The Moon once made the future seem so bright

The Independent, Monday 27 August 2012

The Moon landings expressed an optimism and thirst for knowledge, the hallmarks of secular culture

How the passing of time changes perception: in 1969, no one could fail to be astounded by photographs of an American astronaut walking on the Moon. The future had arrived in front of our eyes, promising a new era in which anything seemed possible. The human race had conquered space and there seemed no limits to what might be achieved in the next decade or so.

Forty-three years later, pictures of the Moon landings are quaint and a little sad. In his unwieldy space suit, Neil Armstrong looks like a figure out of an old sci-fi movie, and the announcement of his death at the weekend feels like a coda to a book which has long been closed. Six Apollo missions landed a dozen men on the Moon between 1969 and 1972, but predictions of human beings living there, and space tourism becoming a reality, were way off the mark. The current rover mission to Mars has opened a new era in space exploration, but I doubt whether anyone would have predicted that it would take so long.

The tributes paid to Armstrong in the past couple of days have been heartfelt. The tone was set by President Obama, who described the astronaut as “among the greatest of American heroes”. Obama’s remarks caught the public mood, reflecting a craving for authentic heroism in an age when the word is used so widely that it’s in danger of being devalued. Armstrong responded to his global fame with quiet modesty, never losing sight of why he had got involved in space exploration in the first place. He described himself as a “nerdy engineer” and insisted that he took “a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession”.

These days, Armstrong would barely have landed on Earth before being inundated with offers from reality TV shows (“I’m an astronaut, get me out of here”). But if Armstrong’s determination to continue with normal life strikes us as charming, it also evokes powerful feelings of nostalgia. It’s easy to look back from the standpoint of 2012 and see him as the representative of a more innocent world, untouched by so many of the developments we dislike about our own time.

In 1969, Richard Nixon was in his first year as President and the term “Watergate” had not entered the political vocabulary. The sheer excitement of watching grainy pictures beamed back from the Moon obscured any connection between the space race and the Cold War; Apollo 11 was simply a crowning achievement, marking a new chapter in human endeavour. Three months later, two million people took part in protests across the US against the Vietnam conflict, which the 1968 generation rejected as yet another old men’s war.

The peaceful use of science, symbolised by the Moon landings, promised a glowing future in which humanity would rise above the conflicts which had disfigured the first half of the 20th century. In 1963, Harold Wilson had told the Labour Party conference that “we are redefining… our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution”. Most people know the next line of Wilson’s speech, which talked about “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution”, although they may have forgotten that he followed it with a swipe at the trade unions. Wilson’s image of a new country being created in the purging flames of a furnace was far from the reality of Britain’s smoky industrial cities, but the belief that we were entering a period of cheap and abundant energy was widespread.

Back in 1952, the Daily Graphic had somewhat optimistically compared the arrival of nuclear power with “stepping out of the Ice Age into a world of permanent sunshine”. The popular British TV programme, Tomorrow’s World, had more grounding in reality, but was not immune to flights of fancy about robots relieving human beings of annoying household chores. Nixon was a scoundrel, but he wasn’t George W Bush, and the success of the US in the space race marked a high point in its history. Under Reagan, space exploration was eclipsed by star wars, and we’ve become used once again to technology being used to find more sophisticated ways of killing human beings.

But that’s not the only reason, I suspect, that the death of an astronaut has moved so many people. Armstrong was an aeronautical engineer who became, almost by accident, the first human being to step foot on another celestial body. He did so at a time when science was in the ascendant, debunking superstition and religious ideas about how the world came into being. The Apollo missions belong in a world which would have found it impossible to imagine 9/11 or the wars that followed it. The last century’s conflicts, driven by ideology, have been replaced by wars in which religion once again plays a leading role. Who would have believed, in the 1960s, that individuals in search of a shortcut to paradise would one day immolate fellow human-beings in horrific suicide-bombings?

The Moon landings were expensive, grandiose even, but they expressed an optimism and thirst for knowledge which are the hallmarks of secular culture. We are sorely in need of a new enlightenment, based on a rational, scientific and endlessly curious view of the world. I would like to think Neil Armstrong will be one of its heroes.

All material on this site (c) Joan Smith 2010-2012


Tragic cases aren’t an argument for changing the law on assisted dying

Independent on Sunday, 26 August 2012

When Tony Nicklinson died on Wednesday, there was widespread sympathy for a man who had been paralysed from the neck down. The previous week he had wept in front of TV cameras, devastated by the High Court’s refusal to give him an assurance that anyone who helped him to die would not face a charge of murder. Photographs of Mr Nicklinson before his illness, looking healthy and tanned, offered a painful contrast with the helplessness he endured after a massive stroke in 2005. The case has redoubled calls for a change in the law on assisted dying.

Few people could witness Mr Nicklinson’s plight and not be moved. But I was troubled by the images of his distress that circulated widely after he lost his case, and not just because they felt like an intrusion into private grief. There’s a clear danger that ethical issues will get lost in this focus on a handful of tragic individuals; it’s also worth noting that doctors, who would be called on actively to end lives if the law were to be changed, oppose a change in the law. Two months ago, at the BMA’s annual conference, doctors reiterated their opposition to assisted dying.

They have good reasons to do so. There is a huge difference between withdrawing medical treatment in terminal cases and actively helping someone to die, especially when the patient – as in many of these cases – is not actually dying. It’s clear from the debate at the conference that many doctors don’t want to be put in a position where they would be asked to kill people.

I’m sure Mr Nicklinson’s family had his best interests at heart. But the debate about assisted dying is weirdly dissociated from the real world, in which relatives and carers often abuse elderly and disabled people. The frequency of domestic violence – and, more recently, “honour”-based violence – shows that the family is far from being the safe place campaigners imagine it to be. Husbands kill their wives, parents murder their children, and some relatives pressure the elderly into handing over money or changing their wills. Some families are loving but many are not, and even well-intentioned spouses and adult children get worn down by caring for a relative with huge physical and emotional needs.

People with debilitating but not immediately fatal conditions already have to deal with
discomfort and loss. I’m not sure how doctors are supposed to differentiate between someone who genuinely wants to die and a situation in which they’ve been made to feel a burden on their family. Even “living wills” don’t provide a definitive answer, because someone may feel very differently once a hypothetical fear becomes reality.

Lifting protection from millions of vulnerable people because of a small number of
tragic cases is a drastic response. It also ignores the sound principle that extreme cases make bad law. It’s perfectly possible for someone to be distressed and wrong, a fact that’s been overlooked in the emotive discussion of the Nicklinson case.


Who names alleged rape victims?

Thursday 23 August 2012

Since Gavin Esler and I challenged him for naming one of Julian Assange’s alleged victims on BBC2’s Newsnight on Monday evening, Craig Murray has repeatedly claimed two things: that the woman’s name is all over the internet, and that she revealed it herself in the first place.

The first of these assertions is true. That doesn’t mean Murray was right to repeat the woman’s name on live TV, and it’s worth pointing out that he would have broken the law
if the alleged assault had taken place in this country. The fact that both Assange’s accusers have been named on blogs and social networking sites has produced a torrent of misogynist abuse, including the use of terms such as ‘feminazi’ and ‘twisted, man-hating bitch’.

Murray hasn’t produced evidence for his second assertion, that the woman he named twice on Newsnight outed herself. What I do know is this: she gave an anonymous interview to the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet on 21 August 2010, responding among other things to the accusation that Assange had been ‘set up’. The interview appeared, without revealing her name, the following day (22 August 2010).

I have found the following headline, which appeared on a website the next day (23 August 2010): ‘Newzglobe confirms [name redacted] as one of the women that made the rape allegations against Assange’. The report continued: ‘The web site published an article in Swedish today confirming [name redacted] as one of the women who accused Assange for rape’.

This is a very different scenario from Murray’s claim that the woman named herself. But it is similar to what happened to the woman who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape in a hotel room in New York. It’s often claimed that she made her own name public, but she did so only after she had been widely named in the French press.

I believe that victims of alleged rapes and sexual assaults are entitled to have their identities protected by the law. In both cases I’ve mentioned, the alleged victims have been slandered and bullied on the internet in a way which is demeaning to them, and may deter other women from reporting serious crimes.

I don’t need to say much about Murray, whose behaviour speaks for itself. But the fact that someone has been named on the internet does not remove anyone’s duty behave decently and responsibly towards the victim of an alleged crime.


This is ghettoisation by government decree

Social exclusion will only get worse if workers are denied public housing in nice
parts of our towns

The Independent, Tuesday 21 August 2012

I now realise that I owe the taxpayers of this country an apology. My first home was a mansion set in 75 hectares of landscaped gardens, with a boating pond and Gothic ruins. My family would never have been able to afford it on their own – I’m not a Rothschild, as some of you may already have suspected – but we were able to live in a stately home built by the banking family. And it was all thanks to the generosity of the local authority.

Yes, I have to admit, I grew up in “social housing”. Council houses, as they used to be called when I was a child, came in all shapes and forms. Social housing allowed my parents to live in a Grade II* listed building in west London – my Dad was a council gardener, and the flat came with the job – instead of a row of identical boxes on a modern estate.

Now someone has noticed this anomaly, which means that working-class people are still living in posh areas of our cities. It’s a scandal, as a headline in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph pointed out: “No one has a right to live in Kensington at taxpayers’ expense.” A right-wing think-tank has tackled this injustice head-on with a report – endorsed by the housing minister Grant Shapps – which wants councils to sell posh houses and use the money to build cheaper homes.

Inevitably, given the shortage of space in our cities, that means somewhere else: a place we might usefully designate “Not-Kensington”, where people on low incomes can be with people like themselves. They’ll be more comfortable, you know, with all the other Kayleighs and Duanes. Another way of achieving this species of social engineering, it now occurs to me, would be to create zones in our cities where parents who give their children certain first names are not allowed to live. But that’s not (yet) the proposal to hand. Policy Exchange is urging local authorities to sell off “expensive” social housing as it becomes vacant – magnanimously allowing the current tenants to die there or move of their own accord – and build hundreds of thousands of cheaper homes with the proceeds.

The idea apparently stems from the discovery that more than a fifth of council house
tenants in England live in homes worth more than the average privately owned home in their areas. (Have you ever noticed, by the way, that poor people live in houses while rich people have “homes”?) The report estimates that selling social housing could raise £4.5bn a year, and fund a programme to build houses in Not-Kensington and create up to 340,000 jobs in the construction industry.

You don’t have to be a great thinker to see the problems with this proposal. What are the chances of all that money being spent on providing social housing? Very low, judging by what’s happened when social housing has been sold off in the past, and now local authorities are desperate for funds for other projects. Loss of social housing stock, which began when Margaret Thatcher embarked on an ideological mission to sell it off, is one of the reasons for today’s catastrophic housing shortage.

Then there’s the problem of social exclusion, which will only get worse if people on lower incomes – including nurses, fire fighters and other essential workers – are denied access to public housing in nice parts of our cities. Neil O’Brien, the director of Policy Exchange, claims that the scheme wouldn’t mean social housing tenants having to move from their local area – just to a less sought-after street, whatever that means. He must be thinking about all those wide, undeveloped spaces in Pimlico and Notting Hill, but the chief executive of the National Housing Federation takes a less rosy view. “It could effectively cleanse many towns of hard-working people who simply can’t afford the high prices of buying or renting privately,” David Orr said bluntly.

When I finally moved with my parents to a council estate, I discovered what social exclusion meant. In sixth form, I was one of a handful of girls at the local grammar school who didn’t live in privately owned homes. I didn’t have many friends, even though I think the other girls’ condescension was mostly unconscious. I barely knew that public schools existed, and I only discovered much later that Old Etonians were running the country. As they are in 2012, of course.

One of the things I like most about the area of London where I now live is that it has
what’s known as “mixed” housing. Even so, class prejudice runs deep: a cop once asked if I’d had any problems with the council flats across the road, adding primly that he’d had to speak to some of the tenants about “inappropriate behaviour”.

Some days, I have to pinch myself. It’s the 21st century, and we’re actually talking about
moving working-class people out of nice areas? According to Policy Exchange, people don’t have a “right” to live in expensive places – unless they’re rich, of course. Thankfully, the wealthy won’t ever have to face the prospect of living in Not-Kensington. And I can only offer my sincere apologies, as a working-class person who undeservedly started life in a Rothschild mansion.


Britain’s Olympic champions don’t need honours

The Guardian, Monday 20 August 2012

Team GB’s medal winners have already been rewarded – demands for knighthoods and damehoods reflect our culture of excess

The Olympic feelgood factor hasn’t quite faded and some people are trying to preserve it with a new demand: honour for athletes. Surely, the argument runs, Team GB’s unprecedented success in the 2012 games deserves to be recognised in the New Year’s honours list? Lord Moynihan, outgoing head of the British Olympic Association, has led the calls with a a suggestion that every single gold medallist deserves ‘recognition’.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard demands for knighthoods for top athletes: breathless sports commentators are already pressing politicians to create “Sir” Bradley Wiggins and “Sir” Mo Farah. Indeed Jonathan Stephens, a civil servant at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, seems to have caused annoyance and disbelief in equal measure when he tried to dampen public expectations by saying that not all 43 medal winners would get “automatic gongs”.

It is bad luck for the athletes in question that their sporting success has come at a moment when there’s been another, if very limited, review of the honours system. The government seems keen to update it, moving away from a model in which senior civil servants automatically expect knighthoods and damehoods to one where awards are based on “excellence and selfless voluntary service”. Weirdly, David Cameron has also chosen this year to re-introduce the British Empire medal, a “reform” that goes in precisely the opposite direction of what’s actually needed.

One of the reasons I turned down an MBE is 2003 is that I didn’t want to accept an award that makes reference to so many institutions – God, the monarch and the British empire – I’m not keen on. (“For God and the empire” is its motto and you receive it from a member of the royal family.) It’s a reflection of an honours system that is both hopelessly out of date and deeply confused, as the current row about Britain’s Olympic athletes demonstrates. Among many incongruities is the notion of awarding the pompous title of “Sir” to someone like Wiggins, who seems refreshingly unaffected by his stellar fame and success.

The British athletes who won medals certainly fall into the government’s preferred category of “excellence”, although they’re far from selfless. No one trains as hard as a professional athlete, and for so long, for altruistic reasons. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of single-mindedness – or with the sponsorship deals that follow sporting success – but over-valuing it risks losing sights of other kinds of achievement. Team GB’s medal winners have already been rewarded – that’s what medals are for – and enjoy massive public acclaim.

It could be argued that someone from a poor background, who trained for years and missed a medal because they happened to have an off day, is as worthy of recognition from the state as someone who’s got a gold. Success isn’t everything and endless demands for honours for athletes (or TV presenters such as Bruce Forsyth) are symptomatic of a culture of excess, where individual ambition is over-rewarded. That’s an endemic problem with the current honours system, which hands out the same rewards to pop stars, athletes, retired politicians and people who’ve done voluntary work. Not long after I was offered an honour for services to human rights, I was bemused to see one of my favourite shoe designers accept a similar gong for services, presumably, to footwear.

I’ve nothing against an honours system which allows the state, on behalf of the public, to thank people who’ve made a difference. But I’m uneasy about a kind of inflation that continually lowers the bar, throwing honours around in a way that seems more appropriate to a popularity contest. There should be room in an honours system to recognise personal success, but it should mainly be an expression of the country’s values. Let’s celebrate altruism, courage in the face of adversity, service to the community – and leave gold medals for athletes.


Pussy power lets rip in the aisles

Independent on Sunday, 19 August 2012

It is a common error of repressive regimes to mistake power for omnipotence. No one doubts they can arrest their opponents, isolate them from friends and families, deny them fair trials and put them in prison. What’s much harder to do, in the modern world, is bury critical ideas under a suffocating blanket of censorship. Even if the regime gets the result it wants, its leaders risk appearing petty and vindictive, if not actually stupid. So I don’t think the Russian government has much to celebrate in the wake of the trial of three members of the punk band, Pussy Riot.

On Friday, a judge in Moscow sentenced Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich to two years each in prison. They were arrested five months ago after performing a ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, where they pleaded with the Virgin Mary to drive out Vladimir Putin. At the time, few people had heard of Pussy Riot, but they’ve become an international symbol of the rigidity and intolerance of the Russian state. Half a million people have viewed a shaky video of the women’s protest in the cathedral, spreading their message to an audience way beyond the Russian Federation. Their slender figures in colourful balaclavas represent a kind of modernity that the regime simply does not know how to counter.

Maria, Nadezhda and Yekaterina are smart, outspoken and feminist. What could be more scary for President Putin, a politician whose masculinity is so fragile that it evidently needs to be re-staged in a comical series of public performances? Listening to actors read the women’s closing speeches at the Royal Court Theatre in London on Friday, I was impressed by their cool appraisal of the prosecution’s attempts to distort their arguments. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of Putin’s most significant critics have turned out to be feminists, and I couldn’t help thinking about another woman who challenged him: the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated on Putin’s birthday in 2006.

The charge on which the Pussy Riot band members were convicted, hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, sounds like a clumsy modern version of an offence dreamed up by a Soviet-era bureaucrat. It’s a delicious irony that the head of the Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, is a Putin supporter who recently presented the President with an icon of Our Lady of Tenderness. In her summing-up, the judge accused the women of showing disrespect to the clergy, people in the church, people
who share Orthodox traditions, Uncle Tom Cobley and all – sorry, I made the last bit up. But Yekaterina had already turned the accusation back on Putin, asking why he felt it necessary to ‘exploit the Orthodox religion and its aesthetic’.

The answer, I suspect, is that the regime doesn’t feel as solid as it tries to pretend. ‘Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost’, Yekaterina observed in her closing speech. So why did the regime go to such lengths – ineffective
lengths, as it turns out – to silence them? Because they’ve won a bigger battle, as Yekaterina also pointed out. She’s right: now everyone knows the regime is terrified of pussy power.


You know what? It’s OK not to care about the Olympics

Independent on Sunday, 12 August 2012

It was bliss: I spent a whole week of the Olympics in a mountain village in southern Spain, hardly aware that in London people were throwing things and jumping over things. One morning I got up at half past five and went up into an olive grove with a farmer and his grandson, watching as the sun rose over the valley and the trees began to cast faint shadows on the parched earth. I love this part of the world, but its beauty is tempered by a tragic history; two or three years ago, the skeletons of 19 Republican militiamen were discovered in a gorge where they were shot by Franco sympathisers as they retreated from Malaga.

Some things matter more than sport. But I’ve come back to my own country to discover Olympic fervour encouraging a species of emotional correctness, where anyone who doesn’t care for competitive games is regarded as a killjoy. It’s like being transported to a Victorian public school, where anything less than a passionate interest in muscular athleticism is regarded with peevish suspicion. You aren’t interested in hockey or diving? You don’t care about medal tables? Shame on you!

One night last week I went to see the New York drag artist Joey Arias perform on the South Bank, and it was a relief to find myself in an audience with something other than Britain’s medal tally on its mind. At a party the next evening I encountered the Argentinian volleyball team, who seemed very tall and very nice, but it didn’t turn me into a sports fan. I know plenty of people who’ve watched one or two Olympic events but could do without the wall-to-wall coverage, let alone shrill demands that successful athletes should be given knighthoods. Athletes are competitive people who care desperately about personal success, and I’m not convinced they deserve public honours as well as medals.

All sorts of things have got mixed up here. I don’t think I’d mind so much if the Olympics was a simple sports contest without the corporate sponsorship, the overblown opening
ceremony and the massive expense. Don’t even get me started on the dressage, which seems the most pointless activity ever imposed by humans on innocent animals. But I do feel sorry for competitors from poor countries, who must be conscious that success in the games reflects affluence as much as anything else. Two days ago, there wasn’t a single African nation in the top 20 places in the medals table.

Now we’re being told that schools need more competitive sport, even though being forced to play hockey on chilly playing fields almost put me off exercise for life. I’ve never wanted to beat anyone at games, and the only reason I run three times a week is that it makes me feel better. I certainly don’t want to see another generation of children put off exercise by lectures from David Cameron, who seems bent on reviving a public school notion of sportsmanship.

I’m passionate about lots of things, but sport doesn’t happen to be one of them. I shouldn’t need to say this, but not liking the Olympics doesn’t make you a bad person. Whatever happened to tolerance? I should have stayed another week in Andalucia.


The rose of Pyongyang? I don’t think so

In North Korea, we don’t know if the first lady had any choice in the matter

The Independent, Thursday 09 August 2012

As far as I know, no one has ever made a movie called “I married a dictator”, but perhaps they should. It’s only a month since Ri Sol-ju was confirmed as North Korea’s first lady but she’s already accompanying Kim Jong-Un at public events, including a “field guidance trip” to an army unit. It’s not my idea of a date but Ri put on her own little show, sporting a Dior clutch bag which carries a price tag – according to people who know about these things – of around a thousand pounds.

According to other people, who take more interest in politics than handbags, it’s all part of Kim’s attempt to humanise a regime with one of the worst reps in the world. If that’s the case, he might want to consider ditching the Mao suit and spending a bit of time in the gym; plump just isn’t a good look in a country so badly run that millions are at risk of starvation. Indeed, a 65 per cent leap in food prices in Pyongyang between June and July this year suggests that the marriage announcement may have been a calculated distraction.

North Korea is often described as one of the last Stalinist states, and TV footage of the happy couple applauding robotic soldiers in uniform hasn’t done anything to dispel that impression. Ri looks more nervous than delighted in film clips released by the regime, including one of what looks like an excruciating visit last month to a new amusement park. This was the occasion when a newsreader referred to Ri for the first time as Kim’s wife, but beyond that very little is known about her.

She is believed to be a singer who caught his eye during one of her performances, but even that detail isn’t certain. In the West, we’re used to assuming that leaders’ wives know exactly what message they’re sending, but North Korea is another matter. I know a diplomat who was once taken, with great ceremony, to visit a state-of-the-art goat farm outside Pyongyang. There was only one problem, which caused huge offence when he couldn’t resist pointing it out: no goats.

It’s easy to see dictators’ wives as Lady Macbeth figures but I suspect they’re more often accomplices than instigators. Asma al-Assad seems as greedy and unprincipled as her husband, but his family ruled Syria like mafia dons long before she came on the scene. And in Ri’s case, we don’t even know whether she had any choice in the matter. A South Korean news agency has suggested she was hand-picked as Kim’s bride by his father, the late dictator, and “received etiquette training for about six months before
taking on the role of first lady”.

Trophy bag, trophy wife? Either way, I don’t think we should expect to see Vogue
profiling the “rose of Pyongyang” any time soon.