Join 3,559 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Alan Turing today. Oscar Wilde tomorrow?
July 21, 2013 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Enigma breaker Alan Turing will be posthumously pardoned. Turing helped the Allies win WWII by developing the methods that broke the German Enigma code -- which didn't stop Britain from convicting him of gross indecency under anti-homosexuality legislation in 1951 and subjecting him to chemical castration. Two years later, he committed suicide by swallowing cianide. The British government has now "signalled that it is prepared to support a backbench bill that would pardon Turing."
posted by Annie Savoy (56 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
The question should be whether Turing would ever pardon them.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:52 PM on July 21, 2013 [56 favorites]


Oh my goodness! They've really opened the floodgates now! Imagine if we all started saying sorry for the horrible things we've done ... as if we regret them!
posted by pulposus at 1:53 PM on July 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Sucked in the first place, sucks worse they took this long.

But at least it happened.
posted by Samizdata at 1:53 PM on July 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Speaking as a straight male--

When you silence the voices of those who have the courage to be different, the result is you have a lot fewer different voices. And that's ultimately what's so special about voices to begin with, their variety.

The destruction of Alan Turing immeasurably harmed the world. We'll never know what we lost, which is not at all the same as having lost nothing.
posted by JHarris at 1:55 PM on July 21, 2013 [51 favorites]


Why do this, except to make yourselves feel better? It won't help Alan, who struggled to save your ridiculous empire.

Great Britain should wear this as a chain of shame, much like the Catholic Church's persecution of Galileo. It's a reminder, you idiots, that you are not perfect, and so should approach judgement with kindness and humility.
posted by SPrintF at 1:56 PM on July 21, 2013 [13 favorites]


Far more than a day late and infinitely more than a dollar short.
posted by double block and bleed at 1:58 PM on July 21, 2013


So, a pardon but no apology?
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:58 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


He shouldn't be pardoned because what he was convicted for should not have been a crime.

An apology, a grand apology, not a pardon, is in order.
posted by vacapinta at 1:59 PM on July 21, 2013 [21 favorites]


Gordon Brown already apologized.

My concern is that it makes little sense to "pardon" someone if the intent is to say that it should not have been a crime in the first place. It has been the case for a while now that living persons who were convicted back when it was a crime can now have it expunged from their records. This isn't something a deceased person can do. I think it makes more ethical sense for the government to expunge it than to "pardon" it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:01 PM on July 21, 2013 [16 favorites]


There's a statue of Turing in Manchester, sitting on bench in a little park in the gay district, holding an apple. That's the way he took his cyanide. It's a very poignant tribute to a great man.

a pardon but no apology?

PM Gordon Brown formally apologized in 2009.
posted by Fnarf at 2:05 PM on July 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


What about everyone else who wasn't famous and convicted of the same "crime?"
posted by thecjm at 2:06 PM on July 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


double block and bleed: "Far more than a day late and infinitely more than a dollar short."

But, I would much rather have it happen late than never. Change is most often a slow thing. And now we can establish precedents for the future with things like this.
posted by Samizdata at 2:07 PM on July 21, 2013


The pardoning of Alan Turing is like Pope John Paul II's acknowledgement that the Roman Catholic Church had erred in condemning Galileo. It's more about managing the public relations of a modern day institution than about righting a past wrong.

In a way, it makes me angry. It would mean more if they left the conviction on the books as a historic milestone of human stupidity, and instead, built upon Turing's legacy by passing some meaningful piece of legislation in his name.

It just feels a bit like white-washing history this way.
posted by Pipedreamergrey at 2:13 PM on July 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Far more than a day late and infinitely more than a dollar short"

The world still awaits a formal rebuttal of the historic injustice (The Guardian)

For those who did not know, 2012 was celebrated as "Turing Year". The article I linked is written by the man who chaired the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee, and strongly advocates for the pardon.
posted by anastasiav at 2:15 PM on July 21, 2013


It's not in his name, but this is some meaningful legislation that's recently been passed.
posted by dng at 2:17 PM on July 21, 2013


In medieval societies it was common to rehabilitate the dead of their crimes, or to elevate them with posthumous titles. In the modern world it seems silly. Turing is dead. No one can undo what was done to him. The people who convicted him are dead. No one can shame them. Britain crucified its own savior, and doubled down on the horror by convicting him of something the Nazis would have done as well. It's a permanent mark. It can't be erased.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:18 PM on July 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


In 2003 the State of New York posthumously pardoned Lenny Bruce for his 1964 obscenity conviction. Somewhat more oddly, the States of Virginia and Massachusetts have pardoned their rather ancient witchcraft convictions.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:32 PM on July 21, 2013


Fucking disgrace what happened to Turing.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:33 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a good thing. There are better things that could of and should have been done. Or not done.

But this small thing is still a good thing.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:37 PM on July 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Perhaps instead what they should be doing is asking themselves "what are we doing today that we will be ashamed of tomorrow? Who are we needlessly injuring at this moment?"
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:41 PM on July 21, 2013 [21 favorites]


It has been the case for a while now that living persons who were convicted back when it was a crime can now have it expunged from their records. This isn't something a deceased person can do. I think it makes more ethical sense for the government to expunge it than to "pardon" it.

There seems to be some ambiguity about exactly how gone the 'disregarded' convictions are. They don't show up on CRB checks, but seem to be accessible to police.

I am mildly curious about the political motivations for this, though.

In any case, wouldn't the more sensible course of action be to pardon everyone?
posted by hoyland at 2:41 PM on July 21, 2013


Maybe they can do both at the same time?
posted by rtha at 2:42 PM on July 21, 2013


The question should be whether Turing would ever pardon them.

You mean forgive? Yes, I believe he would have.

So, a pardon but no apology?

When the apology came out, people were mad that there was no pardon. I guess you have to do both things simultaneously and hope people read the whole headline before they comment.
posted by michaelh at 2:42 PM on July 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


Perhaps instead what they should be doing is asking themselves "what are we doing today that we will be ashamed of tomorrow? Who are we needlessly injuring at this moment?"

I'm not sure our government is capable of this sort of introspection.
posted by dng at 2:43 PM on July 21, 2013


No authoritarian institution is fit to pass judgement, negative or positive, even on Turing's running shoes, especially given the crime of which he was convicted.
posted by kengraham at 2:43 PM on July 21, 2013


I'm not sure our government is capable of this sort of introspection.

I don't think anyone has the level of prescience to say what might or might not be considered a crime in the future. Possibly we will regard natural childbirth and raising children in families a crime. Alternatively, we may be burning witches because the harvest was bad. What we consider progress is not inevitable; it's a delicate, ephemeral thing, that may all too easily disappear.
posted by happyroach at 2:49 PM on July 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


The "grrr, how dare they think they can whitewash what they did by pardoning him" stuff is a little strained, however understandable the emotions behind it. I mean, the only reason they're issuing the pardon is because well-intentioned people have been demanding that they do so as a mark of respect to Alan Turing and to acknowledge the appalling state-sanctioned bigotry that lead to his suicide. It seems a bit unfair to clamor to for this action and then as soon as it's done to declare that it's insulting and that it would have been much better to let the conviction stand. That seems like the very definition of "damned if you do, damned if you don't."

And, you know, "the government" didn't persecute Turing and all the other gay people who fell foul of stupid, homophobic laws; those laws had broad popular support and expressed the clear will of the people. If we're looking to pin collective blame on anyone for decisions made long before most of us were born then we probably shouldn't opt for the convenient and smug option of blaming "the government" and should take the opportunity of having a long, hard look in the mirror. What laws are in force today with our consent that we will be ashamed to have supported 60 years from now?
posted by yoink at 2:57 PM on July 21, 2013 [12 favorites]


I think what I wrote in this comment is still pretty much what I think. That it's actually happening is much less important to me than I would have imagined it would be. On the other hand, I have a really clear memory of finishing that biography in high school and I don't think 15 year old me could have conceived of the government saying sorry, either in the form of an apology or a pardon, which is why I'm inclined to think a pardon is a good thing, even if it technically accomplishes nothing, as everyone seems to eager to point out.
posted by hoyland at 2:59 PM on July 21, 2013


I am glad that the official apology mentioned above exists - there is a framed example of it hanging in Bletchley Park, and it's one of the few reminders there of what happened to Turing after the war.

At the same time, I think it's interesting to ask why pardon just Turing? Obviously what the British government did to him was shameful and wrong, but does it really serve any purpose to issue a special pardon to him and him alone? Because the government did the same thing to tens of thousands of other men. Aren't they worth a pardon, too? Or are they somehow more guilty simply because they didn't leave the same mark on history as Turing did?

I greatly admire Turing, and it was a wonderful thing to see so much attention directed at him last year, but he was not the only victim of this kind of persecution. Wouldn't it be a better gesture to draw up a full list of names of people who were sentenced and suffered because of laws prohibiting their sexual orientation, and pardon all of them? In Turing's name, in the name of human rights, in the name of remembering and honoring the past, and swearing to do better in the future.
posted by harujion at 3:03 PM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's about time.
posted by Gelatin at 3:22 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


In 2012, Jack Copeland, leading Turing scholar and biographer, argued that the Turing suicide verdict was flawed and may itself have been an inquest ruling shaped by homophobic bias
posted by Bwithh at 3:39 PM on July 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Maybe it's time for an international year of apologies from all the political organizations of the world (including religions) for all of the perfidies they have inflicted and are inflicting, not only on human individuals and races but upon the Earth and its myriad, vanishing species.

Let them all strain to outdo one another showing how sensitive and tolerant they now are. In a massive PR campaign of compassionate-sounding one-upmanship. While they strive to cordon us all into their ideal states.

One of my teachers explained the strong language in "Ball Turret Gunner": as necessary because sometimes you have to hit the sharks on the head with a blunt instrument to have some chance of reaching them.
posted by Twang at 3:49 PM on July 21, 2013


Why do this, except to make yourselves feel better? It won't help Alan, who struggled to save your ridiculous empire.

That's incorrect. It had nothing to do with empire. Alan Turing stood against fascism. History might have come out quite different, save for his efforts and insights.
posted by newdaddy at 3:50 PM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's a statue of Turing in Manchester, sitting on bench in a little park in the gay district, holding an apple.
Or, when it's his birthday, holding bunches of flowers.
posted by doop at 3:55 PM on July 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Pardoning Alan Turing is a pointless exercise. Alan Turing's achievements and his treatment by the nation should be in every school curriculum
posted by homunculus at 4:08 PM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


It might be 'therapeutic' for the House of Lords to pardon Turing, but one thing this does is make it harder to go back to an environment of oppression that lead to Turing's indirect murder. An apology can be revoked, but once you have a pardon on the books, it's a lot tougher to codify hate into law again. So I get the anger on Turing's behalf, but as a gay man, there's a longer view that, perhaps, this may have greater benefit for society, than just for government officials who feel bad for themselves.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:26 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


On balance, I think this is better than carrying on as if it never happened. But yes, saying, in effect, "hey, sorry about hounding you to death for being gay after you helped save the UK from Nazi rule" does seem a little empty.
posted by thelonius at 4:38 PM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


So they might be human after all. Additional testing is required.
posted by radwolf76 at 4:40 PM on July 21, 2013


In 2012, Jack Copeland, leading Turing scholar and biographer, argued that the Turing suicide verdict was flawed and may itself have been an inquest ruling shaped by homophobic bias

That is a very interesting article.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 4:52 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think anyone has the level of prescience to say what might or might not be considered a crime in the future.

Early anti-slavery and women's rights activists might disagree. "Anyone" is a bit strong there, is all I'm saying.
posted by mediareport at 4:55 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think anyone has the level of prescience to say what might or might not be considered a crime in the future.

Early anti-slavery and women's rights activists might disagree. "Anyone" is a bit strong there, is all I'm saying.


Isn’t that like saying picking winning lottery tickets is predicting the future?
posted by bongo_x at 5:29 PM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


George_Spiggott: "Perhaps instead what they should be doing is asking themselves 'what are we doing today that we will be ashamed of tomorrow?'"

Here's a good example: ruling that it's illegal for a trans person to have sex with someone else without disclosing their trans status first; and making marriage a mess for trans people.
posted by jiawen at 5:38 PM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's just wrenching to consider how much talent and capacity was lost when Turing was hounded to his death, how many future achievements (including teaching) could have been ahead of him. It's like a government burning its own Library of Alexandria.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:46 PM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just wonder where we would be now, technology-wise, if Turing were not tortured and persecuted.
posted by autobahn at 8:04 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


QI on the Enigma machine, Alan Turing, and early computing.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:39 PM on July 21, 2013


Great Britain should wear this as a chain of shame, much like the Catholic Church's persecution of Galileo

This is the problem when truth confronts power. truth is very reluctant to back down and power has no problems with crushing dissent.

Turing can be viewed as different from Galileo as it's not like Turing's ideas were repressed, but it does go to show how cruel society can be when you go against the norm. it's my understanding that homosexuality wasn't uncommon in academia back then, Turing just made the mistake of admitting it to the police.
posted by camdan at 10:05 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm with the people who think that a pardon is an insult, however well-intentioned. Conviction under a bad law is almost a badge of honor; it isn't right to remove that distinction by rewriting history. In any event, the alleged suicide took place when he was being investigated for a different crime, as it was then. How will a pardon help with that? Can we give him his life back?
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:00 PM on July 21, 2013


In this age of PRISM and GCHQ complicity, it makes perfect sense that a codebreaker would be double-pardoned.

</ducks>
posted by davemee at 11:22 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


mediareport: Prohibition in the U.S. marked the seeming end of a long progressive struggle, a temperance movement, or at least many in the abolitionist and women's suffrage movements who took part would have seen it that way. That can seem pretty confusing from our vantage point (although, y'know, being in favor of an idiotic thing like Prohibition wasn't on the level of castrating people for what was considered a sex crime, exactly).
posted by raysmj at 11:48 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am pleased about this, and once again our conservative government seems willing to apologise where previous governments failed. That's interesting in itself.

The calls for further apologies seem a little strained. I'm happy that this has happened and I consider it a proxy apology for other gay men marginalised and jailed by previous governments.

On Suicide:
Avoid simplistic explanations for suicide
"Although a catalyst may appear to be obvious, suicide is never the result of a single factor or event and is likely to have several inter-related causes. Accounts which try to explain a suicide on the basis of a single incident, for example unrequited romantic feelings, should be challenged. Where relevant, news features could be used to provide more detailed analysis of the reasons behind the rise in suicides."

On Turing and PRISM.
Glad I'm not the only person who's considered a link between what Turing did then and what PRISM, etc are doing now. The fact that Turing is a hero lends credence to the fact that it's not about the tool, it's about how and when it's used. I wonder if there would be the outcry against PRISM if it were only used at a time of war or if it were only used against Johnny Foreigner.
posted by zoo at 1:13 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually - Gordon Brown apologized previously. So I got that wrong. But a pardon is a good thing.
posted by zoo at 1:18 AM on July 22, 2013


The analogy that came to mind for me was Bruno rather than Galileo (who, after all, lived.) As I wrote elsewhere:

"Sort of like the Catholic Church apologizing to the charred corpse of Giordano Bruno."

My own problem with a "pardon" is that it evades the distinction between law and moral justice, between statutes and the ethical ideals of fairness for all that laws are (usually) crude attempts to express. It implies that he committed a real moral crime to begin with, and one that can still be judged to be pardoned or not. It would be better to declare that there really was no crime, in the larger sense. But governments are loathe to admit that their past laws were ever unjust, and the legalities of things like pensions for survivors of people convicted under such unjust laws hang on the shared pretence that one must respect the force of unjust laws at the time they were in effect. Therefore a "pardon" is a way to leave unchallenged the injustice of the law at the time it was in effect. Kind of a "well, that was then, and we can't go back and change it" stance, which sidesteps a full examination of the injustice involved. (And an examination of each and every other case of persons convicted under such a law. What about all the other gay people hounded to death or who at the very least had their lives ruined?) A pardon insulates, encapsulates, and, to a degree, perpetuates a past unjust attitude that was once codified into law.

Basically, he didn't do anything wrong, and no state has the moral authority to declare that he did but can now be pardoned.
posted by Philofacts at 2:58 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have heard older gay people say that a pardon for Turing would be enough for them as it would basically constitute an admittance that the government of the day was wrong.

I am in favour of the pardon and apology. It isn't enough, but it is better then nothing. Turing was a first-class hero and genius and that is how the rich and powerful treated him back then.

"And, you know, "the government" didn't persecute Turing and all the other gay people who fell foul of stupid, homophobic laws; those laws had broad popular support and expressed the clear will of the people."
posted by yoink

Are you shure about this?
posted by marienbad at 6:12 AM on July 22, 2013


Are you shure about this?

That anti-homosexuality laws had broad popular support in Britain in 1954? Yes. It's not a controversial claim.
posted by yoink at 8:49 AM on July 22, 2013


outcry against PRISM if it were only used at a time of war or if it were only used against Johnny Foreigner.

You're overcomplicating this. If Bletchley Park had been spying on the communications of individual civilians in Axis countries (perhaps they were), that would have been (was) wrong. Intercepting government and military communication during a war (and even corporate communication during a "total" war) is admissible, while spying on individual civilians using a military organization is always wrong. The analogy to dropping bombs is quite faithful, here.
posted by kengraham at 9:47 AM on July 22, 2013


That anti-homosexuality laws had broad popular support in Britain in 1954? Yes. It's not a controversial claim.

It is, however, worth noting that the Wolfenden Report was 1957 and they started hearing evidence in 1954. I'll admit that there certainly wasn't political willpower for decriminalisation until much later, but the discussion about decriminalisation was imminent, if not already underway, at the time of Turing's death.

(I think you're also likely drawing to close a line between government action and popular opinion for a parliamentary system. Or probably many systems aside from the US House of Representatives. Anything a large majority of people don't feel super strongly (not even a lukewarm majority opinion) about comes down to negotiating votes, not public opinion.)
posted by hoyland at 5:07 PM on July 22, 2013


« Older The story behind Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them Al...  |  The "sadistic verses" are a ge... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments