24 December 2013

The Turing "pardon" and malignant traditionalism

The British government has issued a "royal pardon" to computer-science pioneer Alan Turing (1912-1954).  Turing's work played an important role in the invention of electronic computers, and the machines he helped build during World War II broke the Nazi military codes and helped win the war.  Later he was convicted of "gross indecency", as homosexuality was called in law at the time, and sentenced to an experimental "chemical castration" designed to eliminate his sex drive, which also caused bodily disfigurement.  After two years of this treatment, he committed suicide by poison (though a few people now claim that his death was an accident or even that he was murdered by British government agents as a security threat).  A brief video overview of Turing's case is here.

While the gesture is a positive one, there are serious problems with it, as expressed well by British columnist Ally Fogg.  To begin with, a pardon is an official act of forgiveness extended to someone who did something wrong; it falls short of acknowledging that Turing did nothing wrong, and that indeed it was the British government and system of justice that behaved criminally -- it is the authorities who should be asking Turing for forgiveness, if he still existed to give it.  Second, it singles out Turing because he was a genius and a national hero, but those things are not the main reason why the vicious cruelty meted out to him was an injustice.  Tens of thousands of ordinary men were convicted and sentenced under the "gross indecency" law during the decades it was in force.  The injustice against them, and the criminal guilt of the British state in their cases, was just as great even though they were not famous.

What would be more appropriate would be something like South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- a systematic and detailed review of the persecution and its victims, explicitly acknowledging that the British government, during the time it was enforcing the "gross indecency" law, was guilty of criminal brutality on such a vast scale as to irredeemably taint the entire British state of that era as a criminal enterprise.  The fact that as recently as 2011 the Justice Secretary could say that Turing had been "properly convicted" according to the law of the time, and some of the comments on the linked BBC article, show why something of this magnitude is merited -- and why it will not happen.

Nor does the harm done by the law and by the attitudes behind it lie entirely in the past.  As sculptor Glyn Hughes is quoted by the BBC as saying, "if there was a general pardon for men who had been prosecuted for homosexuality, many of them are still alive and they could get compensation" -- as well they should, and are still prevented from doing.  India's Supreme Court recently upheld that country's law against homosexuality -- a law which is a legacy of British colonialism.

And the malignancy isn't a uniquely British one.  What I've said here holds true for any other country which had and enforced such laws, during the time it enforced them, including the US -- indeed, the last few state laws criminalizing homosexuality were not swept away until 2003 (though by then enforcement had become sporadic), and we know well what attitudes persist among religious hard-liners.  To this, the horrific abuses against black Americans in the same era must be added, though on that issue our society has done a far better job of recognizing and renouncing the evil it committed.

Finally, many laws are at least roughly an expression of the character of society at large, especially in a democracy.  Had they been asked, many -- perhaps most -- British and Americans in the 1950s would have favored the existence of laws against homosexuality, probably without giving the matter such thought.  To that extent, it was the societies of the 1950s, not just the laws, that were tainted with the malignancy rooted in the "traditional values" of the Abrahamic religions.

I can't claim total innocence myself.  There were times in the past where I expressed hostile views about homosexuality, though I like to think the last few years of blogging have made up for it.

There are still people who openly aspire to return to the values of the 1950s.  Remember what that actually means.

Update:  Martin Robbins has an excellent column on this.

11 Comments:

Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

"There are still people who openly aspire to return to the values of the 1950s. Remember what that actually means."

I've repeated the above to many people who pine for the "good ole days" of the 1950s. I remind them of what was happening in the Jim Crow south and what was happening to our gay and lesbian citizens. Also I remind them of the anti-miscegenation laws across the country as well as the gross prejudice against African-Americans in the northern states. And let's talk about how women were treated when they wanted to open their own credit card accounts, or own property, or when they finished at the top of their classes in law school and were offered jobs as secretaries when they interviewed at law firms.

The 1950s' Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver were a Hollywood construct with no basis in reality. It made the majority of white, straight Americans feel smug about themselves and lulled them into believing theirs was the "Real America." People like the dimwit Sarah Palin are still stuck in that fantasy.

Step by step we've moved away from that straight-and-white centered idea of what America is. The most hated word in the conservative blogsphere is "diversity." It represents all that they've hated since the 1950s were left on the dust heap of American history.

24 December, 2013 07:24  
Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Thanks for this, Infidel. I had not heard about Turing's pardon (but after reading this, I may have to put quotes around the word pardon).

My views on homosexuality have changed over the years, going from outright hostility and disgust when I was younger (and obviously not very smart or informed) to accepting and moving away from those views.

"There are still people who openly aspire to return to the values of the 1950s. Remember what that actually means." Yep. And that's not a good thing.

24 December, 2013 08:56  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: It's astonishing how the people who are nostalgic for that time can dismiss the most vicious persecutions as a mere peripheral detail.

Marc: Every thoughtful person has some views which evolve over time. Luckily, there seem to be very few people who go from more to less tolerant.

25 December, 2013 08:52  
Anonymous between the lines said...

Heartfelt agreement with you on much of what you write here. The whole "pardon" thing is a load of mealy-mouth nonsense. You can't "pardon" someone who has done nothing wrong, firstly, and secondly, why only extend this (dubious) benefit to one celebrity when so many other people were equally victimised by the state.

Just one thing that jars, which is your claim that it was Britain that was the major villain in this.

In fact it is the USA that was then, as it remains to this day, the biggest force for bigotry. Even now the US is still exporting reactionary religious fundamentalism to the world, especially Anglophone areas like Britain and Uganda.

Compared to the Americans, the British were very little concerned by gays (or another US obsession; racial mixing, for that matter. The US forces were racially segregated until 1948) in the military during the forties. There were well-known gay people prominent in British public life during those years, Noel Coward being one example.

It was only when the Cold War 'Red Scare' of US McCarthyism struck that real persecution began.

The fact that McCarthy and his crew also hunted out and hounded homosexuals; known as the 'Lavender Scare', is unfortunately less well known than the notorious anti-communist witch-hunts of the era.

Given that, as is said, "when America sneezes, Britain catches a cold" and given also that the US came out of World War 2 very well and held all the economic reins over Britain and Europe it's far more than likely that, then as now, the US religious right pushed its ally Britain into doing US bidding during the McCarthyite frenzy.

There have even been TV programmes naming who the US officials were who applied the pressure on Britain to crack down on homosexuals, only I can't find any links for that specific detail.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/36/a2688636.shtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_scare

http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=9316

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_discrimination_against_African_Americans_in_the_U.S._Military

25 December, 2013 09:44  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Between: Thanks. I addressed that point in the paragraph beginning "And the malignancy isn't a uniquely British one". In the earlier section I was emphasizing the criminality of the British state in contrast to the gays persecuted under the "gross indecency" law, not in contrast to other countries -- so I didn't "claim that it was Britain that was the major villain in this". Then, too, I don't believe the evil a country does is mitigated by the fact that other countries do it too. If you read this blog regularly you know that I routinely criticize things the US government or society do, without reference to other countries doing similar or worse things.

25 December, 2013 10:09  
Anonymous between the lines said...

Hi Infidel, in this case it's not so much about the evil that the US does directly, which is bad enough, it is the massively disproportionate wealth and power that the vested interests in the USA has held since World War 2 to force their own brand of reactionary 'Christian' homophobic, misogynistic, puritanical agenda on the whole of the rest of the world that is the real big problem.

25 December, 2013 11:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The post is about Alab Turing. Turing was persecuted by the British government. Your point is off topic and I already addressed it in my first response to you.

25 December, 2013 11:43  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

Funnily enough, given the reputation the '50s have now for being extremely conservative, it took me a while to realize just how conservative they were myself; when I did, I was quite shocked. "They couldn't have been that bad!" I thought. "Why, that was the decade which gave us rock and roll, and which made teen rebellion cool!" (They gave us some great sci-fi flicks too.)

But, no, alas, there was much about the 1950s that wasn't very nice at all. (In addition to all the things you mentioned, there was also the constant threat of nuclear war, and the fears of what the aftermath of such a war might be (a world ruled by giant ants just for starters, if some of the aforementioned science fiction movies were to be believed...).) Worse, to some people, the prejudices of that era were a feature rather than a bug. For example, I remember once following this conservative blogger from my own country called "The Social Pathologist", who actually seemed halfway-reasonable for someone on the Right (unlike many on that side of the political spectrum, for example, he believed that women had the right to get an education, vote and work). One day, though, I stumbled upon a post of his in which he was whining about the state of Western society today, and claimed that one of its problems was that men who dared venture out in public dressed effeminately or "gay" (as I often do myself) were no longer guaranteed to have the crap beaten out of them by other men. As you can probably imagine, I didn't have much time for him after that... (As an interesting aside, he appears to have since become a complete conspiracy nut, and a subscriber to this ridiculous reactionary movement that calls itself "the Dark Enlightenment".)

I've seen other conservative bloggers that have called for homosexuality to be re-criminalized; one, for example, praised the recent efforts of the Ugandan government to do just that, saying that those efforts were an act of "love" (when I read that gem, I thought, "No doubt you'd consider it even more loving to torture gay people as well as imprison them or execute them!). But, no, I shudder to think what a society in which homosexuality was made illegal again might be like, particularly as I've often had people just assume I'm gay myself (even though I'm mostly attracted to the opposite sex). Just for starters, I could imagine myself suffering a lot of harassment, and not being able to do much about it!

28 December, 2013 05:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Zosimus: We're up to our ears in people like that here in the US, where the hard-line Christians praise not only Uganda but also Putin's Russia for their anti-gay persecution. And it's not unusual to encounter people who claim that things have gone downhill in pretty much every way since the 1950s.

The average homophobe probably could hardly understand the difference between homosexuality and CD, and wouldn't care about it if he did.

Have you ever seen Pleasantville? It's one of my favorite movies and it deals with some of these issues in a very unusual way.

Compared with going back to the 1950s, I think we'd be better off taking our chances with the giant ants.

28 December, 2013 07:16  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

Yes, I saw Pleasantville, some years back now - not a bad film.

I forgot about Russia and its own disturbing trends in the area of LGBT rights. It never ceases to amaze me how so many on the Right have done such an about-face in their views on that country since the fall of Communism. I'm sure it's not just the country's homophobic policies that are responsible for that either, but also things like its cut-throat capitalism, resurgent Orthodox
Church, growing neo-Nazi subculture, and the (alleged) anti-feminist attitudes of its women.

28 December, 2013 17:53  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Zosimus: True, it's probably not just the official homophobia, since that was also present in Soviet times. But an authoritarian state with close links to the church is pretty much what they want to see here.

29 December, 2013 02:45  

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