Eye-Catching Initiatives

The drip, drip of poisonous US social policy from the US to the UK has been one of the more depressing features of British politics over the better part of the last decade. Ever since the idiots in New Labour decided that Being Like Clinton was the key to getting elected and governing the country, we’ve been exposed to a string of what Tony Blair once carelessly referred to in a confidential memo as “eye-catching initiatives“, which grab the headlines for a day or two and then drift out of sight to do their destructive work on the lives of British citizens and British society. Not everything that the ministers have recommended, of course, has been enacted. Local authorities have been reluctant, for example, to implement the youth curfews of which Jack Straw was so enamoured once upon a time, and the traditional right to a jury trial seems to be intact, for the time being.

In general, however, it remains a safe assumption that the Straw – Blunkett – Blair axis will be inclined to smile favourably on any policy which was dreamt up by neoconservative sociologists (Banfield, Herrnstein, Wilson, Murray) in America in years past and then embraced by the US ruling class in the 1990s. A fondness for prison-based “solutions”, ideas of “zero tolerance”, mention of “broken windows”, flirting with “three strikes” rhetoric, and championing a general get-tough attitude against anti-social undesirables (“yob culture”, “street crime”, “mobile phone theft”, “leopard skin accessories”, and so on) — the transatlantic origins of the British Government’s attitude is palpable. And one of the many vital contributions of Nick Cohen to understanding the present, of course, has been his refusal to stop writing articles about the social authoritarianism and punitive instincts of our supposedly progressive lords and masters: his essay on “The Punishment Boom” in his collection, Cruel Britannia [pp.114-122] may be the highlight, but the lowlights are pretty good, too, and he remains far and away the best reason – perhaps even the only reason – for continuing to read the Sunday Observer.

Understanding the uses and disadvantages of US social policy, therefore, is an important task for those of us interested in the government of the UK. To this end we are now extremely fortunate to be able to benefit from the wisdom of Bernard E. Harcourt of the University of Arizona Law School, in his new essay “Policing Disorder” in the current issue of Joshua Cohen’s excellent publication, the Boston Review. “Zero tolerance” police tactics have become overwhelmingly popular on both sides of the American political “spectrum”, the falling violent crime rates in New York City providing all the justification an office-seeking politician could want for vindicating the tactics of the Giuliani NYPD. This excellent article combines a careful, critical survey of the empirical evidence which has been used to justify the so-called “Broken Windows” approach to policing, with a useful discussion of the shared philosophical assumptions which underpin both this approach to fighting crime and the mass incarceration policy the US has followed over the better part of the last 30 years, with the result that a phenomenal two million people are now in federal and local jails. It is a fine article, thorough and learned without being technical or unpleasantly social-scientific, and it is on the side of the angels.

Switching gears from the political to the personal, I should say that Bernard is an old colleague from my days in the graduate school at Harvard, where we both studied political philosophy in the Government Department there, and that this is, among other things, a plug for the work of a friend. The first time I came across his unique talent for combining theory and practice was the day in 1996 when he wasn’t able to turn up to make a presentation at a Harvard social theory seminar on Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. He had been appearing in a death penalty appeal case before the Tennessee Supreme Court earlier that day, and his flight back to Boston was delayed. Although he couldn’t be there in person, he faxed his notes for his presentation through to us for the course professor, Tom Ertman, to read aloud in his absence. It is still the best excuse I’ve ever heard for not turning up to a class, and I doubt it will ever be beaten.

MacIntyre on Education

I exhumed this snippet the other day, after someone mentioned the role of education in preparing people for “the job market”. It’s from a 1991 interview with everybody’s favourite neo-Thomist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, which was published in the philosophy journal Cogito. It’s useful to bear in mind that each issue of the journal carries an extended interview with a leading philosopher, and since the journal advocates the teaching of philosophy in schools in this country, it often asks its interviewees for their opinions on the matter. Pleasingly, they are often quite opposed.

Q: Do you think there is a strong case to be made for teaching philosophy in schools? How would you state it?

A: Introducing philosophy into schools will certainly do no more harm than has been done by introducing sociology or economics or other subjects with which the curriculum has been burdened. But what we need in schools are fewer subjects, not more, so that far greater depth can be acquired. And philosophical depth depends in key part on having learned a great deal in other disciplines. What every child needs is a lot of history and a lot of mathematics, including both the calculus and statistics, some experimental physics and observational astronomy, a reading knowledge of Greek sufficient to read Homer or the New Testament, and if English-speaking, a speaking knowledge of a modern language other than English, and great quantities of English literature, especially Shakespeare. Time also has to be there for music and art. Philosophy should only be introduced at the undergraduate level. And then at least one philosophy course, and more adequately two, should be required of every undergraduate. Of course an education of this kind would require a major shift in our resources and priorities, and, if successful, it would produce in our students habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world. But to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought in any case to be one of our educational aims.”

“To unfit our students for the contemporary world…” It is a marvellous ambition – a splendid mission statement, to drop into the language of those most comfortably fitted for the contemporary world – and an excellent guiding principle to inform the work of those of us who teach in the modern university.

Marginal Comment

I’ve just started dipping into Kenneth Dover’s Marginal Comment, his autobiographical volume which attracted comment in the press when it was  published in 1994 owing to his frank discussion of his powerful desire in 1985 to have one of his colleagues, Trevor Aston killed (“without getting into trouble”). It is full of good things, such as this passage (p.69):

“My ambition in 1945 had been: to marry a congenial wife, and with her to bring up children who would become good people; to get a tutorial fellowship at an Oxford or Cambridge college, preferably Balliol; and to write at least one book which would be well regarded by people in my own subject and would be of lasting value to them. I felt by 1950 that I had not done too badly so far. I leave aside wilder ambitions, such as writing a good novel or becoming Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, and fantasies, such as growing a prehensile tail covered with dense fur.”

I was going to add that good autobiography is extremely rare, but since I barely read autobiographies these days, I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I enjoyed Louis Althusser’s The Future Lasts a Long Time in 1995, and Timothy Garton Ash’s The File more recently, both of which are excellent, though quite odd in their different ways.

Nick reminds me [3.4.2002] of another volume of memoirs, which has always meant a great deal to me: Norman Fowler’s rather blissful effort, Ministers Decide.

Orgy puts stop to degree courses in sex

Only in the Daily Telegraph:

By Oliver Poole in Los Angeles

A university course on male and female sexuality has been suspended after students took part in orgies and were taken to a gay strip bar where they watched their instructor have sex.

Male undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley also complained that they were made to listen to other people’s depraved sexual fantasies, take pictures of their genitalia and watch explicit pornography.

A female sexuality class at the university, which was synonymous in the 1960s with the spirit of free love and psychedelia, is also being investigated after it emerged that it, too, involved visits to strip clubs, along with lectures from porn stars.

Social science faculty heads took action after student Jessica McMahon said that at the end of the trip to the gay strip club the class instructor stripped on stage and started to engage in sexual activity with one of the club’s male performers.

She said: “It got kind of crazy and one of the [strippers] ended up getting fired.”

Christy Kovacs, a Berkeley freshman on the course last term, said that there had been an open invitation to any students who were interested in attending an after-class orgy at another instructor’s home.

They were encouraged to pair off and disappear into one of the bedrooms before swapping to have sex with another partner.

Marie Felde, the university’s spokesman, said that an investigation into the accusations had begun. She said: “Those sorts of activities are not part of the approved course curriculum.”

State senator Dick Ackerman, a Republican and a former student at the university, has demanded the institution “re-evaluate” its approach to pastoral care.

The male and female sexuality courses were set up by the university a decade ago to examine the limits and prejudices surrounding sex.

Although established and monitored by the social sciences faculty, student instructors ran the classes, which counted towards end of year marks.

Among the lecturers scheduled to speak at the male sexuality class this term were Nina Hartley, a porn star who appeared in the Hollywood film Boogie Nights, a representative from an anti-circumcision organisation, and the owner of Good Vibrations, a local sex shop.

It’s such a good Daily Telegraph story that the reader has no idea at all as to whether it might be true.

Cutting Edge Research

Raj writes to the weblog:

Here’s something from the “coffee after a meal keeps you awake” stable, c/o the BBC:

After crunching data from five decades of Olympics, two Harvard economists have deduced that cold countries perform better than hot ones in the winter games, and that large states produce more athletes than their smaller neighbours.

You can download their paper here.