Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Politician’s Apology

Steve Kennedy - Carleton College

On September 10, 2009 British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology, on behalf of the British nation, to Alan Turing for that country’s treatment of him. Alan Turing was one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century. He worked on fundamental problems in mathematical logic in the 1930s in the process inventing some of the seminal concepts of computer science, including the basics of the theory of computation. During the Second World War he served at the British code-breaking school at Bletchley Park and was largely responsible for breaking the German U-boat code. After the war he worked on the design and construction of two first-generation computers and was an early advocate for, and theorist of, the future of artificial intelligence. Turing was also gay and in 1952 he was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to a course of treatment with female hormones designed to eliminate his sex drive. Not surprisingly, this chemical castration had profound physical and psychological consequences. In 1954, at the age of 41, Turing took his own life.

The extraordinary drama and tragedy of Turing’s life—war hero and mathematical genius driven to suicide by persecution for being gay—has provided inspiration for several artistic interpretations of his life. (Turing did his best to increase the drama by choosing a method of suicide inspired by Disney’s Snow White, a favorite of his—he ate a cyanide-laced apple.) There have been at least three plays, one novel, and two movies based on his story, as well as an extraordinary biography by mathematician Andrew Hodges. That biography reveals Turing as a good and decent man more or less bewildered by the barbaric treatment he received from his countrymen. These retellings of the Turing story have contributed to Turing’s status as something of an icon in the gay community. His profoundly original scientific contributions—in computer science he is memorialized in Turing Machines, the Turing Test, and computer science’s Nobel Prize, the Turing Award—have similarly preserved his iconic status among mathematicians and computer scientists. In fact, the Brown apology was provoked by a petition drive organized by a British computer scientist, John Graham-Cumming, inspired by admiration of Turing and dismay at his treatment.

Once Brown issued the apology the news, and reactions to it, zipped around the Internet. Most folks believed that the apology was long overdue and constituted a genuinely positive development, especially as a small contribution that might help chip away at still existing homophobia. And, to Gordon Brown’s credit, he understood that this should not be just about Alan Turing. Turing is just one particularly egregious and notorious example; Brown explicitly expresses regret over the “many thousands of other gay men who were …treated terribly” and even recognizes the “millions more who lived in fear.” Most fans of Turing seemed pleased; one friend told me he felt “elated.”

I didn’t feel elated and I wondered if there was something wrong with me. Oh sure, I recognized that this was a good and necessary step, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was not proportionate. The British government, in the name of the British people, tortured this good and decent man (and thousands of others) because they disapproved of his sexual habits. Now, half a century later, they offer only words of regret. Maybe I’d feel better if Gordon Brown vowed not to rest until gay marriage was legal in Britain. Of course in Britain today the legal status of gays is a thousand times better than it is in the US, so maybe Brown could work on educating America? How about passing a heavy tax—the Turing Tariff—on all computing hardware and software imported into the UK from countries, like the US, that still discriminate against homosexuals by banning gay marriage? The proceeds of the tariff could be donated, in the name of Alan Mathison Turing, to the leading gay rights organizations in the exporting country.

I know that’s not going to happen. Nothing really dramatic is going to happen. Still, I admire John Graham-Cumming and the thousands who signed his petition and am grateful for their efforts. I’m also appreciative of Gordon Brown’s understanding and grace. I do feel badly that I’m unable to celebrate; a terrible maltreatment of one of my intellectual heroes is being publicly recognized as such. But it just seems that this goodness and benevolence—and maybe all goodness and benevolence—are slow and discreet and progress in tiny incremental steps while hatred and injustice bash and roar and wreak enormities. And we don’t seem to ever learn. Elated? No, I’m not elated; I’m just very sad.