Gordon Brown’s Alan Turing apology

Revolution – sexual and digital

Eddie Ford sees an advance in Downing Street’s belated apology

After a sustained campaign, including a Downing Street petition signed by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Ian McEwan, Gordon Brown – on behalf of the establishment – finally relented and last week issued an “apology” for the barbaric treatment handed out to the pioneering scientist and “war hero”, Alan Turing, by the homophobic authorities during the 1950s. He is widely regarded as the founder and instigator of the ‘digital revolution’, and also as a ‘gay martyr’. To that effect, a memorial statue has been erected on the fringes of Manchester’s ‘gay village’, while one of the city’s main roads bears Turing’s name.

In his statement, Brown said that, while Turing was “dealt with under the law of the time” and regrettably “we can’t put the clock back”, it nevertheless was still a fact that “his treatment was, of course, utterly unfair” and he was now “pleased” to have the chance to say “how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him”. In conclusion, Brown declared: “So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say – we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” But despite increasing calls for Turing to be now granted an actual pardon as opposed to a woolly – and enforced – “apology”, none seems forthcoming. Let alone the “posthumous knighthood” that Peter Tatchell of Outrage thinks he deserve.

Turing was gay in a period when homosexuality was illegal and widely considered to be shameful. So in 1952 when an accomplice of his then 19-year-old lover, Arnold Murray, broke into his house, Turing – being a respectable citizen – reported the matter to the police. A big mistake.

During interrogation, Turing acknowledged having a sexual relationship with Murray and was subsequently charged with “gross indecency” under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 – exactly the same charge, under the same rule book, that was brought against Oscar Wilde more than 50 years earlier.

Turing was then presented with an appalling Hobson’s choice. Go to prison or accept probation conditional on his agreement to undergo ‘experimental’ hormonal treatment designed to reduce his libido and hence – or so the theory went – ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality, which was regarded in this period as either an out-and-out perversion (sexual psychopathy) or more ‘liberally’ as a disturbing form of mental illness.

Thus for one year the very shy and reserved Turing was the subject, and victim, of a cruel regime of oestrogen hormone injections – with one of the many side effects being a condition known as gynecomastia, whereby a man develops breasts. For someone like Turing noted for his physical fitness – he was a talented long-distance runner who thought nothing of running the 40 miles to London when he was needed for high-level meetings with the top brass – the bloating of his previous athletic physique was a particularly humiliating blow.

Naturally, his conviction led to the removal of his security clearance and thus barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for the government communication headquarters (GCHQ). He was also banned from travelling to America. At the same time the first two members of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, had been exposed as KGB double agents – so there was a generalised panic about traitors, homosexuality and entrapment by dastardly Soviet agents and spies.

In the United States of this time, it is worth noting, there was an analogous panic known as the ‘Lavender scare’ – spearheaded, of course, by the exceptionally well-adjusted and eminently rational senator Joseph McCarthy. The reasoning went like this – to be a ‘red’, some sort of mental illness had to be present in the individual. Equally, to be a ‘faggot’ could only mean that you were suffering from some serious psychological maladjustment. Ergo, homosexuals were inherently predisposed towards communism – therefore take appropriate action.1

Though Turing was never accused of espionage, his ‘outed’ homosexuality made him forever suspect as far as the establishment was concerned. In desperation, he began travelling abroad in search of ‘sex safe’ beyond the reach of oppressive British law – so much for the ‘cure’ that was inflicted upon him. Unsurprisingly, given these wretched conditions, the shame and humiliation that had so vilely been heaped upon him induced a “slow, sad descent into grief and madness” – to use the words of his biographer, David Leavitt.2 Turing committed suicide in June 1954 by eating an apple laced with cyanide – a common suggestion being that he was re-enacting a scene from Snow White, his favourite fairy tale.

So who exactly was Alan Turing? Well, in 1999 Time magazine named him as one of the “100 most important people of the 20th century” for his role in the creation of the modern computer.3 But he is best known for his pioneering work among the Enigma code crackers at Bletchley Park during World War II – where, for a while, Turing was head of Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Stored at Hut 8 were the Colossus machines, the world’s first programmable, digital computing devices – which used vacuum tubes (thermionic valves) to perform their calculations.4

However, it is more than fair to say that out of all the innovative and brilliant minds assembled at Bletchley to serve the interests of British imperialism, it was Turing’s research and discoveries which were most instrumental in helping to break the Nazis’ highly encrypted coded transmission – which had been considered impregnable and absolutely impossible to crack open.

Quite astonishingly, his ‘bombe’ machine – an electromechanical device the likes of which had never even been conceived or imagined before – was able to rapidly decode the 158 million, million, million variations used by the Nazis in their commands with the creation of a prototype high-speed processor. Many would claim that his decoding machine, and the subsequent variations and modifications to his original, saved tens of thousands of Allied lives and brought both the British and the US to eventual victory over the Nazis.

But Turing’s achievements do not rest there – far from it. In 1936 he established what was essentially the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal paper called On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem).

Outlining his idea of a “universal computing machine”, Turing basically provided a blueprint for what would later become the electronic digital computer by building upon Kurt Godel’s famous ‘proof theory’ (that for any self-consistent recursive axiomatic system powerful enough to describe the arithmetic of natural numbers, there are true propositions about the naturals that cannot be proved from the axioms). Using Godel’s mathematical models, Turing showed that certain propositions in a closed logical system cannot be proved within that system. Something else from outside was required – ‘digital’ information, as we know call it.

When the war was over, and after having been awarded an OBE, Turing moved to the United States to work at the National Physical Laboratory. Here he began work on creating the ‘stored program’ computer, the Automatic Computing Engine, the name of which was a homage to Charles Babbage and his Difference and Analytical Engines of the mid-19th century. But Turing returned to the UK in 1948, where he continued to make significant contributions to the emerging fields of artificial intelligence – like his 1950 paper, Computing machinery and intelligence, in which he asked the question, “Can machines think?” This led to the now famous ‘Turing test’, the process by which a machine or computer could be judged to have replicated logical human thought – an essential concept in the philosophy of artificial intelligence. A much argued and contested philosophy, of course.

And if all that was not enough, in his last few years Turing turned towards chemistry and became intrigued by the chemical basis of morphogenesis – one of three fundamental aspects of developmental biology, along with the control of cell growth and cellular differentiation. A budding pioneer in this field as well, Turing predicted the existence of oscillating chemical reactions – which were actually observed for the first time in the 1960s.

Your computer follows to the letter his theoretical and philosophical paradigms. The internet is based on digital error correction, a field he literally invented. Industrial robots are a direct result of his influence on robotics. Even your car, to a large extent, runs on the technology he helped develop. So now imagine a world without the ‘poofter’, Alan Turing.

Such monstrous treatment of gays and lesbians did not end in the 1950s, of course. BBC online recounts another grisly anecdote from 1962 concerning army captain Billy Clegg-Hill – the story of which came to light during the making of a BBC documentary in 1996. He too, like Turing, was prescribed a callous course of treatment to rid him of the ‘disease’ of homosexuality following his arrest for “gross indecency” (i.e. enjoying oral sex with a man). So at the Netley military hospital in Hampshire, Clegg-Hill was effectively tortured whilst undergoing ‘aversion therapy’.

This charming – and no doubt extremely ‘scientific’ – ‘therapy’ consisted of showing him pictures of naked men and then quickly injecting him with the vomit-inducing drug, apomorphine (a type of dopaminergic agonist and historically a morphine decomposition product which is created by being boiled with concentrated acid.5)

In the words of his still living sister, Alison Braithwaite, the “idea was to make him associate naked men with being sick” – but it was “crude and totally ineffective”. That is one way of putting it. As a direct consequence of Clegg-Hill’s “medically supervised” treatment, which saw the doctors neglecting to give him any fluids, he died of a stroke brought about by severe dehydration. Of course, his death certificate said he died of “natural causes”.6

Given such sickening outrages, we can fully sympathise with Peter Tatchell when he declares that an “apology and pardon is also due to the estimated 100,000 British men who were also convicted of consenting, victimless same-sex relationships during the 20th century”. We also share Tatchell’s belief that “singling out Turing just because he is famous is wrong” – as, unlike Turing, he goes on to add, “many thousands of ordinary gay and bisexual men were never given the option of hormone treatment as an alternative to jail”, but instead were just “sent to prison” for behaviour and actions that was not a “crime between heterosexual men and women”.7

Communists call for the sweeping away of all rules, customs and laws that inhibit or persecute someone just for their sexual orientation – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, transgendered – in all the institutions and bodies of the state – including, of course, the armed forces.

Yes, of course, the historic wrong perpetuated against gays, etc, should be openly acknowledged and retrospectively denounced – justice demands nothing else. In that respect Brown’s “apology” over Turing symbolises an advance – not because he is “famous” or a genius (which he was), least of all because he was a “war hero”, but because he was a persecuted homosexual.

Notes

  1. See tinyurl.com/qct2wa
  2. The man who knew too much: Alan Turing and the invention of the computer London 2006.
  3. March 29 1999.
  4. A setting brilliantly reconstructed by science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson in his 1999 book, Cryptonomicon.
  5. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apomorphine
  6. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8251033.stm
  7. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8249792.stm
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