On responsibility

One form of power in society is the ability to avoid, or at least be selective about, responsibility for one’s actions.  When an ‘ordinary’ person does something wrong, we naturally expect them to apologise, be punished, or otherwise act to correct their mistake.  Even if the event was something out of their personal control, there tends to be sage muttering of things like: ‘actions have consequences’, as if these are bound by the laws of physics rather than malleable societal standards.

The thing that brought this to mind right now is the, just announced, UK Supreme Court ruling on the publication of Prince Charles’s letters to various minister.  Or more specifically, the government’s attempt to block a FoI ruling that allowed their publication.  In particular, the then attorney general”Grieve over-ruled the tribunal, arguing that publication of the letters between September 2004 and April 2005 would “seriously damage” the Prince of Wales’s kingship.”  (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/live/2015/mar/26/prince-charles-memos-supreme-court-ruling-live)  This is what pisses me off.  Firstly a declaration of my republican sympathies – I’m not a supporter of the monarchy, but I think I still understand what it’s for.  And if the status of the monarch is to be damaged by release of this correspondence, then the responsibility clearly lies with the writer.  If the heir to the throne was trying to interfere with what I shall only half-sarcastically refer to as the democratic process, then we should be able to know about it, and if he doesn’t like that then maybe he should keep his mouth shut and do his job as a figurehead.

Of course this is only part of a wider pattern of attempting to conceal access to government.  Fortunately there are people who are happy to expose such matters as just how often Rupert Murdoch and his associates get invited to Downing Street (I assume somewhat less in the aftermath of Coulson).  However, the response to this is to deny that anything of substance occurs at these meetings.  It is suggested that these are merely social events, from which no substantive matters of policy evolve.  Obviously I’m sceptical of that for several reasons: firstly the very idea that one can remain unaffected by those one meets, especially when they include such political operators as Murdoch; and secondly because otherwise why would an American billionaire repeatedly show up for courtesy drinks; and finally because why else are those involved so determined to keep these meetings under wraps?

The attempts to conceal access to government for both the heir to the throne and various wealthy individuals are particularly egregious in that not only do ministers want to keep hidden what was said, but don’t want the public knowing that the meetings (or other contact) have even taken place.  This makes me think of the disingenuousness surrounding various states’ attempts to monitor the private communications of its citizens.  The defence is offered that they are only looking at ‘metadata’, i.e. they don’t read your emails/listen to your calls, only look at who you are talking to.  The idea is that your chat with your mum is private, while the long conversation you had with a known terrorist can be flagged, and then read once the proper legal channels have been followed.  This pretends that nobody can work out why you might have called Dominos at 2330, or what that email from the STI clinic might have related to.  If metadata is so innocent, why try to suppress news of who has been dining with the PM?

Defending the indefensible

Of course the other news item du jour that has prompted a mass waiving or displacement of responsibility is the Clarkson departure (I call it thus because it’s still unclear whether he’s been sacked, not had his contract renewed or, as at least one wag has had it, been reduced to zero hours).  You can argue that Clarkson is a great presenter and entertainer (and I can see that, although I’m much more disappointed at/in James May), or even try to deny that the incident occurred as described.  Which would be a little bizarre as Clarkson himself hasn’t made any attempt to deny what happened, only justify himself.  But if the violence and abuse did go down exactly as described, it’s hard to see how you can blame anybody except Clarkson himself.  From the attempts to place the blame on a BBC conspiracy (an organisation that is still, despite the insistence of its detractors, overwhelmingly run by white, middle-class, conservative male Oxbridge types), to the unconscionable further abuse hurled at the victim of Clarkson’s attack, this is an attempt to deny responsibility on behalf of somebody who has no need for such defence even if it were grounded in fact.  And the fracas provided such clear grounds for dismissal that Clarkson’s opponents haven’t even had to go near his repeated public racism.


Of course, the powerful have always been able to evade responsibility for their actions; to my mind, that is a major part of what power is.  And even in cases where matters do catch up with them to an extent, they are never punished to a significant degree: resigning ministers tend to wander into directorships or sinecures; Clarkson will continue to sell books and will presumably reappear elsewhere on our screen before very long.  But at the other end of the social spectrum there is no such flexibility.  Benefits claimants, despite in the vast, vast, vast majority being in a situation not of their devising, are given no sympathy at all.  The public assumption is that if somebody is unemployed it must because they got themselves fired, or are too lazy, or greedy (which conveniently ignores how difficult it is to live on such limited funds).  If the keyboard warriors and green ink brigade really want something to rant about, maybe they should consider the ease with which the most desperate in society are sanctioned by the system that’s supposed to help them maintain a basic standard of living, and allow them to participate fully in society (including, in most cases, getting back to work in a position that suits their skills and abilities)

The wealthy and powerful are forgiven and shielded for every fuck-up, while the poor and voiceless are hounded for the slightest misdemeanour, oreven totally chance event.  That makes *me* want to punch somebody in the face.


Kill Yr Idols

I’m not the biggest fan of autobiography, but I’ve read a few, and even enjoyed some.  But they have their dangers.  I’ve just finished reading Peter Medawar’s Memoir of a Thinking Radish, and while it’s not badly written, I’m left with the impression of him as a pretty unpleasant person, and a terrible snob.  The latter isn’t helped by his repeatedly pointing out the snobbery of others as an example of the worst failing in the society of his time.

It’s hard when reading a period piece to separate the individual’s failings from those commonly part of the culture.  So much of the defence of Churchill (whether justified or not) depends on his being ‘a man of his time’.  But Medawar was younger than my grandparents, and writing in the mid-80s.  I don’t expect the most enlightened attitude towards sexuality, but for someone of his erudition to assume that every homosexual man is just waiting to assault him as soon as his guard is down is perverse, not to say egotistical.

This isn’t the first scientist who I’ve come to dislike, but it most cases it’s mediated through another source.  Biographers of science obviously focus on those with the greatest achievements, but it shouldn’t be surprising or worrying when these brilliant scientists turn out to be less impressive as people.  One of the examples is quoted as favourably reviewing Medawar on the back cover: Stephen Jay Gould, who from my other reading seems to be quite as petty and rude as his great rival, Dawkins (if somewhat less vocal, even before he died).

At least I can save myself the bother of reading Honest Jim, safe in the secure knowledge that James Watson can’t really come across as any worse than I already know him to be.