1 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 4


He who would read newspapers must expect to spend his days in the darkest despair, for they contain nothing but war, murder and medical advice.

Popular wisdom, however, tells us that every cloud has a silver lining: though my experience of life leads me to conclude that, in general, the relationship between clouds and silver linings is exactly the other way around (I think Buddhists would agree). Be that as it may, I found a real reason for optimism the other day while reading the French daily, Liberation, that started out Maoist and ended up in the hands of Edouard de Rothschild.

As everyone knows, the population, thanks to its inability to control itself, and indeed its hostility to the very idea that it ought to control itself, is growing ever fatter. We in Britain, indeed, have become a nation of Nauruans, those unfortunate South-Sea islanders who suddenly gained control of immense wealth, started to eat 7,000 calories per day each while luxuriating in a life of total immobility, and ended up with the highest rate of diabetes in the world.

However, the news is not all bad. One Friday night a 46-year-old Frenchman who lived in a block of flats in a place called Brunoy went to his neighbour to complain about him playing his music so loud.

Liberation informs us that the only reply he received was stab wounds, two in the thigh, two in the back and two in the abdomen. (How passionately Latin! In Britain, with our typical emotional restraint, it would have been blows with a baseball bat.) 'The victim,' reads the report, 'escaped worse injury thanks to his corpulence, preventing the blade from reaching his vital organs.'

No doubt this will help evolutionary theorists explain the otherwise harmful tendency to gross obesity in our society: the survival of the fattest, as it were. As more and more young people carry knives, so it makes sense, from the point of view of survival, to become fatter. The youths will eventually learn to carry longer blades, of course, in which case the obviously adaptive behaviour would be to eat more junk food; but in the meantime we should accept that, from the evolutionary point of view, obesity is not all bad (if it were, it wouldn't happen).

At more or less the same time, the French newspapers were in an effervescence of indignation about paedophilia, and the light sentences paedophiles receive. One of the most notorious recidivists, it was revealed, who had assaulted at least 40 children, had been prescribed Viagra by the prison doctor, presumably on the grounds of nondiscrimination and his inalienable human rights.

It is curious — is it not? — how everyone has at least one kind of criminal offence that he wants to see punished most severely, perceiving with perfect clarity the logic of long imprisonment as preventive for that particular type of crime. But he cannot see that precisely the same logic must apply to all other forms of crimes that are equally subject to recidivism, and even going so far as to deny that, in general, imprisonment does any good. Of course it doesn't, if you keep letting recidivists out.