Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Weirdening

Not more than a few miles from where I'm sitting the body of teacher Ann Maguire is still warm, but the focus is turning to the pupil accused of her murder; a 15-year old boy. I expect that media coverage of the tragedy will quickly shift away from the victim as they run out of interesting things to mention, as they always do. With killers and alleged killers though, you can get away with anything even if they are still a child and somehow it's even worse when the child is possible vulnerable. 

You can not excuse crimes like this, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to try understanding them. It's a responsibility some sections of the press loath, so they make it as problematic as possible for others even to try. They make it so any expression of empathy or simply academic interest beyond harsh punishment is no different from making excuses. Only then will the victim go back to receiving attention, to be used as an ideological weapon regardless of what their views were on these issues when they were alive. Argument will be personalised with the trope of 'a liberal is a conservative who hasn't been mugged yet' adapted for the situation- the unprovable counter-factual that a victim would agree with their view had they survived. 

It's all familiar but there are aspects of it that are seldom discussed, aspects which seem to crop up mostly when the alleged perp is a young person: their weirdness. 

A loner, awkward, bright, odd or intense hobbies, immaturity, irritability, depressed, identifies as an outsider. Have I just describe every teenage killer ever or most teens given a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome? Given this coincidence I would expect to find substantial literature linking the diagnosis and Autism in general with violence, but I can't find it and the National Autistic Society says there isn't any. We're left with the equally disappointing conclusion then that the weirdo teen killer is a media-made stereotype, fitted to a wide number of diverse cases with just a few tangential similarities. There are some arguments that people just don't want to accept that most violent crimes are committed by 'normal folk' and that people at the margins of human experience and behaviour are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Yet the Mail today is lending credence to it's coverage by specifically citing that this is what the alleged killer's fellow students are saying about him. 

For me, both these opposite views have problems. Let's start with the first, or a common response to the first- "Of course there is something wrong with them- they're criminals". The mere refutation of this tautology isn't enough to support the claim being made that 'normal people' are mainly responsible for violence on a number of points: 1- we don't know what 'normal' is, 2- research may one day yield a sufficient comprehensive explanation for violence that requires the use of diagnoses and once you have a diagnosis of something you are usually considered 'not normal', 3- some people are far more prone to violence than others(men as a whole are more violent than women, young people fight more than mature adults, etc). The Mail point of view is more simple- you will always find what you are looking for and the Mail of course gets the juicy gossip from the students; there's no equivalent statement about the alleged killer from any teacher or staff member. The only point of reference other students have is what they hear about killers their age and that is that they are always weird.

The Mail is as always, a parody of itself. We are told on the MailOnline in bullet-points no less that he played violent video games like Dark Souls and Grand Theft Auto. That sounds perfectly normal, I bet he's not the only one in his class who has played either of them, including those who have provided the gutterpress with material for weirdening him. A drawing of the Grim Reaper on his Facebook page is supposed to be a 'chilling insight' into his background, like Death is not a regular mascot for many metal bands and fans who haven't killed anyone. Oh and also "Last night friends told of their shock at his arrest", but the Mail said he was a loner? Maybe he was friends with other loners, in which case: he's not a loner then. In fact the Mail provides ample evidence of frequent social interaction with a range of people he knew both locally and around the world, who he positively engaged with. It seems the only people that actually speak a word against him hardly even know him. 

The Mail has to print what limited stuff they can get out of the bottom of the barrel, but the focus and sign-posting is clear and they don't even care that it contradicts. Rather than presenting it as a case of a typical teen with currently unknown motives, which are not at all revealed by anything reported, the need to weirden him comes ahead of the truth. If they won't accept a moral responsibility to be fair to the accused, then they should at least consider the wider impact on the innocent oddballs constantly associated with violence.

Friday, 18 April 2014

If Labour Has A Plan, They Dare Not Speak It

Sue Marsh did not choose the headline of her recent Guardian article, a headline which holds little relevance to the words beneath it. The headline says nothing about Sue's views, but much about those of some at the newspaper. 

Responses have been published to the Wednesday Independent article by Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves and her colleague Kate Green, Sue's article among them. None are without criticism but they are constrained by a need to have good relations with Labour, who are still on course to go into office in 2015 and we who have campaigned on social security will want the government to be making it a main issue. I don't have these constraints because I'm not critically important to anything at present nor likely to be in future; I'll follow press embargoes but that's it. I can speak my mind. 

My mind says Labour is not on the fence even if they give that impression sometimes, they were never even on it. Unfortunately they were not and are still not on 'our side' of the fence even though they're trying to convince us very incompetently that it is the case. They are not going to pull a David Cameron trick of only pretending to be reforming their party and then swinging suddenly to the other end once power is secured. It was Labour, not the Coalition, who brought the pointless Malcolm Harrington in to review the Work Capability Assessment, the man who actually argued with an Oncologist over whether work is good for people enduring Chemotherapy(guess who was for and who was against). That was their initial response to concerns about the process for claiming ESA and it was a fix. Do I think they have changed in the years since, where we have had the spectacle of Edward Miliband's 'I met a man' speech, Liam Bryne's repeated 'shirker versus workers' sound-bites, Rachel Reeves promising to be 'tougher on benefits' than the Coalition and no indication at all that the New Labour record on social security will ever be addressed? 

The public still believe Miliband and his minions will be better for the poor, those claiming benefits, than the Coalition. It is precisely this persistent delusion which enabled the previous Labour government to be harsher towards claimants than any that came before them since the poor laws. Labour now still seem to want to feed it enough to keep that impression up but not to ever actually do anything principled, honest and just.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Hunger Game

Hunger has become political. It used to be a straightforward argument about ethics and logistics which had reached near universal consensus long ago, that hunger must not be a weapon. So now in Britain in 2014 there is actually a heated argument being had about three things; What is hunger? What is causing acute hunger? Who is responsible for it?

Doesn't take a genius
Food, water, shelter- we now have two out of the three most basic human needs called into question and most fingers are being pointed at our government. They should be lucky that it is already the law that licensed premises can not refuse tap water to anyone requesting and water companies can not cut off a household or else we'd also have an epidemic of water-borne diseases from rivers and ponds. 
A patient with 'birdseye chimeras'
Another study has linked the incidence of food banks with government policy and in spite of ministerial denials about any suggestion that would make them responsible and therefore using hunger as a weapon, the evidence mounts up that this is the case. Remember though, even before the media bothered to pay attention to food banks- Westminster council banned them and soup kitchens from distributing food to anyone who was homeless. Our politicians seems to not want it rubbed in their faces even before the current government came in. They're not simply ignorant, they actively do not want to see the full picture and so will trot out the most absurd talking points which don't stand up to seconds of critical thought. 

Take for instance the claim that food banks create the demand and the variations of(such as Normon Tebbit's howler that poor people collect from food banks to save money and then use that money to buy the stuff they like). The problem being that food banks have existed for a long time- I remember as an infant my school collecting donations from pupils and I brought in a bag of sugar because sugar is awesome and makes the bland stuff everyone else brought taste better. Even vegetarians can eat it. Yet it is only after 2010 that the growth in food banks went into phenomenal overdrive with the largest, The Trussel Trust, only having opened their first branch in 2001. They weren't exactly promoting themselves either; this was before the media were bothering to show any interest. John Humphrys even claimed in October 2011 in his truth-allergic BBC2 polemic The Future State Of Welfare that Britain didn't have food banks. Remember that this programme had more errors than minutes, but Humphrys got off scot-free for it despite the extensive efforts of myself and two other complainants.

If the excuses for food bank demand given by establishment figures made sense, then they would still have to explain why the sudden behaviour changes among the public began in 2010 when food bank growth was much slower before.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Al Capone Syndrome

On the basic premise which would be agreed by most, accountability should be in proportion to responsibility and responsibility in proportion to power. If everyone were accountable to their conscience, it would be fine and the world would be a better place but reality encroaches and makes it so that we have to design the rules based on there being people who do not have a conscience to restrain their behaviour. 

Who is affected the most by Maria Miller's misuse of her expenses? You could argue that everyone is because if she can get away with it then it will spread and it's corruption by any standard in mature democracies. Considering how widespread we actually know the practice was(and likely still is), why does the public not perceive more political activity in Westminster as being likely steered by corruption? Policies should be receiving considerably less public support and getting more scrutiny from journalists, but that doesn't happen. So, ministers like Maria Miller often get caught out on the mundane- is expenses misuse worse than exchanging favours with lobbyists to advance certain legislation? I'd say that making policy on the basis of favours, gifts and post-ministerial job opportunities is far worse and affects more people more significantly. Yet Maria Miller is responsible for fabricating history over the 'never reviewed' Disability Living Allowance, the hiring of a patsy to provide a fig-leaf cover for closing what was left of Remploy, briefing select newspapers with Ad Hoc Analysis data spun to create outrage over figures for Asthama and Obesity being main disabling conditions by claimants. She insisted that DLA reform was necessary because the benefit over-lapped with local support across the country(which was also being cut) whilst at the same time asking the National Autistic Society for individual contact details because the new assessment needed configuring and guess what? The government weren't able to simply use the information they had from their own databases of local service users because no such statutory services exist for Autism

The consequences of her actions when she was Minister For Disabled People are still not known fully and the government is still implacably imposed to a cumulative impact assessment. We know people are committing suicide, others are starving to death or having their existing conditions and circumstances deteriorate with lethal consequences. 

How many people died because Miller didn't want to pay mortgage interest? None. How many have died because she wanted undue promotion in government and whatever rewards will await her after 2015? We're still counting, but if she's going to be snagged on this then it is a classic case of Al Capone- the gangster who could not be stuck with murder and extortion and was instead caught out on his tax evasion. Miller will not be held to account for her greed, her cruelty or her pride, but her incompetence. Considering she was actually one of the most competent out of all the Coalition ministers, that should worry the rest. 

Incompetence will finish this government.