Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Aaro the Vanguard

Unfortunately, Couscous Kid will not be commenting here any more due to a flagrant breach of the party line. Only kidding of course, we're a broad church here and his assessment of this week's Aaro is excellent. But I do disagree, a little bit, on the subject of this week's col; it is all right in itself, but as with all Aaro columns, it needs to be fitted into a wider context which is a little bit less neutral. NB here that I am the evil bruschettaboy and I suspect that the nice one and RK might and probably will be closer to CCK's point of view than mine.

Hang on though, the most important thing to note is that this week marks a clean sweep for the AW Friday Forecast team!!! Nick and Dave both on Celebrity Big Brother, Nick on Sir Iqbal Sacranie on gays and Aaro on pervert teachers; all of them successfully predicted on last week's forecasts. The only thing we missed was the weird Lord Winston thing and I don't think anyone could have caught that. If Iran or China show up in the Standard tomorrow then we will be cooking with gas. Either it was an extraordinarily predictable week this week (which I suppose with Gorgeous George in the news it was) or we're getting much better. Congratulations and bragging rights to everybody.

But anyway, back to Aaro. As I say, it's not that objectionable itself. However, it isn't just the Daily Mail that is worked up about this one and it's a bit of a lazy stereotype to pretend it is. The fact of the matter here is that a lot of the "paedo panic" is actually a very long overdue indeed recognition that this is actually very serious crime, devastating to its victims and altogether too difficult to prosecute. It should be recognized more often that the other side of the occasional howling mob chasing after a paediatrician, is the fact that the guilt is these days placed fairly and squarely where it belongs in child abuse cases, whereas for a large part of the twentieth century and before, it wasn't, with predictably horrible consequences for the mental health of child abuse victims. Tom Utley in the Telegraph earlier this week was trying to pretend that child sex abuse in schools was a joking matter about funny old men; if the Daily Mail has really gone mad, then there are quite a couple of journos out there I wish they would bite.

But what I really want to comment on, the "context" advertised in the opening paragraph is how this all fits into the wider scheme of Aaroism. First up, note that this is the "don't worry, be happy" version of the more common "the vulnerability, the fallibility" thesis that we usually see in Aaro columns. They are quite obviously two different sides of the same coin; the central theme is quietism, because we are but frail human beings who cannot really do anything to ameliorate our condition in the chaos of modern life. You get the shiny happy version when it is a government minister in power who really ought to be doing something but isn't (like bird flu or pervert teachers) and the dark fearful version when a government minister really ought not to be doing something but is (like identity cards and Asbos), but what they have in common is that us lot are right out of order in complaining about our political masters; either nothing can be done, or exactly what is being done, must be done. Of course, the original intellectual source for this thesis – that humanity is shaped by historical forces outside its control, but that certain political entities embody these forces and should thus be trusted more or less without question – is fairly and squarely the theory of the vanguard party, originally from Lenin. I am not sure whether it is the entirety of the decent project that comes from this part of the intellectual tradition of Bolshevism or whether it reflect's Aaro's own intellectual heritage, but it is there.

And the entirely uneasy (in my opinion, psychologically completely self-contradictory) relationship with political power which is at the heart of Stalinist politics, permeates the whole column. Aaro really does on many occasions appear to operate a separate, more lenient standard by which to judge the actions of authority figures. They get the benefit of the doubt. Most famously, we have to assume that Blair wasn't lying about WMDs, but on the other hand the anti-war movement is assumed friends of Al-Zarqawi unless it has specifically denounced them. But the double standard operates across the board. The Department of Health can't be blamed for not having an avian flu contingency plan because our health is our own responsbility, but on the other hand Kenneth Clark is to be castigated for selling cigarettes. And so on. In this column, it operates twice:

First, the fact that it is extremely difficult to plough through the files to quickly and easily find out whether there are dangerous sex offenders in our schools is not the fault of Ruth Kelly (because it's a difficult job), but on the other hand the Daily Mail is to be mocked for not having come up with a complete list by lunchtime. The fact that government files and policies on this important issue are in such a complete two-and-eight that nobody has a clue what is going on is a genuine scandal of failure in public administration; it's exactly the sort of thing that the press ought to be reporting on. Rough old luck for Ruth Kelly, but this is the principle of ministerial responsibility and since we are not able to sell the government's shares or stop buying its product, it is pretty much the only sanction we have.

And second, it appears that the news pages of the Times have let him down quite substantially with respect to Mr William Gibson, the star of the joke about Darryl getting pregnant. The Guardian has another detail about the chap's "more detailed history".

Gibson is also a convicted fraudster, having been jailed five years ago after fleecing almost £60,000 from elderly clients while working as a financial adviser. One victim was an 80-year-old widow who handed over £18,000, which Gibson spent on a BMW. When she told him she had lost her home as a result, he wrote out a £100 cheque, which bounced.

I think this pretty much sums up the problem with assuming that the only way teachers can be dangerous to children is by sexually abusing them. If a man is working as a teacher and decides to start a sexual relationship with one of his pupils, then he is someone who has got a totally inappropriate way of relating to people over whom he has influence and authority. Such a man is, to coin a phrase, a wrong 'un. He might not have tried to shag the boys if he had spent the period 1980-2000 teaching in a boys' school, but the fact that he ended up cheating old people out of their lives' savings suggests that there are all sorts of other ways in which this man could have been a baleful influence on their lives. He certainly was not "no kind of threat to adolescent boys". He probably wasn't a sexual threat to them, but he was clearly a damaged personality with insufficient scruples and a systematic abuser of people's trust, and people like that are really great at finding new ways of being a bad person to know. And I think that this point generalizes; people who are in a position of power over others don't get the benefit of the doubt. "Innocent till proven guilty" is an excellent principle of justice for a court system in which people are on trial for their liberty, but a really bad way to choose an accountant. Or an MP, or a teacher.

Shami Chakrabarti, where are you when we need you indeed? In any situation where someone puts themselves forward for a role in which they have a relationship of power over people who are not free to discontinue that relationship, the correct attitude to take to those people is one of mistrust and suspicion. And the greater the power, the more vital this is; other ways of organizing society have been tried but they tend to end up badly. As CCK notes below, there is actually a lot of sense in this week's column, but the overall attitude appears to me to be one of complacency about power, and a dangerous complacency about the abuse of power appears to me to be the main product of the weekly Aaronovitch column. In the link above on the words "don't worry be happy", Aaro notes that (in the context of junk food marketing) "sometimes the old Bolshevik in me comes out". It does indeed, but not on the occasions he thinks and not in the way he thinks.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bear in mind as well that aaro's niche on the Times is as the house Blairoid - the explainer of why, at this time, things are as good as they could possibly be under any conceivable government...and that as an Old Bolshevik, he is never not politically minded.

So I think it's a fair political indicator of the state of play as regards the "project" that the toine adopted is avuncular quietism: Bless me, how much better d'you think anyone else could have done? Polly Toynbee's piece is the mandarin sisterhood version of the same thing: "these are powerful women who want only to help - how can such trifles be held against them.It was the same with Margaret Hodge."

I can already see the theme of Aaro's Cameron in No 10 column

"You know, as the years go by, I think we'll all stop and reflect on what a good government we had and lost, and weren't grateful enough for. Still, Mr Cameron's a good chap basically, who's learned his lessons."

1/17/2006 06:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that was very well put, mostly because it articulated and analysed what I'd thought was Aaro's shortcomings far better than I've managed to date. I think I've posted on his being quite willing to criticise government policy once it's safely out of power, but can only see good in the present rulers.

Aaro does seem complacent about power. The papers worry about paedophiles are being like the guy who abucted a six-year-old from her house, but surely far more child abuse takes place behind closed doors in institutions like orphanages and schools than does out on the street? Polly's point is idiotic. There was a splendid letter in yesterday's Torygraph. "His [Hobbes'] claim was simple: people obey in return for protection and security. The flip side, of course, was that if subjects felt insecure or fearful this bond of obligation might be fractured." "Protection and security" are the basics of Kelly's job, and she's shit at it.

PS I don't know about bragging rights: I said that Aaro wouldn't cover Kelly on Tuesday and he did. Well done to everyone else though.

1/17/2006 10:01:00 PM  

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