Official lawyer to the Twitterati David Allen Green asks us whether it was necessary that a polity – a concept of political power, such as that bound up with kingship – arose amongst our forebears, or whether a more primitive form of organisation such as that represented by silverback gorillas could have continued to hold sway.

The answer to this question is given by public choice theory and what it tells us about the role of incentives in politics. There are a range of incentives to be in charge in a primitive society, ranging from mating rights through to allocating food to favoured members of the group. These are advantages that, in evolutionary terms, would be useful to pass on to offspring. As a group grows larger, with more members, the dominance of a single individual is difficult to sustain without allies. Securing these allies involves providing incentives, including – for example – exclusive access to a female. This can result in offspring in the group that are not the descendents of the silverback. In order to maintain privileges for its offspring, the silverback will seek to incentivise allies to protect its offspring, as well as maintain its dominance. Allies whose incentives are reliant upon the silverback will, henceforth, be reliant upon maintaining the position of its offspring following its death, in case the winner of a power struggle following its death does not regard them as allies.

This is something of a just-so story, but there is an important point. In the wild, gorillas actually have multiple forms of social organisation, including groups with a single silverback, a silverback and several male descendents, and indeed all-male groups. Groups compete for resources just as much as individuals, and a group that can leverage more members as a result of a form of political organisation that permits more members to live side by side without conflict will be more effective at competing for resources.

Spreading resources round creates the incentives necessary to form larger societies, and it is through the polity that this is achieved. There is an interesting lesson here for the present day.

If one were interested in the demographics to which different newspapers aim to appeal, one could do a lot worse than look at the headlines this morning. Compare and contrast:

The Daily Telegraph: ‘GRANNY TAX’ HITS 5M PENSIONERS

The Daily Mail: OSBORNE PICKS THE POCKETS OF PENSIONERS

The Times: THE 50P GAMBLER

The Guardian: PENSIONERS FUND TAX CUT

The Daily Star: COWELL & WILLIAMS BIG GAY BUST-UP

We can summarise the above thusly. The target of the ire of the right-wing press will be shared by their mostly late-middle-aged-and-middle-class audience, who have the most to lose from the Budget. Readers of the Times are still clearly clinging to their aspiration to one day earn enough to hit the top tax rate, while the Guardian is still appalled by any prospect of a tax cut when their readers in the public sector are losing their jobs, and willing to use emotive language to make that point. Readers of the Daily Star are morons.

But what are these pension proposals that have the readers of the Mail in a tizzy? There are two components:

  • The removal of the higher personal tax allowance for new pensioners, and the ‘freezing’ of the allowance for existing pensioners
  • Rolling the State Second Pension and the Basic State Pension into a single scheme.

Pensioners are not taxed until they earn over £10,500 at present, while everyone else starts paying tax at £8,100, rising to £9,200 next year. You earn a basic state pension by having worked for a given number of years, and have a second state pension that reflects how much you actually contributed to the Treasury during that period. If the combination of these two and any private pension went below a certain level, it was topped up with Pension Credit, with some additional top-up if you have some form of savings. Osborne wants to have a higher basic pension to get rid of what was a disincentive to save at certain points on this scale, and to reform a system so complicated that a third of pensioners did not claim their full entitlement. By raising this basic pension level to £140 a week (£7280 a year, so not liable to tax in any case), a lot of poorer pensioners will be a lot better off – especially those who did not understand how much they were entitled to.

The main losers from this will be people who built up a level of entitlements throughout their working life and are retiring now. This, broadly speaking, covers people born in 1947-1952, or, the baby boomers. If Osborne had sold this policy properly, it could’ve been very popular with the generations born after them. It’s certainly popular with me.

 

Woops

September 26, 2011

WordPress appears to be publishing my draft posts without my consent, which when they’re unfinished is pretty bad. Naughty WordPress.

Madeline Bunting Is A Moron

November 29, 2010

See here. And then see here.

Accusing the Tories of wanting to implement a panopticon-style society ignores the people who got there first.

I am angry. Angry enough to write an excessively egotistical headline implying I know more than an entire class of people, which is a very socialist thing to do. On the other hand, this post will be socialist in tone if not in content, so consider the headline a warning.

The BNP’s appearance on Question Time (this is the point in the sentence when your mind goes, ‘Gah, another BNP-QT article’ and your pointer goes toward the X in the top right; stay with me, it’ll be worth it) was, despite reports to the contrary, an enormous victory for them. It doesn’t matter that he was made to look a fool by mainstream politicians. It doesn’t matter that he was made to look a fool by members of the audience. What matters is that he was made to look a fool by the very people his party is claiming are responsible for ruining the lives of the people who vote, or are thinking of voting, for him.

This has been recognised by his party, although thankfully they’ve decided to opt for infighting rather than using the outcome of the programme as a political tool. The most telling comments, the most abusive remarks, came from what the BNP’s legal officer dubbed the ‘ethnic middle class’. Pejorative nomenclature aside, it was clear that the members of the audience attacking Griffin were not bus drivers or cleaners, but with pronunciation, attire and demeanour that clearly marked them as bourgeoise.

While we were cheering on the gentleman who made the South Pole quip, the BNP’s target voters would have noted that someone wealthier than they was telling a political representative whose opinions they may’ve partly shared that those views were too ridiculous to be even debated properly. No attempt was made by anyone in the audience or any of the other panel members to get at the underlying reasons why people are backing the BNP. Immigration in this context is a sideshow; the bizarre racial theories Griffin has from time to time espoused providing a warped intellectual backing for a party that wishes to focus on a symptom rather than a cause.

Immigration may ostensibly be the BNP’s raison d’etre, but it does not constitute sufficient reason to explain their apparent rise in support. If the BNP was led by and favoured policies that benefitted aristocrats while retaining their racial purity dogma, they wouldn’t have won the votes that gave them two MEPs. Rather, the reason why their support has risen is to be found in part in another big news story of the now, the Royal Mail industrial dispute – a dispute Griffin specifically mentioned he wished to discuss.

It’s very much a dispute between different visions of public sector provision, that of the Communication Workers’ Union and that of Peter Mandelson. The CWU argue that the reforms the Royal Mail is imposing on them will dramatically decrease the quality of life of their staff, as well as negatively affecting service provision. Mandelson’s proxies in the Royal Mail management say that these reforms will result in the service costing the taxpayer significantly less money, ensuring that the only part of the business the taxpayer needs to subsidise is the loss-making final doorstep delivery stage.

The CWU have repeatedly raised the issue of Granny Smith, and the impact of these changes on her. Granny Smith is a mythical figure meant to represent the interests of the postal services’ end users, the public. She is the most archetypal of the vulnerable members of our society who rely on the postal service; the little old lady who depends on the post as her only means of communication with the outside world. Many postal workers seem to feel that the personal touch provided by a regular postman doing a regular round is crucial to ensure proper service for their end users.

The problem, of course, is that Granny Smith is a hypothecated ideal consumer who does not represent any research into the needs or experience of the postal services’ customer base whatsoever. As someone who’s used both mailing houses and the postal service for putting out literature, the Royal Mail does not have a particularly low omission rate and in fact tends to be a good deal more expensive. The opponents of the CWU know this, and they also know that asking the taxpayer to pay for a service at anything over the market rate represents a subsidy to that service.

I suspect that in Peter Mandelson’s heart of hearts (making the fairly bold claim that he has a heart) he feels that asking the taxpayer to, in effect, subsidise the members of the CWU in terms of their employment experience is immoral. It is; the union is unaccountable to members of the public in the manner of a democratically elected government, yet aims to have a greater influence on public policy than the government of the day. The Royal Mail is still in the public sector, and therefore has a moral duty to provide the most cost-effective service this possibly can to taxpayers.

The problem with this is that the jobs that are likely to be produced as a result of this cost/benefit calculation are almost certain to be awful; low-paid, high intensity work with little job security. As the postie in the above-linked article mentions, they will not be enough to sustain a family on. They will end up being the preserve of the young and of transient labour. The public service ethos of the Royal Mail will undoubtedly be destroyed; with far fewer career postmen and a much higher turnover of staff. However, the overall result will be a net good to the taxpayer.

As a liberal, I believe that the state should provide a social security net to prevent people from falling into absolute poverty, but I don’t believe the state should subsidise its employees’ employment experience, beyond the minimum required by law. Public services are there for the people, not the employees. In essence, anything else is a lifestyle subsidy: on the CWU model, you can have the experience and warm cosy feeling of public service while still earning enough and working at a level where you’re comfortable in your job. This is an experience the taxpayer is paying for.

We therefore have two strong arguments against the CWU’s request for ‘decent jobs with a decent salary’: a union should have no more influence on public policy than the electorate, and subsidising public service jobs above the market rate is immoral in a liberal society. The taxpayer should not be paying to fund lifestyle choices, and this includes employment. These arguments appear to have been taken up by the political establishment, with no major party not including privatisation of public services (which exposes public service workers to market forces, lessening the power of the unions – you can strike forever against the state, as it can’t go bust) and public sector efficiency drives in their policy platforms.

The link between these arguments and the BNP’s rise in support is that this leaves the working classes in a position wherein the market rate for most low-skilled jobs is so far below the standard required to maintain a decent standard of living in the UK, and the work required is so onerous, that the average working class family is no longer economically viable. Without state subsidies for jobs, working-class people can no longer make a decent living in the UK. This is because low-skilled work is in so little demand that the market for it has collapsed. Therefore, the economy in large parts of the country is dominated by the public sector, seemingly in an effort to disguise the fact that it is no longer economically viable for quite so many people to live in particular areas of the country.

This is a bizarre contradiction at the heart of public policy in the UK: while ostensibly the political class is working to make the public sector more efficient by introducing market forces, it is simultaneously shielding much of the country from them. This is because it is politically impossible to tell a significant chunk of the population that they are no longer needed. However, it isn’t necessary for them to do so, because culturally the rest of the population has been telling the working classes that for some time.

When was the last time you heard anyone in the media celebrating low aspirations? Is it not telling that much discussion around education reform revolves around countering such apparently lowly ambitions? The flip side of our celebration of celebrities is the condemnation of those at the bottom of the ladder; the least like our new idols. The last show that had the temerity to suggest that a bourgeoise lifestyle might not be the best thing to aspire to was Rab C Nesbitt. Throughout our popular culture resounds the message that being working class is useless, a message hammered in by an education system that prizes ambition above everything else.

What about the people left behind, who’ve already gone through the education system and not succeeded? They’re useless to the rest of us; requiring standards of living beyond their means of support and offering no useful skills in return. They’re constantly told that they’re worthless by the rest of society, and bear the brunt of the Government’s hypocrisy in terms of not subsidising low-skilled jobs in public service but providing increased opportunities for white-collar workers in those areas of the UK with little economic purpose.

They’re the bottom of society, and they’re not going to take it any more. They’re the BNP’s core vote, and in failing to address any of their concerns on Question Time, the political class has handed the BNP a victory.

I’m not convinced that the political class does have any answers to this problem. But they better come up with some soon.

Returning from Conference always presents the peculiar experience of revisting the last few days of one’s life through the eyes of the media, and discovering that your experience bore little resemblance to what was reported. Presenting Bournemouth as some kind of battleground between the FPC and the leadership group may sound dramatic, but had very little to do with what actually went on.

What the media did reveal, however, is that in many cases our attempts to make our distinctive mark in the political sphere have gone awry. I’m sure we’re all still encountering the phrase in the title of this post on the doorstep – certainly, the internet is awash with it. Its use presents a problem to most Lib Dems, as we’re well aware of what we stand for and in fact find it quite mysterious when other people don’t. ‘Read our constitution!’ goes the cry, and occasionally the suggestion is made (a suggestion I myself have been guilty of) that we put all our principles in a leaflet and put it through peoples’ letterboxes, ignoring the fact that it never works.

It is this deep bewilderment at the rest of mankind that I fear is still affecting our attempts at dislodging Labour as the party of progressives. We still complain that the media will present the upcoming contest as between Tories and Labour, ignoring the fact that this is not the narrative that the media is interested in; a mere competition between parties is not exciting, it has to be a competition between something much more meaningful than that.

Rather, the media narrative will be about the conflict between economic interest groups. We do not represent an interest group, but both our opponents are defined in this manner. This leads to the sentence in the title of this post – people who ask this are in fact asking where we stand with respect to their economic interests, because that’s the political narrative they’re expecting. Our headline policy from Conference -the pejoratively named Mansions Tax – was portrayed by the media as an attack on the rich, thus neatly slotting us into the rich vs poor media narrative. This is the narrative we’re currently fighting in – but it’s not how most of our members percieve politics.

We cannot beat Labour on this narrative, regardless of how much better our policies are for the poor. For us, redistribution of wealth is contingent on our liberalism, rather than being an end in itself for Labour. It is certainly ironic – the greatest advances in alleviating poverty have been made by Liberals, whereas this Labour government has failed to decrease relative poverty and has caused a steep rise in unemployment. I have always found the concept of a party set up to defend the interests of the poor who finds its core support amongst the poor rather immoral; such a party’s interests would lie in appearing to help the poor while in fact enacting policies that will cause more citizens to believe themselves to be poor, to ensure its continued electoral success. This Labour Government has presided over increases in wealth disparity beyond anything under the Tories, and has massively increased the number of public-sector employees. Somehow gerrymandering is acceptable if it’s done society-wide.

The narrative we need to fight on is that of radical versus reactionary; the new guard versus the old guard. This is more in keeping with how we perceive our role with respect to the other two parties. In this sense, the Mansions Tax, representing as it does a shift from income taxation to taxation of economically unproductive assets, is very radical and is to be welcomed. However, it can also be far too easily placed into the current media narrative, and so in the electoral sense is counterproductive, regardless of the policy’s objective merit.

How can we reframe the media narrative into a radicals vs reactionaries contest? There are two things we need: an overarching vision of a Liberal Britain, and for that vision to be taken seriously, to form the focus of the media debate. The first should be easy – our policies are the best of all the political parties. However, while they all contain a liberal thread, it is difficult to represent them as a coherent vision, one capable of being recounted in merely a few sentences. The second is harder, but our strategy over the past few decades of building up our base locally will be effective – to be taken seriously, we need more MPs, and the next election will supply this.

Over the next few months, I hope to start a debate around how we can present a vision of a Liberal Britain simply and effectively, while campaigning for our victory in Islington. We will need both to overturn the media narrative, and both to eventually have the power to change Britain for the better.

Over on Liberal England, Jonathan Calder has expressed a certain amount of scepticism about the usefulness of moral rights in contemporary moral discourse. Since the only training I can make a full claim to is philosophical, I thought I’d take his points on.

Most modern discourse about morality resolves around rights. It therefore fails to answer the great moral questions like “How should I live my life?” and “What sort of person should I be?”

Actually, most modern academic philosophical discourse does not focus around rights, but rather around moral language, virtue and metaethics. I assume here that Jonathan is referring to moral discourse as presented in the media. If this is the case, then the second sentence is rather unfair. Moral rights (which I will take to be synonymous with the notion of human rights, as Jonathan appears to use these terms interchangeably) are not intended to answer these questions, but rather to take the role of useful attributions of value within broader ethical systems that do answer those questions. Human rights are pragmatic expressions of moral principles, and are useful inasmuch as they provide a counter to the ways in which humans typically attribute value.

It is, I think, inarguable that we instinctively attribute moral value to those most similar to us more so than those who differ; in the first instance our family, in the second our friends and colleagues, and beyond that our neighbours. However, ethical systems and moral rules only have value if they are universal, and so to provide pragmatic way of expressing this in legal terms we can utilise universally applicable rights to provide a counterbalance to our instinctive moral attributions. It is worthwhile noting at this point that objections to human rights typically come as a consequence of cases wherein it is much more difficult to find common ground with the accused.

If a ascribing a right to someone is to mean anything then there has to be a concomitant duty upon someone else to fulfil it, otherwise this right is worthless. NB This is not the same as the Blairite claim that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand – my rights impose duties upon you, not me.

This is true to a certain extent, but neglects the role of the individual in this matter. If your ethical system is universal and therefore includes moral rights, you have a duty to see that they are fulfiled. This may take the form of voting for a party who will uphold those rights, or it may take the form of carrying out appropriate social work yourself.

The more rights we ascribe to people, the more we tend to make the government mighty. If there is, say, a right to work, who can have the duty to give employment but the state? This process tends to make the individual citizen a spectator in important moral questions.

As I mention above, the state is not the only actor who can guarantee moral rights.

Rights are human artefacts: we make them up. They do not exist in some Platonic universe, independent of humanity. In fact, the concept of a right make sense only in a complex society.

The first sentence is certainly true, and stands in opposition to the rather bizarre notion frequently mentioned by Tories of having ‘rights as a consequence of being a free-born Englishman, not handed down to me by the state’, which assumes that England is some sort of platonic entity capable of assigning rights without recourse to her citizens. However, it is not the case that the concept of rights only make sense in a complex society; a member of a tribe who believes all humans have a right to shelter has a duty to share his hut.

Ultimately, the justification for the rights we do choose to give people is the kind of society those rights produce. If those rights produce a bad society, we change them

While this is certainly true, it is also rather besides the point: rights themselves are a consequence of attributions of value, and so already contain within them the values we wish to see in our society. Calder here is failing to make the distinction between value and practice; a right can be morally correct but badly constructed in legal terms.

The danger of expressing our moral judgement in the language of rights is that it becomes impossible to learn from experience… Note that rights will not merely rule out what some regard as old-fashioned social practices: they will also make it harder to establish new ones.

This is where I fear Calder is again going wrong, like in his first thesis – rights are the pragmatic expression of moral judgements, and not judgements in themselves. The moral judgement in, say, a right to housing is to say that all humans are worthwhile and so deserve to be protected from dangerous extremes of environment. The right to housing is the pragmatic cashing out of this judgement.

Moral rights tend to establish a minimum standard of conduct rather than to enshrine the depth of commitment that we have to one another in strong and loving relationships. So children’s rights may describe an hygenic Home but will find it harder to describe a loving home.

Again, this is true, but rather besides the point. Rights are not intended to be the entirety of an ethical system. I do not know anyone who makes this claim, and it rather appears to be a straw man.

Political philosophies differ over the ends of life and how people should act: in short, they have different views of morality. Liberals should argue for their view of the world and endeavour to win power to implement it, but they should not be scandalised when people with other philosophies do not want to write Liberal conclusions into the rules of the contest.

I’m not convinced that this last point has anything to do with rights whatsoever. There are plenty of political philosophies aside from Liberalism that have their foundations in universally applicable ethical rules. The debate in that case would be a question of which rights are the correct ones to enshrine in law, rather than whether rights themselves are useful.

My own view on this matter is given above; that inasmuch as rights are useful legal tools for providing a counter to man’s instinct to value his fellows over those he regards as different, they are proper objects of discussion. But to dismiss them on the grounds that they are not a complete ethical system is to miss the point of them entirely.

You couldn’t make it up. Or, if you did, you would be derided by all right-thinking people. It appears that Brown’s next big idea to restore community cohesion, or whatever the latest buzzword is for people getting on with each other, is to compel young people to do at least 50 hours of community work before they leave school.

So let’s get this straight. In order to persuade young people who have little stake in society that they really, really want to become engaged with the community, they’re going to be forced to work for it. How can anyone possibly think this is a good idea? Certainly, we might have more litter picked up, but it’ll do nothing to deal with the underlying causes of disaffected youth – namely, that they see no role for themselves within society.

If you, as a young person, learn that the best you can hope for out of living as a valued member of society is a precarious job in a call centre, then it’s actually a rational choice to not respect that society at all. If you then learn that you’re going to be forced to do work for a community that has nothing to offer you, you’re only going to become more resentful.

This will not work. Not just because it won’t do anything to make people get on with each other, but because if you tell a teacher or social worker that he’s got to supervise thirty 16-year-old lads who really don’t want to be there, then he’s going to find some way to make it palatable for them – which probably won’t involve doing anything actually useful. But it’ll hit the target, and that’s what matters, right?

This policy could not be more New Labour. It’s an imposed central directive that does nothing for the root cause of the problem, and is likely to waste time and money. But people will see youths out on the street (probably in orange bibs) doing something, so clearly the Government is trying, right?

I originally posted this on Lib Dem Voice, but I had so much fun writing it I thought I’d put it here too. Disclaimer: The following post does not represent my own views, but rather a question I’ve always wanted answered.

Geoffrey Payne wrote:
I do not want to be misunderstood in this sense. I think there are people of good will on both sides of the divide who are voting for extremists, and that is the real tragedy. Democracy is not working. The main reason is that both sides have a very different understanding of the history of the conflict, much of which is no longer in living memory.

Whoa there. If democracy doesn’t produce the result we would like, it doesn’t mean it’s not working. If it produces a result that the majority of the demos do not like, then it’s not working. And this is a crucial point, which seems to have been missed in all this talk of ‘historical understanding’ and ‘justifiable body counts’ and whatever.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians have voted for governments that actively want to kill the other side in the conflict. Wouldn’t this seem to indicate that this is something they want to do? And so, this is my question: why not just let them do it?

There are two extremes in the ways in which we can view the participants in this conflict: as two societies of deranged madmen who glorify killing, or as two societies of people who’ve formed a rational response to living with violence and death in day to day life. I always find expressions like ‘historical understanding’ rather snooty; they seem to indicate that we as westerners have some sort of enlightened perspective on such things unavailable to these poor violent barbarians. Isn’t it rather the case that if your family was threatened (or you believed them to be) by an outside force, it is reasonable to want that outside force to be eliminated? Isn’t that preferable to the sort of self-effacing peace deal advocated by the West, where one side stops killing the other (in any number of ways, witness the economic-collapse-inducing Israeli blockade) for an indeterminate amount of time until the other stops too? During the period where the other side is still committing violent acts, your family is still at risk.

So why not let them do it, if they want to? Certainly, all death is a bad thing, but we and France were happily killing each other for hundreds of years before we decided to band together to kill Germans instead. To shift the rational position from the one mentioned above to a position where one side can unilaterally stop requires an exhaustion with war, and a recognition that war itself cannot achieve the goal of eliminating the other side. We haven’t reached that point yet, and we will not for some time.

I begin to worry that Western discourse on this subject has forgotten that the Israelis and Palestinians are people too, and has rather turned them into moral puppets onto which we project our particular worldview.

I love mocking things. Really and truly, I do. And frequently I offend people as a consequence of doing so. In my eyes, nothing is ever so sacred that it should not be mocked; offense-giving notwithstanding, it is an important part of a free society that such mocking is permitted. This is because the unmockable is frequently the unquestionable, treating a subject as if it is beyond the bounds of humour involves giving it a moral primacy above its fellows. Indeed, there is a correlation between the boundaries of what people hold to be sacred and the boundaries of, to them, acceptable humour – the obvious examples are the Danish cartoons dealing with the Prophet Mohammed.

What’s interesting in a Western context is the personalisation of the sacred. Our society permits any form of humour without recourse to the law, even racist jokes are not actually illegal except in cases where it can be shown to lead to incitement to violence. But individual people will hold certain things to be unmockable – in most households in the UK, racist humour is frowned upon. Treating other races as equals is something that is widely held as sacred, and that is certainly a good thing.

And so  we reach Christmas time, and given our Christian heritage it’s worth having a think about what we wouldn’t mock, what is sacred to ourselves as individuals. After all, it forms a core part of what we ourselves are, even if it is unacknowledged – how often do you say to yourself, “I wouldn’t mock this or that – they’re too important to me,”? I’ve been doing just that. The results have been somewhat surprising.

I frequent a website devoted to scraping the underbelly of the internet and laughing at what comes off. I won’t link it in, for reasons which will shortly become obvious. One day, an article was posted on this site which began with a discussion of the antics of anti-abortion campaigners near the writer’s home town. They’d paid to have a billboard-sized photograph of an aborted foetus towed behind a plane in order to shock people into getting behind their campaign. He made the point that this sort of activity is a frequent recourse of the anti-abortionists: to present an emotively compelling image to the public in an effort to sway opinion. The writer then raised the very serious point: what’s stopping the pro-choice movement using similar tactics?

To illustrate his argument, he brought up the case of a little girl born with Treachers Collins Syndrome. Children born with this disease are born without a face. They require a tracheotomy to be simply able to breathe, can barely see through their shrouded and distended eyes, and are simply too hideous to be able to engage with society. In a terrible example of nature’s cruelty, unlike with many similar diseases suffers of this syndrome are normally born with normal intelligence, and are fully aware of what has happened to them.

It is a heartrending article, but it’s not this disease that I consider to be unmockable – although anyone doing so would be open to the charge of trying to make humour from something that’s too pathetically easy to mock to be ever be funny. What I realised I found sacred was what the writer mocked next. The girl’s mother had created a website about her daughter, wherein she kept a diary of her life along with a collection of photos – the sort of photos that any mother would take of her child. But in this context they were horrifyingly wrong, and rather felt like the mother was illustrating a freak show. I will not link the page, because as its title says, it would mean that, “I’m here to ruin your day”.

The thrust of the article was, as you may have guessed, that the child’s mother had known of her daughter’s condition before birth and instead of having an abortion the devoutly Christian woman had chosen to carry her child to term. And this, the website, and the mother’s behaviour were the subject of the writer’s mockery, and it was the combination of all of this that I realised I could not mock myself.

Certainly, the life of the child is so awful that it is the case it would be better if she had not been born – I will admit I very nearly welled up on learning the girl’s favourite film is Monsters Inc – but what’s important here is that despite the number of chances the mother (and the father, of course, although he doesn’t really get a look in) to allow the girl to die or to be shut away from the world, they had refused. And what comes out of the diaries and the photos is an overwhelming impression of unconditional love. They love their daughter, and what they want more than anything else is for her to be happy. And, as a consequence, they’ve received an enormous amount of pain – from society, from other children and from the media. It is certainly the case that their lives would be easier if they had never had the child.

I feel as though in contemporary society the notion of unconditional love is in some way denied. Certainly, you can say in the above case that, “Oh, well, clearly the parents are just using the child to attract attention, and they’re dressing it up for photos because they wanted it to be normal, and so they’re hurting the girl”, but what this illustrates is a modern tendency to believe that somehow any tawdry motive instantly devalues even the most sacred; as though doing good was somehow diminished by enjoying it. It’s as though the capability of modern psychology to identify the many and varied ways in which human thought works has married the ancient religious tendency to claim that any pleasure is bad, and created a situation wherein no action can ever be good.

And this is where I’d like to wrap up this Christmas discussion of the mockable and unmockable, both with my surprise upon learning that there’s something I wouldn’t mock, and also with the advice that even if you enjoy performing a good act it in no way stops it from being good. Unconditional love, or agape to use its ancient name, does still exist.

Merry Christmas to one and all.