Monday 19 October 2015

Hope And Terror At #Battleofideas

As mentioned on Thursday, I took myself away from Puddlecoteville on Saturday to enjoy a small taste of the Battle of Ideas at the Barbican.

Unlike previous years, the sessions I was interested in tended to take place in the same auditorium of the many at the venue due to their being compartmentalised into blocks addressing differing liberty issues. All but one of those I attended were under the umbrella term of "Everyday Liberties", which could equally be described as "Everyday Restriction of Liberties" such is the way life is currently ordered by those who shouldn't be allowed to run a whelk stall let alone be given the power to yank our chains on a daily basis.

As such, I never ventured from the 4th floor with all but one 'battle' being in the same place. Very convenient. First up was a session entitled "Planet of the Vapes: Why is there a war on e-cigarettes?" in the Frobisher Auditorium 2, a wonderful room with banked seating which was great for the audience, but with almost radioactive spotlighting blinding panellists and making for some pretty shocking iPhone pics.

This is the best I managed all day
Now, this time last year I'd spent a lot of time at the BoI bending people's ears about why they should schedule a debate on e-cigs for 2015 and why Lorien Jollye of the NNA would be a good person to place on the stage, so I was thrilled that she was invited to speak a few months ago. I like to think I had something to do with the choice but - considering my badgering received what I can, with rose-tinted specs, best describe as a lukewarm response - it's more likely down to the fact that a couple of the event's organisers had taken up vaping in the intervening period. Oh well.

Anyway, I still got there early and up front to see Lorien in action. Like Robert De Niro being proud of Joe Pesci becoming a 'made man' in Goodfellas because De Niro's character couldn't, if I wasn't on the panel I was going to enjoy her contribution by proxy. I met her beforehand to see what she had planned to say but didn't mention that bit seeing as, in the film, Joe Pesci was whacked with a bullet from behind when he turned up. Didn't think it would calm her weapons grade attack of nerves somehow.

Panto baddie in this session was Duncan Stephenson of the Royal Society for Public Health, a man who announced himself as "representing the nanny state" and thus confidently proceeded to tell the audience that smoking costs the country "far more" than it brings in (which is woefully incorrect), that "there is nothing enjoyable about nicotine" (again incorrect) and that removing nicotine from cigarettes is the very best idea in the history of tobacco control (because smokers won't smoke more, really they won't).

"I am representing the nanny state"
Considering his society recently advocated banning smoking in pub gardens it shouldn't be a surprise that he came across as such a comedy totalitarian but he wasn't the worst of the day, more of that later.

Others on the panel expressed more liberal ideas and roundly rejected the attack on vapers by 'public health' ...

.. including former BMJ editor Richard Smith.

Then came Lorien. Speaking without notes and - as she admitted beforehand, not much of an idea of what she was going to say - she came out with this which I filmed on my shonky iPhone.

It was quite refreshing that she received the only round of applause of any speaker and that the first two Q&A questioners then queried why the state presumes it has the right to decide what we can put in our lungs anyway. As you can imagine, I would tend to agree.

If you're only interested in vaping/smoking issues you can probably leave this article here because that's all there is. However, dear reader, I hope you're tempted to dally further because there was a lot more to the day.

Following lunch it was back to the same auditorium to watch almost incandescently lighted panellists debate "Statute overload: are there too many laws?".

This is where the truly terrifying person of the day rocked up. After hearing from a consumer lawyer and a barrister about how concerned they were about Orwellian laws on such diverse subjects as psychoactive substances, Scottish 'named person' legislation to monitor kids whether parents consent or not, and rules which can incarcerate homeless people for, erm, not having anywhere to live, some incredibly arrogant piece of work stood up to proudly declare the public too stupid to have agency over their own lives.

We, the public, are too stupid to self-regulate and so require politicians to draw up a suite of laws to dictate how we behave, apparently. All because many people do not possess the "correct moral compass". How she decided that her own idea of morals and a compass to guide them are the "correct" ones she didn't say, but I expect it'll be down to personal preference. The terrifying part is that this person was not some wrinkled old curtain-twitcher with a jaded downer on the world, but a young early twentysomething who will no doubt shamelessly eye a career in bossing us all around on the public payroll for our own good someday. What's more, she didn't say this once, but twice, as if we hadn't got the message about how shite we all are at conforming to her ideal worldview the first time. Oh yeah, and that it's all very democratic because politicians and the regulatory state always, but always, listen to the public. Course they do.

Barrister Matthew Scott politely pointed out that there was a big fanfare over repealing bad laws a while ago which achieved about the square root of fuck all once votes had been harvested and politicians lost interest, but I don't think the session's smug authoritarian - who, tellingly, addressed the audience rather than the panel, superior being that she is - was that bothered by silly things like others enjoying a different kind of life than her. What was most terrifying is that - with her interest in political events like the BoI - this is someone who could one day be in charge while we are in our dotage, by Christ I hope she's a rare outlier and not a representative example of youth or else we're all screwed.

Having taken some mind bleach after that sullying of my view of humanity and the prospects for our future, I then got to see one of my all-time heroes speaking just down the corridor. Lenore Skenazy - the World's Worst Mom according to many a talk show host in the US - spent 20 minutes reducing the next audience to fits of laughter at the paedohysteria surrounding simple things like, erm, allowing kids to be kids.

Lenore Skenazy
Addressing the question "Free-range parenting: reckless or responsible?", she delivered a tour de force which prompted a fellow panel member to declare that her Free Range Kids campaign is merely a sideshow to her stand up routine. All sessions at the BoI are filmed so I would heartily recommend you watch out for her performance when it is available, you won't be disappointed and will laugh while being simultaneously dismayed.

After being regaled by Lenore on subjects such as magazine articles 'teaching' us how to hug our kids, protective kneepads for babies, and the impracticalities of abducting a child while in the queue at Costco - all delivered with a healthy dose of humour - the session was thrown out to an eager audience and predictably then overran.

A couple of those present astutely wondered why the NSPCC representative on the panel should be so supportive of free-range parenting considering they spread scaremongering, make exaggerated claims about child abuse and promote the fear of "stranger danger", but they were eclipsed by a teacher who had brought a class along to the BoI for educational purposes. All she had to do was simply read out the risk assessment required by the school before they were permitted to sit in the Barbican and listen to a debate, it was as hilarious as it was frightening that bureaucracies have driven us to such an absurd position where mild risks are amplified vastly in excess of the likelihood of their actually occurring.

It was a sobering end to the session which illustrated precisely why parents get so very scared and why free-range parenting is not at all reckless, indeed it is desperately needed to change current risk-terrified attitudes and allow children to live some semblance of an interesting life.

Last session of the day was back in the floodlit auditorium for "The end of Boozy Britain?". The question mark was hardly required because, as panellist Snowdon notes today in his brief rundown.
There was a good deal of consensus that it had - it is hard to argue with the statistics
Quite. Considering there has been nothing but continual decline in consumption for over a decade now for adults and also youths, anyone who claims otherwise is either misinformed or - in the case of state-funded anti-alcohol organisations - just desperate to protect their income stream.

Snowdon was also struck by the same admirable admission as I was from former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Claire Gerada, confirming what the sane amongst us already knew.
I was interested to hear from Clare Gerada (head of the Royal Society of General Practitioners) that she thinks that the current drinking guidelines are based on no evidence and that the advice that pregnant women should drink no alcohol is also based on no evidence. This is undoubtedly true, but it was good to see her say so in public.
Indeed, and it's important to note exactly how that scepticism was described.

Panic about alcohol does seem to be exactly that. A baseless panic. If, as former DoH official Sian Jarvis predicts as she did during this last session, that these ridiculous limits are lowered still further, it can only serve to further show how absurd the government's position is on alcohol. A point at which even the spandex-wearing office health bore will surely start to question their confirmation bias.

I'd also highlight a contribution by another panellist, writer and teacher Neil Davenport, who argued that the binge-drinking Britain meme is arguably the fault of politicians and policy, rather than a change in the nature of our young people. Clare Gerada agreed that youngsters had been harshly judged by the media, but Davenport pointed out that if you'd rather not see images of kids sprawled on the streets of Faliraki, perhaps it's not wise to promote a culture of "pre-loading" by imposing eye-watering taxation, stringent licensing requirements, costly CCTV and overarching security measures, all of which cost money and make the pre-evening vodka almost the only way youths can enjoy a cost-effective buzz on a night out.

Call me old skool but I remember - before the ridiculous alcohol duty escalator and all other panic measures - when we just used to go to the pub for that.

This facet was lost on the student - yes, another scary youngster - who stood up to complain that "I can get a bottle of vodka from Tesco for £5.99" and that the government should do something about it. No, I reckon they've done enough already thanks.

After talking about booze, it was only fitting that we then decamped to the BoI drinks party after, suitably thirsty. But, yet again, the state poked its ugly nose in. Well, attempted to anyway.

These things are sent to try us, I suppose. But all in all it was another fascinating event from the Institute of Ideas, delivering a lot of hope but inevitably attracting a glimpse of hideous authoritarian terror too.

But then, I think that's the idea.

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