Category Archives: Politics

The great divisions in modern Britain

This week I have been reading the extracts (published in the Guardian) from Polly Toynbee & David Walker’s new book, Unjust Rewards. The book is a contemporary look at class divisions in British society.

The first extract “Meet the Rich” is based upon group interviews with City workers, and their views on disparities in wealth and opportunity in the UK. Predictably, the attitudes reported from these City workers were ill-informed, intolerant or full of self-serving justifications for their position and wealth:

One woman banker described escaping from a provincial town where the main employer was the public sector: “If you aspire to anything beyond that you’re not going to live [there] any more, and that’s the choice you make.”

They had chosen a life that would make them rich while others, making different and morally equivalent choices, had abdicated their right to complain. “Some of these are vocational, things like nurses . . . It’s accepted – they go into it knowing that that’s part of the deal.” Another said: “Many people, like teachers, don’t do things for the pay. But you won’t find a teacher that works as hard as we do.” This was categorical, evidence unnecessary. They spoke of heroic all-nighters drawing up contracts for clients in time zones on the other side of the globe, a Herculean effort that justified fat pay. But did they work 10 times as hard as a teacher on £30,000 a year or, in the case of some lawyers and bankers, 100 times as hard? Such disproportionality did not enter their scheme of things.

What is reported is almost a parody of itself, “Guardian journalist finds out that rich people think that money spent on poor people is wasted”, were there going to be any surprises?

The second extract “Breathless with Amazement” is more touching and in its way heartbreaking. It recounts a visit to Oxford University by a group of high-achieving high school students from a poor London borough, a number of the students from minority backgrounds and none of whom have had family members experience further education. For these kids the trip opens their eyes to the possibilities of what can happen with academic success, but as the article contends, without a change in the disparities of opportunity, the chances are slim that any of them will make it to Oxbridge.

They left the gleaming spires with a vision of university as a place of pleasure – a new thought and perhaps the most important one at this stage in their lives. Would any of them make it back to Oxford after their A-levels? Their teacher thought two of them were in with a chance as they were exceptionally clever. But it would depend on admissions tutors appreciating how much they had overcome in how short a time. Several were Afghan refugees, who in the course of the two days, had talked movingly of American gunships firing on their towns and villages. One boy was African-Caribbean, UK-born and in care for years. In year 9 he barely attended school and was shunted from pillar to post, but once settled in year 10 he had become pupil of the year and was now destined to do well, despite everything. Would an Oxbridge tutor ever hear these stories – and get to assess how their potential stacked up against the attainment of a young person who had no obstacles to overcome?


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Psychologists involved in torture: Martin Seligman’s unwitting contribution?

A while ago I wrote about the disturbing allegations by Jane Mayer of the role of US psychologists in developing interrogation methods that involved torture, apparently used at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

Jane Mayer has written a book-length account of her investigations,The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, and there is an interview on the Democracy Now! website around her central allegations.

Part of the interview concerns the role of Martin Seligman, the famous psychologist who developed the theory of learned helplessness and more latterly the leading proponent of Positive Psychology. It has been claimed that Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness contributed to the design of the methods of torture, and that a training program to help captured military personel resist the effects of torture and learned helplessness was “reverse-engineered” to assist the interrogation of detainees.

The role that Martin Seligman personally played in this process is somewhat unclear (despite the reaction of some of the blogosphere). He has stated that the allegation that he provided assistance in the process of torture is completely false, and that his only involvement with the psychologists who developed the torture methods was when he gave a lecture to the military in a different context:

“I gave a three hour lecture sponsored by SERE (the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape branch of the American armed forces) at the San Diego Naval Base in May 2002. My topic was how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness and related findings to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors. I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not discuss American methods of interrogation with me. I have not had contact with SERE since that meeting.”

Whatever the truth is, post-September 11 has been a dark period for human rights, democracy and psychology. It appears that psychological models for understanding human distress have been used by the unscrupulous to devise methods to harm and terrorise those deemed to be “the enemy”.  Martin Seligman may not have been involved in this, but sadly it seems that the fruit of his intellectual efforts have been, in a manner contrary to their stated purpose.


Filed under Clinical Psychology, Mental Health, Politics, Psychology

Even MPs struggle with the stigma of mental illness

Despite there being accurate information more available to the general public, it appears that stigma of mental illness continues to affect the lives of millions of Britains, including the powerful and influential.  A recent survey has found that 1 in 5 British MPs  have experienced a mental health problem but fear to disclose this because of stigma and discrimination:

An anonymous questionnaire completed by 94 MPs, 100 Lords and 151 parliamentary staff has revealed that:

  • 27% had personal experience of a mental health problem including 19% of MPs, 17% of Peers, 45% of staff
  • 94% had family or friends who have experienced a mental health problem
  • 86% of MPs said their job was stressful
  • 1 in 3 said work-based stigma and the expectation of a hostile reaction from the media and public prevented them from being open about mental health issues.

The report is critical of the law forcing MPs to give up their seat for life if they are sectioned under the Mental Health Act for six months. By comparison, if an MP is physically incapable of working for six months due to a serious illness they would not be forced to stand down. The majority of MPs who responded thought this rule was discriminatory and urgently needs to be changed.

Challenging and changing the mainstream response to those who experience mental health problems involves persistence, courage and clout. Changing the law to reduce discrimination is part of this.

A compassionate view involves recognising that these problems and the stigma attached to them are not the issues of faceless “other people”:if not directly experienced by yourself, then in all likelihood it is a family member, friend, or workmate who struggles with this.  There is a good op-ed piece here about the survey, and it is worth checking out the comments below – the number of jokes at the expense of those experiencing mental health problems AND who happen to be MPs suggests we still have a long way to go as a society.

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The release of David Hicks, a test of Australian values

Another moment to test the compassion of the Australian public, as the news has broken that David Hicks is to be released from prison, albeit under a control order. Although the Federal Police regard Mr Hicks as an ongoing danger it would seem that he currently poses little risk to others, considering his mental state (Sydney Morning Herald, 24/12/07):

DAVID HICKS’S mental condition is so fragile that – only five days before his scheduled release from jail – he suffers from agoraphobia and retreats to the kind of solitary confinement he endured for five years in Guantanamo Bay.The former Muslim extremist has suffered panic attacks and has ventured into the sunshine, in the prison yard, only once since his return to Australia in May this year to serve the balance of his nine-month sentence at Yatala Labour Prison in Adelaide. He could not cope and preferred the enclosed prison and artificial lighting, where he felt more safe.

Is it any surprise to read that Mr Hicks experiences panic attacks and agoraphobia, after his incarceration at Guantanamo Bay?   Imprisoned without trial for 5 years, kept in solitary and tortured with impunity, his case was a convenient political football for the Howard Government’s war on terror (until suddenly it wasn’t). His treatment is a sobering example of what any Australian citizen could experience if they are caught ideologically on the wrong side. Regardless of the legality of Mr Hick’s actions, Australia’s government was willing to trade away the country’s humanitarian values for political reasons.

I hope that Mr Hicks can be supported to lead a productive and peaceful life on his release, after all, isn’t this what Australia really stands for – a fair go?  

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The enduring legacy of cluster bombs

The April 16 2007 edition of ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live had a disturbing interview with John Rodsted, an Australian campaigner against landmines and cluster bombs (it is the back third of the podcast). 

The interview was quite instructive on the terrible legacy associated with these munitions, especially the phenomena of unexploded ordnance left in areas bombed, killing civilians up to 30 years after armed conflict.

It was reported that these munitions are typically the size of a “D” cell battery, covering the ground, and nestling in trees, buildings etc., having a “failure to explode” rate much higher than the manufacturers claims of 1%. Also reported was that the majority of cluster munitions used by Israel in southern Lebanon in the July 2006 conflict were deployed in the last 72 hours before the declaration of a ceasefire, resulting in many areas becoming uninhabitable due to unexploded munitions.

It is pretty difficult not to come to the conclusion that these weapons are really used for the long-term strategic aim of limiting the economic and social recovery of the areas bombed.

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The US on the slippery slope to fascism?

An alarming piece in the Guardian last week by Naomi Wolf, regarding the actions of the Bush administration who appear to be “using time-tested tactics to close down an open society”. Worth a read, here.

I recently asked a senior colleague (who is American) what life was like during the Nixon years, he told me: “you don’t need to use your imagination, we’re living in them all over again… except it’s worse.” Ouch.

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Anthropology and Counterinsurgency

Recently I read an article in the December 18 ’06 issue of the New Yorker by George Packer called “Knowing the Enemy“, about the involvement of anthropologists and other social scientists in developing strategic alternatives to counterinsurgency.

The article profiles the work of David Kilcullen, Australian anthropologist and Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Army, who has been seconded to the US State Department as a strategist to develop counterinsurgency methods. Kilcullen’s ideas of how to approach counterinsurgency are based on his view that the “War on Terror” should be considered as an information war. This propaganda war is one that, unfortunately, the US and its allies are losing, while groups like Al Qaeda are much more savvy about setting the agenda for their message and making sure that it is heard.

Kilcullen asserts (while not directly criticising the Bush administration) that the current approach to counterinsurgency involves a number of mistakes being made, such as 1) aggregating all Jihad-inspired conflicts together so that local conflicts become part of a global problem (uniting disparate groups and not understanding the local grievances that might be causing conflict); 2) being clumsy in winning hearts and minds, due to not having enough cultural information about the populations involved in conflict; and 3) not understanding the modern sources of information to people in developing countries (ie., US Forces relying on broadcast media to provide information to local people, while insurgent groups will use text messaging, the internet etc.).

In March 2006 Kilcullen wrote the influential “Twenty Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency”, a field guide aimed at company commanders whose units have been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is worth a look at for the type of approach he advocates. Whether this approach is one that the current US administration will follow is, of course, another story.

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