Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Three-eyed cat

Behold, Peggy’s petrifying pumpkin!

Michael Sporn has a treat for you this year, a post on the classic Carl Barks Halloween duck comic, Trick or Treat.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Equality law: the Scouts’ exception

From the Telegraph:
Schoolboy ‘banned from Scouts for being an atheist’

Schoolboy George Pratt had attended his local Scout group for ten months, and was expecting to invest in the group along with his friends.

But, after being required to swear the traditional promise, he found himself unable to join as he does not believe in God.

George, 11, said he was “very disappointed” in the decision, calling it “very unfair” and claiming he feels left out from experiences and trips his friends are attending.

His father Nick Pratt, 45, has accused the Scout movement of being “narrow minded” and “intolerant”, saying his son is being “excluded because he doesn’t believe”.

To become a full member of the 1st Midsomer Norton Group in Somerset, which meets in a hall opposite his home, George must take the Scout Promise.

This reads: “On my honour, I promise that I will do my best, To do my duty to God and to the Queen, To help other people, And to keep the Scout Law.”

Different versions of the oath are available for different faiths, such as the use of ‘Allah’ to replace ‘God’ for Muslims.

Read the full story at the Telegraph. Another account is at the British Humanist Society website.

When I first read this story, I thought that the demand by the Scout group to swear an oath referencing God must breach the law in some way.

Reading guidance from the Charity Commission on the Equality Act 2010 reinforced this thought.

According to the guidance, the Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against anyone in the provision of services because of a protected characteristic, one of which is religion or belief.

The charities’ exception allows a charity to limit its benefits to people who share a protected characteristic only if the charity’s governing document only allows people who share a protected characteristic to benefit, and the restriction can be justified either by Test A: Tackling disadvantage, or Test B: Achievement of a legitimate aim. The guidance gives examples to help understand what this means.

From this it would seem that demanding that individuals swear a religious oath in order to access a service would be in breach of the act unless the organisation could show that it was A: tackling a disadvantage suffered by religious people, or B: excluding non-believers in pursuit of some legitimate aim. I’ll try to get back to the legitimate aim argument in a later post, but for now let it suffice that I don’t think it could be justified in this case.

So is the 1st Midsomer Norton Group in breach of the Equality Act 2010? Well, I think they would have been had the original draft of the bill been enacted, but Scout and Guide groups successfully lobbied for an amendment to the Equality Act 2006, and it remains in the 2010 Act as Sections 193(5) and 193(6):
(5) It is not a contravention of this Act for a charity to require members, or persons wishing to become members, to make a statement which asserts or implies membership or acceptance of a religion or belief; and for this purpose restricting the access by members to a benefit, facility or service to those who make such a statement is to be treated as imposing such a requirement.

(6) Subsection (5) applies only if—

(a) the charity, or an organisation of which it is part, first imposed such a requirement before 18 May 2005, and

(b) the charity or organisation has not ceased since that date to impose such a requirement.
By that means the Scout Promise escaped the Equality Act, but being ‘not a contravention of this Act’ doesn’t mean the promise might not be in breach of some other law. How about the Human Rights Act 1998 which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law? This is the part of the Convention that’s relevant:
Article 9 – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
While one could hardly argue that the Scout Promise is a shining example of the spirit of Article 9, it’s not clear that it’s in breach of it either. If one likens the Scouts to a broad church that goes camping, then one could argue that they’re exercising freedom of thought in community. As they are a private organisation not imposing their will on those outside the organisation, they can argue that they’re not limiting non-members’ freedom of belief.

And yet there’s more to it, even if it falls outside the scope of the ECHR. If an organisation for the promotion of a religious doctrine becomes the dominant provider of certain services, then it can impinge on individuals’ ability to preserve freedom of belief while playing a full part in their community, on their ability to be true to themselves while sharing experiences with their friends that are largely secular, such as going caving. And the Scouts present themselves as more camping and caving than God. Ten months this boy had been going to Scouts before God came up. I’m beginning to think that this is not so much different to other sorts of clubs that used to exclude people on the basis of belief.

There’s another international convention to consider, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It includes the following:

Article 2

2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents, legal guardians, or family members.

Article 14

1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.

3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Article 31

1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

In responding to the current controversy, Simon Carter, assistant director of media relations for the Scout Association, said “young people will not be refused membership solely because of their parents’ beliefs or non-beliefs,” a phrase that in emphasising parents’ beliefs rather than children’s seemed tailored to satisfy Article 2 (2), though perhaps it’s more likely that it was drafted with the Equality Act in view.

On Article 14, it’s not clear to me that the Scout Promise is incompatible with Article 14 taken just by itself, for the same reason that I doubted earlier whether the ECHR would apply, but if you read Article 14 together with Article 31, particularly 31 (2), then I think it becomes clear that in adopting the Scouts and Guides amendment, Parliament failed to live up its their duty under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This is because in a case like George Pratt’s the Scout Promise prevents him from exercising his rights under Article 14 while also exercising his rights under Article 31. The Promise means he can’t both exercise freedom of belief and participate fully in cultural and artistic life, because in his town and amongst his friends the Scouts are a dominant provider of facilities for cultural and artistic activity. There don’t seem to be many other alternatives.

Under Article 4, responsibility for enacting measures to implement the rights described in the UNCRC lies with the State, that is with Government and Parliament.

Unlike the ECHR the UNCRC has not been incorporated into UK law, though the UK is a signatory. There were repeated but unsuccessful attempts in the House of Lords in 2005 to amend the then Equality Bill to include a reference to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As the UNCRC hasn’t been incorporated into UK law, it can’t be enforced by UK courts, though they may refer to it in interpreting UK law. Interpreting does not mean creating or overturning law however. Even with the ECHR which is incorporated into UK law via the Human Rights Act, UK courts can’t change or overturn existing legislation where it’s in conflict with the ECHR, but at most issue a declaration under Section 4 of the Act that the relevant statutory provision is incompatible with the rights set out in the Convention.

A declaration of incompatibility leaves the law in force and passes the problem back to Parliament. It doesn’t seem clear that even this option is available to a UK court when it comes to the UNCRC.

UPDATE: The Scout Association’s anti-bullying policy cites the UNCRC.

Time to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into UK Law.

Time for the Scout Association to stop religious discrimination against children in its non-religious activities.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Othello fragments

Above, Orson Welles and Micheál MacLiammóir playing Othello and Iago in Welles’s film from 1952. Below, Suzanne Cloutier plays Desdemona. There’s a very good post about the film at The Sheila Variations.

Visually, this is an incredibly rich film. Ideas of montage and expressionist image composition were no longer new by the 1950’s, and they’re not used for novelty in the film. As Othello falls prey to the suspicion planted by Iago, the compositions become more dramatic within each shot, and so do the changes in composition within some shots as action transforms them, and so also the contrasts in viewpoint and composition from shot to shot. In the most highly charged scenes successive shots don't so much add to our sense of where the actors are as repeatedly unsettle it.

Watching the film last night, I felt a connection between this agitated fragmentation, dislocation, between this and something I’d noticed in a film we’d watched earlier in the week, From Russia to Hollywood, a documentary on two Russian actors and teachers of acting, Michael Chekhov and George Shdanoff.

The documentary was a bit amateurish in parts, but I found much of the content interesting. To illustrate the number of Hollywood actors taught by the pair, the film included lots of clips of dramatic high emotion Hollywood acting from different films by different actors, and seeing so many together I began to hear a common quality to several of the actors’ delivery in some of the more emotionally heightened scenes.

Though the various scenes were filmed more conventionally than Welles’ Othello, the delivery of the dialogue had the same fragmented edited quality to the ear as Welles’ images presented to the eye. I don’t mean that the dialogue was literally edited as in having been cut and assembled by a sound editor, but that it already sounded that way as it came out the actors’ mouth within a single shot. Shifts in timing and emphasis in the delivery were as sharp as if they’d been cut and spliced.

Images copyright © the estate of Orson Welles. More below the fold.

Monday, 15 October 2012

For solidarity of words, against solidarity of power

The story so far

Following a tweet where he described issues of abortion and antisemitism as ‘distractions’ in the context of Venezuela’s recent election, Jonathan Glennie has been getting some criticism on a number of blogs, including Bob’s place where I was amongst the commenters. The tweet was in response to Carl Packman, author of this blog post written just prior to the election. In his defence Mr Glennie pointed to an earlier tweet saying ‘raising the flag against anti-semitism in the left in Latin America is worth doing..’ and argued that he only meant distractions in the particular context of this election.

Today’s episode

Today Jonathan Glennie tackled the question of his commitment to women’s rights in a Twitter exchange with yours truly, and pointed to a post of his on the Guardian site: Why there’s no reason to fear feminism.

He presented this as evidence of his steadfast feminism, but it seems to me ill suited as such. Its argument is presented in vague terms without specific examples, but it goes like this:

- Imposing values is bad feminism, asking questions while not proposing solutions is good feminism.

- Coupling women’s rights to development aid has been counter-productive.

- Some Western feminists arrogantly impose foreign solutions and dismiss local women’s views as unenlightened.

- Imposing women’s rights from a position of power (financial, political or educational) is problematic.

Feminists need to humbly reassert principles of equality of opportunity, without suggesting we know what responses particular societies should adopt,’ he writes. Humbly.

But the most curious paragraph appears free-floating near the start. He writes, ‘What does it mean when staunch conservatives express themselves so comfortably in the language of women’s rights and gender equality? Might the radical nature of the movement be watered down to mean something more politically palatable but less transformative in its objectives?

So, the best feminism stays safely on the left side of the fence, doesn’t try to force change, asks questions but gives no answers, and ‘is also responsive and caring, rather than hectoring and exaggerated..’ Yes, responsive and caring, rather than hectoring.

All of this is accompanied by warm words of support for feminism in theory: it’s great that women’s rights ‘are at the heart of political debate’, ‘principles.. at the heart of feminism are non-negotiable’, and there’s ‘no problem with holding views passionately.

He closes by quoting an unnamed academic who values thinking above doing: ‘“Embedding a way of thinking, or being, matters more than achieving a specific set of policy proposals,” one feminist academic told me, “and is much more powerful in the long term.”’ Out of regard for some of the better academics present in this debate, I’ll bite my tongue!

In short, theoretical feminism is great as long as feminists don’t actually try to use Western power to realise women’s rights globally. Have I got it right? Well, I think he’s got it wrong.

Missing from this are any concrete examples of how linking women’s rights to development aid has been bad, or any examples of where local women have been ‘assumed to be living in a kind of mental slavery’ because they disagreed with arrogant Westerners imposing women’s rights.

Missing also is any recognition of those women in developing countries who happen to agree with Western promoters of women’s rights, and who often run great risks by fighting for their rights in co-operation with Westerners.

Jonathan Glennie seems to suggest that women in developing countries should be offered only solidarity of words rather than solidarity of power.

Without clearly defined targets for criticism, his post reads like a broad-brush smear of Western promoters of global women’s rights, and a negation of the women in developing countries  who choose to work with them.

But rather than be wholly critical, I’d like to help out with one concrete example of a Western organisation that self-identifies as feminist and that went to some length to dismiss the views of women in a particular developing country, women who didn’t support that organisation’s own preferred solution.. I give you the old comedy favourite, Code Pink's 2009 trip to Afghanistan. Code Pink were for solidarity of words, against solidarity of power, but when Afghan women disagreed, Code Pink ignored them. Now where does that story fit into Mr Glennie’s narrative?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Village Maid and the Uncommon Handsome Highwayman

or The Secret of the Silver Horseshoe
A Romantic Picture Story of the Old Dover Road

An earlier post featured a story from the 1957 School Friend Annual, bought in my quest for comics to entertain my eight year old daughter. This story is from the annual of the year before, and Peggy, who loves dressing up, enjoyed it greatly.

’Twas on a summer’s evening in the year 1754, when a fair-haired village maid lingered for a moment at the gates of Elmswood Grange, in Kent - -

Read the whole story, through to the ‘happy ever after’ ending, below the fold.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


Work for Itch. More soon.

There will never be another like you

Der vil aldrig blive en anden som dig
by Dan Turèll

There will never be another like you, never another like you. Never. Although there will be many, I know that, here where we part. There will be many. Many to walk hand in hand with along the beach. Many to meet in bars in the early hours. Many to go home with, or to take home and lie sweating or gasping over or under. And sweat and gasp will be the same, but there will never be another like you. Never another like you.

To love of you, to love you, I love you still. I loved you long. I have loved you so long. I have loved you as long as I can remember. I will love you for all time to come. I would have loved you still. I would have could ought should love you, longer yet. Always. Even the simplest grammar you make ominous.

There will never be another like you. There will be others. And a lot could happen between me and them. Maybe I will marry others. Breed children and buy a house with others. Sit and eat breakfast and have coffee, toast, and orange juice at the kitchen table every morning with others. And watch TV programmes in the evening together with others. But all the same I will never be able to forget you.

There will never be another like you. Never another like you. You who are now sitting at another breakfast table. With coffee and toast, after lying gasping under another last night, another who maybe doesn’t even know how well toasted you want your bread. And I will always long for you. And always try to picture to myself where you are now. How you look in this moment. And what you’re doing.

There will never be another like you, I know that, here where we part. And in that way you’ll always be there.


Copyright © the estate of Dan Turèll. The translation is my own.

Images: the first and last are from Bo Bedre’s Idébog by Ellen Bisgaard, © Forlaget Palle Fogtdal 1967, and the second, third and fourth are from Danmarks Bygningskultur (Vol. 2) by Harald Langberg, Gyldendalske Boghandel - Nordisk Forlag 1955.