Friday, 11 September 2009

History in our own image - Alan Turing

Alan Turing was a mathematician who became famous for his war-time work which helped to crack the "Enigma" codes that enabled coded German messages to be intercepted. He is considered the father of modern computer science. Recently he's been in the press for something else - the British Prime Minister has apologised for Turing's conviction in 1952 for gross indecency; gross indecency which was of the homosexual kind. You can read his apology in the Daily Telegraph, here.

I think this story gives many interesting insights into the contemporary UK. First, a few words about the way in which we look at the past.

To re-make the past in your own image, interpreting according to present (instead of past!) narratives is a universal trait. People with an agenda everywhere like to co-opt figures from the past to their cause. The convenient thing about doing so is that they're normally not around to contradict you. Thus, in the Prime Minister's "apology", above, Alan Turing is a proto-victim of "homophobia", a crime nobody knew existed until recent times. Gordon Brown writes that Turing was, "in effect", prosecuted for being gay. The record book, though, shows that Turing, a man about to turn 40, sodomised a teenager. An act which is morally reprehensible in any circumstances.

This then raises the question for me - who is Gordon Brown apologising on behalf of? Obviously not on behalf of himself, as he was only 1 year old at the time. Is it meant to be on behalf of the British people? Were the British people consulted on whether they agree that prosecuting a man for having sex with another man less than half his age is to be put in the same category as sending people to gas chambers, as Brown does? Or did we somehow license Mr. Brown to decide all such moral questions for us simply by the act of voting his party's MPs into a majority in the 2005 election? Was there something in the manifesto about a mandate to retro-apply trendy-new leftist-morals to previous generations and dish out this kind of thing?

No matter. A petition was presented to the PM asking for him to apologise, and as figures in power tend to do, he was happy to accept it as part of his legitimate domain. So, an apology it is. It's evident, though, that Mr. Brown's agenda in this apology is not really to apologise, but to suck up to the gay rights movement - or at least to persuade them he's on-side enough to keep the attack dogs off. (It's still a sore point for many that there's no homosexual marriage in the UK - the placing of "civil partnerships" for homosexuals only onto the statute books makes it clear that the law still views homosexual partnerships as inferior). Hence, the Prime Minister helpfully litters his arguments with an explanation of the acronym "LGBT" for unaware readers, uncritically re-gurgitates the story of Turing as a victim of "homophobia" (a recently invented word intended to intimidate people with legitimate and considered disagreements, tarring them with the brush of unthinking bigotry instead of giving a respectful hearing to them), flatly asserts that Turing committed suicide because of this "persecution" thus making him into some kind of martyr (though in fact Turing told nobody of any intention to commit suicide, left no note, and there is no actual proof that would stand up in court that he did commit suicide making it only a likelihood and not a certain truth), and then capping it off by including Turing in the same category as the victims of Nazi gas chambers.

Quite flattering to Turing, I'm sure - but a hideous insult to those who were involuntarily executed simply for being of the wrong race. That's the problem with seeking to boost someone's standing by analogy - it can drag down someone else's. If my grandma had been killed for her ancestry, I'd think I'd be quite miffed to have the PM spending his tax-payer funded time on writing about how she was no different to someone who (perhaps) decided to take his own life, which perhaps may have been related to failing to face up to the consequences of a conviction for brutalising a teenager.

It's part of a rhetorical strategy though, and this part of his speech was surely put together by someone with a fine-tuned ear to what the gay rights lobby wants to hear. In the UK today the people who really experience hatred and discrimination in this area are those who reject the position of the gay rights lobby - they're the ones likely to be losing their jobs especially in the public sector, or being pressurised to pipe down, or tarred as bigots ("homophobia!") if they don't. The gay rights people, though, want to forward their agenda by playing the victim card, a very powerful one in Western culture today regardless of how truthful the play is. If you can associate yourselves with those sent off to Belsen - well, then you surely deserve a whole barrel-load of new rights, regardless of the moral perversity of your cause!

Many voters in the UK would be quite interested in hearing Mr. Brown apologise for a few things he might be personally responsible for. But like his predecessor, who famously apologised for the Irish potato famine (!) , Mr. Brown has instead apologised for decisions made by someone else in a different generation. Cheap and easy work, nice if you can get it.

But apologising wasn't really the point - the point is to drag Mr. Turing into the politics of gay rights, tip some hats in the right direction, earn some easy Brownie points (oh, what a pun!) with the opinion-leaders in the secular press, and all this for no personal cost - when you apologise on behalf of the dead there's not even the loss of face of having to admit you were wrong. On that note I'd like to apologise for the decision by Tharg King of Oth for illegally invading the Anglo Saxon kingdoms in 843. Tut tut. Disgusting, and I'm glad you know I've distanced myself from it.

It's safe to say that Mr. Brown, who I should actually call Dr. Brown because he has a PhD in history, won't be winning any awards for historical scholarship for this effort. It's not so much history, as history remade in the contemporary image. I am glad that the verdict of our successors many generations later is not the final judgment; that is still to come, and historical revisionism won't come into play on that day. How much time do we spend trying to tip our hat to the shifting mores of contemporary thought, and how much time thinking about how we'll be seen when the day of reality arrives?

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