In this article I will be looking at this year’s publishing phenomenon, the 50 Shades Trilogy. The books – a sort of BDSM Mills-and-Boon-esque romance, have been a runaway success, making the author, British mother EL James, one of the most successful female authors of all time. The 50 Shades Trilogy has outsold Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code. 

EL James’ success comes at a time when the British ministry of the interior, the Home Office, whose remit extents to policing and criminal justice, is seeking to widen the definition of Domestic Abuse in England to include coercive control, following a series of high profile murders of women in England, in 2011 and 2012. The Criminal Justice system in the United Kingdom is slowly waking up (not fast enough for many abuse survivors, in my opinion) to the fact that the phenomenon of a man exercising coercive control , rather than physical violence, is a greater indicator of risk of a woman being murdered by her intimate partner. It is not, then, without significant irony James’ stupendously successful novels contain numerous instances of the “hero” exercising such coercive control over the heroine.

My beef with the books are not the fact they are terribly repetitive and stomach-churning “love scenes” every three pages or so. I am not calling for a ban because they are “porn” or “filth”, as many on the religious right are.  Nor am I making a value judgement per se on those who follow a  BDSM  lifestyle or who enjoy certain erotic tastes in the bedroom. Yet these books are, in every way, completely immoral.

What is particularly disturbing is that this is being presented for public entertainment and the women reading 50 Shades are effectively being conditioned to view coercive control, one of the most dangerous and insidious forms of relationship abuse, as normal, and even something to aspire to. 

Serial Abusers, whether they target children or adults, typically use grooming to create a trust that is later used to keep the Target in the sexual relationship as well as to keep them from seeking help. This is done by paying excessive attention to the Target the beginning – spending time, buying gifts, and this attention can even extend to the Target’s family and friends as a means of masking the actual intent of the actions.  50 Shades of Grey is actually a novel which describes, rather accurately (albeit unintentionally) the process of grooming of a vulnerable Target used by a serial abuser.

Grooming is a term usually used when talking about child sexual abuse, but in my view all abuse involves forms of grooming which in the relationship between an adult Abuser and an adult Target retain many of the same patterns and features.

James’ writing jumps around a bit and its not logically consistent, but let’s look at how the six stages of grooming play out in examples the 50 Shades novels. Critics quickly point to the fact that Ana’s musings read like a teenager’s diary, missing the point that this is actually a device to emphasis Ana’s innocence. Ana’s reaction of embarrassment to a couple kissing openly in an elevator, for example, indicates that Ana maybe an adult chronologically (though not by much); emotionally she is a child. The definitions of the six stages are adapted from this abuse survivors website, which focuses on child abuse, but, as I’ve said, Grooming can affect children and adults alike, and Ana is portrayed very much as a child particularly in the first two books of the Trilogy.

1. Targeting the victim. An abuser will size up their victim, choosing one that has lower self-esteem, and is vulnerable, isolated, and needy. Targets who are isolated geographically or emotionally from their family are particularly vulnerable to Abusers.
In the 50 Shades Christian Grey immediately picks up on Ana’s insecurity and low self-esteem when she stumbles into his office and nervously asks her questions for an interview for a student magazine. The epilogue in the final book of the Trilogy, which describe this encounter from Grey’s point of view, portrays in detail how Grey selects Ana because of her shyness and vulnerability. He knows there are very few people around her who will defend her, and he seeks almost immediately to isolate her from her friends Jose and Kate, being openly hostile towards them both. Early on in their dating relationship he quizzes her for private information regarding her family, discovering that she is the product of a broken home, that her mother lives at the other end of the continent, and that her stepfather, to whom she is closer, lives in a different town.

2. Gaining the victim’s trust. The Abuser gains their Target’s trust by gathering information about the Target,  their needs and how to fulfil them, and may extend this behaviour to the Target’s friends and family as a means of masking his actual intent.

In the 50 Shades Trilogy, Christian Grey admits to keeping a dossier on Ana with a lot of personal information. He learns through his snooping that Ana is “quietly ambitious” about her chosen career. When, nervous about his control, she turns down working in his company, he finds out where she works and where her new job is going to be (and stalks her both on-line and in person). At their first date, Ana mentions fleetingly that her stepfather likes fishing. Grey immediately mugs up on fishing, feigning an interest in the sport to gain the trust and appear likeable to Ana’s father, who concludes he is a great guy. Even though his goal is to isolate Ana from Kate and Jose, her two best friends, he initially extends largess to them, by buying Jose’s photographic art and including Kate on expensive outings. In the second book Grey admits to running intrusive background checks on Ana and finds her bank account number and knows that she has very little money and a lot of student debt. He is ideally equipped with information to proceed, from a very early stage in their relationship to the third stage of grooming, namely:

  1. Fulfilling a need. Once the Abuser has figured out what the Target’s needs are, the Abuser begins to lavish the Target with attention, gifts, praise and affection, extending this behaviour where necessary to friends and family. Grey lavishes Ana with expensive gifts, including a car, and valuable first editions of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and money, where he has this paid directly into her bank account. He also gives her very expensive clothes, even though she is clearly uncomfortable with accepting these gifts. In the first book, he manipulates her stepfather in giving his blessing to Grey presenting Ana with a lavish luxury car as a “graduation present”,  and uses her father’s assent to the idea to enforce Grey’s demand that Ana hand over her beloved classic car to Grey to be sold. He does not give her the proceeds of the sale of the car immediately, remaining in control of the money, until Ana demands it from him when she decides at then end of the first book to leave him (typically of a woman in an abusive relationship, she returns to her abuser in the second books). In the additional chapters in the final book, which are written from Grey’s point of view, we see Grey assessing Ana’s poverty when he first meets her and plotting on how to exploit it.  Grey uses his wealth, having identified Ana’s economic needs, to gain leverage over her through gifts and patronage, but Ana’s economic life remains strictly controlled by Grey and the purchases primarily serve his needs, not hers. For example, in the second book he buys the company where she has just started working, with the excuse that he wanted to expand his business into publishing. Grey lies blatantly to Ana about true motivations for acquiring the company, has her boss fired, and Ana is given her boss’s job. Ana’s working life as well as her private life quickly come to depend on Grey. Ana quickly becomes dependent on Grey for her self-esteem and professional advancement.

  1. Isolating the Target. In cases of child grooming the sex offender usesthe status of idol and the special relationship he or she has with the child to create situations in which the child is alone with the predator. Situations can include special trips, babysitting, tutoring, or mentoring. In an abusive relationship between to adults, isolation takes the form of removing the Target from their support networks and comfort zones and making the Abuser the centre of the Target’s universe, establishing an emotional dependency on the Abuser.In 50 Shades, we see a patterns of abuse commonly found in child grooming, which is hardly surprising since Ana is emotionally extremely child-like. Her youth and inexperience are contrasted with the idea that Grey (who is chronologically older than Ana) is also old beyond his years. So we see plenty of “special trips” in helicopters, private jets, and yachts, which Grey makes sure Ana knows are “just for her, because she’s special”. These trips are used to establish trust and also to isolate Ana from her support networks. Grey uses a mentor/tutor role to gain control over Ana, an in the second book Ana remarks that he her sexual mentor, that she will always be “behind”, and that Christian is, and always will be,  more knowledgeable about most things except cooking. Ana states how she “blossoms under his praise”, with the reverse also being true: Ana becomes anxious, insecure, and tearful when Grey is displeased with her (which usually happens within a few minutes of him praising her). Ana very quickly ends up living with Grey, and marrying him, within a few weeks of meeting him.Adult patterns of grooming are evident when Grey uses the fact that Ana’s best friend – and voice of reason – is away on vacation to quickly accelerate the grooming process, and by the time her best friend returns, Ana is more or less living full-time with her Abuser and becomes engaged to him. In the first book, Ana goes to visit her mother for a break to think about the relationship. Initially Grey is angry with Ana for going off on her own to visit her family, but consents to her visiting her mother eventually. Grey then follows her (more stalking behaviour) and ends up monopolizing Ana’s time so that she does not get to spend the weekend with her family. Grey is openly hostile to Kate, Ana’s best female friend, and Jose, her best male friend, because he knows that Kate immediately identified him as a potential danger to Ana, and behaves in an extremely threatening manner to Kate when Kate, on return from her holiday, confronts him about his treatment of Ana. He constantly tells Ana how happy he is that is was she, and not her confident, experienced, no-nonsense friend, who came to is office to interview him. I’ll bet!

  1. Sexualising the relationship. With child grooming, after the emotional attachment and trust of the child has been obtained, the Abuser progressively sexualises the relationship. Desensitization of the child occurs through talking, pornography, and creating situations in which the child and abuser are naked. The child may begin to see their relationship in more sexual, special terms. With adult grooming, this behaviour is subtler and harder to identify. Typically in an abusive relationship, the dating relationship will become sexual, more serious, or all consuming, very quickly, before the Target is ready for such serious commitment.So how does this manifest itself in 50 Shades? The road-map for  child grooming is most obvious with respect to the BDSM side of Ana and Grey’s relationship, where the child-like Ana is desensitized firstly through talking about BDSM, then being ordered to research and negotiate a contract on it with her abuser.  Within a few weeks Ana is coerced and manipulated into sexual acts of ever increasing depravity and within a few days of becoming sexually active is being subjected to escalating levels of  inhuman and degrading treatment. Grey objectifies and sexualises Ana, turning her into a sexual object. The adult grooming is apparent in the acceleration of the relationship. Ana becomes Christian’s official girlfriend / submissive within a few days of knowing him, he manipulates her into moving in with him and marrying him within a few short weeks. On their second date, when Christian takes Ana to see his home in order to convince her to becoming his Submissive, Christian does not give Ana the option of saying no to him, or taking things more slowly, demanding that she surrender her virginity to him immediately so that he can escalate the sexualisation of their relationship.  Ana is manipulated into consenting believing Grey’s lies that sleeping with him will be a “remedy”.

  1. Maintaining control. With child sex abuse, once the sexual abuse has begun, child sex abusers use secrecy and blame to manipulate the child into silence and participation. “This is how we show that we love each other,” “It’s not hurting anyone,” are common things a child groom-er may say to their victim. With adult grooming, a similar pattern is followed. A Target is continually conditioned to accept Abuse because its “for her own good” or “she asked for it” or “made him loose his temper” or “this is just how he expresses his love or affection” and she is punished severely if she talks to an outsider about the relationship or attempts to seek help.   In 50 Shades, secrecy is apparent from the start since Grey makes Ana sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, preventing her from discussing his BDSM predilections with anyone (this would also prevent her from seeking help when trying to exit the relationship). Ana also discovers that Grey photographed his previous Subversives in compromising positions in order to coerce them into silence. Ana is frequently told, and eventually comes to accept, that Grey’s control is for her own good. Grey sees Ana’s free will as an obstacle as a negative thing. Grey tells Ana that “all her worries would go away” and she won’t have to think about whether “an action is right or wrong” if she submits to him. With respect to violence and BDSM during sex, Grey frequently says, and Ana accepts, that “this is how Grey is made”.  Grey, from the start, exercises and maintains control over Ana using food. He is constantly forcing Ana to eat, even when she is not hungry. He attempts from the start to control how much she eats and what she eats. Grey’s pathology regarding food is perhaps a textbook indication that he is an Abuser. A further example of the maintainable of control is over Ana’s car. Grey buys her the new car, making her give her old car to him for him to control the sale, but then does not allow Ana to drive her car and constantly criticizes her driving, undermining her confidence when she is behind the wheel, until she pulls up and lets him drive. Ana believes it is her choice to let him drive, but it is obvious Grey has manipulated Ana into relinquishing the control of the vehicle. The same pattern is repeated over and over in other aspects of the couple’s relationship.

    Ana worries constantly that she will not be able able to please/appease him, and modifies her own behaviour constantly to keep Grey comfortable. Grey never takes responsibility for his own hurtful, unreasonable, or downright dangerous behaviour; he puts it all down to is abusive childhood. Ana is constantly worried that her behaviour is upsetting Grey, and Grey constantly keeps her off balance with volatile and moody reactions. Ana quickly becomes dependent on Grey, modifying her behaviour to please him – an impossible task, since he moves the goal posts continually, keeping her off-balance. Grey manipulates Ana into believing that she “likes it rough”, and that she is in control, when in fact she has no control in the relationship. We know this is also a temporary concession, as the abuse clearly follows a line of escalation which will mean Ana will eventually not be able to say no to anything Grey wants to do. Grey allows Ana (temporarily) to say no to certain sexual acts in order to maintain the illusion that Ana is in control and gain her trust. In reality, this concession means that Grey’s rapid acquisition of control over Ana’s entire life (not just her sex life) goes unnoticed or unrecognized for what it is.

    Grey exercises an appalling level of control over his former Submissive, another victim, with the assistance of his rather sinister psychiatrist friend, Dr Flynn (who also encourages Ana to marry Grey while admitting his life would be “penurious” without Grey’s patronage). Leila Wilson has been clearly damaged by her relationship with Grey, (again, Grey shifts responsibility for her trauma onto other men in her life) and rather than call the police when she begins to stalk Ana (since this would mean exposure for Grey) he uses his influence to have her forcibly sectioned, “for her own good” and then pays for her hospitalization and art therapy in exchange for her silence and promise to stay on the other side of the continent. In Leila’s story we get a grim glimpse into Ana’s future. Grey insists on not having a pre-nuptual agreement to protect his wealth, and Ana takes this to mean the ultimate level of trust. We know better. She’ll be in a straightjacket and stated under Dr Flynn’s (and therefore Grey’s) control before she can get to a divorce lawyer, or the woman’s shelter. 

What, then, are we to make of all this? As a society, as women, are we being conditioned to accept coercive control as normative in our relationships? If yes, then we are at risk, and most importantly, our children are risk as well. If we do not notice it happening to us, will we notice it happening to our daughters?

We do not pay enough attention to the fact that our society’s toleration grooming activities of serial abusers towards adult women also points to the tacit acceptance of the abuse an exploitation of children. These are the same patterns of coercive control which are clearly evident in EL James’ novels, which are presented to the public for entertainment and titillation. I think we need a serious discussion on the kind of entertainment we are consuming and what ideas we are being fed. My concern is that the mainstream acceptance and even glorification of James’ portrayal of grooming will put generations of women and children at risk by normalizing and glorifying grooming and coercive control. 

Given this,   I cannot help but come to the conclusion that the 50 Shades trilogy rank as some of the most evil and dangerous books ever written.   I do not say that the 50 Shades books are evil because I am a moral reactionary. I am not channelling Mary Whitehouse.  These are novels which hold up relationship abuse and coercive control as a romantic ideal. Just clicking on the Amazon reviews one sees women gushing about how nice it is to read about a “real man” and how they wished their own intimate lives mirrored that of Christian and Ana’s. Well, Christian Grey is a real man, his personality is the archetype of the Abuser.  Just ask any relationship or child abuse survivor, and she’ll tell you how terrifyingly real Christian Grey is.  These books are dangerous precisely  because of their commercial success and mainstream appeal.   It is not the ridiculous graphic sex scenes, idiotic dialogue, and poor writing which make these books inherently immoral, but the fact that their mainstream acceptance has,     in the words of  English psychotherapist  Sean Orford, “set the cause of women back a century”.     

Unfortunately, 50 Shades is only going to be the first in storm of diabolical books focusing on the erotic conditioning and control of women as every publisher of women’s fiction in the Western Hemisphere jumps on the BDSM/erotica bandwagon.

And by their very nature; they shall be Legion.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | June 10, 2012

Check out music from Shiv

Posted by: scottishboomerang | June 1, 2012

The Maurading North American Penis and Other Myths Part 1

This week I felt I had been transported back in time to those questionable, ethnocentric 1950s public information propaganda of Britain and North America warning white women about the dangers of the “lusty negro”, when a friend sent me an astonishing “documentary” by South Korean broadcaster MBC regarding the “victims of foreigners”: Korean women who had abandoned all propriety and taken up with the Foreigner, only to be used and abandoned. By Foreigners, the documentary-makers clearly did not mean the legion of foreign brides from China and South East Asia that now make up a forth of marriages to Korean men; for such women are stripped of their foreign identity and given Korean names.  They meant, to the exclusion of all other ethnicity, the White North American Male.  One gets the impression from watching the video that were the colour of the targeted group different, and in a different local, the documentary makers would be urging the populous to don white sheets and burn a few crosses.

White North American Males have, in recent years, been recruited in droves from North America to fuel the insatiable (ahem) demand for native speakers of English to bring up Korea’s children. The result was perhaps predictable. What Korea wanted (in theory) was young dynamic, highly educated men and women from the West who could help Korea’s future business generation communicate with Korea’s export markets, but what they got, (given that prior 2007 no background checks were required, and no value was attached to actually having an interest in education or teaching qualifications), was the Cream of the Crap. Most came to party; and party they did. A few were downright dangerous.

For the most part, as these young men were in their twenties and early thirties, they were hardly the settling, marrying kind, and Korea provided for them an endless party of cheep booze and more than willing dates. Nor did Korea particularly want them to marry and settle. They wanted them to work for a couple of years and then go home. Any relationships and friendships they formed with the local populations would be, by their very nature, as fleeting as the sojourn.  Most  of the young men I met in Korea were there to party and make money to pay off university debts and save a little to see the rest of Asia. For the most part, at the weekends they did a young people are wont to do, which is to seek agreeable company.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I find the somewhat mercenary “use and discard” attitude morally wrong, and distressing to observe, but you can find that anywhere, East or West. I also did not particularly like the attitude some of these men threw out at western women there, who had a much harder time socially than western men. However, I cannot deny that while these men were in search of agreeable company there seemed no shortage of young Korean women willing to agree.

This documentary is obviously a collection of Confucian fears and phobias surrounding not only the increase in migrant populations in Korea but also to globalization. Korea is attempting as a nation to overcome in a few decades three millennia of cultural isolationism. Foreigners in Korea have usually come to dominate, rape, and pillage, or, in the case of the American military, occupy politely, and I have a certain degree of admiration for a people who have raised their country up from ashes to be a major global player.

However, what is clear to anyone who sits up and takes notice in Korea is that Confucianism is not at the deepest core of what it means to be Korean. Under the Confucian layer is the shamanism (mudang), and the shaman is always bound up with female authority. This is why, I believe, that Confucian patriarchy was so strong – it was in part a reaction to the stronger expressions of female indigenous spirituality and community life. It is also a reason why the Korean matriarch – the adjuma – is such a strong character. I do get the impression that the matriarchal phenomenon has a most uneasy truce with the Confucian values. It is something older, deeper, and stronger than Confucius. That said, the condition of women in Confucian value systems is unenviable.

Korean Women and Western men who date are often seeking a pastishe or sexual mythology of the other. The women is seeking a man who will not attempt to dominate and keep her in a carefully bound Confucian place. She is seeking the freedom, in a sense, of the pre-Confucian model of Korean femininity. She is seeking a man who will support and free her from the vice-like grip of contemporary expectations of the domestically-martyred Korean housewife. The supreme irony is that the Western man she dates is often seeking a more traditional model of femininity, the sweet, submissive, pliant Asian lover which he believes has been lost in the West. It is no surprise that if his encounters ever develop in to something more serious, when a North American man is confronted with his Korean girlfriend’s the inner Shaman – the powerful adjuma – these relationships can flounder on the rocks of mismatched expectation.

This documentary is not just a manifestation of racist fears surrounding the Marauding North American Penis. It is also a an attempt at resurrecting Confucian of control over Korean women, who, in spite of the stigma attached to dating foreign men, and the stigma attached to the female divorcee, are choosing to walk away from abusive relationships, control and institutionalised patriarchy, and determine their own destiny. Dating a foreign man out purely to party may not be the best or wisest way of doing it, but then again, wisdom is almost always a casualty of our late teens and early twenties no matter where we are.

The fact remains that it sucks, oft times, to be a woman in Korea, and perhaps no one feels this more acutely than young Korean women, who are among the most educated, and ironically least powerful people in Korean society. The problem is not the Marauding American Penis. The “problem” is the collective failure to value and respect 50% of the Korean population.

Wasn’t it cool they built the castle next to the railway?: Or why we need historians, not economists.

Perhaps unfairly, the image of the American tourist in Europe is one of a person separated from history to the extent that they think that everything old is the same age. Hence the urban myth of the American who exclaims, upon sighting an 800 year old castle next to a 100-year old railway line, “gee, wasn’t it cool they built the castle next to the railway so they could get supplies in?”

I’ve found Americans travelling in Europe never so ignorant, but I am lamenting the fact that we, in Britain, are becoming so divorced from any historical narrative that such a myth could now well apply to many Brits under the age of 40. History has died a death as an academic discipline. It’s useless learning, after all. We need mathematicians, scientists, engineers, economists, business people, bankers. We don’t need historians. And so History, as a subject, and as a concept, has been buried in a pauper’s grave of everything we consider irrelevant to our modern lives. Schools drop it from the subjects they offer, and soon, very soon, there will be no public funding for History (or any liberal arts subjects, in British universities). Not even the History Channel or Yesterday Channel will take up the slack, with their relentless focus on tank movements in World War II (after all, there’s lots of footage so programmes can be made cheaply. Roman costumes cost more).

The trouble is that it is the failure to “get” history which has allowed those economics and finance majors to wreck our economy and plunge us into the worst depression since the 1930s. We are in the worst depression since the 1930s, ironically, because we failed to remember the lessons of 1930s banking: do not let your bankers police themselves. Had we had history majors in charge, the financial crisis might well have been avoided.

If we do not take an interest in history we lose our place in the Great Narative, but most importantly, we become easily controlled and manipulated, and like the proverbial mushroom, easily kept in the dark and fed bullsh*t. The death of a people’s history – their self-narative, is a commonality which precedes genocide. Without our history we  are lost.

We become that ignorant tourist, unable to see the historical context or significance of any event, that the railway is younger than the castle, that the Apocryphal Gospel of St Thomas was written between 200-400 years after the birth of Christ, whereas St Luke’s gospel was written within living memory (why then the Da Vinci Code-Type speculation about which one is more likely to be accurate?), or that letting your financiers do what they want is a crap idea. We lose the lessons we have learned about sacrificing freedom for security.

Of course, the death of History is good for Authority. Authority hates historians, in the same way it hates storytellers, artists and poets, as the truth, with these individuals, will out, always. Always first against the wall, they are, come the ideological purge.

This too, a lesson from a history many now will never know.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | June 12, 2011

Negocios Blancos: The Great Scottish Drugs Rant

A few years ago on a trip to the Colombian interior, I spent a few days in Medellin. In case you are wondering why this is significant, is this was once the home of one of the most infamous Colombian drugs barons, Pablo Escobar; where he once lived and was once revered. His memory is both blessed and cursed, depending on who you are and who you listen to. We were preparing dinner when it became obvious, from the scent wafting over the next door neighbours wall, that someone next door had lit a blunt the size of a traffic cone. I joked and said the smell made me homesick.

The truth of the matter is that that was about as close to drugs as I got while in Colombia (not that I went looking). But here, well, I’m not even in the scene and every time I drive through the housing scheme on the outskirts of the Carrickshire town nearest to the farm where I’m currently staying, I know where the drugs deals are going down. I know that that BMW with Polish plates has something interesting the trunk. I know that the call box on the corner is where you dial for your stash delivery. If I know, the local authorities have to know as well. I never saw one drug deal in Baranquilla go down in broad day light. Ditto for the time I spent in central Mexico. But in my home town? Candy central, mate.

I don’t care that there’s no proof. Something is rotten in Carackshire, and the Cartels have to be paying someone off in Scotland. I’m convinced that my home county has a bigger drugs problem than most inner cities. It stinks, and what it chiefly stinks of is smack and crack. How in the name of all that’s holy did THAT happen? We’ve only got 300,000 people in the county and 4 million in the entire country. Since when did my sweet, beloved Caledonia become the drugs mecca of Europe?

Once upon a time, in Mexico (its a long story), I remember going to watch a movie and being struck by a public information “commercial”, encouraging people to resist paying municipal official sbribes. I remember thinking that if this level of honesty and openness continues, it will soon be the the case that Mexico will outstrip other countries in dealing with corruption in its many meretricious forms. But Mexico’s misfortune is that it borders the USA, and the cartels need to get their drugs there somehow, and what everyone knows in Latin America is that there there is a proportional relationship between how much drugs you have lying around your jurisdiction and how corrupt the public authorities are. Well, we have a lot of drugs here in Scotland, boys, what does that say about you?

I returned to Carrickshire (this place does not really exist, I’m too afraid of the local police to actually name the county,) Scotland in 2011 after some ten years living and working in several countries, to find the cartels had moved in, set up shop, and throwing parties day and night. Eastern demons like heroin and western demons like cocaine all found eager worshippers in my country which has suffered years of economic depression even when more affluent parts of the UK were in the “boom times”. In rural Carrickshire, the nineties and noughties were trapped in bust-bust cycles where whole communities had not worked since Thatcher closed the mines in the 1980s. Simple pickings then, for the cartels and triads, who engaged in direct marketing to children outside the school gates, while the police (they must have known, everyone else did) did nothing.

Boredom, despair and lack of social and economic opportunity made fertile ground for addiction. The result was a lost generation who have been out of their faces since their early teens, and now, in their twenties and thirties, have never worked and never will. The local special care baby unit resounds day and night with the terrible, heart-wrenching cries of premature babies born addicted to drugs and undergoing withdrawal within hours of birth. My country is addicted. My country also produces drugs. In the nearest town to me, recently featured in an infamous TV Documentary, the drugs trade seems to be just about the only economic activity taking place.

Now, speaking from experience, having worked in some of the world’s top narco-economies, no country in the world can do this without there being really significant corruption somewhere in the police, judiciary and border/customs agencies. Becoming one of Europe’s top producers doesn’t happen by accident. So when we hear of Scotland becoming an exporter of drugs, this means that the narcoeconomy has become established to such an extent that the national anthem to be sung at all Scotland-England football matches may as well be “Because I got high!” (Flower of Scotland doesn’t quite have that islande beat).

Whereas there is a certain level of honesty in places like Mexico and Colombia, Scotland is in denial about the extent to which her public authorities may be involved in the narcotics trade (and people smuggling, the two are nearly always done by the same criminal gangs, something to think about next time an honourable Sheriff is discovered going down “for a shave” at the local massage parlour). The fact the Cartels are here at all is a litmus test for corruption. Someone, somewhere, is on the take.

Coupled with the exponential increase in drugs and people trafficking, the police and Scotland are so ridiculously pathetic, you have to wonder what’s really going on under those official tables. When anyone with eyes and ears could point out where the drugs are being sold, and where its common knowledge in the area that our local airport is a soft touch on people traffickers (hint, for the Scottish Government – that means someone is being paid to turn a blind eye or are just too stupid to see what’s going on, because they got the job because their Uncle Jimmy worked there).

Vamos, Escocia, try harder, before we’re buried under a mountain of snow no Met Office warning can predict. If I wanted to live in a corrupt narcoeconomy, I’d move back to Baranquilla – better weather, better food, cuter guys (who can dance) and you have the outside chance of meeting an honest cop. Vale!

Rant over.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | February 7, 2010

Why the Home Secretary needs a right good spanking at the polls.

He’s a naughty boy, and he took over from a naughty girl.

This week saw a former registrar of the University of Bath, Karl Woodgett, convicted of the offence of “conspiracy to create false instruments” – create fake degrees in return for sexual favours from two Cameroonian women.

The fact that the UK Border agency was prosecuting suggests that these women were illegal in the United Kingdom. Mr Woodgett escaped a jail sentence and proved that there is one law for a British Citizen caught committing this kind of offence, and one law for Foreign Nationals. Those of us who work in refugee and human rights law know full well that had Mr Woodgett been of a non- EU background, he would have been given an automatic sentence of 12 months with automatic deportation at the end of it.

 Well, say the righteously minded readers of the Daily Mail, foreigners who come here and commit crimes deserve harsh prison sentences and automatic deportation. Except of course that it is a fundamental principle of our democracy and the rule of law that everyone is entitled to a fair hearing and equitable treatment by the courts.

 Consider the following conundrum. You are a middle class Iranian student involved in Iran’s Green Movement. The Basij militia have arrested your friends and raped and tortured them in prison. You know it’s only a matter of time before they come for you. So, with the help of your family, you contact the shadowy network of transporters and agents to get you to a safe Northern European country. It is these agents who decided where you are going. You travel to Turkey overland, where you meet with the Agent who gives you your plane tickets to the UK and a fake Portuguese ID. You know to claim asylum as soon as you land to the first Immigration Officer you see. At Immigration in Heathrow you present your card and state it is fake. You state your real name, nationality, and reason for coming to the UK and ask for protection from the British government.

What you didn’t know was that under the UK Borders Act 2007 the Labour Government, hoping to boost the number of foreigners it could deport automatically from these shores (regardless of their reasons for coming) had created the offence of using a false instrument (essentially a fake ID or passport), which carries an automatic 12 month custodial sentence.

 The harshness of this sentence means that our genuine refugee faces the prospect of, having fled a regime which wanted to imprison him, being banged up in a British jail on arrival, and face deportation proceedings at the end of his sentence, all for coming here and seeking our protection under the Refugee Convention. The same refugee coming overland hiding a lorry will, on arrival, be accommodated immediately and dealt with under the Asylum System.

 An immigration officer screens you and takes details of your asylum claim. Then he tells you that “the asylum matter has been dealt with” and the duty criminal defence solicitor – who often knows nothing about refugee law, and you are placed under police caution (which in the UK does not involve the right to remain silent). Your solicitor tells you to make no comment during the following police and criminal evidence interview, which is then used by the Home Office to prosecute you for using a fake id.

 You do not realise that you are having two sets of interviews for two areas of law, and so the refugee defense is never raised in the criminal matter, neither at the PACE interview, nor later at court (your defence solicitor tells you to plead guilty, not realising or caring that this will involve you being held in a prison long after your Release date has passed in Immigration Detention) and before you know it, the doors of Her Majesty’s Prison close behind you. Your asylum matter never comes to light, and having fled unjust imprisonment in Iran, you find that the British State has finished the job for the Iranian authorities.

 Our jails are full of foreign national prisoners who have been imprisoned for false document offences. Using a false document to work in the UK is not viewed as harshly as entering the country on one, conspiracy to make false documents should be the greater offence attracting the higher sentence, but rarely does. No, the outrage of the British state is reserved for those who dare to enter on false documents at airports, where refugees are rarely allowed, or given the opportunity, to rely on the allowed defence of being in need of International Protection.

 We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. But, if we are incapably of feeling shame, compassion or sympathy for refugees treated in this way, we can at least consider that we cannot afford this system. If you wonder why the delinquents who stole your car and chucked bricks through your window have not been arrested and brought to trial, it could be because our criminal justice system is clogged up and unable to cope with the barrage of invented strict liability offences dreamed up by Whitehall mandarins to boost their deportation statistics.

 If you wonder why our prisons are overcrowded and why we need to build more, we might want to consider that a good many detained there do not need to be there. It costs a few grand a year to accommodate an asylum seeker in the community under the National Asylum Support frame work. To place the same person in prison costs upwards of 40,000. These people are no danger to the public, they are unlikely to reoffend, and have not sought to deceive anyone. It is no surprise that in the prisons that I and my colleagues visit, the majority of those on suicide and self harm watch are foreign nationals.

 But the thing that jars most of all this the case I mentioned at the start of this article. Here we have a white, British, professional, in a position of trust, who uses his position to lure and then exploit desperate women into satisfying his sexual proclivities. The judge considers that he has lost everything, his job, marriage, professional reputation etc, but I wonder how much his victims have lost in comparison? Have they lost their liberty? Their families? Their dignity went a long time ago, because the fate of women who are brought in or who enter the UK illegally often involves exploitation of the worst order.

 I wonder, knowing what I do, where those Cameroonian women are now. I wonder if these girls might not be on SASH watch in some prison or detention centre somewhere. It would not surprise me, for I suspect that, for using a false instruments, they will have been prosecuted under the full force of the 2007 Act and may be in prison as I write along with the thousands of others who do not need to be there and whose imprisonment we should feel heartily ashamed about.

 So while our white, male dominated legal system lets Mr Woodget off with a Carry On style wink wink nudge nudge, a snigger here and there, we might want to meditate on the thousands who are languishing at our expense and with our consent, and for which we are responsible – including genuine Refugees and victims of trafficking, forced labour, and sexual exploitation.

We can argue that it is the centralised system which is cruel and inflexible, not those who run it, or who pay for it through their taxes, or consent to its abuse. To my mind the imprisonment of so many who do not justly deserve to be there smacks of obvious and deliberate government policy. It will not be, but it should be, a scandal, but no one cares because who cares about a bunch of illegals? We do not call them Refugees of course. We call them clandestines, or illegals.

 I cast my mind back to Oscar Wilde’s comments on the Criminal Justice System in his letters to the Daily Chronicle. Evil is not usually the perverse form of egoism typified by your Hitlers and Osmas. Ordinary evil is simply stupidity, and wherever you have centralisation, and bureaucracy, we have stupidity. Right now, I think we would be hard pushed to find a government organisation which fitted Wilde’s definition of ordinary evil more than the Home Office.

But of course one get’s laughed at when one uses the word “evil” in legal circles. So let’s just leave it that Labour’s Home Scretary is a naughty boy for tolerating these serious abuses of fundemental liberty in our name, just like his predecessor – that naughty girl who bought porn for her husband with taxpayers money – and what they need is some discipline themselves.  Although  I confess I am sceptical that a Tory Home Scretary would care enough to end the injustice, expense, and abuses of this current administration.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | January 24, 2010

Distance Learning or a Distance Con?

With Baby Boomerang on the way, the Scottish Boomerang was desperately trying to finish her legal Continuing Professional Development before going off on Maternity Leave. CPD is mandatory for all kinds of lawyers, the idea being that one keeps one’s legal knowledge current enough to advise clients. In my line of work – refugee, human rights and immigration law – our companies will sponsor away days for us to make up our 15 hours of core learning a year, or we can do the free online “distance” learning set by our regulator, the Office of the Immigration Service Commissioner, the body whose job it is to oversee quality in immigration advice and representation. They are the people who will take away my licience to practice if I don’t log my CPD hours.

A little short of my CPD hours, and owing to my advanced state of pregnancy which precluded trips to London for courses, I decided to do the online course. Selecting “Gender and Immigration Law” (there was nothing useful on the website, such as an update on the New 2009 Borders Act) I duly watched the presentation slides and then did the test at the end.

Only four of the questions in a 20 question test related to the subject matter studied. The rest were a mismatch of entry level questions with no relation to the learning objectives of the course. This online module had been billed as “advanced” level study, yet here was an example of one of the questions (anyone working in Human Rights law in Britain is familiar with the case of Shah and Islam, whereby the court held that women without the support of male family members could continute a particular social group in need of Refugee Protection:

Q What was the name of the major case regarding woman as a particular social group in English law? Was it:

A. Shah and Islam

B. Islam and Islam

C: Islam and Shah

D: Islam and Islam

The worry is of course that time pressed independent immigration representatives are using the OISC’s site to make up their CPD hours, especially when face to face away days with experts can cost over £400 per day, and are nearly aways held in London, trebling the cost for a legal rep based at the other end of the country. There is simply no real teaching, learning, or assessment going on, so its hardly surprising that quality in the immigration sector remains low. A second worry is that the OISC had actually commissioned the modules from the Open University, which normally has a good reputation for distance courses.

When we contacted the OISC regarding this we were informed that the questions and testing methods were being reviewed.

The problem with distance based legal education is not, however, confined to the OISC. Last year I started a distance Graduate Diploma in Law with Holborn College (and, yes, you will see I am naming and shaming here). What was billed as “distance learning” – perfect for working professionals, overseas students, or parents who could not make the long trip to London for classes, it was clearly marketed as the distance solution for working professionals.

We did have the option of treking to Greenwich every weekend to attend the lectures face to face. And the lectures, poached from other reputable GDL providers such as the College of Law, were very good when you actually got some teaching from them. As ever, the problem was the course delivery, for if you could not actually physically attend the course – the reason why most of us were on the distance GDL in the first place – the “teaching” consisted of:

  1. Do the reading.
  2. Download the homework worksheet.
  3. Do the worksheet based on what you have read
  4. The lecture marks the worksheet and emails it back to you.
  5. Submit course assignments in the same way.

Unsurprisingly, the pass mark for the GDL for that particular institution is very low, and the drop out rate high, especially for people like me, who in addition to having to earn my fee targets had to also wrestle with a useless course, for which they charged me £5000 for the privilege of being on. I cut my losses, but they will never give me my money back. Fortunately, I had paid them only half the money.

But is the con – for want of a better word, confined to the teaching of law? Sadly no. Several relatives and friends on distance courses from the UK and the USA begging for help, extra tutoring, advice on how to negotiate with their “providers” (Since the concept of university or further education has actually died a death).

These people have paid good money expecting a decent standard of teaching, or in the case of Mr Boomerang, his company has. Mr Boomerang’s engineering diploma – run by Manchester College – is done in the usual inefficient, teacher-deficient worksheet way, with no actual teaching going on apart from a very occasional away day.  Un surprisingly, he isn’t learning anything and is constantly worried abouthe course, and will have to spend additional money for a private tutor t provide the teaching that should be a contractual requirement for the provider.

Another friend, a teacher in Korea who is doing a distance BA in Education complains frequently of a lack of academic support, clear instructions or guidance from his tutors. Again, death by downloadable worksheet is the norm.

So what should we have the right to expect from a distance or online provider?

Here are some tips for the wayward institutions, which they should know, but to be honest haven’t got through their heads yet.

  1. Distance Learning CANNOT take place without Distance Teaching. Your students MUST be able to attend lectures, either virtually or in person. This means you must use the ample technology available – even if this is just Flash Presentation, Youtube, and Facebook, Podbean for downloadable podcasts – to deliver your course material. The technology is there, free and easy to use with the minimum of effort, though you may wish to actually spend some money for a proper distance learning management tool such as Flextraining.
  2. Distance Learning can reach more students at the same time, but the number of students per tutor is exactly the same as a face to face course. You cannot get around this.
  3. A worksheet and a textbook is not a substitute for a teacher.
  4. Your learning programme should contain scenarios based in the real world and worked examples in the form of videos. Employ some struggling actors. Make it fun, engaging, and your pass rate will go up. But at the very least, video stream your lectures.
  5. Clearly relate ANY worksheet or assessment you DO set to the learning objectives and the course content.

Done well, the distance model can be as good, and even better, than face to face because it allows for student flexibility and the complex needs of learners who have to combine learning with a job and a family. It also can allow, if planned well, for the demonstration of practical examples which may not be possible in a traditional classroom or lecture theater. However, though it may be cheaper to run in the long term, a distance course requires the same budget to set up and develop as a traditional face to face course, and requires IT literacy on the part of the provider and the lecturer. Not much, but some.

If the course does not contain the following as a BARE minimum

– streamed lectures or at least downloadable lectures.

– video or animated casestudies and worked examples showing the principle in action.

– lecture notes and revision notes in downloadabke podcast form

– real time, online tutorial groups with your tutor, or a face to face equivlant.

– clear self study material, either downloadable or published,-

– an online discussion forum which is tutor lead

– clear deadlines for submission of coursework, proper exam timetables.

Then it is most probably not worth it. It IS possible to achieve a high pass rate no matter how busy your students are, so the following are not excuses

– Our students are bad at disciplining their time due to work and family committments. Our high fail rate is due to this.

– We dont have the money or technical know-how to stream lectures. (If a 15 year old can stream from his bedroom, YOU can stream from a lecture hall!).

– etc etc

Sheer laziness and desire to collect as much money with the bare minimum of impute – down with learning plc!

Good examples of an online distance model are few and far between, but are found in some unlikely places. In the legal field I was impressed by the flexibility and level of interaction between distance students and the teaching staff at Abraham Lincoln School of Law in California ( THAT’S what I expected from Holborn, geddit!) where students can attend streamed lectures online, real time, in person if they live in California, or if the cannot make the lecture, download it at a later date.

Another would be Oxford University Press Korea’s online ESL teacher training for ESL teachers working on the peninsula. This involved viewing a lecture based on theory, then a classroom based example to see the teaching methods in action., and then completing a question. I did this alongside my LLM I was studying because I had to teach to support myself and, having originally trained to teach adults, was finding myself in front of young children. Applied immediately in the classroom, my teaching practice noticably improved, and was well worth the $50 USA I spent for it. I would recommend study of this – for anyone teaching languages to children or teenagers, and anyone wanting to set up an online course of any description.

For languages, Rosetta Stone’s online method works very well, especially as a compliment to a formal class.

Until then, if you need to do a distance course, make sure you check out EXACTLY how much structured teaching time there is on it, and whether the provider has invested anything in the course development beyond drawing up worksheets. Delivery is as important as content!

And if they are not doing their job, demand your money back. Otherwise even government accredited courses are little more than a distance con.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | June 27, 2009

Going bonkers about burkhas

This grim joke from 2001 sets the tone for the West's view of burkas, but in reaility our antipathy to face covering is thousands of years old...

This grim joke from 2001 sets the tone for the West's view of burkas, but in reaility our antipathy to face covering is thousands of years old...

As I mediate on the recent comments of the French president on Islamic dress – I recall a grimly amusing cartoon which circulated the Internet shortly after 9/11 entitled “if the Taleban win”, showing the Statue of Liberty shrouded in an Afghan Bukha I recall it, I suppose because this now most American of icons was originally French, and M. Sarkozy’s comments appealed directly to those republican and secular principles of liberty, equality and fraternity which are etched upon the French psyche. It is also an anathema that any British politician, products of the failures of multiculturalism and lilly-livered in the face of vocal (but not necessarily representative) minority interest groups, should utter such opinions. It starts of course with a proper understanding of what is commanded by Islam, not how that command that women should dress modestly and cover her arms and legs, and her head during religious observance, is interpreted by the various cultures which have informed its development.

We should begin any examination of islamic dress in western society with the recognition of how very little we in the west actually know about Islamic dress and why it has evolved in the way it has. We need to have proper understanding of why certain Islamic dress offends so much in our culture. Few westerners, it seems, have bothered to gain anthropological insight to our own customs, and so we lack understanding and the ability to communicate when trying to explain why a particular act offends so much.

We cannot articulate why we feel offended, and so those who have offended continually miss our point. In addition, in our hurry to embrace multiculturalism in all its flawed but faded glory, we miss the point that there are as many facets and hues to global Islam as there are to Christianity. In addition, many Muslims in Britain cannot see the forest for the trees – there is a perception that nothing we wear can cause cultural offense in this permissive and open society.

This is not so. Our cultural memory is a long one – though we may not realise it. The antipathy or, at the very least, ambiguity towards masks is hundreds, if not thousands of years old, and it always associated with evil, sickness, wrongdoing, or, at the very least, “naughtiness” in western culture. In  ancient festivals masks were worn to either confuse the devil or to make hooking up in illicit affairs easier – think of those naughty early modern venetician masquerades.

These masked ladies and their lovers are flirting and being naughty - veiling or masking in western culture indicates wrongdong rather than virtue.

These masked ladies and their lovers are flirting and being naughty, while men gamble in the background - veiling or masking in western culture indicates wrongdong rather than virtue.

Not long ago respectable married women were expected to wear hats or scarves in public. We still have nuns who wear the veil, and as far as our cultural memory stretches there has never been any problem with women wearing something on her head, especially in Christian religious observance. So religious head-coverings per se cannot be the reason why we go bananas about burkhas. It is neither the hijab, which covers the head, or the chador or abaya which covers the head and the body, which offends western (and specifically British) so much.

It is the naqab – the veiling of the face which pricks at the very spinal chord of our cultural memory. In western civilization, hiding your face is tantamount to deceiving and lying, our earliest fears and folk memory is articulate in the form of the masked marauder, the bandit who robs and cheats and steals. In the past only lepers, and historically only those enaged in clandestine behaviour such as spying or extra martial affairs – indeed the moral opposites of what the burkha is culturally designed to do – covered their faces. There are few positive cultural connotations to masks or face coverings in western civilization. The demons,  sinners  and sickness ride masked, in our folklore.

In the east, a veil hides beauty, in the west, disfigurement and disease.

In the east, a veil hides beauty, in the west, disfigurement and disease.

Having lived and worked in many cultures – including strictly Islamic ones – I know that the expression of my identity and femininity – and my cultural values – must change when I visit or live in other nations. I know I cannot conform long term to the customary expectations of certain countries and so I choose not to live in them, turning down otherwise lucrative and promising offers of employment. And I certainly know that when I visit other countries I am not exactly free to dress how I choose.

Wearing flowers in my hair (yes, I do!) is fine in Colombia, but signifies madness or loose sexual morals in Korea. I cannot wear shorts or sleeveless tops in certain parts of Asia. In addition, I must be mindful of my actions – I must eat with my right hand only in many Muslim and African countries and I absolutely cannot show the soles of my feet, lest I offend in the deepest possible way. Baring this in mind, I have worn the hijab and even the naqab/chador in Northern India, not because I had to but because doing so caused the least offense and enabled a fuller enjoyment of the society. In northern India I can move more freely alone in a Burkha – I attracted less attention and those unpleasant gangs of youths who would otherwise cause problems for me as a solo female traveler barely noticed me. Of course, I would much rather move around in a society where young men show a measure of maturity and do not target lone women, but one has to take the societies of the country one lives and works in as one finds them – embarking on a single-handed feminist crusade in India’s north-west  is unwise in terms of personal safety and in terms of general diplomacy every wise traveler should employ.

Likewise, those who would wear the naqab in this culture should be aware that when they do so they cause offense to our cultural sensibilities on such a deep level that the British can barely articulate it. You cannot hide your face in this culture without causing the deepest offense. It is as offensive – and as unthinkable to the western mind – as wearing a bikini in a mosque, an equivalent to showing the soles of your feet deliberately to everyone you meet in Saudi Arabia or Thailand. I do not believe we have the same revulsion to the hijab or chador – we have long had our historic equivalents and we are by in large a tolerant and accepting lot. Every culture will place limitations on how we dress, and when we move between cultures we must adapt.

Now to the most scurrilous accusations that the naqab oppresses women. This ignores the many reasons why women wear it, including vanity (I am so beautiful I would drive men mad were I to display my beauty) and the desire to display ones wealth and status (see, we are rich, I have servants to do my shopping for me, I am rich enough to enage in full purdha – the poor woman cannot ) in certain parts of the world, as well as the more well known ones of trying to fulfill the commands of ones faith.  I would say that we should beware of blanket world-wide condemnation of the garment – although the connection between the abuse of women in certain cultures and the veiling of women’s faces is hard to ignore. In some circumstances, and in some countries, it may – and I stress the may – while we are waiting for men to become mature and civilized – confer a measure of security, freedom and autonomy which a woman otherwise might not have.

But not in this culture. In this culture , those who hide there faces cut themselves off from society, and plunges them into cycles of loneliness, isolation and dependence. They cause deep, undefinable cultural offense wherever they go. In this culture the naqab is oppressive to the woman who choose to wear it as any mask or face covering would cause, no matter the gender of the one who wears it.  However much it may suit a bedouin tribal life in the sands of Saudi, it does not suit in northern Europe. Which brings me to my last point. What is acceptable Islamic dress varies from country to country and culture to culture. The naqab is an Arab import to many countries, an expression of the strictest forms of Islamism (as opposed to Islam). Which brings me to my final point. Across the Islamic world an internal, sectarian battle similar to the Christian reformation is raging and burning. It has its heretics and martyrs, its inquisitions, its petty princes vying for power, its Tomas De Torquemdas and its St Francis of Assisis, its Bloody Marys and its Elizabeths. We in the West are almost incidental to this ideological conflict, though often, we are targeted in order to stimulate division in the Islamic world – 9/11 being the most potent example. What constitutes a “good Muslim” and which variety of Islam prevails is being decided in the battlefield and in a war of attraction, the prize being the hearts and minds of the Islamic world. The outcome of all these internal ideological battles is still unclear. The whole issue of the naqab should be viewed in that context – far a more subtle, more complex, and more far reaching that perhaps Monsieur Sarkozy – or those in Britain who secretly share his view – have yet to realize.

And that is why we go bonkers over burkas.

Posted by: scottishboomerang | June 23, 2009

Authority Hates Bloggers

CS Lewis, in The Four Loves, commented that Friendship irritates Authority because every group of friends is a direct challenge to it.  In the recent days two things have struck me. Firstly how the little groups of friends on Facebook and Twitter challenged and seriously weakened the Iranian regime, and secondly, how very much our own government, while lauding the brave souls who are risking their lives to log on, fear the internet, and more to the point, citizen journalism, to the extent that – with the sort of irony that writers everywhere dream about – the British courts rule that the name of the anonymous police blogger could be revealed.

The Times, that organ of the British establishment, yet part of the free press nonetheless,  while simultaneously voicing support for the hundreds of anonymous blockers writing from a certain country this week, have won a court case tripping a citizen journalist, writing under the nom de plum of Night Jack,  of the essential anonymity he needed to write; and his wordpress blog vanished as though it had never been.  Last week the British Courts struck a blow against freedom of expression in the same week that hundreds of bloggers and netizens have been arrested and detained.

Britain has too many CCTV cameras, but now the cameras are turned on State Actors. Our police were filmed tazing a man while he was on the ground, at the G20 protests, mobile phone footage showed a police officer cut a bystander down. He later died of a heart attack. All over the world, Authority fears those little groups of friends recording an watching their actions. How it hates those little stubborn fragments of freedom, which turns Authority’s spying cameras on those who abuse their power with the words “I can’t wait to get this on YouTube”.

I am disappointed with the Times. Shall we ask them to reveal the name of the Junior Barrister who writes the “fictious” law blog Baby Barrista?  Of course we won’t. The sort of political blogging that is most effective is effective because it comes from the inside – anonymity reveals the truth by protecting the identity of the correspondent, leaving him able to write more freely.

This is why the names of certain journalists from the established press present in countries in turmoil are not being named – to protect those journalists and their sources.

 The Times, in blinkered short-sightedness failed to see the new forms of citizenship blogging as real journalism, providing insight into  worlds which are  shadowy and unexplored.  Their successful suit to reveal the name of this officer hurts freedom of speech and expression. No organ of the free press should have any business being involved in such an action.

Leave that to Authority, which, keen as it is to erode the checks and balances which ensure our freedoms and liberties, would have to make its case before our courts.

Authority serves itself. And because it does so those who wield it must check themselves, and balance it against what we will loose if the current trends in this society are taken to the wire.

Engineers, Technicians and tradesmen in the UK have a word for the endless and expensive credentials they need to ordinarily do their jobs. Things like Health and Safety certificates, and so forth. The government and academia likes to call these compulsory courses “continuing professional development” and “vocational qualifications”.  In industrial Britain, they are given a more honest colloquial title. They care called “tickets”. The name alone suggests both expense, and lack of progression if you don’t have one.

Next week sees the start of my graduate diploma in law (GDL), the law conversion course in English law without which I cannot become a solicitor. The Boomerang does things backwards, I went to Korea and got a legal masters in International Law before I did this, and I am already a legal rep for LovenJustice Ltd.  So the GDL – to use a trade term – is just a one “ticket” in a series of expensive tickets I need to be a solicitor or a barrister in the UK.

The GDL – which leads to the Common Professional Examination – is the ticket I am doing off my own bat.  And I am doing it entirely by online distance learning over one year, which, on top of my job as a legal rep will be a challenge.  Distance because the suffolk town that is now my home,  though an hour from London, is not really “an hour” – it’s more like “£30”- and also because I need the flexibility for my work,  which has all the long hours associated with solicitor’s work, but without the money.

The jury is still out as to whether it was the right decision to turn down the College of Law and go with them: their attitude so far reflects the money-grubbing culture that is pervasive in the South of England, but also the supreme sence of entitlement that goes along the lines of “you-should-be-positively-greatful-we-have-allowed-you-to-give-us-thousands-of-pounds-of your-money” – an attitude I have always found difficulty with.

In the days before the industrialisation of academia – before Thatcher’s policies turned our univerisites and colleges from centres of culture and learning into souless degree factories, this attitute was much less common, and as consequence, students saw themselves as students, not as consumers.  Consumers, though, we have become: not necessarily by choice, but by necessity, and that involves calling ones instution into question when they are not providing their advertised services. This increasing industrialization fueled by the current mania for credentials has turned the pursuit of higher learning from an intellectual pursuit into a purely economic one, the degree has turned into the”ticket”.

This cultural shift has seen the rise of the Student-As-Consumer. There are some students who think because they have paid the money at one end they should come out the other end with a degree, even if they are not very good at their chosen subject and did not work very hard during their course (or, in many cases, were too busy working to get money to survive).

The Universities have encouraged this by lowering the academic standards (and in the case of the foriegn students they fleece, the English standards) to get the students through the door while providing the barest minimum of academic support in return. Students are not getting the support the need, but many struggling students do not fit the “lazy” stereotype. Students are pressured, they are busy, they are working to make ends meet, and they have one shot at their degree, which will inevitably saddle them with thousands of pounds worth of debt. The lecturers and tutors – too few, of course, for the individual guidance and attention many students need at the start of their academic careers, are under pressure, and so get very lazy when setting coursework questions.

Enter the internet, and its not difficult to see how tempting it is for a struggling student to buy a custom written essay – all original work, perfectly referenced and the grief taken out. Its not difficult to see how their parents, watching their offspring struggle as they never had to struggle when they were students, to “help them out” by buying them a custom essay.  Traditional plagiarism was not difficult to spot.  Plagairism in the modern era is a multi-million pound high tech industry, and one step ahead of the over-stretched higher education sector. In spite of Academia’s protestations to the contrary, we know that many students who do this will never get caught.  Why? Because university resources for marking, assessment and feedback are already stretched too thin.

How can “providers”  spot plagerism of coursework when they don’t have the resources to offer student proper tuition and academic support in the first place? When, frankly, the universities are too lazy to set tasks of sufficient complexity and originality in the first place?  Or offer guidance and feedback prior to submission of coursework? Or, as is becoming increasingly apparent, where the tutors themselves are confused about what plagiarism is, and what it is not?

Which brings me to my current situation.  An essay question was set by my GDL “provider” – at this stage I am hesitating to use the word “university” or even “institution”, the due date of which conflicts with some professional exams I have to sit for my job.  The essay question seems simple enough – a discussion of the role of the Judiciary in the Common Law –  but I need to “front-load” it and wrote it before the start of the course so I would have time to prepare for the other ticket (without which I cannot continue in my job).

I wrote the first draft of the essay, and then submitted it to my course tutor, explaining why I have to submit the blessed thing early, asking him to look over it and suggest areas for improvement prior to the final submission.  Back comes an email from my tutor which reads – and here I am quoting directly –

Hello [Boomerang],

The introductory assignment is mean to be all your own work.

Well, I see a lot of stuff in my work which could win the WTF Award of the Week, but that one really took the biscuit. Here is my tutor – whose salary my (borrowed) money is paying, and who is supposed to be overseeing part of the developing of my legal career –  telling me that receiving guidance and feedback on drafts of coursework was a form of plagiarism.  He also treated me  – a seasoned academic and who has taught at tertiary levels – like a GSCE pupil who had asked the teacher to do their homework for them.  Actually, strike that. Teachers of GSCE and A-level law have considerably more respect for their students.

So now, I am, alas, primarily a consumer rather than a student. The GDL is just a ticket without which I cannot get on the train which will take me to my ultimate destination of being a solicitor.  I am not, though, one of those students who expects to pass  without working for it – however, if I apply my expensively educated brain to the task of gaining this qualification, and then fail because my “provider” isn’t actually providing the service, then thats another thing entirely.

The assertion that providing feedback and guidance (which I always understood to be the work of a university tutor) is plagiarism is either a deliberate attempt to fob me off to avoid doing the work of a university teacher, or woeful ignorance about what plagiarism is, and what it is not.  To be honest, I’m pushed to decide which is worse. I sat at the computer staring at my tutor’s email for a full five minutes with my mouth open.  I then made a mental note to blog it at the first opportunity. Complaining to the Provider will not help. Bad press – even if names are changed or omitted in the private interest – is perhaps the only negotiating tool we have.

Today I started polishing the draft which I got no feedback on.  While googling the rules of statutory interpretation I came across a site offering to do the essay for me and guaranteeing a 2:1.  Clearly inviting the desperate student to engage in academic fraud. It also offered another service of offering academic guidance on course work you had written yourself.  There is nothing academicaly dishonest about using that particular service. In fact, it was offering to do what ones tutor SHOULD be doing. This site was offering students exactly in my position a change to start down the Wide ‘n’ Easy road to Academic Hell. I wonder how many academically abandoned students have been pulled in like that?

I am confident my essay will pass as it is. (it had better, given that I actively sought, and was refused guidance pre-submission). But let’s say I wasn’t that confident? The GDL has put me in further debt by £5,000. I have one shot at it. I can’t afford to fail. I have a lot to lose, really.   And once through the door, having purchased a legitimate service, how much easier would it be just to make that extra click for an illegitimate one?

I consider myself to be a scholar and an intellectual, and possibly one of the last people in this country to have had a truly Socratic education.  I love learning, and believe that aside from the material benefits a good education can bring, that learning enriches your life in many intangible ways. The Degree Factory attitude has always depressed me, and struck me as ultimately counter-productive.

The current trends of high-tech plagiarism is a symptom, not the cause,  of the compromise in intellectual and spiritual aims of higher education: and students are not the ones to blame for it.  If we do not consider learning (and teaching, for that matter) to have some intrinsic benefit to our society, if your students are nothing but cash cows to milk, then whether their  minds, tastes or moral character are developed along the way is neither here nor there.  We are becoming one of the most credentialised societies in the world, but also intellectually impoverished, and completely amoral. That is manifesting itself in all sorts of unpleasant ways, not least in the rise in violence and dishonesty that we see. I am not an old lady to see the moral shift in our society in the last two decades (and I am only 30).

We don’t need no education. All we need are the tickets so we, or our employers, can tick boxes on a form. And since it does not matter much to Academia, or to those who set higher education policy, why should it matter to students how those tickets are procured?

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