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Why was Sarah Reed in prison, not hospital?

5 February, 2016 - 16:49

Image of Sarah Reed, a light-skinned Black woman wearing a cream coloured fleece top.Sarah Reed told family of alleged sexual assault in hospital, from the Guardian

It has been revealed that Sarah Reed, the woman who was found dead in her cell at Holloway Prison in London last month, having supposedly strangled herself, had been remanded following an incident in a secure ward at the Maudsley psychiatric unit in south London. Ms Reed wrote to her parents to tell them that an old white man had sexually assaulted her while in the unit and she fought back, resulting in her being charged with causing grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent. Rather than being released back to that or another unit, she was remanded in custody. This would have been the decision of a medical ‘expert’ from the local health authority, rather than a judge or prison service official. Reed was the victim in 2012 of an assault by a police officer, who was later dismissed from the Metropolitan Police and sentenced to community service.

The incident should raise the question of why secure mental health wards exist that treat both men and women; many women with mental health problems are victims of sexual abuse and rape. We do not imprison men and women together; we should not do the same in the mental health system. (By the way, nearly all mental health wards are locked as sectioned and informal patients are treated on the same ward. Theoretically, an informal patient is allowed to leave; in practice, staff often refuse to allow them to, or threaten to section them if they demand to be allowed to leave.) The experiment with mixed wards led to a number of incidents of sexual harassment of female patients, many of which were dealt with inadequately by staff, and it has often led to women feeling unsafe simply by being confined in the same space as men. It simply should not happen.

On top of this, why would anyone imagine that prison is a suitable environment for someone whose mental state does not permit them to live at home or walk the streets without supervision? The fact that prisons are closed institutions does not make them less stressful places to be than home, the street or the shops; this misplaced assumption is commonly made about institutional environments (not only prisons but also boarding schools, hospital units and so on), and is wrong, and dangerously so. A person who is under section is already presumed to need mental health care and to receive it from mental health professionals; prison officers are not mental health professionals and convicts, by nature, are more likely to be violent than other psychiatric patients. Why was she not transferred to a women’s secure mental health unit? There are plenty in the south-east and it would have been a more appropriate use of the resources than sending inappropriately sectioned autistic people there from other parts of the country. Unlike in the mental health system, “no beds” is no impediment to imprisoning someone; they can always make prisoners share with one or two others.

Of course, it’s possible for a mentally-ill person to commit a crime for which their illness is not a defence. But it’s a fact that people in institutions are more likely to be referred to the police for property damage or fights that would result in their arrest if they happened at home, and the atmosphere and person mix of the institution, the reasons why people are there and so on may make more likely. This applies to children’s homes as well, resulting in “looked-after” children being more likely to start their adult life with a criminal record than one who was able to live with their family. Someone who is meant to be receiving treatment for an illness, which may be (as in Sarah Reed’s case) the result of trauma, should not be criminalised for failing to deal with the stresses of (enforced) institutional life as calmly and rationally as a healthy, free person — the proverbial “man on the Clapham Omnibus” — might.

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Another victim of the great British mental health misery-go-round

3 February, 2016 - 10:47


They first sent me to Windsor, and then to Stoke on Trent
In a holding cell in Liverpool three days and nights I spent
My solicitor can’t find me and my family don’t know
I keep telling them I’m innocent; they say “come on son, in you go”.
— Billy Bragg, “Rotting On Remand”, 1988

These words were written about the state of Britain’s prisons in the mid-1980s, when overcrowding was a problem and prisoners were moved frequently, including remand prisoners who were awaiting trial and thus often innocent. Much the same is still true of the treatment of some of our young people in Britain’s mental health system, where someone on section can be moved on the say-so of a consultant psychiatrist who believes that their behaviour has got a bit too much for his staff. This is what enabled the transfer of Claire Dyer, then aged 20, from Swansea to a private medium-secure unit near Brighton in 2014; she was released from there after less than three months. Many people with learning disabilities, particularly autism, and mentally-ill young people are not so lucky and face years in multiple locked or secure units because of lack of funding for home-based care or a community placement, or because the consultant in charge does not understand their condition.

A picture of Joshua, a young white boy with short hair and a black Superdry T-shirt with English and Japanese writing on it, being embraced by his mother, a white woman with brown hair, dark glasses on, a white jumper or cardigan and black track-suit bottoms.Lately I’ve been in contact with the mother of one of these young people. Joshua is a 13-year-old boy from south London who has autism and Tourette’s syndrome, and is prone to tic attacks which particularly (though not only) happen when he is stressed. He had been at a boarding school for children with various types of learning disabilities in Surrey, but was sectioned by CAMHS when his mother was at his father’s bedside following an accident that has left him paralysed, and sent to a unit in Manchester. He remained there for more than a year until he was transferred to a hospital in Birmingham, where his mother has been able to visit him more, take him out into the local area and where it was hoped he would remain until a placement was found in his home area.

However, last week, the consultant told his mother that they were looking at transferring him to a low-secure unit outside Norwich, following an incident in which he hit and later scratched a teacher during a tic (having warned people that this is what would happen if he had a tic at that time). It was claimed that the teacher had refused to continue to teach Joshua as a result, something the family doubt as she had made some effort to build up a rapport with him and his family and had been working with him quite happily in the time after. As a teacher in a children’s mental health unit, it is inconceivable that this was her first experience of this sort of behaviour (his mother believes that her “refusal to teach him” was the management’s invention). After that incident, staff decided to nurse Joshua in his room, claiming that he was free to leave his room any time (something which he would not do; at his previous unit he refused to come out for several months). They are having someone from the unit in Norfolk (run by the same company that runs the unit where Claire was held in 2014) this week.

The situation is not quite as dire as with Claire, as the increased distance from home (Claire lived in a local unit in Swansea most of the period from 2012 to 2014) is not enormous, but it will mean a sudden change of scenery for Joshua and probably a much more confined existence, as he has been allowed out a lot in the local area with his family since moving to Birmingham (an important parallel with Claire Dyer, who had been allowed out with her family nearly every day and had spent weekends at home after being sectioned in 2013, unheard of for sectioned mental health patients) and he is unlikely to even be allowed outdoors for the first several weeks, as was the case with Claire. And all this over some fairly small incidents which the staff of a children’s psychiatric unit should be able to cope with.

A year ago this week, Thomas Rawnsley was on his death-bed from a heart attack following years of abuse and over-medication in various ‘homes’ and hospital units in Yorkshire. Young people and those with learning disabilities who are in the mental health system are still being sent miles from home, sometimes transferred several times in the space of a few months, still receiving dreadfully poor care and remaining stuck in the system for years because their rights and well-being are not paramount: the right of a person who is not a convicted criminal to a place near one’s family and to the least restrictive form of care possible seems not to be a priority, either for clinicians making decisions about patients’ lives or for the bosses who sell NHS local facilities to property developers. There is simply no excuse in a wealthy country for children to be sent out of large cities, especially a city with the population of a small country, for extended periods for mental health care; we do not do this for any other kind of healthcare other than highly specialised surgery. People have a right to family life under the European Convention on Human Rights; any forced separation from their family that is not necessary is an abuse in itself.

Joshua has his assessment for the unit in Norfolk this week. If they decide he is not suitable for them, other arrangements will be made, which could mean a worse unit even further from home. He and his family have no power to prevent this, because he is being held under section. This aspect of mental health law also needs urgent reform: the right of clinicians (not all of whom have a sound understanding of autism) to make huge decisions about a patient’s life, and for them to have no effective appeal and for the clinician to be unaccountable for the consequences. All of this must change. The rights and well-being of children and learning disabled people must come before the convenience of the staff.

Joshua’s mother asked us to share the page for her campaign; it can be found on Facebook here.

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It’s only rape if it’s rape

17 January, 2016 - 23:03

Last weekend David Bowie died, and amid the non-stop media tributes (which have been compared to the relentless coverage of Lady Diana’s death in 1997, although they can’t have really approached that — normal TV programming was stopped for most of that Sunday), there were a few dissenters who called Bowie a ‘rapist’ because he slept with a teenage groupie (or more than one) in LA some time in the 1970s. There is an unusually balanced view from Julie Burchill in the Spectator, who called Bowie’s behaviour ‘creepy’ but criticised feminists for their tendency to “strip women they do not agree with of agency, and seek to paint them as confused poltroons suffering from good old ‘false consciousness’”. A number of feminist blogs have no such qualms, however, with Louise Pennington (referred to in Burchill’s article) writing anoymously on a site called “Everyday Victim Blaming” about her own experience of sexual abuse as a (much younger) child and drawing dubious links between Bowie’s behaviour and that of Bill Cosby and Jimmy Savile. She has published two separate articles on her own blog also ([1], [2]). There have been a number of other articles expressing a similar viewpoint ([1], [2], [3], [4]), as well as a more balanced piece by Mic Wright here.

A cover for a video tape of "Absolute Beginners", showing Bowie, Patsy Kensit and another male actor from the same filmI was never a huge Bowie fan; I was a child in the 80s, not the 70s, and most of the music I heard by him in the 80s was pretty boring (Absolute Beginners, the title track from the flop 1986 film he starred in, excepted) and his later output was even less inspiring to me (the NME in the mid-90s, when I used to read it, called his more recent albums at that time “careericidal” and suggested that many people regarded him as a “cretinous windbag”). Others found him inspirational, called him a hero and said that his songs were their companion at difficult times in their lives, particularly because of his take on sexuality and gender. For me, he was a generic 80s pop star; there are no memories to tarnish. But there is a good reason why the matter hardly came up in the tributes on the radio, which is that for most people, this issue does not overshadow his work.

It’s not an excuse, of course, that other sexual abusers were worse. But others were much worse, even those (like Jimmy Page) who involved themselves with the LA “Baby Groupies”. One could say that Bowie dipped his feet in those waters while others were up to their necks, persistently abusing both adults and children throughout their careers. However, the biggest difference is that the girl he had sex with, Lori Maddix, agreed to do it and expresses no regrets about it as an adult. Feminists often talk about how girls and women can be ‘groomed’ to accept sex with men who are much older than them and are clearly (to them) exploiting them, but it’s difficult to see how a middle-aged woman can still be ‘groomed’ forty years after the event. It’s not Lori Maddix who is calling Bowie a rapist; it’s others.

To call this ‘rape’, whatever the law says, is absurd, because rape clearly refers to sex which is forced or where the victim was not capable of agreeing (because of unconsciousness, intoxication or severe intellectual disability, for example). A law that says someone cannot consent does not mean they cannot in reality. Merely breaking a law, even a well-meaning one, is not the same as sexually assaulting anyone. Even calling it sexual abuse is dubious, because this term can refer to sexual assaults, including rape, but also refers to sex which may be submitted to because the victim is intimidated by their abuser’s power — they may be able to threaten to make their lives difficult, or they may be pretending to be friendly when others (in an institutional setting, for example) are openly (sometimes physically) hostile. It is not agreed to enthusiastically out of desire. It refers to situations where one party has power over the other to begin with.

I believe Louise Pennington about her own experiences, but her comparison of Bowie’s behaviour with those of Savile and Cosby does not carry any weight. Savile’s and Cosby’s victims came forward; they knew they had been raped or assaulted and said so, apparently without needing someone like Louise Pennington to tell them this is what they had experienced; Maddix said she had not been. Maddix sought out Bowie; Savile sought out his victims, some of whom were in an extremely vulnerable situation such as being incapacitated following spinal injury or surgery (or both), and some of whom were in other hospitals or special boarding schools. As is now known, authorities were reluctant to move against Savile because the money he raised was vital to the running of their institutions — in large part because government policy made them dependent on such benefactors. None of this was the case with Bowie.

Radical feminists, in my experience, aren’t capable of discussing these issues rationally, as I have made clear on two previous occasions. In the second of those links, we see a feminist of the same circle as Pennington call a 15-year-old boy a rapist for having sex with a 13-year-old girl (who, as I pointed out, may well have been in the year below him or even the same year at school; the age difference was nearer one full year than two). They expect the rest of us to believe them when they tell us that women do not lie about rape, but they proceed to call things ‘rape’ that are not, and to call women ‘victims’ who are not, and who do not claim to be. In truth, they believe women only when they stick to the script. As derided as expressions like “real rape” and “rape rape” are, no dictionary definition of rape includes “a sexual encounter that someone enjoys until someone who thinks they know better tells them it was rape”.

If David Bowie had really been a serial abuser of women and girls, it’s highly likely that a large number of victims would have come forward in the last ten years or so. He has really not been the all-conquering superstar the tributes last week suggested; as noted in the Observer today, his early shows were played in concert halls and arenas, not stadia, and when his mother criticised his lifestyle, it was the NME that reported it, not the tabloids; the past 20 years or so, he’s been a forgotten has-been and if his music has been played (except shortly after album launches), it’s been his music from the 60s to the early 80s. He is too dead to atone for these actions now, but even when he was alive, his ‘victim’ said she had a great time and had no regrets. I am not saying people should approve of his behaviour, but it was not the pattern of his life and he did not make a career out of it. There would not be this degree of adulatory coverage of his career if that were the case. If Bowie had actually raped someone (adult or child), I would agree that he did not deserve any of this coverage, but as his ‘victim’ did not hold it against him, the public cannot be expected to either.

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Cologne attacks tell us nothing about Islam

10 January, 2016 - 12:07

A picture of some white flowers left on the steps of Cologne cathedral, with a message in German, "one does not hit women, even with flowers". Two people, perhaps a couple, are walking down the steps behind.On New Year’s Eve, an organised gang of hundreds of young men, described as being of Arab or North African appearance, descended on the main railway station in Cologne, Germany, and molested and robbed hundreds of women who were out to take part in the city’s NYE celebrations. At least two rapes were reported as well. It transpires that of the 31 arrested over the incident (and, it should be pointed out, some have been released for lack of evidence), 18 were asylum seekers from those two areas, but they also include Germans, Serbs and an American. The speculation and then confirmation that many or not most of the attackers were Arabs or North Africans and possibly asylum seekers has led to a flurry of demands for a tightening of Germany’s asylum laws as well as the return of asylum seekers who commit crimes (the chancellor is drafting laws which will do this, making it possible to deport those sentenced to less than three years, the current threshold), as well as calls to “face facts” about Arab and Muslim culture and Islam itself and the attitudes to women they encounter. Some have responded that sexual harassment and rape culture are already well-established in western societies, including Germany, and does not need to be imported by immigrants from anywhere.

As a Muslim I can say unequivocally that these attacks had nothing to do with Islam. Many of the attackers were reported to have been drunk, but robbery, rape and molesting women are all crimes in Islam, as they are in any other system of law. Furthermore, the attacks were particularly serious as they took place at a railway station, a place where you will find a lot of travellers, and Islam takes a particularly dim view of bandits who harass travellers. It’s possible that the attackers were of Muslim descent, but there’s nothing in Islam that gives anyone permission to form a gang and attack strangers in this manner. It’s well-known that extremist groups within Islam spuriously justify killing civilians in what they consider a ‘war’ situation (i.e. terrorism), but to put on an orgy of robbery and sexual molestation when you’re a refugee in another country which has made a point of accepting refugees when neighbouring countries have not, is simply treachery, not only to the host nation but also to other refugees. I remember Abdullah Hakim Quick talking back in the 90s about Muslim men who cheated the benefits system and justified it by saying things like “this is dar al-harb (the land of war), brother; these are the kuffar (unbelievers)” and he commented, “you’re like putting your hand out to the kuffar, that’s a war?”.

We have yet to hear about any motives for this attack. We do not know who organised it and why, yet every armchair ‘expert’ on Middle Eastern culture has come out of the woodwork to explain to us that this is the natural consequences of letting large numbers of people from countries where “women are property” into the country. The comments on some blogs are undisguised and that much more aggressive (as on this one), but there are also articles in mainstream newspapers, including liberal ones, who tell us to “face the facts” or “ask difficult questions” about whether there really is a connection between allowing large numbers of refugees from countries with less than ‘enlightened’ attitudes to women and an orgy of violence against women. For example, this was in Deborah Orr’s column in yesterday’s Guardian:

Sixth, it is beyond doubt that there are people living in Europe now who have been brought up in a culture where a woman would be publicly and viciously punished for allowing herself to be the victim of a sexual assault. It is utterly unrealistic to expect all those brought up in fundamentalist religious cultures – conservative Islam being the largest, but by no means the only such culture – to be able suddenly and completely to ditch all aspects of the pervasive environment they were brought up in.

In the printed version, Orr also claims that similar attacks also took place in Finland, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden; these have been deleted from the online article. She suggests that the attitudes of Arab men such as that “only a worthless woman walks through the street alone” “only come to an understanding that this is not the case through consistent intellectual effort”, which she said requires leadership which is in “very short supply” among both secular and religious leaders in the Middle East and North Africa. But it is secular leaders who have been the rulers in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and many other Arab countries for decades and they are no more tolerant of “free inquiry” than religious rulers such as in Saudi Arabia. They may sometimes talk about women’s rights, but they perpetrate violence against the populace, including women, whenever they get a whiff of dissent. Men have the power within the family, but nobody really has any rights.

It’s fairly well-known that street sexual harassment of women is a problem in many Middle Eastern countries, and is worse than in the west (even places like Italy), and has been for longer. It used to be said that dressing conservatively made a woman less of a target, but in recent years even covering the face has failed to put some of the harassers off. But we have large numbers of Muslims in the UK, and we have done since the 1960s, and I’ve never heard it said that areas of substantial Asian Muslim settlement have a worse problem for street sexual harassment than anywhere else. But this isn’t normal street sexual harassment, anyway (though I don’t doubt those involved ‘cut their teeth’ in common street harassment). It’s an organised attack, a phenomenon which echoes the sexual assaults which took place on women in public places during some of the Arab Spring demonstrations, particularly in Cairo, which were widely attributed to gangs backed by the state (commonly called at the time “the thugs”). Orr airily dismisses conspiracy theories such as that German men wore fake tan to perpetrate these attacks while pretending to be Arabs, but it’s quite possible that among the refugees, alongside the ISIS infiltrators and the minority of criminals that travel whenever a population moves, are Assad supporters — current or former mukhabarat and other Baathists, as well as Hezbollah and other allies — who have an interest in making sure Syrians affected by their war cannot flee, least of all to the west. I suspect that if ISIS were really behind this, the level of violence and the numbers of rapes would have been higher, and people would have been killed.

There is a logical fallacy being employed by those who claim the attacks are the product of Arab attitudes towards women: the assumption that because most of all those who commit a particular act are of a certain background, that all or most of that background are inclined to commit that act. We saw the same when groups of Asians were convicted of grooming and raping young girls in England: that as “they’re all Muslims”, that this must be because they’re Muslims or because of some attitudes all Muslims harbour, when in fact the proportion of the criminals to the number of Muslims was tiny. The fallacy only has currency when the group involved is a minority; the observation that all rapists are men does not result in jeopardy for men because men are not a minority (even the suggestion of all-female train carriages last year provoked scorn; the suggestions of curfews for men never get beyond suggestions). But the same suggestions about Muslims and terrorism and child grooming and rape, about black men and gun or knife crime, or about mentally ill people and random violent attacks, have serious repercussions for those groups however flawed or baseless the observations are. It can easily translate into prejudice, or actual discriminatory policy.

Attacks of the sort that happened on New Year’s Eve are new. Street harassment is not, but flash mob attacks for that purpose are. We don’t do that sort of thing here, but then, neither do Arabs in their own countries. This has a lot to do with why the police response was ineffective and why crass suggestions such as “keeping strange men at arm’s length” appeared in the days after. We do not yet know what motivations lay behind it or who actually organised it, so we cannot say that they were the product of “male sexual entitlement”, Muslim attitudes to women or anything else. (For this reason, the fact that attitudes towards women and sexual assault in the West are not as englightened as we think they are is not relevant to this incident either.) It could have been done for money or it could have had political motives. The organisers and participants, whether they be Assad’s men or ISIS or just common criminals, should be locked up and then thrown out; while I have always opposed expelling non-citizens with family connections here for a single criminal offence, I believe people who go to another country to commit crime or who offend within a very short time should be expelled. But this attack should not result in prejudices against Arabs or Muslims becoming policy. We can’t judge a religion that prohibits alcohol by the behaviour of some delinquent, drunken adherents, if they are indeed adherents at all. The key to understanding and responding to this lies in finding the organisers and learning what their motives were. We do not know anything until we know those things. Any reaction based on what we know now, such as closing the door to all Syrian refugees, is unjustified.

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Mediation, bullying and how it leads to adult violence

3 January, 2016 - 18:41

A still from a TV soap, showing a white man with dark hair wearing a blue shirt holding a woman's face (mostly off camera) up by the chin, talking at her with a clearly threatening look on his face.A week or so ago, I found a link that Karen Ingala-Smith, a prominent British campaigner against violence against women, posted about an ‘experiment’ in Harrow, north-west London, in which victims of domestic violence will discuss their abuse “face-to-face with the perpetrators” in an effort to “break the cycle”. The experiment is based on an American model and will be run by psychotherapists and counsellors from the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships. A local councillor is quoted as saying that “if the abusers understand the impact their behaviour has on their family, we hope they can change” and that the experiment would be combined with a campaign to encourage victims to come forward. The article quotes Karen Ingala-Smith and another anti-violence campaigner, Sarah Green of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, who said:

The assumption in such couple counselling approaches tends to be that both parties must be at fault and they simply need to learn better behaviours. Domestic violence is about bullying and control, not misunderstanding. It is a choice, and it is deeply related to power between men and women.

The scheme immediately struck me as similar to an idea which has been popular in schools for some time, called “circle time”, in which bullies and their victims are encouraged to ‘discuss’ their issues and the impact the bullying has. I never experienced circle time as such but there were efforts at my school to get these matters discussed in the open but which were often unsuccessful. One reason is because we did not want to have to ‘discuss things’; the problem was obvious and we just wanted the adults who ran the place to make it safe. Another, which people who work in institutions have to understand (but often fail to) is that the weaker parties will be unwilling to talk about their abusers in public because they, and not the outsiders trying to counsel them (or, say, coming in to run creative writing sessions), will have to deal with the bullies or abusers later. The same will be true in houses where there is an abusive spouse (or, say, older sibling). At my school, when people complained about bullying and were then asked to talk about the matter in public, they often fell silent, and staff reacted as if they had been complaining about nothing. One of the senior staff, a man known for using violence, more than once complained that I would “clam up” in front of him, when he had used violence against me personally and was known for throwing people around and bellowing in boys’ faces.

A further problem is that abusers often know that their behaviour hurts; that is why they do it. (The same needs to be borne in mind when using empathy to educate people against any form of violence, be it bullying, domestic violence or even rape; there are those for whom hurting another is not a drawback, but an advantage.) There is a difference between unreasonable behaviour, which could be amenable to discussion and counselling, and deliberate bullying in which the abuser aims to coerce, injure or humiliate their victim. A victim might not want to have to explain why what the abuser did hurt them; they might not want to show weakness in front of them. Finally, there is the danger of victim blaming: the victim being told he or she is “provoking” their abuser, when in fact these “provocations” may be exceedingly trivial, or not even provocations at all, just pretexts. Such attempts at mediation can easily be a means to dispose of a problem without really getting the abusers to change their behaviour. They are, by definition, tougher nuts to crack than the victims are.

A few weeks ago a feminist I used to follow (I still come across her from time to time as she is friends with a lot of my disability activist friends, but away from them she advocates separatism) made some tweets on the “waste of energy” of educating men about violence against women:

I don’t agree that educating men and boys is the route to liberation. That is what liberal feminists believe.

Radical feminists do not waste our limited energy and resources on teaching men anything. We focus on women.

Why should I decide what happens to boys and men? I would rather just focus on women.

Every boy is brought up knowing that rape is bad. Yet women are raped. Why is this? All men know that battering women is wrong. Yet women are battered. Why?

But it’s not only necessary to teach boys that ‘rape is bad’ and that ‘battering women is wrong’ — and not just in that rape means more than the stereotypical scenario in which a ‘respectable’ woman is attacked as she goes about her business. The notion that men should not hit women, and boys should not hit girls, was common currency when I was a child; the idea that small boys had a right to a life free of violence wasn’t. We do not consistently teach children that hurting people is wrong, that you cannot use violence to get your own way or in response to trivial personal slights and get away with it. It starts with parents hitting their children in response to trivial things like not liking their tone of voice (and such parents will always tell others — maybe they believe it themselves — that they only hit when “at the end of their tether”). But the place where most people learn these negative lessons is at school. A few years ago, when gun and knife crime were in the news a lot in London, one common scenario was where someone shot another because of “disrespect” — an offensive remark or even just a dirty look. This took me back to school, where boys were assaulted on regular occasions, even by staff, in response to trivial personal slights, sarcastic remarks and so on.

The school I went to was a pro-bully school which had an unstated but fairly consistent policy of using flattery, appeasement and victim blaming to “deal with” the rampant problem of bullying. It was a small school, so I know I can’t judge the whole school system by my experience (the comprehensive school I went to the year before was not like this; I do not recall any staff violence and hardly any bullying by older pupils), but I’m sure it was not unique in fostering some of these behaviours. (The law is very clear on the use of violence by teachers and care staff now: it is illegal. This was not the case in private schools in 1989.) The behaviours included:

  • Telling off boys who had been bullied or assaulted for “mouthing off” or swearing, in front of the aggressor
  • Telling a boy who had been bullied that staff could not handle a particular bully (despite that being their job), and therefore he should not annoy him in any way, again in front of the bully
  • Repeatedly making excuses for serious assaults
  • Taking no account of proportionality in terms of violent reaction to insult or a minor assault
  • Responding to complaints of unfairness by smaller pupils with “life’s not fair” or “you cannot expect us to fight all your battles for you” type platitudes
  • Staff using bully language, e.g. calling victims “mouthy” or accusing them of “mouthing off”
  • Staff responding with fury at “bad manners” when boys complained of being bullied (or of staff inaction or violence) and were angry, which deters victims from coming forward in future
  • Staff flattering or showing favours to bullies in front of their victims
  • Expecting weaker pupils to cave in to the demands of bigger ones to “keep the peace” or because it’s easier than to stand up to the bully
  • Giving positions of power (e.g. as prefects) to known bullies, and then doing nothing when they use violence

(I refer to boys in this list because the school I went to was a boys’ school; I am not saying girls cannot be affected by this behaviour as well.)

I was going to give a couple of specific examples, but decided not to as people might think them petty when their implications were not; I’ve written about what sort of thing went on at my old school before on this site. The point being that young people need to be taught that bullying is not acceptable, that hurting people is not acceptable, and that you cannot get your own way by using threats or force, but teaching these things in words is not enough if adults’ behaviour in the event shows them to be untrue; they must be taught through actions. If young men come through school having seen bullies lord it over everyone else and those unable to stand up to them being told to buckle under to keep the peace, and seeing that if you’re popular enough then you can do what you like, then it is no surprise that they turn into domineering, callous boyfriends or even rapists — especially if they came from an environment where “woman” was used as an insult. If they are taught that some people deserve respect while others invite violence by simply opening their mouths, this lesson can easily transfer to women later on. If we teach young people that if someone annoys them it is OK to thump them, we cannot expect them to show self-restraint in the face of provocation, or when someone refuses to do what they want, as adults. And do we look at young people’s characters before allowing them onto sports teams where they can distinguish themselves with inconsequential physical feats? We know some American schools do not care if their athletes are rapists, let alone school bullies.

It’s not the only reason, of course, but attempts to explain why some men rape or abuse women always seem to focus on their attitudes to women and where they learned them. Why does it more often focus on the supposed fact that a boy got to go and play while his sister washed the dishes at home than on the very likely possibility that, as a 6ft tall 16-year-old, he was popular and praised despite (or because of) the fact that he bullied and assaulted 11-year-old boys who were much smaller than most adult women, for trivial reasons or just for fun? Yes, of course, in the adult world, people are sometimes successful despite callous or even criminal treatment of others, but young people should not be given the impression that this is how they can or should behave. No amount of moralising to teenagers will have much effect on their behaviour as teens or as adults if they get away with hurting and oppressing others, or seeing others get away with it, time and time again.

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The AK-47 has always been the guerrilla weapon

30 December, 2015 - 12:29

In today’s Guardian there is a feature on why the AK-47 has suddenly become the weapon of choice for terrorists, replacing suicide belts and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The article features a petty arms dealer from Montenegro, one Vlatko Vucelic, who was stopped on the motorway in Germany carrying “a whole arsenal”, which consisted of three handguns, two grenades, 200g of TNT and eight Kalashnikovs. The assault rifles, which originate in Russia, are now manufactured in more than 30 countries (including EU states that used to be in the Warsaw Pact, some of which sold the weapons to Libya), most of them in China, and are exported to Africa where it is believed most of the illicit AKs come from, having been supplied to rebel groups in other countries or sold by underpaid soldiers.

Picture of an AK-47 assault rifle, with magazine and bayonet attachedI was a bit surprised by the headline, because AK-47s have been the weapon of choice for guerrillas for decades, in fact almost as long as they have existed. The USSR and its clients would have sold them (or given them) to Marxist guerrillas in various places (Africa, South America, parts of Asia) during the Cold War, and after the wars were over, not all the weapons were legally decomissioned but found their way into the hands of criminal gangs or other rebel groups. It’s also known that the former USSR left plenty of them in countries they used to occupy in eastern Europe, very conveniently for the various players in the war in former Yugoslavia that followed. No doubt Afghan (and Arab) mujahideen ‘liberated’ some from the Russian occupiers in Afghanistan. And so on. (TW: picture of assault rifle with bayonet under the fold.)

Why is it popular? I’m no expert as I’ve never handled anything more powerful than an air rifle, but it’s a widely-respected weapon, and British and American soldiers have often said it is more reliable than the assault rifles their armies supply them, especially the British SA-80. There were stories of American soldiers capturing Kalashnikovs in Vietnam and then using them against the Cong in preference to their own M-16s, and I saw a letter in the Guardian some years ago from a British soldier saying that most British soldiers would prefer to fight with AK-47s, but the army would not let them as it would go against the dogma that “the west always has the best”. One reason for its popularity, I’ve been told, is that the AK is easier to take apart and put back together.

As a teenager in the early 90s, I bought a book called Guerrilla Warfare Weapons by Terry Gander in a bargain bookshop in Croydon. It had a picture of an AK-47 and called it “the virtual badge of the modern guerrilla”. It has been for years. I can’t answer for why ISIS have switched from bombs to bullets, but if they were going to equip their terrorists abroad with assault rifles, it would always have been that one. You never hear the British army claiming that anyone is interested in pinching their rifles.

Image source: Wikimedia, uploaded by Allatur. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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Joe Holliday and medical gender assignment

29 December, 2015 - 13:00

Picture of a 10-year-old white girl (with a distinctly boyish face) with freckles, long dark hair and a black blouse with white dots.Back in the late 1990s I remember watching a documentary about a young girl then named Joella Holliday, whose mother had been fighting to get a birth certificate issued that said she was female. She had been hastily named Joel David as a newborn when doctors could not identify a sex because several of her abdominal organs were malformed or absent and it was feared that she would not survive very long, but doctors believed she should have been assigned female as she had no penis at all. It took nearly ten years and a public legal battle to get the certificate issued, but the publicity caused her to be bullied at school and to ultimately be withdrawn. I saw a couple of other interviews with Joella over the years and a literary agent’s website carried details of a forthcoming book, but this year the book was published, and Joella is now Joel (or Joe) again, and has reverted to living as a man. He and his ghost writer have done interviews and published articles calling for an end to the medical reassignment of gender to intersexed babies, claiming that studies have found that many of those with genders reassigned (usually female) for medical reasons or because they’re “not quite male” have rejected their assigned gender as adults, and attributed the depression he had suffered in his early 20s, prior to having a routine chromosome test which revealed he had XY (male) chromosomes, to being raised in the wrong sex.

This isn’t the only well-known case of someone being reassigned female as an infant and rejecting this imposition as an adult. The best-known case is that of David Reimer, an identical twin boy whose penis was injured during circumcision at seven months and, on the opinion of John Money, was reassigned female at 22 months. Money went on to publish papers about his so-called “John/Joan case” and claim that it had been a success. In fact, Reimer had rejected his reassignment from the outset, fighting when put in girls’ clothes, and despite being brought up to all appearances as a girl, was never happy with it. When an exasperated Money asked Reimer as a teenager, “don’t you want to be a girl?”, he responded “no!”; Reimer then stopped seeing Money and had operations and hormone treatments to reverse the feminisation process. He later married, but killed himself in 2004, two days after his wife told him she wanted to separate.

In Joel/Joella Holliday’s case, his rejection of his reassigned gender took more than 20 years. The obvious difference is that he was only a year old rather than nearly two, by which time David (then Bruce) Reimer had had a chance to develop a male identity. There was no twin brother and none of the enforced sex ‘play’ that Money put Reimer and his twin brother through. His case was never intended to test a theory about gender; it was accepted that raising him as a girl was best for him as, whatever his chromosomes, he did not have the equipment to be male and that, quite apart from making finding a partner next to impossible, he would face almost certain persecution at school as a teenager. But there are other parallels. In all his media appearances as Joella, he was portrayed as an active but girly girl, in one documentary that was screened in 1998 hanging out with girl friends and going to the hairdresser’s as a social occasion. In fact, Joella had no real friends at school; the girl ‘friend’ was not a friend and just wanted to be on TV, and Joella’s real interests were more typical of boys, like football. More recently, it was claimed in newspaper interviews that Joella wanted to marry and adopt children; in fact, as he has recorded in his book, he was never attracted to men or boys when living as a female.

The media apperances happened because her mother had been trying to get a birth certificate for Joella issued that gave her sex as female. Joella had been registered as male not because of any medical evidence either way, but because only a boy’s name had been thought of and it was not believed he would survive very long. His chromosomes would not have been a fundamental concern because XY chromosomes produced a male body in the absence of any impediment — such impediments include Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome and Swyer Syndrome among other things, and Joe Holliday’s condition, with the lack of a penis, might have been considered a similar impediment. There are thousands of people with XY chromosomes and a body which is externally, and to a lesser extent internally, female. (In the case of AIS, there are no internal female organs; in the case of Swyer, the ovaries are missing.) So, the fact that his chromosomes were XY does not mean he “was really male” or “should have been male”. He had no biological sex, in reality. His assignation as female could only have been for social purposes.

Picture of a young white man with short, brown hair, wearing a white open neck shirt and a grey waistcoat.Joe’s decision to take male hormone treatments and live as a man as an adult is his right. But I am not sure if it would have been ethical for doctors to impose a male gender on a child they knew had neither a penis nor the necessary ‘plumbing’ to make an artificial one work. It would of a certainty have caused alienation and bullying for him as a teenager, unless his parents had home-schooled him (as they did, for the same reason; but doctors could not assume they would have been able or willing to do that). And there would have been the disappointment of seeing male friends get girlfriends and, later, wives and children, while he might well have experienced none of it. If he knew the story of his medical condition, he might have ended up questioning whether he should have been male at all. I do not believe it can be said for certain that his later identity problems and depression stemmed from having been ‘wrongly’ raised a girl; if a female birth certificate had been quietly issued at a year old, and there had been no legal battle, no publicity and none of the bullying that led to her withdrawal from school, and if she had had surgery to make her continent and give her genitalia, she might have developed more of a female identity and not developed the depression she did in her teens.

American research shows that many genetic males with cloacal exstrophy that are assigned female at birth (9 out of 14 in a sample of 16; the other two were assigned male as their parents resisted assigning them female) choose a male identity later in life, often in childhood; all the children in this study had what were judged to be male-typical interests and were more likely to have male than female friends, and even one of those who retained a female identity at the end of the study indicated that she might like to be a boy. It’s worth noting that none of the people in this study were older than 20 at the time it concluded, and none of the five still living as female knew of their status at birth; Joe Holliday was in his mid-20s when he decided to live as a man. It is, of course, a small sample of people of different ages; it concludes that “clinical interventions … should be reconsidered in the light of these findings” (a larger study, in 2001, still held that “gender assignment should depend on the likelihood for reconstructing an adequate phallus”). It could be that assigning such children as female, while ensuring that there are no legal or bureaucratic impediments if they later decide to live as boys or men, is the most ethical solution until such time as it is possible to facilitate male sexual function in such individuals. It would be every bit as cruel to impose a male upbringing, and the life expectations that brings, on a child one knows will never be able to perform as a male.

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Apple iCloud scam warning

27 December, 2015 - 17:53

Earlier today I got an email ostensibly from Apple, which told me that my iCloud ID was facing deletion because I had not ‘confirmed’ it. The email read:

You’ve not yet confirmed your iCloud ID [redacted] and it’s now pending removal from all associated services.

Apple Account: [redacted]

Customer ID: [a 7-figure number, redacted just in case it’s real]

To comply with mandatory EU regulation and to confirm your details, we need to fully certify your Apple ID. You can do this by visiting Apple Store with a valid form of ID or electronically as long as all the information you have provided is valid. To complete this online please proceed to login below.

http://icloudtechnical.org/myaccount/?email=[redacted]

We apologize for any inconveniences that may result from this process however we are required to confirm your details because of recent changes in ‘Know your Customer’ EU regulations.

Regards,

Apple Support

I actually clicked the link, and was about to enter my password, but clicked around some of the links (the website is made up to look like Apple’s own). Some of them led to the Apple website but others were dead links. I then did a WHOIS search on the domain and discovered that the IP address was French, and that the same IP address (176.67.168.179) also had two other domain names associated with it, one of them beginning “paypal-protects”. The fake iCloud domain is registered to a woman in Redenhall, Norfolk, England; the “paypal-protects” domain is registered to a woman in Weybridge, Surrey. I just contacted the woman in Norfolk and she recalls following a link in a similar email, but balked at entering her credit card details. Clearly, entering her Apple ID was useful enough for them.

I’m normally wise to scam emails, but they nearly got me with this one. They are looking for identities to steal and other people’s money to spend. If you get an email that looks like it’s from Apple, make sure the links are to Apple.com. (Twitter knows the website is a scam address, as it would not publish a tweet containing it.)

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No, Labour will not survive another split

20 December, 2015 - 21:36

Picture of Peter Hyman, a clean-shaven white man with dark hair, wearing a grey jacket, white shirt and red tie with dots of dark red, white and two tones of yellow.In today’s Observer, there is a long article by former Labour stragegist (now a London headteacher) Peter Hyman in which he claims that the current Labour party is a party of “pacifism, republicanism and anti-capitalism” which could only appeal to “a mix of metropolitan elites, students and some trade unionists” and many of whose supporters “want to win an argument rather than an election” and is uninterested in education. He calls for the Blair wing of the party to split away, to form a new ‘project’ which “does not try to recreate New Labour, because the world has moved on, but learns from it”, and accuses Blairites who remain and consider staging a coup of “deluding themselves”:

At its heart would be a renewed sense of moral purpose – a commitment to social mobility – breaking down all barriers to people getting on in life. It would believe in a leaner, more agile, empowering state that supports social entrepreneurs in the building of strong, diverse and democratic communities. This would be in sharp relief to the cuts of the Tories and the big state solutions of the traditional left.

This project would tap into the urgent needs of the country and the new aspirations of the public. This project would need to come up with fresh thinking about how to shape a growing, creative, greener economy and schools that prepare young people properly with the knowledge, skills and character to thrive in this economy.

Instead of just attacking the current reforms to welfare, the project would need to champion the overhaul of the welfare state to provide a more modern contributory system and new institutions such as a National Care Service for the elderly to run alongside the NHS. It would be seen as grappling seriously with the big questions of the day: migration, globalisation, terrorism, the environment, welfare, housing, our place in the world.

A news article based on this claims that Hyman had said that “it may even be necessary to form a new party with others, including the Lib Dems”, but nowhere are the Lib Dems mentioned in the article. (It erroneously calls Hyman’s school a comprehensive; it is in fact a free school.)

I’m not a Labour member, haven’t been since 1995 and didn’t get a vote in the last leadership election. But it is obvious that Corbyn won because the other three candidates failed to inspire the membership, which was exasperated by their failure to oppose destructive Tory policies (because, despite it being their reality, they regarded “opposition” as a dirty word) and their insistence on mouthing the Tory orthodoxies and platitudes that have become common in the media, repeating the mantra that Labour needed to “prove its economic competency” because the myth that Labour were spendthrifts while in office had been repeated so often (including on the BBC) that it was assumed to be true. They did not even defend Blair’s own legacy, and despite the reminder of how much better it was under Blair than under Cameron, raised doubts over what, if anything, their Labour government would do differently from Cameron. Some of them seem to regard Blair’s flaws (especially his foreign policy after 2001) as his good points. This is why Corbyn, who had not sought the leadership but rather someone else had suggested him as an outsider candidate for “change”, won an overwhelming victory.

Assuming the comment about the Lib Dems indeed comes from Hyman, the chances of New Labour forming a new party with the Lib Dems are negligible. The Lib Dems have always been an internally democratic party, which was a key selling point when the other parties were dominated by union block votes and stage-managed conferences. New Labour has always been about control: the imposition of candidates centrally on local parties; the muzzling of organisations with connections to Labour such as student unions; the continued use of union block votes where they still exist to make sure candidates acceptable to the leadership are chosen; the PR regime of Alastair Campbell in the early days; the demand for member loyalty, even to right-wing candidates, on pain of expulsion if one dissented openly. New Labour always regarded the membership as the problem; it grudgingly accepted the necessity of volunteers to canvass for its candidates at election time, to operate the phones and the like, but insisted it be the servant, not the master. Such ideas, which played a large part in destroying Labour support in Scotland (which contributed to their loss of the last election) are anathema to Lib Dems.

I agree with Hyman that Gordon Brown should never have been leader. Brown and his obvious sense of frustrated entitlement lingered like a bad smell right through the Blair years, with nobody seriously entertaining the idea that there could be any other successor. He had famously agreed with Blair that the latter be the leader in the 1997 election, and Brown would take over by the election following, but Blair reneged on the agreement. Brown reminded too many people of John Major, an ineffectual prime minister who was the chancellor to his much more charismatic predecessor, with a corruption scandal affecting many of his MPs (expenses), albeit one in which Tories were involved as well, and by the time of the election, a series of PR blunders. The situation in terms of scandals, PR disasters and open division was nowhere near as awful as under John Major by 1997 but the people were not willing to let history repeat itself, while Cameron was putting on the charm.

However, the major problem with his idea is that he believes the career politicians and PR people can break away from Labour and take all the voters with them. They can’t. New Labour was always a strategy based on the assumption that they had the “core” vote in the bag — central Scotland, inner-city England, the northern (former) industrial areas and so on — and all they had to do was with the upwardly-mobile ‘C2’ (lower middle class) voters in the Midlands and outer suburbs that Thatcher had taken in 1987. That assumption no longer holds true in any case, as the northern white working-class vote is being lost to apathy and UKIP and is unlikely to support a breakaway “Lab Dem” party that sounds a lot like a metropolitan elite even if it uses the term as an insult. The new party will have to build an entirely new infrastructure, staff and body of volunteers. It will have to raise money, as it cannot depend on big unions jumping ship; that will mean it will have to rely on wealthy donors. It cannot assume that local Lib Dem party groups will stand aside for them, particularly in constituencies which had Lib Dem MPs for years before 2015 and entertain the idea of them standing again, let alone those that still do.

It is a recipe for a repeat of the SDP disaster, which as Sue Marsh pointed out on Twitter this morning (and many others have), kept Labour out of power until 1997 (she said 18 years; two years were already up by then). They can split the vote, but they cannot win an election. Labour are out of power now because New Labour, while in government, did not fundamentally change the system, either in terms of moving the centre ground such that the other party could only come back on their terms, as both Attlee and Thatcher did, or of changing such things as the electoral system or parliamentary procedures (this is why Tory MPs can talk out private members’ bills that have popular support, for example). The remains of New Labour have not offered a radical alternative, preferring to snipe at and plot against Jeremy Corbyn from the sidelines. I’m pessimistic about whether Corbyn can win an election for Labour, but the bellyaching from the bad losers is as much to blame for any loss of credibility for Labour as Corbyn is.

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Populist bigots need not be fascists

12 December, 2015 - 20:57

Picture of Donald Trump with his tongue outYesterday there was an article published in the Times by Melanie Phillips (it is paywalled, but a scanned image can be found here), a writer whose rantings against Muslims used to be a favourite topic of mine here. Phillips is, for anyone who doesn’t remember, is a conservative who used to be a liberal and who still calls herself a liberal, who used to write for the Guardian until she decided they no longer suited her, whereupon she took her column to the Times, then the Daily Mail until they decided she was too extreme for them, whereupon she went back to the Times. She labels herself a “neo-conservative”, which means a pro-war Zionist who recycles claims from the Zionist propaganda industry (MEMRI et al) and complains of “bias” when the media fails to show sufficient bias in favour of Israel. Yesterday’s article has a headline that brands Donald Trump’s “attackers”, those who seek to ban him from the UK, as the “real fascists”, but the article really does not bear this out; it does, however, peddle the idea that the popularity of his bigotry gives it legitimacy and claims that “the public have had it up to here with politicians and the intelligentsia refusing to acknowledge the fanatical religious roots of Islamic terrorism”.

To begin with: is Trump a fascist? Probably not. He is a populist bigot in a very American tradition: the rich man who feigns a common touch and is lauded for giving a voice to the “silent majority”. If you can liken him to anything from 20th-century Europe, it would more likely be Pierre Poujade rather than Hitler or Mussolini. An article on Salon compared him to Henry Ford, a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1924, who legitimised anti-Jewish prejudice and, like Trump, posed as an “outsider” who, despite his wealth, could represent the “common man”.

Phillips describes fascism as such:

So, let’s see. Isis are said to be fascists. Le Pen and Trump, who want to fight Isis and their ilk, are also fascists. Ah, so they’re anti-fascist fascists, then. Hello?

There’s actually no contradiction between two fascist leaders fighting each other. Consider that Orwell’s 1984 was set in a time when three identical totalitarian régimes were at war with each other, but in our time, régimes which display characteristics of fascism (e.g. Khomeini’s Iran and Saddam Hussain’s Iraq) have fought each other. (I would, however, dispute the claim that ISIS, whatever else they are, are fascist.)

Fascism is a totalitarian slave-doctrine that deifies the state and its leader, is obsessed with racial purification and is hostile to modernity and reason.

It is certainly totalitarian, but isn’t always “obsessed with racial purification” (Mussolini, despite his atrocities in Africa, did not persecute Jews until he came under pressure from Hitler; Franco refused to involve himself in Hitler’s genocide) and Mussolini and Hitler were not hostile to “all forms of modernity” (they were industry and infrastructure builders, which was what some in that era called progress, not bucolic conservatives who kept people illiterate and tied to the land, although Franco and Salazar were). But cults surrounding personalities or ideologies are certainly a defining characteristic, as is a heavy government hand in the economy. It is also not a “doctrine”, but describes particular patterns of behaviour. This is why people throw around the term so readily to describe everyone from Donald Trump to anyone who has been associated with any group deemed a front for the Muslim Brotherhood.

She continues:

Many suspect — largely because of her racist, antisemitic father, Jean-Marie — that Marine Le Pen is a closet fascist. Maybe she is; but her stated programme makes her merely an uncompromising nationalist.

Trump’s comments were not just ludicrous but also morally and politically illiterate, making no distinction between Islamic extremists and the millions of Muslims who live decent, unthreatening lives. But does anyone seriously suggest he wants to kill all Muslims and turn the US into a totalitarian state?

First, not every fascist is a Nazi. Second, one does not have to intend genocide to be a bigot, or to be responsible for your followers’ violence against a given minority group that you use inflammatory rhetoric against. It is also possible to be against public violence against a minority in public, while supporting it in private. Mob violence, especially organised mob violence (as has happened frequently in India), can still claim hundreds or even thousands of life and cause terror and destruction for the minority targeted.

According to one British newspaper columnist, though, Trump is more dangerous than Islamic terrorists. And more than 450,000 have signed an online Commons petition to ban him from Britain. So the response to Trump’s supposedly hateful call to ban Muslims is — to ban Trump. How liberal or coherent is that?

What a ridiculous comparison. Britain does not let known terrorists of any description into the country (except, of course, leaders of ‘approved’ terrorist states). It also has a history of banning foreign speakers and preachers who encourage intolerance on the grounds that they are “not conducive to the public good”. These have included Americans such as Louis Farrakhan. It is not contradictory to liberalism to keep out a rabble-rousing bigot who does not have an automatic right to be in the country. Banning haters is not morally equivalent to banning those they hate. Phillips would not complain if Jews were the subject of the hatred and any country banned an anti-Semite’s entry, however popular he was there or here.

She goes on to equate popularity with truth or right:

But while Trump or Le Pen may be flawed or worse, the ideas they articulate resonate with millions.

According to a YouGov poll, some 25 per cent of Britons think Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US is an appropriate policy. These respondents aren’t fascists but have understandable, sensible and rational views.

They may seem sensible and rational based on what the respondents have read in the papers or heard of on the news and in gossip on the street or among their friends. As the British and American general public are not intimately acquainted with Muslim society and are not well-read on what the Islamic scriptures and scholarly corpus say about terrorism or any other topic, and do not see Muslims flogging or beheading people in large numbers on the streets of the towns where they live and have experienced terrorism from Muslims only infrequently, they must be getting their ideas about Islam and its relationship (or lack thereof) to terrorism from somewhere.

The British and French public may not care for Trump or Le Pen. Yet they understand that they alone are saying what is all too obvious but mainstream politicians deny.

That is that the European Union is now a threat to both democracy and public safety; and that Muslim society, which pumps out paranoid hatred of the West and of which a sizeable part wishes to Islamise the body politic, provides the toxic sea in which Islamic terrorism swims.

That the EU is undemocratic is not in dispute; its major decisions are made by appointed commissioners and its institutions are far more distant from the average person than even the US federal government. However, in the time it has been in existence, it has only ever admitted democracies and no member state has ceased to be one; it emerged out of a post-war vision intended to unify different countries so as to prevent a return to the destruction of the early 20th century; so far, we have not seen a return to that. It’s not “obvious” that the EU is a threat to safety; it allowed us to opt out of the Schengen accord and to maintain border controls with countries other than Ireland, and that and our island status means we can better reduce the number of refugees and migrants and turn back people suspected of involvement in terrorism, including EU citizens. We are not being flooded. We also benefit from the abolition of tariff barriers, which would be reintroduced if we were to leave the EU, which may be discouraging to foreign owners of British factories. Why is it so ‘obvious’? Because the papers say so.

It’s worth noting that in her book Londonistan, Phillips defended tabloid papers precisely because they were read by millions and reflected popular sentiment while papers like the Guardian represented only an out-of-touch élite. This is the line taken by her former editor, Paul Dacre: it equates the purchase of the paper with a vote for the views expressed in it. However, as people have to be informed by someone about what is going on beyond their neighbourhood, it stands to reason that the popular press may be influencing or reinforcing rather than just reflecting public opinion, or rather, popular prejudices and beliefs, both true and false. It’s true that some people buy these papers for entertainment (and for the human interest and celebrity stories) rather than because they necessarily believe the opinions in it, but not everyone who reads them has bought them, and it stands to reason that papers would not include these opinions if they did not have some influence, let alone were intolerable to the readership.

Next, she raises the threat that if the demands whipped up by the popular press are not met, real fascists will benefit:

The public have had it up to here with politicians and the intelligentsia refusing to acknowledge the fanatical religious roots of Islamic terrorism. They are enraged by the reflexive charge of Islamophobia to silence legitimate concerns.

Who says? Phillips and her friends in the Zionist blogosphere and social media are, perhaps. They have reason to be: because anything that suppresses Muslim power or numbers suits the interests of Israel. The general public in the UK have not been affected by “Islamic terrorism” for years other than by hearing about it on the news (a small minority are affected by it while abroad), so why would they be “enraged” other than because of a sustained propaganda campaign?

Now, the perception that politicians are refusing to address the influx and growth of Islamic extremism and terrorism at source — and worse still, demonising anyone who tells the truth about these issues — is driving the public to snapping point. Enter, therefore, Trump and Le Pen (and, before Ukip imploded, Nigel Farage).

The fact that UKIP ‘imploded’ despite securing more than 4 million votes in the May 2015 election is reason enough to doubt that its politics are that influential; it could not attract the money necessary to continue as a major party and has only two major personalities (Farage and Douglas Carswell) who do not see eye to eye. It’s not true that anyone who publicly draws a link between Islam and extremism or terrorism is denounced as a fascist. The government routinely connects mainstream Islamic views on matters such as homosexuality or the status of women with extremism and uses someone with a background in counter-terrorism policing to lead an inquiry into Muslim activities that are nothing to do with terrorism. These views are in the political mainstream and it is opposing views that are shouted down. “Multiculturalism”, meaning tolerance of ideas that have gone out of fashion in mainstream white society, has been a dirty word in British politics for years.

What makes our intellectual elite demonise such people as fascists? For the answer, look no further than the joy and relief with which the Labour benches erupted when Hilary Benn unfurled the anti-fascist banner last week.

For the left defines itself by what it is not. Anti-fascism is the bedrock of its own identity. It needs fascism so that it can prove its own virtue by opposing it. Without fascism, it wouldn’t know what it was.

While it’s true that anti-fascism is important to the left’s identity (as it was instrumental in facing down both Mosley in the 1930s and the NF in the 70s), a commitment to social justice in the form of equality is perhaps more important. It defines itself against the Tory defence of privileged interests. That anti-fascism is important does not mean every left-winger might seek out every opportunity for glory in “fighting fascists”, especially when he or she will not be the one doing the fighting but, rather, sending other people’s sons and daughters. This was the same self-delusion that motivated the ‘sensible’ (read establishment) left to support the British and American invasion of Iraq in 2003 with predictable, disastrous results.

In fact, last century’s revolutionary Islamist thinkers were mainly influenced by communism, the secular mirror to their utopian project for transforming the world by erasing national boundaries and creating an Islamic brotherhood of man.

As the Iranian analyst Azar Nafisi wrote in 2003, radical Islam “takes its language, goals, and aspirations as much from the crassest forms of Marxism as it does from religion. Its leaders are as influenced by Lenin, Sartre, Stalin and Fanon as they are by the Prophet.” (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam)

The notion of the ummah, the Muslim equivalent of the “brotherhood of man”, is not of Marxist origin; it is a concept that goes right back to the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and was referred to in the Hadeeth. National boundaries as they exist today are artificial and so are ‘nations’ like Tunisia, Algeria etc which have more in common (including language and religion) than they have separating them; prior to the invasion of the European colonial powers, you did not need a passport to travel from one part of, say, the Ottoman empire to another. It’s true that many 20th century ‘Islamic’ revolutionaries were influenced by European thinkers and leaders, but this was a product of European influence on Muslim societies. It was only in Iran that they gained power, and even then the thinkers most influenced by Marxism (let alone actual Marxists) were sidelined early on. These observations are true to some extent of the Jama’at-e-Islami and of some elements in the Muslim Brotherhood. They are not true of the likes of al-Qa’ida and ISIS which trace their origins back to Muslims who fought communism in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Muslim scholars from across the spectrum have denounced communism becuase it necessitates the theft of legitimately-held property, because it is heavily associated with atheism, and because it has been highly repressive wherever the Muslims have experienced it (besides the former USSR, this also includes the former South Yemen). They are more hostile to communism than the late pope John Paul II.

I am not convinced Trump is a fascist. But his suggestion that Muslims should have to wear identity badges certainly has a fascist precedent. Nearly all of his much-vaunted policies on Muslims will be struck down at the first hurdle as they plainly violate the First Amendment. Even the most conservative Supreme Court justices will agree with that. In that sense, he is less clever than other bigot politicians who make sure that most of their laws do not blantantly violate the constitution. But it’s not true that Trump, Le Pen or any other politician who runs on a platform of bigotry just “says what people think” and that only a sneering liberal metropolitan élitist would disagree. Muslims are not bringing terror to the streets of Houston or Kansas City where a mass shooter is more likely to be white and nominally Christian, so anyone who thinks Trump is saying ‘obvious’ things that nobody else dares to is simply wrong, or lying. His ideas have been common currency on the biased and often mendacious American right-wing talk-radio circuit for years, as well as in some print newspapers (e.g. the Murdoch New York Post), and Trump is aiming firmly at that audience, much as the political right here exploit the prejudices fostered by the popular press.

Phillips exalts “the people” who are fed up with the indulgence of a minority she dislikes, but however many people believe a lie, it does not become the truth, and the beliefs Trump and other right-wing populists trade on are lies. It is not good enough to say that we must capitulate to the bigotry of those who believe lies, or else we will end up with “real fascists” like Golden Dawn, as Phillips says in her last paragraph. We must challenge and expose the liars, otherwise racists and fascists will be emboldened and make more demands of us. Trump is not a champion of the common man who says what nobody else will. He is a chancer, a bigot and a liar, who trades on ignorance and prejudice. He and his ilk must be fought, not excused, before they can do any damage.

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Muslim women don’t owe solidarity to bigots

5 December, 2015 - 22:56

 blame Tories and bosses, not migrants". There is a parking restriction sign in the middle.This morning I was listening to Vanessa Feltz’s phone-in show in London which is every weekday from 9am to noon. I tuned in just before 10am at which point I was heading out on the M3 towards Andover, and they were talking about Islamophobia in the light of an arson attack on Finsbury Park mosque in north London, and an interview with its general secretary on the station’s morning show (about an hour in). Feltz said that a previous caller had said that Muslim women should “show solidarity” with the victims of the French attacks by going out without their head or face-coverings for the day. This was in among a lot of claims that, despite the press releases and open letters, Muslims weren’t condemning ISIS loudly enough — the usual complaints at a time like this, mostly from people who don’t know that many Muslims and a long, bigoted email which among other things criticised the host for giving too much airtime to Muslim women and accused Muslims of showy praying at various motorway service stations. (Feltz read out a letter from me; it’s after 1hr 44min.)

I don’t know if it was a man or a woman who made the demand for a “hijab-free” day, but the demand is offensive because the vast majority of people who carry out terrorist attacks on behalf of ISIS are men (the woman who may be behind yesterday’s San Bernardino shooting being the only exception that I know of; I don’t count the one the French police shot dead after the attacks last month). Other terrorist movements have used women as operatives, but al-Qa’ida and ISIS almost never do, and have never done so in attacks on western targets. There are men who wear distinctively Muslim dress, although far fewer than women; most of these are as innocent of any association with terrorism as the women (and terrorists usually wear western clothes, not shalwar-kameez and certainly not long robes and turbans), but the women are blamed because they are easy targets. It’s even more offensive that this suggestion is being made in the context of an attack on France, a country where Muslim women and girls who wear hijab are subjected to routine harassment and discrimination as a matter of state policy. Essentially Muslim women in the UK are being asked to “show solidarity” by accepting the way the French express their bigotry and chauvinism.

We sometimes hear it suggested that men stay off the streets or off public transport for one night a year, so that women can go about their business without feeling threatened by men. There are problems with this (most men are not rapists, some of the women’s business and pleasure involve men, and so on) but it is not in the context of hate crime against men stirred up by politicians and tabloid papers. We do not have groups of women beating up random men in the street or burning their houses down because another man raped another woman in another country. Women should not have to behave in accordance with another nation’s prejudices to disassociate themselves from a group of people who (just about) belong to the same religion who attacked that country without their consent, to maintain their right not to be attacked by strangers, mostly men, in the street. I’ve never heard of this being expected of any other group in similar circumstances (though it’s difficult to think of an exactly parallel situation).

As for advice that women not wear hijab for personal safety reasons, this is something they need to judge based on what they or their friends have experienced in their areas. I have noticed that since the artificial controversy over niqaab in 2006, the number wearing it outside of Muslim areas such as the Whitechapel/Bow area in east London has declined dramatically (I used to see it a lot in Kingston, particularly among students), but plenty of women still wear hijab. The situation is going to give a lot of ammunition to older people in the community who do not like the hijab and do not want their wives and daughters to wear it and to headteachers and school governors who similarly always opposed it. Years ago, Shaikh Nuh Keller gave a speech in which he said that although it might be acceptable for women to remove hijab for safety reasons, there was a danger of taking it to excess, as with someone leaving off hijab in London because a woman was attacked in San Francisco, which is completely unacceptable — it is still a religious obligation. I say this not to criticise women who take it off because they are scared, but to make it clear to anyone who would stop them.

Women already restrict their movements enough to avoid male street harassment or rape. We should not accept it that some women should face the additional danger of threats and assaults from ignorant racists stirred up by the tabloids and talk shows. We should not blame them because the community don’t “condemn it enough” or demand “proof” (which will never be enough) that the community really opposes terrorism. Much as with every other kind of street harassment, it cannot be blamed on the victims’ dress but on the attackers’ ignorance, arrogance, sense of entitlement or bigotry. When women are being beaten up in the street and mosques are being torched, phone-ins featuring complaints about showy praying at the service station just add fuel to the fire. Bigots are the cause of bigotry, not their victims.

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Propaganda is not care

3 December, 2015 - 21:12

I saw a graphic that was presented next to an article for childminders on how to teach ‘British values’, as now required by the government, and the schools inspectorate Ofsted (which also governs children’s homes and childminders) will demand evidence of “actively promoting” something they call “British values”. The graphic includes some examples of good manners, some sly promotion of white cultural norms, as well as some examples of British culture such as “British music” and “British artists and sculptors”. The person who shared the graphic on Twitter thought it might be a troll, but it is presented in all seriousness albeit as “pointers” rather than as an actual educational resource:



To take this particular graphic, there are some startling inaccuracies, and some omissions:

  • The seasons are a month out. December is a winter month; that is when the shortest day of the year is. Some put the start of the season at the equinox or solstice (so, winter starts on 22nd December), and others at the start of the month in which it appears.
  • The examples of British music are all male, and contain no examples of non-white artists other than Freddie Mercury, who is curiously presented as a solo artist when the majority of his work was with the band Queen, the other members of which were certainly not just his backing players. Only pop and musicals are represented, except for “Welsh male voice choir” which is the only traditional form included. And it is not even true that people listen to “British music”; they listen to music in English, be it British, American or Canadian, Australian or Caribbean. Justin Fletcher, although his father Guy was a renowned songwriter, is himself a children’s TV presenter, not a singer or musician.
  • “British food” conveniently leaves out non-English cuisines other than “Haggis, neeps and tatties”. We also eat Indian, Italian and Chinese food, among many others. Most people don’t eat vegetables from their garden anymore, and seasonal fresh fruit is expensive.
  • There is nothing particularly British about good manners.
  • Phone boxes haven’t looked like that for decades.
  • “We use cutlery and napkins”: except that some non-white cultures typically use their fingers. (So do ‘we’, actually, when we’re eating food served with bread.)
  • “We learn to respect people with disabilities”: Only when they’re winning medals at the Paralympics. For the most part, we read the tabloids and learn that most of them are faking it so as to scrounge off the benefit system. And actually, a lot of disabled people hate the term “people with disabilities” even if it is in common use in other countries.

So, much as with the “Life in Britain” test that people seeking to take British citizenship have to pass (which the majority of native born Brits would probably fail), “British values” consists of a bunch of clichés about British norms, some of which are untrue, some of which are inconsequential and some of which are not uniquely British. But the message is that we all have to be the same, or at least similar; we eat the same food, listen to the same music and display much the same mannerisms.

But the biggest reason this is so offensive is that it goes against what many would argue really is distinctive about British culture in a good way: that the state does not intrude into everyday life and tell us how to bring up our children (and this includes who we agree to allow to look after our children when we are not around) and it does not try to fill children’s heads with propaganda. When a parent chooses a childminder, they may expect them to play with them, or let them play with other children, or help them with schoolwork, or some project they are doing themselves. They may not consent to having them taught ‘values’ that are handed down from on high and which they may not agree exist. I’ve only ever heard the term used by politicians and the tabloids, never by ordinary people, be they family members or teachers or anyone else in authority, in my life. Some childminders might be a bit more subtle about it and deliver reminders about sharing, table manners and so on when necessary; whether this would meet the Ofsted requirements is not clear.

The irony is that the closest parallel in recent British history is the apocryphal stories about childminders, nurseries etc being required by Labour and Liberal councils to teach children about “multiculturalism” by such things as making them wear saris. (Note: you actually have to learn how to put on a sari. I don’t suppose most non-Indian childminders knew how.) The objection to this is the same as to those stories from the 80s and early 90s: that it is intrusive and that childminders are not there to deliver state-sponsored propaganda. The difference is that this is true, and this and the earlier stories were cooked up in the same place: the Tory party and press. It is parents who pay childminders, not the state; they pay the state for the right to look after others’ children. Do you want your kids taught about the virtues of Banksy or Elton John, or to think they’re superior to their Asian friends who eat with their fingers, when you’re at work and they’re at the childminder’s? I thought not. This is not part of childcare. It is propaganda.

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Sympathy for Tania Clarence shows disablist attitudes

29 November, 2015 - 13:05

A picture of a three-storey yellow- and red-brick house, with flowers and teddy bears left in the driveway to the frontIn April 2014, Tania Clarence smothered three of her four children, Olivia, Ben and Max, all of whom had spinal muscular atrophy type 2 (SMA2), at the family home in New Malden (see earlier entry). At trial, she pled guilty to manslaughter due to diminished responsibility and received a hospital order (which means indefinite detention in a psychiatric institution). In March 2015, newspapers were reporting that Clarence had started receiving home leave. This past week, the Kingston and Richmond Safeguarding Children Board published the results of its Serious Case Review (SCA), in which the family was anonymised (exactly why is not clear, given that all of the family’s names, including the surviving daughter’s, are in the public domain), which reveals among other things the mother’s continual failure to co-operate with medical interventions that could have guaranteed the children a longer and healthier life.

The report also alluded to difficulties the couple had relating to medical and social work staff because of their cultural background (they are from South Africa) and class. This prompted an article by Ian Birrell in the Daily Mail, who suggested that the Clarences were “a devoted couple who weren’t trusted to judge what was best for their children with disastrous consequences” and who were “scorned as pushy middle-class parents after rejecting advice from the professionals, leading to a breakdown in their relationship with them”. It’s a quite astonishing piece of self-victimisation, although pretty typical for the Daily Mail, which (like the Telegraph) never shies away from criticising social workers when they interfere in middle-class family life, rather than that of the lower orders.

Reading the SCR report (PDF), I was reminded of another recent case in which a woman had a disabled baby placed with her with a view to adoption and then made plainly bad decisions about her medical care, declining routine checks and monitoring, refusing recommended pain medication and trying to obtain sedation despite it being dangerous, administered oxygen without training and discharged her from hospital against medical advice. Ultimately, the child was returned to foster care and a judge ruled that the would-be adopter “presented a real and serious risk” to the child and “it would not be safe to place a child or vulnerable adult in her care”. When I read of this case, I recognised the woman as someone I used to follow on Twitter. She has told friends that the child died and has “bereaved” on her Twitter profile (one of the many lies she has told, including about me). But removing Tania Clarence’s children despite her persistent obstruction of attempts to guarantee their health was not so easy, because they were her natural children and keeping them together in foster care would have been nigh-on impossible and because doctors, naturally, did not imagine that she had murder in mind.

One of the issues which caused conflict was the family’s (in particular, the mother’s) refusal to allow Olivia, the older girl with SMA, to have a gastrostomy. Birrell agreed with them as he faced pressure to have his disabled daughter fitted with one:

We felt that food was one of her pleasures, as well as a form of communication allowing us to interpret her moods.

Watching her eat chocolate cake with enthusiasm today, I am glad we stuck to our guns. Just as we did when we refused to allow another doctor to place her on a complicated high-fat diet to prove a pet theory on diet and epilepsy.

Of course, it’s wrong to deny a disabled person the pleasure of eating by fitting them with a feeding tube for their carers’ convenience. But a stomach tube doesn’t stop anyone eating by mouth; what it does is allow them to actually be nourished so that they have more energy for other things, which may include eating pleasurable foods like chocolate cake. But the report also reveals that the family refused assistive devices because they clashed with the decor, and refused interventions that would have improved the children’s health because they wanted to give them a “good quality of life” rather than merely prolong it. They were still, clearly, working on the basis that the children were terminally ill and had not faced up to the fact that the children could live long and productive lives, and that they were in it for the long haul as well as the children. It is significant that Tania killed the children after her husband (who the couple agreed would deal with the doctors as regarded major decisions like this) agreed to the gastrostomy and to spinal surgery which was necessary to check their scoliosis.

The doctors knew that SMA type 2 is not a condition that is typically fatal in infancy and that there was no reason for the children to die young, or to be sentenced to a lifetime of severe pain and respiratory problems, just because of their parents’ hard-set ideas or because they did not want to be parents of disabled children. People with SMA are not intellectually impaired and have been known to get degrees and work in skilled and responsible jobs. It is not autism where severe challenging behaviour is often exhibited and the parents could be injured, particularly as the child grows. There are many people who complain that parents of disabled children have to deal with huge numbers of doctors, therapists, social workers, bureaucrats and so on, much as do disabled people themselves, usually to secure care, treatment or assistive equipment such as wheelchairs for themselves or their disabled relatives so they can enjoy a full life, or enjoy their right to family life free of the constraints (or abuse) of institutional life. In this case the criticism is misplaced as the professionals were trying to keep the children alive while their parents appeared intent on letting them die. Kingston, by the way, is the home of Baroness Jane Campbell. The staff would have had experience of SMA type 2.

The complaint that professionals could not deal with them because they were seen as pushy or middle class was a common one (repeated, for example, by another parent in today’s Telegraph, whose children do not have SMA). What the report actually says is that professionals were cowed by their wealth and status and were not as aggressive in protecting the children’s interests from their parents because of that. If everyone is so biased against the white middle classes, why did this woman get such favourable treatment from the ‘justice’ and mental health systems after she killed her children? It’s preposterous. I suspect that if she had been a shouty, inarticulate woman from a council estate with a fake tan, she would be doing a triple life sentence now for murder. It was a miscarriage of justice and a dereliction of duty for the prosecution to accept a plea of diminshed responsibility and not to allow the claim to be tested in open court; it reflects a disdain for the value of the children’s lives and an excessive sympathy for an articulate, well-to-do white woman and, perhaps, a fear of negative publicity from precisely the quarters that are now crying “poor Tania”. Usually a person convicted of manslaughter through diminished responsibility and sentenced to a hospital order stays there for years, sometimes longer than if they had been convicted of murder. Tania Clarence got home leave less than six months into her sentence and less than a year after the crimes; if her ‘mental illness’ cleared up after such a short time, it is possible that it was not so severe as to constitute diminished responsibility in the first place. It is possible to be mentally ill and still culpable.

I’m not a parent, but I know many parents of disabled children and adults and I’m well aware that the role is stressful. However, there are whole forums where that issue can be discussed. In a case like this, where the facts reveal that the perpetrator’s attitude towards their children’s disability and life expectancy may have been as much a factor as stress, if not more so, it is not appropriate to empathise with the perpetrator and not with the victims, who were tiny and defenceless children. The rush to sympathise with the parent that we always see in such cases shows how little value society places on the lives of disabled people, even children; that they are worth less than a parent’s right to a stress-free life or never to feel harassed by doctors or officialdom. There should be an inquiry into the absurdly lenient treatment of Tania Clarence, and the staff at Kingston and Great Ormond Street hospitals that fought valiantly to guarantee Olivia’s, Ben’s and Max’s life and health should be praised, not dismissed as ignorant, interfering busybodies.

(I tried searching for pictures of the children to illustrate this entry. The only one I could find was of the two boys with their father. There seems to be none of Olivia anywhere.)

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Review: Britain’s ISIS Supporters

27 November, 2015 - 18:35

Poppy Begum and her friend 'Aisha', wearing a long black coat and face veil, in a London cafe at nightISIS: The British Women Supporters Unveiled from Channel 4 (available for 26 days as of this writing)

On Monday night Channel 4 broadcast what purported to be an investigation into a group of British Muslim women who supported ISIS and who ran stalls and study circles around London, as well as using social media (principally Twitter) to raise support for ISIS. What it actually found was nothing the women’s section of the remnants of al-Muhajiroun, a dwindling and banned group known for disruptive and provocative rallies and posters. They added some interviews with Sara Khan of Inspire, a woman from the Henry Jackson society (a neo-conservative think tank) and Crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal, as well as footage of the Paris terrorist attacks, all of which, along with the suggestive voiceovers about the sinister implications of what the subjects were saying, seemed intended to make the findings look scarier than they actually were.

The programme opens with library footage of the Paris attacks, followed by tweets posted by various ISIS sympathisers (it didn’t say where) praising the attacks. The ‘investigator’, one Poppy Begum, interviewed Sara Khan of Inspire, who claimed that Muslim communities had not woken up to the dangers of “non-violent interpretations” of Islam that promote an “us versus them narrative”. The programme gives no evidence that this particular group are using mosques or any other facilities owned by the “Muslim community”; rather they use the street or hired community halls, and all research shows that ISIS supporters in the west are not recruited in mosques. Begum then reads out some tweets she was receiving when she opened an account and pretended to be an extremist. They came from three women, all using Arabic “Umm” nicknames (meaning mother of so-and-so) and all followers of a ‘hate preacher’ she said the programme could not name for legal reasons, although I suspect most people who know about al-Muhajiroun knew who she meant. The tweets were mostly remarks supportive of ISIS and their claim to be the Khilafah or Islamic State, using a few of their slogans such as “die in your rage”, a taunt frequently seen in their videos and social media postings. The nearest thing to practical support for ISIS that appeared in the programme was the suggestion that she “start saving for a plane ticket and don’t tell anyone” and use her mother’s bank card; hardly in-depth practical advice on how to reach ISIS territory and what to bring, etc.

Poppy doesn’t do the undercover work herself; she gets an anonymous friend, known only as Aisha and wearing the full veil, to do that. Aisha meets one of her new Twitter pals on a stall in Lewisham (which Poppy calls “east London”, a term that refers to the area north of the Thames, when Lewisham is to the south). One of the three “mothers” invites her to a ‘secret’ study circle which is held in a community centre (which looks like a converted church or chapel) in Walthamstow. Poppy makes much of the ‘secrecy’ but if it was that secret, it would have been held in a more private venue. The ‘circle’ itself consisted of pretty much the same lecture each time from one of the leaders about how non-Muslims conspired against and oppress Muslims and are plotting to destroy the ‘Islamic State’. Again, no evidence of any material support, fundraising or advice on how to join it. They were just pep talks for extremists and the audience consisted of no more than ten adults, if that, each time.

Two women, both in full black robes and veils, standing in a food stop with a small girl in between them. One of the women is holding an assault rifle. The shelves are full of bottles of cooking oil.After Aisha attended two of these talks, Umm L pulled her aside and asked to search her bag, explaining that they did not know her and they had had people spying on them and recording things in the past. Aisha then turned on the waterworks and begged to be let go, which Umm L initially refused to but then expelled her from the venue, calling her a spy (which, of course, she was). Shortly afterwards, her account was deleted and Poppy told us that shortly afterwards, ISIS attacked Paris, as if there was any connection between the two. I thought her performance was pathetic; she’d certainly never make it onto Rogue Traders where old ladies are sometimes employed to trap persistent, burly male crooks. The woman wasn’t armed and her crying made her look guilty; if a simple bag search would have turned up the recording device, the investigation was a pretty amateur affair.

Poppy Begum claimed that “Aisha” worked undercover for a year. They do not have much to show for it. This looks like an investigation that was meant to find a lot more than it did. It looked like they intended to find a cell of women dedicated to supporting or channelling funds, resources or people to ISIS. What it found was a small group of women who meet in study circles to express extreme views about the West and Islam — the same ones they have been sharing amongst themselves for years. I am not a huge fan of al-Muhajiroun, but this programme vastly overstates their threat; their influence has been dwindling for years and they are distrusted by other Muslim activists whose demonstrations they have disrupted on quite a few occasions. The programme purported to give some background details about two of the three women, but this only consisted of the fact that one was a careers advisor and another was married to a prominent male member of the group. There’s a surprise. They did not speak to anyone who is actually in ISIS territory or reveal any close connections between these women and anyone over there. Perhaps they expected to carry on the investigation a bit longer but Channel 4 decided the programme had to go out quickly because of the Paris attacks. The result was one of the shallowest pieces of ‘investigative journalism’ I have ever seen, revealing absolutely nothing of substance.

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The Paris attacks: what kind of “game changer” are they?

24 November, 2015 - 12:08

So, a week and a half after the attacks on civilian targets in central Paris, including a stadium, a concert hall and several restaurants on Friday night supposedly by ISIS (or rather, a group of local supporters), the nonsense in the mainstream media is in full flow, with various pundits and so-called experts proclaiming it a “game changer” and others resorting to the tired clichés about blaming Sunni/Shi’a tensions, “Wahhabis” or the Saudis. Several newspapers led with ill-informed speculation that some of the terrorists came into Europe as “fake refugees” and the discovery of Syrian and Egyptian passports near the sites of the attacks immediately raised suspicion (the Egyptian government claimed that the Egyptian passport belonged to a victim, not an attacker). The attacks happened the same night as someone you might better expect to be a target spoke to an audience of 60,000 at Wembley stadium in London, including the Leicester MP Keith Vaz who donated his pay rise to fund the event: Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, who was governor of the state of Gujarat when thousands of his fellow Hindu extremists went on the rampage, killing thousands of Muslims, raping others and burning houses and businesses in an obviously orchestrated pogrom. His event passed off without so much as a stone thrown.

The British Parliament before the Paris attacks, with an image of a swastika and the slogan "Modi Not Welcome" and the web address of Awaaz UKI would not want Modi assassinated; there are plenty of others where he came from who could take his place, and if he were killed in an accident, let alone assassinated, it would lead to a re-run of Rwanda on a much larger scale. I want him put on trial and punished, as difficult as this might be given that many of the eyewitnesses to the crimes of 2002 were on his side. But I also think he should not have been allowed into the country, not to meet with politicians or royalty and not to address a crowd. He is reasonably suspected of involvement and while he may be innocent until proven guilty in a criminal context, when members of a movement he has been part of all his life commit murder, rape, arson and assault on a grand scale while he is in charge, this should cast a pall over any attempt he makes to appear respectable. Worse still, the broadcast media has displayed its usual cowardice about calling the pogrom what it was, using euphemisms such as “communal violence” which cast a shadow over his time in office. Broadcasters here would not be so mealy-mouthed when talking about Hamas violence, which has been on a much smaller scale than Gujarat and certainly does not match what the Hindu nationalists are capable of in the event of a real or imagined provocation while in power. I suspect the reason has less to do with Islamophobia than with the fact that he is in political favour here right now. He’s good for business (which means his country can provide cheap labour and destroy British jobs). But I’m sure some of the journalists parroting these phrases remember reporting on the pogrom when it happened.

The targeting of Paris on that of all nights is consistent with al-Qa’ida’s and ISIS’s history of hitting neutral or friendly targets rather than hostile ones. It also suggests that the grievances that got them involved in this activity in the first place are local and that their horizons are not that wide. Initially it appeared that the perpetrators were Syrian or Egyptian, on the basis of passports found near the scenes of the attacks, but so far, the perpetrators that have been identified are French or Belgian nationals. The widespread speculation that the terrorists were Syrians and other Arab nationals who entered Europe as ‘refugees’ has led to widespread calls for much tighter controls on Syrian refugees being allowed into Europe, or for a total ban on them. A number of US states (mostly with Republican governors) have said they will not accept any, but they do not have the power to refuse.

The tone of the editorials last weekend, especially in the right-wing press, was that this attack was a “game changer” and that nobody should now be standing in the way of military action against ISIS and enhanced powers for the security forces. In the British context, they are wrong on the second count especially. The attacks are a dramatic increase in scale from previous ISIS attacks in France, but they do not represent a widening of their horizons beyond France — the former colonial power in Syria. This doesn’t actually prove that they have the intention (as opposed to just the wish) to strike anywhere else: Britain does not have a large Arabic-speaking community, and more of it is affluent than is the case in France where there is a large community of impoverished, ghettoised people of North and West African descent in their notorious out-of-town slums. (We don’t have out-of-town slums to anything like the same extent and, at least in the case of the two I’m aware of near London, their inhabitants are mostly white.) The extremist ‘salafis’ were clamped down on in 2003 and their leaders arrested and in some cases imprisoned and deported (e.g. Abdullah Faisal, Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada), much to the relief of the other Muslims who lived in their areas and attended the same mosques (such as Finsbury Park and Regent’s Park).

Front page of the Sun, 22nd Nov 2015. Headline reads "1 in 5 Brit Muslims' sympathy for jihadis"The press here have also ran a series of inflammatory cartoons and front-page stories, including the Daily Mail’s cartoon showing rats coming into the UK alongside women in burqas, and the story on the front of the Sun today claiming that 1 in 5 British Muslims support “jihadis”. As the Independent points out, the headline is based on a question that asks if they have sympathy for people going abroad to fight in Syria — that is a category that is not limited to jihadis (some are joining the Kurdish forces); the poll asked if the respondents had some or a lot of sympathy, and the headline bundled the “some” and “a lot” categories into one; and it also failed to consider that “sympathy” does not mean that they condone it outright, or would do the same or encourage others to do the same; and the figure among non-Muslims was 14% when Sky News ran a poll in March. As the Independent points out, hate crime figures against Muslims have increased 300% since the Paris attacks and the majority of the 115 victims have been women. (The Guardian also notes that it is not known how the Muslims were sourced for the poll or how representative they are and that YouGov, the paper’s usual source for polls, refused to carry it out as “it could not be confident that it could accurately represent the British Muslim population within the timeframe and budget set by the paper”.) As with Modi, I have never heard of ISIS- or al-Qa’ida-affiliated terrorists attacking newspapers that publish mendacious junk that foments hatred of Muslims, nor their individual columnists and editors, which demonstrates that their agenda has nothing to do with the welfare of Muslims here any more than in France. Nobody is talking about Modi now, or his degree of culpability for the riots, or what he and his thugs might do while in power in India. It’s no longer important.

Michael Burleigh had an article published in the Mail on Sunday the Sunday after the attacks, in which he called for “forging a grand alliance with Iran and Russia in the manner of the Second World War” and for postponing a “reckoning with the ‘butcher’ Assad” if necessary as he “is not the main threat”. He made the standard call for an end to multiculturalism and “telling British Muslims that they are not neutral bystanders when their young people join or support IS or equivalent groups … better some plain speaking than the usual evasive multicultural garbage”. First, it is doubtful whether Russia and Iran are reliable allies in any fight against ISIS. Russia joined World War II because Germany invaded; its own interests were threatened and it gained enormously in terms of expanded influence by the result. ISIS are not a direct threat to Russia, right now. They are on Assad”s side, but have not translated this support into action against ISIS, as opposed to against other anti-Assad groups. Putting Assad back in power across Syria is not an answer, as his clan will want revenge against those who challenged their authority, much as was the case after the Hama uprising in 1982. A return to the status quo ante in Syria is impossible.

His article also makes the oft-repeated claim that Muslims’ stance on ISIS is unclear. This is very far from the truth. Muslims’ condemnation of ISIS has been very thorough and unequivocal and has come from across the religious spectrum, including from quarters which were slow to accept that al-Qa’ida were responsible for 9/11 and promoted conspiracy theories (and sometimes, the more outlandish the better) for years. Muslims here cannot stop individuals running off to join ISIS, especially adults, because we have no power to stop them other than by informing the authorities or hiding or destroying their passports (the latter is illegal). The authorities have convinced themselves that British Muslims who join ISIS intend to come back and stage a terrorist attack, when in fact they may simply intend to emigrate, and evidence shows that they are not religious Muslims being radicalised in mosques, but people with family problems and criminal involvement and that their radicalisation occurs in clandestine online forums (it was reported that one of them had ordered the book Islam for Dummies off Amazon shortly before leaving!).

Like Burleigh, Jon Snow also makes the common mistake of blaming “Wahhabis” for just about all the violence that goes on in the Muslim world. In fact, the ‘mainstream’ of that sect has opposed al-Qa’ida from the beginning; as it is closely linked to the Saudi religious establishment, it opposes any kind of political agitation or rebellion against established authority, and even scholars not linked closely to the Saudi establishment (such as Yasir Qadhi) have widely attacked ISIS as ignorant and deviant. Snow also brings in the Sunni/Shi’a conflict “fought between Iran and Iraq in the eighties”. This argument rather sounds like the claim that is made about a lot of civil wars: that the two groups involved have been fighting each other for centuries and the hatreds are deeply-rooted and never far from the surface; it was said about the former Yugoslavia and it was said about Northern Ireland. It wasn’t true of either of those conflicts and it is not true here either. Sunnis and Shi’ites have not always been in conflict and are not always destined to be in conflict whenever they find themselves in the same space, and during the Iran-Iraq war, Shi’ites served in the Iraqi army.

 Les Beguines".It was initially supposed (on the basis of some passports found in the vicinity of the attacks, now known to have been fakes) that some of the attackers were people who had come in among the refugees from the Syrian civil war. I immediately believed that this was unlikely, as ISIS surely would want to make sure their operatives and weaponry made it to their target, rather than getting stuck in a refugee camp in Hungary or drowning when an overloaded boat capsized in the Aegean Sea. All but one of the attackers are known now to have been French or Belgian citizens, with another having used a fake Syrian passport and an identity that another man also uses, suggesting that they bought documents from the same counterfeiter. It’s also known now that several of them were not religious, two of them owning a bar in Brussels until shortly before the attacks and some of them were petty criminals. A woman killed in a raid on a flat in Saint-Denis last week was claimed to be Europe’s first female suicide bomber (and various details of her lifestyle were broadcast, including a picture of her in the bath), but we now know that she was killed by the police after making what they insist was a false attempt at surrender (something they were supposedly certain of because of prior intelligence).

This has not stopped politicians in both the UK and USA, where there is a Presidential election next year and the front-runners for the Republican nomination are two moronic outsiders, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, from competing to prove who will will be tougher on not only Syrian refugees but also on American Muslims. Trump in particular proposed a register of all American Muslims, something nobody seems to have pointed out is against the First Amendment (Bush’s register worked because it was targeted at non-citizens from specific countries, regardless of religion). Others (including British retired General Richard Dannatt) have suggested transporting male Syrian refugees to Syria or Iraq to form some sort of army to fight ISIS. The reason this is a dangerous idea is that many of the refugees have said that they are fleeing Assad, not ISIS, and there is no guarantee that some of those sent back after making a perilous journey across Europe will not simply defect, or that the ‘army’ will not become simply another faction, and nobody seems to have considered the possible impact of a large group of men separated from their families on local women and girls. Why should we expect Syrian refugees to help us fight our enemy, when we betrayed them when they tried to fight theirs?

Another example of a stupid response to the Paris atrocities came from the feminist writer Victoria Brownworth, who claimed in an article for the lesbian magazine Curve that “not all men are terrorists, but all terrorists are men”. She also said that she had received a number of hate messages after posting tweets defending Muslims, all of which came from men. In other words, the attacks were another example of “male violence” which is something nobody is saying (except herself and others like her). The problem is that not all terrorists are in fact men. Women have functioned as terrorists and as helpers to terrorists in almost every conflict in the last century, including Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Chechnya and Palestine. They have fought, held hostages, been suicide bombers, and helped behind the scenes by storing and smuggling weapons and by producing and presenting propaganda. The leaders are, it’s true, nearly always men. But there are no shortage of women agreeing with them, even when their views might strike anyone else as profoundly inhumane or misogynistic (the presence of women in extreme animal rights activity is another example). Al-Qa’ida and ISIS are rare among terrorist groups in not using women in front-line roles. And men do not have a monopoly on bigotry and hate either; women have been filmed abusing people of ‘foreign’ appearance on British public transport and have been active in all the major racist groups and parties, including the EDL.

A map of US states showing those that have "surrendered to ISIS" by refusing to take ISIS's victims and those who have "told ISIS to fuck off" (California, Washington, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut).The attacks have led to some positive responses. One of the attempted hate attacks, on a Muslim woman on a Metro train in Newcastle, ended when other passengers intervened on the victim’s behalf and the aggressor was forcibly ejected from the carriage. In response to calls to pull up the drawbridge on refugees, it was pointed out that ISIS may have in fact intended to close off emigration routes to the west by planting fake Syrian passports and making the attackers look like refugees, and shutting out refugees was just what they wanted; a map was then circulated showing US states who have “told ISIS to go f**k themselves” or “surrendered to ISIS” by welcoming or excluding refugees, respectively. The best analysis so far, in my opinion, came from Haroon Moghul on the website Quartz, which put the attacks down to ISIS’s strategy in which they “find a major fault line, seek to undertake an attack that will widen this fissure, and reap the whirlwind as people in divided societies run in opposite directions”. So the ghettoised, impoverished and stigmatised condition of France’s Muslim minority “help explain why France is so repeatedly targeted” by ISIS-affiliated terrorists, but they are not the ultimate reason.

Politicians and press in the UK are acting as if Britain must be next in line for an ISIS attack. This is a misplaced assumption. The same cells carrying out the attacks in Paris know the city well; they may not have the same knowledge of London or the required connections. The community here is different; it does not even speak the same languages as the Muslim community in France. It is better integrated and not subject to open official harassment or discrimination. The number of people radicalised by exposure to civil war or to secular state tyranny (Algeria, Egypt) is much lower here. Britain’s Muslims are also more religious: the traditions are stronger and the power of mainstream Islam, the four madhhabs (or rather, one of them) and Sufism (rather than the mixture of modernism and ‘salafism’ which predominates in many Arab countries) persists. The scholars and religious schools are not compromised by their connections to government, as is the case in much of the Arab world. Mosques are open, not clandestine as with many mosques in France. Britain’s Muslim community has also had a debate about terrorism since 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings; France is quite new to this kind of terrorism and the evidence suggests that it does not come from religious Muslims who could be persuaded by moderate, mainstream religious scholars.

 Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life". These accusations were false.I started writing this the Sunday after the attacks. At the time, I believed the talk of the attacks being a “game changer” was hype. The attacks were not a major departure from the existing behaviour of ISIS in France and while the death toll was twice that of London 2005, they were a fraction of those of 9/11. Now it appears that the attacks have strengthened the most bigoted, ignorant and power-hungry factions in western society, as perhaps they were intended to, so as to make life more difficult for Muslims already here, to make society less free and the state more intrusive, and to shut off the escape route for the refugees who flee from Assad away from ISIS rather than towards it. ISIS has, for most of its short history, been about taking territory in Syria and Iraq and building a state, which is why it attracted people who might previously have supported al-Qa’ida. Now that it is losing territory, it resorts to the old al-Qa’ida tactics of causing outrage by attacking unsuspecting civilians so as to provoke the apocalyptic global conflict they crave and force Muslims to choose sides. Barring a minority with family problems or a history of petty crime, most of us don’t support ISIS and have no wish to join them. It seems bigotry sells more papers than pulling people together to fight it on all fronts, but newspapers with a dubious respect for the truth (left) who turn their ill-educated readership against innocent Muslims in this country are doing ISIS’s work for them. Their role, and their ability to influence society in this way, must come under serious scrutiny.

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Who’s a waste of space, then?

21 November, 2015 - 18:16

A letter to … My godson, with whom I’ve decided to sever ties | Life and style | The Guardian

When I used to read the print edition of the Guardian, the paper I’ve read for most of my adolescent and adult life, a pet hate of mine in the last few years was the wastage of space, particularly after it moved to the Berliner format. As a standard part of their ‘style’, there were almost whole columns of empty space and on one occasion, a four-page feature on Syria (early in the civil war) featured a headline that spanned the top half of two pages, along with a small picture and some empty space. I wrote to complain, because the cover price had just gone up and I was annoyed at having to pay extra for blank paper. The wastage would have meant that another whole feature had to be cut.

But actual features can be a waste of space too. Back in the days of Q-News, the Muslim youth magazine that ran through most of the 90s and early 2000s, I once wrote them a fairly constructive letter, I thought, and it was never published — but a foully-worded letter, calling the writers “vermin” and “sewar (sic) rats Wahabi/Salafi” was. In the Family section of today’s Guardian, there’s an anonymous letter from an uncle who says he has cut ties with his godson/nephew because he won’t communicate promptly or warmly enough after the author cut ties with his parents.

This is the second anonymous letter slagging off a child the paper has published in about a month. The first featured a mother, whose 10-year-old son had been rude when she told him to tidy his room, lecturing him on all she had done, including the difficult pregnancy and birth. I thought it a bit pointless to lecture a 10-year-old girl, let alone a boy, on their mother’s pregnancy sickness and labour pains (an adult, maybe), but I also thought that the aggression he displayed was the same as he had to deal with a lot of the time at school. There are a lot of adults who do not think a child, particularly a “difficult” one (i.e. one who disagrees or argues) deserves good manners or civility, and he will be meeting a lot of other children whose manners are poor. That will only get worse when he enters secondary school. (More: Looking for Blue Sky.)

In today’s letter, the uncle/godparent complains that the most his nephew has ever said to him is a brief text thanking him for Christmas and birthday money. The main source of his dislike is the boy’s father, who he says never forgave him for turning his back on his working-class background and going to college (“Actually, not just college, university”) rather than getting “a safe, comfortable job with a nice pension in the local council”. I presume these people are old enough to have been able to get such a job without a degree. As for the boy’s mother, “he found the perfect partner: she doesn’t think out of the box either”. The boy had an ambition to go to the same college and follow the same career as the uncle, but failed to get in, and the uncle texted and suggested they meet up. The boy did not reply for a week. The uncle was hurt, but reminded himself that his nephew was “just 17: stupid and selfish, just like every other teenager”. Then he offered help a second time:

You took 24 hours to text that you did not reply earlier because you had been “out all day”. How many times a year do you get a message from your estranged uncle? And this is how you respond? You showed no enthusiasm for my help, but your text had the same polite formality and cold-blooded insincerity that I always associate with your father. Then I realised that, for better or worse, you have, in fact, become another version of your father.

This man is an adult, and knows that 17-year-olds are often stupid and selfish (they are, actually, not all). He should also know that his 17-year-old nephew is still under his parents’ care and is probably more sensitive to their needs than he is to his uncle’s, when that uncle is estranged and does not see them. His parents have probably told him a thing or two about his uncle’s behaviour (which, of course, he was free not to mention in this letter), and no doubt he didn’t like what he heard and believed them, because he has no reason not to (maybe he got the impression that his uncle is a petty-minded, immature jerk, the impression I get from this letter). He is under their influence, and no doubt absorbed some of their personality traits. Until he has got a job and some space and a family of his own, that is only to be expected.

Perhaps, in a few years time, he might be able to agree to talk to you or meet his uncle. Perhaps he might have grown up a bit. But the uncle will have to as well, because he sounds like a quite unpleasant person from this letter. A lot of people think the teenager is well rid of him.

And why is the Guardian wasting space on such drivel written by adults who think and behave like children, or worse?

(Yes, I’ve got a piece on Paris in preparation. I’m busy these days.)

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Germaine Greer’s views are extreme, but so are her critics’

6 November, 2015 - 14:54

Black and white picture of Germaine Greer, an elderly white woman with glasses, holding a glass of drink.The Goldfish last week posted an entry in which she examined the complaints of ‘silencing’ and ‘censorship’ regarding the petition to prevent Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff University on the grounds of having transphobic views, as well as picking apart an article by Roger Scruton, on the BBC News website, in which he complained that freedom of speech was being infringed by recent laws banning the incitement of hatred and by politicians seeking to introduce more such bans. Neither can claim to be suffering silencing or censorship, she says, because both have platforms in the mainstream press and on TV which far outstretch the audience they might reach at some university auditorium, and that some of the other claims of harassment against people who have expressed sexist, anti-gay or transphobic views (e.g. Tim Hunt) have been wildly exaggerated, while some of those affected by the views in question have suffered real social costs.

It’s true that Greer (along with many of the feminists who signed the letter in the Observer complaining about censorship by pro-trans feminists earlier this year) gets a much bigger audience than the activists campaigning against her. However, the argument that one cannot be experiencing censorship if one has articles published in the mainstream press or appears on TV while being denied publication in smaller-circulation publications or denied university appearances is flawed. First, not everyone with the views that might attract a banning petition on a university campus has access to the mainstream media; Julie Bindel, for example, has a much lower profile than Greer and others have even less access. But the ‘niche’ platforms may be where you need to be appearing to work successfully or effectively in your field, and in some cases the ‘lay’ media may be shunned because it is not peer-reviewed, for example, or just not run by the “right people”.

The reason could be that you believe that a disease many of your colleagues believe doesn’t exist, in fact does; it could be because you are trying to speak out against domestic violence or some widespread unhealthy practice such as FGM or vaccine refusal in a religious community. The journals and platforms you need to be seen and heard on to get your work done may be controlled by the faction that opposes your view. Getting such material published in the Guardian, on Newsnight or at a TED talk will not get it noticed with your target audience; it may well increase their arrogance, intransigence and sense of self-righteousness and persecution. (In some cases, though, specialist media refuse to publish certain views because they are known to be wrong, while the mainstream media picks them up because they offer a story, or because of a perceived need for ‘balance’, as with climate change or, in the past, cancer and AIDS deniers.) So it is not only bigotry that is stifled by the censorship of smaller-circulation journals and niche and minority platforms.

For me, the biggest reason why these petitions should not succeed is that well-organised and vocal lobby groups should not be able to dictate who can speak where and whom the rest of us can see and listen to. I’m opposed to that whether it’s the Zionist lobby, who have long been able to intimidate the media and academia with co-ordinated letter-writing campaigns and prevent public appearances and appointments with money or a “word in the ear” of powerful people, or the trans lobby. If one looks at the messages left by people who signed the petition to keep out Germaine Greer, one finds that many of them are not from Cardiff or even south Wales at all; in fact, a fair number are from the USA and Australia. It’s an international campaign, not a local one, and not a very substantial one. A similar petition to bar “the TERF Julie Bindel” from speaking at the university of Essex last year (see earlier entry) gained only 296 signatures, again, many of them not local.

Germaine Greer’s views on the status of trans and intersex women are extreme, even by the standards of the radical feminists, but unlike some of them she has never threatened anyone or been associated with any group that uses violence. (When I say violence, I mean actual violence, as in physically assaulting people, threatening people with such treatment or smashing things up. I point this out because certain trans activists like to use it to mean wronging anyone, as they see it.) That is the key difference between most radical feminists, with one or two exceptions, and the racists who were the subject of “no platform” policies in the past — the latter were heavily associated with violence and criminal behaviour, and still are. What she has done is express an opinion, one that some people (but not actually most people) find offensive because it does not validate their view of themselves.

In some areas her views were demonstrably wrong from the beginning (such as where she suggested that if it became possible to transplant a working female reproductive system, demand for sex reassignment surgery would collapse; womb transplants have become available, though not yet to trans women, and there is demand, despite the difficulties having one can sometimes bring) but in other areas, she has been proved right: she criticised the practice of reassigning intersex babies as female because they would not develop full male organs or function as a male, as in the case reported in the media in 1998 of Joel (then known as Joella) Holliday (as well as a number of other incidences that were used as case studies), a practice which has become discredited (and as reported over the summer, Holliday was never content as a girl and began living as a male as an adult).

The Goldfish notes that on the issue of homosexuality, “our society had an argument and the argument was won”. The problem here is that there can be the appearance of a debate, when in fact some voices are excluded or shouted down — the ‘debate’ over headscarves in schools in France being a classic example as Joan Wallach-Scott’s research has shown. It’s possible to ‘win’ a public debate (and thereby help to cause or block change) by using fallacious arguments, which it is less easy to do in an intellectual debate where establishing facts is the aim. In this country, the ‘argument’ was won when Labour won power in 1997, for a whole host of reasons which had nothing to do with homosexuality (and anti-gay causes tend to weaken themselves in this country because they are usually closely associated with other anti-minority causes). But in the case of the status of trans women and the issues of what gender is or isn’t, and who is or isn’t a woman, the debate is nowhere near being settled, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise.

It’s possible that the debate will be settled at some point, but it is no more likely to be on the wild and baseless claims and demands of the trans lobby than on the opinions of Germaine Greer or Sheila Jeffreys. The trans lobby demand not only that people who have transitioned, physically, from one sex to (as far as is possible) the other be accepted; they also insist, and demand that the rest of us accept, that people who haven’t, and have no intention of doing so, but who proclaim themselves to be another gender on the basis of ‘identity’ are what they say they are or be branded as ‘bigots’. They insist that physical sex should not matter, that not only are manhood and womanhood ‘social constructs’ but that male and female are as well, a plainly nonsensical claim. We see them interject into conversations about serious female medical concerns as well as FGM, claiming that referring to the people who usually experience these things as girls and women is “cissexist” and insisting that “cis” be prepended whenever we talk about girls and women as if they were female and as if they were subject to the medical realities (periods, childbirth, gynaecological disorders, FGM in some places) that come with that.

It’s understandable that women should resist the incursion of males who bear only a passing resemblance to women and who in some cases have no intention of removing their male characteristics into women’s spaces. Men are generally bigger and stronger than women, and men have been known to hurt and indeed rape women. Some trans women, especially those who retain male characteristics, are also known for violence, and violent men (even rapists) who have become transgender have secured the support of this lobby. I am not sure how representative of women victims of rape and domestic (and other male) violence the radical feminists who claim to speak for them are; I know many who disagree with them. But I have not seen any research done on where women, or these specific groups of them, stand on these issues. All we have are two sets of loud voices expressing extreme opinions, some of whom have gained the favour of people of influence or gained control over certain key organisations (e.g. university women’s or feminist societies). That no more makes them authoritative than any other factional group gaining control of any other organisation. The idea that the body does not determine gender is not a settled fact. It’s an opinion of one group, and in my opinion (and I’m sure many others’, and not just radical feminists and conservative religoius people) an extreme, self-serving, false doctrine.

There are many writers and thinkers who hold all manner of repugnant views, including those who support bombing other countries on dubious grounds, who support oppressive regimes, who support the occupation in Palestine and demonise its victims, apologists for police brutality, climate change deniers, apologists for the bombing of Hiroshima who support nuclear expansion, and so on, who regularly get broadcast in the mainstream media and if they ever give university lectures or other public appearances off the TV, we never hear about it because nobody raises any great objection. Usually, when I hear objections being raised to someone being invited to give a public lecture or take part in a panel or debate on the grounds that they are a bigot, the usual target is a Muslim (often on the grounds of views expressed over something unrelated to the topic, or someone they have shared a platform with) or a feminist who insists you have to be female to be a woman. Just because these views aggravate a vocal minority, it doesn’t make them morally equivalent to racism or fascism and we should not entertain the idea of refusing a platform to such a speaker unless strong evidence of a threat of violence or some other nefarious behaviour can be shown. We should not be treating a small group with contentious views as if they represented the truth and those who disagree with them as bigots equivalent to racists, and ceding control of public and intellectual spaces to those who shout the loudest.

Image source: walnut whippet, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

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About that “only disability in life” meme

3 November, 2015 - 14:59

A picture of Oscar Pistorius running alongside a little girl in a yellow dress with prosthetic legs similar to hisYou can’t be on social media for more than a few weeks at a time, especially in any group with any disability connection whatever, without someone posting that infuriating meme that says “The only disability in life is a bad attitude!” at least once. This morning someone posted it on an Asperger’s syndrome page I follow on Facebook, with the caption “like if you agree”. I posted a comment saying I didn’t agree, that some disability was the result of others’ attitudes and barriers placed by society, and of chronic pain and other symptoms which might prevent someone getting out of bed, let alone going to work or to do sports or whatever. Still, it seems I was in the minority, as 216 people, at the time of this writing, have “liked” it.

Why is the meme a load of old rubbish? Typically it appears pasted onto an “inspirational” picture, in this case (not the one accompanying this entry) of a girl with Down’s syndrome with both thumbs up. The girl looks about six, so perhaps she’s not long started school, and has a loving family and goes to a school where she’s got friends (perhaps because children have yet to notice she’s different) and teachers that are helpful. She’s got a few years of school ahead of her and perhaps she’s yet to get to the point where teachers decide her presence is holding back the other children, or maybe the point where the children do notice she’s different and start bullying her about it. Perhaps her parents will be able to protect her. Perhaps she won’t even be able to understand the cruel remarks made by adults — perhaps nobody has mentioned in front of her that the majority of foetuses with Down’s syndrome are aborted, and that maybe it would have been kinder all round if she had been among them.

I don’t know what country the girl lives in. Perhaps it’s the USA. Perhaps she comes from quite a well-off family which will be able to cushion the blows life (and people) typically deliver to a young person with a learning disability. Perhaps her parents will be willing and able to fight to keep her in a local school, rather than sending her away to boarding school, or to a special school miles away that requires a two-hour daily bus commute. Perhaps when she grows up, they will be willing and able to allow her to live at home, and perhaps her family will have friends that can take her out swimming, to sports, to the zoo, maybe even to run a business. Or perhaps the local social services will provide carers to do this, or to help. Perhaps as she gets older, her parents won’t grow old and frail too quickly, and perhaps her brothers and sisters (if she has any) will be able to provide the care her parents do now. Maybe even her nephews and nieces.

I don’t know if she has had to have heart surgery. I don’t know if she required a tracheotomy to breathe for many years. (Her neck is covered by her collar.) I presume she hasn’t yet developed the dementia that people with Down’s syndrome are very prone to. Maybe she will or won’t have a relationship; one hopes she won’t be one of the very large percentage of disabled women who are victims of domestic violence (disabled men don’t fare much better). Perhaps she will have friends, and not people who pretend to be friends so as to exploit or abuse her. Perhaps she’ll be able to live in her own home; will that be in a pleasant neighbourhood where people treat her as one of them, or one with a lot of delinquents who harass her when she steps out? I presume she isn’t also autistic. Perhaps, if she is, she won’t be in and out of the mental health system when she gets older and has one meltdown too many when she’s too big to manage. Perhaps they’ll be kind to her. Perhaps the authorities won’t shunt her from place to place, far from home, full of unfamiliar and unfriendly faces, full of locked doors and staff that don’t understand her and whom she doesn’t understand. Perhaps her family will be able to make the journey of hundreds of miles to see her often. Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps she will be allowed to be visited by her brothers and sisters, and maybe her dog; perhaps people will decide the institution is not safe for the younger ones and that the dog is a health hazard. Perhaps the people running the place will see it’s not the right place; perhaps not. Perhaps they will allow her home for Christmas or her birthday; perhaps they will think it’s too much trouble and she won’t come back. Perhaps her family will be able to fight, and have supporters. Perhaps they won’t.

Perhaps, if her health is fragile, she will be able to spend her last days surrounded by her family, whether at home, or in a hospital or hospice. Or perhaps their last view of her will be in a coma, after suffering a heart attack, with unexplained carpet burns, or having drowned in the bath, or choked on her own vomit in bed, or eaten herself to death because she was locked in a room for years and unstimulated?

It’s ironic that this appeared on a group that’s meant to spread “awareness” of Asperger’s syndrome (and I’m not even going to get into the discussion of whether that term is still appropriate), because young people with that condition are very likely to be impacted by others’ attitudes — people’s judgements about their stimming, or repetitve habits, or lack of social graces, or failure to appreciate others’ body language, or whatever. Many of us get teased or bullied, and then told it’s our fault or to “just ignore it”. I’m well aware that schools are more aware of autistic spectrum disorders now than they were in the 90s (when children affected were considered naughty, disruptive, or just weird), but some children still get badly bullied (especially in secondary school) and some teachers are still not understanding. I know two families whose daughters suffered mental health crises as a result of this. One of them has been in hospital, on and off, for three years. (Her 16th birthday is tomorrow, and she’ll get three hours at home.) Mental health units are not equipped to deal with autism, even though they see a lot of autistic patients. I spent much of my school life being blamed for things I couldn’t help, and situations largely of others’ making. I was disruptive, yes, but very little of it was unprovoked and my behaviour was trivial compared to what I experienced in the boarding school I was sent to after the local teaching profession washed its hands of me.

And of course, we should consider the barriers that those with physical impairments face: buildings and public transport they cannot access, books they cannot read, conversations they cannot hear, people who refuse to make any accommodations for any of these things because it’s too much effort, and too expensive, and they can find someone else to do the job that won’t need any of it, and less obvious barriers such as medical staff who cannot see past their preconceived ideas. None of this has anything to do with the disabled person’s attitude.

A cartoon showing a person in a wheelchair being pulled up by a hot air balloon, with the words "The only disability in life is a bad attitude" scribbed out, with "Tell that to my body!" and "The greatest barrier to a happy life is a bad attitude" written above and below.Hannah Ensor, the cartoonist who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, reacted to this meme by scribbling over it and writing “Tell that to my body!”, but adding “the greatest barrier to a happy life is a bad attitude”. She has a point: a bad attitude can stop you seeing the good things in life, of making the best of one’s situation, of finding solutions and ways round barriers. But it’s not the only disability in life, except perhaps if you have an uncomplicated impairment and, crucially, lots of money, as that’s what living with disability requires. You could otherwise be the sweetest, sunniest disabled person around, but if you are forced to exist in miserable conditions or abused again and again, you are not going to have a good life. (Every eventuality I have mentioned in this article has happened, most of them to people I know or their friends and relatives.)

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Girls, careers and posh schools

1 November, 2015 - 11:27

Picture of Vivienne Durham, a late middle-aged, blonde white woman wearing a white jacket with a white top underneath and necklace of large white and orange beads.Girls must choose career or motherhood, says top head - Telegraph

The Telegraph has interviewed the ‘headmistress’ of a London private girls’ school, Francis Holland in Regent’s Park, who says that she’s “not a feminist” and that teachers should make it clear to girls that there is a “glass ceiling” and not deceive them otherwise, and that they have to “plan for a biological fact, i.e. motherhood”. The headline claims that she said that girls faced a choice — career or motherhood — but she doesn’t quite say that, or at least the article doesn’t say she does. What she does say is that women shouldn’t be judged harshly for choosing “the road less taken”. I am not sure whether she means having children and no career, or a career and no children, or either rather than trying to do both.

I looked up Francis Holland on Google and an anonymous review came up from Yelp, which noted that the school taught London’s ‘elite’, had an intensive interview process and managed to make sure there were no unattractive girls there. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but the girls she teaches will be well-placed to choose one or the other, and if they choose both, they will likely not find the cost of childcare much of a burden. The chances are, none of them will need to entertain a man who earns less than £100,000 per year and will, if they so choose, get places at prestigious universities themselves. I don’t know if someone told this lady, but the cost of living in London is sky-high and a single salary that would have been considered quite respectable not that long ago (and that of any teacher, nurse, social worker etc) will not meet the cost of a family home, at least not without a lot of family support, state benefits or a mountain of debt. That’s why a lot of women who would rather be bringing up children work, or at least work longer hours than they would like to, and not necessarily in professional jobs.

I know it’s the Telegraph, but why on earth is the head of a private school that caters to the wealthy always considered a “top” head? While they may throw a few crumbs down to clever children from ordinary families in the form of bursaries (though these often don’t cover all the costs, such as those of overpriced uniforms, special bus passes and the technology the school assumes all children have access to, and don’t change the fact that the ‘poor girl’ might be made to feel an outsider), they won’t be teaching any challenging pupils, any from broken families, any who are in care, any recently arrived from war-torn parts of the world who have missed large parts of their education, and they can expel pupils not only for their own real or alleged misbehaviour but also that of their parents. It is a vastly less challenging job than being the head of an urban secondary (or even primary) school that has to deal with the complex problems of the neighbourhood it serves, yet when we hear of a “top” headmaster or mistress’s opinion, it’s never one of these heads, even if they achieve very respectable results in terms of qualifications gained and pupils going on to get good degrees. It’s always a head of a school that teaches rich kids (very occasionally a grammar school or academy head who is in political favour).

And it’s notable that she only talks about the women’s propspects, whether their choice to have or not have children will impact on their careers. The benefit to the child of having one of their parents available most of the time before they start school, of having home-made rather than convenience foods, of them being there when the child comes home from school, of them being available in the event of illness or them being unable to go into school because of bullying or something similar, is not considered, because these issues tend to affect families that cannot afford nannies, or easily afford childcare, or are on incomes that require two incomes, at least, to keep their heads above water. I’m no feminist either and I believe having their mother around in the early years is better for a child than being put in group childcare at age two. But years of government policy driving up the cost of housing for ordinary people has made that impossible, there are no plans to change any of it, and “top heads” like Vivienne Durham are not the ones dealing with the consequences.

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Iraq: We were right all along

25 October, 2015 - 17:19

Picture of Tony Blair surrounded by a group of soldiers in army fatigues, some standing and some kneeling.So, today Tony Blair finally admitted in an interview on CNN (more here) that his action in following the Americans into war in Iraq in 2003 may have helped allow the rise of ISIS, that he received faulty intelligence and that he thought he had more sway with the Americans than he really did. These are things the anti-war movement were saying in 2003, not only about Blair himself but also his cheerleaders in the blogosphere, who believed they could use the war to bring about democracy in Iraq. Harry’s Place, one of the most prominent cheerleaders for the war (and later on in the 2000s, a regular source of anti-Muslim news stories), has yet to even mention the news at the time of this writing.

The fact that British troops were in Iraq for years after the initial invasion, when they might have expected to be withdrawn after the deposition of Saddam Hussain and an orderly transfer of power to a new government, already made many people who were sympathetic to “removing Saddam” feel that it had been a big mistake. Other occupations that result from the removal of a dictator or aggressor have not lasted as long; West Germany had a functioning government four years after the end of World War II, and the occupation continued because of the perceived need to contain German aggression, and to protect western Europe from Soviet aggression, not because of instability. Japan adopted its present constitution in 1947, although the occupation did not formally end until 1952. Iraq was not a major aggressive power under Saddam Hussain and there should not have been a need for a military presence there for anything like as long as there was. The reason there was is that, as predicted, extremist elements would take advantage of the power vacuum.

I was never comfortable with some of the “realist” antis’ arguments that the Saddam régime’s repressive apparatus was beneficial in that it ensured stability and suppressed extremism. They believe that some nations, some races, need an iron fist to keep them under control. We don’t, of course. Iraq is an artificial country that makes sense only from a British colonial point of view, with a shape that almost looks like that of a European country, despite having three population groups who would never have been content to be ruled by the others. But America invaded Iraq to finish business and satisfy American demands to punish Arabs for 9/11 despite it being known that Iraq had nothing to do with that attack and that, in fact, the perpetrators were Saddam Hussain’s enemies as much as the west’s. It was not concerned about the long-term consequences; if anything, a long-term occupation and instability might have been seen as good for business for arms manufacturers and security contractors, and possibly good for the Republicans’ electoral prospects (which only worked for one election, of course). Those of us who had read the American right-wing blogosphere and seen how Arabs and Muslims were spoken of, as well as noticed the behaviour of some US servicemen and the reports that some had signed up in order to “kill Arabs” knew that it was a racist war, not a war of liberation, and not one that liberals of any sort should be involved in.

Many of us were not sympathisers with Saddam Hussain and would have supported his removal in other circumstances. It was widely observed that Muslim Brotherhood elements were prominent in the opposition to the war, particularly in the Muslim Association of Britain, and this was often mentioned so as to discredit it. That this movement, which was repressed by Saddam Hussain and would have had their ability to operate restored, along with a whole raft of other Islamist movements, strongly opposed the invasion to remove him should have made people sit up and take notice rather than dismiss it with contempt. While Britain may not have been able to prevent the invasion, it did not need to and should not have got involved, not only for reasons of keeping the moral high ground but because it cost money and lives and may well have led to us becoming a target for terrorists, as we did on several occasions in the years following the invasion.

In his interview, Blair says we should be careful about attributing the rise of ISIS to the invasion given that ISIS appeared several years after. He claims that “ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq”. In fact, ISIS originated as the Islamic State of Iraq, an offshoot of the local al-Qa’ida outfit, and moved into Syria. We do not know what the history of Iraq would have been like without the invasion; whether Saddam Hussain would still be in power, or whether he would have died or been replaced with one of his sons, or something else entirely. But the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and that country had plenty of reasons to want to throw off its dictatorship, regardless of what happened in Iraq. And it is entirely possible that the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad could have been achieved much more quickly without the rise of ISIS from Iraq, and that nobody would now be suggesting that it might be better for Assad to win so as to crush ISIS.

So, we now know that Tony Blair intended to support whatever Bush did (despite his fans insisting for years that he joined in because “he believed the intelligence”), and we have heard from David Blunkett that Blair “just decided to trust Cheney and Rumsfeld” — men referred to by previous US administrations as “the crazies” — and that Blair’s inner circle, including Blunkett, “were all collectively to blame for deluding ourselves into believing that we had much greater sway over Washington”. Even the host, Fareed Zakaria, apologised to viewers for supporting the war initially. When are we going to get an apology from the media and blogosphere cheerleaders who similarly deluded themselves that they were in on a great liberal project of democratisation? As of now, Harry’s Place is still silent on it.

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