The Daily Mail Comes Clumsily to Turing’s Cause

“A Great science fiction detective story”
Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

Luck and Death at the Edge of the World

Days to Centenary: 105

A Quick Aside: Those of you who are regular visitors to this blog will  know that I have a novel being published in May, Luck and Death at the Edge of the World, in which Alan Turing makes a posthumous appearance of sorts.  Cover art for Luck and Death has now been posted on my  main blog, here, and more information about the novel is available here.  Now, on to the real Alan Turing.

A recent Daily Mail article entitled Should We Name and Shame Alan Turing’s Persecutors? argues in favour of  a pardon for Alan Turing, calling Lord McNally’s opposition to it a “shameful mistake.”

As welcome as the sentiment may be, there is something so bizarre about the arguments it raises that one half wishes the paper had just remained agnostic on the issue.

Nonetheless, one can perhaps hope that the article is a sign that support for a pardon has spread to unexpected quarters.

To be sure, the article begins by establishing author Michael Hanlon’s sympathy for arguments against retroactive atonement for historical wrongs.

Will the Oslo government be obliged to apologise to the people of Northumbria for all that Viking raping and pillaging? Will the Italians feel forced to say sorry to the numerous peoples who laboured under the Roman yoke? Should we make the good people of Ulan Bataar feel guilty for the excesses of Genghis Khan (who was, after all, one of the nastiest men in human history)?

Turing’s case, the article argues, is different.  Why?

The author, quite rightly, condemns the homophobia of earlier times as “moronic” and “almost surreal,”  but this is not his main point.

Now, Turing, a logical man after all, probably felt that having done as much as anyone to see off the Kriegsmarine and save his country from decades of fascist servitude … his country might be a teeny-weeny bit grateful and let the matter of consensual sexual relations with another adult man pass unnoticed.

Behind the Mail’s position, then, is the exceptionalist argument.  Turing contributed so much to the Allied war effort and to the world in general that in his case it would make sense to forgive him his transgressions.  “In this case,” the article seems to be saying below the surface, “a pardon is a matter of patriotism, not soft-heartedness.”

But the exceptionalist argument is exactly the position that many opponents of a pardon abhor, and rightly so.  Turing’s contributions demand recognition, but this is an entirely different matter from the question of whether or not he should receive a pardon.

And Turing’s achievements have been recognized, though arguably not in a way that’s proportionate to what he actually accomplished.  He did, after all, receive an OBE and he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, a status accorded those who have made:

“… a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science.”

Righting the wrong that was done to Turing, on the other hand, doesn’t require him to be a genius or a war hero, only that a wrong was done and that righting it have sufficient value.  The first point hardly seems contentious, while I have argued enough for the second point elsewhere and won’t repeat my arguments here (see here, for intance).

Gordon Brown’s apology to Turing in 2009 was about equal parts a recognition of Turing’s remarkable place in history and an attempt to atone for the past.  In this latter respect, it explicitly and correctly encompassed all the others who were treated as badly as Turing under the law of the day:

Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

If a pardon is granted to Turing, it should be as an example of the injustice done to so many gay men at the time and it should come as a prelude to a wider remedy, not as a single exception made for a remarkable man.  When it comes to his sexuality and his sexual conduct, after all, Turing was no more remarkable than any gay man.

To create an exception for Turing based on his singular biography is, in a backhanded way, to justify the law and its application in the thousands of other cases where it ruined lives.

Then, as he concludes, the author loses his way entirely.

Turing is part of the here-and-now in a way that the medieval witch-burners and Norsemen are not. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that there is an argument for naming and shaming, in big red lights, his individual persecutors – the bigoted police officers who decided to prosecute him, the magistrates and so forth, as well as (and much more so) the Whitehall mandarins who must have known who this man was and how unjust the treatment being meted out. Unfair? Vindictive? Well, we all know about Lord Haw-Haw and Oswald Moseley. History is full of villains, and sometimes we need to know their names.

Sometimes we need to know their names?  When exactly?  The article doesn’t specify.  It doesn’t justify its position, it merely states it and then stands upon it.

What purpose, on God’s green Earth, is going to be served by turning the vindication of Turing and the thousands of others convicted under an unfair law into a witch-hunt for those who applied the law?

The fault surely lies with the people who created the law, not with those who applied it in any particular instance, and we know who its creators are.

Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act1885 was added to the Act by Henry Labouchere, which is why it is frequently referred to as the Labouchere Amendment.  It was then maintained by successive governments until 20th century reforms rid us of it.  The greatest responsibility lies with those governments, without whose authority it would have had no power.

(As an aside, the Act itself was not intended to deal with homosexuality, but with men preying upon underage girls.  There is some dispute as to whether Labouchere added the amendment in earnest or in attempt to make the Act, which he may have opposed, appear ridiculous and thus keep it from passing into law.  However that may be, the amendment was added — once the penalty for violating it had been increased from one year to two — and the Act passed.)

As if the Daily Mail article didn’t make me uncomfortable enough, one of the Mail’s readers correctly points out some of its flaws.

First the writer engages in some strange and illogical hand-wringing that conflates the actual hatred and bigotry practiced by homophobes with the term “homophobia,” as though not having a word for homophobia in the past prevented it from existing:

Accusing the 1952 Manchester police of homophobia is ludicrous. The term homophobia as we know it today did not even exist back then, it being a modern invention of the political left used to smear opponents and avoid engaging with their arguments.

After this nauseating prelude, however, he gets on to his main argument, which has some merit:

Homosexuality was illegal in 1952 and the police were simply doing their jobs. No-one in the police or prosecution service in those days would have known what Alan Turing’s role at Bletchley Park had been because everything that went on there was shrouded in the utmost secrecy. Even if they had known, would it really have been right to give someone special dispensation to break the law just because of who they are?

Hanlon then responds to the reader in a blog post, here.  He points out that given the circumstances (Turing wasn’t caught in a sting or while flagrantly violating the law in a public way), it’s not unreasonable to see a malicious homophobic zeal in the actions of the police in charging Turing rather than simply cautioning him.

Here Hanlon could certainly be right in the inference he draws and is certainly right in his conclusion.  Police have always had a measure of discretion in deciding whether or not to lay charges, even where the facts of the matter clearly indicate a breach of the law.  It was likely open to the police to issue a caution and I certainly wish that was all they had done.

Nonetheless, whether there is enough evidence of malice to justify a “naming and shaming” campaign 60 years after the fact is impossible to determine.  It is equally possible that the officer in charge simply had an excessively rigid view of his duty.

In any event, Hanlon then returns to his exceptionalist position, arguing that authorities in government — who would have been aware of Turing’s wartime contributions, where the police might not have been — should have had a word with the police and prevented a charge from being laid.

For obvious reasons I wish they had, but that doesn’t make Hanlon’s argument any more logical.  Turing shouldn’t have been charged, not because he was a war hero but because the law ought not to have existed.  If he is to be pardoned now, it shouldn’t be because of his heroism but because we retroactively recognize that the law was a mistake.

To take Hanlon’s position is to leave the thousands of other men who were charged and convicted under the same law, many still alive today, out in the cold.

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