Ferguson and the return of Martin Luther King’s dream

Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference.

Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indicting Darren Wilson will not end racism. It will not even begin to end racism in America. It will not send a message to racist cops. It will not stop black men from being shot by the police. What we need is to return to Martin Luther King’s dream.

The path to redemption is out of the fields of hatred and distrust

If we want to reduce racism, change policing, and stop black men being shot by the police, then we need to take the steps along a hard road, a road harder than protests, speeches, or demonstrations. We have to move beyond the sound bites, and election year promises, to toil in the fields of hatred and distrust. From those barren fields we can grow the promise of redemption. What we must first do is confront our past and our present so that we change our future. The seeds we sow cannot be more hatred and anger; we must sow the seeds of justice as Martin Luther King taught us.

Martin Luther King changed America by changing the laws

Martin Luther King, and Lincoln, knew that the only way to change America peacefully was to change the laws. Today, distrust and hatred of the government and authority will not allow this. Too many people now believe the law is an oppressor. The government is an enemy. The court is persecutor. We have forgotten that Martin Luther King succeeded because he trusted in the government, and the government of men, to do the right thing. He succeeded before distrust and hatred of the government became endemic in America. He succeeded because he appealed to America’s better nature. He called for a disciplined effort that drew upon a long tradition of non-violent action. Action, though, was not what set him apart. His oratory did not set him apart.  What set him apart, and continues to set him apart, is that he had a destination. He had a vision that included everyone. He wanted to change the laws so that he could change America. He would change it for everyone.

America is a community that is renewed by daily choices of justice and civility

To reduce racism, to improve police community relations, and keep black men from being shot by the police, we need a change. Change, though, begins when we understand the problem. Why did Michael Brown and Darren Wilson intersect so tragically? There is no law that would have stopped what happened. The struggle for the gun, the chase, and the shots: these are already beyond the law. They are in the realm of necessity, not choice. We need to go back to why Michael Brown was in the store. Why did he and his associate confront the officer? Why did he try to grab his gun? We know why Darren Wilson was there. We know why the law was there. Why was Michael Brown there?

Courage to confront our past gives us the freedom to make our future

If we lack the courage to confront those questions, we cannot go forward. If we do not know how we have arrived at our present how can we change our future? What shaped Michael Brown is the hard truth that is America. The police shootings are only a symptom. There is no easy answer as to the cause. We can look at socio-economic factors. We can look within the black community. We can look at society. We can look at the police. However, none of these alone will explain the cause until we see what creates a just society. We need to return to the promise of America, the promise of Martin Luther King.

America can only survive if she is bound by a belief in the goodness of the laws.

What we need to change is our approach to the government, to authority, and most importantly, to each other. The change will not come through violence. It will not come through hatred. It will not come through resentment. Change will come from the small daily decisions and efforts we make towards each other. These are the steps we must take to the political goal set out by Martin Luther King. He had a goal. He had a dream. Today the dream seems a nightmare as the only goal seems to be “F*** the police” as if the police and the law are the problem. We, the people, have become the problem. We no longer understand the law and the promise of America, or each other. We no longer seem to believe in the promise of just society that protects the weak and vulnerable not just the powerful and the prominent.

We need to return to the promise of America, the promise of Martin Luther King

If we fail to look at society, we will not understand the problem. If we focus on racism we miss the lack of jobs, the lack of education, and the difficult socio-economic conditions for everyone. These are problems that magnify racism. They need to be addressed if we are to reduce racism for they reflect the lack of justice. Justice and its absence define the relationship between the police and the community in many areas of America. The issue is more than how the police and act and the community respond. The people want to be protected by the law, they want justice. The police enforce the law, but they fail to deliver justice.  They cannot deliver justice when communities see the police as pacifying them and not working with them to create a shared community of justice. When the police see their role in this way, the law becomes a stranger and justice a shadow. We cannot close our eyes to the reality that many communities can longer exercise self-government and order is imposed on them.

From political equality we can rebuild the American dream

These are not the problems of one community, they are America’s problem. Americans have begun to forget what is required for self government. Communities need political change so that they can create a legitimate order based in justice. Martin Luther King understood that political change and political equality were for everyone. The Civil Rights legislation was a starting point not a destination. We have lost sight of that understanding. We expect the law to end racism. We expect the law to create social equality. When the law cannot deliver these outcomes, communities come to see it as an oppressor or a tool to advantage one group. The law cannot end racism, or poverty, or inequality. It can create political equality from which we can address racism that emerges from the socio-economic disparities. These disparities affect all of us as they show that our common good, our access to justice, is severely limited. Until we see that it is a problem beyond black or white, rich or poor, man or woman, we will continue to fail. We must return to the laws and follow the path to justice. Martin Luther King showed us the way by his example. Our freedom is in the law and what it means. Until we return to the path; we cannot reach the Promised Land.

Let us follow in Dr. King’s footsteps so we can quench our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of sweetness and love. Only then can we find justice born of equality.

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Bill Cosby and the cult of celebrity

English: Bill Cosby's star on the Hollywood Wa...

English: Bill Cosby’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Deutsch: Bill Cosbys Stern auf dem Walk of Fame (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The news about Bill Cosby is sad. It follows a familiar pattern. A star is accused of something, in this case drugging women and sexually assaulting them, and the press and public go into overdrive to condemn them. Although the allegations have not been proven in a court of law, the court of public opinion has begun to pass judgement. What is has not been judged, though, is the public’s complicity in these cases. As we learned from the Jimmy Savile allegations, celebrity status protects the alleged behaviour. The same celebrity status, with its attendant money and influence, has helped to protect Bill Cosby against these allegations.

Who was going to stop him?

Instead of asking, “how could get away with it”, we need to ask “Who was going to stop his alleged behaviour?” Who was going to stop him when the public had invested so much in his celebrity status? A celebrity is known by the status an audience and public opinion give them. If we want to understand how Bill Cosby could get away with his alleged behaviour, we only need to look at our infatuation, our addiction, to the celebrity culture of entertainment. In particular, there is a belief that a celebrity should, and will, receive preferential treatment. The celebrity is not celebrated for their intrinsic worth or goodness as a person. They are celebrated for what they seem to be, the reputation within the public imagination. As a society, our culture habituates us to accept the appearance as the reality. When the appearance, the cult of celebrity, dominates the person, it changes our understanding of the human person and what is acceptable about the human person.

Celebrity as commodity is what makes Bill Cosby powerful

When celebrity becomes the measure of a person’s worth, the person becomes a commodity. Their appearance is what matters not what they are like as a person. The entertainment industry encourages us to value the person as a celebrity, as a commodity. We, the audience, want the appearance to be the reality. We want our celebrities to be larger than life. We want them to be as what we see on the screen. We will overlook their fallen nature, their weakness, their depravity, because we have invested so much in their status, their celebrity, their success. In that relationship, we do not seek out the person, as a person, in all their flaws. Celebrities are ordinary people without any particular grace or insight into life and we would rather belief the magical than the mundane. There is nothing intrinsically interesting about a celebrity as a person. Their appearance is what made them famous not who they are.

How does this explain Bill Cosby?

The entertainment system protects and rewards Bill Cosby. He provides a commodity, a service. He entertains us. He could rely on the public opinion that created and supported his celebrity status to defend him. Anyone who challenges that celebrity status would attract more attention and more resistance. Even if the celebrity status did not deter someone with a complaint, he had the resources to defend his status as a celebrity with lawyers or settlement payments.

Appearance shapes our reality by shaping our public opinion

The cult of celebrity’s power is created by our willingness to accept appearances as reality. Millions of people have seen Bill Cosby on TV. He appeared to them as a funny comedian and later a jovial, avuncular, patrician on his hit television programme. Everyone saw him as he appeared to be in those roles. Few saw him or know him as a person. Many may see a celebrity, but few will know them as a person. Bill Cosby is no different. How Cosby appeared for the public was not the same as it was for those who claim to “really know what he is”, the ones who were in the room, drugged, and helpless. They remained silent or unheard because it easier to believe what so many believe than listen to the individual who disagrees. He had wealth, organisations, and lawyers to defend him and hide his true reality that the women have alleged. The public opinion about Bill Cosby was shaped by his public face. The public, in effect, defend him by consuming his public face, his value as an entertainment commodity.

What is the entertainment industry’s commodity?

Appearances are enhanced by our desire to believe them. We want to be entertained. We want to believe the magic. The entertainment industry succeeds to the extent that it can turn a person into a commodity that entertains us. We, the audience, make them powerful by buying them as a commodity. The entertainment industry traffics in flesh and we are its consumers. Is surprising that Bill Cosby’s alleged behaviour is sexual? We rarely see actors involved in financial scandals or political scandals. Instead, they are involved in sexual scandals. One only need look at the latest music videos to see the flesh trade in operation. The flesh trade fuels the culture of celebrity, which undermines the dignity of the human person. There is no behaviour so abhorrent that it cannot attract someone or some organisation to “celebrate it and thereby profit from it”.

That which you watch repeatedly shapes your soul?

The next time you watch television or go to the cinema, consider whether your entertainment supports and enhances the cult and culture of celebrity that enables Bill Cosby’s alleged behaviour. The programmes may amuse and even entertain but at what cost? When you buy into the cult of celebrity, you support the flesh trade that enables this type of behaviour.

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Records management and the Wanless Report on Home Office files

Home Office

Home Office (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam QC were commissioned to review two previous reviews commissioned by the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office in relation to child abuse. The first review focused on allegations about organised child abuse sent to the Home office. The review looked at what the Home Office did about the allegations and whether Home Office staff were involved in, or implicated in, organised child abuse. The final part looked at what action was taken. The second review looked at whether the Home Office ever directly or indirectly funded the Paedophile Information Exchange.[1] They reported that they could not find the Dickens Dossier nor could they say that a cover up had or had not happened. In his evidence before the Home Affairs committee, Peter Wanless explained that the Home Office records and the police records at the time were in a “mess”.[2]

Records provide historical accountability

To records managers, the outcome is not a surprise. Records management is rarely a priority for organisations and was less of a priority 30 years ago. Even in the age of computers, senior managers usually overlook records management and it lacks the attention needed to make it as robust as required. However, this is a secondary issue. The primary concern is the review. The following are a few points that illustrate concerns with the review, some of which the authors identified in their evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Talented but are they the right people on records management?

  1. A CX and a QC conducted the review. Neither was chosen for their records management experience. In their professional roles, they are unlikely to have daily records management experience. They are at the summit of their profession. They have other people to manage their records, provide them with the documents, and seek out files within the system. The records management system works for them. As they rarely, if ever, have to file papers or consider how their records are organised, they are unlikely to have explored how records systems are designed or used.

Limited terms of reference undermined the review

  1. The terms of reference limited their ability to interrogate the systems, procedures, or personnel. The investigators acknowledged this point. Moreover, as the requests cut across a large number of organisations, they had to rely upon each organisation’s search method. At best, one can say they did a thorough but superficial trawl across the organisations.

To catch a poacher, you need to think like a poacher

  1. The investigators are intelligent, skilled, and experienced, but neither has a background in records management systems. To put it directly, neither are poachers. They are not bureaucrats who can make documents disappear.[3] They need someone to assist them who has hidden files, who has made them disappear, or designed ways to keep them from a regulator or an inspector.[4] Moreover, they needed to talk with the records managers and the people who ran the record management system. They did interview senior people, but they are usually removed from the daily work within the systems.

We asked very senior officials at the Home Office in the early 1980s if they could recall whether there were files about particularly sensitive matters. (paragraph 9)

An in-depth review might have tracked down any officers who worked on or with the files that were found. They could have explained the context and use of the documents in the way that the Home Office Whistle blower helped to explain the PIE funding issue and another member of staff identified helped to explain the context for the funding.

Wide ranging but shallow, what does it mean?

  1. As it was a review of previous reviews and did not include in depth interviews, the review could only provide a superficial review of the systems. They did not explore processes, structure, or efficiency in any detail.[5] Some systems are designed for purposes that do not provide external transparency. The system works for those who use it. They were not designed to provide transparency for external investigators as there was no reason to believe it would be needed when created. Moreover, the system will appear incomprehensible to those who do not know how it works. The investigators were at least two steps removed from the system and the records as they existed. Unless you have someone inside, especially from that time, to walk you through the file system and where and how records can be hidden or disappeared, it will provide a superficial understanding of the issue. The one contemporary witness, the Home Office whistle blower, makes this point.

What you look for is often what you find

  1. They relied on a keyword search system.[6] This is the basic records management approach. The approach assumes the documents are labelled this way or have metadata that would identify it.[7] In their testimony, the investigators understood this point. They understood that code words for sensitive files could be used to hide their true nature. Many organisations keep sensitive material hidden behind code words so that a casual, or inadvertent glance, will not reveal their contents. Thus, one would have to be initiated into the system to understand what they contain. In most large organisations, they will contain files so that only those with a need to know can find them or see them.[8]

Bureaucracies create accountability but only so much for so long

  1. Despite what people dislike about bureaucracy, it does create accountability. Procedures and processes combined with record keeping create accountability. For example, J. William Leonard insisted that the correct process and procedure when documents were classified. The documents were records about the abuse of detainees. His loyalty to the process (the law) kept the files from being hidden.[9] The Home Office system did not lend itself to such accountability.

Where was the National Archives in this review?

  1. For records managers, there is an omission with the review. The investigators and the Home Affairs Select Committee did not address this point. The government’s best resources, its top people, on records management were not involved. The National Archives is the government’s records manager. However, the government did not use them. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is involved with records management and access to information regimes. Why did the government overlook them? On the surface, it might have been that they wanted independent reviewers. However, the need for records management expertise should have been apparent.

Records management is usually an afterthought

The report captures the problems that the records managers face. Records management is rarely a priority for organisations. Until there is a crisis, senior managers tend to overlook records management and take it for granted.

Time for England to have its own Shaw report?

The report shows the Home Office and the police were poor at keeping records. Records provide historical accountability. Without records, it is hard to hold the past to account. The authors recognise this problem and recommend that records management improve. However, the case reminds us that England needs the equivalent of the Shaw report.

[1] The report and associated documents can be found here. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-peter-wanless-and-richard-whittam-qc-review

[2] The testimony from Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam QC at the Home Affairs Select Committee can be found here. http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairs-committee/news/141105-child-abuse-ev/ (at 12:13:20) As with any testimony, it is important to consider body language of the people testifying.

[3] What is curious is the amount of records presumed destroyed, missing, or not found, in 1984-1985. There is no explanation for that destruction in the report. See https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/372925/Final_Report_-_Annex_E_part_2.pdf p1 and see the same on p2 but for 1984, 85, and 86. What was happening in the department at that time would be something to explore.

[4] This does not mean that people intend to do something illegal. On the contrary, they may believe they are doing something to protect the company, which means that it is legal. In any organisation, people hid bad news, poor performance, and mistakes. It is part of human nature. Where it is done with a criminal intent is a different matter. However, the difference between human nature and criminal intent is decided in a court. Few records management systems are tested or displayed in the court. Yes, many court cases revolve around records and how they are managed, but the issue is more the content of the record rather than the structure and outcome. To put it directly, it is hard to distinguish between fraud and incompetence.

[5] As others have pointed out, Wanless and Whittam were given limited time to conduct their review and it was focused on a specific topics with limited terms of reference. For the origins of this review, see this site. http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairs-committee/news/140706-sedwill-ev/

[6] Here is what they asked in their investigation. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/372921/Annex_D_-_What_we_asked.pdf

[7] I have seen others make the same point. Researchers who have looked at historical documents understand this problem. The historical records are carefully vetted and scrubbed for legitimate reasons (national security) as well as dubious reasons (vanity and reputations) as well as criminal reasons (something done that while not overtly or clearly illegal could indicate such illegality)

[8] In their testimony, they do point out that where they found allegations of a crime reported to the Home Office, it was duly reported to the police. However, this, as they explain, only shows what they found not whether anything was hidden.

[9] The process was William Leonard refused to classify documents to protect them from disclosure. His decision forced the US government to track and disclose, as well as capture the decision process along the way, regarding the abuse of detainees. see (p.1204).









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Is the cost-benefit society’s justice harsher than the ancient political justice.

English: The French economist Jules Dupuit (18...

English: The French economist Jules Dupuit (1804-1866), credited with the creation of cost-benefit analysis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We often hear of deciding an issue by considering the costs versus the benefits. In many cases, this offers a good basic system for deciding an issue. However, when it comes to making a decision about a person, the term starts to take on a different meaning and a different intent. In the UK Supreme Court judgment: R (MacDonald) v Kensington & Chelsea (2011), we see the brutal consequences of a cost benefit approach to justice and society. In this case, a local council made the cost benefit decision that an elderly woman would have to sleep in her faeces, as it was too costly to provide night-time assistance. They offered the less expensive option of incontinence pads. The justices supported the council’s decision except for Lady Hale. She argued that the logic used by the council, and the court, to reach this decision was flawed. A good analysis of the legal issues can be found on Carl Gardner’s Head of Legal post here. The Supreme Court ruling can be found at this link.

Is our life now reduced to a cost benefit calculus?

The case reveals the consequences of a cost benefit approach to politics and life. If our decisions, our very existence, are reduced to a cost-benefit analysis, what does it mean to be human? Are we to die or suffer because we “cost” too much? Who decides that someone “costs” too much relative to the “benefit” they provide? Whom are they providing the benefit to? Is it society, the person who applies the decision, or the person subject to the decision? These are not idle or speculative questions. They are literally life and death questions. They are also the question between human dignity and its alternative.

How do we distribute scarce resource without raising taxes?

Many people accept the cost-benefit model to distribute scarce resources. If we consider the trade-offs, we can decide between competing demands on the same budget. The implicit logic is that the decision is zero sum. If one gains, another has to lose, as the budget remains unchanged. The service budget may be affected, but the service budget exists within a larger organisational budget. What the decision did not explore is how the care budget is decided within the organisation’s budget. The implicit question is how the organisation has decided the budget for that service before the cost benefit decision had to be applied. What we find, though, is that organisations rarely apply a cost benefit analysis to themselves. They apply it to the service users. The organisation uses other criteria than cost-benefit. At the level of society, the cost benefit approach does not appear to be used as taxes that provide for the common good can be changed. They usually focus on the strong, those able to pay, and delivered so the weak and the vulnerable may live with the remaining shreds of dignity that their weakness and vulnerability deny them.

Does cost benefit analysis let us avoid political decisions?

The “cost benefit” approach to decisions is an analytical model to justify decisions.[1] As an analytical tool, it serves a purpose. The issue here is what its use tells us about the way society employs it. The cost benefit analysis is crude, but very subtle way, of demonstrating that selfishness is what we want. We do not want to pay more if the costs of such programmes outweigh the benefits. We believe that the resource envelope’s limits determine where and how the money should be spent. We do not want more taxes, where the strong help the weak; instead, we want to retain our taxes for our purposes. In that scenario, the weak and vulnerable are left to their devices. We do not want to make the envelope larger nor do we want to change its shape if it requires us to pay taxes. We defend the shape of the envelope by arguing that it reflects the best “cost-benefit” trade-off. Yet, we want to comfort ourselves in the notion that we pay our taxes and we already “do so much”. In that belief and that choice, we do not privilege the weak and the vulnerable. The powerful and the protected make the decisions, who will be a cost and who will be a benefit, which we accept it claims to deliver the greatest benefits at the lowest cost. The cost benefit analysis thus creates an artificial necessity, we have no more money and we do not want to pay any more taxes, that justify the decisions.

To raise taxes is to make a political decision.

We could raise taxes; we could choose to spend differently on different programmes. Those choices reflect the society we want. The programmes are the bureaucratic expression of our political wishes. They are not an economic or financial decision; it is a political decision. It is a political decision by the community to have the choice framed in this way. What is particularly troubling is how this is applied to the individual. The argument within the Supreme Court is that the community cannot privilege the individual at the expense of the community. We have to make choices and some individuals will be worse off. The goal is to make the number of people hurt by the change as small as possible. Yet, that argument raises a disturbing question about the limits of our rights as an individual.

Does an individual have any value if society decides they “cost” too much?

As Lady Hale explained, the issue is whether the individual has a right within the context to have her views considered. How does such a system take into account the individual in such a scenario? Contrary to what the Court argued, the question was not simply about an absolute entitlement. Instead, it is about the rationality of the decision by the council that is being challenged. Is their reliance on a cost benefit justification rational? What this suggests is a deeper problem within Western political systems.

Natural scarcity required justice for decent politics, what does artificial scarcity require?

The modern era, the rise of the modern nation state and modern natural science, is one where natural scarcity is no longer a threat. The state by providing a stable and prosperous society and a market can ensure that modern natural science will deliver the food to keep people from starving. By contrast, the ancient world was marked natural scarcity. Yet, we see that scarcity has returned. We have localized scarcity, where the organisation decides. Alternatively, we have macro scarcity where states make decisions based what they perceive as global scarcity. Without acknowledging it, we seem to be shaped by an ancient worldview. In that sense, cost benefit analysis shows illiberalism that reminds us of ancient world’s brutality.

Has justice been replaced by expediency? At what cost?

The applicant has been given justice. It has revealed an ugliness that haunts our society. We have reduced the human person to an economic cost. Is our claim to have a just society and one that respects the individual an empty one? Our justice appears to depend on an artificial necessity stricter than the natural necessity found in the ancient world.*** Perhaps what makes it stricter is that our politics, despite its claims to champion the individual and the rights of man, delivers an outcome, which relies more on what is expedient rather than just.


[1] For more on cost benefit analysis and welfare economics, see for example, http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/cba.htm



These are useful tools within a certain context. However, they are now used in place of political judgement and as an artificial necessity to force a political choice. We have not more money so programme x must go. The reality is that more money can be found, raise taxes for example, charge for services, or reduce other programmes. Thus, a strict reliance on cost benefit analysis to make the political decision subsumes an economic logic for a political decision.

*** “Modern philosophical thought has all too often weakened the effectiveness of this sense, thereby permitting mere technological considerations and the economic and other so-called practical considerations closely allied to technology to dominate communal developments.”




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Response to Corey Robin on Eichmann: funny man

Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This post is a response to Corey Robbin’s blog[1])

One must always remember that ridicule is not a refutation. The most direct way to put this is that victims of the Final Solution did not laugh their way to the gas chambers or the firing squads. Even if they did, what would it prove? They were dead and the Nazis were alive.

We laugh because we are safe?

Arendt can find Eichmann funny because she is in a protected position. The court can find him funny and guilty because they have power over him. What is less clear from her book is whether Arendt refuted Eichmann. Moreover, his intellectual inspiration Heidegger is Eichmann’s shadow throughout the trial.

Why Eichmann and not Heidegger?

Arendt’s project founders on Heidegger. She can deal with Eichmann the bumbling, unthinking, bureaucrat who never thought for himself or even began to think. What does she do with Heidegger? If knowledge is virtue, then how does she explain Heidegger? If she disassociates his politics from his thinking, what does that say about Eichmann? She rightly condemned Eichmann for his unthinking behaviour yet, where his failure to think explains his behaviour. What does she have to say about Heidegger, the paramount thinker of the 20th century, who embraced and justified National Socialism and the Fuhrer’s will? He did not simply go to the tyrant’s court. He promoted and embraced the tyrant’s cause.[2] He was not seeking to change or direct the Fuhrer to the good; he was propagating, in his own way, the Fuhrer’s will.[3] Moreover, he never recanted, revised, or retracted his views.

Was Eichmann a way to avoid dealing with Heidegger’s Nazism?

Heidegger rather than Eichmann should have been in the glass box in Jerusalem. Arendt never condemned or confronted Heidegger. Her failure to confront him or judge him suggests a hollowness to her public statements on Eichmann. Does the banality of evil have any validity beyond a polemical device? Were her comments for popular effect and consumption? Moreover, we have to wonder about her public statements on Heidegger when considered against Leo Strauss’ well-known reticence to make public statement on or about Heidegger.[4] Arendt undermines her philosophical project and her belief in Eichmann’s guilt because she cannot bring Heidegger to justice. She remained publicly and privately friendly with Heidegger.[5] She engaged with him without condemning him. One can condemn a person and recognize their errors and crimes without endorsing them. However, what remains problematic is that Arendt never refuted Eichmann. She condemned him, ridiculed him, and judged him, but she never refuted him. She was only in the position to condemn, ridicule, and judge him because the Allies had won the war. Therein we see the political problem for her philosophical stance.

That which we condemn in others is the sin we hold secretly.

She condemned Eichmann for his unthinking behaviour. On the surface, it would appear she was similarly unthinking regarding Heidegger. If Arendt thought about Heidegger and continued to engage him and write about him publicly in exculpatory terms, what does this say about Arendt? Heidegger was not unthinking when he accepted the Fuhrer’s will and promoted National Socialism.[6] Does that mean she accepted the outcome of his thought was virtuous? In light of this question, her attack on Eichmann loses its lustre and its moral content. Perhaps, we can offer an alternative view that mitigates her problem. It may be that she accepts that there are different standards for different men. Yet, if we accept that argument, then we begin to accept that Heidegger can be above or beyond the law or the common morality, which condemns Eichmann and the other Nazis. If Heidegger is above or beyond the law, what is it that exempts him? He remained unrepentant over his support for Hitler and National Socialism. To that extent, we have to ask whether Arendt implicitly accepts Heidegger’s argument given her decision to condemn Eichmann for being unthinking.

Would a Socrates in power become tyrannical?

What we have to accept is that if Arendt is unable to refute Heidegger/Eichmann it raises the question of whether knowledge is virtue or whether it is something else. If a Socrates in power leads to Heidegger’s “error”, it brings philosophy into disrepute, perhaps terminal disrepute. The gnawing question for Arendt is “Was Heidegger right?” For her to dispute that would require her to accept the political argument and propose a counter political argument. The challenge though is that such an argument has to accept the grounds of the disagreement. The problem is that Arendt and Heidegger cannot share a common ground. Arendt, in her belief in knowledge is virtue, a belief in Socrates as a political philosopher, accepts there is a good, perhaps unknowable, but something upon which the quest can begin and continue. By contrast, Heidegger does not believe such good exists or is knowable. Only a god can still save us.[7] In that statement, Heidegger shows us the problem for Arendt and philosophy.[8]

Without God we find tyranny or nihilism

We return to where we began in trying to understand Arendt’s position on Eichmann and Heidegger. Eichmann was unthinking and thus betrayed what it means to be human, to think, while Heidegger thought and betrayed what it meant to be human by his support and defence of Hitler and National Socialism. What it suggests is that Arendt’s “faith” in reason was flawed, as it appears empty as a basis by which we can condemn Eichmann/Heidegger aside from a political basis. In other words, her book on Eichmann is insufficient because it lacks what Heidegger rejected: God. One may wish to laugh in the face of evil, but one only brings evil to justice before the law and God. To do that, you need more than laughter; you need good arms and good laws.


[1] http://coreyrobin.com/2014/10/22/adolph-eichmann-funny-man/

[2] Heidegger gave speeches supporting Hitler in the fall of 1933 after becoming the rector of University of Freiburg. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142255/gregory-fried/what-heidegger-was-hiding See also a selection of these speeches found here: http://www.lacan.com/symptom/?p=63

[3] Here is Heidegger’s Rectorial Address http://la.utexas.edu/users/hcleaver/330T/350kPEEHeideggerSelf-Assertion.pdf curiously it misses out the Heil Hitler at the end, which is in the original. On that point consider http://heavysideindustries.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/88-nazi.pdf

[4] http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/42309-heidegger-strauss-and-the-premises-of-philosophy-on-original-forgetting/ see also https://archive.org/details/StraussOnHeidegger This covers the five texts that Strauss wrote that relate explicitly to Heidegger. Only a couple were printed in his lifetime.

Leo Strauss, “Existentialism” _Interpretation_ 22:3 (Spring 1995): 303-319

A lecture first given on Feb., 1956, at the Hillel Foundation (University of Chicago); a different version appeared as “An Introduction on Heideggerian Existentialism,” in _The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 27-46.

Leo Strauss, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science and Political Philosophy,” reprinted from _Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy_ 2:1 (1971) [in _Leo Strauss: Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy_ (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 29-37];

Leo Strauss, “The Problem of Socrates” _Interpretation_ 22:3 (Spring 1995): 339-337

A lecture first given on April 17, 1970 at St. John’s College at Annapolis

Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism” _Interpretation_ 26:3 (Spring 1999): 353-378

A lecture which appears to have first been given on Feb. 26, 1941 at the New School for Social Research

Leo Strauss, “Relativism,” [in Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins, eds., _Relativism and the Study of Man_ (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1961)], pp. 135-157

[5] In light of her adulterous relationship with Heidegger, the following passage, in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations is revealing.

“He went on to say that only the private, almost “secret relationships between Germans and Jews” were legitimate, while “everything about German-Jewish relations that works in public today causes harm.” There was much truth in these words. Written from the perspective of the Jewish question at that time, they supply evidence of the darkness of a period in which one could rightly say, “The light of the public darkens everything” (Heidegger).” http://brutishandshort.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Hannah-Arendt-Introduction-to-Illuminations.pdf

[6] http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1971/oct/21/martin-heidegger-at-eighty/ Arendt tries to excuse Heidegger’s “dalliance” with the Nazi party as a youthful “error”. The only problem with this defence is that in 1958 he wrote in the introduction to Introduction to Metaphysics, where on p.166 he wrote about the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism, he explained that all errors had been corrected for this edition. He did not appear to see his support for the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism as an error.  . See Martin Heidegger, Eigführung in die Metaphysik, 2nd. ed. (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer, 1958), p. 152. English translation: An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Mannheim (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), p. 166. In the introduction, Heidegger explains all the errors have been corrected for this edition.

[7] http://la.utexas.edu/users/hcleaver/330T/350kPEEHeideggerSpiegel.pdf Heidegger’s posthumous interview with Der Spiegel.

[8] Wonder is the beginning of philosophy Theaetetus 155d http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=plat.+theaet.+155d but the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. Proverbs 9:10 http://biblehub.com/proverbs/9-10.htm and Proverbs 15:33 http://biblehub.com/proverbs/15-33.htm As Leo Strauss put it quid sit deus?

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Should we follow Aaron Swartz’s example on civil obedience to the laws?

English: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event.

English: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, Aaron Swartz writes “There is no justice in following unjust laws.” In the context he argues that there has been a private theft of public culture. In effect, copyright enriches the few at the expense of the many. If information were made free then all would benefit. We would return to a state where knowledge was not privatized. The goal sounds laudable and well meaning, but what does it mean?

Is knowledge ever public?

On the surface, Swartz makes sense. Copyright appears to privatize knowledge. However, the copyright only applies to the documents not the ideas. The deeper issue, though, is whether knowledge has ever been public. Certainly, we can say that we want access to materials that are held in libraries. However, that has always been a challenge. One could argue that it is only in recent years, the last 100 that public libraries were built and maintained on a scale that would indicate that they were truly public. It was only in the 19th century that the modern idea of the public library, the type of institution we see today, emerged.[1] In the US, the first public library emerged in 1835.[2] Yet, the public library does not make knowledge public. It makes information available, but it does not make knowledge or wisdom public. To gain knowledge, one must study. One must become educated. Neither of these occurs in public places. They occur in private spaces far away from the public domain. The exception that proves the rule is that Socrates often met in the market place to philosophize. Most dialogues occur in a private setting. However, this takes us away from the central issue, which is obedience to the law.

What is the standard for judging the laws?

The question of access is about the legal control of such material. One can argue that the control should be lessened or even removed, however that does not make the laws surrounding the access unjust. Herein, we see the problem. Mr Swartz wants us to disobey unjust laws. However, he provides us no standard or basis by which to judge the law or laws as unjust. To the extent that he does provide a standard, it appears that it is his personal preference or what he perceives to be an injustice.

In his use of the phrase “There is no justice in following unjust laws”, and calling for civil disobedience it would appear he is echoing, either consciously or unconsciously, the work of Martin Luther King. Dr King, quoted Augustine in his Letter from Birmingham Jail “An unjust law is no law at all”, Like Dr King, Mr Swartz calls upon us to engage in civil disobedience.[3] However, unlike Dr King Mr Swartz offered no standard to judge the laws.[4] Dr King argued that unjust laws are those out of harmony with the moral law or the natural law because they degrade the human personality.

How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

If this is an acceptable standard by which to judge the laws that are unjust and thus require disobedience, then we need to consider Mr Swartz’s concern with the law of copyright. Does the law of copyright degrade the human personality? In his manifesto Mr Swartz does not address this point. He argues instead that the common good has been harmed by the “privatisation of knowledge” through copyright. Yet, there is no discussion or thought as to how the common good has been harmed or whether it has been harmed. Mr Swartz assumes or asserts that it has. He argues that the use of copyright to limit access through legal means harms the common good. However, laudable his goal, we have to consider whether his claim is worthy of civil disobedience given its potential impact on obedience to the laws.

Obedience to bad laws is not unjust when the alternative is worse.

Civil disobedience, especially when it suggests that the laws are unjust, can lead to a general disobedience of the laws or mob rule. In such a situation, people only follow the laws they like and disobey the ones they dislike or do not agree with. Lincoln warned that disobedience to the laws, particularly in the United States, can lead political institutions being destroyed. One could argue that the laws America’s most important political institution. In his Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln argued that unjust laws were still laws and still worthy of respect and obedience. [5]

When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, or that grievances may not arise for the redress of which no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say that although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still, while they continue in force, for the sake of example they should be religiously observed. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay, but till then let them, if not too intolerable, be borne with.

Perhaps Mr Swartz had not read Lincoln or considered his concern. America’s most famous example of civil disobedience, Martin Luther King, had. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, he explained the steps necessary before civil disobedience could be engaged as it contained a threat to the political institution, which is the laws and obedience to the laws.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.

In this letter it would appear there is a harmony between Lincoln and King because they see the second step, negotiation, as the way to change laws. They do not advocate direct action or conflict as a first an immediate step. Moreover, they both seem to accept that self-purification or putting up with the bad laws, until such time that they can be changed, needs to be considered before direct action. In Mr Swartz’s manifesto we do not see these steps. Instead, we are called to take direct action that breaks the laws. This is not civil disobedience, this is theft.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks.

This is not civil disobedience. This is theft. Leaving aside the possibility that Mr Swartz read and was influenced by Proudhon[6], “All property is theft”,[7] his proposal is dangerous, irresponsible with a touch of youthful naiveté. Disobedience to the laws in this manner, using civil disobedience to justify theft, encourages a spirit of lawless and it encourages a view that the government is corrupt because it enforces the law.  Lincoln saw this danger, and he lived through its consequences which he could not have foreseen, when he wrote.

By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint but dread of punishment, they thus become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations, and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation. [Emphasis added]

I cannot follow Mr Swartz’s example. I do not see his proposal as one that merits support. Instead of imitating him, we would do well to encourage others to learn from what he proposed and the consequences of what he proposed.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_library

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_libraries_in_North_America

[3] The parallels between Mr. Swartz and Mr Snowden on this issue is noteworthy. A possible way to understand it could be found in my blog on Mr. Snowden and his political acts. http://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/snowden-manning-and-tsarnaev-is-the-only-difference-a-pressure-cooker/  (part 1) and

http://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/snowden-manning-and-tsarnaev-is-the-only-difference-a-pressure-cooker-part-2/ (part 2).

[4] http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/king.pdf

[5] http://www.constitution.org/lincoln/lyceum.htm

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre-Joseph_Proudhon

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_Property%3F

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Greenwald and the problem of legitimate political violence

Anti-Grover Cleveland political cartoon of 188...

Anti-Grover Cleveland political cartoon of 1884 (cropped from the front page of “The Judge” magazine), captioned “Another voice for Cleveland”. Reference is to the story that Cleveland had had an illegitimate child (giving rise to the infamous campaign chant “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” by Cleveland opponents, to which Cleveland supporters replied “Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!”). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his essay for The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald comments on the terrorist attack in Canada in which two soldiers were struck by a car driven by an Islamic convert.[1] He makes a particular point about the use of the word terrorism. He argues that the term is empty of meaning, which allows commentators to use it for their own purposes. He accepts the common view of the term so that it can be discussed.

But to the extent the term has any common understanding; it includes the deliberate (or wholly reckless) targeting of civilians with violence for political ends.

Mr. Greenwald accepts that terrorism is a political act. Unlike like acts of nature, all political acts aim at some good or end. They represent a conscious human choice. The effect and the intent of that choice can be judged. If we cannot judge political acts by their effect and their intent, then decent politics is impossible. We have no way to distinguish between a government and a gang of robbers.

Terrorism is not an act of war.

In the article, Mr. Greenwald is not willing to judge the act. In the piece he cites Prof. Kapitan’s article on the term “terrorism”. Prof Kapitan is also unwilling to judge the terrorist act as readily as he wants to discuss its cause. However, we cannot separate an event’s cause from its justification. If the event is not justified, it is almost meaningless as its cause, what makes it unjustified is what will create the response. When he refuses to judge terrorism or use the term because it is open to abuse, Mr. Greenwald suggests an alternative approach to the issue. He wants attacks, such as the one in Canada, to be considered as acts of war.

The point is that targeting soldiers who are part of a military fighting an active war is completely inconsistent with the common usage of the word “terrorism,”

He argues that the attacks are focused on soldiers and the country (the West) is at war. On the surface, this seems logical. The West is at war so it is best to admit it. If we look at this closely the approach is problematic. Mr. Greenwald’s proposal is more radical than what the Canadian government (or the West) are willing to follow. If we describe these events as acts of war, rather than terrorism, it makes decent politics impossible. The state would be forced to declare war on any citizens who acted in this way. This would radicalize the domestic politics to extremes.

If we cannot judge political violence as legitimate or illegitimate decent politics is impossible

The term terrorism, with its focus on the use of violence for political ends, suggests illegitimacy. In liberal democracies, the common good is based the belief that violence for political ends is not acceptable. All liberal democracies, even those at war, have a democratic or legitimate means for political change. Political violence is considered illegitimate as it goes outside the agreed or legitimate means for political change. Political violence undermines the political mandate based on consent, which is necessary for decent politics. Mr. Greenwald’s focus on violence, rather than its legitimacy, avoids the political question. Was the act justified? What was the good it sought to achieve or avoid? For governments, and the public, this is the most important question rather than its cause. If a cause has to use violence, then it must justify it to a higher standard.

In contrast to Mr Greenwald, the Canadian government would appear to be taking a moderate approach to the problem by its use of the term terrorism. The government has used the term “terrorism” to focus on the act’s illegitimacy. The term reminds the government and its citizens, that violence for political ends that is not justified within the domestic realm is illegitimate. If violence for political ends were acceptable within the domestic realm, then decent politics would be impossible as all change would be based on coercion. In the domestic realm, the community provides a standard to decide or judge whether political violence is legitimate or illegitimate. Without that standard we would face a stark world. If the state used force or political violence and that was automatically illegitimate, it could not ensure justice or defend the public. The alternative would be that political violence would be the normal way or legitimate way for the state and community to o act. Neither is a position I would hope that Mr Greenwald nor Prof Kapitan would support.

Legitimate political violence is what we need to defend the common good and deliver justice.

What we have to understand, which Mr Greenwald ignores, is that the state is responsible for justice. The community, through its democratic consent, authorises the state to use violence to deliver justice and to defend the common good. Thus, a “terrorist” is someone who uses force to overturn the politics of consent, which everyone else has agreed to follow. By contrast, the international domain does not have an agreed political discourse so such acts are consider an act of war. The international realm is different because it does not work on consent. Sovereignty recognized by other states confers legitimacy on a state. In the modern state system, states ascribe responsibility to states, organisations or institutions, but rarely (if ever) to individuals. When someone, other than a state, uses violence it is “illegitimate” within the terms of the modern state system. When states use violence against each other it is usually consider a war as there is no sovereign above them to judge the cause. If we accept Mr Greenwald’s argument that terrorism is an act of war, then the difference between the domestic realm and the international realm is removed. This is problematic because one realm is based on consent and the other is not.

Does Mr Greenwald want to live in a world where might makes right?

If a citizen cannot distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate violence, then they are forced to live in a community where might makes right and justice is impossible. I am not sure if this is what Mr Greenwald and Prof Kapitan want to say, but it is where there argument leads.


[1] https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/10/22/canada-proclaiming-war-12-years-shocked-someone-attacked-soldiers/


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When we talk about poverty, we need to talk about justice

In the UK, governments have discussed poverty and anti-poverty strategies for many years. They set targets and talked about the economic and political programs to reduce poverty. When the targets are not met, the governments redefine the target or the delivery date. The debate often focuses on how to measure it. Most officials and experts agree on four methods to measure poverty: relative, absolute, material, and social mobility.

  • In relative terms – This is measured against other incomes. The measure describes the income needed to participate in activities seen to be normal by society. The measure is at 60% below average income.
  • In absolute terms – does a family’s income supply them with the means for subsistence? This is measured at 60% below the median income in a particular year, not adjusted for inflation.
  • In material terms – can and do families access the material goods and services to participate fully in society?
  • In terms of social mobility does a person or parent’s income determine their life chances or their children’s outcomes?[1]

What these have in common is that they are all based on measuring poverty in economic terms.

If it can be measured it can be managed.

Poverty is often, but not always, reduced to an economic issue. As an economic issue, it becomes a technical issue and not an ethical issue. When a target is not met, the government can claim it has improved its chances” at meeting the target. The target becomes a symbol of commitment rather than a goal. A decent government is committed to reducing or eliminating or alleviating poverty. The challenge is to turn that goal into a practical programme that will deliver it. Yet, the focus on delivery targets often comes at the price of the political question that poverty creates: the question of justice.

We will always have the poor which is why we always need politics and justice.

Poverty is a political question because its source relates to the nature of the society we want government to create and protect.  In that sense, poverty may not have a solution and remain a permanent question for all governments. As Jesus said, we will always have the poor.[2] People will always make choices that lead to consequences. As a result, in any society, there will be people of different outcomes and different talents. Christ’s statement may force us to understand that poverty reflects the nature of the society we want and have. How do we deal with the poor?

Can we create a just society with or without a revolution?

A decent society that promotes the common good is one where the poor are able to participate in the system not just live on its economic or political margins. When the poor lack access to justice it reflects the type of society we have.[3] When the poor are denied justice or an active participation in society, they cannot receive justice. Without justice, poverty cannot be addressed. Therein we see the political question that governments want to avoid. Justice, in that sense, produces a political problem that cannot be reduced to an economic target. The reason is that it requires a view of the common good, which runs contrary to the preferred approach to handling poverty. A government can focus on the symptoms of poverty, its material outcomes, to avoid the question of what type of society it creates through education and laws.[4] Unless we are prepared to discuss justice, we cannot begin to talk about poverty. Perhaps, this is the lesson we have yet to learn from the debate over austerity and its effect on poverty.

[1] http://www.cesi.org.uk/keypolicy/child-poverty

[2] Matthew 26:11

[3] An interesting approach to this issue is the Centre for Social Justice. They have pursued the idea of putting social justice at the heart of British Politics. What we find though is that despite their best intentions, they too, soon revert to an economic solution view of the issue. If we had the right policies and programmes in place we would deal with social justice. Instead, they need to look at how society understands social justice and what is needed to change that view of social justice, and justice generally, to improve social justice for dealing with poverty.

[4] Here is where we rarely see politicians or groups connecting the overall policies and procedures across education, criminal justice, welfare, and economic policies to consider the society that they want to create. One can find it only by default, by what is not being done or said, rather than what is intended. Moreover, one rarely finds it specifically mentioned except in platitudes or platforms. To put it another way, who is for poverty? Who is for ignorance? Who is for unemployment or family breakdowns?

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Getting beyond the Rotherham Scandal Headlines

Rotherham Station in 1840

Rotherham Station in 1840 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we are to understand the Rotherham Child Sexual Exploitation scandal, we have to move beyond the headlines and the news stories. We may wish to stay on the surface of the issue and accept uncritically the journalist’s view or the politician’s view. For most of us going about our business, this is all we need. However, we need to go beyond the headlines if we are to understand the issue. Other people will have their own agenda in promoting various parts of the story and are unlikely to report the stories with the same interest or enthusiasm. If we accept their views, we become captives to what they want us to believe.

I raise this point for two reasons. First, it illustrates what went wrong in Rotherham. The scandal occurred in large part because the officers and the organisations accepted the surface view of the issue. They focused on the symptoms without understanding the problem. They did not ask critical questions and try to get to the root of the issue. They remained on the surface even when outside agencies, including journalists, tried to get them to think about it.

Find the evidence to hold public power to account.

Second, if the public hope to hold power to account over the wider institutional child abuse across the UK, they will need to go to primary sources and look at the evidence. If the public rely on the journalists or the politicians to understand the problems, they will be captive to what the establishment want them to think about the issue. The public need to look at the evidence and decide. By looking at the evidence, they can make a critical judgement about what the journalists and politicians are telling them about the child abuse inquiry.

If you follow the evidence you can understand the issue.

The Rotherham Scandal offers us an insight into what the UK child abuse scandal may look like. In that scandal, a number of stories or myths emerged that have shaped how the public understand the issue. Many people accept uncritically the twin argument that only white girls were being groomed, exploited, and abused and the victims were only girls rather than boys and young men. What we find when we read the Jay report is that ethnic minority girls were also exploited. We also find that boys and young men were abused.

Institutional abuse of power is often away from the headlines and the limelight

If we look at what is happening away from the main headlines, we see institutional abuses of power. The original reports and statement by the Home Office researcher who was ignored by the Council and the Police, we see a bleak and damning picture of how institutional power can be used to silence critics. Unless we look at her testimony and the evidence provided to the Home Office, we miss the story. We need to see the detail to understand the story. Even though journalists pursue stories, they are less interested in uncovering or creating documentary evidence for others to explore. They want people to read their stories, which they are paid for, and not for developing research sources.

Some links and sites to provide context for the Rotherham Scandal

To understand the Rotherham Scandal, I have compiled a list of sites and documents. I do not claim the list is complete or without some intrinsic bias. I have relied exclusively on official sources. However, I think these documents and these sites are important because they will help readers and researchers who hope to explore the topic.

Start with the official record to know how the story is understood by authority

The first place to start is always what the official record is saying. The Parliamentary Committee are a good starting place for written evidence and testimony by witnesses and experts. However, these are limited because they will only ask the question that interest them and are within the committee and the chair’s remit. Moreover, their work is always limited by their ability to ask questions. As I have written previously, poor questions soon turn a Committee meeting into political theatre.

What is particularly useful for the Parliamentary Committees is that the sessions are recorded. The reader can compare body language and tone of voice to the written evidence in the published transcripts. Transcripts of the hearings are posted a few days after the sessions.


Home Affairs Committee


What is useful is that the documents contain links to the Parliament TV. Here is how the transcript is introduced.

Home Affairs Committee Oral evidence: Child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming: follow-up, HC 203

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 9 September 2014.

Watch the meeting


The Communities and Local Government Committee


Rotherham Borough Council

Another site is the Rotherham Borough Council page with the list of the documents.



Here are some key documents in the Rotherham Child Sexual Exploitation Scandal.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997 – 2013 (The Jay Report). http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/1408/response_to_alexis_jay_report

This report contains the best analysis of the problem to date showing the attempts by the Council and the Police to deal with the issue. It also catalogues the limited success of each organisation to deal with the problem for a long time. What is encouraging is that the report was commissioned and the situation appears to be improving.

The Council’s response to the Jay report. http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/1408/response_to_alexis_jay_report

This response is the Council’s official response. For the most part, it reiterates the positive points from the Jay Report. However, it has an interesting point on paragraph 9.9 where the Chief Executive explains that unlike the past, “Professional curiosity is encouraged and this supports staff to raise issues and know they will be taken seriously.” Perhaps this best summarizes why the Council and the Police failed to address the problem even as they dealt with symptoms.

Home Office Researcher’s written testimony to Home Affairs Committee.


The sworn testimony presents a depressing picture of how the Council and the Police behaved when they faced criticism for their handling of child sexual exploitation. As a trained and experienced solicitor working for an outside agency, the Home Office, one can see why she would have the fortitude to stick up for her research and for herself. However, even she admitted at the end, she could not sustain the fight against the institutional pressure. One wonders how a junior officer in either the police or the council would even dare to speak up especially if they lacked the same skills, job prospects, and independence of the trained solicitor. The testimony presents a sad and sobering reminder of how vicious employees can be when they abuse the power of their organisation and how reputation management can be used to justify such abuse of anyone who dares to question them let alone challenge them.

When challenged all the Executive officers expressed surprise and claimed they were unaware of such behaviour occurring in their organisation. We need to avoid the easy dichotomy that they were either out of touch with what was happening or they were complicit. Such a dichotomy does not help us understand the problem. Instead, we need to focus on the culture they were responsible for when mid-level officers can act in such a way with impunity or believe that they are serving the organisation (and the public) in acting that way.

Chapter 4 of the Pilot Report.


This is the report that the Home Office Researcher prepared and which upset the police and council officers in 2002 when it was written. When you read it, one has to wonder what they were as concerned about as it contains muted criticisms. The criticisms are based on the observable evidence, which indicates that personalities and egos were bruised rather than organisational interests being damaged. The response shows just how unwilling and unable the organisations were able to accept criticism at that time.

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The banality of institutional ignorance: Rotherham and child sexual exploitation

When people first heard the news about Rotherham Council’s child sexual exploitation scandal, they may have thought the Council and the Police were incompetent.[1] Some may have compared it to Haringey Council’s failure to protect Peter Donnelly (Baby P) and thought that as long as someone was sacked or people resigned, that should be enough. Such a surface view will keep us from understanding the problem. Why and how did Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police fail to identify the source, scale and scope of child sexual exploitation?

What is the problem that lurks beneath the scandal’s surface?

On the surface, we can say that Rotherham Council had a flawed corporate culture and focus on the personalities.[2] All this does is reward the same practices, focusing on the symptoms, without understanding the problem that created the scandal.[3] Another view on the surface is the claim by politicians that the problem was a dereliction of duty.[4] Yet, the report shows the officers were doing their duty and did, for the most part, try to act conscientiously within their understanding of the problem. Others stay on the surface by blaming someone or something in statements like “It is society’s neglect of children” or “It is class prejudices, racism, or sexism”, to explain the problem. These sound good, give a reasonable explanation and they are wrong. They forget that society does care. Society has created institutions to look after and protect children when their families cannot or will not.[5] These approaches deal with the symptoms of the problem but miss the heart of it. The problem was institutional ignorance. The organisations and the officers stopped thinking. What we find is the banality of institutional ignorance.

Institutional Ignorance a refusal to think about the problem

The banality of institutional ignorance is related to Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil”.[6] She coined the term to describe Adolph Eichmann’s unthinking behaviour to implement the “Final Solution” to exterminate Jews and other enemies of the Nazi state. He was not a grand, malevolent figure. Instead, he was an unthinking bureaucrat, which explains why evil was banal. Evil is rooted in thoughtlessness, an inability to think critically, and remaining on the surface of the issue.[7] Eichmann never questioned the purpose of what he was doing or what was being done. A good person would have thought about the problem and realized it was wrong and would not have participated. Instead, he worked to improve the system. As a good bureaucrat, he acted as though the system and obeying the system was what was important. The system provided a moral framework. As a result, the institutional ignorance reinforced and encouraged unthinking behaviour.

Institutional ignorance encourages the suppression of questions.

Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police demonstrated institutional ignorance. They, and their employees, were ignorant of the scale, scope, or source of the problem. Unlike Eichmann, though, they were not evil because they did think about the symptoms. Moreover, external organisations, through inspections, did try to provoke them to think.[8] However, all the main organisations involved and many of the officers did demonstrate an inability or unwillingness to understand the problem. They stayed on the surface of the symptoms and rarely thought critically about the problem’s scope or scale. What is striking from this scandal is that officers were discouraged from asking questions and thinking. When people did ask questions, they were either dismissed or suppressed. In one case, we have a credible allegation that an officer was intimidated for questioning the approach to the problem.[9] Senior managers dismissed these claims by suggesting the evidence was exaggerated. In one case, we have testimony that indicates that questions were actively suppressed.[10] Questions would force the organisations to “think” and take responsibility to understand the problem. The system kept anyone from thinking critically about what they were doing or failing to do.[11] When officers stop thinking, they stop being moral agents. They can avoid moral responsibility for their decisions and transfer accountability to the system. In turn, the system absolved them of a responsibility to think about the problem.

If the organisation refuses to think, why should the officers?

In the Rotherham scandal, we see what Arendt saw in Eichmann except on a smaller scale. The system worked. The organisations had processes and procedures in place to help deal with child sexual exploitation. The police could point to their commitment to deliver the community’s priorities, which were vehicle crimes and burglary. If the community was not interested in child sexual exploitation, why should the police be curious about it? They did not have to think, they had to follow. We must remember they were not idle men.[12] What they lacked was curiosity. The senior officers had higher priorities and they made sure the frontline staff understood and followed those priorities. In turn, the frontline officers could justify their approach to the issue. They shared the same belief as social workers that it was acceptable for a teenager to be in a promiscuous consensual sexual relationship with an adult. The social workers and their managers could justify their work. Their professional judgement indicated that a child could make a “lifestyle choice”[13] to engage in a promiscuous consensual sexual relationship with an adult male. As Sonia Sharp, a former head of Children’s Services, explained, it was normal for the social workers and the police to believe that a vulnerable child could consent to sex with an adult.[14] In all cases, officers and their managers could point to a system, procedures, policies, and partnerships to deal with the issue.

Why question something when your superiors tell you what to think about it?

Why should officers question the system or what they were doing when the system does not encourage it and senior managers are willing to “put it in context”?[15] What junior officer is going to challenge a corporate director on that view? The senior officers and Members had an agreed institutional reputation to defend. Why should they challenge it or encourage anyone, in particular junior officers, to question it? The senior officers modelled the unthinking behaviour as they did not question evidence, challenge assumptions, or try to understand the problem. We see a senior officer testify that she never questioned why no one listened to her reports. She simply passed her reports up the chain of command and for her the system worked. It was not for her to question the system. She provided her reports to the Lead Member for children’s issues.[16] In turn, he testified that he endorsed the officer’s professional recommendations.[17] In one case, he doubled the budget. He never challenged their arguments, evidence, or assumptions of the problem. He lacked curiosity about the problem and followed or amplified what the officers recommended. The Scrutiny Committee never challenged the organisation or the officer’s assumptions on these issues. They seemed to accept almost uncritically, what the officers were doing.[18] Officers and Members did their duty, they made the system work, they just never thought about it.

When you stop thinking, you stop acting morally.

The institutional ignorance also explains why whistle blowers never emerged.[19] A whistle blower would require someone to know the scale or scope of the problem. As the council and the police clearly lacked a candid culture where challenging questions were encouraged, why would someone try to find out enough to blow the whistle? Whom would they tell?[20] From the report, we can see that the cultures discouraged challenging questions or curiosity. We can see this in the way senior police officers reacted to Parliamentary questions. If a senior officer is willing to respond aggressively to an MP in a public forum, how are they going to behave with a junior officer inside the force?[21] Would they encourage challenging question in the force? As they were at pains to explain, they tell their officers their priorities and officers will follow those priorities.[22] We have no evidence that senior officers asked frontline officers how they understood those priorities. Obedience rather than thinking appears to be what matters.

Professional curiosity should be mandatory, not recommended.

The Chief Executive’s response to the Jay Report shows us clearly that institutional ignorance existed. He made the apparently unremarkable statement that “The council now encourages professional curiosity”.[23] How many organisations have to reassure the public that officers are allowed to ask questions? What we see in all bureaucracies is a focus on secrecy that limits information on a need to know basis. These characteristics inhibit questions. When the Chief Executive has to say publicly that staff are now encouraged to think, you know you have a problem. However, we have to remember that throughout the scandal, the system and actors did what was asked of them. They remained institutionally ignorant of the problem and thus could not be responsible for it. If no one was responsible, then no one can be guilty.[24]

What needs to change to encourage ethical thinking?

For Rotherham Council to change, it has to look at the whole organisation. If it focuses on Children’s services or Safeguarding, it will miss the forest for the trees. A curiosity culture across the council is needed. Officers have to be encouraged to think and act ethically across the organisation to change it. Senior officers and Members will model the desired behaviour. The following are some steps to create a curiosity culture.

First, they need to demonstrate a culture where bad news can be discussed and acted upon by the organisation collectively. Bad news is not left to a service or a senior management team to manage. The organisation has to demonstrate how it has engaged in the problem.

Second, they need to create a candid culture. The culture will encourage critical upwards communication so bad news is welcomed and addressed with publicly accountable outcomes.[25]

Third, they need to train staff in ethical practices. They need to use scenarios to raise awareness of how institutional factors can discourage critical ethical thinking.

Fourth, they need to publish standards of behaviour. The senior officers and political leaders have to model the standards

Fifth, and most importantly, the organisation officers will be required to explain how they understand a problem’s scale, scope and source. The officers will report that understanding to Members. The Members, in particular, will need to demonstrate how they have challenged the assumptions and evidence.

[1]“Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham (1997 – 2013) http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/1407/independent_inquiry_cse_in_rotherham (Hereafter the Jay Report) p. 25 paragraph 3.44 (accessed 7 September 2014).

[2] The Jay Report deals specifically with culture in chapter 13 paragraphs 13.61-13.69. The problem with looking for personalities or persons to blame is that it misses the point that the organisation was the problem and it requires an organisational response and not a focus on a few officers or a few members. The whole organisation needs to be scrutinized and not simply for its culture.

[3] It would be easy to say that Rotherham Council failed because it pursued single loop learning and not double loop learning. Single loop is focused on dealing with the symptoms and not with causes. See the HBR classic article by Chris Argyris. http://hbr.org/1977/09/double-loop-learning-in-organizations/ar/1 The view is correct, but it does not explain why the council lacked the curiosity or courage to pursue double loop learning.

[4] Theresa May has made this claim and others have repeated it or echoed it. http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/02/uk-britain-abuse-may-idUKKBN0GX1UU20140902 (accessed 7 September 2014)

[5] The LSE blog makes a related argument. Institutions and the banality of evil: Learning from Rotherham and Savile (Dave Richards and Martin Smith) (Accessed 12 September 2014) They appear to misunderstand Arendt’s book as the believe that impersonal forces, sexism or classism explain the scandal. Arendt rejected impersonal forces as an explanatory device because they do not provide a solid basis for justice because the revert back to determinism. Instead, as the Jay report that explains that minority girls were also being groomed and targeted for sexual exploitation. (See chapter 11 paragraph 11.14) Boys and young men were also targeted. (See Jay report paragraphs 4. 16-4.19 and 7.15, 7.18 and 10..22) Finally, while class may have played a role, it is not clear that it determined the response as people still tried to help them. If class was a factor, it was not a determinative one and more a sufficient one rather than a necessary one. What they appear to miss is Arendt’s focus on “thoughtlessness” and the failure to think. What they focus on is normality without understanding that the failure to think is what makes Eichmann and Rotherham appear so normal.

[6] I am relying heavily on, but not exclusively on, Judith Butler’s excellent article Hannah Arendt’s challenge to Adolf Eichmann (Guardian Online 29 August 2011) last accessed 7 September 2014 and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s The capacity for evil can spread like an epidemic (Guardian Online 19 August 2011) last accessed 7 September 2014. I have referred to Arendt’s work Eichmann in Jerusalem: the banality of Evil (2nd Edition)

[7] See Bethania Assy Eichmann, the Banality of Evil, and Thinking in Arendt’s Thought https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Cont/ContAssy.htm  The problem raised by Eichmann and Rotherham exists within all bureaucracies and societies. The individual is caught between being too thoughtful, to the exclusion of humanity (see Martin Heidegger as an example), or thoughtless to the point of evil (Eichmann). Bureaucracies favour thoughtlessness because they thrive on routine and procedures rather than curiosity and critical thinking. http://arigiddesignator.wordpress.com/2011/12/05/villa-on-arendt-on-thinking-and-judgment/

[8] The Council had inspections nearly every year from 2003 onward. (Se Jay Report Chapter 3)

[9] Reference to statement to Parliament from former Home Office Researcher.

[10] The Council and the Police failed to act on the reports despite being widely circulated to middle and senior managers.  http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/1407/independent_inquiry_cse_in_rotherham p. 83 (accessed 7 September 2014)

[11] We can see in the Jay Report very little reference to lessons learned or clear lines of accountability. See Chapter 7 paragraphs 7.51-58 for lessons learned. Problems of shared accountability see paragraph 7.24.

[12] See Q252 Meredydd Hughes testimony to Parliament Select Committee http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/child-sexual-exploitation-and-the-response-to-localised-grooming-followup/oral/12521.pdf (Accessed 20 September 2014)

[13] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11066244/Rotherham-is-not-an-isolated-incident.html

[14]Nine years ago, our greatest challenge was to change the predominant view that these young people were ‘promiscuous teenagers in consensual relationships’, rather than victims of child abuse.

“I regret every case of exploitation of vulnerable girls that was not prevented, but feel strongly that our collective efforts led to gradual but essential improvements in the situation for many young people.” http://www.doncasterfreepress.co.uk/news/crime/ex-rotherham-council-boss-backed-by-new-australian-employer-1-6811109 (Accessed 3 September 2014)

[15] Consider that in 2014, while the report in the scale of the abuse was being documented and after years of attention, with criminal convictions for the exploitation, a senior manager at Rotherham can say that the agencies need to maintain a sense of proportionality about child sexual exploitation.

“One manager was reported in a recent minute of the Child Sexual Exploitation sub-group as saying that ‘agencies need to retain a sense of proportionality with regard to child sexual exploitation, as it only actually accounts for 2.3% of the Council’s safeguarding work in Rotherham. Although it is a very important issue, child neglect is a much more significant problem’. This is not an appropriate message for senior managers to give.” P. 30 paragraph 4.8 (Jay Report)

[16] See Joyce Thacker’s testimony Q417-424 http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/child-sexual-exploitation-and-the-response-to-localised-grooming-followup/oral/12521.pdf

[17] See Sean Wright Testimony on doubling the money q550 on endorsing the officer’s professional judgement see q546 and q547 http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/child-sexual-exploitation-and-the-response-to-localised-grooming-followup/oral/12521.pdf

[18] The report, in chapter 7 points out that on some of the committees the work lacked scrutiny and challenge were lacking. See paragraph 7.35 and more specifically chapter 13 paragraphs 13.54-13.56 where it suggests that the Scrutiny was simply ineffective in challenging officer evidence or holding the Executive to account on this issue.

[19] One has to note that the current Chief Executive has stated in his 3 September 2014 response to the Jay report that a whistle blower policy has been created. See paragraph 9.3 http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/1408/response_to_alexis_jay_report

[20] See reference to HBR

[21] See the testimony of Meredydd Hughes in particular his response to q277. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/child-sexual-exploitation-and-the-response-to-localised-grooming-followup/oral/12521.pdf   It is important to see the body language of the speaker the testimony can be seen on Parliament TV. http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=16005

[22] See how the Chief Constable explained that “there will not be a single person in the force who is not convinced that this is top priority” see response to q259 http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/child-sexual-exploitation-and-the-response-to-localised-grooming-followup/oral/12521.pdf

[23] One must note that in the Chief Executive’s response to the Jay report, paragraph 9.9 he claims that the organisation now encourages professional curiosity. “Professional curiosity is encouraged and this supports staff to raise issues and know they will be taken seriously.” http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/1408/response_to_alexis_jay_report

[24] The report makes this point directly and in doing so reiterates the same problem that Arendt saw at work with Eichmann. “An issue or responsibility that belongs to everybody effectively belongs to nobody” (Jay Report paragraph 13.57 and Arendt Eichmann “And one can debate long and profitably on the rule of Nobody, which is what the political form known as bureau-cracy truly is.” p.289.

[25] See the work of Denis Tourish for critical upwards communication Denis Tourish Critical Upward Communication:: Ten Commandments for Improving Strategy and Decision Making Long Range Planning Volume 38, Issue 5, October 2005, Pages 485-503 doi:10.1016/j.lrp.2005.05.001 https://openair.rgu.ac.uk/bitstream/10059/190/1/LRPpaper1.pdf  and work of HBR on candid culture.

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