Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Why I didn’t sign the Alan Turing petition

“We ask the HM Government to grant a pardon to Alan Turing for the conviction of 'gross indecency'. In 1952, he was convicted of 'gross indecency' with another man and was forced to undergo so-called 'organo-therapy' – chemical castration. Two years later, he killed himself with cyanide, aged just 41. Alan Turing was driven to a terrible despair and early death by the nation he'd done so much to save. This remains a shame on the UK government and UK history. A pardon can go to (sic) some way to healing this damage. It may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.”

Some supporters of this petition seem to be conflating a pardon for Turing’s conviction with an apology for convicting him in the first place. For anyone looking the other way, the apology already happened. Feel any better? Nor did I. The wording seemed genuine enough but it wasn’t for Gordon to apologise. That’s the problem. Political apologies are almost always for the apologist, not the victim(s). Formal apologies can be diplomatically useful (see the complex litany of apologies surrounding the Korean War) but then a formal apology from the United States government for the most protracted genocide in history (slavery in America) coming 150 days into the Presidency of the first Black man in the White House looked like precisely what it was: a very modern exercise in diplomatic PR. It can’t begin to touch on the truth that it purportedly apologises for. I think it’s vulgar to try.

I might be on dangerous ground here. I’m not Black, I’m not American, I’m only a student of African-American history and firmly of the belief that a perpetrator ought to wear their shame. I believe an apology, in the form of a pardon or otherwise, has potential to relocate, or worse, to diffuse shame, and possibly responsibility. An apology on behalf of a perpetrator (especially one who, like the philosopher’s typewriter, no longer exists) is tantamount to a statement of allegiance. And if it isn’t that ... well, isn’t it far too easy to apologise for something you didn’t do and don’t feel implicated by?

Mississippi didn’t ratify the anti-slavery amendment until 1995. This surely stands as an equivalent truth to an apology from the Senate. Should Mississippi apologise for dragging its heels? Did the Nostra Aetate make meaningful reparations for any Jewish person drowned in a well? How could it? And where does it end? How about an apology for something happening now? The exclusion of poor people from the means to get out of poverty, for instance? Yes, it sounds absurd, but only because history is easy to simplify and is reductive by comparison with the present. If Obama apologised tomorrow on behalf of the Reagan administration for turning its back on thousands of Americans with AIDS, what exactly would that mean? It would ring profoundly hollow.

I might be on safer ground with Turing. We’re both gay after all. I’m choosing not to play the ‘gay card’ though because sexuality doesn’t validate anyone’s opinion about Turing, any more than a pardon (in the infuriatingly crummy words of the petition) “may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.” May it? I think the writer of the petition earmarks the Achilles heel of the gesture right there. Why Alan? Alan’s usefulness to the State singled him out from generations who suffered the same way. I think I would be angry to learn that a grandfather of mine jumped off a bridge for the same reason yet wasn’t seen fit to be pardoned. Alan belonged to his time. He was guilty of gross indecency. Alan Turing was a criminal. You might as well arrest a person for a crime that used to exist as try to re-interpret what happened to him. If your problem is with the historical fact of the law, I’m afraid it’s a frustration that a pardon for Alan won’t remedy, and the assumption he is yours to use to that end is presumptuous. It’s selective, elitist and in a very real sense it is meaningless. Using Alan as ‘precedent’ for a broader general pardon is not a reason to sign; I don’t think other convictions should be pardoned either, for the reasons described here.

Alan Turing committed a crime of which I am proud. Many of my heroes are criminals. ‘Criminal’ is a legal category, not a moral judgement. This is a clear distinction if you acknowledge the injustice of every legal system in history. Alan Turing committed a crime I cannot commit. Unfortunately I need her Majesty’s Government to acknowledge that my life isn’t grossly indecent in order to fully live it (though I don’t require their moral approval). I don’t need them to do this for Alan Turing. Why would I? The time for that was 1952. As the petition says, the ‘shame’ was the Government’s, not Alan’s. It never was his shame, we never believed it was. Let them wear their shame. A historical addendum of ‘...but was pardoned in 2012’ would be a shabby and deceitful postscript to reality.

Alan’s suicide wasn’t shameful, it was a desperate alternative to a life of poisoning by state-administered hormones. It was an act of defiance, but not of liberation. Alan is not a martyr; his rejection (by death) of an injustice should not be backdated for anyone’s agenda. Please don’t believe I am less angry than you. I am angry. I’m angry enough to believe that Alan’s contribution in bringing about the end of the War shouldn’t be separated from the disgust that the people he helped felt towards him. Our grandparents, in other words. It is a truth. It is possibly the only truth. But I am angry; for him and lots of gay men. It is a grim truth that Britain honours heroes selectively. It is a selection process as exclusive as the privilege on which it depends and which it loves to propagate. There is no way to count suicides now. Separating Alan from history, from other persecuted homosexuals, is to isolate him from the magnitude of suffering under that law. It’s nobody’s place to re-contextualise the degree of misery required to poison yourself because you cannot be yourself, however well-meant your intentions. Fashioning history in your own image is a curious oxymoronic impulse to perform whitewash through the very act of memorial. A pardon for Alan isn’t a ‘start’. There is no start, it is over, that’s what makes it history, that’s what makes it dangerously simplistic to call for pardons and strip lives of context. Context is meaning.

Signing the petition is not a statement of opposition to homophobia either. Please at least understand that. If you need an outlet to vent your rage at homophobia, take ... your ... pick. If you ask for reasons that people are upset at the denial of the pardon, expect to be met with statistics on the rate of code-breaking instigated under Alan’s expertise, or with plain outrage that a law against homosexuality is allowed to mar his memory (it doesn’t mar his memory; there is no shame in gross indecency). Neither line of reasoning holds because what they both insist, intentionally or otherwise, and however much the wording of the petitioner resists, is that useful homosexuals deserve a pardon because they are useful.

A man called Dudley Cave talked to Peter Tatchell about being a gay soldier in the Second World War:

‘They used us when it suited them, and then victimised us when the country was no longer in danger. I am glad I served but I am angry that military homophobia was allowed to wreck so many lives for over 50 years after we gave our all for a freedom that gay people were denied.’

Alan Turing is the tip of an iceberg that cannot be fathomed. For those that insist a pardon is symbolic, that it is only a tacit acknowledgement of a wrong committed; I want to ask why such circuitous semiotics is required? I have something better than symbolism. Alan Turing is dead.

I’ll finish with a quote from Derek Bentley’s Wikipedia page:

On 29 July 1993, Bentley was granted a royal pardon in respect of the sentence of death passed upon him and carried out. However in English law this did not quash his conviction for murder. Eventually, on 30 July 1998, the Court of Appeal quashed Bentley's conviction for murder... However, Bentley's parents and sister had died by this date. Bentley himself would have been 64 years old...’

Unlike Alan, Derek’s guilt under the law was questioned from the very beginning, but just read the above one more time.

What was it all for?


Jamie Price said...

hopefully though u will sign the petition to SAVE LEGENDS (which will also probably achieve nothing...)

Gregling said...

Already done! That's something I do believe in.

Pascal Cretain said...

Very well said! Now on to read more of your excellent posts - your blog has been bookmarked.