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Pod Academy

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Sound thinking: podcasts of current research

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Sound thinking: podcasts of current research

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Average Ratings
Cover image of Pod Academy

Pod Academy

Updated 3 days ago

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Sound thinking: podcasts of current research

Rank #1: Can public servants change the face of local government?

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“Government is made up of people”,  says Dave Seliger, a civil servant in New York City.  So, what might public servants do to change the face of local government?

This is the 6th podcast from Civic Radio. In it Dave Seliger talks to Jo Barratt about the role of civil servants and local government officers in developing a new local government.  Dave is the co-founder of Civic Service at Parsons DESIS Lab and a public servant in the NYC Mayor’s Office.

There are 300,000 civil servants in New York, and Dave says it is important to involve all of them, not just the Mayor and City Hall, in rethinking local government.  So he trains and connects civil servants, bringing together Heads of Local Government Innovation, getting them to meet activists and community advocates,  and helping them understand the role and potential of civic tech.

He also asks how we might get people involved in public service, and particularly looks at why tech savvy people rarely join government – why do they opt for working with Google instead, when the problems they’d have to grapple with in government are so much more challenging…….

Mar 17 2015
23 mins

Rank #2: The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos

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‘Water wars’ used to seem like the stuff of science fiction.  But water poverty is creating major geopolitical upheaval right now in the real world.  It contributed to the Arab Spring in Egypt, and to the growth of ISIS in Syria argues Dr Karen Piper, who teaches post colonial studies and English and is adjunct professor of geography at the University of Missouri.

In this conversation with Pod Academy’s Craig Barfoot, about her extensively researched book, The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos   Dr Piper paints a disturbing picture of the world’s journey towards the ‘coming chaos’ –  including dams that dessicate neighbouring countries and an International Monetary Fund that insists on developing countries handing over their water to multinational corporations who make a profit from drought.

The UN has declared access to clean drinking water to be a human right, but can do little to enforce that right. Karen Piper says that is was scary in conducting her research, to talk to climate scientists, and to see the droughts and coastal erosion and species moving.  But, she says, she met dedicated activists, and her hope is that people can make the change.

Picture of water droplets by Matt Newman

Jan 11 2015
17 mins

Rank #3: Nocturne

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This is a podcast about music.  A podcast about Nocturne.  A podcast of a Nocturne inspired by the BBC’s nightly Shipping Forecast.  Produced and presented by composer, Arthur Keegan-Bole

A K-B:  Oh dear, I crashed the pips. In the world of radio, crashing the pips – that is, talking over the six sine tone beeps that mark the hour on BBC radio – is a serious faux pas. So, please, let me start again.

Hello you are listening to Nocturne, a podcast about music, its relationship with the night. My name is Arthur Keegan-Bole and I’m a composer. The music you’re hearing is a piece I finished at the start of this year. It is called Nocturne and Nocturne is what this podcast is about. In it you will hear about the music’s materials and meaning, especially the role of radio extracts in the sound-world of the music which includes the BBC pips and, everyone’s favourite sedative, the Shipping Forecast. The piece was written and premiered in America so we will also discover how a non-U.K. audience without knowledge of these niche British sounds might understand this music. Let’s start by thinking about what a nocturne is. This is musicologist David Fay

David Fay:  As you can probably tell from the words relationship with the English adjective ‘nocturnal’ a nocturne is a piece of music suggestive of the night. Although the Italian form of the word ‘notturno’ had been used frequently in the 18th Century as a name for pieces that were designed to be performed at night, it was Irishman John Field who first coined the French word ‘nocturne’ to describe a particular musical genre in a set of piano pieces published in 1815. Thereafter the Nocturne became a popular genre of composition for romantic pianist-composers most famously Frederick Chopin whose twenty-one Nocturnes remain the pinnacle of the genre. Field’s Nocturnes and many of those composed by others subsequently are lyrical in nature, with the pianist’s right hand playing a graceful, singing melody over broken chords in the left. The relationship with the night in these piano Nocturnes is usually in their evocation of a tranquil atmosphere which can be associated with the nocturnal ambience of a calm, still night… presumably in the countryside. However, despite the quietly lyrical, pianistic connotations of the word ‘Nocturne’ it has been used as a title for pieces written for other instruments and ensembles particularly from the Twentieth Century onwards. Some of these explore other aspects of the nocturnal environment – whether the natural sounds we hear at night or the world of dreams, or, perhaps, nightmares to which we succumb nightly.

A K-B  I hope my piece simply has the sound of a nocturne – unspecifically yet unequivocally conjuring night-time. However, we all like a story to guide us, and a narrative of some kind helps the composing process a great deal. So, let me ask you… have you ever fallen asleep to the sound of the Shipping Forecast? Between 12:40 and 1:00am a magical series of sounds are broadcast on BBC Radio 4. This is Closedown. A tune called Sailing By kicks it off, this is what is known in the trade as an ‘identifier’ so those trying to tune in can easily find the station, it is also a ‘buffer’ filling time so that the Shipping Forecast (which follows) starts exactly the scheduled time. I’ve always wondered why they use Ronald Binge’s light orchestral tune. Would it not be clearer to continually repeat the name of the station? Perhaps, but that is certainly not good radio. So, to an extent at least it’s an aesthetic choice. For a long time I struggled to sleep, from time-to-time I still do but I can always count on this bit of radio to help me drift. It is about drifting between one state and another all sorts of strange, ‘in-between’ landscapes and seascapes. This is the narrative behind the first half of this music. It is a strange lullaby, drifting between the real and the unconscious, lingering in a penumbral state.

Folk singer Lisa Knapp has recently produced a brilliant radio documentary about artistic responses to the Shipping Forecast so I need not explore that aspect of this music any further. What has less attention than the Shipping Forecast is the poor old pips (those six beeps that mark the hour). A perfunctory acoustic signal…

I love the pips. Have a listen… They are great aren’t they? ! I’ve always heard a latent activity sitting between the pips, a restlessness as they try to break out of their crucial, chronological confines. Can you hear it? No? What about now? A-ha! There you gonow you are getting it!

Many of the British listeners to both the piece and this podcast will, hopefully, share a familiarity with the sounds I draw on in the tape part of Nocturne. A familiarity gained through experiencing the pips and the Shipping Forecast frequently over the airwaves of BBC radio. But what about those who haven’t had this pleasure? What about those who, through indifference, inaccessibility or pure radio phobia have no knowledge of the sonic signals that sculpt the dreamy narrative of Nocturne? The residents of Rochester, New York state for example, where this piece was written and received its premiere? What did the pips and the ships mean to them? Here’s David Fay again whose research into semiotics tackles the tricky tangle that is musical meaning.

D.F.   Meanings are generated in peoples minds as they perceive and interpret signs whilst experiencing music. Which trigger related thoughts and feelings drawn from the listener’s memory. The resulting mental web of what I call meaning-relations – the signs, thoughts and feelings that are brought into contact with one-another whilst listening – draws on the listener’s relevant previous experiences. These are integrated with the signs that are being experienced in the musical situation and a mental concept of the piece’s meaning is built up in the listener’s mind. Meanings stem from the combination of a wealth of different signs from many different media, whether music, words, sights or smells.

A K-B   So, whilst an American audience wouldn’t have previous experience of the Shipping Forecast upon which to draw in their construction of meaning, they would be reminded of radio in general, by the specific grain of sound and the nature of the extracts of spoken material.

D.F.  Moreover [oh, he’s back!] in this particular case, ideas of Britishness would be integrated into their webs of meaning as they recognise the presenter’s BBC accents. And, even though they lack the knowledge of the specific nocturnal signifiers that insomniac British listeners might bring to their understanding of the piece, the title at least would direct American listeners toward a nocturnal interpretation of the piece.

A K-B   Clearly, the meaning of the piece will differ between those who have previous experience of the material referenced in the tape part and those who don’t.

D.F.  However, a core of meanings would probably be shared between listeners either side of the pond given their shared experience of the English language, the medium of radio and also, of course, a common cultural understanding of the Western harmonic tradition that Nocturne exploits to generate it’s hazy, happy sense of tucked up tranquility.

A K-B   Okay. We are winding down now, sleep should soon be upon us. We’ve thought long and hard about it so let’s take a moment to just listen… for a short while at least.

This is the end of this nocturne about Nocturne and Nocturnes. To hear the music in full go to My thanks goes to Tom Torrisi, the guitarist you have been hearing, David Fay, Pod Academy and to you, for listening. Good night.

This is the first of a series on podcasts of New Music by Arthur Keegan-Bole, to be broadcast on Pod Academy in the New Year.

Picture:  Sunset off Portland by Deck Accessory.  Portland is one of the places mentioned in the Shipping Forecast.

If you are an insomniac or a night person, you might also like our podcast Night Walking.

Dec 20 2015
14 mins

Rank #4: Mindwise – can we ever understand what others think, believe or feel?

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How good are we at understanding each other?

Other people are complicated,  so when we try to guess what they’re thinking we often get it wrong.  Even with our partners!  Research suggests that partners are hardly any better (and sometimes worse) at guessing what each other believe or feel than a stranger.

In this wide ranging conversation with Professor Nicholas Epley from Booth School of Business at Chicago University, and author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and WantPod Academy’s Craig Barfoot finds out about empathy, anthropomorphism, hubris and egocentricity.

One thing they discuss is how our egocentricity makes us feel far more noticeable than we are.  As David Foster Wallace said, in Infinite Jest,

“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

This was confirmed in what Professor Epley describes as ‘the most liberating experiment in the entire field of psychology’. Research by Kenneth Savitsky; Thomas Gilovich; Gail Berger and Victoria Medvec found that no one in a room remembered the person wearing a Barry Manilow teeshirt, whereas the wearer of the teeshirt, embarrassed to be seen in this way, thought 50% of the room would remember!

Other issues covered are: do we know what it is like to be tortured? or what it is like to be poor? and how modern warfare has distanced us from death (because if we are too close it is difficult to kill someone).

This is a fascinating exploration of what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make.

Feb 12 2014
24 mins

Rank #5: A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic

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Child and family therapist Dr Marilyn Wedge talks to Craig Barfoot about her latest book, A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD Became an American Epidemic

Over the course of her career as a child and family therapist, Marilyn Wedge has witnessed an ‘astronomical rise’ in the number of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Until 1995 she had hardly heard of ADHD, but over the following decades the number of children on medication for ADHD grew and grew until now 13% of boys and 5% of girls in the US – 6 million children –  are on prescription drugs (mainly Ritalin and Adderall) with that diagnosis.

But this approach is not shared by other countries,  A child in the US is 8 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than in France, and 80 times more likely than in Finland!  Dr Wedge says this is because in those countries, when a child is exhibiting difficult behaviour they look at the context – perhaps the child is unhappy at school, or seeing their parents fight at home – and they address the problem rather than medicate the child.  She points out that in the US a child can be taken to the doctor, and receive a diagnosis of ADHD and a prescription for drugs in 15 minutes, while in France the observation and consultations are likely to take 8 hours.

Why? because ‘biological psychiatry has taken over the field of psychiatry in the US’  says Dr Wedge.  The view that the problem is in the child’s brain or nervous system, rather than in his or her environment was set out for the first time in DSM 3 in 1980, and Dr Wedge points the finger at the pharmaceutical companies for this approach.

Dr Wedge argues that psychiatry needs to completely change it approach, and look at the child’s environment, offering help to parents through parenting classes etc.

Website mentioned in podcast:

Marylin’s blog on Psychology today:

Photo:  Family Portrait by Jörg Schubert

Apr 12 2015
33 mins

Rank #6: Sugar, sugar everywhere

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Podcast produced and presented by Lee Millam

“A chocolate hug”.  That’s how one person we talked to describes her ‘addiction’ to sugar and chocolate.

Sugar is everywhere.  It is added to virtually all processed foods from pizza and curry sauces to soups, and fishcakes.

The average person in the UK eats the equivalent of 15 teaspoons a day (that’s probably an underestimate as few people are honest about their sugar intake)- but the recommended level is no more than 6 teaspoons per person per day.  We crave chocolate and other sweet things.

And it has had a huge impact on our health and our health services.  Not only is it very bad for our teeth (Queen Elizabeth 1 had black teeth from eating too much sugar), but it is a major contributor to obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

In this podcast Lee Millam talks to Professor Graham MacGregor of the Wolfson Institute who says we are not exactly ‘addicted’ to sugar, but rather, we are habituated to sugar.  We now expect it in our food. “You get used to a lot of sugar in things and your sugar taste receptors get suppressed and you then prefer more and more sugar.”

So why are we consuming so much sugar?  Professor MacGregor points the finger at the food industry.  The food industry, he says, is feeding us rubbishy, cheap, tasteless food, and making it more attractive by adding sugar, salt and palm oil – all of which are very bad for us. Sugar is a cheap additive, it bulks up the food and makes us crave it.  The industry is good at marketing cheap foods to poor communities, including children in poor communities, and the result is high rates of obesity and diabetes. And now, he says, they are planning on moving into India and China and Vietnam to sell this ‘rubbish food’.

So what is to be done?  Professor MacGregor dismisses the idea of promoting healthy eating, and says we have to ban products with high sugar content (and high levels of saturated fat and salt).  And all of us, individually, must avoid eating biscuits, and confectionery and give up drinking soft drinks and fruit juice.

All music from
  1. EX LUNA – Serial Project – LAFAYETTE 
  2. Abstract Nostalgic Fractals Systems – Floating In A Lake Of Happiness
  3. Project 5am – The Dream

Photo, Lips Like Sugar AJC

Apr 09 2015
15 mins

Rank #7: ‘It’s a war zone now, here’

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The films of truly outstanding director Spike Lee take a special niche in American cinema. More than that, they especially enrich so-called Black cinema. Lee’s oeuvre includes a great number of films. To mention just some of them: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), Love & Basketball (2000), Bamboozled (2000), Red Hook Summer (2012), finally, his recently released Chi-Raq (2015).

This podcast is presented and produced by Tatiana Prorokova a Doctoral Candidate in American Studies at Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany.

Lee’s works have received a lot of acclaim from their audience as well as from film critics due to the issues raised by the director and the way these problems are formulated and presented to us. African American director Spike Lee manages to present to America racial problems the country has wallowed in in the most authentic and explicit way. Houston A. Baker, Jr., comments: “Lee’s first films are low-budget, minor masterpieces of cultural undercover work. They find the sleeping or silenced subject and deftly awaken him or her to consciousness of currents that run deep and signify expensively in Black America” (166). The scholar continues, shrewdly pinpointing the peculiarity of Spike Lee’s cinema: “Now, it is not that Lee’s films are devastatingly original, telling us always things we do not know. What is striking about his work is that it is, in fact, so thoroughly grounded in what we all know, but refuse to acknowledge, speak, regret, or change” (167, author’s emphasis). Dan Flory contends that the main goal of Lee’s works is “to make the experience of racism understandable to white audience members who ‘cross over’ and view his films” (40). In this respect, one can even talk about particular types of characters or images created by this director, like, for example, “‘sympathetic racists,’” defined as “[white] characters with whom mainstream audiences readily ally themselves but who embrace racist beliefs and commit racist acts”; or “unsympathetic black characters with whom many audience members might feel little or nothing in common” (40-41). At the same time, Baker singles out another aim that Lee seeks to fulfill in his films: “His [Lee’s] mission is freedom – that monumental and elusive ‘it’ that Black folks have always realized they gotta have” (175).

Spike Lee’s new film, Chi-Raq, however, stands out of the long row of Lee’s previous works due to the problems raised as well as the projected urgency of doing something about these issues. The director starts his film reporting shocking details about the death rate in one of America’s largest cities – Chicago. While in its most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has lost 2,349 and 4,424 Americans respectively, during the same period, 7, 356 people were murdered in Chicago, which, shockingly displays that it has been safer for Americans in war-torn countries in the Middle East rather than in this American city. Thus, calling Chicago Chi-Raq, Lee claims that it is America’s second Iraq. The film later criticizes U.S. foreign and domestic policy that arguably led to the criminal activity in Chicago. For example, when a priest, being overwhelmed by the numbers and age of the recently killed people, exclaims: “Where was their freedom? Where was their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” He overtly refers to America’s mission in the Middle East to liberate the oppressed; however, he implicitly argues that while fighting far away, the United States does not notice the growing problems on its own territory, among its own citizens, specifically among “young black males”. The issue is later touched upon again by one of the heroines (Angela Bassett) who openly blames America for what is happening in Chicago: “The U.S. spends money on the Iraqi people – to train them, govern them, help them build an economy. Billions and billions of dollars! The Afghan people too. They don’t do economic development like that here on the South Side. See, Americans like war. They like guns.” Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) blames the government for not doing anything against poverty and not investing into education, thus, creating a situation when a huge number of Americans “go from third rate schools to first class high-tech prisons.” Finally, the main heroine – Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) – calls Barack Obama “President Hussein-Obama,” which is a very strong metaphor for the inaction or wrong actions of the U.S. Administration that have made Chicago what it is now.

Apart from revealing the terrifying criminal activity in Chicago (which, as Lee makes it explicit, is the problem of other big cities, too), where children and young men and women get shot every day on busy streets and nobody can do anything, the film also displays positive images of Chicago – its tall buildings, clean streets, and majestic monuments. Working with the contrast, Lee apparently does not give up hope for a better future that the city might have once the government starts paying more attention to the problems of African Americans and young African Americans choose another life for themselves and their future children.

The film turns into a speculation on what could happen when somebody eventually decided to stop violence on the streets of Chi-Raq. And here Lee’s work echoes ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata whose plot is based on a rather comic story: women make men stop the war by means of denying any sexual privileges. This is exactly what the main heroine of Chi-Raq, named Lysistrata, persuades the women of Chi-Raq to do in order to stop violence. Having sworn not to have sex with any men unless peace is negotiated, women go on a strike. It is, however, interesting that these are women who rise up to end up this war. The reason for it can be easily explained by the fact that women suffer most of all from violence organized by men who kill their children, lovers, and husbands. A woman is therefore celebrated in its most conventional role of a mother.

While first taken as a silly joke, the strike eventually becomes even a bigger problem for the local men than shootings. And here, I claim, Spike Lee skillfully turns the focus of his film from the problem of guns to the overt problem of sexism that exists in the community. The only effective measure that can be taken in order to stop the war is to deprive men of their access to women, which they have always been taking for granted. Whereas women also seem to suffer from this new rule and, at first, even express their dissatisfaction, these are men who eventually get angry about women for not obeying them, thus, refusing to be men’s sexual objects. And while in the original play such an attitude toward women may be treated by the audience rather neutrally, the fact that the situation repeats in the twenty-first century is outrageous.

Having put on the most revealing clothes, exposing their bodies, wearing a red lipstick while on a strike, women both provoke and mock men who treat a woman as nothing more than a pretty doll who is good only at satisfying man’s needs. In turn, a man is the one who governs the city. Women of Chi-Raq disagree, claiming, “saving lives – that’s our job”. While Lysistrata proclaims that women’s mission is to “giv[e] the hood the true meaning of life,” one of the men asks: “What is the true meaning of life?” Lysistrata obviously becomes confused with this reaction; yet, now she realizes that all that power that men seem to have accumulated in their hands, making the community overtly patriarchal, is fake.

Women realize that only they have enough power to change their life in the city – to transform Chi-Raq back into Chicago. And the key to this transformation, according to the film, is respect. In one of the scenes, Lysistrata claims, “we deserve respect” and I argue this is the main message of the film. Citizens deserve respect from their government; people deserve to live respecting each other; women deserve to be respected by men. Once people start to respect each other, there will be no shootings, no innocent deaths, no racism, and no sexism.

Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq therefore becomes an urgent message to, first of all, millions of Americans. Lee openly demonstrates that while the United States has deserved a reputation of one of the most democratic and economically stable states, the country remains blind to its most pressing domestic problems. It comes as no surprise that the director starts his film with the words “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY”, desperately hoping to attract attention of as many viewers as possible.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A., Jr. “Spike Lee and the Commerce of Culture.” Black American Cinema. Ed. Manthia Diawara. New York: Routledge, 1993. 154-76. Print.

Chi-Raq. Dir. Spike Lee. Perfs. Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, and Angela Bassett. Roadside Attractions, 2015. DVD.

Flory, Dan. Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir. University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 2008. Print.

Feb 28 2016
11 mins

Rank #8: New Citizenship Project

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The New Citizenship project wants to challenge the idea of an individual as a consumer – and replace it with the individual as a citizen, using the techniques of marketing and public relations(usually associated with consumerism) to do so.

in this latest podcast from Civic Radio, Jo Barratt talks to  Jon Alexander and Irenie Wilson, the Directors of the New Citizenship Project.

Has the world of commerce encroached irrevocably on our civic spaces, and how much do we care? How much is civic exclusion growing because of what participation demands or expects of us? Civic Radio is on the road, seeking out the people and organisations that are exploring these topics in different ways.

The New Citizenship Project is interested in how you create a shift in the dominant story of the individual in society from the Consumer to the Citizen.

Subscribe on iTunes to Citizen Radio..

Produced by Jo Barratt.

This is the latest podcast in the Civic Radio series.

Other podcasts in this series can be found here:

Apr 03 2015
22 mins

Rank #9: Prison – Does it work? Can it work?

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‘Lock them up and throw away the key!’ is something that is often heard.  But does locking someone up for committing a crime really work to punish an individual? What about having them come back into society a changed person, asks presenter and producer Lee Millam in this podcast.

Prisons, why do we send people there?  Does it work?  Should it work?  This was the subject of a recent lecture at Gresham College in the City of London.  It is one lecture from a series on Law and Lawyers at Gresham College, presented by Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice QC.  He explains why we lock up criminals…..

Geoffrey Nice:  …..for a range of reasons, many of them not fully articulated.  You could look back and say thata there are some coherent lines of justification – deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation (those are the standard ones).  But does it really explain our attitude towards imprisonment.  I rather doubt it.

Not only are people complex, but our reactions to people are complex too.  Take those who, on some objective calculation, would be less culpable but get more opprobrium and heavier sentences than those who are in one sense guiltier but get lesser sentences.  The most obvious examples are those who really cannot control themselves because of their upbringing – such as sex offenders who have themselves been formed by childhood, have been victims of sex offences and may become sex offenders themselves. They draw the maximum opprobrium from society, and not the understanding that they themselves are victims.

So we are complicated in the way we respond to crime. There is no great political dividend in rehabilitating people, at least there doesn’t seem to be in our country.

Interestingly there are changes around the world. Norway is rather leading the way.  Its prisons are so shockingly liberal that people from America and England can’t probably recognise them as prisons at all!  Their purpose is to enable people to rejoin society.  And these prisons have a recidivist rate of 20% whereas the US and England have recidivism rates of about 70%.  Why aren’t we spending more time looking at that/

Lee Millam: If other countries are more successful at rehabilitating prisoners, then there must be lessons to learn from other systems in other parts of the world.  But there are some crimes where prison is the only answer.

GN: There are some people who are so dangerous they do have to be restricted so that is one justifiable expense – though whether it has to be done in this way, given modern technology, is another issue.

I think it is really a desire to punish people that justifies what we do.  I may not be on that wing of public opinion, but what is clear is that you have to carry public opinion with youon an issue like this.  Change from where we are to something more humane, or rather more liberal (as it would now be described) is going to take some time.

It is also going to be more difficult to do that in a society where so many of the other structures, in their own way, almost require punishment and offenders.  The rich need the poor, the good need the bad, the apparently lawful need criminals.

You could argue, in a rather nasty way, we don’t actually want to live in a crime free society.  So if you’ve got an aggressively capitalist society with great divergence of wealth, it is probably inevitable that you are going to want to punish, or will punish, those who offend the implied values of such a society.  Maybe as long as you’ve got a society that , since the 1960s has believed in all aspects of sexual liberalism, it is in some curious and perverse way particularly hard on those who transgress what is left of the law on sexual control.  Mary Whitehouse may well be shown, in due course, to have been right.  More and more people may be thinking it wasn’t quite so good to create a sexually liberal society, one of the consequences of which is that people had to do more thing to temper it.

LM: Many voters want criminals punished for their crimes, but perhaps there are other wasy of asking those who have committed a crime to  pay back to society.

GN: Politicians only get elected if they promise more prison, and everyone starts ratcheting each other up.  That is why the US has such a huge prison population – larger than anyone else’s.

LM: Many would argue that sending someone to prison doesn’t always work.  If prison isn’t the answer, what is?]

GN: Prison isn’t the right way forward.  There has to be not only a recognition of the utilitarian advantages of a more liberal system as in Norway.  But there also has to be an acceptance (which will be much harder) that it isn’t always necessary to punish people, however bad are the things they have done.

Our system [here in the UK] is not that different from China, North America, Australia.  You have to achieve recognition that other systems work according to the parameters you set, which would be utilitarian as opposed to retributive parameters.  And then you have got to get people to be willing to do without that element of condign punishment that is perhaps part of our national psyche, and part of the psyche of lots of other countries.  So it is a big shift and it would be a daring politician who let it!

The full lecture and transcript of Geoffrey Nice’s lecture can be found here.


  • ‘Good enough’ – CuzOH
  • ‘Cold Noise’ – time

Photo: Still Burning

Jan 03 2016
7 mins

Rank #10: Marxism and the Oppression of Women

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First published in 1983, Lise Vogel’s seminal work, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, was seized on by a generation of feminists who called themselves Marxist feminists, but were finding the fragmentation of socialism and feminism difficult to navigate.  Now republished, it was launched (or, rather, re-launched) at the Historical Materialism Conference in London in late 2014.  Pod Academy was at the launch, and recorded the platform speakers:

  • Lise Vogel,   Professor (retired) of Sociology at Rider University and the author of numerous books and articles. Before becoming a sociologist, she had an earlier career in art history.
  • Dr. Tithi Battacharya. associate professor at Purdue Liberal Arts University in the US,
  • Kate Davison, of Melbourne University
  • Dr  Sue Ferguson, Associate Professor of Digital Media and Journalism at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, who co-wrote, with David McNally, the introduction to the new edition of the book.

This bookpod has been made possible by a grant from the Amiel Melburn Trust

You may also be interested in our recording of the Beyond the Fragments event held in London in 2013.

May 04 2015
46 mins

Rank #11: Civic innovation and the interconnected city

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“Citizenship is about participating in a thing that is bigger than yourself and in which everyone has an equal stake.”  says architect Bryan Boyer.

In this latest podcast from Civic Radio, Bryan Boyer a US architect who spent some time in the Finnish Innovation Fund in Helsinki, talks to Jo Barratt about re-imagining the libraries in New York and the importance of reconceptualising the civic.

With a bill for repairs that would top $1bn dollars (more than a universal childcare pledge), a grand library building programme was unlikely to be championed by New York politicians, so Boyer and his team had to find another approach, one that would leverage alternative forms of capital – time, expertise and also the institutional weight of individuals, communities, museums,  and non-profit organisations  – which could effectively  de-risk investment in civic assets.  It is, he says, crucial to demonstrate that innovation can bring good results, and at the same time de-risk the innovation (innovation can be scary for politicians), so that local politicians can buy in.

So what role does he see for public institutions?  For Boyer they provide ‘continuity and scale’.  Pubic institutions are important because, he says, they deal with large numbers of people in equal, fair and consistent ways.  However, because of their sheer scale they have often abstracted the detail – it is statiscitcal analysis rather than the experiences and needs of individuals, that drives policy. The big issue is making public instituions more responsive.

A lot of people in the UK are talking about a ‘digital public space’,could this be the answer?  According to Boyer it is important (and he commends for its friendly interface), but ‘we still need to coexist on the street.’  We have to rethink how the core of an institution works.

So,  do civil servants really understand the potential of open data portals?  Boyer is clear that top civil servants know that a different approach is needed(but feel constrained by the system), and certainly front line staff at the bottom of the food chain know what is at stake and have the best ideas of what is needed.  But there are two problems.  Firstly, the tech community is not coming up with the killer apps that will seize the initiative, and secondly the huge number of civil servants in what he calls the ‘Fat Middle’ (a term he used in Helsinki) is so disconnected from the everyday concerns of citizens that they cannot see the need for a new way of working.

How can  ‘civic spaces’ (such as schools, parks, post offices and libraries) retain their importance at the heart of the community when they are increasingly facing competition from private providers?  The so-called ‘white flight’ from US cities in the 1980s meant a lower tax base for public services, which led to a vicious cycle of decline – the services deteriorated, so few people were then prepared to fight for them, they became sink services.

In part, says Boyes, this is a failure of the conceptualisation of the civic.  We need to develop services that people really want to use, and persuade them to participate in those services as citizens but, importantly, it is also about initiating a healthy conversation about funding the civic parts of our lives.

A key recognition is that civic institutions are linked – the swimming pool and the library and the park together give us an understanding of the connectedness of the city as a whole – and of utmost importance is affordable, efficient public transport that enables us to move around the city, and the safety and cleanliness of our streets.  Here there is also a role for civic tech – to connect us to what is going on (though as Boyes points out, he doesn’t know of one single place where information on  all the events and activities being run by the public authorities can be viewed.)


Photo of Tampa, Florida by John T Howard 

This podcast is part of the Civic Radio series of the Civic Shop which is temporarily housed at Somerset House in London.

And you can subscribe to the Tech For Good feed on iTunes – just search in the iTunes store).

Other podcasts in this series can be found here:

Mar 27 2015
28 mins

Rank #12: Arts policy – a new approach

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A radical vision for arts policy should be at the heart of any progressive government argue Professor Rod Stoneman and Adam Stoneman.

Note: This is not a transcript of the podcast interview with Rod and Adam, but rather the text of a paper by them on arts policy.

Restoring financial support for the arts would hardly amount to a radical transformative vision for the arts.  The major proposals in a recent document from the Labour party, for example, were entirely defensive: ‘reinstate arts funding’, ‘safeguard our galleries and museums’, ‘protect the BBC’.

It does not have to be like this; in 1965, Government Minister Jennie Lee published Britain’s first cultural white paper, ‘A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps’, in which she addressed uneven regional distribution and unequal access to the arts and committed state support for infrastructure. The paper led to the creation of countless museums, galleries and concert halls across the country and completely transformed Britain’s cultural landscape. Rather than attempting to merely return to this post-war model of funding however, we should apply its principles to the challenges of the present.

Access and involvement.

Research shows that well-educated middle-class professionals are most likely to be drawn to the areas of the cultural sector that are dependent on public funding such as opera and theatre, with those on less well-educated unskilled and semi-skilled workers tending to be more involved in the commercial culture industry. Instead of restoring a subsidy model that entrenches this division, we should seize the opportunity to change the funding system in a way that broadens and deepens the audiences that engage with publicly funded arts.

The prevalence of unpaid internships and unpaid labour in the arts presents a major financial barrier to access for those who do not come from privileged backgrounds. Discussion of a ‘real living wage’ to protect arts workers is a good start but there should be a root and branch approach to tackling the lack of diversity in arts organisations, from the shop floor to upper management – of the directors of our ten most popular museums, all are white and only one is a woman.

Renewed and dynamic versions of culture need to be brought out of the institutions into the widest public sphere; for large sections of the population there are invisible barriers to entering galleries, arts centres and concert halls – we can unconsciously assume “those places are not for me”. We should be looking to bring art activities beyond existent facilities to intervene directly in public spaces and within communities. Theatre groups working on civic initiatives, artists’ placements, musical ensembles from housing estates, filmmakers in workplaces and writers conducting workshops in local libraries enable myriad forms of individual and group self-activation. A focus should be placed on facilitating and empowering marginalised communities to speak without constant mediation; this would include the funding of workshops, training and skills-based initiatives, enabling communities to shape discourse about themselves from the very beginning. Importantly this should not be sidelined into ‘community art’ as once-off, philanthropic gestures but should be a guiding principle of national arts policy.

Public art can renew the sense that urban space belongs to all of us. The success of the Fourth plinth project in Trafalgar square, or the use of billboards to display modern painting in Tehran demonstrates this well. Too much of our visual environment is dominated by commercial marketing; companies operating billboards on public land could be required to periodically devote space to classical or contemporary art.

Regional access should be inclusive, localised and democratic; London, and to a lesser extent, the other select urban centres benefit disproportionately from arts funding. Publicly funded theatre, dance, music or art exhibitions must achieve wider geographical coverage, engaging with parts of the country that have tended to miss out. In delivering all this, we should prioritise support for democratic initiatives emanating from practitioners, with artist-led galleries in the visual arts, film workshops, musicians’ and writers’ associations.


The British government has dropped art history from its rosta of A-levels, but it is crucial to remove barriers to arts education, possibly using a new pupil premium. This should be undertaken as part of a wider strategy to reinstate the arts at all levels of the educational system.

We must encourage creativity throughout national curricula; excelling at the natural sciences and mathematics requires the kind of creativity and invention that the arts develop. The teaching of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) subjects should include Art to make ‘STEAM’. This approach draws on the interconnectedness of these disciplines and leads to productive interactions. Students should be encouraged to discover the science of art and vice-versa.

Broadcasting and arts institutions.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to take on the complex question of public service broadcasting but suffice to say a radical arts policy must go beyond defending BBC funding and look to transform it into a more transparent, accountable and open institution. The BBC must serve to challenge the market logic and commercial instincts of private media.

Quangos like the Arts Council and the British Film Institute that fund and administer arts bodies are dangerously opaque and unaccountable. While the ‘arms length’ principle separating government from actual funding decisions is still correct, it is untenable that these organisations’ workings are hidden from the public and that their CEOs can enjoy inflated six figure salaries.

Leisure for all.

In 1894, alongside the call for an eight hour working day, William Morris proposed the slogan “leisure for all”, underlining the importance of the arts to his socialist vision of the future. In a post-industrial age in which our jobs are increasingly automated, the arts can take a more central role in our lives, replacing the ‘prosaic’ with the ‘poetic’ and providing the catalyst for new ideas and for change. Art is communal and active; it is the emotional and intellectual air we breathe and it can play a key role in the construction of different kind of society.

The positive economic and employment effects of the arts sector are relevant but not the only motivation for the creative industries; cost benefit analysis and key performance indicators should not be the primary criteria for developing and assessing policies. Arguments for the arts should not be so habitually defensive and hide behind voodoo economics.

As Gaston Kaboré, a West African filmmaker, suggested: “Culture is not as short-term an issue as the politicians think. In a deep sense it is the route to the future, a projection of how we understand our future.” A radical vision for the arts is essential.

Adam Stoneman works in heritage education in North London, Rod Stoneman works in television and cinema. Both have written extensively on arts, culture and politics.

Picture: mural by Banksy on the wall of the Baribcan Centre in London, to mark an exhibition of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Extracts at start of interview:

  • Kate Tempest ‘People’s Faces’
  • Kenneth Brannagh reading from The Tempest at the opening of the 2012 Olympics
  • A beat box with people dancing at this year’s Notting Hill Carnival
  • Pavarotti – Turandot
Nov 02 2017
13 mins

Rank #13: The ethics of space exploration

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When you use a SatNav, or check a modern weather forecast, you’re using technology made possible by space exploration. Emerging space industries include tourism, and some tentative plans to mine asteroids, or the Moon, for rare materials. Space now has its lawyers, its policymakers, and even its ethicists. Robert Seddon went to King’s College, London, to meet Tony Milligan, a moral philosopher who has worked extensively on the ethics of space exploration.

Robert Seddon:  So, how did that begin?

Tony Milligan:  Well, that’s a piece of guidance from my students, in fact. There was a student who wanted to work on the issue of terraforming—which is one of the big, sexy issues in space ethics—and I thought, hmmm, does the world really need this to be done? And then I looked into it, and he produced the work, and it was a good piece of work. So I thought, this bears looking into a little bit closer; so I did a short course, and the blurb advertising the course was picked up by Space Policy, the journal: they invited me to write an article. And then from the article other people wanted other things, so it sort of snowballed into a new research direction for me, which was good, because it’s a fresh area, and it’s interesting stuff, and you’re also dealing with things that matter. And that’s always a nice added bonus.

RS: Do you see much engagement from people involved in space industries in practical terms?

TM: Well… up to a point. I think there are people who want to have a story about the importance of space. Elon Musk wants to have a story about backing up the biosphere and the ethical significance of what they’re doing, and he’s got shareholders that he has to keep happy, and so on. So there is that high level interest, and the stories aren’t particularly convincing ones from an academic ethicist’s point of view, but they’re interesting stories. And then you’ve got the wilder reaches of the ethics of space, which is all about really big questions, and it doesn’t connect up with the agencies.

And then you’ve got stuff that’s done by people like myself, Jacques Arnould… And we try, in our own modest ways, to be embedded, not… We would like, ideally, more of a dialogue, I think, with the players within industry, but you already have the agencies, you have NASA, you have the European Space Agency, and we connect up at that level.

And so at the moment, for example, there’s a white paper getting put together—I’m meant to be doing editing; I’ll diligently do that tomorrow—and that’s for the establishing of a European institute for astrobiology, and the role of the key people that you would want across Europe, with some feed-in from NASA people and elsewhere, to the rationale to get that off the ground and funded. And one of the things that we say in the white paper is that we need to get, to move, beyond that level of academics talking to the institutions. We also need much more of a dialogue with people from industry.

RS: Do you think Musk and co. will get what they want, or will they have to make do with something else?

TM: Well, nobody ever gets quite what they want… or if they do then they’re never quite sure that it’s what they wanted. When you’ve got investors, when it’s a big money game, when there’s a lot on the line, you have to sell things quite hard. So it’s difficult to understand, or difficult to separate out, what’s the image, what’s the sales patter, from what he realistically expects will be realised. One of the things that usually is over-optimistic is time scales. So there are people: Mars One and so on… (That’s not Elon Musk; Musk’s much more… He’s got the technology to do stuff. Mars One doesn’t.) But they’ll talk about: well, we’re going to put somebody on Mars within a couple of years—and that’s ridiculous: there’s nothing… There’s no way you’re getting there. So they’ll change their time scales, and so on, and you get the same thing up to a point with Musk, and you get the same thing up to a point with Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.

So there they have this plane which will take you up into space, and just the very tip of it, just the very edge of it. And they’ve a small-scale model, and it’s going to be simple to scale it up… Ten years later, and the scaling up process looks like it might finally be heading somewhere. So it happens. Progress gets made in terms of the achievement of the goals which are being set by the big financial players, but the progress doesn’t necessarily get made within the time scales that they initially envisage, or even within the time scales that they generally revise a couple of years down the line.

RS: And does that also apply to the ethics of space exploration?

TM: Yes… Where are we in terms of the development of the ethics? Well, we’re in a better situation than we were ten or fifteen years ago, because we have more of a couple of things. We have more of a serious literature, good scholars who’ve done their work and are familiar with the various ethical theories, and who’re not just… They don’t just sit down and say, well, we have three ethical theories, we have deontology and we have consequentialism and we have virtue ethics, and what I’m going to do is, I’m going to write a paper which applies each of these to this particular problem in space ethics. That’s not kind of ideal because the appreciation of the ethical theories doesn’t go through every line that they have, so it’s kind of forced. So we have a better literature.

But we also have an emerging international community of scholars who are much more connected up to one another, and are much more familiar with each other’s work. We go to the same conferences, we sit on the same panels, we publish in the same journals and edited volumes, and that’s crucial in terms of separating out what’s realistic space ethics from what’s a more speculative thing. Because nobody does it all on their own. You have to have that disciplining element of an emerging and expanding and well informed community of fellow scholars too… Well, I need that to make sure that I don’t say quite as many crazy things as I might otherwise say. I mean, I still say crazy things, obviously—but not so many as I would.

RS: I suppose the sceptical position would be something like: look, this is perfect virgin territory. It’s all empty space, it’s rocks… These are resources free for the taking by the first people able to get to them. How could there possibly be a moral concern here?

TM: Well, I think there’s a certain number of reasons why there can be moral concern. First of all, you could run those arguments with the Grand Canyon. You could run them with Ayer’s Rock. But nobody’s about to go mine Ayer’s Rock for driveway chips. There would be objections. Nobody’s about to say, look, we have this big, big space in the United States, we have got some serious problems in terms of agricultural waste—let’s dump all the agricultural waste into the Grand Canyon. Technically feasible but nobody’s going to buy it. And that’s because places sometimes are deemed to have a certain kind of significance. And you can run the arguments about why that is the case: some of them appeal to the significance that these places have in terms of history and culture and the ways that we’ve interacted with them, and that’s certainly the case with Ayer’s Rock. Ayer’s Rock is this sacred site, so you don’t get to muck about with that, any more than you get to muck about with Stonehenge. And if somebody says, you know, it’s just a rock, or if somebody says, these are just bluestones at Stonehenge, so I’m going to take them and use them in a nearby building, nobody’s going to buy that.

TM: So when you get into the detail, if somebody asks you to… If somebody’s asked, what is your ethical theory, then you’ll probably reply in terms that make it seem that humans—or perhaps, on an extended account, humans and other sentient creatures—are the only things that you can have ethical concern about. But then when you look at the way in which they actually respond and the way in which people lead their lives, then you see a much broader patterning. A wider range of things turn out to be ethically significant to beings of our sort.

So when it comes to the Moon, for example, you’re talking about something that’s been culturally significant for a very long period of time. But you’re also talking about one of the few places within the Solar System where we could actually go. A limited number of planets: one of them is just too close to the Sun, you’d just… It’s a nice way to get cremated. If you go outwards to the further reaches of the Solar System then you’re reaching gas giants. Now we don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to do anything even with the gas giants. And the reason for that is that you start to get to… Because they’re enormously big compared to the Earth, you start to get really big gravitation problems. These are big gravitational wells that, if you fall into them, it’s going to take a lot of energy to get back out.

So that means places like Mars and the Moon… These are the big candidates for other large-scale bodies within the Solar System that we could actually envisage human beings settling on. So we don’t necessarily want to turn them into quarries. Or we don’t want to use all of them as quarries, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of future humans.

Now there’s a thought there that, well, that’s just limiting ourselves to thinking about the Solar System. When we get out and beyond that, as Star Trek so repeatedly informs us we will, then it’ll be hunky dory. There’ll be all of these worlds for us to explore, and complete with Arabesque civilisations and things like that. But the reality is we don’t know that we’re ever going to be in a position to get beyond the Solar System. And therefore, even in terms of what is of value for humans, in terms of our human future, in terms of what there will be for future generations of humans to enjoy and to utilise and to live as part of, you’re talking about a very, very small, limited resource, and limited resources of a valuable sort, of the kinds of things that you cherish.

So I’m going to kick the argument that, well, these are just rocks—I’m going to kick that into the long grass, and say, that doesn’t understand… It’s just a lack of understanding of what we are and a lack of understanding of what’s available to us.

RS: Say, damaging the Moon… The way the Moon looks—the culturally significant way the Moon looks—there’s a plausible case for thinking, it’s already been damaged and defaced, hasn’t it? What more could a quarry do?

TM: Well, that’s an interesting question… Suppose we take an ethical concept is sometimes applied to the Moon, and that’s the concept of integrity. Now, if you look at Futurama: they turn the Moon, I think, into a golf course. And it’s the incongruity of the Moon just being used as this mundane object, as a lunar golf course… Or is it Mars they do that with? They do something. It’s a theme park in the Moon… Anyway, it’s inappropriate uses, and it’s the way in which the comic utilisation is so out of keeping with the character of the of the place which makes it a kind of funny thing.

But does that mean that, even if we think that certain kinds of uses of the Moon, or of Mars, would be, as it were, not just change but damage—in some way violate the integrity of these places—that doesn’t mean to say that all change is wrong. Nor could all change be ruled out, for the reasons that you’ve mentioned. Even though the lunar surface is to a large extent, as it were, four-and-a-bit billion years ago, there’s impacts upon the Moon all the time. So then we have to develop some kind of ethical theory about the kinds of changes that would seem reasonable, that would be permissible. And the kinds of changes which would rob future generations of the opportunity to experience the Moon in particular ways: to rob them of that opportunity to have, as it were, wilderness experiences.

RS: Are there any changes that could be seen as positive? I’m thinking of the idea—which perhaps you’d want to reject—that someday we might terraform Mars and make it more Earth-like: turn a dead world into a living one.

TM: I’m not sure if it’s a dead world… We tend to use terminology that loads the bases. So if it’s ‘dead’, then obviously, if we reanimate then that’s a wonderful thing. But we don’t know if there was ever life there, and if there wasn’t life there it doesn’t make that much sense to speak of it as a dead world. Another one that’s used is ‘barren world’.

TM: But there are different ways of speaking about these places. To say ‘dead’ and to say ‘barren’ suggests one thing; to point out that the biggest volcano in the Solar System is on Mars: you’ve got Olympus Mons… To point out that you have the Valles Marineris, which would have… You could fit the Grand Canyon into the Valles multiple times. You have the unique geology. You have the awesome landscape of the place: features that, for example, would be as significant, perhaps, to humans who settle upon Mars at some point in the future, as, say, Ayer’s Rock or Stonehenge are to us. Now, do we want to rob them of that kind of opportunity? Do we want to preserve the opportunities of encountering the most striking environmental features of Mars, which are features nowhere reproduced within the Solar System? They’re unique.

RS: Some of the biased language we use, even in relation to wilderness on Earth… We call it pristine, untouched, unspoilt. It seems to be quite sceptical about human involvement. And I think there’s something similar, sometimes, in relation to space: the idea that we haven’t always been responsible stewards of our own Earth, that we’d better get it right this time, that we might risk polluting space… that we already are, perhaps?

TM: Well, we already have done. We’ve got all of those… to improve telecommunications, back in the Sixties, all of those millions of little dipole antennae. They blasted them out into space with the notion that it helps to bump the signals back. But of course they’re an absolute menace out there now, and all the space junk that we’re developing industries to try and cope with. Of course space seemed really open and really free at first, but when you get to cislunar space, when you get to just beyond the medium atmosphere of the Earth, things can get really pretty crowded pretty quickly when you’re continuously firing things up there.

But when you go beyond that, there are reasons why we don’t want to contaminate. One is the science: so you don’t want forward contamination, because we want to know what we can about life, and we would like to detect rudimentary forms of current or historic life somewhere else. But in order to be sure of the results we have to make sure that we didn’t bring it there—and we have done that kind of thing before. Somebody sneezed on one of the camera lenses of the Apollo mission—the Moon landing missions—and on a different world that could have had very different consequences. That stuff wouldn’t happen now; but we want to protect these places for the science.

And we want to make sure that certain kinds of irreversible changes are done in the right way. So for example, you speak about terraforming. Now, if you’re going to terraform Mars, then you have to melt some of that water and carbon dioxide ice at the polar caps. That’s a one-shot deal: if you do that the wrong way, then you just end up with a more-or-less evenly, or unevenly, distributed package of ice round the rest of the planet. So if we go in gung-ho, and mess it up, then the possibilities of a successful, viable process of terraforming might be compromised for hundreds of years, perhaps even permanently.

So we’ve got an ethical responsibility to make sure that if we’re doing these things, then we’re doing them in a reasonable manner: that we’re not just guilty of impatience; that we actually have the technologies to succeed in reasonable projects. Now, I’ve spoken about the nature of these environments—something that merits ethical consideration and certain kinds of protection—and of course the same is true of the Earth. But what’s interesting in relation to—one of the many interesting things in relation to—discourse of protection down here is that the more Nineteenth Century ideas that wilderness means complete virgin territory, never touched by human hand, never impacted upon by humanity: that doesn’t work for anywhere on the Earth now, because of the way in which humans have impacted upon the atmosphere. There aren’t places that are free of the human stain, as it were, or the human impact. And that’s not necessarily, in all cases, a bad thing.

So we have a more modest conception of what wilderness is, which is that there are certain kinds of impact that are not allowed. So if something’s wilderness, then, yes, people are allowed to visit, with certain constraints. Yes, we accept that the volumes of carbon locked into the rocks will be impacted by industry elsewhere. But it’s wilderness by virtue of the fact that we’re not allowed to use it as an industrial resource, for example. Wilderness in that sense. And that’s much more modest. So when we translate that much more modest conception of wilderness to the Moon, or to Mars, again, it doesn’t exclude all human activity. It doesn’t exclude all human industrial activity. But it does mean that there are ethical constraints upon the ways in which that can legitimately be done.

And there has to be discussion about how much impact we can have and where that impact should be. Obviously there’s a strong case for keeping impact away from the most distinctive areas of the Moon or Mars. If one wants a complete protection, a hands-off attitude, I don’t think that’s a viable ethic, given the nature of our society, in that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. I don’t think we can protect these places in those ways, even if we wished to do so.

RS: A lot of what you’re saying sounds like environmental ethics; but the way environmentalism’s developed on Earth, generally, is that it’s basically summed up in the one word ‘green’. It’s about ecosystems, organic life. The green movement. And obviously space is, among other things, not at all green. (Until terraformed.)

TM:  So here we make a distinction between ecology and environments. Ecology’s about systems that contain living things and how they function as integrated wholes. Environments are just the surroundings; and sometimes the surroundings have life in them, sometimes the surroundings don’t. You can go places in the Earth, and on the Earth, where you don’t get life, but you still have environments.

So the thought then is that we need an expanded conception. And many environmental ethicists already have that kind of conception. They think of, say, rivers ethically considerable in various respects. Now of course rivers have life forms within them, but even if they didn’t, then you’d have environmental ethicists who would say that the Colorado River has to be… we have to think about it in particular ways.

RS: The commercial exploitation of space: I’ve seen particular concerns about the possibility that this is basically just going to benefit rich people, big companies… everyone else gets left out. Is that a moral problem or just a political concern?

TM: Well, that’s an interesting concern. It’s the concern that you get, sometimes in environmental ethics and sometimes in science fiction. Which is… I’m going to pitch my science fiction screenplay to you. I personally have one but I’m going to invent one to yourself. So, this is copyright: if anyone hears this…

RS: I hope some people will hear it!

TM: If Spielberg’s out there he could get in touch with me, definitely: we have something to talk about… But: here is the rogue individual who finds themselves caught up in a mining operation which is run by The Company. The Company is so large that they wield vast political influence as well as having economic power both in space and back on Earth. This is a model we’ve iterated numerous times. How likely is that in relation to space?

Well, if the only place where you’re getting development is going to be on the Moon or on Mars, then monopoly-type systems might operate. But if you start talking about the asteroid belt, which is really where you want to go if you’re going to build large-scale structures off planets—and there’s no reason why, because of the small number of planets and moons that you can work with, there’s no reason why you would want to simply restrict yourself to that—plus there’s all those metal resources which are out there in the asteroid belt… It’s really, really big. Asteroids are very far apart from one another. Space is a big place. It’s not a place which lends itself particularly well to monopolies. Quite apart from the political ramifications and repercussions of having power concentrated in a small number of hands. You certainly wouldn’t want that.

If you’re talking about settlements, you have to remember that authoritarianism generates its own counter-culture, and monopoly systems are inherently authoritarian. And counter-cultures, beyond a certain point, in space can be quite… It’s quite dangerous: what do you do? Do you stop producing oxygen? There’s a whole range of things that you can do, that you’re at liberty to do in terms of protest here on Earth, that would just be absolutely lethal if you tried them in space. So the kinds of settlement, political structures that you need to evolve into, I think have to be ones that are non-authoritarian, where you have redundancy built into the system. You can’t have one oxygen supplier. This is crazy: that’s just giving your lives over to the boardroom. You have to have redundancy; you have to have multiple suppliers; you have to have multiple sources coming in.

Now I’m not denying that the first settlements that we have, if we manage to get to the point of settlement, will almost certainly inherit the command systems that they went with. So you have that initial element of authoritarianism there.

A great many things really militate against anyone being allowed to monopolise. Yes, in the early stages, big players will merge, and they will be SpaceXes, just better: bigger, better, more efficient than anyone else that’s around. And they’re likely to be bigger, better, and so on, for quite a while to come. So lots of smaller players will lose the shirts off their backs. There will be big players, as there are in these emerging sectors. But once you develop the technology it’s very, very difficult to stop people from piggy-backing off that and developing rival commercial interests.

NASA Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite orbitting the planet earth.

So if The Company story is true then our future in space is just going to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. But if you can get beyond that, to multiple players, multiple stakeholders, then you are much more in a position to have a sustainable process of development. And you’re also in a much better position to have a viable dialogue and practical impact in terms of the environmental ethics of space. If you go up against one big player it’s really, really tough: we’ll tend to think it’s a tough opponent to go up against. If you’ve got multiple players bidding for the ways in which they would carry out processes, then you get move leverage.

RS: We’ve been talking largely about ethics as a source of constraints: it tells us what not to do, what we mustn’t do. But I wonder whether you think ethics might also play a positive role, give us things to aim for in space?

TM: I think so. I’m not wildly convinced of a whole heap of arguments about why we should go: we should go because there is a biological imperative to explore and to move into new frontiers… I’m not sure that there is. Maybe that’s a species trait; it doesn’t look to be an individual trait. People will stay at home until you kick them out. That’s pretty much the human history: you don’t think, hmmm, well, I’ve got enough to eat here, and we’re well catered, for, and so on; I think I’ll go over there, where there’s a reasonable chance of me starving and dying a horrible and gruesome and protracted death. Humans don’t do that, but as a species we have tended to expand: not always a good thing.

But I guess I’m going to say that I quite like the intuition—and it is an intuition; I’m not sure how I would begin to build a rigorous ethical argument for it—I quite like the intuition that perhaps we do have a duty to extend either human life or life as such. I think that the presence of life is by and large a good thing. And that doesn’t mean to say that you have to have life everywhere. It does mean that, for example, we don’t know how much life there is out there; we don’t know, really, if there is life out there… We would like to believe that there is; we have some reasons to believe that there is; on balance there probably is—but we don’t know that. And through our neglect and negligence of possibilities for extending life: it would be a bad thing, it would be a dereliction with that kind of duty if we allowed life to die out through that kind of failure. So there is the expansion of presence of life, or possibly of human life, to other worlds.

Plus there is the growing sense that we’re running out of terrestrial resources. That does seem to be happening: you can see it in terms of the metals. Now the Earth’s got a dirty big metallic inner bit—but, but, but we can hardly haul out there… The metals that we can extract: a limited resource, many of them due to run out over the next few hundred years. Yes, we will have new technologies; yes, we will be better at extracting; and that will extend the time span a little bit. Yes, we will have new materials and so on, but it’s difficult seeing us doing without metals. So I think there’s a good case for having a graduated shift to a more balanced system which is not restricted to one planet which we happen to have messed up in some quite severe ways. That’s a decent picture of the future to me.

RS: A sentiment I sometimes see is: we’ve already got as far as the Moon, and then we’ve currently stopped sending human beings there; wouldn’t it be a huge disappointment for our entire species if we never went back?

TM: Well… It’s disappointing, maybe not for the entire species… Maybe for me, maybe for you, maybe for a lot of people. I’m guessing a lot of people have more immediate, pressing things on their plate. I guess it’s what we do: we can go and do things badly. We can go and do the same, make the same mistakes. I don’t think that’s necessarily the outcome that will happen, because we’re starting in a different way, and the dynamics of living in space impose restrictions and constraints upon us which we cannot ignore. I don’t mean to say that they’re morally inescapable; I mean to say that they’re physically inescapable, that there are certain aspects of the sheer nature of space that impose certain ways of doing things and certain needs for humans to work with one another to get different kinds of jobs done.

RS: Thank you for talking to Pod Academy.

Main photo: NASA Goddard space flight

Sep 28 2017
36 mins

Rank #14: Journalism – the first draft of history?

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Journalism has been called ‘the first draft of history’, and as a first draft it may be written over, forgotten, ignored.  In this podcast, journalist Martin Bright (@martinbright) considers one tiny strand of the story of the Iraq war. It illustrates truth and fake news, things that are very much on our minds at the moment.  It is taken from a lecture Martin gave for IF, the free university in London, in its series ‘Thinking Without Borders’  in 2017.

Martin Bright:  Let’s begin with the rules of journalism – never befriend a politician, never befriend a PR, never betray a source and never use PowerPoint (though that one I am ignoring….)

I’m going to look at one story that plays its part in the history of the lead up to the Iraq war which you may or may not have heard about. It is a story in which I as a journalist felt I was writing the first draft of history. It’s a story I wrote while working on The Observer [a UK Sunday newspaper] in early 2003. It is a story left out of the reports on the Iraq war (it was not in either the Chilcot or the Hutton reports).  It is just a footnote in history, maybe less than a footnote.

It is the story of Katharine Gun, who,in 2003, was working at GCHQ. GCHQ is the third arm of British Intelligence – there is MI6 (foreign intelligence), MI5 (domestic intelligence) and GCHQ (surveillance).

Katharine was born in Taiwan, is a fluent Mandarin speaker, and she spent her days at GCHQ listening to China and deciding what was interesting – Chinese broadcasts, bugged conversations etc.  She enjoyed her job, she considered herself a patriot, she didn’t see anything wrong with spying, she felt she was working in the British national interest, for the good of the country.

But she became increasingly concerned about the build up to war in Iraq, she was sceptical, she didn’t think the British intelligence service should be used to further the war aim of the Government.

One day she was working, translating, when she received a memo from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US.  Subsequently, the NSA and GCHQ have become much more high profile institutions since the Edward Snowden leaks (we know a lot more about what they can tap into) but there has always been a close relationship between the two agencies.

In January 2003, we were being told that war was not a forgone conclusion, there were still negotiations going on in the UN and Tony Blair and George Bush were saing that should Saddam Hussein give up his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) there would be no need to go to war.  But it was a period of high tension.

There were inspectors in Iraq looking for WMD and having difficulty finding them.

Such was the tension within GCHQ itself that on 24 January 2003, a memo was sent to all GCHQ staff reassuring them that they would not be asked to do anything unlawful (which is interesting in itself since you might expect that to be the case anyway!).

At the same time what is happening in the US is a continuing hardening up of the documents being fed to the US government as to what is going on in Iraq and the weapons Saddam is supposed to have.  Then, rather inconveniently, on 27 January 2003, Hans Blix (one of the main weapons inspectors) and his team state that Iraq has no nuclear capacity and has been cooperative.  The French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, states that France won’t go to war while inspections continue.  So it is getting tricky for those who want to go to war.  We also know that there will be a presentation to the UN by Colin Powell to argue that Iraq is in breach of its international commitments.

And while all this is happening, this memo from Frank Koza arrives in Katharine Gun’s inbox, just after midnight on January 31st:

To: [Recipients withheld]
From: FRANK KOZA, Def Chief of Staff (Regional Targets)
Sent on Jan 31 2003 0:16
Subject: Reflections of Iraq Debate/Votes at UN-RT Actions + Potential for Related Contributions
Importance: HIGH
Top Secret//COMINT//X1


As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council [UNSC] members (minus US and GBR of course) for insights as to how to membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc – the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises.

In RT [Regional Targets], that means a QRC surge effort to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.

We’ve also asked ALL RT topi’s [Targets of Particular Interest]to emphasize and make sure they pay attention to existing non-UNSC member UN-related and domestic comms for anything useful related to the UNSC deliberations/ debates/ votes. We have a lot of special UN-related diplomatic coverage (various UN delegations) from countries not sitting on the UNSC right now that could contribute related perspectives/ insights/ whatever. We recognize that we can’t afford to ignore this possible source.

We’d appreciate your support in getting the word to your analysts who might have similar, more in-direct access to valuable information from accesses in your product lines. I suspect that you’ll be hearing more along these lines in formal channels – especially as this effort will probably peak (at least for this specific focus) in the middle of next week, following the SecState Colin Powell’s presentation to the UNSC.

Thanks for your help

It is worth trying to imagine what effect this must have had on Katharine as she read it.

Some of it is quite technical, and there is lots of jargon (eg ‘product lines’ – that’s intelligence). But the meaning is clear – the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council ……  the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals.

You could argue (as some on the right in the US did) that this is perfectly normal.  But my job as a journalist is to ask, if people think something always happens – is it right? who benefits?

What offended Katharine Gun is that our intelligence services were being asked to do this on behalf of America.  Particularly to gain an edge for the attainment of US goals – there was no talk of British goals.  And what were those goals – Peace? Or the rush to war?

A lot of people within GCHQ received this memo and Katharine assumed they would be outraged, especially since they had earlier been assured they would not have to do anything illegal (and it is illegal to spy on the UN). She told me that when she received the memo,  she felt sick and had to immediately leave her desk. She felt she was being asked to help fix the vote in the Security Council.

At the time all the talk was about Tony Blair and George Bush attempting to get a second resolution in the UN Security Council in order to authorise war in Iraq and only then would they go to war.  So to Katharine it looked like fixing the vote, undermining the democratic processes in the UN.  So she assumed there would be a rush of outrage in GCHQ. In fact no one said anything, there was a normalisation of it, a feeling that ‘this is what we do – we work hand in hand with the Americans, they are our allies, so we do what the NSA tells us to do”.

Katharine was so appalled that she took the memo, printed it off, put it in her pocked and took it home.

At this point, this is the story of the undermining of two institutions – the UN and GCHQ. Indeed, as this story goes on it is increasingly the story of institutional collapse.

At the time we were being told the aim was not to invade Iraq but to disarm Saddam Hussein.  What our intelligence services were supposed to be doing was safeguarding British interests. What the government might have argued at the time was that being hand in glove with the Americans was in the British interest.  However, we were being told that whatever it cost, however difficult to do, we were trying to verify if Saddam Hussein was really a danger to Britain (not the US).

The problem with Katharine’s argument is that there are signed international agreements that lock GCHQ and NSA into a partnership on these matters, so it may be the case that we are locked into doing this, but the difficulty is that we, the British public, have no way of accessing that – they are secret agreements.

More to follow.

Picture: Iraq Pre-War Protest 2003 by Senor Codo

Music: Suspense#2 by Peritune(Royalty free music) 

Jul 10 2017
57 mins

Rank #15: “Kill all Normies”: the rise of the alt-right

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Following the election of Donald Trump, the alt-right has come to play a significant role in American political discourse. They are an upstart political movement that rejects traditional conservatism and championed Trump and his opposition to political correctness.

But how did a movement rooted in online and video game culture come to be so influential? Angela Nagle (@angnagle) is an Irish writer and academic who has written extensively on the rise of anti-feminism and the revitalised culture wars. She’s recently written a new book called Kill All Normies, in it she documents how fringe online politics and discussion boards have become mainstream.

Alex Burd spoke to Angela to discuss the book. He started by asking when the alt-right became a mainstream force.

Angela Nagle: It has to be the election of Donald Trump. I know that’s very recent. Maybe you could say something like Gamergate brought a lot of different right leaning movements and forums and things that weren’t very overtly political ended up much more closely mingling over Gamergate. Those are the younger ones. The more serious people like American Renaissance and Richard Spencer and people like that, they’re a bit older and have been around for years. They’ve been taking things much more seriously and have been for a long time. But it’s only when all these geeky online sub cultures started to come together that it started to be more legitimate to call them the Alt-Right rather than just the far right.

Alex Burd You reference the Gamergate movement. How is that it went from something that was about ‘ethics in games journalism’ to a political ideology built around the twin pillars of misogyny and white supremacy?

AN: Well essentially, depending on who you ask. Gamergate – the gamers say it’s about ‘ethics in games journalism’, the people on the other side say they were merely pointing out sexism in gaming and ended up getting viciously attacked. The people involved in it love endlessly having these competing stories about the precise details of particular attacks which I don’t find remotely interesting. Even if you take the most conservative estimate of the levels of attack that were going on they were really bad. Even the ones that are out there for the public to see. And you know a critic should be able to argue that gaming is dominated by sexist attitudes, but essentially it was viewed by gamers – where they got the ‘ethics in games journalism’ line from is a very long, boring story – essentially it was over political correctness. What they perceived to be feminists and anti-racists and liberals trying to change the culture and take away their fun hobby and destroy everything through liberal censorship. One of the reasons I’m not very sympathetic to that is I just think that, as in film, there’s room for different viewpoints. These people were not saying games containing sexism should be banned. They were just saying that the kind of style that dominates has an attitude towards women that they had an issue with. It became basically, for whatever reason, it brought together all these different groups from the Daily Stormer, which is a Nazi website, through to apolitical vaguely sort of pro-free speech types. It brought together a whole range of people that saw themselves in different ways as opposing political correctness.

AB: And they were politicised by the fact that a largely white male space was becoming invaded leftist politics and women in particular?

AN: Yeah, definitely. Leftist cultural politics, yeah.

AB: How did it go from a misogynist reaction to that to something that has become heavily based around white supremacy and racial politics?

AN: Well when I started looking at reactionary forums of different types, I started my PHD about seven years ago, I finished about two years ago, I was looking at anti-feminist forums and at that time opposition to feminism was the main issue that really animated these kind of forums. And they really saw feminism as emasculating western men, destroying western civilisation, and the race stuff came later. In a way the arc of it made a certain kind of sense, so white western men are emasculated and then you have the ‘invasion’, as they would see it, of non-white men, and particular of Islam, and then western men are too emasculated to defend their civilisation, that’s how it became about civilisation and feminists are seen as the weakening force.

AB: So if we fast forward, to 2017, are we now seeing the alt-right movement splinter into two kind of sides. There’s the more respectable side which you’ve termed the alt-light, and the other side which is starting to have dangerous manifestations such as the attacks in Portland which left two men dead after a defended a Muslim teenager against a racially motivated attack?

Yeah, I mean the violent stuff.. so they’re all kind of mixed in together. This is the problem. So you’ll have these rallies, I remember one particular one where depending on where you saw it reported and depending on whose twitter you were following, it was called either the ‘Patriots Day rally’ or the ‘Free Speech rally’ and the people who were on the speaking list were a real mixture of alt-right people who think foreigners are invading the West and they need to be deported to alt-light people who want free speech and civic nationalism. So they’re all mixed in together. They’re all just about being held together by their mutual hatred of the ‘campus left’, the online left, the cultural left, that whole aspect of the left, the anti-fascists, and stuff like that.

AB: So at this point they’re more defined by what they oppose than what they support?

AN: Kind of. If you get into the details of it, they distinguish themselves in a very particular way. They get totally outraged if you don’t recognise the different gradations and different sub-cultures within the whole thing. But they all go to the same protests and they all retweet each other, they all go on each others shows, and then they laugh at journalists who think that they’re all the same. But they are, they all have somewhat similar views. I’m only very pedantic about it because I know that they will dismiss me as someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about if I don’t spell it out every time. So you have the alt-right who are explicitly about race, the alt-light who are more of the civic nationalists and pro-free speech types, some of them call themselves ‘cultural libertarians’, that kind of thing. But the violence? – they watched in rage  for a long time all the campus wars and the violence, like the one at Berkeley, which was supposed to be Milo’s [Yiannopolis] last talk, and things like that. They think this is civilisation on the brink of collapse and they think it’s worth fighting over.

AB: You mentioned a guy – Milo, Milo Yiannopoulos – who started out in the UK as a tech journalist and somehow became one of the leading faces of the alt-right in the US. He was briefly shunted to the side earlier following some comments he made about pederasty. How does that fit with a movement based around transgression, and saying whatever you want, and everything being a joke – at least to them?

AN: It’s funny. That was their style. But the transgressive style of the movement comes from 4Chan and other forums, and by the time Milo got to that point 4Chan had moved much further right of him and were no longer sympathetic to him. The alt-right in the strictest sense was never really that sympathetic to him and was certainly no longer sympathetic at this point. Because he’s flamboyant, and he’s gay and he’s very pro-American, and he believes in American exceptionalism – which they loathe – and so by the time this happened he’d alienated a lot of people and he’d also kind of served his purpose for those to the right of him. Because he moved the ‘Overton window’ to the right, he broke all the taboos, and once he’d served his purpose, they were happy to get rid of him I think.

AB: Milo is from Kent in the UK, he’s British.  Then we have people like Paul Joseph Watson, another fine British export. Why is it that they’ve found a bigger audience in the US than here in the UK?

AN: Well this is a very American movement. It makes sense in America more than anywhere else. It’s often said that the left won the culture war and lost the economic war. America is the place where that is most evident. There is a kind of cultural liberalism but people have not seen the benefit of the left in economic policies. So identity politics is very strong, and obviously there are more long running racial tensions there. But also the alt-right’s main idea, if you could put it down to one thing, and this is the alt-right in the strict sense, is that equality is lie. The idea that all men are created equal is a lie, and that America is based on a lie because it is based on the idea that America is based on abstract ideas like liberty when in fact they would say it was about race. It was founded by Dutch and British WASPs and the character of America is what it is because of the racial component of its founders. So the essential idea of America, American exceptionalism, the idea that the state is not an ethno-state but a state founded on abstract ideas is really what they’re targeting. And so that doesn’t really apply elsewhere to the same extent so it’s a very American phenomenon. It’s also an American phenomenon because it’s a product of a very deep longing for identity. In America obviously if you are an ethnic minority you have an identity. And up until recently if you were white you had an identity by being able to say ‘I’m Irish-American’ or ‘I’m Italian-American’ but at this point that kind of Ellis Island wave is so many generations on that you’re just a white person at this point. So those people, particularly young men, young white men in America, feel that they have no identity. The only identity that they’re allowed to have is one of feeling shame for their own heritage. So then the alt-right comes along and says your heritage is brilliant, and white people achieved more than anyone else, and you should be proud and your heritage goes back to Rome and it’s very powerful for them to hear that you know.

AB: Just to tie into Donald Trump, as you said – really the coming out party for the alt-right – what do they see in him as a leader? Is he just part of the joke? An ironic championing of this ridiculous man?

AN: No, there’s definitely something they identify with. They don’t like him as much now because he hasn’t done as much on immigration as they would like and the airstrikes in Syria and other things. He’s become a lot closer to the standard American president. He’s not doing as much crazy stuff as people thought or as much as in the early days of his presidency. But, they like the fact that he’s taboo breaking and anti-PC because they understand that a lot of how a pluralistic society holds things together is through a system of etiquette and manners which some people call political correctness which allows people with different religions and world views to live together. And they want to smash those. They know he is doing that  – and there is absolutely no doubt that he has done that. The conversations that are going on now around race would have been inconceivable months ago. They like that he has been very open about anti-immigration. For them the first steps is deporting illegal immigrants but that’s just the first step, but he would be willing to do that. The funny thing is that they see Islam, and Islamism, as the main enemy. But Donald Trump is sword dancing with the Saudi monarchy while people on the left, like Jeremy Corbyn, have proposed banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia. So one thing I find frustrating about them is that they only want to address issues when they can attack people with absolutely no power, so they want to attack refugees on boats who are drowning in the sea, but they won’t support a political leader who might actually target much more significant figures in the rise of the ultra-reactionary Islamist movement. That’s why we have to say that this isn’t about challenging these people but only about attacking those who have no power.

AB: In the book you cite a lot of political thinkers who form the basis of the Alt-Right, there is also the treatise written by Milo Yiannopolis and others. Richard Spencer, whenever he’s interviewed, has always got a long list of political thinkers. I guess Richard Spencer may be different because he’s doing it for so long, but for the majority of the alt-right is there a political spine or is it just dress-up as the latest political fad or political phase that’s most objectionable to the PC culture they’re opposed to?

AN: It’s just such a mess of all these different cross-pollinating groups and forums that it’s not a coherent movement. It is therefore hard to refer to a ‘they’ when talking about them. There are definitely people, especially young men, who haven’t really thought through the gravity of what they’re saying. For example, the actual stated goals of someone like Richard Spencer would involve genocide. There’s simply no way you could achieve them without war and almost certainly genocide. He wants America to be white again, he wants a white ethno-state in America, he wants Europe to be white again and to have a white empire that goes from America to Russia to Europe. If you think of any conflict where there was an attempt to move a minority off their land they tend go on for a very long time and be very bloody even when the piece of land is the size of a small town. So the idea that you could do this on a continental basis.. well it’s not ridiculous because you could do it through sheer force, but it would require war and genocide. And the people who are serious must know this. But I think the average teenage boy who has a Pepe avatar and a fake name on twitter and hates feminists and is a troll, I don’t think someone like that has thought through the stated goals of the senior figures of the alt-right. And the alt-right is constantly growing. And the broader milieu of the Pepes and the alt-light is growing, because they’re constantly responding to what they see as a takeover by the left in the cultural realm and on campuses.

AB: As you say, one of their stated goals is to return to a patriarchal society where women are homemakers and there to provide and look after the family, but there’s no real thought as to how this would affect the workforce or would happen in reality at all.

AN: Yes, they would have to shrink the workforce by half and then the West would decline as a geo-political force immediately, so how would they do that? Second-wave feminism is a mass movement; feminism has come before but wasn’t a mass movement until there was an economic drive behind it which was the massive economic expansion after World War II in the mid twentieth century. How do you just shrink the economy back down to pre-WWII levels? But they’re never asked questions like that unfortunately. They hate traditional establishment conservatives because they have this libertine streak which is contradictory to the traditionalist stuff. But I don’t really see that they have a way of doing it, it doesn’t make any sense economically, how would they ever get women to go along with it, it’s just not something that they’ve thought through, but it’s a desire that they have. They want it both way. They want to be able to be on 4Chan and not have feminists take away their porn, but they also say they want a traditional marriage. They would have to have a very different online life if they were to create the traditional life they claim to want.

AB: Do you think the idea of wanting something without having to give anything feeds into a generation on both sides, on the left and the right, that wants to have the benefits without giving anything in return? So the liberals want the benefits of globalism and multiculturalism without having to think about the consequences of these policies, and the alt-right wants to have all the good things about the kind of volkisch lifestyle without having to give up any responsibility and having to spend less time on the internet?

AN: It makes sense in a certain kind of way. We are in a strange moment. It is why people in this world reacted so badly to Hilary. She is the 60s person who was involved in the feminist movement and stuff like that. And she is now part of the establishment and a lot of young people no longer see the benefits of the cultural freedom that was won in the sixties.

And there are other things. They know they’ll never own a house, they’ll never be in a stable lifelong relationship, they’ll never have any of these tings. You can have as much freedom as you want in a way, but you don’t really benefit from any of it. So I can see why there has been a right wing turn. In a weird way this is the generation that has come after the Iraq War and all the subsequent different invasions in the Middle East. This may seem like a tangent but I think it’s significant, I think those military adventures made it seem like the world is just too complicated and it’s not possible. You have the Utopian and universalist ideas that the Christopher Hitchens types had, their articulate advocacy of military invasions, the universalism, the internationalism they got from their Marxist background. The disaster of that, the repeated disaster after disaster of that, and the development of ISIS and the whole thing made younger people think that the exporting of democracy is a sham, the idea that there is some human desire for the things that a democracy would bring is a lie, and the idea that different people around the world could be united in a common purpose is just impossible. The world is a dark place, full of strange people that you can’t really understand. This is a feeling that the younger generation has, as a result of – among many other things –  this generation is a product of that kind of death of a whole generation of cosmopolitan and internationalist sort of intellectuals. ON the right you had the neo-cons, on the left you had the Hitchens export democracy to the world people.

AB: It’s the idea that cynicism and nihilism has overtaken grand ideas, especially on the left and crushed the life out of them. No-one really trusts in any kind of positive ideas, not that there seems to be many of them around at the moment.

AN: It’s so true, it’s real bunker politics. Everything will end in disaster, all we can do is close down everything. Close down the borders, bring in all these isolationist policies, and just hope that things get better. Because I don’t see how when they’re trying to spin their ambitions as a positive thing I don’t really believe the Alt-Right talk about their ambitions that they have any positive vision of the future. But as you say, there’s not much of that around anyway. In many ways the emergence of the Alt-Right is due to an absence of anything else. There’s a total absence of the vision of the future, now that that whole internationalist, cosmopolitan, intellectual milieu was disgraced in a way and their whole view of the world was made to look absurd and nightmarish, that there’s nothing that’s really replaced them. If you want to make the argument for continued immigration levels that we currently have, I mean who’s really making that argument. The only thing holding it together it the idea that you should have these views because it’s polite or something like that. There’s no-one making a positive case other than a kind of bunker politics, like close the borders, close everything down, try and avoid disaster.

AB: Do you think that’s why the culture war has become so important? Because politics is unable to deal with anything of significance, it’s become bogged down in who can use what bathroom, and interpretations of Julius Caesar?

AN: Absolutely, cultural politics has become everything. It’s in part because we’ve been in long economic decline, wages have been stagnating for decades, everything seems to be declining and declining, younger people are less likely to be upwardly mobile than their parents and grandparents. So everything is in decline but no one seems to be able to stop it. And we have this vast network of experts and economists but no-one seems to be able to stop this. And I think the hopelessness in the economic and hopelessness in the political realm, in the sense of ideas can reshape society has led to a retreat into purely cultural politics. Which is very individualistic, very self-absorbed, very much about my feelings and my self-expression and that’s definitely evident on both sides for sure.

AB: What do you think, as you said it’s hard to speak about the Alt-Right movement, but it largely seems to be a younger movement than is generally active in politics? What do you think happens to them when they grow up? Will they become like Donald Trump, in that they become more moderate and more by the book republicans, or is this the new face of the republican party in America?
AN: It’s very hard to say, but I will say that a bit of age does change people’s politics. The cultural politics are very prominent but age tends to beat that out of you a little bit because you start having to pay taxes and pay rent and the material day to day stuff starts to matter an awful lot more. So it’s at that point that they won’t care exclusively about cultural politics. So if Donald Trump can’t give them what they want economically they may look elsewhere you know. And it looks like he’s going to be a pretty typical president in that way. He was supposed to be someone who would invigorate infrastructure, he was supposed to be ripping up all the international trade deals, he was supposed to be reinvigorating the industrial economy, but I don’t really see that panning out. On healthcare he’s taken the standard Republican line on that so I don’t know. I think time will change the priorities of all these young men. The single biggest achievement of the alt-right and the very broad milieu around them, going all the way over to Donald Trump, is that they have moved the Overton window, they have moved acceptable speech way, way, way to the right of what it was a year ago.

AB: Just to finish, I think it was Slavoj Zizek who supported, who, as a Marxist, put himself behind Donald Trump as a way of forcing a reaction out of a pretty moribund left, to force them out of their complacency. Do you think that now with the alt-right becoming, if not a major player, then a significant movement, and now with Donald Trump in the White House, do you think this will force more intellectual rigour out of the Left?

AN: Yes, I think the way the Left has to approach this is not just to dismiss these right-wing movements but to see them as a sign of things to come if you don’t find a way to really provide a convincing alternative. I have been excited to see people like Sanders and Corbyn but I think we haven’t really worked out how we’re going to deal with the fact that there is a lot of anti-immigration sentiment out there, people like Le Pen doing very well, there is a desire for change, and it could go in a lot of different directions. The kind of stagnant decline that we’re in now can’t just continue and people are going to look in all different directions to blame someone for that or to try and fix it. So the Left has to rise to that challenge and it’s going to be very difficult and it’s going to involve rethinking itself and having an internal culture of robust debate where ideas are not shut down, because that’s what we have had and it’s produced a Left that has been very unable to respond to the challenge to the Right.

Kill All Normies is published by Zero Books and is available from June 30th.

To listen to further podcasts please subscribe on itunes and check out our website

Jun 29 2017
33 mins

Rank #16: Murder by women in eighteenth century London and Paris

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We appear fascinated with the phenomenon of the woman who kills. In the last year alone in the UK, both ITV and channel 4 have launched popular documentary series chronicling the shocking lives and crimes of women who commit murder. But what is it about the murderess that renders her so interesting? To social historian Dr Anna Jenkin (@acjenkin), it is her ability to offer unique insight into the gender dynamics, and broader cultural climate, of the society in which she lives. Anna’s PhD thesis explores female perpetrated homicide in eighteenth-century London and Paris.

Dr Sarah Burdett caught up with Anna to discuss the findings of her research.She began by asking what it was that inspired her to investigate the topic.

Anna Jenkin: I started as an undergraduate studying eighteenth-century London, and in the second year of my undergraduate I looked specifically at the case of Sarah Malcolm, who is a serial killer, mass murderess, in 1730s London. I found the case a really interesting insight into an aspect of life in London, and women’s lives specifically, that often you don’t get a lot of detail about. So although it was quite an extreme example of a woman who killed her employer and two other maids in the household that she was working, in telling her story you actually get much more about the intricacies of everyday life in London at this time. So I thought this was a really interesting way of thinking about how men and women were living in these cities, but also, of much broader dynamics of power. Because female murder is such a rare act, and was such a rare act, it was particularly distressing to the society in which it took place, particularly in these very close urban areas, so you find a lot of much broader dynamics of power projected onto these cases. So that is why I decided on the question of female murder. I wanted to look specifically at eighteenth-century London and Paris because it was a time when both cities were undergoing very major paths of modernisation and growth. There were great deals of similarities between these two cities which were undergoing huge amounts of population expansion as well as economic booms, which were leading to the growth of a bourgeoisie, or middling sort, but on the other hand, politically, there were these huge differences between London post-Glorious Revolution, and France before the French Revolution, which meant that there are some really interesting similarities and differences that can be unpicked between these two cities. Female homicide is such a rare crime, that contemporary commentators don’t have the general narratives of criminality or of violence to project onto them, so when trying to understand and unravel these crimes people drew from much more complicated, or perhaps more run of the mill everyday narratives in seeking to explain and understand what was going on. So I used this very small lens to understand much bigger narratives of change that these two cities were going under, at the same time but also in quite different ways.

Sarah Burdett: I asked Anna to elaborate on the proportion of female perpetrated murder, to male perpetrated murder.

AJ: Female homicide in the eighteenth century, particularly in London and Paris, was about 10 percent of male homicide. I found about 2000 cases of male perpetrated homicide in London in the period 1715-1789, and for that same period about 200 cases of female perpetrated homicide, and the same in Paris. The Parisian court is much larger so I found about  500 cases of female perpetrated homicide and 5000 cases of male homicide. So in both cities it’s about a tenth, which interestingly is the same proportion as today. So it is a much rarer crime. But I think what is interesting about the urban context is that you often find in historiography and in writing about female homicide in this period quite a lot of stereotypes of female homicide as being something that is very polarised. When women are treated in the court, historians have argued, women are either completely innocent or entirely guilty, whereas for men there is this much stronger category of men who are found guilty of manslaughter. This, the argument goes, is because men were in spaces like pubs and drinking houses where they were more likely to get into drunken brawls. The statistics show that more women were acquitted of murder than men, but actually the conviction rates are almost exactly the same, in both cities, and for men and women: about 20 percent of cases led to an execution in the two cities, so the number of women actually being executed for murder, although it’s smaller, the proportion is the same for men and women. And although there are fewer women being found guilty of manslaughter, the kinds of cases that we would associate with male murder, so drunken brawls and people grabbing the nearest instruments and smacking each other over the heads with them, you do find with women as well in both cities. I think that’s particularly interesting. It says something about the kinds of lives that women were living at this time. You tend to think that they were becoming cloistered and that everything was becoming much more domestic, and women weren’t having the opportunities to go out and get into these very tense situations. But that doesn’t appear to have been the case. I should say actually that homicide statistics are a very difficult thing to deal with, because although it is likely that when a murder is committed it would have led to a prosecution, we can’t know that, and there could be a huge number of murders that took place in the eighteenth century that didn’t end up in the courts. It’s unlikely that there would have been a great deal because there were quite strong judicial infrastructures by the eighteenth century, but we don’t know. So it could be that women were committing a lot more murders somewhere else that they weren’t being prosecuted for. I don’t think that was probably the case, but you never know.

SB: Anna’s comments regarding the difficulties in measuring homicide statistics led me to enquire as to how she had gone about conducing her research. I wanted to know which databases she had used, and whether she had found these to be particularly effective, or whether there had been limitations.

AJ: For London I used the Old Bailey Online, which is a fantastic resource of digitised transcripts of all of the Old Bailey proceedings, which were the published accounts of trials that took place in London from 1674-1913. We don’t have exhaustive accounts of the period before 1715 so we can’t get a mass total of that period, but after then we have a pretty good idea of all the cases that were prosecuted in London. The Old Bailey proceedings is a wonderful resource in terms of the information and detail that it gives. Increasingly in the eighteenth century cases were more and more supposedly reported verbatim, which means you get these very long transcripts of conversations about exactly how people understood the intricacies of motivation and what kind of evidence might be used to prosecute or to create a defence. There are some limitations with the London cases: particularly, often fewer details are given for defence pleas than we might hope for, and if a case was reported to be ignoramus and was thrown out, those aren’t always reported, so there are some limitations there. For the Parisian records I used a record called catalogue 450 which is a record of the Parisian court of the Parlement. The Parisian judicial system was incredibly complicated at the time but basically you went through all these lesser courts and then if you had been accused of a crime that carried the death penalty, like murder, you were sent to the court of the Parlement for an appeal, and this happened whether you were found guilty or not guilty or somewhere in the huge range of sentences that the Parisian court had in between. Catalogue 450 was assembled in the 1780s and it was supposedly a register of all of the cases that had been tried at the Parisian Parlement since 1700. Actually there’s lots and lots of holes in the data: some of the records probably were lost in the French Revolution and there’s lots of difficulties in working out exactly where the cases came from because the judicial stretch of the Parlement was very large and covered about 100 miles, so it wasn’t just Paris. Sometimes you can work out which cases came from Paris, and sometimes you can’t. So there’s some difficulty knowing which were specific urban crimes, and which weren’t. The Parisian cases are also written in French legal shorthand, which is pretty interesting to uncover. There’s some tiny minute differences in some of the symbols which are the difference between somebody just having undergone torture, and somebody having been executed, so actually the tiniest flick of a pen could have led to something very different, so that is also challenging. I think the biggest challenge was that in both sets of cases gender is not actually recorded. In London that’s alright because male and female names were different, but in Paris there are a lot of names that both men and women had: so names like Claude, Stefan,  Dominique, and even Anne actually was a male and a female name, so working out who was a man and who was a woman was pretty difficult. There’s some punishments in France that were only given to men, like being broken on the wheel, or being sent off to row in the galleys, like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, so if someone was sentenced to that I could work out they were a man. But I did end up with about a hundred cases of people called Claude, and I thought that perhaps there was a particular study that I could have done just of murders committed by people called Claude! But in the end I just left them out of my survey. So there were some gaps here and there but it gives you a sort of overall understanding of how gender might have been perceived.

SB: Intrigued by some of the different kinds of punishments to which Anna had alluded, I next wanted to know whether the treatments dealt to male and female murders differed routinely, and whether this was the case in both London and Paris.

AJ: There are differences in the ways the courts treated men and women. In London the most striking one is the sentence of petty treason. This was a specific sentence in London which was given for murders which were seen to have some sort of aspect that meant that there was a subversion of power within them. So the idea was that they were a miniature treason. This was metered out for women who killed their husbands; it was also metered out much less for servants who killed their masters; or for curates, who murdered their Bishops. So wives who killed their husbands were sentenced to petty treason, for which the sentence was burning. The last burning for this in London, although there were ones elsewhere in the country, was the trial of Catherine Hayes in 1726. So this was the main way in which women were treated differently. Men could be sentenced to petty treason and for that they were hung in chains, and in fact one of Catherine Hayes’s associates, who was her lover and also her son (it’s a very complicated case!), he was hung in chains alongside her, and his body was exhibited on a gibbet afterwards. But that was the key difference. Aside from that men and women were usually hung in London. In Paris it was much more complicated. The system of punishment in Paris was much more complicated in general. In London if you were found guilty of manslaughter you’d either be fined or you’d be branded or you’d be hung and that was the end of it. In Paris there wasn’t quite this clear connection between certain crimes leading to certain sentences. Often because this was looked over by a judge – they didn’t have juries in eighteenth-century Paris, it was an absolutist system of justice that was intentionally kept very mysterious – it meant that for every single crime you could have a vast array of different kinds of sentences and different kinds of mutilation in particular. Mutilation was quite a popular aspect of eighteenth-century Parisian justice. Men were much more likely to be found guilty, and were in fact exclusively found guilty of being broken on the wheel, which was an awful punishment, where you had each of your limbs broken with an iron bar and you were left stretched out on this wheel to die, it’s very gruesome. And also men were sent to the galleys. Women were often imprisoned. In Paris they had a large punitive infrastructure for imprisonment: they had the prison of Bicêtre which was for men, and Salpêtrière which was for women, and women were often sent to prison for lesser crimes and actually throughout the entire trial period. Women were also burned in France more often. The crime of poison carried burning in France – that was for both men and women actually in France. France was generally more complicated, and a little bit more violent in what they decided to meter out to you. You might have your hand cut off before you were executed depending on what you had done and there were all kinds of codifications and symbolisms of murder. There are lots of expectations that people were more squeamish about doing that to female bodies but actually they weren’t really, with the exception of being executed on a wheel: women were often mutilated and had bits of them cut off and things before they were executed as well.

SB: I was now keen to know more about the most common relationship between the murderess and her victim. I also wanted to gain some insight into the different methods of murder employed by men and women.

AJ: This is a really interesting question because often female homicide, particularly in the eighteenth century, is categorised as something quite passive and quite planned. Often people talk about things like poison as being the classic female weapon: women couldn’t kill their chosen victims with their hands so they used all these underhand methods. And this isn’t really the case. For both men and women the most common forms of homicide were stabbing. We can’t get such complicated statistics for Paris unfortunately, but for London both men and women were most likely to kill their victims by stabbing, and then by hitting them with an object. One of the interesting gender dimensions seems to be that men were more likely to hit their victims over the head, while women beat them around the body. I don’t know if this is just a language difference, or whether it’s because men are taller. In both cases they’re often using the weapons that are at hand, so for women this is often things like pokers, and quart-pots. A lot of women, about 20 percent of women who were accused of murder, were inn-keepers, and it was during some sort of dispute in an inn. So often it was things like quart-pots and things to hand that were used by women, where men were more likely to hit each other with things from their workplace, so tools and spanners and rods and that sort of thing. Men were more likely to use pistols. Women often didn’t have access to pistols. And women did use poisoning in London more often than men. There’s only one or two cases of male poisoning, but actually there’s only about 12 cases of female poisoning in London. In Paris it’s slightly different. Poisoning was much more common in Paris and particularly for women. About 20 percent of female murders were committed by poisoning in France, and for men, although it was only about 3 percent of male murder in Paris, that accounted for about 112 cases, so it was much more common in France. I haven’t quite got my head around why this might be. I think potentially it might just be because poison was more common in France. Although there is also a real obsession in Paris with poisoning, and this started in the early part of my period. In 1680 there was a huge scandal in Paris known as L’affaire des poisons, where a huge web of poisoning and witchcraft was uncovered at the court of Louis XIV. It was led by a woman called Catherine Monvoisin who was a sort of sorceress, wise women.  But it went right up the echelons to Louis’s head mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan, and it was an incredibly secret case. Louis burned a lot of the records by hand at the end of it, which makes it quite hard to study. But it was all over the papers as well, as one would expect, even though it was meant to be something hush hush, and it led to a real obsession with poisoning in France. I also have a theory, although there’s no way that I can really prove it, that there’s something to do here with the fact that there were common food shortages in France. By this period food supply in London was a bit more stable, whereas in Paris famine was still an element, so there’s still an increasing obsession with food in France. The other thing is that there is a judicial infrastructure in Paris that there wasn’t in London to investigate these cases. If somebody died of something mysterious, where they had a stomach complaint before they died in France, it was investigated and there was an autopsy, whereas in London they didn’t have that kind of infrastructure. So poisoning was a women’s weapon in France in a way that it wasn’t in England. In terms of the victims relationships, husbands were the most common victims of female homicide, where we can know victims, which is only possible in a certain amount of cases. In both cities husbands are the most common victims, but in London, where we can get more information on victims, it does seem that actually there was a much more varied array of victims. As I said women were sometimes victuallers, so you’ve got things like tenants, servants, people that they knew who they were drinking with or working with. And it’s interesting that although female homicide is often characterised as something that was taking place in the home, about 42 percent of London homicides were taking place in public yards, or taverns, or the street even. So female homicide involved an array of acquaintances within the household or within a close community where tension was more likely to build up. You see this also in the age of murderesses. In London , women who were accused of murder were usually about 36 or 37 which is much older than the average age of an Old Bailey defendant, which was about 24. So these are women who are living in a community where clearly tensions have built up over time. For male homicide also, wife murder is quite common. It’s a smaller proportion, it’s only about 5 or 6 percent of male homicides in both cities, but what’s particularly interesting about marital homicide is that we generally think, when we talk about things like petty treason, that there was this obsession with women killing their husbands, because it was seen as a kind of subverted treason: your husband should be your King. But actually when we look at conviction rates it is men killing their wives which had the much higher conviction rates. About 50 percent of men who were accused of killing their wives were executed in both cities. Perhaps it is cases where men killed their wives in particularly violent ways which were the ones that were prosecuted, so it could be that there were far more cases of men killing their wives that didn’t ever make it to trial, and it was only the extreme ones which led to this pattern of execution. Or it could be that there was this increasing concern with domestic violence perpetrated by men in the household, which historians such as Joanne Bailey and Garthine Walker have already started to trace. It’s also interesting to note that male defences for manslaughter can’t be used against women really because women were perceived as being weaker. So when men killed women they were much more likely to be convicted, whereas with women the gender of the victim doesn’t seem to make that much difference at all. Male or female, it’s much more about the circumstance and the method of murder. Cases where there’s more violence, so cases where women hack at each other with axes, or things like shooting, or stabbing, tend to have the more likely guilty verdict, where things like kicking and hitting, where it could be manslaughter, seem to lead more to a not guilty verdict. So for women it’s very much based on the method that they use. But for men, the gender of the victim, and the circumstances of the victim, do seem to have played more of a role in determining whether a man was convicted or not.

SB: Anna had explained that male perpetrated homicides took place in taverns and in the streets. I wondered what she felt this said about urban living as a whole, in eighteenth-century London and Paris.

AJ: I think what you see from these cases is that urban life was tense; that there was a lot of difficulty and violence; and that often, certainly the people you find in murder trials, lived together in very close conditions where tensions and difficulties could grow. It’s interesting that a higher than average proportion of women in both cities who were accused of murder were single women. I think they were particularly vulnerable both to accusation, but also perhaps to living in situations where tensions could overflow into murder. The idea that all female murder was plotted and premeditated is really not the case in eighteenth-century London and Paris. It does seem to be much more about the tensions and difficulties of living in often very confined spaces, where there was a high turnover of people. You were living among strangers and getting to know people very quickly, often in places where the stakes for survival were also quite high, in terms of getting your rent, or being paid for things, so it’s often when there’s a perceived sleight in terms of money that things can fall to blows. You also see that a lot of women accused of murder in London were midwives. About 20 percent of women accused of murder in London were midwives. So there you see things about the night time economy I think, and the movement of women around the streets. When you look at homicide you’re looking partially at social actuality, at how people live, but also at sites of fear. People have to make the decision to prosecute a homicide, and also as a jury to then decide who’s likely to be guilty, so you do get these broader sites of concern in female behaviour. Those commonly accused are people like midwives, women running taverns, and then also servants, who are particularly common in Paris. There’s a much higher proportion of servants accused of murder in Paris, and this, I think, is because the female servant was actually a slightly newer phenomenon in Paris than it was in London in the eighteenth century. This concept of single women living in fairly intimate and close connections to their employers was clearly something that was quite a site of concern in Paris. In London I think that had already happened in the seventeenth century. Service had become feminised a little bit earlier, and perhaps employers were a little bit better at controlling their servants, so you have fewer servants being accused of murder than things like midwives and landladies in eighteenth-century London.

SB: Finally, I asked Anna how her research might interact with modern day assumptions about male and female violence.

AJ: The question of how far it connects to today is a really interesting one. There’s a lot of work and scholarship that argues for a sea-change in the way that homicide, and understandings of gender and homicide, happened in the early nineteenth century. This is something that I haven’t done enough research on to agree with, or disagree with necessarily, but the argument goes that with the rise of criminology and sexology and all these Foucauldian ideas in the early nineteenth century, the idea of women as being passive becomes much stronger. So actually the dynamics that you see in eighteenth-century murder don’t necessarily travel through to today. There are perhaps arguments that eighteenth-century London and Paris were very different societies than today. But what I’m particularly interested in, and what my thesis more generally deals with, is the idea of how female homicide is perceived. I think you see today, as in the eighteenth century, that as female homicide is a rarer crime than male homicide, that means that when it happens, and when commentators and the media and the judiciary are trying to understand what has led to this homicide – trying to explain it and perhaps normalise it – they’re looking to much broader narratives of change. Sometimes these are things like extreme sexual activity, or stereotypes of murderesses as being debauched, or on the other hand being totally passive and committing something almost entirely against their will. But I think it is slightly more complicated than that. The general narrative is that female homicide is just not understood because you have all these stereotypes that come into it. But I think that you see in the eighteenth century and you do see it today that actually there’s more complex dynamics going on. When you look at a female homicide often what we’re talking about is much broader concerns about the lives of women in a particular area or a particular space, and the sites of power within that. But it is true that within female homicide, and I think you do still see it today, it’s much harder to think specifically about this as a crime committed by a person, because we are often too busy thinking about the implications of it being a crime committed by a woman.

Sarah Burdett is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Warwick, and a member of The Staging Napoleonic Theatre Team (School of Modern Languages and Cultures).

Music by Tom James Parmiter

Main picture: Elizabeth Brownrigg
May 27 2017
24 mins

Rank #17: Digital exposure

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Always on our smartphones and other digital devices, we live in an expository society, says Prof Bernard Harcourt.  The landscape described in his new book is a dystopia saturated by pleasure. We do not live in a drab Orwellian world, he writes. We live in a beautiful, colourful, stimulating, digital world a rich, bright world full of passion and jouissance–and by means of which we reveal ourselves and make ourselves virtually transparent to surveillance.  This is digital exposure, exposing a great deal about our lives.

This podcast is an edited version of a longer interview which first aired on the New Books Network.

Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age (Harvard University Press, 2015) guides us through our new digital age, one that makes it so easy for others to monitor, profile, and shape our every desire. We are building what he calls the expository society a platform for unprecedented levels of exhibition, watching, and influence that is reconfiguring our political relations and reshaping our notions of what it means to be an individual.

Other actors from advertisers to government agencies can compile huge amounts of information about who we are and what we do. Whether they use it to recommend other products to buy or track our movements, Harcourt argues that the influence and interests of other actors is often hidden from us. Despite leaks of classified materials about the extent of this surveillance, public outrage is limited and mild. The scale of data collection and tracking is not a national let alone a global scandal.

According to Exposed, our appetites are too well satisfied and our attentions too distracted. Harcourt prods us to practice digital disobedience, to tackle this digital exposure, lest we will remain in a digital mesh that will only continue to restrict our privacy and anonymity underneath its beautiful, shiny suit.

Watch ‘Damn, Daniel’ here.

Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age

Photo:  Smartphones by Esther Vargas

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Digital breadcrumbs: the data trail we leave behind us


Sep 14 2016
36 mins

Rank #18: Music and Resistance

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When the gun is replaced by the melody: how does music resist?

‘Even if they don’t have a message, the act of actually playing music itself is resistance,’ says Dr. Sara McGuiness, senior teaching fellow in Music at SOAS.

Classical Thai musician Luang Pradit Pairoh fought through the melodies of his songs surrounded by oppression; Ahmed Maher signed petitions to bring down the Morsi government in Egypt whilst at concerts around the country, and the melody of an old Catalonian song travelled almost a century of different resistance movements.

This is a podcast of musical adventures. It features conversations with musicians, writers and academics with special guest appearances from random people pulled off the street.


The podcast was produced by Lara Şarlak, Fino Patanasiri, Diego M. Mosquera and Kelly O’Donovan, students on  ‘Digital broadcasting‘, an MA course taught  as part of the skills training options offered to MA students studying within the school of arts (which combine music, media and history of art and archeology) at SOAS, University of London. This course exposes students to the latest thinking in digital podcasting, social media research and social entrepreneurship. During the course students make a group podcast on a theme related to research at SOAS and are encouraged to disseminate them as widely as possible using digital platforms. Pod Academy is involved in the teaching on the course.


Ahmed Maher: Listening to the concert on a CD and attending one on the street, in the middle of everything cannot be compared to one another.

Esteve Sala:  They were trying to mobilize a society against the dictatorship with their songs.

Fino Patinasiri:  So instead of fighting back actively, he chose to use music as a weapon of hidden resistance.

Vox Pops

E contare e camminare insieme, lo sai fare?

Sì, penso di sì…

Allora forza. Conta e cammina. Dai.

Uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto..

[Song: Modena City Ramblers (I Cento Passi) ]

Vox pop: My resistance song is “i cento passi.” It is the story of the son of a mafia boss who resisted against his father and go killed in Italy, and no one ever spoke about it for a long time.

[Song: Chuck Berry (Roll Over Beethoven)]

Vox pop: “Roll Over Beethoven” is a protest song because it was a sort of protest against almost a sort of your parents’ culture, your grandparents’ culture.

[Song: Ton Steine Scherben (Live on TV)]

Vox pop: “Ton Steine Scherben”

[Song: Bob Marley (Exodus)]

Vox pop: Umm, “Exodus”? Bob Marley.

[Song: Victor Jara (Los Estudiantes)]

Vox pop: “Los Estudiantes” by Victor Jara.

[Song: I Solisti Dell’Oltrepo Pavese (Bella Ciao)]

Vox pop: This guy called Deniz Gezmiş. He was executed by the Turkish army. He was whistling this song. “Rodrigo’s Guitar.”

[Concierto De Aranjuez For Guitar And Orchestra: II – Narciso Yepes]

Vox pop: My favorite resistance song is “Bella Ciao.” It’s about the partisan movements and resistance to fascism in Italy.

[Song: Shehzad Roy(Ham Aek Hein)]

Vox pop: In Pakistan there is a growing tradition of songs about unity. There’s one called “Ham Aek Hein”, which in Urdu means “We are one.”

[crowds cheering ‘’Azadi song]

Vox pop: Kashmir is a conflict zone, so there are many resistance songs. People sing against the Indian state. Azadi. “Azadi” means freedom. So they always chant, “What do we want? We want freedom.”

[Song: N.W.A.(Fuck the Police)]

Vox pop: Particular song, ummm. I don’t know. N.W.A., “Fuck the Police.” That’s kind of a guess. But I’m quite into like hip hop. I guess that’s kind of a form of resistance, kind of voice of the oppressed working against oppression. Yeah.


[Song: Okay Temiz (East Breeze)]

Dorian Lynskey:  I’m Dorian Lynskey. Music journalist, and author of 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs.

Aykut Gürel:  My name is Aykut Gürel. I’m a musician, also I’m an arranger and chief of orchestra.

Sara McGuiness My name is Sara McGuiness, and I’m a piano player. I play salsa music, Congolese music and I also teach at SOAS.

DL:  When I was a teenager and getting into politics, I was also simultaneously getting into political music. To me, the two were intertwined, and I thought it was an interesting way of telling a lot of political stories and historical stories through the songs. Because if you take certain famous protest songs, just to elaborate the background, you end up expanding in all different areas and introducing all these different narratives. And resistance is like a basic emotion, and music is one of the basic sort of premises of it.

AG: Music is the most powerful tool for the social resistance. Because when people get together, they want to sing a song, all the time. And at that time you can’t choose any pop song or any rock song, you have to find some resistance song.

S Mc: I think there’s many ways that people make resistance songs. Some songs are very blatantly resistance songs, and other songs have a hidden message. I just think even if they don’t have a message, the act of actually playing music itself is resistance. And there’s a debate about whether that might have a meaning, where they’re talking about the government being betrayed, and then just by playing your own music is an act of defiance.

[East Breeze amplified]

Thai Story

Fino Patanasiri (host):  Sawasdee Krub! Hi everyone, welcome back to the past.

[Song: Mayura Pirom (The Dance of the Peacock)]

You are now in Thailand, the land of smiles. But, wait! I’m sorry. There’s no one smiling now, because this is the 1940s. Yeah! During the Second World War.

[Song: Ton Trakun Thai (Thai Ancestors)]

Our government sees that the only way to protect our nation is to make Thailand modernised. You need to wear Western costumes. You can’t play music, if you don’t have a license. And you! That’s not the right hairstyle. Go change your hairstyle, and follow the leader. We need to be modernised.

But, how can we be modernised, if we forget our culture?

How can we be civilised, if we forget our roots?

How can we fight against this change?

How can we stop this policy? How can we resist authority when Thailand is no longer a safe place for us to resist anymore?

[Song: San Kumneung (The Song of Sorrow) (Intro)]

Music! Music is also a weapon of resistance. Every note, every movement, and even the silence, can represent a form of hidden resistance.

As Chaichai Srisamut, the head of Education Development Division and Thai classical music professor at Mahidol University, said:

When the leader of the nation passed the law, Luang Pradit Pairoh, one of the well respected Thai classical music teachers, could not resist in the same way. It might not be safe. So, instead of fighting back actively, he chose to use the music as a weapon of hidden resistance.  He composed the song, San Kumneung, the song of sorrow.

[Song: San Kumneung (Sam Chan Movement)]

Asdavuth Sagarik, the great grandson of Luang Praditpairoh, analysed the song that:

This song is composed in three speeds, with different moods: Sam Chan, slow, Song Chan, medium, and Chan Deaw, fast.

The movement that you are now listening is Sam Chan, or slow speed. The tone of this part is very sad, like it’s asking the question that what is going on with Thailand. But when it comes to Song Chan, it gets faster. It’s encouraging Thai people to stand up, and do something.

[Song: San Kumneung (Song Chan Movement)]

And Chan deaw, the fastest speed. Fight and Attack!

[Song: San Kumneung (Chan Deaw Movement)]

So, the slow speed represents sadness. The medium is that we need to fight. And the fastest is the call for action. But the question now is, how did Luang Praditpairoh take action against the modernization? Tai Krueng, or the ending part, is the answer.

OK the west, you have cords right? We can do it too.

[San Kumneung (Chan Deaw Movement)]

You have marching rhythm? Is that so difficult?

[San Kumneung (Chan Deaw Movement)]

You have solo, well…

[San Kumneung (Chan Deaw Movement)]

To fight with the Westernisation and modernization, Luang Praditpairoh tried to prove that the West is not that special. We can also do it.

This is one way we can fight!

When the force is replaced by the creativity.

When the gun is replaced by the melody.

And when the music becomes the weapon of hidden resistance.

[San Kumneung (Outro)]

Egypt Story

News Reporter:  This is happening right now in Cairo, Egypt. You can see flames coming from party headquarters

Vice President Omar Suleiman  My fellow citizens, in these hard circumstances our country is experiencing, President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to waive the office of the President of the republic.

[Song:Maktoub (Kaf)]

Ahmed Maher:  Music had a very large role in the revolution

I was living in a bubble, a business/married guy who… couldn’t give a shit.

My name is Ahmed Maher, I’m from Alexandria Egypt. I started playing piano when I was eight. I played all my life blues and jazz and oriental music. At the age of 29 I fell in love with the Oud so I started learning it. My music project is called ‘Maktoub’. It’s an Arabic word that means ‘written’, but also means written in destiny and also means written as in music notation, which has… It symbolises what we want to say. That this is instrumental music that we write, you know. We make sure we document for the coming generations to find out that we were here

[Background: Protesters singing in Tahrir square]

Tahrir square and the demonstrations in the eighteen days evolved into a society of people who share common thoughts and you know, think alike and you know have this integrity to say this is wrong about wrong things and this is right about right things and not go along with the flow and that I think is what really changed. There are particular songs that have been used or commonly sung anywhere you go in Tahrir Square. The songs that are used all belong to a different era of the seventies and sixties adn even before that – from the turn of the century.

[Song: Sheikh Imam(El Bahr Beydhak Lieh]

In Egypt, lyrics play a major role. Instrumental music is not prominent. We don’t write music that way. There is a particular song that comes to mind, that’s called El Bahr Beydhak Lieh, which means ‘The cow of haha’. ‘Haha’ is a mockery of the government. A poet and a guy who sings, who’s a blind guy who plays the Oud as well. The poet’s name is Ahmed Foed Negm and the singer’s name is Sheikh Imam.

[Song: Hazem Shaheen and Eskenderella (Safha Gedeeda)]

During the time of Tahrir when things had been peaking, there were iconic pieces of music that are explicitly rebellion and explicitly resisting the power. So there’s this guy, his name is Hazem Shaheen, he’s a prominent Oud player. He’s an amazing Oud player. Also, despite him not having a good voice in my opinion, he formed a musical group. There is the daughter of a prominent poet who died sometime in the seventies, guys from various political activism backgrounds, from right and left and he grouped all of them and he started composing and writing and using pieces and poems from people who passed that talk about the future, talk about Egypt being just and being right and being for everyone. And I sincerely from the bottom of my heart hate his voice and hate the singing, but the power of the songs, the lyrics, is incredible. And the way he gets people to react to it and sing with it is amazing.

[Song:Dina Al Wadidi (El Haram)]

Now I would say, I would maybe go to the period of the Muslim Brothers . I think music played a different role, in keeping us, reminding us, as Egyptians that this is not permanent. I was at the opera house and in the middle of that, a guy and a girl, a bit elderly, they were sitting next to me. They gave me a piece of paper and they said would you like to join and be part of the rebel movement. I’d heard about the rebel movement, which was orchestrated… you denounce the existing government of Muslim Brotherhood and you don’t trust them or what they’re doing and ask them to step down.

[Song: Yasser Almanwahly (Whats new?)]

Now… The same situation happened with me again in a different context, in a different place, different concert, smaller scale. This wasn’t in the opera house, it was smaller-scale in a different… actually it was a different city and someone also approached me, a youngster this time with the same piece of paper and I said ‘I did it’. And then we discovered that yeah, this movement throughout and with what they’ve been doing on the ground, has mobilized around, at least fourteen/fifteen million. This piece of paper being handed out in music concerts across town was at least a way to keep the momentum of the revolution ignited and happening.

[News broadcast from protest site in Egypt]

[Speakers: number of different news readers]

So this is the day that Egyptians have been talking about for a very long time, the 30th June, exactly one year… the revolution evolves as it appears to be entering into a new phase… the popular uprising seemingly heralding the new Egypt… Cairo’s Tahrir Square is again centre of turmoil…At least one person was killed… the question now is, where does Egypt go?

Catalan Story

Documentary presenter (Franco on television):  With support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy the nationalist’s won the ensuing bloody Civil War and Franco assumed power. Murder and suppression of language , culture and more, kept El Codillo on office almost four decades.

[Song: Lluís Llach  (L’staca)]

Esteve Sala:  Probably L’staca is the song that I most remember from my childhood. It’s a song created by Lluis Llach in 1968 just at the final years of the Franco Dictatorship.

This was a song written at the moment of fight against the dictatorship by a group called “the sixteen judges”. We should remember that during this period, censorship was one of the tools that the dictatorship was using to control mass opinion. So just the fact of singing of singing in Catalan was something revolutionary and against the established political system. When I was like three or four years old I remember listening to this song and it still really emotional for me. Probably one of the key factors of this song is the lyrics. It talks about people fighting together and it’s saying that if we fight together we will able to break this stake that is depriving us from liberty.

Basia Filipek: Hello, I’m Basia. I live in Berlin but I’m from Poland and I was asked question about the Polish song called “Mury” which means the walls.

[Song: Jacek Kaczmarski(Mury)]

So, the song was written in 1978 by a Polish songwriter Jacek Kaczmarski, but originally the music is from a Catalonian song. The song mure got pretty popular in Poland during protests against the communism regime in the 80s.  And it became kind of the political anthem for the movement “Solidarity”, which was fighting with[against] communism as well. And the song is about a crowd of people that should destroy the walls that are everywhere around us. The funny story is that it wasn’t supposed to any kind of an anthem.

And actually the end of the song is kind of pessimistic about the walls growing and growing but the crowd was always changing. The last verses end singing that the walls went down.

Well, I don’t have many memories with that song but for example I heard it once on a big rock festival in Poland, when a reggae band was performing it.

[Song: Habakuk(Mury)]

I must say that this song still moving for many young people. Everybody knew the lyrics. Right now is one of the symbols for Polish fight for freedom.

Lamine: Hi, my name is Lamine and I am from Tunisia.

News reader:  One day after Hosni set himself on fire, protest erupted in Kasserine. What started in Sidi Bousid, spread to Kasserine and protest quickly followed country wide. On the 14th of January president Ben Ali, stepped down and fletch Tunisia.

{Emel Mathlouthi (Dima Dima)]

Dima Dima is sort of those songs that emerged in the context of the Tunisian Arab Spring. It means “always, always” in Tunisian; and the singer of this song Emel Mathlouthi really represented, was a sort of an icon during the Arab Spring. Her song Kelmti Horra which means, “My world is free”, which she actually performed in the peace Nobel Prize ceremony. This song and the singer are both symbols of the Tunisian Arab Spring. Her voice is very moving first of all, and it just awakens in you sort of rebellious part, I would say. And there’s a lot of melancholy in but there’s also sort of revolutionary side of it. Dima Dima, I didn’t know until very recently at SOAS that it actually, the melody isn’t Tunisian at all and it’s actually from Barcelona. It just reminded me these stadium songs…

These sort of folk popular songs, that when you go to the stadium you think that they were invented by the fans of your team, whereas they actually have been invented actually elsewhere, in Argentina or in Italy; but it is just so catchy and they just represent the moment so much that Lyrics don’t mean anything and they just speak to us all.

Sara McGuiness: Well I guess some people would say that there’s no point in protesting, there’s no point in trying to have a voice because you will be overlooked and ignored and governments and people in power will do what they want anyway. As I said music itself can be a form of resistance. If music’s very powerful then even the music itself… [speaker: Aykut Gürel] Music is the best way if you want to touch people’s hearts and now in a new digital world, the online world, music is almost free and you can… [Fino Patanasiri] This is one way we can fight, when the force is replaced by the creativity, when the gun is replaced by the melody and when the music becomes the weapon…

Music by:

  • Luang Praditpairoh – San Kumneung
  • Maktoub – Kaf
  • Sheikh Imam – El Bahr Byedhak lieh
  • Hazem Shaheen and The Eskenderella Group – Safha Gedeeda
  • Dina El Wedidi – El Haram
  • Lluís Llach – L’Estaca
  • Jacek Kaczmarski – Mury
  • Habakuk – Mury
  • Emel Mathlouthi and Yasser Jeradi – Dima Dima

Picture:  Occupy Wall Street by Paul Stein

Apr 24 2016
27 mins

Rank #19: Cyber sovereignty: The global Domain Name System in China

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The internet has long been seen as a force of global connection,  But this notion of a global internet has never been entirely accurate. Language barriers, access limitations, censorship and the human impulse to stay within your own social circles contribute to us staying local.  And then there is the larger architecture of the internet.  This podcast looks at at how this architecture, specifically the Domain Name System (DNS) has been used and developed in China to localize control there.

In this podcast, Adriene Lilly talks to Séverine Arsène, a researcher at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong and Chief Editor of China Perspectives – a journal dedicated to cultural, political and economic trends in China. She is also author of the recent article Internet Domain Names in China: Articulating Local Control with Global Connectivity part of a special feature of China Perspectives ‘Shaping the Chinese Internet’

The internet has long been seen as a force of global connection, bringing together people of different cultural, political and economic backgrounds. Understood as a horizontal network and a community that is structurally decentralized. But this notion of a global internet has never been entirely accurate. Language barriers, access limitations, censorship and the human impulse to stay within your own social circles contribute to us staying local. Beyond social constraints, there is the larger architecture of the internet to take into account. Essential structures that hold the internet in place, yet remain mostly unknown. Today, we’re looking at how this architecture has been used and developed in China to localize control there.

Understanding the Domain Names System is a big step in understanding the architecture of the internet. The Domain Names System, or DNS, is the global addressing system for the internet. You can think of the DNS like a phonebook. It takes numbers (IP addresses) and attributes them to names (domain names). When you type in an address in your browser ( your using the DNS to look up and call the number in this global phonebook. This global system is coordinated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN.

China was a major pioneer in using the DNS as a political tool, creating a vast web of regulation, censorship and blocking. This has been an evolving system since the early days of the internet, and continues to change to this day. Only last month,a new draft law was reported that could force website owners operating in China to apply for China-base domain names – this means websites ending in .com or .net must also register with .cn or Chinese character domain names like .中国(meaning “.China”) or .公司 (meaning “.Corporation”). Like many similar regulations, the draft of this law is vague in its wording and its exact implications are yet to be seen. In this episode Séverine discusses how laws like this have evolved over time and what they might really mean.

“The very point of using the DNS to block particular websites, or using keyword filtering, is to have a selective blocking or a selective connection to the global internet. It enables the Chinese state to have the best of both. The best of the global internet: access to trade, to fashion trends, to self-expression in a certain way – it helps people to vent off, express their identities, their wills, without necessarily being critical about the state of their own country. And, at the same time is allows a certain amount of political control…”

This selective access has become known as ‘The Great Firewall of China.’ The term can be misleading, implying an internet that is structurally isolated from the rest of the world when, in reality, it is more a ‘selective’ access.

“…the term “Great Firewall” was invented at the end of the 1990s/2000s, it is a very powerful image to represent a separated network that would be really very different than the rest of the world’s internet. So it was a very successful image. Until now, it’s still very classic to use the notion of the Great Firewall to represent the Chinese internet. […] in fact, it would not be very difficult to separate the Chinese internet from the rest of the world. They have done this at the region level, like they did in Xinjiang after the riots in 2008. […] For that, you don’t need to use the DNS, you don’t need to filter keywords or anything. You just need to tell the ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) to stop providing service.”

Beyond the political implications DNS blocking, censorship and keyword filtering can effect economic issues. For example by blocking established social media sites like Facebook Chinese alternatives have more room to develop.

“The censorship that is done in China has been very often criticized for being mostly against Foreign competitors of the Chinese internet services. For example when Google was struggling in the Chinese market in the beginning of the 2000s they had to decide if they still wanted a or not. It was said that the political pressure that the Chinese government was putting on them to censor their search results was also aimed at putting their competitor,Baidu, in a more favorable position. In the same way, all the companies that have been blocked in China, like Facebook like twitter, gave room for Chinese competitors and copycats to grow and take that room. And so the censorship that blocks a particular websites through its domain name or through its IP address has often been seen as a way to provide room for the development of a domestic industry in the development of the internet….”


Throughout the episode Séverine discusses the structure of the Chinese internet and the implications that is has globally. Noting that while China may have pioneered many of the techniques used for censorship and DNS blocking they are not the only country currently using them. This includes nations like the United States, Australia and the UK, all of which employ various regulations online.

“…this all reminds us that the internet is not really displayed in the same way for everyone person in the world, it really depends on where you’re situated So this all reminds us that the internet is not entirely in a limbo, it’s not an entirely virtual territory where no laws would apply. On the contrary many laws apply. Because the internet has material infrastructure it has copper wires, fiber optics wires, and routers all of which are situated materially within territories, it has companies and institutions that are subject to the laws of a territory and it has people. It has employees and users who are also subject to the laws of the countries where they are located. So there are in fact many laws that can apply and that’s a great leverage for every country’s government to act and to impose constraints on our behavior online.”

Original artwork by Tiana Tucker
Apr 17 2016
22 mins

Rank #20: Debating donor conception 10 years after the removal of anonymity

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The number of couples seeking fertility treatment is rising every year.  But donor assisted conception poses huge ethical and human rights issues.  Up until 10 years ago, sperm donors and women who donated eggs had a right to remain anonymous.  Then the law was changed in 2005 giving donor conceived people the right to information about their donors.  Most people agree that this was a milestone to be celebrated, but does it go far enough?

This podcast explores the issues.  it is drawn from an event organised by the Progress Educational Trust  and is introduced by the Chair of the event, Charles Lister, Chair of the National Gamete Donation Trust, and former Head of Policy at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. He quoted a speech by the Public Health Minister, Melanie Johnson made in 20014,

‘Clinics decide to provide treatment using donors; patients make a decision to receive treatment using donors; donors decide to donate. Donor-conceived children, however, do not decide to be born – is it therefore right that access to information about the donation that led to their birth should be denied to them?’

This quote encapsulates the essence of the debates that led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (Disclosure of Donor Information) Regulations 2004, which allow donor-conceived people born from donations made after 1 April 2005 access to identifying information about their donor on reaching the age of 18. It also set the scene for a series of lively presentations from a panel of five experts, who took to the stage to offer their perspective on the impact of the legislation.

L to R Charles Lister, Juliet Tizzard, Susan Golmbok, Jo Rose, Venessa Smith, Eric Blythe

First to speak was Juliet Tizzard, Director of Strategy at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), who gave the regulator’s perspective on the change in law. Tizzard identified the lack of reliable outcome metrics in relation to donor conception as a key challenge, and hindrance, to accurate impact evaluation of the 2004 regulations. She also opined that the assessment of post-regulation sperm and egg donation trend as proxy measure of impact showed a gradual but steady increase in number of new donors registering in the UK – a reality that is a far cry from the doomsday prophecies of the early critics of the law, who predicted the possibility of severe donor shortages arising as a result of the end to donor anonymity.

Next on stage was Dr Jo Rose, a donor-conceived adult who won a landmark court case that contributed to the decision to end donor anonymity in the UK. In her presentation, Rose argued that donor-conceived children should, as a matter of course, have more support and the right to access full and complete information about their genetic parent, particularly because ‘wrong and incomplete medical history kills people’. She also argued that a lack of retrospective access to identifying information means a number of donor-conceived people born before April 2005 live the rest of their lives ‘tortured’ by not knowing who their genetic family is.

‘Why then should we have legislation that protects the rights of donors but ignores the rights of donor offspring?’ she asked the audience, and quoted Kevin Staudt’s song, Novum:

Rose’s presentation gave a personal note to the debate and made it easy to appreciate the rationale behind her call for retrospective disclosure of donor identity. According to her, more needs to be done to ensure ‘equality and respect for genetic kinship and identity for all groups of the society’.

Eric Blyth, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Huddersfield, also made a case for retrospective disclosure of donor identity. Using data from the HFEA, Professor Blyth argued that the lack of retrospective access to identifying donor information means that upwards of 20,000 donor-conceived people born between 1991–2004 in the UK are denied the right to learn the identify of their donor.

Blyth also argued that, since the data presented by Tizzard showed that more than 150 donors who donated prior to April 2005 have chosen to waive their right to anonymity, protecting donor privacy may not be seen as equally important by all of those donors.

Venessa Smith, the Quality Assurance and Patient Coordinator at the London Women’s Clinic, offered insights from the perspective of the service providers. She reported a change in sperm-donor demography and composition from ‘young men donating for “beer money” pre-2005, to young professional males with families donating purely for altruistic reasons post-2005’. This, she argued, may be attributable to a post-2005 paradigm shift that resulted in a greater focus on the welfare of the donor-conceived child, rather than merely the successful outcome of the assisted reproduction process.

Smith also argued that the routine support and counselling offered to post-2005 donors ensures that ‘donors who do make a donation are the right ones for the patients’. This has contributed to a significant increase in number of donors at the London Sperm Bank and London Egg Bank, she reported, such that patients now have a variety of choice and no longer have to wait long for donors.

The last presenter for the evening was Susan Golombok, Professor of Family Research and Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. Her presentation focused on the how disclosure of donor conception in the UK had changed over the past 30 years.

Professor Golombok discussed two longitudinal studies. The first followed 111 donor insemination (DI) families who had children born in the mid-1980s, and another conducted some 15 years later followed 50 DI families and 51 egg donor (ED) families. In summary, in the earlier study fewer than 10 percent of parents had disclosed by the age of 18, whereas in the later study 67 percent of ED parents and 41 percent of DI parents had disclosed by the age of 14. So while it was encouraging to learn that the number of parents disclosing has increased, it was also apparent that parents who initially indicated willingness to disclose donor conception to their children did not always go on to do so.

When considering the welfare of the child, it was reassuring that no child responded to disclosure in a negative way, and no parents regretted disclosing.

The panel also fielded some questions from the audience, which centred on the practical aspects of donor disclosure. Emma Cresswell, a donor-conceived adult in the audience, insisted that it was no longer right to withhold information from donor-conceived adults. She argued that disclosure of donor conception should be an ethical duty, a parental responsibility and a legal requirement. She suggested that inclusion of identifying donor information on a donor-conceived child’s birth certificate would guarantee this disclosure.

A number of audience members backed up this call for a review of current legislation to encourage disclosure, as and to remove donor anonymity retrospectively. Others raised questions about the ethics and practicality of enforcing the disclosure of donor conception, and pointed out that retrospectively lifting donor anonymity breaks promises made to people who donated before 2005.

Juliet Tizzard said that, in her view, the best approach was to support parents of donor-conceived children to encourage disclosure, rather than seeking to mandate it. Caroline Spencer, a behavioural psychologist and trustee of the Donor Conception Network, also emphasised the need to educate parents of donor-conceived children on the importance of disclosure while supporting them with practical tools and tips.

By the end of the evening, it was clear that emotions around the debate on donor anonymity run high, that neither the audience nor the panel would reach a consensus, and that issues surrounding donor anonymity and disclosure will continue to be hotly debated.

This article is based on the piece by Arit Udoh in BioNews, the online magazine of Progress Educational Trust.

Nov 23 2015
1 hour 3 mins

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