Sunday, July 21, 2013

Alan Grayson: "Does Anyone Know Who Alan Turing Is?"


Several years ago, Blue America invited Alan Grayson to speak at the Brave New Films studio in Culver City. For many of the attendees, myself included, that was the first introduction to the 20th century's greatest mathematician, Alan Turing. You can watch the 4-minute Turing part of the chat above. A couple of years before Grayson's talk, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown did it in an OpEd in The Telegraph apologizing for the British government having driven Turing-- one of the most important heroes of World War II-- to suicide because of his homosexuality.
Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.

In 1952, he was convicted of "gross indecency"-- in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence-- and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison-- was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. 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 in conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 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.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind's darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate-- by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices-- that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years.

It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present. 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.
On Friday, Britain's Conservative government-- which, it's worth mentioning, backed LGBT marriage equality legislation that many of its members opposed and oppose-- announced that Turing would be granted a posthumous pardon.
The announcement marks a change of heart by the government, which declined last year to grant pardons to the 49,000 gay men, now dead, who were convicted under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. They include Oscar Wilde.

[Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a government whip] told peers: "Alan Turing himself believed that homosexual activity would be made legal by a royal commission. In fact, appropriately, it was parliament which decriminalised the activity for which he was convicted. The government are very aware of the calls to pardon Turing, given his outstanding achievements, and have great sympathy with this objective … That is why the government believe it is right that parliament should be free to respond to this bill in whatever way its conscience dictates and in whatever way it so wills."

The government threw its weight behind the private member's bill, promoted by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Sharkey, after a debate that featured a contribution from a peer who worked at Bletchley Park. Lady Trumpington told peers: "The block I worked in was devoted to German naval codes. Only once was I asked to deliver a paper to Alan Turing, so … I cannot claim that I knew him. However, I am certain that but for his work we would have lost the war through starvation."

Turing broke German ciphers using the bombe method, which allowed the code-breakers to crack the German Enigma code. His colleague Tommy Flowers built the Colossus computer. Ahmad described Turing as "one of the fathers, if not the father, of computer science."

Sharkey has campaigned for a pardon after being taught mathematics at Manchester University in the 1960s by Robin Gandy, Turing's only doctoral student, who became a close friend and was the executor of his will.

Sharkey said: "As I think everybody knows, he was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency and sentenced to chemical castration. He committed suicide two years later. The government know that Turing was a hero and a very great man. They acknowledge that he was cruelly treated. They must have seen the esteem in which he is held here and around the world."

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