police car, and deliberately fell to the ground to avoid this. There is no sign in the video evidence that that was the case. However, there is witness testimony that he was complaining of having difficulty breathing before he fell to the ground. If, indeed, he did voluntarily end up on the ground rather than being thrust there by police officers, the logical conclusion would be that he was in medical distress, and indeed, there seems to be evidence that the ambulance was called before the episode of kneeling on his neck started. My acquaintance advances this as proving that he was already dying before that episode started… and words nearly fail me.

As I said, you do not put prolonged pressure on someone’s neck or upper torso, as it is medically dangerous, even when they are not already in medical distress. It is either total idiocy, reckless disregard for the safety of the individual or malicious action to do that when they are already complaining of difficulty breathing, and having watched the video, I have no hesitation in saying that the policeman kneeling on Floyd’s neck was at the very least reckless and most probably malicious. It is also exactly NOT what the police, who have a duty of care to those they have arrested, should be doing – they should be caring for their prisoner.

And, in those circumstances, the burden of proof is very much on those alleging that the death did not result from an action which is calculated to produce asphyxia to demonstrate that Floyd would have died anyhow – and the ME’s report, though it tries to come up with reasons why that might be the case, falls a very long way short of that.

In UK law, we also have a principle commonly referred to as “eggshell skull”, which holds that if you punch someone on the head not intending to kill them, but they have an inherent skull weakness which means that your puch cracks their skull and they die, it is irrelevant that they had a weakness in the first place; it is sufficient that you intended to cause harm and death resulted. It appears that the US has this principle as well, based on the Wikipedia article I link. This, of course, would make it massively more difficult for a defence of the policeman to allege that Floyd would have died anyway.

As a result, I’ve commented that, were I advising the policeman, I would have no hesitation in advising him to plead guilty to a murder charge. It seems, having had a brief look at the Minnesota definition of third degree murder, that that might be as much as it is sensible to charge – my feeling would be that it would be worth pleading to to avoid the possibility of conviction on first degree murder, which I think is at least a possibility.

This kind of excusing away the crime and blackening the character of the victim seems to me to happen in every case where a black person in the States is killed by police. This particular case is unusual in that there is particularly good video evidence (and, incidentally, I would ask why the only police body camera from which footage has been shown is that of an unconnnected officer who didn’t have a particularly good view – why are there no body camera footages from the officers more closely associated?) The result is that I’ve been able to take my view with more evidence than I normally have – but the fact that this happens every time strongly indicates to me that it is, not to mince words, bullshit.

I go on to ask myself why it is that this happens so frequently in the US. My own country has not been immune to similar incidents, but in general, it seems to me that we listen and learn from them, at least to some extent and in recent years – as witness the case I mentioned above of the paranoid schizophrenic.

A large part of it seems to be in the general police mindset of “us -v- them”. Yes, we have that in the UK as well; I’ve not seen it so much in their treatment of racial minorities, because where I live there are vanishingly few people from racial minorities, except for Romanys. However, it is quite clear that our police adopt an “us -v- them” attitude in relation to poor people and in particular the homeless (yes, and Romanys). They are not “innocent until proved guilty”, they are guilty until proved innocent. By and large, however, the furthest the police here go is to be contemptuous of those groups.

My feed has also had video of various US policemen doing things which I regard as unconscionable – pulling down a mask in order to pepper spray someone who was not acting in any way aggressively, driving cars at groups of protestors, riding them down with police horses, charging them with riot shields and knocking them to the ground when, again, they were offering no threat to anyone, and firing paintballs at people on their own properties. Frequently in those clips I’ve seen expressions of contempt, but also of hate – and hate is an emotion which should not be felt by police. If someone feels hate for any group of people, they should not be police officers.

But not infrequently I’ve also seen fear on the faces of police. I have in mind there particularly one clip which shows a young black man kneeling with his hands behind his head facing away from a group of at least four white police officers about 20 feet away, all of whom are pointing guns at the black man, and all of whom are looking scared.

Come on, there are FOUR of you, you’re armed and have your weapons drawn on a young man who is obeying instructions, is unarmed and poses no threat. How on earth can you be scared in that situation? OK, I will grant that all the officers are women, and all of them are considerably physically smaller than the black guy. But scared? That is particularly worrying, because the only answer which rings true to me is that they feel so threatened by a black man who is a bit larger than them that they are not made to feel safe by numbers, and not even by having guns drawn.

OK, there is a possibility that they are just scared by the situation, scared that they have felt they needed to draw their guns and scared that they might use them. If so, I gently suggest that they are not competent to be allowed out on the streets with firearms…

Scared people make stupid decisions. As Frank Herbert wrote “fear is the mind-killer”.

Scared people with guns shoot people.

How is it, I ask myself, the case that one black man can scare four trained professional female officers even enough to make them want to draw weapons? Is it, perhaps, the case that in the States, white people are always aware that their mistreatment of black people for centuries has built up a reservoir of hatred which they feel might break through even in the case of black women and black children? Is it, I ask myself, a sign of a guilty conscience? A guilty conscience can also, via projection, result in contempt and even hate…

Now, I am looking at this from the other side of the Atlantic. I make no claim that we are perfect in our own race-relations, but I don’t see this kind of fear in British policemen.

What I do do is look at the catalogue of dead black people in the States of which George Floyd is only the most recent (or rather, the most recent to have hit the headlines) and feel some sadness that this is happening – STILL happening, but even more anger for those killed and those who have lost their relatives and friends. And that’s as a British white guy. If I were a white American, I would feel incandescently angry.

And if I were an American black guy, I would be having difficulty restraining an impulse to violence of my own.

Even though, as I said earlier, I am not cut out for violence.

I can therefore understand and sympathise with those who do riot (particularly in the face of repressive policing), and with the exception of the infiltrators who just want to destabilise things, I am unwilling to condemn them. But I’m very ready to condemn the officers who killed George Floyd.

I hear the people sing, and thought I’m neither black nor American, I feel I can do no other than sing along for a while. And may tomorrow come…

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Letter to a Libertarian friend

May 18th, 2020
by Chris

Dear friend,

I understand that you label yourself as “libertarian”, that you think “taxation is theft” and that you think the only thing governments should be doing is protecting property rights. (Forgive me if I comment that every time I hear this kind of thing, I get a picture of you stroking a white cat and saying “It’s mine, I tell you, all mine bwahahaha…”) I’ve noticed that you railed against “stay at home” orders, saying that this was tantamount to fascism, and that it infringed your rights horribly.

Now the “stay at home” has been relaxed a bit, you’re furious at any suggestion that, when you go out, you should wear a mask, and incandescently angry at the prospect that you might be compelled by your government to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, or even that you should consent to a vaccination if you’re not being compelled to do so (which is far more likely).

I’m inclined to agree with you that you should feel able to ignore things like mask-wearing and vaccination as long as you’re sitting there behind your desk, stroking your white cat, on your own property. However, as soon as you leave your property, you’re on public property – that is, property which belongs to all of us. No, it doesn’t belong to the government, it belongs to us all; the government is just the way we, communally, administer the things which belong to all of us.

And we, communally, have a system of running our property. It’s ours, after all, and we can do what we like on it (communally decided, of course), we can restrict who is allowed to use it (just as you want to be able to shoot trespassers on your property). We elect people every so often to do the running for us in a system called “representative democracy”. And yes, it’s a flawed system, and it doesn’t always do what you want it to. Heck, given the option, I wouldn’t pay a penny in tax to support buying nuclear missiles or bailing out banks, but my representatives have decided that that’s what we will communally do, and even though I’ve never got a representative at a national level who I voted for, that’s how the system works.

So, you don’t want to play your part in this communal system? OK, don’t pay your taxes – but then we, communally, can decide that you’re not allowed to use any of our (communal) property or services. After all, it’s ours, and you then don’t contribute to it. So you can’t leave your property via one of those conveniently located communal roads… You can ring the emergency services as much as you like, but the police won’t listen to you and the fire service won’t put out your fire. I wish you luck in managing to continue working and making money under those circumstances. Yes, some among us can actually manage that (me, for instance; I work from home, and haven’t actually needed police or fire service for a very long time), but most cannot. (To be fair, I did benefit rather considerably from our education system here, which was a much better system in the 60s and 70s than it is now. But that was 40 plus years ago…)

Much the same principle applies to “stay at home” orders or would apply if legislation is passed to make the wearing of masks in public places obligatory. If you come onto our property, we get to decide if you can do that, and under what conditions. Let’s face it, if you were to decide that all your visitors had to wear fancy dress, you would cheerfully refuse to admit anyone who didn’t do that, wouldn’t you? And we do that via our elected representatives.

We could also reasonably decide that anyone who was not vaccinated against some disease (for instance, Covid-19, or measles) would not be allowed to use any public spaces. After all, they are ours. Again, if you suspected that someone knocking at your door was infected with Ebola, would you let them in? I don’t think so.

So forgive me, but I think you’re hoist on your own petard. If you want to preserve property rights, you’re stuck with a government and with the regulations that government wants to make in order for you to use public property.

Oh yes, and with taxes…

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Coronavirus: figures and fictions

April 25th, 2020
by Chris

Snopes has published a generalised lament about the epidemic – not the coronavirus epidemic, but the epidemic of false or misleading posts about it. This article also tackles some of them, and there may be a bit of duplication with some of what I write below, as I’ve added this in a couple of days after starting writing this.

Now, I rarely prune someone from my facebook friends list because they post a lot of stuff with which I disagree strongly – I feel that I need to avoid “living in a bubble” of like-minded people and not knowing what is being said elsewhere. I’ve even stayed a member of a group which seems totally dominated by conservative Christians of various flavours, who spend most of their time explaining why the other (equally conservative but from a different denomination) members are heretics. Goodness knows what they’d say if I shared my own theological stance with them – OK, I have occasionally stuck a barbed response in and got a deluge of proof-texting back which actually only serves to show that the Bible is not univocal. But this is not, on the whole, a theological post…

Among those I have deliberately not unfriended are three or four who, at the moment, are posting just about anything which casts doubt on the science behind coronavirus, the actions of governments (no matter what stance they have taken!) and, of course, Bill Gates. All of them are ferociously intelligent, all of them are, or at least have been, left-leaning politically. And yet they are currently posting stuff which makes them sound like coronavirus-denying Trump supporters…

So, I’ve been sticking the odd rebuttal in on their facebook feeds, which have had mixed results. In particular, yesterday I got a full salvo from one of them of how I’m swallowing the “party line” and aiding and abetting the further takeover of everything by “the deep state” and the demolition of all democratic freedoms. The post I was commenting on there was exactly what Snopes mentions in the link above, the suggestion that Covid-19 is no worse than a seasonal ‘flu.

Now, I am not used to being accused of being gullible in the face of official claims. I tend fairly heavily to the sceptical, and in the case of any and all claims about Coronavirus I tend to fact-check extensively and, where possible, look at real scientific findings rather than the frequently sensationalised versions which appear in the media. The science is too complex for the media to present accurately, even assuming the reporters actually understand it, and a huge amount of it is based on statistics.

At this point, a caveat. While I have some claim to be a scientist (I have a degree in Physics and still from time to time do research work in Chemistry) I am not well versed in the biological sciences. However, I was for some years a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor at a County level, and when the thread of nuclear exchanges lessened, the most obvious civil emergency for us to run scenarios on was a pandemic. This is, therefore, not the first time I have thought long and hard about epidemiology, virology and strategies to limit the effects of umpleasant viruses.

So, allegation 1 – the statistics are false and misleading and therefore we shouldn’t believe anything about coronavirus. I read on the day I started writing this a quotation of “there are lies, damned lies and statistics”, attributing it to Mark Twain, which immediately made me doubt the writer, given that while Twain quoted that in 1907, it’s first recorded use, as far as I know, was in 1891, and even that was probably not original. There is obviously some truth in the statement (much quoted, including by Churchill); statistics need to be read extremely carefully, and issues like sample size and testing methods are supremely important.

Let’s start with the number of deaths from the coronavirus which are touted in the media. This is not in most places a very reliable statistic, though it is not therefore something which can be ignored. One major criticism of it is that hospital deaths are being reported as coronavirus deaths if the patient who died tested positive for CV19 or showed clear symptoms of the disease, though the deaths could well have been primarily for other causes. They are therefore a significant overestimate, it is claimed. However, in most countries, deaths outside the hospital system have not been included (though that is improving), whether because testing is far too limited to include anything outside a hospital setting or because they are not centrally collected in the same way. This would lead to the figures being an underestimate.

The truth therefore is rather hard to assess, though in my country, looking at the total deaths this year compared with an average for the last few years would seem to reveal that at the point at which we recorded around 16,000 hospital CV19 related deaths and estimated another 4,000 outside the hospital system, there were actually around 8,000 surplus deaths over those in previous years. The figure of 16,000 given was, therefore, an overestimate, but not so much of an overestimate as to make the figure anything remotely like trivial. and certainly not “like a seasonal ‘flu” as some have claimed (we had, of course, seasonal ‘flu in the years used as a comparator). 8,000 was around a 60% increase in deaths for the period of the last two weeks. However, if you were to calculate it as an increase compared with deaths over the year to date, as that would include 13 weeks during which the death rate was not massively higher, the percentage increase would be a lot lower, around the 10% mark.

In addition, those figures only included around two weeks of really high death rates; the number-per-day is not increasing radically as I write this, but is also not reducing significantly. Thus, most of that additional 8,000 has occurred within around two weeks and not the three and a half months over which the figure run. Here’s a piece written when there was only really one week of massively greater death toll.

Another statistic which is frequently rolled out is that a very high percentage of the people who are dying are either over 65 or have pre-existing health conditions, which is used to suggest that for the younger and fitter majority, the danger is massively overstated – so why don’t they go back to working as normal? However, in the UK around a fifth of the population is over 65, and around 20% of those under 65 have a chronic health condition, considering government statistics which were prepared to assess the needs of the NHS in more normal times. If anything, those statistics are probably an underestimate, as they include only the people who have sought treatment for such a condition. That is a very large proportion of the population who are at moderate-to-high risk…

There is also a lot of confusion about how lethal the virus actually is. Partially, this stems from the fact that very few countries have managed anything remotely like testing for all those who reasonably might be infected. The UK has until very recently really only been testing patients in hospital, and not all of those; the figures resulting from this have indicated a death rate of around 10%. However, that is 10% of those cases who have been considered severe enough to need hospitalisation, not 10% of the number who have the virus – we have no idea how many of those there are, in truth. Even Germany, which has done at least three times more tests and shows a death rate per identified case of around 1.4% has not tested widely enough for that figure to be regarded as accurate. The larger the number of non-tested infected people, the lower the figure is in reality. A recent study by Stanford University has indicated that the true rate in Santa Clara County California may be as low as 0.12-0.2%, as they found far more people testing positive for antibodies than was anticipated. However, the participants were self-selecting from people who had internet, which casts huge doubt on how reliable the figure actually is, quite apart from being from one of the more prosperous areas of the USA, including Silicon Valley and therefore being somewhat unrepresentative – and I could comment that in the UK, a death rate of 0.12% would result in around 78,000 deaths, and one of 0.2% in around 130,000.

At this point I’ll link to this article, which is particularly useful to illustrate the extent to which Covid-19 is contagious, and (inter alia) indicates that the R0 value for the virus is somewhere around 5 (while that for the seasonal ‘flu is more like 2-3). That would agree with the observation, back in the days when we were able to track contacts, test and contain, that one of the first cases in this country actually infected five others; in the Wuhan example, there were possibly 9 from one encounter in a restaurant. This means that the CV19 virus can spread around twice as fast as does ‘flu, and we can recall that the seasonal ‘flu epidemic in 1918/19 killed around 50 million people worldwide out of a then population of 1.8 billion; that is a death rate for the population as a whole of under 3%. Some countries then weren’t significantly affected, though. It’s worth at this point noting that spreading at least twice as fast as seasonal ‘flu already makes the virus far more dangerous than ‘flu, which at least makes a start on negating allegation 2, that it’s just another ‘flu.

So, having got back to the death rate, one further thing we need to recall is that the death statistics do not show us the prevalence of the virus at the moment; the onset of symptoms of any kind can take between 3 days and 14 days, and typically take at least a week after that before they require hospitalisation; once hospitalised one can expect deaths to start occurring around 7 days later than that. Thus the deaths we are now seeing represent people who were infected 17 days to perhaps a month and a half ago. Hospital admission and testing produces a delay of 10-21 days in and of itself, so we should consider “number of recorded cases” as telling us something about how things were three weeks ago, and “number of deaths” as telling us something about how things were four to five weeks ago.

Doubling in numbers of infected people can take, in the absence of social distancing, 2-3 days. Obviously, most of the world started social distancing around four to five weeks ago, and so the number of deaths occurring now might be telling us approximately where we were at the start of social distancing, and we could have as many as four thousand times as many by now, two to the power 12 or so (which would be so close to complete as to make little difference). The thing is, social distancing reduces the numbers infected per case depending on how draconian the quarantine is, and countries vary widely in how draconian their measures actually are. Do we know with any accuracy what our particular quarantining rules have brought the figure down to? Probably not with any confidence, but if the figure is not doubling every 2-3 days there is obviously a significant effect, and if (as seems the case) it isn’t going up significantly at all, the probability is that we’re fairly close to an R0 figure of 1, which will maintain the number of cases but not increase it.

Again, though, that is to look at now, and our deaths are due to prevalence 4-5 weeks ago. Thus, testing in California which indicates a rather large percentage of people have had CV-19 now doesn’t mean that their current death rate can be compared with that number; it would need to be compared with the number who had the virus around 4 weeks ago, and that would probably be significantly fewer. One should also look at who gets tested, because the figures quoted in California (as they are virtually everywhere) were drawn from people who thought they might have CV-19, and that cannot be extrapolated to the general population who have no reason to get tested.

We don’t, therefore, know with any confidence what your chances of dying if you do contract it actually are, though for a healthy young person that would probably be around 1-5 chances in 100. For a 70 year old with a chronic health condition, it might be far higher – some nursing homes, for instance, have had death rates as high as 25% so far, and might have more deaths to come.

Most of us, of course, told that going to the pub gave us a one-in-twenty chance of dying, would probably avoid doing it… that, I think, finally disposes of allegation 2, that it isn’t any more serious than seasonal ‘flu.

Allegation 3 works against the ideas that it is less serious than is represented, and it’s the suggestion that the tests are not reliable, which some people are backing with evidence that the scientist who invented the polymerase chain reaction process which is used by most of the tests to produce a large enough sample to identify is these days saying that the process produces faulty results. Granted, he has come to believe in astrology and denies that HIV causes Aids, which might lead one to question his judgment…

However, there is clear evidence that not all of the tests which have been on offer do work. One of the things which massively slowed down the US testing programme was that the initial test produced in large numbers was faulty; there is evidence that the UK spent £20 million on faulty tests, and the extent of caution with which they were stressing that they had to ensure all the tests worked in early weeks strongly indicates to me that they were trapped exactly the same way. I am not a biochemist, but note that the standard method of testing involves converting the RNA which is the main content of the virus into DNA and then massively multiplying the amount of that DNA so that it can be readily identified; typically tests identify two or three characteristic elements in the resulting DNA. It is obvious that if a sample is contaminated with any amount of Covid 19 then the result will be to multiply that contamination massively, and this was identified as the fault in some of the tests. What is less obvious is that a bad choice of the two or three characteristic elements can lead, for instance, to false positives for people who have a different (and far less worrying) coronavirus.

Am I worried that the tests now being done are faulty this way? Not really; the fact that contamination was detected in some early testing kits and that a lot of time has been spent in the UK verifying that the tests being used here produce the right result with sufficient accuracy strongly indicates to me that current tests work adequately well – though there will inevitably still be false positive and false negatives, because no tests of this kind are completely error-free.

Allegation number 4 is the conspiracy theory. According to this, the virus has been bioengineered, perhaps in Wuhan, perhaps at the behest of the American government, or Bill Gates. I regard this as a completely ridiculous claim, not least because the characteristics of the virus have been traced back to viruses naturally occurring in bats and pangolin – my conspiracy theorist friends would say that obviously those viruses have been harvested and weaponised. Then the release is either deliberate (opinion seems to be divided as to whether the motive is by certain capitalists to further enslave the general population or by socialists intent on bringing down free market capitalism, which rather negates the thesis in the first place) or accidental.

If deliberate, no sensible megalomaniac is going to have done so without first having a vaccine or a cure, or both. I regard the continuing absence of either as proof positive that there wasn’t a deliberate release.

Could there have been an accidental release of an engineered or cultured virus? I suppose so; that has happened from labs in the past. The thing is, this is just not the kind of virus one would engineer as a weapon; see above, it just isn’t deadly enough. It does remain possible that someone, somewhere, is culturing viruses of the kind found in bats and pangolins. They are certainly being studied, as otherwise the fairly swift identification of Covid-19 as closely related to bat and pangolin viruses wouldn’t have occurred. However, I cannot see anyone tinkering with them to produce transmissibility to and between humans, which is the reason why we haven’t seen Covid-19 before this (it is, after all, a novel coronavirus). Again, what’s the point?

Just to extend this point, you’ll recall that I spent time as a Scientific Advisor and, in the process, ran scenarios involving pandemics. As we were designing the parameters with fictional pandemics, we could choose any combination of lethality, transmissibility, period of infectivity and period before symptoms were seen. What we wanted for an engineered pandemic was a fairly long period of infectivity and period before symptoms were seen; if you only became infectious when you were showing symptoms, you were easily quarantined and if you started showing symptoms more or less immediately you didn’t have enough time to infect others; we also wanted maximum transmissibility. Codiv-19 shows all of those – but the other things we wanted for a weaponised virus were high lethality, preferably similar to Ebola, and a fairly short period during which the virus could endure without a human host (so it didn’t end up contaminating our putative invader), and Covid-19 doesn’t show either of those – it seems to be able to contaminate some surfaces for an alarmingly long time, for instance.

However, if we were designing something to give the political people headaches in working out what the best course of action would be, we wanted a fairly low death rate (as if the death rate is high, stringent quarantine is a no-brainer) and the potential to leave spaces contaminated for quite a while (because that soaked up effort in decontaminating places). Another plus was something which left people needing hospitalisation for quite a long time, because that also put more strain on resources. Covid-19 ticks all the boxes for that – it is remarkably similar to fictional viruses which we were imagining back in the 1980s.

And so the fact that the conspiracy theorists latch on to the fact that various people were running disaster scenarios with very Covid-19-like viruses and conclude that they knew what was coming (and therefore, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, caused it) is a complete red herring. They were using something looking like Covid-19 because it gave the emergency planning people the maximum number of headaches to contend with, just as we were doing forty years ago. The biggest of those was, of course, whether to quarantine (and to what extent) or to let the thing run it’s course and concentrate on ramping up medical facilities. Both of those strategies have been tried with this coronavirus. It remains to be seen what the best course of action was, because this is a real virus, not one where a set of scientists in a back room are giggling while they design a new twist into the scenario to make the politicians sweat a bit more.

Finally, allegation 5 runs something like this: early projections (such as that produced by Imperial College London) were inaccurate, so we can’t believe any of the projections we see, plus, as they were much worse than what we are actually seeing, they were designed to frighten us (and, of course, if they were designed to frighten us, there must be a nefarious underlying motive such as spreading communism or cementing the power of the capitalist elite).

Projections are informed guesses (generally very well informed guesses by very bright people, but still guesses); Imperial only had very early data from China on which to base their initial projections, and much of that has been significantly refined since they published – there are at the date of writing 16 reports published from their coronavirus research team. Those which tend to be quoted are the earlier ones, and yes, they are now outdated. The thing is, these were effectively threat assessments, and the basic principle in emergency planning is “prepare for the worst, hope for the best”. Of course they were going to say “it could be this bad, we should prepare for that” or words to that effect. That is how we should read any report which attempts to foresee what will happen in the future.


A note here; the assumption behind not quarantining or relaxing social distancing is that having the virus gives you immunity for some period of time, which is a reasonable assumption given that other coronaviruses do produce immunity, though sometimes only for a couple of months. However, there is no clear evidence that this is the case with Covid-19. This is definitely not a feature we would have imagined for our fictional viruses, because again it removes the element of choice from the politicians – if you can catch the virus again immediately after recovering from it, any thoughts of “herd immunity” go straight out of the window. It’s worth noting that the lethality also goes up markedly – the assumption behind the death rates is that you can only catch it once, and if you can catch it two or more times, clearly that figure is going to go up. If you could catch it, say, three times in a year, that might intuitively triple the lethality, but that probably isn’t a true picture; it would perhaps triple the lethality for those who were vulnerable in the first place, but probably not for those who had mild or no symptoms previously. However, that would mean that the only valid strategies would be either trace-and-quarantine for all new cases, which would mean that basically everyone would need to be tested regularly, or a permanent social distancing for vulnerable people – and as I’ve mentioned above, that could well be 25% or more of the population.

If Covid-19 doesn’t produce antibodies which give immunity, there’s one further unfortunate consequence – ‘flu vaccines work by stimulating the production of antibodies which will then fight a ‘flu virus, and if there aren’t any which are specific to Covid-19, production of a vaccine may be impossible. Happily, the most recent information at the point of writing offers hope that this won’t prove to be the case.

A second note is that there are a shedload of other viruses in wildlife which could conceivably mutate into something communicable to humans. We weren’t at all prepared for this one in the UK, and we will virtually certainly see others in the future. If the next one has Ebola-like lethality, unless everywhere in the world is able to identify, contact trace and quarantine (as, in fact, happened with Ebola), we could be looking at reducing world population by half or more. Some historic plagues are estimated to have produced casualties in those kinds of percentages…

So defunding the American Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation, which are the most prominent organisations which actually seek to have the capacity to respond to such a threat is of a level of stupidity which I find it hard to credit.

A third note is that some of those I have deliberately not unfriended are likely to look at this, if they bother to read it, and claim that I am accepting everything Bill Gates says and that I don’t realise that he’s a megalomaniac bent on global domination (or something of the sort). Not so – I loathe and detest the business practices which have led to Microsoft being such a dominant player in information technology, and those are squarely the fault of Gates. I don’t buy the suggestion that his turn to philanthropy excuses the past and present business behaviour of Microsoft. But I do note that he seems to have accepted that he has, in effect, won at the capitalism game and has decided to play a different one, and that that is broadly a beneficial one, and I thoroughly approve of the fact that most of his philanthropic activities involve grants to organisations he doesn’t control – such as the WHO. Which is not “controlled by Gates” (as has often been suggested) any more than, before Trump pulled the US funding of it, it was “controlled by Trump”, even though the US withdrawal actually leaves the Gates foundation as the single largest funder of it.

Sigh. The billionaires of this world have no need to conceal their motivations in doing things – they just need to spend enough money that no-one argues with them. The Waltons and Kochs, for instance, don’t go to much trouble to hide what they are doing…

My last note is that I am far more forgiving of what are widely pilloried as governmental failings in the case of any government which didn’t immediately close its borders and institute a functional programme of tracking contacts and isolating those as well as initial cases than are many of my friends. As I said before, CV-19 is pretty close to the ideal configuration we designed as emergency planners to give our politicians the largest possible headache in making choices. The shock experienced in both the US and the UK of hearing that the tests available didn’t work is just the sort of curve-ball we were coming up with, and that fact probably negated the one obvious “contact trace and isolate” strategy for both, but in any event, the clear danger of a lot of additional deaths (and no, I don’t think there’s any serious chance that this is only about as dangerous as the seasonal ‘flu) could be outweighed by other factors. It’s quite clear, for instance, that concentration on CV-19 in medical systems is prejudicing the health of a lot of people who don’t have the virus, notably cancer patients (who are not getting diagnosed early, which is vital) and heart attack patients (who are not seeking treatment which could prevent another, more serious, heart attack). I could add those with serious kidney complaints and anyone on the transplant list.

Governments could also be excused, in a world which has had an epidemic of libertarianism alongside that of neoliberalism, of worrying that severe measures (particularly at a time when the public were not seeing many cases and even fewer deaths) would just provoke a popular revolt, leading to them losing control of the situation completely. Even in the USA, the population has seemed to have been far more willing to bear with measures which infringe their liberty very considerably than many might have predicted (certainly, after I had thought that Mrs. Thatcher had effectively killed off communitarian spirit here, with her “there is no such thing as society” approach, I have been agreeably surprised by how few people are disobeying the instructions). Yes, if they were thinking that, they were wrong – but that would have been very difficult to predict in February…

All that is without considering what the damage attendant on crashing an economy could be – and that isn’t just in terms of money, it is also likely to cost lives in its own right in the future. The Conservatives’ austerity programme from 2010 onwards, for instance, caused a very significant number of deaths in the ensuing five years (and, to a lesser extent, since then), and there is a strong probability that recovering from the astonishing amount of deficit spending in the last month or two and rebuilding after demolishing a very large number of businesses will need at least that amount of austerity, or an abandonment of neoliberal policies completely. That doesn’t seem particularly likely, though I live in hope. I’ve seen economists argue that recovery from the 1918-19 ‘flu pandemic took until around 1940, for instance, and that indicates what “just another seasonal ‘flu” can do, without a vaccine. And there is currently no viable vaccine for Covid-19.

As a tailpiece, I link this, which frankly makes most of what I’ve said above redundant.

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