Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Fat Of The Land - Future Shocks - Part 8

You do not have to look very far into the news reports these days without finding out about the "time bomb" that is the obesity problem that is facing this country. Statistics are bandied about with wanton abandon including: that obesity costs £7.4 billion to the NHS, that diabetes will rise by 54% over the next few years whilst heart disease will rise by 20%, whilst 20% is also the number of Scottish children who are now in the obese category. People talk about 'fat-tax' and that the 'fatties' should get off their backsides and stop eating so much as if people are on some form of voluntary self-destruction course.

A worrying report has emerged recently about the East Suffolk Primary Healthcare Trust who in an effort to save money have been denying 10 clinically obese patients the hip and knee replacement operations that they require. The patients have been told that they must first lose weight before they will receive their surgery. There is no information as to what steps the trust may have taken to assist the 10 patients to lose weight.

This is another example of the thin end of the wedge, since it assumes that it is acceptable to deny people surgery if they deviate from a required norm. This started with the call for smokers to be denied treatment for any smoking related illness unless they gave up. The same interestingly has not been true of drinking and the late George Best, despite medical problems caused by chronic alcoholism, was still the recipient of a new liver and given the best medical care money could buy in the Cromwell hospital in West London, it didn't stop the alcohol eventually doing for him in the end.

The denial of treatment to people for any reason is alarming, it is even more so when no connection is made with the fact that modern life is increasingly consumption based in all forms. I do not know the hippocratic oath in its entirety but I do not recall any part of it including the caveats that doctors need only treat certain types of people if they can prove that any ailment is not somehow self-inflicted.

Notice that such a move not to treat certain types of people will always start with groups who do not have a great deal of sympathy, it is acceptable to be anti-fat and the ill-informed assumption that fat people just shouldn't eat so much is seldom rebutted. I am fat myself, I freely admit it, I am no longer in the dangerously obese section, a section which is surprisingly easy to fall into, you might assume that I was the size of a house but no, well, small cavaran perhaps! My weight problem could be caused by a variety of factors but in my case lethargy is partially if not mainly to blame. However studies have shown that our diet directly affects our energy levels and this means that there can be something of a vicious circle- eat shit food (which is often cheap and readily available), have no energy or inclination to then do any exercise. Is it our fault, well, yes it is but the trap is easy to fall into and difficult to get out of just as it is with any addictive lifestyle and our prediliction for fast food does nothing to alleviate this, quite the contrary.

Intrinsically I agree with a fat tax but it is only fair if obesity is treated properly as an addiction and dealt with the same as any addiction should be, think of fatty foods as heroin. OK, that sounds bizarre but you wouldn't say that other people who are not heroin addicts could dabble in a bit of smack from time to time so why should it be the same with fast food of no nutritional value. Of course this cannot happen using bans and legislation it has to be considerably more proactive. A tax needs to be levvied on foods that are high particularly in saturated fat. Some of the revenue from this needs to be channeled into subsidies for certain foods which are beneficial alternatives because if you make the healthy option affordable and the fatty option less so then you automatically entice towards good food rather than the current trend for poor food. For example most people will these days buy vegetable oil for their cooking because it is cheap, furthermore one of the worst proponents in fast food outlets is hydrogenated vegetable oil which is packed with saturated fat. If extra virgin olive oil were even only double the price you would have a far greater number of people using it instead, it is considerably tastier for food as well as it being far less high in saturated fats and higher in polyunsaturates. Likewise if companies had financial incentives to reduce the amount of high-salt, high-sugar processed foods in favour of fresher lower calorie, lower-carbohydrate options it might change their business plans somewhat.

The same can be said of exercise. It is all very well for the middle classes to have the options of gym membership at £25-£50 per month but that is an exorbidant amount of money for the majority of people in this country, whilst you may at the same time point out that a great many would spend the same amount on Sky TV and the National Lottery these are all part of the social sleeping drugs of the working classes. If exercise is to be made part of the modern routine it has to be engendered at a young age and that means both in school and at home. For this to happen there must be the facilities for all sorts of varieties of activity, after all playing football is not everyone's cup of tea. At the moment we are woefully short of facilities and in recent times that trend has worsened considerably with the state school playing fields being sold off left, right and centre. Youth clubs are often non-existent in deprived inner-city areas whilst under-funded and manned by volunteers in the marginally more cohesive suburbs and rural communities.

You cannot demonise one section of the population when it is clear that societal constructs mean that this section is on the increase beyond any reasonable control. However it is unsurprising that obesity is very much a social class issue, the lower income brackets, ie people without access to good quality fresh food or often the time to cook properly are most vulnerable to fast food and low quality, cheap ingredients. Our throwaway culture has led to throwaway attitude to food, most families barely if ever sit down to a proper meal together, contrast this with Italy where a family meal tends to be an event and savoured with antipasti, wine, main course, pudding etc. etc. There are undoubtedly fat Italians but the meditteranean diet is far lower in fat and cholesterol and hence the rates of obesity and the corresponding heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes rates etc. are appreciably lower.

The school run in my day used to involve walking or getting the bus, only a handful of people at my primary school were picked up in the car the rest of us didn't even contemplate it and neither did our parents. Nowadays it is de rigeur for little Johnny or Sharon as well as little Portia or Toby to be carted in en voiture be it a 4x4 off road vehicle or MPV. The roads around schools are gridlocked at 9am whilst the pavements remain empty. External activities take planning and cost money whilst watching the TV or buying the kids a Playstation 2 are considered low maintenance activities. "Anything for a quiet life." Can we really be surprised that our children are accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle when it is us that have taught it to them by everything they see around them at home and in school. Of course active children are less maleable and can be a handful, that's because they are children, it's what they do, the pushing of boundaries against their parents is designed to test limits on people who are not supposed to knock seven shades of shite out of them before they get into the real world.

So the question is, do we as a society wish to continue to sit back and watch our children die whilst the fast-food companies reap huge profits or start to change things fundamentally and accept finally that the freedom to choose is a hollow one when you don't actually have any genuine choices.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Murder The Murderers - Future Shocks - Part 7

If you believe sources up to and including 2003 anything up to 77% of Britons would support the re-introduction of the death penalty which was abolished here in 1965. I leave 2003 as a qualifier because whilst one might think that in the onslaught on human rights perpetrated by the New Labour government over the last few years many people might be thinking twice about such a policy, in fact I suspect with so many being hoodwinked about the War on Terror and so eager to allow the death sentences on soldiers thousands of miles away the number now may be even higher.

The arguments in favour of capital punishment are fairly unchanging, usually that the person is a monster and those responsible for severe crimes such as serial murder mutilation, sexual assault, killing children can have no mercy shown to them as they have not shown mercy to their victims. There is the beleif that people who commit crimes of a certain nature deserve to have the ultimate sentence passed on them because they can have no part in society. It is said that the death penalty is a deterrent to show strength of resolve to those who may contemplate the most grievous of crimes.

Whilst the arguements for may be presented most often the rebuttals or a full examination of these arguments to determine whether they hold any weight is not given as much airtime.

The issue of prevention is certainly not proven, there are still many more murders in US than many countries w/out death penalty, this is not due simply to the high percentage of gun ownership in the US because proportionally Canada has a similar ratio per capita and yet the murder rate is negligible by comparison in spite of there being no capital punishment. Those who see this as a cure to the evils of a section of society are deluding themselves it is yet another example of the modern abdication of responsibility which is becoming so synonymous with our Western society to make it almost indistinguishable from the norm now. Whose right is it to call time on the prospects for rehabilitation of an individual? Are we really therefore bound into acceptance of the moral premise that people can be intrinsically evil? I'm afraid I simply do not believe this, humans are born with predilictions but their character is not pre-determined and therefore they are a product of their environment because it is this that shapes how behavioural traits which may be inherent manifest themselves in later life.

There is little doubt that the increasing violent nature of stimuli around us has produced more violent crime and less respect for ones fellow human, no doubting that poverty coupled with avarice increases muggings and burglary. I think it is pretty obvious that the over-sexualisation of children reduces the desire to nurture. So if it is a series of societal forces that often shape the path we take does society not have to take some responsibility if the direction appears to be going seriosly awry?

The biggest question of all which I have never heard satisfactorily resolved or even cogently argued against is who passes judgement on the state if the state gets it wrong? And it will get it wrong, there is an inevitabilty about that, in this country alone we have seen many high-profile cases of rectifiction of miscarriages of justice decades after sentencing. In the case of the Birmingham 6 who were wrongly imprisoned in the 1970s the judge said in his summing up that it was a pity the death sentence had been repealed for he would have had no hesitation in passing it upon them. How lucky for the judge that he did not have that on his conscience 20 odd years later when the full nature of the cover up and flimsyness of evidence waqs revealed. Guiseppe Conlan died in jail and the others were robbed of the most productive years of their lives, that is bad enough, had they been executed there would have been no possibility for the state to begin to atone. It is rare that I agree wholeheartedly with the Vatican but Cardinal Renato Martino, Vatican Justice and Peace Department sums it up succinctly: "This is terrible because you know the death penalty is a penalty where there is no alternative, there is no possibility for the human being who happens to be a criminal - to be corrected, to reform, to become a good citizen. With the death penalty you don't give that alternative and that is not taking into account the many, many mistakes and errors, judicial errors that we discover from time to time were committed and innocent people were executed."

There are plenty of examples where we know full well that this has been the case and others where there is sufficient doubt such as in the case of Derek Bentley who was hanged in Britain in 1953 despite even at his trial there being serious doubts as to the semantic inference of words he uttered at the scene of the crime. Bentley was not the man who pulled the trigger, but there was the school of thought that his words "Let him have it Chris" to his co-conspirator were incitement to murder and not in response to the policeman's request to the 2 men that the gun be handed over. One has to remember that in 1953 gun crime was comparitively rare in this country and the killing of a "friendly bobby" was regarded as one of the big taboos. The actual killer of PC, Chris Craig was a minor and therefore unable to stand trial for murder full-scale, Bentley however was 19 and provided a useful scapegoat for the public outcry and police anger at the death of one of their own. It is widely acknowledged now that the case against Derek Bentley had serious flaws and his execution was a serious miscarriage of justice. Furthermore Bentley would have been regarded now as potentially mentally unfit for the death penalty. On the 30th July 1998 the British Court of Appeal quashed Derek Bentley's original conviction and 1 year later the Home Office agreed to compensate the Bentley family some 46 years after his death. For the family of course compensation is something of a hollow gesture in response to the loss of life.

In the recent case of Stanley 'Tookie' Williams a dangerous precedent has been set by the US authorities, the Los Angeles district attorney's office has said of Williams: "There can be no redemption... and there should be no mercy." Their statement being because Williams has not admitted responsibility for the murders. Governator of California Schwarzenegger adds "Stanley Williams insists he is innocent, and that he will not and should not apologise or otherwise atone for the murders of the four victims in this case. Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption." Surely it would be somewhat cynical if a person who did not commit a crime confessed to said crime merely in the hope of achieving some clemency by being seen by the authorities as taking responsibility for his actions? As Jesse Jackson says "I'm disappointed that Mr Schwarzenegger has chosen death over life, he's chosen revenge over redemption."

For the rest of this entry I will work under the presumption of WIlliams being guilty because if he is not it is yet another example of an innocent black man being killed because of US society's ambivalence. If however Williams did indeed carry out the murders then the case has a degree more moral ambiguity and that makes it interesting to study.

There is no doubting the Williams was involved in the early days of the South Central LA gangland violence in the 1970s that is now rife across the US, he was indeed the founder of the largest gang in the US the Cripps. Undoubtedly this means he is likely to have been involved in some violent crimes, whether perpetrating or orchestrating them himself. This is perhaps more severe than the formative years of most people who even if they go off the rails a little do not start arming themselves against others, but most people do not grow up as a black man in 1960s/1970s America an environment that is unquestionably one of extreme detrimental prejudice. This is of course no excuse, not all who grew up in that environment chose the path that Williams did, and yet there were many others that did so and it would be a foolish person that would assert that all those involved at that stage are still violent and dangerous members of society whilst now largely in their 50s.

Stanley Williams was found guilty of murder in 1981 and for his first 12 years in prison was violent and uncooperative. In 1993 he appears to have undergone something of a turnaround, renouncing his gang membership and apologising for the founding of the Crips. He became an anti-gang activist and wrote extensively to that effect including a number of childrens books. Williams was nominated 4 times for the Nobel Peace Prize from 2001 to 2005 and it is quite clear that his work has had some effect in areas where gang membership and activity may have been hitherto seen as glamorous. Does this mean Williams has exonerated himself for the murders it is alleged he committed, no, but is it not more useful to have a man once synonymous with gangland violence working on the other side trying to dissuede the next generation from falling into the same trap? As it is a dead Williams is of no use to those killed or their families, neither is he any use to those fighting against the culture of gang violence. Is he any use to the state now, obviously not but there are many who will deem it fitting that he is no longer a drain on tax dollars. The fact that whilst the gangland violence continues apace the tax dollars spent on policing will steadily increase will be lost on these people as most rational arguments are. Their's is the politics of knee-jerk and retribution, justice doesn't really get a look in.

Perhaps the final irony in the case of Tookie Williams is that a man, famed for his 'Hasta la Vista' approach to legislation in his films, a man forever toting more and more technologically-advanced and futuristic weaponry and a man who typifies the whole US macho culture, should be the one to refuse the final appeal for clemency.

The phrase 'you reap what you sow' springs to mind... yet again.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Crime & Punishment - Future Shocks - Part 6

At present the draconian laws in this country discriminate against people if they don't like your face, or what you're saying or what you're thinking. Even the threat of certain crimes is enough to have you banged up without charge or shipped off somewhere. There is little emphasis on crime prevention as this doesn't provide lots of nice statistics, the police are toothless and spend most of their time alienating the motorist by concentrating on speeding rather than dangerous driving, and alienating the young by dishing out ASBOs rather than attempt to address the cause of the problem. Again as in the case of health we go back to the age old argument of prevention rather than cure. If we look at the actual causes of the crimes and attempt to tackle them at source rather than concentrating on meaningless targets regarding the cleaning-up of vote-losing crime we might actually get somewhere.

When it comes to violent crime I thought initially that I had little truc and people that commit it must, undoubtedly, be removed from society, however upon closer reflection this is something that needs considerable further study and qualification. Violence against other human beings or animals is not to be tolerated and the message from society must be to this effect. However a clear difference needs to be established between types and reasons for crimes especially in a society such as our current one. Those who rob wealthy people when they themselves are poor are committing a crime that has a strong background of desperation, this does not make it right but it goes a long way to explain their actions and clearly suggests that such people are not intrinsically evil but at the end of their tether. Any incarceration should not be lengthy but emphasis should be placed on ensuring they are not planted back into the same position when they are released. What does anyone gain if a parent steals to feed his/her family, is then removed from that family to serve a prison sentence and then on release is placed straight back into the depravation whence he/she came? Many of those that commit very serious violent crimes such as serial murder or serial rape are criminally insane and must be treated as such. This means treatment and studying of their mental states and it is unlikely that they will be able to be released. However it should be possible to put more resources toward their treatment if less money is being used to pay for the imprisoning of people needlessly.

Those who commit crimes that are not violent in nature are less danger to society and therefore do not need to be removed from it. For example to have people put in jail whilst on remand for non-violent crimes or to have people jailed for parking or minor driving offences is ridiculous and an unecessary drain on taxpayer resources whilst in turn giving no tangible benefits back to society. It is plainly stupid that at the moment the penalties for crimes against property or corporations are vastly disproportionate to those against the person. Clearly the perpetrator of fraud or larceny and the like cannot be allowed to escape unpunished, but these sorts of crimes are often committed when there is a clear detachment to the area or people against whom they are committed. Most of us feel that it would be hard to con trusting people because we might like these people and it would prick our consciences to abuse the trust, this is especially prevalent with those we know. People have understandably less quarms if it were to involve people they are never likely to meet again, thus it is that the criminal has no moral code in this instance but that they have a slightly different degree of involvement to the rest of us. To my mind community service is a much more rewarding task for those committed of non-violent offences. Punishments can fit the crimes quite easily in an effort to re-educate, for example a convicted con-man might be sent to work in an old people's home for some months and thus see thing more from the side of the victims. By the same token serious driving convictions should be met by sentences involving working at RTAs or with victims of accidents and the like. This may sound like liberal-minded claptrap but to be honest I think that is incorrect and punishments can be considerably stronger in impact whilst having at the same time a degree of balance redressing. I do not see how the victim of a con-artist gains a great deal from that person being locked up for 12 years.

Violence may be something that is inherent in all of us as potential and therefore the possibilities of violence may be greater for some than others but the manifestation and what is deemed acceptable or unacceptable are generally things that are learnt and not something we are born with. For example in certain circumstances such as fear of safety it may be a natural instinct to behave violently to see off the threat, this is however very different from choosing violent means in order to exorcise frustration. The latter suggests either a lack of being able to express oneself enough to alleviate the frustration or a singular lack of respect for those around one. In both cases the answer of simple imprisonment does not seem to offer any solution, whilst education at source to prevent and education subsequent to crimes being committed would to my mind be potentially far more plausible.

If you take paedophilia as another very emotive example, the easy answer is lock these people up and throw away the keys. Whilst this is an understandable reaction for any people who may be directly affected it is in fact missing the crucial point that may help us at least embark on the journey of understanding this phenomenon. I don't not know enough about paedophilia to make expert judgement so I go on purely layman's terms, but from what I have seen and heard it is a common mantra from paedophiles that they claim not to intend to hurt children because they claim to care about them. Now, one could be cynical and say that this is a ruse and an attempt to justify but it seems to be at the root of all of these people's arguments and I think requires much closer scrutiny. If it is true it strikes at the heart of what appears to be a mental imbalance and the resulting skewed logic. It is natural, an in-built part of human nature to protect children, and the closer the children are to one the greater the instinct, thus a parent's instincts should be the strongest. We acknowledge in the case of post-natal depression that there are mental factors which can cause this natural mechanism to break down and it would be a foolish person to believe that there are not many other forms of mental illness that can do the same. Although I am sure paedophilia has always been going on, there is no question that it is now more prominent in people's minds, or at the least the media. Is it possible that the very nature of our society and the sexualisation of children is having an effect under the surface of the psyches of many people?

Let us not forget that the age boundary beyond which sex is permissible is an arbitrary one and changes from country to country. Physionomically it is equally arbitrary because from a purely biological perspective the variance in anatomical readiness for reproductive sex varies from person to person and the emotional readiness can offten bear no relation to the physical. As a society we have deemed it unpalatable for people to be sexually active before 16 and the line indeed has to be drawn somewhere, and I think it would be difficult to justify the limit being any lower, many would in fact campaign for it being higher but I think this would be difficult and damaging to enforce due to the nature of human hormones. For most of us there is a degree of unease when the age difference gets above a certain level and yet it is not uncommon for girls of 16 or 17 to be dating men of mid to late 20s and likewise men or women later in life may still have considerable attraction to people far younger. This is not paedophilia of course but it does suggest that there can be relationships outside one's generational peers that can be constructive in part whilst not being agreed on by everyone. It is a moral dilemma but one most of us can cope with broadly-speaking because someone who is physically and emotionally immature generally does not invoke feelings of attraction amongst those of us who purport to be mature in both departments.

Contrary to popular belief sexual assault in very young children is more often carried out by other under-age children or women rather than men. Our media obsession with paedophiles has portrayed a hackneyed stereotype of a middle-aged man in a raincoat who hangs around playgrounds. Whilst this perception continues the public will fail to understand the full nature of the problem and consequently movements toward any form of understanding and potential solution will be hampered. Of course as this carries on capitalist industry continues to make money out of children through sweatshops, advertising and promotions and as such erodes the sense of childhood and this has to be studied carefully to determine how damaging this may be in terms of passing on a perception of children to society at large.

There is no question that the paedophiles must be incarcerated, they are a danger to one of the most vulnerable sections of society and as such cannot be allowed to harm them. However it is vital that they are given considerable counselling in order for the medical world to attempt to understand this disorder with a view to seeing if there is any way of preventing it from happening or perhaps gaining insight to provide some form of early-warning system. To lock these people up and throw away the key would be to deny us the chance of stopping what is one of the most fundamental of taboos. I cite the example of paedophilia not to be an apologist of any sort but to attempt to show that we, as a society gain nothing from simple imprisonment of a criminal section of people if we are not going to learn how to prevent in the future.

To imprison people without any form of integrated strategy is yet another example of an abdication of responsibility. We are all born with a degree of moral understanding but this can with social factors be eroded if not nurtured properly. It is all very well to teach people that you cannot steal from others but if the very structure of our society is so hell-bent on judging people by what they have and not who they are it is small wonder that many will seek whatever means necessary to improve their standing. Not everyone will choose this route it is true but not everyone shares the same upbringing and therefore status and image is not as important to some as others. Similarly it is obvious that in schools we should be taught that violence is wrong and yet the macho culture does nothing to reinforce this message, likewise the sexualisation and early adultisation of children for use by those who would make money from them has the rather obvious side-effect of eroding the respect that many have for children especially of certain ages. It is all about cause and effect and it is a serious dereliction of duty for all of us not to ensure that the link between the two remains clear and not divorced from each other for financial or political expediency.