Pagemaster: Brendan O'Neill (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Homodernising the military
The European Court of Human Rights' ruling that the ban on homosexuals in the British military infringes their human rights creates a dilemma for the government. Tony Blair does not want to upset the military, whose overseas adventures are so central to New Britain's sense of moral purpose. At the same time, his self-proclaimed project is all-out war on the 'forces of conservatism'. And what could be more conservative than the macho culture of the armed forces?
The military's failed defence of the ban only confirms that old-fashioned masculinity is in the reformers' firing line. Service chiefs cannot dispute that homosexuals are as disciplined and effective as straights. Instead they have relied on the homophobic prejudice of service personnel to argue that removing the ban would undermine morale - pointing out that the lower ranks are implacably hostile to admitting gays, outraged by the possibility that serving the queen might soon mean lying forward and thinking of England. The ECHR dismissed this defence, advising that a code of conduct could deal with prejudice.
There is something absurd about the idea of an 'inclusive' British army. It is a professional killing machine and has always operated by different principles to civilian life. But those principles are now seriously out of kilter with the moral crusading of New Britain.
British military organisation has long thrived on a same-sex culture of ritual cruelty and masculine bonding which involves both neurotic reactions to the repression of fighting men's homosexual desires and the sublimation of that desire into comradeship. The military may be the nation's greatest closet, but this is how ordinary citizens are turned into professional killers. The slightest concession to out gay identity within the military threatens to relax a psychological tension through which soldiers have been disciplined and steeled for battle.
But where Old Britain faced powerful or at least deadly enemies - from the Red Army to the IRA - things appear different for New Britain. Going into 'battle' now seems only to require unleashing precision-guided high explosives at the push of a button from high altitude on to poor countries, before driving in without opposition to stand by while your local allies attack and humiliate their neighbours. Since all this is rather confusingly done in the name of humanitarianism and defending the victims of intolerance, then perhaps a gay-friendly army, literate in emotional ambiguity, would be an appropriate substitute for the old macho men.
At the opening of Sensation, the exhibition of work by British artists like Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, I had to fight my way through religious groups, animal rights groups, free speech advocates, TV cameras and a line of people going around the block for miles.
The fuss centred around Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's threat to withdraw New York City's $7 million funding from the museum unless it cancelled the exhibition, which he called 'disgusting' and 'anti-Catholic'. He was particularly offended by The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili - a painting of an Africanesque Madonna embellished with elephant dung and magazine cut-outs of women's butt cheeks.
Giuliani's threat appeared to be a typical 'cultural war'-type fume. But it was different. What was novel was the way Giuliani - a conservative Republican with an authoritarian streak - used the language of multiculturalism to try to stop the exhibition.
From the outset, Giuliani made it clear that he did not think the exhibition should be censored. His problem was with the city funding it. Sensation 'should not and cannot be suppressed', he said, 'but you don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion'. Arnold Lehman, the Brooklyn Museum's director, responded by one-upping Giuliani in the diversity stakes. Lehman contended that, far from a mark of disrespect, elephant dung is venerated in many African cultures, and to object to Ofili's painting was to show a lack of respect. 'What they tell us is not a story of blasphemy, but of reverence. Having these sacred objects in our museums teaches us lessons of tolerance, understanding and diversity.'
Other New York art museums soon realised that their support for the Brooklyn Museum against Giuliani had to focus less on free speech than on the obligatory reference to respecting diversity. Email correspondence between members of the city's Cultural Institutions Group, published in the New York Times, revealed that their original letter of support was edited to add the phrase 'mindful of, and sympathetic to, the sensitivities of the many diverse communities throughout New York'.
But despite his attempts to appear PC, Giuliani's blast missed the target. A poll in the Daily News, the city's major tabloid, found that New Yorkers backed the museum by almost a two-to-one margin. The paper summed it up with its front- page headline: 'New Yorkers to Rudy: just cool it!'
Giuliani seems to have misread the situation. His biggest mistake was to try to beat the multiculturalists at their own game. The problem with diversity is that there is always, almost by definition, somebody who is more diverse. So his plea to respect the Virgin Mary was beaten by the argument that we should respect other people's 'reverence' for elephant crap. He also underestimated the extent to which anybody holding a strong belief or trying to pass judgement can now be dismissed as extremist, and that art museums are viewed by the middle classes as untouchable.
The strange thing about this whole episode was the absence of any serious discussion of the right to free speech. The exhibition is still open and I exercised my 'right' to experience diverse cultures - but what about the right to be offensive, regardless of who is on the receiving end?
Cooking the crime books
Recorded crime statistics released in October were the first figures to be compiled under new Home Office rules, which aim 'to give a more accurate picture of the number of victims affected by crime'. But all these new figures reflect is how the definition of important crimes is being broadened.
Under the new counting rules, statisticians will measure one crime per victim. So where the old rules would measure an incident involving one vandal and the property of, say, seven people as one crime (one offender), the new rules would count this as seven crimes (multiple victims, multiple crimes).
But the statistical changes seem to tell us more about the concerns and prejudices of the government than they do about the real world. As Home Office minister Charles Clarke put it, the changes are 'identified as a strategic goal to increase the recording of a range of crimes against vulnerable people'.
The inclusion of crimes such as common assault in the offence category 'violence against the person' leads to an increase of 118 percent in violent offences. Under the old rules there were 230 756 offences of violence against the person; under the new rules there are 502 793 - a difference of 272 037. The crimes of common assault and 'harassment' make up over 230 000 offences in the category 'violence against the person'. So lower-level incidents of violence - often not involving physical injury and often occurring between acquaintances or people who are intimate - are to be accorded a new seriousness and become the focus for government and police intervention.
This reflects New Labour's determination to define more and more forms of behaviour as serious crimes. In short, the expansion of offences effectively 'cooks the books' to serve the government's illiberal policies. As Jack Straw said, the expansion should reveal 'more of the hidden iceberg of domestic violence and racially motivated crime'. Watch this space for more intervention in the home, more safety orders, injunctions and bans.
It's your 'last chance'. are you a proprietor of one of the half a million small businesses with one to nine employees who has done 'little or nothing to tackle the bug', or a manager of one of the 65 000 companies with 10 to 249 employees who has 'not done enough'?
Now that big business has largely declared itself Y2K compliant, the government's millennium bug watchdog Action 2000's latest scare is about the small and medium-sized companies which have put their heads in the sand. The scare has been spearheaded by TV and newspaper ads and a mailshot of 1.3 million glossy information packs.
But lack of preparation by smaller businesses is completely understandable, quite rational - and not a problem. Small firms are much less reliant on legacy mainframe systems, the area where the Y2K bug has been most pronounced. They are much more likely to use off-the-shelf PC software that is cheap and easy to upgrade. And these companies are used to change - they use easy-to-configure spreadsheet software rather than custom database systems that need a programmer. Rather than divert precious resources to creating committees to discuss and plan for Y2K, it makes more sense for small companies to invest in software upgrades late in the day and only where necessary.
Where there are problems the oft-cited 'nimbleness' and 'flexibility' of the employees of small companies will be used to resolve them. It seems that what small business was once praised for - its flexibility - is forbidden when it comes to the Great Millennium Bug.
Fearing meltdown due to lack of attention to Y2K problems at nuclear facilities, Patch Adams, the celebrity doctor portrayed by Robin Williams in a recent movie, led a nude parade of anti-nuclear protesters through San Francisco in early October. 'Non-violent people like us really have so few tools to face the capitalist system', Adams told the protesters. 'All we really have are ourselves and our ideas. Our ideas have not done the job.' Unfortunately, they haven't done their research either.
Mark Beachill is a computer programmer
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999