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Updated: 5 hours 49 min ago

Brexit: A misguided vote

26 June, 2016 - 18:12

A map showing results of the referendum by local authority areaSo, on Friday morning we woke up to the news that Britain had voted narrowly (51.9%) in favour of leaving the European Union, with Scotland overwhelmingly against and Northern Ireland also mostly against, but with both England and Wales voting Out (53.4% and 52.5% respectively). The result was an immediate fall in the value of Sterling (which stands at 1.37 to the dollar right now), rumours that various banks were beginning the process of moving jobs out of London to elsewhere in Europe) and various reports of people claiming they had been lied to by the Leave campaign and regretted their vote. What is of more concern is an upsurge of racist incidents since Friday, with people of foreign appearance told it was time to go home now or physically attacked or threatened, and some demonstrations by far right fringe groups (so far small, and dwarfed by anti-fascist demonstrations). The Prime Minister has already announced his resignation in October and has delayed invoking Article 50, which is the procedure for a state’s withdrawal from the EU, until a new leader is in place; meanwhile, the Labour shadow cabinet is in meltdown, with widespread criticism of Corbyn’s leadership and open talk of a challenge to it; seven members of the Shadow Cabinet have resigned or been sacked already.

It’s worth noting where the votes to Leave came from and where they didn’t. The full results are on the BBC website (among other places) and the votes do not correlate with usual party preferences. In London, all but five local authority areas (Hillingdon, Sutton, Barking & Dagenham, Havering and Bexley) voted In; these included both wealthy Tory boroughs and places of both diversity and deprivation. Outside, however, there are a number of Tory districts in the south that voted In, including a belt that stretches from Stroud in Gloucestershire through to Windsor in Berkshire, down to inland areas of Hampshire and the Sussex coast; there are also many provincial urban areas where the majority voted out, including all of Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Swindon, Reading and Slough. While the major urban hubs of the North voted in, their outlying areas voted Out. These are all places with a substantial working-class and ethnic minority vote, and while the white working-class Leave vote is well-known, it also leads to the obvious conclusion that minority-ethnic voters voted Leave as well.

Why is this? I have long held the belief that Britain’s way of engaging with Europe has been to take what is good for business rather than what benefits ordinary people. Britain stayed out of the Schengen accord, for example, which would have spared British tourists in Europe the expense of applying for a passport (the cost of which rose sharply during Labour’s time in office as a result of biometric passports), which people on the mainland do not have to tolerate just to pass over land borders. More recently, Labour, miscalculating that a few thousand white Christian workers coming in would not cause any problems, allowed hundreds of thousands of eastern European migrant workers to enter the country without any restriction from 2004 onwards, which most other European countries declined to do (and which we did not do, for example, when Spain, Portugal and Greece joined). It may be irritating for people in secure public-sector jobs to hear, but in an unregulated labour market with weak unions, a large influx of workers from poorer countries than ours means fewer jobs and lower wages. And while this country employs hundreds of thousands of their economic migrants, some of these countries refuse to accept a single Syrian refugee!

Going back further, joining the EEC, as was, was a policy of the Tories, Liberals and the ‘moderate’ wing of the Labour party. It was Edward Heath that took us in and during the Thatcher era, the Labour party of the Foot and early Kinnock eras was staunchly anti-EEC. To northern working-class people, our time in the EEC and the EU has been connected with the destruction of British industry, mass unemployment and casualisation. Joining the EEC was not the cause, but neither was it a coincidence: the same people who favour open borders for money have contempt for ordinary people and their jobs and see no way of resolving industrial strife other than destroying the industries they work in. They also regard protectionism as a dirty word, regardless of the fact that improving workplace standards (safety etc) is no use if we allow imports from countries which have none of these standards, where pay is low and conditions punitive (such as they were in Britain during the Industrial Revolution), and where there are no free trade unions.

Accepting the EU was one of the Thatcherite policies Labour had to accept in order to appeal beyond their core vote in the 1990s, and now that the EU has failed to deliver, at least in ways people in former mining, steelworking and manufacturing industries and the surrounding communities can put their fingers on, this policy has come back to bite the Labour party. Yes, people point to the EU financing this road or that arts centre, but if these regions had prosperous industries that provided decent jobs with prospects then such amenities would pay for themselves through local taxation. People don’t want handouts, and they don’t want their towns to be dependent on them either; they want to be able to pay their own way. The fact is that we have a wealthy class in this country which has no real loyalty to this country; they are not willing to invest in or take a chance on British workers, for the most part. They’d rather buy things in from abroad.

It is not Europe that betrayed the working classes; it was British politicians of both parties. All these problems could be solved without withdrawing from the EU and without, for example, forcing existing eastern European workers out, but it will require a fundamental change in attitudes among the richer members of our society and an acceptance in political circles that supporting British industry means more than simply subsidising underperforming companies. It remains to be seen whether leaving the EU will deliver that or whether the panic caused by the prospect of leaving will deliver it; these things are not being discussed in the public domain right now, so I very much doubt either — but it’s what needs to happen if Britain’s membership of the EU is to be saved. David Lammy has suggested that “all the government needs to do is nothing” as the referendum result is not legally binding, but simply doing nothing will mean the issue will still be live at the next election, resulting in a bigger share of the vote and, potentially, seats in Parliament for UKIP.

As for ethnic minority voters, and I’m particularly talking about Muslim voters here, they may have voted to leave in large numbers because they, like other working-class people, resented the competition of eastern European workers, or the effect of the pro-EU ruling classes’ policies on the industries they had worked in, or perhaps because they saw Europe as a place that was hostile and getting worse. The media asked white voters why they had voted Out, but failed to ask (as far as I’m aware) any Black or Asian voters outside London. For them I think this was a misguided vote, as it has emboldened racists up and down the country, resulting in dozens of racist incidents against apparent ‘foreigners’ of all kinds, some of them violent. As we still have a Tory majority in Parliament, the Eurosceptic, Islamophobic Right will gain the ascendancy in that party, even if neither Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove becomes leader; we could also become the scapegoats for or distractions from any hardship caused by leaving the EU. Given the divisions in the Labour party and the collapse of the Lib Dems, a general election this year or next will not produce a more favourable outcome for us.

Britain leaving the EU is not inevitable. Not only is the result not legally binding, but it is now clear that key planks of the Leave campaign have fallen away (the spending of EU contributions on the NHS, the reduction in immigrant numbers) and it is clear that they had no real plan of action and are in no hurry to set the ball rolling on activating the legal mechanisms for leaving. The present situation could have been avoided if a 60% or 2/3 threshold had been set as the minimum, which is not without precedent (e.g. the Scottish devolution referendum in the 1970s, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (which requires a 2/3 majority to trigger a general election after less than five years), the requirement of numerous organisations and many other countries for a 2/3 majority to change the constitution or remove elected officials. A major constitutional change should require more than a narrow majority. But we cannot simply do nothing. As has been observed on Twitter, the result can be overridden but what it has revealed about this country cannot be un-revealed. Leaving the EU would be an immense folly and cause economic collapse and isolation, as even the threat of our leaving has already started to do, or at best a settlement which costs as much but gives us no say in drafting the EU’s laws and regulations. The way we engage with Europe has been wrong from the beginning, and has benefited the rich and the middle class at the expense of everyone else. We must change the way we do Europe, not leave Europe.

Image source: Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 (Attribution ShareAlike) Licence.

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What happened to the child’s best interests?

25 June, 2016 - 15:15

Picture of Ellie Butler, a young white girl with brown hair and a suntan, wearing a pink T-shirt showing unidentifiable cartoon characters.Last Wednesday, Ben Butler, a convicted armed robber and serially violent offender from Sutton in south London, was convicted of murdering his six-year-old daughter Ellie in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 23 years. The murder took place less than a year after a Family Court judge sent her to live with Butler and his girlfriend, Jennie Gray, who was convicted of perverting the course of justice and received a 42 month sentence; she had been living with Gray’s parents after her father was convicted of causing her serious injuries, some of them consistent with shaken baby syndrome, of which he was later cleared on appeal. Butler and Gray launched a publicity campaign, hiring the publicist (now, of course, convicted of abusing children) Max Clifford and appearing in various tabloids and ITV’s This Morning programme. The judge, Mary Hogg, called it a rare “happy end” and said it was “a joy … to oversee the return of a child to her parents”, ignoring a welter of evidence of Butler’s violent character.

At the risk of stating the obvious, several big mistakes were made in that judgement. One is that a child was removed from a happy home and placed with parents she barely knew. It is not unknown for children not to be returned to their parents after a period of separation because they have grown attached to their new families, even when the parents are of good character and are manifestly innocent. A good example is that of Louise Mason, whose three children were removed in 2002 because of doctors’ suspicions that the illness one of her children suffered from was caused by her. In fact, as later demonstrated, it was a form of cancer that can (and in this case did) go away on its own. But in 2009 when Mason was last in the news, although two of the children taken into care were returned, that child was not, because she had grown too attached to her foster carers, calling the female foster carer “Mummy” and her own mother “Mummy Louise”. The fact that Ellie was doing well with her grandparents should have counted against the parents’ case, particularly as Ellie had said she did not want to live with them as she barely knew them and was scared of her father, for reasons we will come on to shortly.

A second serious mistake was to overlook Butler’s violent history. Neighbours knew him as a “coke head” and a “nutter” with a volatile temper who had been banned from all the pubs on Sutton High Street because of his violence. He had received a three-year jail sentence for robbery and had been convicted of intimidating witnesses and of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and two strangers; he was also convicted of carrying an offensive weapon in 2011. The judge dismissed this on the grounds that his assaults were against adults. Quite apart from the fact that one of the adults was his girlfriend, and that a man who assaults his girlfriend is liable to expose any child he cares for to similar violence, we should not assume that a man who is habitually violent ‘only’ to other men is not a danger to children; a man who hits anyone whose tone of voice he doesn’t like or who won’t do as he tells him will do the same to a woman or child eventually, especially when the child grows into a teenager and more closely resembles an adult. (I should stress that I am talking about histories of violence here, not isolated incidents.)

Then the judge pronounced him ‘exonerated’, despite the fact that his conviction was quashed because the evidence was unsound — that’s all they have to prove; there were other possible explanations for the injuries Ellie had suffered, not that those other explanations were in fact the correct ones — and people have not won their children back on more than one occasion in the past despite being acquitted of injuring them or another child, or causing the death of another child, in the criminal courts. The standard of evidence is different, and family courts sometimes decide that, on the balance of probabilities, the parent probably did cause the injuries. She had this ‘exoneration’ attached to all the documents about the Butler-Gray family, and suspended the local social services from dealing with the family, appointing a private consultancy, Services for Children (!), which employed two social workers, to oversee her ‘transition’ to living with her parents, with the result that her school could not raise issues about her poor attendance or injuries. Thus a last chance was lost to save her from her father’s explosive temper.

One of the cornerstones of British family court policy is supposed to be that the child’s interest is paramount, and that justice for parents or carers is of secondary importance. Adults are supposed to be adults and put the child’s needs before their own desires or feelings. The adults in this case had had an intermittent relationship (unlike Ellie’s grandparents) and had missed multiple contact visits, on one occasion to see the FA Cup Final and on another because of “stress” linked to a criminal case; on another occasion, Ellie had refused to get out of the car to see her father. After the judge ordered her return, appointing a tin-pot social work consultancy because Butler did not “trust” Sutton social services, her family complained that she wet the bed and insisted on climbing into bed with her grandparents and aunt, when she stayed at the house, because she was terrified of returning, the consultancy decided to expedite her return: “Effectively she does not have a choice in this, as we would expect her to say she does not want to go. The decision taken to move her sooner is due to a belief that she is unlikely to choose this”.

Ellie’s views did not count (the judge refused to hear them), and her welfare was not considered beyond the dogma that living with a child’s biological parents is always best. Nobody who put Ellie’s best interests first could have even considered moving her from a happy home with her grandparents to a ‘family’ so markedly inferior, whatever the truth of her original injuries (and in the light of his other violent behaviour, his involvement should have been considered as a possibility); an uncommitted couple dominated by a man with a marked tendency to violence, who had in the past said he hoped opportunities for violence would present themselves, who would at best have exposed his daughter to his behaviour, including to domestic violence, even if he did not harm her directly, and might well have been absent from her life on account of being in prison for other crimes. It’s not a question of being “wise after the event”; nobody with a brain who cared about a child’s interests would hand them over to such a man when plainly better, willing and able carers existed.

I’d also like to make an aside about the feminist I saw on Twitter who said that Jennie Gray’s behaviour regarding Ben Butler and her daughter was the product of Butler’s violence and “coercive control” and that we shouldn’t blame her as much as him. On the latter part I agree, as she did not kill Ellie but played along with her partner for years, including during times when he was in prison for violent offences and could have separated herself from him, and including times when social workers told her that she could keep Ellie and her other child if she separated from him. The sad fact is that some women are attracted to thugs and some don’t mind a bit of “male violence” as long as it’s directed at someone they don’t like. I know this because I had a female teacher like this at school, who knew about her husband’s (also a teacher) violence towards small boys and did not bat an eyelid when he threatened violence in front of her, in the event of boys being disrespectful to her. Whether he was violent to her as well I don’t know. The killing of Kevin Tripp in 2009 is another case in point. Women are adults, and they have to take their share of the responsibility when they support a violent man when he kills or injures someone.

We will never know what was going through the judge’s mind when she passed her ruling in 2012; whether she was really taken in by Butler’s charm, whether she was fearful of yet more bad publicity, or whether the rules really did not allow her to entertain the possibilities that a man persistently violent to adults was a threat to a young child, that a child living in a happy home should be left there, and that an acquittal based on the possibility of an innocent explanation to a child’s injuries dictates that these innocent explanations be taken as fact — especially all these considerations combined. If they don’t, they should be rewritten such that a man of such plainly ill character never be entrusted with the care of a child again.

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Appeal to Muslims on Brexit

20 June, 2016 - 20:26

Boris Johnson, a white man with wild blond hair and mouth agape, wearing a black suit jacket with a blue rosette with his name on it, with a white shirt and pale blue tie underneath.Recently I’ve seen a couple of articles online appealing to Muslims to vote for Britain to leave the EU in this Thursday’s referendum. The claims are that the EU is anti-Muslim, that it could ban halal slaughter (as a couple of countries in the EU have already done), and that leaving will enable Britain to renew its links with the Commonwealth countries where most British Muslim families originate. I’ve had a few comments suggesting that I should put a “Muslim view” on this subject and that my writing on this issue could have come from any white Englishman. I believe that this referendum is about more than whether we stay in or leave the EU now; it is about who governs this country, as the defections of former Tory Leave campaigners Sarah Wollaston and now Baroness Warsi demonstrate.

Most of my reasons, as I’ve said before, are purely pragmatic and economic. Britain is right next to continental Europe; we are 21 miles from the nearest Continental country and some 3,000 miles from the nearest Commonwealth country (Canada) and that has a population roughly half ours despite its huge size. Distance clearly outweighs the cultural similarities. Canada is part of NAFTA; Australia has forged new links with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. We cannot expect that these countries would just return to principally trading with us and each other. The EU is a major world trading bloc and being a member means we get a say in making the rules. If we leave, we will most likely be subject to the rules without getting a direct hand in making them, as in the case of Norway (we could lobby, of course, but this would not always have the same effect). There is a likelihood of foreign owners of British industry moving to the Continent if we do not swiftly join the European Economic Area, which they can easily do because Britain does not protect jobs, unlike some Continental countries, and the people pushing for Brexit (all hardline Thatcherites) will not change that. These issues are not specific to Muslims; they would affect everyone.

It has become fashionable to blame the EU for policies which are in fact imposed by the British government. The EU did not force us to accept large numbers of migrants from Eastern Europe from 2004 onwards; that was the Blair government’s decision. The EU did not force us to impose restrictions on skilled workers from outside the EU, or on people settling here to marry British citizens. This, again, was a British government decision, motivated in part by agitation about Muslims marrying spouses from “back home” and thereby endangering “social cohesion”, “importing ignorance” and raising another generation of Muslims whose first language is other than English, all of which are blamed for extremism and ultimately terrorism. This goes back at least to the Oldham riots of 2001, but certainly to the early 2000s. Other EU countries, such as Denmark, imposed minimum ages for foreign spouses; Migration Watch pressured the government to do the same, as it did (this was later ruled contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, and repealed).

So anyone who is saying that leaving the EU, and blocking mass immigration from countries like Poland, will enable Muslim immigration from Commonwealth countries, is simply wrong. The people who will gain power if Britain votes to leave the EU include those who have been agitating against Muslim immigration long before anyone was aggrieved by the Poles. The Commonwealth countries to which they are attached are the ‘old’ White Commonwealth countries: Canada, Australia, New Zealand and (maybe) South Africa. You can see this whenever the right-wing tabloids complain that a family with a spouse from one of these countries has been refused permission to settle in the UK: the families are always White. They would not lift a pen to support a family with a spouse facing deportation to Pakistan or Bangladesh. If any South Asians enjoy more favourable treatment after Brexit, it will be Indian Hindus and Sikhs, not Muslims and certainly not Pakistanis.

There have been two high-profile defections of Tories from the Leave to the Remain side in the past few weeks, namely Sarah Wollaston, a GP who is MP for Totnes in Devon, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. In giving their reasons, neither said they had been convinced of the virtue of the EU or the wisdom of staying in for its own sake; rather, they said that they disliked the tactics used by the Leave side; the claim about money that could be used on the NHS in the case of Wollaston, and the “nudge nudge, wink wink” campaign of xenophobia and racism in the case of Lady Warsi. This shows that they preferred to stay in the EU than countenance the change to politics in this country that a vote to leave would bring: putting in power dishonest opportunists like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and Muslims should consider that both of them have a long history of hostility to Islam and Muslims both in and out of Parliament: inflammatory front pages in the Spectator in Johnson’s case, war-hawkery and pro-Israel propagandising in the Times in Gove’s, not to mention the witch hunt against majority-Muslim schools in Birmingham in which normal Muslim practices such as separating boys and girls were linked to extremism.

As for the claim that the European Parliament could ban halal slaughter, this is simply scaremongering. The European Parliament cannot initiate legislation; it can only discuss bills put to it by the Commission, and most of these proposals have been on economic matters and regulations justifiable on the basis of a threat to the environment or human health. It has never interfered in such matters; they are for national parliaments. It is not a body that just passes laws on every trendy issue. In fact what is banned is non-stun slaughter, not halal slaughter per se (there is a difference of opinion as to whether stunning nullifies halal slaughter), and it is banned in only a few countries, such as Denmark, Poland and Switzerland — the latter as a result of an anti-Semitic referendum campaign in the 1890s. France and Germany, the biggest players in the EU, allow it, while some countries (like Lithuania) have a lucrative halal and kosher meat export trade to the Middle East, which means it is highly unlikely that a proposal to ban halal slaughter will even get before the European Parliament, let alone get passed.

There is no benefit to us in leaving the EU. We should particularly beware of the so-called “left-wing case” for leaving, as left-wingers will not be in power after next Thursday; rather, the right wing of the Tory party will be. Many of the objections are to things that are the result of British policy, or could be remedied by a change in their policy; all the faults of the EU — its democratic deficit, its bureaucracy, its neoliberalism — are present in the British political system as well, in some cases more so. Some Muslims may not care that the UK itself may break up, with renewed demands for Scottish independence and the impact on the status of Northern Ireland, but they should care that voting for Brexit would empower the most hostile and extreme elements of the Tory party and discredit the (relatively) moderate ones. We can always leave the EU later if need be; it will be a lot easier than rejoining after we leave and find that we are isolated and that our economy has taken a nosedive (and politicians will distract from this with attacks on poor people, disabled people, and minorities including Muslims).

Much as with the London mayoral campaign, but on a bigger scale and with far more dire consequences, the referendum is about racism and xenophobia and about which Tories govern Britain afterwards as much as it is about the EU. Much as we may dislike the policies of other European countries, much as we may feel we have no connection to any of them, Brexit will mean a Gove or Johnson premiership and will leave us far worse off than remaining in the EU. It is not just a case of giving hate a kick in the teeth; we must prevent the haters ruling us, by voting down their proposal to leave the EU.

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Brexiters are lying

31 May, 2016 - 09:24

A graphic from Vote Leave, showing an open British passport with footprints leading to it, with the slogan "Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU. Vote leave, take back control".

Coming home the other day over a flyover on the A3, I saw a poster from Vote Leave, the official campaign for Britain to leave the EU, which proclaimed “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU”. Below that was a picture of a British passport with a blank red page, with footprints leading to it. I found this poster appalling, not only because it appeals to fear of foreigners who are assumed all to intend to come here, but also because it simply is not true. It’s astonishing that a Tory MP has complained to the 1922 Committee accusing Cameron of “lying profoundly” by saying that Turkey is not joining, when it is they who are lying by claiming that it is happening, when there is no imminent prospect of it happening.

The two premises of this poster are both false. It is inconceivable that Turkey will be invited to join the EU when it shares borders with two countries where there is a civil war and which produce the world’s current biggest outflow of refugees, much of it into Turkey. If it does, it will not be on the basis of joining any free travel area while the situation in Syria and Iraq remains as it is. Turkey currently does not even have visa-free travel to the UK or the rest of the EU (British tourists need visas to visit Turkey), which cannot happen unless 72 benchmarks are met; it has to enforce EU rules on all of 35 policy areas and Turkey currently only enforces one (on science and research). There is massive opposition in the rest of Europe to Turkey joining, and any single member can veto it, including Britain. Finally, support for joining the EU has fallen in Turkey in recent years anyway, and having to remain a functioning democracy to maintain EU membership would be rather inconvenient for a lot of its politicians.

There is also no guarantee that most Turkish emigrants to the EU would come to the UK, as the poster suggests. Although there is a large Turkish community here (about 500,000), the majority of it (around 300,000) originates from Cyprus, a former British colony, not the mainland; there are 1.55 million Turkish citizens in Germany and 2.71 million with at least one parent born in Turkey, so there are no prizes for guessing which EU country mainland Turkish migrants are more likely to go to; migrants tend to go where they already have family connections and an established community rather than take a chance on a completely strange country. And it’s even possible that there might not be an outflow of workers because there are jobs in Turkey for them to do. So, this bit of racist scaremongering is also an exaggeration if not an outright lie.

If the Brexiters had robust reasons for wanting to pull out of the EU, rather than Little Englander gripes about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘benefit tourism’, they would be putting them rather than telling obvious lies. We hear all the time that Britain does not “control its own laws”, when if this were the case, we would not be able to hold this referendum, or that we do not “control our own borders” when Britain and Ireland are in fact the only EU countries that still have border controls. It’s ironic that Priti Patel accuses pro-EU Tories (or others, I’m not entirely sure what she means) of being too rich to feel the burden of EU membership on public services. The fact is that if we left the EU, we would still be subject to EU laws in order to be able to trade freely with Europe, as is the case with Norway; any other arrangement would mean we were isolated, subjected to tariffs and restricted in where we could work or travel. That wouldn’t bother the very wealthy; it would be ordinary people trapped in an impoverished offshore island that suffered.

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Who flies an English flag?

24 May, 2016 - 11:02

An image of a small yellow-brick house with three St George's Cross flags hanging from the roof, one obscuring an upstairs window, with a red brick driveway and no front garden, with a white Ford Transit van parked outside it.There’ll always be an England … and Labour must learn to love it by Tristram Hunt (from the Guardian)

Tristram Hunt, in this article which appeared on the Guardian website Sunday before last, argues that Labour is out of step with the “ordinary” working-class English in places like Harlow, and beyond “liberal enclaves” such as Cambridge, Norwich and Exeter, and “Latin quarter” constituencies in places like London and Bristol (no idea what makes them ‘Latin’), “traditional Labour voters think the party is out of step with their values”, partly because of “a wilful refusal to embrace a positive English identity”. He also cites a comparison between Labour’s losses in traditional working-class areas and the Democrats’ losses in the American South, and the St George’s cross to the Confederate flag, on the basis that both parties lost because they failed “to connect ‘culturally’ with a socially conservative working-class electorate, increasingly willing to vote against their own material interests”. Hunt is the editor of a book published yesterday titled Labour’s Identity Crisis; similar conclusions are reached by a report published this week by Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, which claims that Labour is becoming “irrelevant to the majority of working people” and “is now as toxic in the south of England as the Tories are in the north”.

There are a few serious problems with Hunt’s analysis. To begin with, the Democrats’ losses in the South were down to race, not social conservatism, beginning when president Kennedy, a liberal northern Democrat (and his liberal southern successor), passed anti-segregation laws that ended the Jim Crow era. Right-wing leaders such as Reagan were able to exploit the resentment of Southern whites by using coded language, particularly about crime and welfare, but the only thing the South resented the North for was imposing de-segregation (while leaving the same elites in power, including the corrupt, racist and class-ridden judiciaries. That said, the South continued to elect Democratic senators and governors right into the 1990s, such as Jimmy Carter, George Wallace and Bill Clinton, while Barack Obama has won two terms without taking any ‘inner’ Southern states other than North Carolina. There really is no comparison with working-class English who were not defeated (in a wholly just cause) but simply feel sidelined by the rise of Welsh and Scottish nationalism.

Second, the demand for an “English identity” and the visibility of the English flag is a very recent development. I never heard of it growing up in south London and I never heard of it when at a boarding school where there were a lot of boys from working-class backgrounds who lived in places like Essex and Hertfordshire. It was only seen at football matches and some other ceremonies; most people regarded themselves as British, and the word ‘Englishman’ cropped up only in nursery rhymes (“fee fi fo fum” etc) and in quaint stereotypes. Very little came of the effort to develop “progressive patriotism” that was seen in the 2000s. I do not believe the flag has much resonance for most people regardless of their political stance, and that flag-waving will not win Labour any votes in the absence of policies designed to deliver good jobs, education and healthcare. The Tories (at least, the Tory press) already have the edge on this sort of politics and there is no need for Labour to imitate it, nor anything to be gained in doing so.

Third, the Right of the party really needs to understand that a major reason why they did not do very well in the recent local elections is because they were seen as divided, primarily because of open talk about revolts and another leadership election which was reported in the media. Jeremy Corbyn won fair and square with a massive mandate from party members (not just the £3 supporters, as is commonly supposed), very largely because the Blair/Brown old guard did not put up any candidates who offered a radical alternative. Much as Tony Blair was referred to as Tory Blair (or Tory Bliar) throughout his time as both leader and PM and did not contest the Tories’ central economic orthodoxies, they won because they were seen as radical, competent, open-minded and not mean, not hypocritical and and not bitterly divided. Some of these problems in fact were the reason why Labour’s popularity declined from 2005: in particular, Gordon Brown’s obvious sense of entitlement, and Blair’s combination of arrogance and cowardice in leading Britain into the Iraq war. The Right clearly have a sense of entitlement of their own, proclaiming that as they won the party three elections, they should be allowed to lead because this will mean they win more, when as previously discussed, their formula has no guarantee of winning an election in 2020 when young voters will be too young to remember Blair’s first or second election victories.

Fourth, the picture of Labour activists unable to connect with voters in Harlow and the attitudes of Harlow voters are not the whole picture. A third of Harlow’s district council seats were contested this month and the council remains under Labour control; 19 of Harlow’s 33 councillors are Labour, giving them overall control, while three of the four seats representing Harlow on Essex County Council are held by Labour (who gained one from the Tories in 2013). Harlow constituency contains rural areas as well as Harlow town, and rural Essex is overwhelmingly Conservative. Frank Jackson of the Harlow Labour Party, in a letter to yesterday’s Observer, puts Labour’s failure to win Harlow in 2015 mainly to the fact that “it had still not adequately refuted the lie that the 2008 global financial crash was caused by Gordon Brown’s profligacy, while its “austerity light” programme did not inspire voters that the party had a viable alternative”, but it’s possible that bussing in Labour activists from London who were like fish out of water did them no favours either, especially when there are clearly plenty of activists to go round in Harlow.

Fifth, what do they mean by “socially conservative”? Not that long ago the term commonly meant opposition to sexual permissivism and particularly homosexuality. This also features in the comparison with the American South, where ‘conservative’ has been used as a euphemism for racist, but is also heavily associated with fundamentalist Christianity and causes such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage. None of these are particular issues among white working-class voters here, whether in old industrial or mining towns in the north or in places like Thurrock. The authors of the Cruddas report define it as valuing “family, work, fairness and their country” rather than the liberal Labour values of “equality, sustainability, and social justice”. Besides the fact that the Tories commonly use “fairness” to disguise cuts to services or increased charges, the truth is that most people value things from both of these lists and they do not identify the difference between fairness and social justice.

Sixth, Tristram Hunt in his article does not examine where the attitudes of the working-class people Labour has “lost touch with” come from. He quotes a Harlow voter as saying he’s “a white working-class Englishman who isn’t on benefits”, and the perception that Labour is only interested in people on benefits is a myth peddled by the press (and Labour was right to oppose most of the cuts to ‘benefits’, such as Legal Aid and Disability Living Allowance, that took place under the previous government; those who at the time had no need of these things could be persuaded that they affected only “fat cat lawyers” and “fake disabled scroungers”). He offers a further observation on reactions to concerns in Harlow:

And when, in 2015, English voters raised cultural concerns about changes in language, dress and social norms, we answered with crass, material responses. “Many middle-class Labourites scoffed at such views,” according to Suzy Stride in Harlow. “Where would the NHS be without immigrants?” was a common response from canvassers, she said.

Which language and dress are they talking about? Every so often we hear concerns about schoolgirls wearing skirts that show too much leg (and more, if they are sitting), but I suspect that Muslim dress, and specifically women’s dress, is the primary concern here, as well as the continual press complaints about schools were English is only anyone’s second language. These things wouldn’t trouble people in Harlow much as the population, according to the 2011 census, is 85% White (combined White British and White Irish; “White other”, including eastern Europeans, are at 4.2%) and the South Asian population (including Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) is only 2.6% while the Black African population is 2.8%. I’ve driven through Harlow a few times and I don’t see that many women in long black clothes with faces covered. No, they’re hearing about this in the press, and not seeing many Muslims in real life to counteract the scare stories. The report also argues that the party is perceived as supporting an “open-door” policy on immigration, something that was not true at all when it was in power. It tried to restrict immigration from outside the EU, not because EU immigration was causing particular pressure but because Muslim immigration (in particular, the sourcing of spouses from villages back home in Pakistan) was blamed for the breakdown of “social cohesion” and, ultimately, the 2001 Oldham riots and terrorism. Perhaps they thought allowing Eastern Europeans in would be OK because they’re white; perhaps they even thought a bit of white immigration would be a good thing.

The irony of the claim that Labour is losing touch with its working-class roots because of its attachment to the liberal metropolitan middle class is that they don’t make any effort in real middle-class metropolitan liberal constituencies — areas like mine in south-west London, or in Hampshire or elsewhere in the South where the Liberal Democrats became the main ‘opposition’ to the Tories from the 1990s onwards until they threw in their lot with them in 2010. They had no chance of winning some of the seats the Lib Dems lost in the south-west in 2015, in many of which UKIP as well as the Tories increased their share of the vote, but they might have won more of the London seats the Lib Dems lost if they had targeted these constituencies and directed some of the activists whose efforts were wasted in Harlow to constituencies where they might have been able to build a rapport with local people (and put up a candidate anyone had heard of).

As Dawn Foster has noted, Tristram Hunt has been talking out of both sides of his mouth; he has also told the student Labour club at Cambridge University, “you are the top 1%. The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward”. He really has no vision for leadership other than by the public school and Oxbridge élite as represented by Blair (and indeed Cameron); ordinary people are regarded as credulous tabloid-reading bigots who have to be catered to with displays of patriotism and anti-immigration sentiment from people who no more believe it than do the state school and redbrick-educated “metropolitan liberals” who are so reviled? This is a recipe for the George W Bush type of politics, in which privately educated wealthy men feign a common touch and peddle the bigotries of the mass media while stripping away healthcare and employment protection from those who vote for them.

England, even south Essex, is not the American South. There is no history of defeat or enmity with other parts of the country, no history of large-scale slavery or explicit structural racism, and no religious right to speak of. People will not (right now at least) vote for a party with policies hugely against their material interests because the candidate is anti-abortion or pro-death penalty, or makes thinly-veiled appeals to racism or suspicion of an ‘other’. Labour should not feel the need to pander to a minority of loud-mouthed Sun-reading bigots and pretend that they are representative of the general population (much as is commonly seen with cab drivers), rather than an embarrassment to them. Labour should not shed its commitment to social justice (including opposing and reversing unjust Tory cuts to legal aid and disability support), but the forefront of its campaign must be about jobs, healthcare, education, the economy and, for the time being, keeping the UK together. Flag-waving and immigrant-blaming won’t win Labour any votes on its own; others are already better at that game.

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Undercover: Some impressions

19 May, 2016 - 21:40

A still of a Black man wearing dark-coloured jogging clothes with a flourescent yellow strip along the zipI couldn’t write a full review of Undercover, the six-part TV series about a police spy (Nick, played by Adrian Lester, right) who fell in love with and married the woman he was meant to be spying on (Maya, played by Sophie Okonedo, below left), as I tend to forget large chunks of the plot over the six weeks (or seven, as the final episode was delayed by a week), although others who watched the series and commented on it on Twitter couldn’t see the point of certain characters, for example, either. I watched it intently as a relative of mine had a minor role in it (as one of the cops in episodes 2 and 3) and believe that despite the strong acting, it had a weak plotline which fell to pieces in the final episode. It’s also problematic in how it handles issues of race.

The plot is based on the recent stories of undercover cops who formed relationships with activist women, who in at least one case bore the spy’s child. One of them turned out to be Bob Lambert, who later resurfaced as an academic and bridge-builder with the Muslim community until his past was exposed. Nick (a pseudonym borrowed from the identity of a dead child, something that has happened in real life) is sent undercover to infiltrate a Black civil rights protest group shortly after a man called Michael Antwi is beaten to death in a police cell. It appears that the police put him in a cell with a known racist who then killed him; however, it later transpires that in fact the police pulled him off and then killed him themselves. Nick encounters Maya, a young lawyer who is helping Antwi’s family, and forms a relationship with her. However, he falls in love with her and marries her, leaves the police behind and appears to start a new life as a writer (although strangely there is no evidence of him doing any writing, let alone publishing any). Years later, Maya is made Director of Public Prosecutions while also representing a man who is on Death Row for murdering the mayor of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he suffers a botched execution. However, Nick’s police colleagues reappear and ultimately he can no longer hide his past from his wife. It ultimately turns out that Michael Antwi was a drug ‘mule’ and in fact murdered the politician whom Maya’s client was convicted of killing.

So, here are my impressions:

(1) The murder of Michael Antwi reminded me of a number of other murders with obvious racial angles, in particular Zahid Mubarak, who was murdered in Feltham young offenders’ institution by a violent racist the prison staff had knowingly placed in his cell. Tnat part of the story also had parallels with the murder of Blair Peach at an anti-racism demo in Southall, west London. Zahid Mubarak had been locked up for committing a crime but was close to being released, and obviously had a right to be protected from violence that was entirely predictable and there have been suggestions that they were put in a cell together so that staff could watch the confrontation. However, in this drama it turns out that Antwi was a criminal and supposedly “deserved” to be murdered, and even Maya is supposed to just accept this (just after discovering that her husband was a police spy, no less). Frankly, to make a story out of two well-known stories of lethal racial injustice and turn it against the victim is at best cheap, and at worst racist. And I checked: the author (whose father was a cop who served in Northern Ireland) is white.

Picture of Maya Coppina (Sophie Okonedo), a light-skinned Black woman wearing a dark-coloured suit jacket with her hair tied behind her head in a bob, standing with her back to a front door on a London suburban street.(2) Like most people commenting on social media, the last episode was by far the weakest and included some downright ridiculous scenes. I was particularly unimpressed by Maya’s arguments at the Supreme Court, which consisted of very basic arguments against the death penalty (and lethal injection in particular) that you could get from any anti-death-penalty pamphlet. The American South is notorious for assigning inexperienced or downright incompetent lawyers to poor (and particularly Black) defendants in capital cases, and she struck me as precisely that type. We don’t see what arguments actually got Rudy off, except for the bit where he refused to name the real killer (a real court would have rejected his appeal in these circumstances). The assistance of Clive Stafford Smith, a real lawyer (also British) who has defended capital cases in the South is credited; where was he when these scenes were written? And it was curious, to say the least, that Maya was still able to travel to the USA to work on a capital case while she was DPP (or that she got that job despite having always been a defence barrister, or the fact that the authorities would have known about her past).

(3) A lot was left unexplained in that weak last episode. We see Dan, Nick and Maya’s learning disabled son, kindle a relationship with a white girl named Lola, whom he meets twice in a park and then invites back to his room for a “wrestle”. Nick tells Maya, in his farewell letter, that Lola is “not all she seems”, but we never learn what he means. We learn that Antwi in fact killed the mayor of Baton Rouge, but we do not learn why, or why Rudy had not named him sooner (given that he was dead) rather than spend 20 years on death row, or why the British police would have Antwi murdered in a police station rather than co-operate with the American authorities and have him extradited.

It rather looked like they were trying to leave a lot of ends loose for there to be a second series. Frankly, I think they shouldn’t always reprise drama serials for second or third series; much like film sequels, they don’t really live up to the original (Broadchurch was the worst recent example, but Happy Valley’s second series was not a patch on the first either). If a series is conceived as a self-contained story, why does it even need a second series? It is not like a sit-com where each episode is a story and you can always write more stories. This last episode seemed to use coincidences to quickly tie up the threads towards the end, and the connection is just not plausible. How likely is it that a lawyer had two cases that she dedicated much of her life to, and it turns out that one of her clients actually committed the murder the other was convicted of?

But my biggest complaint is that this drama isn’t true to life, and it’s untrue to life in a mean and reactionary way. Others have already noted that in real life, the police spies who formed relationships with women they were spying on disappeared and moved on to other police work, but it also takes real stories of racial injustice, uses them as a plot device and distorts them so that the victim in fact deserves his fate. Despite the fact that the drama contained multiple rounded Black characters (pretty rare in British TV drama), this story does not do justice to the issue of intimate police spying or of racial injustice and violence by the police. I don’t think it merits a second series on those grounds alone.

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Make corruption history?

15 May, 2016 - 14:27

A stage in Hyde Park, London, with audience in the foreground. The stage features two live 8 logos of guitars with bodies shaped like Africa with the slogan "One voice to make poverty history" across the top of the stage.Who remembers the slogan “Make Poverty History”? It used to be found on banners on streets, on pamphlets and on the top corners of websites. I remember Bob Geldof trying to get a crowd of people at Hyde Park to chant it at the “Live 8” concert in July 2005, which he envisaged as part of some big protest against the G8 summit that was going on in Scotland, but which the concertgoers saw as just a rock gig. But despite the march of climate change and its consequences, despite the deterioration of human rights and the spread of state-enforced poverty in parts of the world, nobody seems to be talking about how to make poverty history anymore. Instead, we hear a lot of talk about corruption, and a lot of criticism of the cultures of the peoples affected. The latest example is the anti-corruption summit hosted by David Cameron this past week.

Cameron made some noises this past week about a new register of properties owned by foreign companies in the UK (it doesn’t mention individuals, although such people often use front companies based in Crown Dependency tax havens to own properties here) and there has been an agreement by some of Britain’s crown dependencies (though not the British Virgin Islands) to share property registers. It all depends, of course, on legislative approval, where it could easily be watered down, or it could be delayed indefinitely. It’s not only foreigners who use ruses such as offshore companies to hide their assets; British citizens are known to do this as well, likely including some of Cameron’s friends and major Tory donors, and deterring wealthy foreigners from buying property in the UK, however corrupt they are, could result in house prices falling (or at least not rising as quickly as had been expected). You would not get wealthy Tory MPs to vote against their personal interest, as has been seen with bills to raise the standards of rented accommodation.

His own party is also under investigation for overspending on election expenses in numerous constituencies, many of them the marginal seats that made the difference in the 2015 election. Even one of the newly-elected Tory Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), who have to have a clean record even as a juvenile to stand for the position, is under investigation for this offence. The investigations may lead to criminal charges (though not necessarily against the MPs) and it’s been suggested that they could trigger by-elections, possibly endangering Cameron’s majority. It’s not the first time it’s been suggested that a Tory government with a narrow majority may have secured crucial votes through corrupt means: in the 1990s it was revealed that Tory party activists had engaged in “granny farming”, meaning purporting to secure postal votes for old people in retirement and nursing homes, then switching them to proxy votes which they then cast in the Tories’ favour.

Picture of Muhammadu Buhari, a clean-shaven Black African man wearing thick-rimmed black specacles, standing next to a Nigerian flag hanging from a pole.The British establishment (its politicians and media) likes to think it can lecture other nations on corruption despite having benefited from corruption in other countries in the past. Britain’s everyday life isn’t affected by corruption; we do not have to bribe policemen or officials just to get basic business done for example. But there used to be a joke that the reason you didn’t get military coups in the USA was because there was no US embassy there; corrupt rulers in other countries who steal from national banks stash their ill-gotten gains in banks in Europe and the USA. That was tolerated for as long as these régimes suited US and European interests, and when they were overthrown, they were often rescued by their patrons and allowed to take their loot with them, as in the case of the Marcos family when they were outsted from power in the Phillipines in 1986; the Phillipine government has recovered only a fraction of the Marcoses’ loot. Even at last week’s summit, the present Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, demanded that Britain return the money stolen by previous presidents such as Sani Abacha, which presumably is still sitting in London banks. There is a sense that when corruption happens here, it’s little bits here and there and the law will sort it out, even though it often does not, while corruption abroad is blatant, large-scale and vulgar. But we don’t mind the money when it’s spent on luxuries in Knightsbridge. Corruption, like rape, is only ‘real’ when it’s stereotypical and blatant.

As I said at the beginning, we are more interested nowadays in criticising other cultures and less interested in hunger, poverty or political repression. In the last couple of years the Tories, particularly William Hague (who retired as an MP last year), have addressed summits such as the 2014 London “Girl Summit” on such issues as FGM and child marriage and another that year on ending sexual violence in conflict, leading a radical feminist on Twitter to gush that Hague almost sounded like one of them. I have a suspicion that their newfound enthusiasm for women’s rights in other countries in fact has more to do with distracting popular attention from the deteriorating human rights situation, from such things as governments selling huge tracts of land to foreign corporations so as to grow food for export, resulting in the people who live there being forced out, often into barren ‘villages’ set up by the government. It’s that much easier to ignore such things if you think that these are already people who don’t even respect their wives’ and daughters’ human rights.

Significantly, in Hague’s speech on sexual violence, he did not mention the arms trade once; Kaye Stearman of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) observed in 2013 that the last (coalition) government was “much more blatant — quite shameless” about promoting arms exports, while previous governments had done so with some degree of embarrassment; it is known that British equipment exported to Saudi Arabia has been used in their bombing campaign against Yemen over the past year. The Ethiopian government’s ‘development’ schemes that are leading to large-scale displacement of indigenous people are being funded by international institutions such as the World Bank and the UK’s Department for International Development. Yet human rights only matter nowadays if the people infringing them are ordinary people, not the state, and certainly not when backed by western governments and major banks.

Of course, most people would say that poverty as such will never be history. But we can fight the impoverishment of people by political repression and violence. This is not what the recent Tory interest in corruption and women’s rights is all about; it is about posturing while upholding the unjust economic world order, the wealth and power of the global super-rich, behind the scenes, and there are a lot of vested interests in nothing much being done, and the flow of money northwards and westwards continuing.

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No, Labour can’t “just win”

11 May, 2016 - 22:25

Picture of Rhea Wolfson, a young white woman with below shoulder length brown hair, wearing red glasses and a bright red jacket, holding a sign saying "Vote Labour". Two South Asian men are walking behind her.One of the candidates standing for the Labour party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), having replaced Ken Livingstone on the centre-left slate, is a lady called Rhea Wolfson, who came to my attention today when someone retweeted a tweet she had posted about having received anti-Semitic abuse (I had a look and it was serious stuff; Nazi references about vermin and taunts about gas chambers, for example, not angry remarks about Israel). I discovered that she was on Corbyn’s side of the party and there was a post by “Guido Fawkes” drawing attention to an article she had written for London Young Labour (now deleted) which suggested that winning the 2020 election should not be Labour’s main priority. Fawkes summarised her remarks by saying “the Corbynista candidate for the NEC says there is no point in winning elections if it means compromising your purist values”. I don’t see it that way at all.

The deleted article is cached here and there is an article in a similar vein, still up, at Left Futures. Fawkes quoted a couple of passages from the LYL article:

Is winning in 2020 the priority and if so, what are we willing to sacrifice to achieve it? My belief is that winning 2020 should not be the priority of the Labour Party. This belief comes from a further belief that the Labour party is a movement above and beyond anything…

I’ve read quite a lot recently statements in the realm of You change opinions from inside government- why don’t the left understand that? and whilst there is some truth there, my fear is what happens in reality (as I think is exemplified by Liz Kendall’s campaign) is that you have members who continue to say that as we sit in government. Those policies got us elected becomes these policies will keep us elected and we end up with the reality that is a Labour government, unrecognisable from its values (and its members) and a reality where the only opinions that get changed are our own.

I’m not in the Labour party and don’t intend to join any time soon (my views on Israel would get me thrown out pretty quickly in the current climate, for starters), but like most people in England I recognise that the only alternative to a Tory government as of 2020 (assuming some crisis doesn’t ensue to bring about a general election sooner) is a Labour one. However, I do agree with the sentiment that we cannot just elect right-wingers “because they’re electable” because we need to know what we want to get elected to do. Just replacing the Tories is not enough if you promise not to reverse any of their major policies of the past six years. They also have to face up to their mistakes and understand how to avoid repeating them.

I read the Guardian’s Long Read earlier today. It was about illegal gangmasters in north Cambridgeshire who exploit migrant farm labourers from eastern Europe. We all know that the debate over Europe and immigration centres on the mere fact that Labour allowed eastern Europeans to freely live and work in the UK, and not on why they did this and the effect that it’s had on the parts of the country involved. However, they also allowed casual gang labour to flourish, with hours and pay that were only acceptable to the desperate:

One of them [a group of locals] had been a land worker in the past, when there was still an Agricultural Wages Board to make sure people received a living wage and decent breaks. “I preferred being outside, so I didn’t mind it. It was head down, arses up, half-seven till half-three, and an hour break for lunch because that’s what a man could manage. Saturdays and Sundays were off.” But he reckoned it was inhuman work now.

“It’s the big farm businesses that have ruined this town, with their cheap labour,” said the older of the two men. “British workers would do those jobs, but it’s the way they pay them, the way they want them, that’s the problem.”

The woman in the group had worked in another food factory, where she had been team leader. Working patterns had switched from five days a week with overtime at weekends to rolling 12-hour shifts, four days on, four days off. “The work got harder and harder, and more and more agency people came in – foreigners. Don’t get me wrong, some of them were good hard workers, but I went home off one shift and when I came back on the next, they were still there. How can that be legal?”

If you look at a map of the 1997 general election results, you’ll see that East Anglia is still mostly blue but Labour did win a couple of rural east Anglian seats, including the Norfolk/Lincolnshire borderlands around King’s Lynn, just north of Wisbech where the events detailed in that article happened. Labour hasn’t been wiped out in the big towns (e.g. Norwich and Cambridge, though they’ve lost Ipswich and Peterborough) but the major challenge to the Tories in places like Wisbech now comes from UKIP, not Labour (UKIP came second in that seat in 2015 as well as in several neighbouring constituencies). This country is now on the precipice of leaving the EU, with disastrous consequences, in large part because Labour forgot about the workers while in government.

How? Because they decided that the needs of business for cheap labour and supermarkets and their urban consumers for instant produce outweighed the needs of ordinary people to decent jobs in their own communities, jobs they would have done (regardless of all the talk about “British are too lazy to do farm work”) if the conditions were decent. They also presumably calculated that the parts of the country affected by these matters wouldn’t vote Labour in 2005 or 2010 even if they had in 1997, and that restricting immigration would lose them left-wing votes in places like London to the Liberal Democrats or Greens. It was an example of how New Labour abandoned working people (of course, their dereliction of their northern ex-industrial base is a better-known example) in search of business approval and the middle-class suburban vote, and we are now all paying the price, and threatened with still bigger losses.

This is why Labour cannot just stick Blairites back into the leadership and expect them to win again. It is not 1997 and none of them have the charisma Blair did then, and the Tories are still not quite as discredited or divided as they were in 1997. Today’s Blairites are not fresh-faced young reformers but tired old hacks touting a strategy that worked once. I don’t agree with purity politics, but it’s no use saying “we can’t transform society unless we’re in power” without knowing what kind of transformation you want to make. I fear that they just want to join the race to the bottom, and appeal to the worst in people, and the transformation can wait.

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‘Sexism’ no reason to remove a petition

10 May, 2016 - 19:34

Picture of Laura Kuenssberg, a white woman in her 30s with shortish blonde hair, wearing a blue top with a black suit jacket over it, with a backdrop composed of the logo of Policy ExchangeLaura Kuenssberg petition taken down over sexist abuse, from the Guardian

I don’t watch the TV news much nowadays, even Newsnight, so I can’t comment personally on whether the coverage of politics by Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC, where she is political editor, is biased or not. People I trust on Twitter, however, say that her coverage is persistently biased in favour of the Tory party and against Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, in particular. (She has chaired seminars and written for the website of Policy Exchange, a Tory-affiliated think tank; Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home wrote this glowing blog entry about her in 2009.) I’ve seen a Twitter account titled @ToryKuenssberg, which offers a rather amusing parody of her coverage, such as the following from last night:

Some people have launched a 38 Degrees petition to get her removed from her position. Some time today it was taken down, as the above news report states, because it was ‘hijacked’ by people from Twitter and Facebook who had left abusive comments of a sexist nature and posted similar writing on social media. Some of the defences of Kuenssberg boil down to “she’s just doing her job”, a common response when a woman in a public role is criticised for doing a bad job. I think it’s wrong for such petitions to have to be taken down (the owners have published a statement). (More: Stavvers.)

I’ve never run a petition, but I’ve signed a few and I’ve got more than a few criticisms of all the three main petition hosts (38 Degrees, Avaaz and They don’t offer any means of registering dissent from the cause, and they will spam you with demands to sign other petitions until you expressly opt out. This is why, for example, I hesitated to sign the recent Predatory Peacekeepers petition because it’s on Avaaz, a site I hadn’t hitherto signed up to and therefore which I wasn’t already receiving several emails a day from. But what has happened here is that 38D has suspended a petition because of a flaw in their own system: the lack of any ability to moderate comments left at the bottom. Petition owners can’t control who signs, and who leaves what comment, and the sites allow you to broadcast your comment straight to Facebook or Twitter, and it’s easy for anyone trying to discredit a petition to leave an abusive comment against the target or subject of the petition.

I’ve not seen any abusive or sexist remarks in my Twitter feeds where there has been a lot of criticism of Kuenssberg for bias. It’s all been about her reporting. Perhaps the people leaving sexist remarks are people without any sense of what is appropriate, or actual misogynists, or morons looking to disrupt any cause for the “lulz”, or maybe it’s from supporters of Kuenssberg seeking to discredit the petition. Was any attempt made to investigate where the abusive remarks were coming from? I very much doubt it is what the people who put the petition up intended. Yet I’ve seen people assume it’s “typical leftist misogyny” rather than a few extremists or people trying to deflect criticism from Kuenssberg’s reporting.

In addition, I reject the “just doing her job” argument used by her supporters. If you want to present news in a way that’s sympathetic to a Tory government, there’s always the Times or Telegraph; the BBC is paid for by everyone. There is an attitude that a woman in a position of prominence or public authority is such a novelty that they should always be treated with kid gloves as their removal would probably put a man in the job, constituting a reversal for women. I hear this regularly in interviews on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, where Jenni Murray interviews women in powerful positions, such as Alison Saunders, the current Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), in a sycophantic manner reminiscent of a schoolgirl excited to be given the privilege of interviewing an important person for the school newspaper, and not questioning them about serious failings, some of which have led to lives being lost. (Her interview with Madeleine Albright was another example.) We even sometimes hear this about women whose jobs involve victimising people, such as was said when a certain feminist activist known for harassing transgender people was exposed as working as a lawyer for the pay-day loan industry.

Women who do bad jobs, or who do vital jobs badly, should be open to criticism, whether it’s Kuenssberg or Alison Saunders or, say, Katrina Percy of Southern Health. I’ve been involved in a campaign (led mostly by women) to get rid of her and a number of other men and women in senior positions at that trust, and while I’m sure some people would like it if a woman took over from her, a man will do as long as it results in better care and no more drownings in baths. We’ve yet to see any misogyny or any attempt to discredit us with it, but I really hope the public will see through it if this happens (so far, the only abuse that could be described as such has been directed at Sara Ryan, the mother of the young man who drowned, not at Percy or anyone else at the trust). If Kuenssberg goes, it would be great if they found another woman, but not at the expense of persistent bias in favour of the government and, where the Labour party is concerned, the embittered right. It would, however, be a disaster for free speech if it were possible to destroy perfectly legitimate campaigns by making them look racist, sexist or otherwise malicious and getting petitions cancelled and other means of protest blocked. It’s up to the petition site owners to give campaigners the ability to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Image source: Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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Who really “made Islam a hot topic”?

10 May, 2016 - 13:27

A Mail on Sunday headline reading "On Thursday, are we really going to hand the world's greatest city to a Labour party that thinks terrorists are its friends?". There is a picture of a bombed-out London bus from the 2005 bombings.There has been an article published on the Daily Beast, the American news website that owns Newsweek, by Maajid Nawaz, explaining to their American audience the “real reason” why Islam was made an issue of during the recent mayoral campaign. It’s not just that the Tories used a consultant that is notorious for running racist campaigns that appeal to the worst in middle-class white provincials and suburbanites; no, it’s all down to “Islamists” and their friends on the “Regressive Left” in the Labour party and the liberal British media, who hold Muslims to “lower expectations” than others, and the “Populist Right” such as Donald Trump’s Republicans. He brings up things that were never mentioned in the recent campaign, such as the fact that he once shared platforms with people linked to extremists or who expressed unpopular opinions and that third parties told Muslim voters in Tooting not to vote for an “Ahmadi” Lib Dem candidate.

As someone who has been a Muslim since 1998, and used to make regular visits to mosques in Tooting and elsewhere in south London (I lived in Croydon until 2001), I can say that it’s difficult for Muslims not to come into contact with the people that Nawaz labels as “extremists”, and this was more true before 2001 than it is now because things were much more open, people were much less fearful and some groups held different positions to those they hold today. Many people would disagree with, for example, al-Muhajiroun’s policies on Muslims voting, but they did not intimidate anyone into not voting and the functions they put on (one of which I attended in 2000 or so) were social events where Muslims networked, and were not fraught or intimidating. Al-Muhajiroun changed their position in 2004 to an explicitly Salafi-Jihadi one and their tactics of holding disruptive demonstrations (including at other Muslim groups’ demos, such as those by CagePrisoners) started in earnest then. Some of the press reporting about the 2005 election campaign in Tooting (which Khan won) suggests that they were involved in some of the disruption.

Nawaz claims that there is a “left-wing bigotry of low expectations that holds Muslims to lesser, illiberal standards”. In another Daily Beast article linked off that one, he names the Guardian as a host for such attitudes. I’ve read the Guardian for years and most of their coverage of Islam is through a white liberal lens and there is a shortage of identifably Muslim contributors. When, for example, Nawaaz’s friend Usama Hasan was made unwelcome in the mosque he believed he would inherit the imamate of by dynastic succession for expressing a belief in human Darwinian evolution, the Guardian treated him as a wronged, brave dissenter. But the truth is that it is not a question of holding Muslims to lesser standards but of accepting that others’ standards are different, and don’t regard our standards as necessarily higher than theirs.

Picture of a high wall, on the left side of which children appear to be playing in a school playground in its shadow. On the right is a factory, houses and some sports fields.In places Nawaz appears to be relying on the ignorance of his foreign readership. I do not recognise his description of London as a “torn city”. This is not Belfast, or even Glasgow. It’s a place where, with the exception of some of the outer suburbs, people of different races and creeds live, work, study and travel together. People by and large keep themselves to themselves and do not strike up random conversations on the street or train — it’s not one big village or happy family — but they do know each other enough not to be afraid. The exceptions, and the places where Goldsmith did best, were in the white-dominated outer suburbs where people don’t see people of other cultures on a daily basis — they don’t, for example, have numerous perfectly civil encounters with Muslim women in hijab at college or on the train — and might perhaps be more susceptible to fear-based propaganda. This is how it is with racism in general; the more people actually meet those of other cultures or ethnicities, the less prejudiced they tend to be towards them. The outer suburbs tend to be the areas that vote Tory anyway, but the fear campaign did not make any inroads and, as London had elected a Tory mayor twice, actually lost them votes.

But in any case, the reason the Tories thought a fear-based campaign focussing on Khan’s background would work has nothing to do with the “regressive Left” and very much to do with the media, particularly (but not only) the right-wing press, which has drip-fed the public a series of stories about Muslims as terrorists, Muslims demanding one type of “special treatment” or other, Muslims trying to censor others’ free speech, Muslims simply doing things differently from others (e.g. having separate seating for men and women at events) with this being presented as a threat or as a scandal that it’s even allowed, and so on. Outrage is regularly manufactured about such matters that in fact threaten the life or liberty of nobody, and which are replicated in some other religious and even secular spaces (e.g. schools of other faiths and none, feminist conferences), with MPs joining in the frenzy.

 Give Us Full Sharia Law".The idea that every Londoner (let alone anyone else) is continually confronted by any kind of Muslim threat, or irritated by Muslim behaviour or obstructed by praying Muslims as they go about their business is laughable. People think Muslims are trouble because the papers tell them, and the ones who meet us every day won’t fall for fearmongering (and lies — we shouldn’t forget that the British mass-market tabloid press has a record of publishing malicious and fabricated stories) whereas those who only read about us in the papers probably will.

Bigotry is only to be blamed on the bigot, and the stirring of it only on the stirrer. We cannot blame Muslims, Islamists, the anti-racist left who do not demand humiliating renunciations of whole tracts of their religion, or anyone else for the Tory campaign against Sadiq Khan except the Tory party itself. It miscalculated, as it had a candidate who was fairly well-liked, who had been trying to build bridges with the Muslim community and has Muslim family connections, and faced a Labour candidate who was distrusted by his own community because he had taken a pro-Israel and anti-BDS stance, had attacked Muslim rights groups and made scaremongering remarks about Muslims and extremism to the press. He is considered almost as much an Uncle Tom as Maajid Nawaz is. The Tories had an open goal, and failed to take advantage of it because they thought that after decades of abuse from them and their propaganda press towards all their favourite targets, such as Muslims, a few smears targeting his religion and his human rights work before he became an MP would do the trick. What there is to celebrate is not that we have our “first Muslim mayor”; it’s that a racist negative campaign backfired spectacularly.

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Did Sadiq Khan win, or Zac Goldsmith lose?

6 May, 2016 - 22:27

Picture of Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, presumably in a tall building, with a view of central London behind themAs I write this, the first preference votes for the London mayoral election are counted and Sadiq Khan has won 44.2% of them (on a turnout of only 45.3%); second preferences are being counted, but it seems to be accepted that Khan has won. The campaign has been fought, as far as I am aware, without any reference to either his policies or those of his Tory opponent, Zac Goldsmith (son of James, former editor of the Ecologist and MP for Richmond Park, which includes the northern part of Kingston); it has been fought almost entirely on the basis of smears against Khan for having connections to extremists, including former clients from when he was a Human Rights lawyer and someone who used to be (but isn’t now) married to his sister. Goldsmith’s campaign was ‘masterminded’ by Lynton Crosby, who has a history of winning election campaigns in both the UK and Australia using divisive, often anti-immigrant (or, as in this case, just anti-minority) stances, earning himself a knighthood for “services to politics”, but this campaign showed his limits: it was a disaster, as Goldsmith found himself denying that he had links to conservative Muslim leaders in south London such as Suliman Gani, only for the links to be proven.

Goldsmith could have won this election. He could have fought the campaign on issues that matter to everyone; most of his role, after all, pertains to transport, although he has a bit of a public relations role as well, serving as a figurehead for London. Boris Johnson, the outgoing Tory mayor, is still quite popular (although his opponent on both occasions was Ken Livingstone, who had lost a lot of popularity because of his arrogance, best exemplified in the western extention to the Congestion Charge into residential areas of west London, which he pressed ahead with despite its massive unpopularity); although he has largely built on the achievements of others, including Ken Livingstone, his two terms in office haven’t been the disaster some people feared. Unlike Johnson, Goldsmith does not have a prior record (as far as I know) of promoting bigotry; Johnson edited the Spectator when it printed several viciously Islamophobic front pages following bombings and riots here and in France. While of course the Muslim vote on its own will not win anyone an election in London, Goldsmith could have secured it given his connections to the community in south London and Sadiq Khan’s questionable loyalty (for example, making scaremongering claims such as that a certain large percentage of British Muslims had met an extremist).

A lot of people, including his sister Jemima Goldsmith (once known as Jemima Khan, former wife of Pakistani cricketer and politician Imran Khan), had remarked that the campaign did not reflect the Zac Goldsmith they knew, who was according to his sister “an eco friendly, independent-minded politician with integrity”. Tell MAMA claimed that he “is a man who cares about issues affecting communities and is someone with a genuine desire to make a positive change for communities”. Yet for whatever reason he allowed Lynton Crosby to run a highly negative campaign on his behalf, which some commentators called a “doughnut strategy”, appealing to the white middle classes in the suburbs while demonising the inner city and minorities, or at least some of them. He also made an appeal to Hindus and Sikhs by claiming that Khan supported a “tax on family jewellery”, boasted that he had “welcomed Prime Minister Modi to London last year alongside Prime Minister David Cameron” while Khan had not, and had supported a ban on the visit, and talked of his “strong record of engagement with the Indian community, celebrating Diwali, Navratri and Janmashtami”, without mentioning any Muslim festivals.

I heard Andrew Boff, a Tory London assembly member, criticise the Goldsmith campaign for “blowing up bridges” that the Conservatives had built with the Muslim community in Newham (his example), accusing him of “effectively saying that people of conservative religious views are not to be trusted and you shouldn’t share a platform with them”. However, on Vanessa Feltz’s show where he was interviewed, he said that Goldsmith’s policies were excellent and that he still hoped he won. But sadly, however fine his policies, we cannot reward a politician who runs a racist campaign by voting for him. It would allow any future politician seeking election in a mixed city to think he can use smears and fears to win and the next time, it could be accompanied with violence, as has been the case with Donald Trump’s campaign to get the Republican presidential nomination in the US. Opposing racism and bigotry must trump almost anything else.

I don’t believe any of the romantic notions that London is above bigotry, that it would never elect a politician who traded on race-based fear. But it is a city where people live together, not a city of affluent suburbs and ghettoes. There is almost no part of London where you could live for years and have no contact with ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslims. It is also easy to overestimate the reach of papers like the Evening Standard, which is mostly sold to and read by rail commuters. The result, if it is as predicted, is a bloody nose to the Tory leadership and to its attack dog Crosby, who threw away an easy victory in order to follow a tired negative campaign script. It’s hugely to the credit of Sadiq Khan’s campaign that, despite the ongoing controversy over “anti-Semitism” and the history of “anti-Zionist” campaigns in certain areas with a heavy Muslim population, this campaign did not even hint at Zac Goldsmith’s ancestry. They played it clean and it appears to have paid off.

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Jews, Muslims, the left and “anti-Semitism”

2 May, 2016 - 16:06

Picture of Malia Bouattia, a young woman of North African appearance with long hair, a necklace with three leaf-like charms visible, and a black T-shirtSince I wrote my last piece on the left and claims of “anti-Semitism” against Labour students and the Left more generally, a spate of claims of anti-Semitism against various Labour politicians, two of them Muslims, have been made, resulting in the suspension from the Labour party of Ken Livingstone and the MP for Bradford West, Naseem “Naz” Shah. Also, following the election of Malia Bouattia as NUS President, a number of local student unions threatened to disaffiliate, claiming she was an anti-Semite and had refused to support a motion condemning ISIS and complaining that her election was undemocratic because it was carried out by conference delegates, not through a ballot of all students. While I agree that the remarks that got Ken Livingstone suspended were crass and historically inaccurate, I suspect they would not have resulted in suspension if said about any other minority or for that matter any other genocide. The row about Naz Shah’s remarks from 2014 fail to take into account the fact that most Muslims feel the same way, and that their stance is not a matter of racism but of being on the opposite side of a conflict.

Malia Bouattia

To take Malia Bouattia first, the complainers are simply bad losers. The election of an NUS President has always been at conference, by delegates (who have to vote as instructed by their unions, which are accountable to the students — at least, those who take an interest in the union) and we did not hear them complaining when right-wing Labour careerists such as Jim Murphy were elected as President for year after year in the 1990s. When I attended as a delegate from Aberystwyth in 1996, Labour students even had people sitting with visitors in the balcony telling delegates how to vote. If they want a directly-elected President, they need to make the case for that at conference rather than disaffiliating. The Union of Jewish Students was prominent then as now, and organised a main-hall speech by a Searchlight activist who insisted that anti-Semitism was the “one abiding hatred” among neo-Nazis and that all their other hatreds were as nothing compared to the “paranoid hatred” they had for “the Jew”. He specifically named anti-Zionism as a cover for “naked anti-Semitism”, comparing it to someone saying “I’ve nothing against the Irish or the Belgians, but I don’t think they deserve a state”, ignoring the fact that Ireland and Belgium are not settler states and that they do not displace and oppress a native population.

I read the motion that Malia Bouattia refused to support, and while the motion itself does not appear Islamophobic, it also did not condemn Islamophobia or the politics of suspicion against British Muslim students; it did not even mention Islam or Muslims other than in connection with the so-called Islamic State. So, Ms Bouattia resisted a demand to condemn on cue and was smeared as a result. In addition, what does it matter if the NUS does or doesn’t condemn ISIS? It will have no difference in the field. The NUS passes an awful lot of resolutions on things that have nothing to do with students in the UK and on which they have no power, perhaps rejoicing in the glory days when union buildings were named after Nelson Mandela and students were part of the (vast) international movement that brought down Apartheid.

In the controversy over her election, the president of Birmingham University’s Jewish society, Daniel Clemens, was quoted as saying:

I think that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are two and the same thing. Zionism is the belief that Jewish people should have a homeland to live in without threat of annihilation or war. This stems from a Jewish belief. So when someone attacks Zionism they’re indirectly attacking Judaism as a religion, because the two go hand in hand.

The problem is that the “Jewish belief” is in conflict with the right of the Arabs who are the native people of Palestine to live in their country without the same threats. There is simply no defence of this position or of the status quo that does not lend itself to racism or to blaming the victims of Israeli oppression, something that in a student union context would not be tolerated of any other kind of oppression or violence. Furthermore, Muslims have been convicted of inciting racial hatred in this country for quoting hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallm) which foretold a war with Jews, and the judge dismissed his defence by saying, “words created 1,400 years ago are equally capable of containing race hate as words created today”. So, if Islam is no defence, Judaism is no defence either.

Naz Shah

 Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0Moving on to Naz Shah, her remarks were made in 2014 and were made in the context of the Israeli bombings in Gaza, which as reported at the time, caused widespread civilian death and the destruction of homes, schools, hospitals etc. We don’t regard this as self-defence, regardless of its disproportionality compared to Hamas rocket attacks. It is murder and destruction in defence of injustice, namely the state of Israel, which as amply documented elsewhere, already oppresses the population of the West Bank through settlements, checkpoints, the wall, theft of water, arbitrary imprisonment of civilians for acts of resistance, and so on, while keeping the population of Gaza under seige (in collaboration with the dictatorship in Egypt). The fact that all this is deemed necessary to “maintain Israel’s security” (although the water theft is really to enable them to maintain a western lifestyle) is enough to demonstrate that the state of Israel is morally untenable.

Naz Shah shouldn’t have apologised. Most Muslims felt the same way she did. She should have stuck by her words rather than grovel to the Israel lobby’s smear and fake-outrage tactics. If the political classes can tolerate the Jewish community’s loyalty to a racist foreign state, it should be able to tolerate Muslims’ opposition to it and the odd intemperate remark, particularly when it is clearly aimed at the foreign power itself and not at everyone who shares their race and religion.

Ken Livingstone

As for Ken Livingstone, his foray into being an amateur historian made him look pretty stupid. It’s a fact that early Zionists (such as Vladimir AKA Ze’ev Jabotinski) collaborated with anti-Semites who, for example, would prefer to relocate Jews to Palestine rather than tolerate them at home, or accept a wave of Jewish immigration from eastern Europe. Hitler did indeed tolerate Zionism, and did make an agreement with the German Zionist Federation, but this doesn’t prove that Hitler and his associates did not have murder in mind when they took power; the Zionists misjudged his intentions, as their leader later acknowledged (note: that link does work), much as those who stayed in Germany (or returned in the early days of his regime, attracted by the restoration of order) did, believing the surge in anti-Semitism would “all blow over”. To suggest that he only massacred the Jews because he was thwarted in his intention to deport Jews to Palestine or Madagascar rather suggests that his hand was forced, when it was a deliberate decision. The Jews of Europe did not have to be expelled or killed.

However, people calling him to be suspended or expelled from the Labour party overestimate the effect this would have on him. He probably does not care; he is 70 years old and has no intention of becoming an MP or running for mayor of London again, and it should be remembered that he has in the past beaten a Labour candidate as an independent.

What is anti-Semitism, and who gets to define it?

There have been a few stupid articles about this in the media. There are plenty of “sky is falling” articles by authors of Jewish origin: this one by Nick Cohen (complete with a shockingly ignorant remark about false rape accusations — in fact, attempts to talk about rape often are diverted onto talk of false accusations) and this one by Stephen Pollard, for example. But there are two others that make claims that I want to examine in more detail. One is by Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian last Friday, and the other is by Jonathan Freedland in last Saturday’s Guardian. They deserve closer examination because they compare the situation of Israel and related anti-Semitism or claims thereof to other tyrannies, and other minorities.

Hinsliff concludes:

Here’s a clue, for those confused about how to champion Palestinian rights or condemn an oppressive regime without overstepping the line: just treat Israel as you would any other country guilty of human rights abuses.

There’s nothing inherently antisemitic about seeking economic sanctions against Israel, supporting an oppressed minority’s right to self determination, condemning a government, or anything else you’d do if this was Burma.

But calling for its people to be swept into the sea, or forcibly transplanted somewhere else, or in any other way denying Israel’s right to exist, is crossing a line because that simply doesn’t happen to other countries no matter how oppressive their regime. No other nation state on the planet is constantly asked to prove itself morally worthy merely of being allowed to exist.

The thing is that this isn’t Burma. Burma was until recently, and to some minds still is, a country which is ruled by an oppressive military élite which controlled the economy and ruined the country’s education system, among other things. It also persecutes some minorities, particularly the Muslim Rohingya whom no other government in the region wants to admit. It is, therefore, a straightforward tyranny in which the population as a whole are oppressed by a powerful class. We do not always support sanctions against tyrannical régimes; many people did in the case of Burma, because tourism would have benefited only the military élite which exploited the general population, not the people. Israel’s tyranny presents itself as democracy, and it is commonly justified as the “only democracy in the region”, and the army which perpetrates the abuses is drawn from the dominant population — the Jews, the vast majority of whose ancestors did not live in the country until at least the late 19th century and most of them much more recently — and there is every sign that this dominant population supports the status quo, given that it elects hardline parties and the likes of the war criminal Ariel Sharon to govern them. So, the problem with Israel is not an elite, but the population.

The comments about how it’s OK to support “an oppressed minority’s right to self-determination” reflect the usual naivety of the white liberal about this situation. Israel is not willing to tolerate self-determination because it wants to provide scope for settlement expansion, to hold onto religiously significant sites and to provide a western lifestyle for Israelis and especially those relocated from the developed world. It cannot do this by allowing the native people equal access to resources and to control over their homeland. The reason we usually do not say of a tyranny that the state and its people should be driven into the sea is because the population is the victim (sometimes of land-grabs by members of the elite, as has become common in East Africa in recent years) rather than the perpetrator. The situation is more like that of Apartheid or of American segregation, where the state was of one section of the population and the enemy of another. (Nick Cohen talks of a ‘darkness’ where the police guard synagogues and Jewish schools here while ‘fascistic reactionaries’ attack them in France; real persecution is where the police and the fascistic reactionaries are one and the same, or at least, the police look the other way, as in the case of Kristallnacht or when Muslims were attacked in Gujarat in 2002. Of course, the governor whose police looked the other way now shares a platform with the Prime Minister and is feted by MPs of both main parties.)

In her penultimate paragraph, she alleges:

We don’t argue that the civilian population of Syria, or 1930s Germany for that matter, should have been forcibly removed from their homes and their nation states obliterated because of abuses committed by governments and condoned by some if not all of their citizens.

In fact, in the 1940s, millions of Germans were deported from the former eastern territories of Germany so that Russia could keep the parts of Poland it had occupied in 1939 and compensate Poland while resettling Poles from the east to the territories vacated by the Germans. In the same decade, millions of Hindus and Muslims in northern India had to leave their homes as a result of Partition. These were not recent settlers, unlike the Jews of Israel.

Freedland compares the left’s attitude to Israel to committed anti-racists hating a hypothetical country that is the only Black-ruled state in the world. In fact, one African country has a history much like that of Israel, namely Liberia, a country ‘founded’ by resettled freed slaves from the USA, who for a century dominated the country’s politics despite making up only 2.5% of the population. According to Wikipedia (which cites the US State Department for this):

The Americo-Liberian settlers did not identify with the indigenous peoples they encountered, especially those in communities of the more isolated “bush.” They knew nothing of their cultures, languages or animist religion. Encounters with tribal Africans in the bush often developed as violent confrontations. The colonial settlements were raided by the Kru and Grebo people from their inland chiefdoms. Because of feeling set apart and superior by their culture and education to the indigenous peoples, the Americo-Liberians developed as a small elite that held on to political power. It excluded the indigenous tribesmen from birthright citizenship in their own lands until 1904, in a repetition of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans. Because of the cultural gap between the groups and assumption of superiority of western culture, the Americo-Liberians envisioned creating a western-style state to which the tribesmen should assimilate. They encouraged religious organizations to set up missions and schools to educate the indigenous peoples … Their passage of the 1865 Ports of Entry Act prohibited foreign commerce with the inland tribes, ostensibly to “encourage the growth of civilized values” before such trade was allowed.

I should add that, although many Black-ruled countries nowadays exist, there is no state for Black British or African-Americans specifically, despite the many decades of racism and discrimination they have suffered. There are many minorities, with or without an acknowledged land of their own, who do not have a state. Nobody is suggesting they get one at another people’s expense. Nor is anyone suggesting, even those who would open the doors to all the refugees from Syria, that there should be a bit of England that is forever Syria.

He concludes by demanding that Jews be allowed to define what constitutes anti-Semitism, much as other minorites are ‘usually’ allowed to, without being told “they’re wrong, that they are exaggerating or lying or using it as a decoy tactic [and then treated] to a long lecture on what anti-Jewish racism really is”. But racism against every other minority is normally directed at them, not at a group of people of the same religion who are the dominant class in another country. And most minorities are not White, powerful and prosperous, and cannot kick up a storm in the media (or rely on others to do so) any time a politician makes a disparaging remark about them, or their friends abroad. It’s dangerous to allow such a minority a free rein to allege racism for things that bear no relation to the racism or discrimination other minorities suffer, and be indulged; they will use it to silence or smear critics, as they are already doing. Additionally, spurious accusations of ‘mansplaining’ to mean a man telling a woman something she doesn’t want to hear are pretty common in my observation, and even some feminists warn that it can be used as a simple ad hominem attack.


Picture of Sadiq Khan, a clean-shaven South Asian man with short, grey hair, wearing a pink shirt and red tie with a dark grey jacket.I do believe that this scandal has been orchestrated so as to damage the Labour party’s prospects in the coming local elections, perhaps because the Tories feared that the now-forgotten smears against Sadiq Khan had failed to do so. There is a group of embittered Blairites who really would rather the Tories won than even a moderate mayoral candidate, so as to give them a pretext to remove Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership. That doesn’t excuse Livingstone’s crass remarks about Hitler, but the truth is that this “anti-Semitism” controversy started with a witch hunt against prominent Muslims, starting with Malia Bouattia, moving on to Sadiq Khan and finally Naz Shah, and that over something she posted before she became an MP. In the Guardian last week Iman Amrani noted that Muslims come under special scrutiny when running for public office; they are judged not only everything they have ever said but also everyone they have ever come into contact with, as we have seen also with Sadiq Khan.

It will be galling to many Muslims that their support for Palestinians’ rights to their own land, control of their lives and freedom from harassment and oppression is branded anti-Semitic by a privileged minority and their media friends here at the same time as an openly Islamophobic campaign is being run in support of a Tory mayoral candidate named Goldsmith. Muslims will know that however integrated they are, and whatever compromises they make to appear integrated, they will still be held under suspicion because of whom they know or (as in Sadiq Khan’s case) simply for doing their job. We also know that the reason “the Left” is considered tainted with anti-Semitism is not because of Ken Livingstone but because of us. Whether they like it or not, the Labour Party depends in large parts of London not on Jewish votes but on non-white ethnic votes, including Muslims’, and demonising Muslims over spurious claims of anti-Semitism will lose them votes — whole seats in places like east London and Bradford. Labour has to accommodate both, and should not let itself be dictated to by a group that can make a lot of noise but is much smaller in number, heavily concentrated in a few areas, for socio-economic reasons less likely to vote Labour anyway and does not even represent much of the ethnic group it claims to speak for.

Image sources: Media Diversified, via Wikipedia, National Archives via Wikipedia.

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BADD 2016: Break the silence

1 May, 2016 - 19:19

An image featuring the words "Blogging Against Disablism", with a variety of stick figures of different colours on different coloured backgrounds, one holding a stick, and a wheelchair in one of the spaces.This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016.

Last month we saw the Seven Days of Action campaign, to highlight the cases of people with learning disabilities, mostly autism, who are being held for prolonged periods in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) when they could or should be at home, or in a care home environment near their family. For last year’s BADD I also blogged on this issue; some of the people I mentioned are still trapped; Josh Wills has been happily resettled (after many bureaucratic hurdles) in his own home in Cornwall, Claire Dyer is still free, while Thomas Rawnsley’s inquest has yet to begin (a pre-inquest hearing was adjourned last week at the request of the “other parties”). I decided to link this year’s BADD post to Seven Days of Action so as to attract the wider disability activist community’s attention.

Here’s a run-down of the cases featured during the Seven Days. One story had to be changed, as although the young man had recently been discharged from an ATU into a local placement similar to Josh Wills’s, the placement had “hit some snags” and the local authority were talking of putting him back in the ATU.

Kara from Who By Fire wrote an excellent post in conclusion, summarising the issues which had been raised by the seven stories. Mark Neary is expected to post an entry tomorrow about some developments which have followed from this event: one young lad (Robert) was approved for funding for a placement in a local care home, but others have faced retaliation, including parents threatened with a gagging order, extended detention and even one assault.

There are a number of petitions addressed to various local authorities, demanding that they secure placements for the young people (mostly boys and men) who are trapped in these units. In one case (Robert’s), the ATU staff even signed the petitions themselves. However, some of them have had to be closed down when staff warned the parents that they were monitoring their online activities and that they could affect their loved ones’ treatment or keep them detained for longer. This is obviously a dreadful abuse of power, and it’s a power they would not have if psychiatrists were not able to detain people under the Mental Health Act when they are not mentally ill but rather are displaying distress behaviour which is normal for their learning disability when they are simply anxious, or struggling to deal with a sudden change in their life, or with uncertainty (as has been observed elsewhere, such crises often happen at age 17 or 18 when school ends and a well-established routine suddenly ends). However, some of the same behaviour is provoked by the treatment they receive once in, as such units often make no attempt to fit the needs of the individual patients and the staff may have no clue how to address them. (There are reports of such behaviour being provoked deliberately, as well.)

Psychiatrists have too much power. They are not fully accountable. They can make decisions that affect the quality of people’s lives, everything from suspending someone’s driving licence without notice to sectioning someone and then transferring them to another unit, perhaps hundreds of miles away, without their or their family’s consent and without any serious opportunity to challenge. Add the ability to threaten or intimidate families into silence and you have the potential for an awful lot of abuse.

Silence is often justified in terms of protecting vulnerable people; this is particularly so when children in care are concerned; parents are prohibited from disclosing what went on in a family court session, for example. In some cases, not naming a child involved in care proceedings or who has been a victim of a sexual assault is entirely appropriate for their protection (and I have defended it on one previous occasion, where Panorama were forbidden from naming a boy who had been taken into care after, among other things, setting fire to his room, after a legal challenge from the local authority). However, it can also undermine a parent’s position and their child’s trust in them — I read an article recently by a mother who had had to lie to her daughter so as to conceal the fact that her parents were in the family courts, which ordered that she not disclose the fact to her daughter. But worst of all, it can stop a parent or relative seeking advice in a semi-public forum such as Facebook or MumsNet about dangers their relative is facing, let alone taking it to the media. This is likely to be the case if someone is in a care home under the orders of the Court of Protection, for example (as Thomas Rawnsley was at the end of his life).

However, injustice, abuse and cruelty thrive when people cannot talk about it. So many victims of sexual abuse reported that their abusers told them not to tell as it would break up their family, break their mother’s hearts, or they wouldn’t be believed (and they were often right on the last of these things). We talk about justice being done and seen to be done; we have the Freedom of Information Act so that government departments cannot conceal waste or corruption. Publicity is vital for ensuring that people who have power over others’ lives cannot abuse it with impunity. I believe that the fact that Claire Dyer’s case was known locally in South Wales and was being widely discussed in the disability blogging community, including on this site, and that the commercially-run unit which took her despite not being equipped to do so knew this, was a major factor in ensuring that she was released early. The family of Robert Stillman, whose placement was approved days after his story was highlighted on Seven Days of Action, are convinced that this is what made the difference.

We cannot discuss the reasons why ATUs and the Mental Health Act they rely on to detain people are inadequate, sometimes lethally so, if the lives of the people affected are shrouded in secrecy. We must campaign to end the secrecy of the Court of Protection where it is not necessary (the judiciary is already moving in this direction). Trusts and corporations must know that their names will become public knowledge if a disabled person dies or is seriously injured in their care. Secrecy benefits nobody except the abusers, the foot-draggers and the companies that profit from disabled people’s misery and their families’ grief. It must be fought at every turn.

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Seven Days of Action

18 April, 2016 - 22:20

A picture of Eden Norris, a chubby young white man wearing a black jacket and a purple shirt underneath, holding a small dog, standing in front of a wooden fence.This week the learning disability blogging crowd are putting on Seven Days of Action, with a blog featuring seven stories of young people who have spent time trapped in the ATU (Assessment and Treatment Unit) system, one of whom (Thomas Rawnsley) has died. Eden Norris’s story is featured today; he is 24 and has spent seven years in two separate units after being admitted voluntarily, which was expected only to be for a short time. He is from west London and is currently being held in a unit in rural Norfolk. His story was featured on BBC News last Friday. The full list of stories is to be found here. Eden’s story has a feature which occurs time and again with so many people who have fallen under the ‘care’ of the ATU system: the long-term use of anti-psychotics as sedatives, leading to massive weight gain and other health problems.

I follow a YouTube channel run by Tamera Weeks, the mother of a young woman named Micah who has cerebral palsy and, it appears, a learning disability. They live in Nebraska. She is able to steer her powered wheelchair by herself, but has limited communication; she can say a few words, not very clearly, and indicate choices, but has shown no interest in learning to use a communication device. Her mother’s videos feature explanations of her family life, her care, the nurses and care assistants who come in, and Micah doing her various activities and Tamera talking to her and, usually, Micah laughing. Recently, Tamera explained that Micah had had outbursts in which she became uncontrollably upset and had to go into another room to calm down. These often happened when her two younger brothers, aged 14 and 16, entered the room and appeared unprovoked. She posted another video in which she said Micah had become excessively clingy to one particular member of staff at her day centre, as a result of which the management were considering moving either Micah or the staff member as she could not do her other duties. This followed the departure in quick succession of several other long-standing member of staff including the man who drove the bus she rode on.

Tamera asked her YouTube viewers for help and many people made suggestions. I suggested that her reaction to her younger brothers could be that she wasn’t used to having men around as mostly women feature in the videos (actually, she had two other younger brothers), or that men at her day activities could have been harassing her (it turned out that wasn’t the case). I also suggested that the brothers had just turned from boys into men (or were in the process) and thus were less familiar to Micah than others, and perhaps interacted with her very differently from most other people she knew. As for the behaviour at the day centre, perhaps the staff member she was clinging to could do some of her administrative duties elsewhere, or before she made her presence known to Micah, so that she would not be distressed by her going away. I also told her that Micah’s behaviour is the only way she can communicate her distress because of her limited communication. Although she doesn’t have autism, she has some learning impairment, but also has no control over who comes into or goes out of her life, and the sudden departure of four familiar faces must make her feel very insecure.

A couple of weeks ago Micah saw a neurologist, who suggested among other things putting her on risperidone, an anti-psychotic. There is no suggestion that Micah is experiencing psychosis, but it’s commonly used on people with learning disabilities as a sedative, to control difficult behaviour. Luckily Tamera refused, but it seems it was not explained that an anti-psychotic could have dangerous side effects, including enormous weight gain, a significant health impact in itself but which in some cases has also led to liver damage, as had happened to the son of “someone I know” (Mark Neary) and it was only relieved by weaning him off the anti-psychotics he’d been put on while detained against his will in 2010. Micah uses a wheelchair for nearly all her mobility; she cannot walk unaided. Getting any weight off would be that much more difficult for her than it was for Steven Neary.

I was appalled that this neurologist, having been presented this problem for the first time, suggested anti-psychotics. Again, here is a young woman with both a physical impairment and a learning disability, who cannot care for herself, who cannot control who comes into her life and who goes out, and who cannot communicate adequately in words, who is faced with a sudden change in her circumstances and with behaviours from others, even though they may not mean it, which cause her repeated annoyance. Drugs should not be the first thing anyone thinks of when trying to help someone in that situation. Rather, they should work to address the situations that were causing the distress first, which is what Tamera is trying to do with both her family and the day centre management. But if Micah wasn’t living at home with her family but in a ‘home’, the management might not have been able (or willing) to put her needs first and might have gone for the drugs as it’s easier than changing their own and others’ behaviour (or just waiting out a temporary blip caused by a change in her circumstances that she doesn’t understand).

It’s the experience of the parents and relatives of people with learning disabilities caught in the British psychiatric system that psychiatrists are too quick to prescribe this sort of medication to control behaviour. The effect is young people putting on enormous amounts of weight, becoming lethargic and, as noted in the piece on Eden Norris, becoming unable to express themselves properly. As Kara Chrome put it, “if you’re a hammer, everything else looks like a nail”. When the cause of their challenging behaviour was not psychosis or other organic mental imbalance but uncertainty about their future, a sudden change of circumstances such as confinement, new unfamiliar rules, housemates and staff that are difficult to get on with and don’t respect their privacy, the solution might be to change these things — for the staff to modify their behaviour, to ensure that the person can go home or to a more suitable setting as soon as possible — rather than put them on drugs that will cost that person their long-term health.

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Trevor Phillips: race-baiting again

17 April, 2016 - 15:57

Note: I started writing this last Tuesday and finished today (Sunday) as work made it impossible to complete during the week.

A front page from the Daily Mail, with the headlines "Warning on 'UK Muslim Ghettoes'".I’d rather not be writing this entry. Last week there were two important documentaries: a Channel 4 Dispatches on disabled people being humiliated by benefits assessors, and a BBC Panorama about young mentally-ill people being held hundreds of miles from home and in some cases dying for lack of decent mental health care anywhere near home (the Humber region comes up yet again). But Trevor Phillips has been out race-baiting again, saying “things you can’t say” about race and race relations in a mass-circulation daily newspaper and on a prime-time TV documentary, as he was in March last year. This time, on the basis of a dubious interpretation of a tiny study (PDF) of British Muslims, he’s telling everyone else “what we really think” and scaremongering about the “dangers” of allowing Muslim “ghettoes”, or “a nation within a nation”, to exist.

Trevor Phillips (and his publishers) repeatedly stress his authority as the head of a racial equality watchdog and more recently the head of the pan-equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, set up under the last Labour government. He also repeatedly stresses that he was the chair of the Runnymede Trust when it commissioned its groundbreaking report into Islamophobia (summary here; PDF) in 1997. Khalida Khan of the An-Nisa Society published a blog article which noted that Phillips’s role in that was minor, that he was not chair when it was published, that it was Robin Richardson and Khaushika Amin who initiated the report and took it forward and that he is believed to have lobbied against the report with the Labour government behind the scenes. This incident is presented so as to give Phillips’s new stance greater authority — that “one of the Muslims’ biggest supporters” has done a big U-turn — but in fact he was never a great advocate for Muslims.

His article for the Daily Mail contains a number of plainly inaccurate, scaremongering claims. He alleges that “we have recently seen the murder of a leading Scottish Muslim, the killer citing ‘disrespect’ of the faith”. Asad Shah was not “a leading Scottish Muslim”; he was a shopkeeper who had broken away from a sect that was already rejected by Muslims by claiming to be a new prophet and Messiah. He was a crank and may have been mentally ill. This does not justify his murder by any means, but being famous and having a Muslim name does not make you a “leading Muslim”. He claims that a fifth of Muslims have not entered a non-Muslim house in the past year; how many white people have never entered a Muslim’s house in their lifetime? In some places I would wager it was much greater than a fifth. Allegedly 4%, “the equivalent of more than 100,000 British Muslims”, reported sympathy for suicide bombers; except that the equivalence is false, because that 4% is only 40 people (you may recall similar tricks in the ThinkProgress study of converts in the USA in February). And there is the broad claim that “all the while, girls are shipped off to have their genitals mutilated, young women and men are being pressured into marriages they do not want, and teenagers are being seduced into donning suicide vests or becoming jihadi brides”, without a shred of evidence to back it up. FGM is principally an African problem that does not only affect Muslims.

Others (such as Miqdad Versi and Abdul-Azim Ahmed) have picked apart the findings of the survey and what Phillips has done with the results. Only 1,081 people were asked, 405 whom were in London. That’s an astonishing bias. Only 144 people were in the north-west (this includes Manchester and all the towns of Lancashire), 120 in the Yorkshire/Humber region — that includes Leeds, Bradford, Dewsbury, Keighley, Sheffield — and only 56 in the East Midlands, where the populations are indeed smaller but it includes strong Muslim minorities. If one takes a survey of Muslim attitudes in Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Loughborough (an important university town) and asks only 56 people, this would be dismissed as entirely worthless and unscientific, yet these tiny numbers are being judged as representative of Muslim attitudes in that and every other region. The sub-groups of sub-groups dwarf the total size of the survey and no amount of ‘weighting’ will change that.

A major flaw in the study was that the control group consisted of generic “non-Muslims”, rather than specific groups of them, in particular practising followers of other religions, and people with familial or cultural links to conflict zones: Jews, Tamils and north Indian Hindus for example. This is because questions were asked about Muslim views on homosexuality and about whether they agreed with the use of suicide bombings or other acts of violence to pursue political goals, and during the documentary Phillips remarked that Hindus and Sikhs were better integrated than Muslims. The survey found that a large proportion of the Muslims asked said homosexuality should be illegal, but hostility to homosexuality can be found among other strongly religious people, including whites, and significantly all the court cases related to discrimination against gays have involved white and African Christians, not Muslims, and as I have mentioned here in the past, the websites which support the Christians involved in those cases (and even one who wanted to get out of caring for disabled children on a Sunday) also promote Islamophobia by complaining of and overstating concessions to Muslims. (Phillips’s survey found that 35% of the Muslims asked believed Jews had too much power; he did not ask his control group whether they believed that Muslims got special treatment as regards hijab, removals of offensive material etc., which is commonly alleged in the mass media.)

Similarly, the questions about support for terrorism or suicide bombings were fallaciously compared with a generic “non-Muslim” control group which would have consisted mostly of white people with no particular reason to sympathise with Hamas or Tamil Tiger suicide bombers. In other conflict zones where there are links to the diaspora here, the government or paramilitary groups with popular support have committed atrocities against civilians or used typical terrorist methods such as bombings or suicide bombings against civilians. It’s well-known that there is widespread (though not universal) support among the three minorities mentioned for the perpetrators of abuses in Palestine, Sri Lanka and Gujarat (and elsewhere in northern India); there has also been fundraising for the Hindu far right and the Tamil Tigers here. Phillips presents it as particularly worrying that Muslims who favour living separate lives from non-Muslims are more likely to support terrorism or political violence than those who favour integration, but the other three minorities mentioned do not live scattered among the general population either. They live in areas with heavy concentrations which are easily identified from the shops.

This is not a matter of “what about” or “tu quoque”. Phillips is presenting the Muslims as particularly unintegrated, particularly prone to reactionary attitudes and particularly given to support for violence, yet he chooses to shine no light on similar attitudes among other minorities or, indeed, equivalent views among the white population. If you ask whether it is acceptable to bomb civilian areas of countries during a war situation where there is an indirect benefit to the war effort, a good percentage will answer yes. It’s been part of the western way of winning wars for the past century. The majority of people are not pacifists, for the simple reason that lying down in front of tanks does not win wars or end oppression (they tried it in Tiananmen Square, you may remember). Pacifism had a brief flowering in Britain in the inter-war years and was discredited by the rise of Hitler. Non-violent ‘resistance’ is the method favoured for groups one would like to see defeated; this is why Zionist sympathisers from Michael Moore to Charles Moore have recommended it to the Palestinians.

Phillips also brings out his familiar complaint about Muslims forming “ghettoes”. He uses this term (along with “segregation”) a lot. Never mind that ghettoes are districts either legally designated or socially engineered to consist entirely of a given minority, and that segregation was a legal régime that dictated where Black people could live, shop and eat, who they could marry and so on. Diasporas have always lived together; they do so for protection in numbers against racism and so as to be close to their food shops and places of worship, neither of which would be sustainable if they scattered themselves among the general population. Such assimilation occurs where a minority is similar in both appearance and culture to the majority, such as the various north European migrants to the USA; it rarely occurs when there are even minor differences that could encourage prejudice (e.g. Italians in the USA). His solutions are imperialist, casting over-powerful minorities as a problem. He suggests “ensuring that schools … are not taken over by any single minority group”; a white-controlled school is no problem. He demands “strict monitoring of the ethnic composition of housing estates to prevent them becoming ‘ghetto villages’, little islands separate from the rest of their districts”. That boat has already sailed; no new council estates are being built, at least not in the south-east; all we are seeing built is exclusive flats and expensive “starter homes”. Newcomers now simply have to live where there are homes to live in.

Why is Phillips so hostile to Muslims? After all, there are enough problems in his own community for him to have made at least two hour-long documentaries about: gangs, territorialism, street stabbings, violence against women. Is he trying to deflect public attention away from those problems? Perhaps, but he’s also part of an “old guard” of secular race relations politicians who were challenged in the 1990s by Muslims who were seeking to revive a Muslim way of life and to challenge specific prejudices and discrimination against them on grounds of religion, which the old race industry would not concern itself with unless there were clear racial overtones to it. Much as is the case with white feminists in Europe, the likes of Trevor Phillips are single-minority, ‘respectable’ figures who believe they have a right to leadership over all minority ethnic people, and resent anyone who challenges or rejects their presumed authority. This sense of entitlement, and his political connections (Tony Blair, for example, favoured him to be mayor of London in 2000), has never won him elective office; he has had to settle for being a quangocrat. “What British Muslims Really Think” is an unnecessary, inflammatory and dishonest programme based on a survey so tiny as to be worthless from a man who has spent the past ten years since his mayoral ambitions were thwarted using his media connections and the right-wing tabloids to foment hatred against a minority that challenged his authority.

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High Valour?

10 April, 2016 - 12:02

A drawing of a knight in armour about to be projected head first off his horse, while a young girl watches.A number of years ago I heard a play on Radio 4 whose title I can’t remember but I suspect it was called High Valour. It was about a couple who emigrated to Australia where the husband hoped to work for his elder brother’s business. The business had some sort of initiation for ‘serious’ employees called High Valour, the details of which I can’t remember but it involved long hours, time away, a lot of drinking and not much family time. Needless to say, the wife didn’t approve, especially when the older brother’s wife told his wife that she tolerated his use of prostitutes while working away: “he uses a clean whore, and always tells me he loves me”. The elder brother told the husband to adopt the same practice of telling his wife he loved her when going out without her, and towards the end of the play, his wife confronted him and reminded him that the last thing he had said to her was that he loved her: “when you tell me you love me, I don’t want to have to wonder why”.

“I love you” can mean exactly what it says. It can also hide other intentions, in certain contexts. Until last Sunday I had an acquaintance on Twitter who has bipolar disorder and some other health problems. Earlier in the day she’d posted that she felt the worst she’d done for ages and that it would take a miracle to get through that day. Just before 6pm she posted a tweet saying “I love you all <3” and then nothing for several hours. After three hours I called the police; I knew her name from publicity about the 2014 campaign for beds for women at the local psychiatric unit, and roughly where she lived, and told them she was known to the local mental health services. They called and it seems she was fine, although for some reason they also sent an ambulance to her house a few hours later. Looking at her timeline the last couple of days, it appears she did take an overdose and was at the hospital some time that day or night.

However, she was furious about someone having called the police, saying “So I guess I can’t be honest on Twitter now either. I didn’t even say I was unsafe”. Three days later someone messaged her to tell her it had been me, and she and others began tweeting that I had called the police on several other people in the past and that I also sent the ambulance around. This wasn’t true. I did not call the ambulance; the police must have done this. I called the police regarding a Twitter acquaintance on one previous occasion in 2014, when someone posted very clear suicidal intent. It turned out that they had been using a pseudonym so my call had no effect, but the person (who was a psych inpatient) took advice from other online friends and told the staff how she was feeling; her leave was cancelled and she was still alive to make accusations against me on Twitter last Wednesday. I made a blog post about it (without mentioning any names, of course) at the time and, when the woman involved saw it, she told me she was blocking me as she wanted to be able to “be honest” with her Twitter friends.

Tweets from me and Charlotte Walker screenshotted from TweetDeck.One of the people who attacked me on Twitter last Wednesday for calling the police was Charlotte Walker, AKA the Bipolar Blogger. In between the day I called the police and the blog entry that led to me falling out with her and her friend, I told her on Twitter that I had called the police but had got nowhere and that is when I discovered that the name she was using was fake. Walker told me that she had previously called the emergency services on another Twitter friend. So she didn’t object when I told her I’d called the police, as the screenshot on the right demonstrates. However, after I was told I was blocked after posting that blog entry, I tweeted that she was “one less (sic) needy stranger to feel responsible for”, thinking she was no longer reading my tweets, which is the whole idea when you block someone. However, she hadn’t, and brought the tweet to her friends’ attention, which is when Walker first had a go at me about that and about my blog post. It was an unkind thing to say, but I didn’t know her (I thought I knew her name, but was wrong about even that) and had made me worried about her without there being anything I could do. Of course, being friends with someone means you might sometimes be in that situation, but it was she who decided to block me and I thought “good riddance to her and her drama”.

I looked at the the tweets last Wednesday in response to the revelation that I called the police. Amid a few generic insults some people were saying I must have “white knight” or “hero syndrome”, that my blog and timeline are full of my campaigning for others’ rights. Actually, most of my campaigning is in some way connected to abuse in residential care environments, which I have personal experience of, and I consider a lot of the people I’ve met or become acquainted with online through campaigning as friends (I had disabled friends before I started seriously campaigning on disability issues — not just through this blog, I hasten to add — in 2010). But getting help for someone in danger, which includes someone in a mental health crisis who posts what looks like a threat of suicide, is not being a hero (it doesn’t put you in danger or take much effort to make a phonecall); it’s just what you do and one of the people who joined in criticising me for it last week has done so herself. Other people may have judged differently and some weren’t glued to Twitter all evening, but I’d like to think most people wouldn’t do nothing if they thought someone was in danger and they could do something.

Image source: The Victorian Web.

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Does the Left really have an anti-Semitism problem?

5 April, 2016 - 23:16

Recently accusations have started flying that the Left, including the Labour party, has a ‘problem’ with anti-Semitism and that Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, hasn’t been doing enough to combat it. The accusations include that the Oxford University Labour society is a hostile environment for Jews, that various members and leaders of local Labour groups and affiliated organisations have made anti-Semitic remarks online, and that the Left in general has turned against Israel and that human rights campaigns that target Israel have become a “new front” in European anti-Semitism and a “new blood libel”. This type of rhetoric aimed at silencing criticism of Israel based on human rights principles is not new, but while anti-Semitism in far-left fringe groups has been known of for decades, the flurry of claims about anti-Semitism within the Labour party has only happened in the last few months.

An image of two men spliced together, with the slogan "ISIS is the only terrorist org (sic) that travels 2000 miles from Syria to attack Paris but can't travel 52 miles to attack Israel. Why? Because the dog doesn't bite its own tail".It goes without saying that the Labour party shouldn’t tolerate racism of any kind in the party. Apart from the fact that racism breeds discrimination and violence, it is a political dead end: it allows people to blame others for their problems rather than identify solutions. The problem is that the number of incidents has been tiny — a literal handful, if that — and those involved are an ordinary member who had written some conspiracy-minded material on a leftist website, the leader of a Momentum group in Thurrock, and the leader of the local party in Woking, a no-hope constituency for Labour (whose comments, similar to those in the image on the right, were utterly crass and ignorant; the reason ISIS hasn’t attacked Israel can easily be identified by looking at a map). All the people concerned have been expelled, and when someone was re-instated recently, a protest led to him being removed again. As is well-known, the leader of the party cannot unilaterally remove someone from the party, so it is unfair to blame Corbyn for failing to do so, or because he has brought these people in or they are his supporters, or whatever other reason.

The situation at Oxford university is rather more complicated, since it seems to consist of hostility to Israel being openly expressed and, in some cases, taken out indiscriminately on Jews here, rather than anti-Semitism in the traditional sense. Aaron Simons, a former president of the university’s Jewish society, alleged that “a committee member stated that all Jews should be expected to publicly denounce Zionism and the state of Israel, and that we should not associate with any Jew who fails to do so”, which is plainly unacceptable, much as it is when Muslims are expected to condemn ISIS or al-Qa’ida, which has happened frequently. He also alleges that “one OULC member argued that Hamas was justified in its killing of Jewish civilians and claimed all Jews were legitimate targets”, a heinous suggestion one might think before one considers that (a) this is one ordinary member of the society, not an office holder and (b) Israeli apologists routinely excuse the killing of Palestinian civilians with such claims as that Hamas works and launches rockets from civilian areas.

Simons traces the upsurge in “anti-Semitism” at Oxford to the left’s theory of racial oppression and white privilege in which Jews are treated as white. Well, that’s because they are — at least, the vast majority of Jews (especially if we mean practising ones) in western countries are. True, Ethiopian Jews aren’t, but they do not live here in any large number. He suggests that this theory erases Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, who migrated from the Middle East rather than Europe, but in fact the theory acknowledges that anyone can be part of a privileged and/or oppressor group (whites, for example) while simultaneously being part of a disadvantaged one (e.g. women, disabled people) but still benefiting from the power and privilege of the first group. Throughout the recent history of the white world, there have been ‘lesser whites’ (e.g. Irish and Italian Americans) who have nonetheless benefited from white privilege. Mizrahi Jews may not be the Ashkenazi elite but they are not the downtrodden of Israel by any means; Palestinians and African immigrants are.

He claims that when the theory of racial oppression is applied to Jews “it becomes a quagmire of prejudice” and “the consequence of seeing Jews as white is in effect antisemitic”. But they just are. This is no longer the 1940s in which Britain (the mother country, that is) was almost entirely White and the only significant minorities were Jews, Gypsies and the Irish. America always made an underclass of its Black population, even when white minorities such as Jews were subject to discrimination as well. It is not anti-Semitic to say that Jews are not a powerless and impoverished minority in the UK. They are not the Gypsies or Travellers who cannot be sure when their homes will be torn down, for example. They may not “control the media”, but there are a variety of Jewish voices in all the major British media, including some bigoted and reactionary ones (e.g. Melanie Phillips) as well as some fairly moderate ones (e.g. Jonathan Freedland). And the pro-Israel lobby in the USA has power far beyond its power here: it has been known to block or obstruct appointments of people who take a pro-Palestinian position, for example.

It suits the Zionist agenda to keep race relations, as well as ideas of what constitutes progressive politics, stuck in the pre-immigration 1940s when Zionism was seen as a liberal, progressive cause. People forget that progress meant a lot of different things then; progressive figures of that time endorsed eugenics and previous generations of liberals had supported other misguided resettlement schemes, such as Liberia which resulted in more than a century of tyranny followed by a brutal civil war starting in the late 20th century. At that time building roads and industry was considered progressive; even the highly racist Mississippi senator, Theodore Bilbo, was considered to be a progressive in that sense. Needless to say, the ethnic composition of the progressive left has changed during this period, and you could not expect them to insistently repeat the mistakes of previous generations of white, middle- and upper-class (mostly male) progressives. It stands to reason that people who endorse a misguided liberal project of a bygone era that turned a blind eye to its inherent racism, or at least conduciveness to racism, should not feel comfortable among progressives now, who see anti-racism as fundamental to their beliefs.

On a similar note was the article on Newsweek by Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi (that is, chief rabbi of the United Synagogues, the Modern Orthodox branch of Judaism), titled “Anti-Zionism is the New Anti-Semitism”. He concedes that that criticism of the Israeli government and even the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are not “inherently anti-Semitic” but that much of the intimidation that occurs is related to “Israeli Apartheid Weeks” and BDS events which “have become what Easter was in the Middle Ages, a time for attacks against Jews”.

He describes anti-Semitism as “a virus that survives by mutating”: that Jews were hated in different ages because of a different religion or because of their race, and “today … because of their nation state, Israel”:

The legitimization has also changed. Throughout history, when people have sought to justify anti-Semitism, they have done so by recourse to the highest source of authority available within the culture. In the Middle Ages, it was religion. In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science. Today it is human rights. It is why Israel—the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East with a free press and independent judiciary—is regularly accused of the five crimes against human rights: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide. This is the blood libel of our time.

The term anti-Semitism was not actually coined until the 19th century when race started entering into European perceptions of Jews, rather than religion. Even up until that time in Russia, Jews who converted to Christianity were accepted as Christians. But to compare a false accusation originating in the superstitious Middle Ages with facts that are well-attested to about Israel’s human rights record is grotesque. Israel is not the only country that has ever been criticised on the basis of its human rights record, including among democracies. Israel is not the only country which elected a man connected to a massacre as its prime minister (India did very recently, and as is the case with Israel, he is being feted by politicians around the world). Israel is dominated by white Europeans, so it stands to reason that its form of government should be one based on what is usual in Europe, and the surrounding countries have dictatorships which were often supported by foreign powers, such as the USA or Russia, and some of which are friendly to Israel (Egypt and Jordan, for example). It’s not only because of anti-Semitism that western human rights activists attack Israel’s appalling treatment of the native population of the land it occupies; Jews who are oppressors should be subject to the same accountability as any other oppressors.

Of course, it was wrong to blame poor Jews in inter-war Poland for whatever the misdeeds of wealthy Jewish families like the Rothschilds (not all of whom remain Jewish by religion in any case). But that was then; the Jewish diaspora in the UK and USA is fairly prosperous, privileged, powerful and vocal, and despite the fact that we all know there are Jews who oppose its policies rigorously, or even its existence, as we see them in the BDS movement, support for Israel regardless of its human rights record is a mainstream position. Given that Muslims are regarded with enormous suspicion right now on the basis of a few acts of terrorism and a terrorist quasi-state entity that all the evidence suggests most of us do not support, and which all Muslim figures of any repute who have ever been asked have condemned, a few harsh words here and there is a small price to pay for openly supporting a state which has a history of terrorism both against foreign targets and the people under its occupation.

So, it may well be that some skeletons from the old sectarian Left that have joined Labour as a result of Corbyn’s victory (or who joined in the rush to vote for him) may be spreading their old ideas, but there isn’t much evidence of it beyond a bit of chatter on social media. (One tweep who kept remarking on “the Left and their anti-Semitism” linked to a blog entry and the offending comments were by someone in Germany.) But the mainstream progressive Left have moved on from the 1940s and will no longer indulge an obviously oppressive state in the Middle East on the grounds that it was founded as a result of a genocide in Europe, and will not indulge its supporters here either. Labour and other organisations which fight for social justice should make sure there is no intimidation or racism, but should not change this basic position. It’s not racist to oppose oppression wherever it comes from; what is racist is making an exception because the oppressor is special, and the victims particularly deserving.

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Who needs Autism Awareness?

2 April, 2016 - 22:55

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, an event organised by the United Nations since 2008 to “encourage member states … to take measures to raise awareness about children with autism throughout the world”. It’s become best known recently for Light It Up Blue, in which people are encouraged to wear blue, turn their websites blue and shine blue light on their buildings so as to “raise awareness” and to raise money for the genetic research funded by Autism Speaks, which is also notorious for scaremongering about the condition and, by extension, people affected by it. Not much talk is heard about the matter of how aware our professionals are of the needs of people, and particularly children, on the autism spectrum, despite the ample evidence, in the UK at least, that people empowered to make professional decisions about the lives and living arrangements of people with autism and other learning disabilities are woefully ignorant of them, and that people have died as a result.

Today the Guardian carried a long interview with Sara Ryan, the mother of Connor Sparrowhawk who died in an NHS learning disability inpatient unit in Oxford in 2013, in its Weekend supplement. He was known as Laughing Boy or LB and he drowned in a bath in the Slade House unit, having been left to bathe unsupervised despite his known epilepsy. His inquest last year found that his death was the result of neglect and the inquest and the reports surrounding it exposed the hideously inadequate nature of the care that unit provided. It also exposed the fact that NHS trusts are often more interested in protecting their reputations than with patients’ well-being and with doing the decent thing when they have failed them. It’s ironic that the same paper gave a whole page in the previous edition of the same supplement to a mother who had despatched a daughter to a private WWASP boot camp where she was held against her will for six weeks (others are held for years) with the help of private ‘escorts’ and some sleeping pills (see earlier entry; as of this writing, they have not responded to my letter to their Reader’s Editor). Two things make this ironic in the light of today’s feature. First, given that the behaviours which led to some of the young people being incarcerated in these camps consisted of skipping school and listening to ‘dark’ music, one wonders how many of them were on the spectrum but undiagnosed, and what effect the regime of the camps had on them. Second, it bears a close resemblance to how some of our autistic children and young people are treated: taken by force from home, sectioned in mental health units, moved miles from home for lack of facilities near home or the failure of the treating clinicians to understand that they are the reason the autistic person’s health and behaviour is deteriorating.

In this country, we still have people, children and adults, held in entirely unsuitable units miles (even hundreds of miles) from home, many of whom could live with their families with some support, or in their own homes if the care were made available. There is plenty of evidence that the psychiatric profession, which holds the power in these units, does not receive training in autism and does not understand the condition. Yet these people have the power to hold autistic people under sections 2 or 3 of the Mental Health Act for normal and manageable challenging behaviour, to control when they see their families and when or if they can go out, and to transfer them to other facilities if they decide they do not want to treat (or house) them any longer. In some cases, it appears that people have been sectioned on pretexts so as to make it possible to transfer them. It has been known for units to take autistic people in, knowing that they are not suited and bear no resemblance to their normal patient profile.

Connor’s has not been the only death in recent years. Thomas Rawnsley died in a private care home, where he was held under a Deprivation of Liberty order made under the Mental Capacity Act, in February 2015. His mother had been trying desperately to secure support for him so that he could live in the community with support, but the Court of Protection preferred to send him to this care home instead (where he was for a time the only resident). He died of a heart attack, and the injuries he had suffered in the weeks before his death remain unexplained. There was also the case of Stephanie Bincliffe, who died after spending seven years locked in a room at a Huntercombe hospital in Yorkshire; her weight gain, which led to her death by ventricular hypertrophy and obstructive sleep apnoea in mid-2013 was blamed on her self-mutilation and distress reaction when food wasn’t how she liked it rather than on the conditions of her confinement. That they failed to address this behaviour, the distress caused by her incarceration, or find somewhere that these things could be addressed in seven years is damnable, and the inquest did not question why she was in a unit for so long that did not know how to treat her properly.

Following some ongoing campaigns to get young people out of these units and into their own communities, two families have withdrawn from public view following threats from the staff holding their relatives; one had his leave cancelled over Easter just as his mother arrived to pick him up, and another nearly had his cancelled at short notice for spurious “risk assessment” reasons by a stand-in consultant. One might recall that the home where Thomas Rawnsley was held tried to cancel what would turn out to be his last Christmas leave as well. The need to avoid a difficult return always seems to trump his need, and his right, to be at home with his family (this has been used as an excuse to deny children in institutions family visits and outings and home leave for generations; it was suggested that my family visits at boarding school were bad for me as well). These ‘responsible clincians’ have such power to affect their patients’ lives and family relations at a moment’s notice, yet they have no obligation to understand their condition.

Picture of Maisie Shaw, a girl with autism from Hull who has been in psychiatric units miles from home because of the closure of her local unitWe may think we have moved on from the days when autistic people were called psychotic, retarded, naughty or just “little shits” rather than having an identifiable underlying condition, but autistic young people, whether they have a learning disability or not, still face a lack of understanding from staff in many schools, considerable difficulty and delay in getting diagnosed (especially girls) which is made worse by resistance by local authorities who would have to foot the bill for assistance or special education, a lack of a clear pathway after 18 for those with learning disabilities (the cause of a lot of crises in autistic people that age), difficulty and delay in arranging the appropriate care (which often takes years, as we have seen in the Josh Wills case and many others), a shortage or outright absence of inpatient facilities in the local area or even the same region (a result of it being fashionable to close them, as nobody who has no family connection to mental illness will mourn the closure of a psychiatric unit, even if it is really due to budget cuts, intractable maintenance problems or stupid bureaucratic reasons), and finally, cruelty and neglect in hospital, accompanied by separation from home and family and a long stay.

Autism awareness should not mean making the public scared of a ‘disease’ that isn’t. It should be about making sure our teaching, nursing, medical and allied professions know about autism, so that delayed diagnosis, crises and suffering can be avoided.

For more detail on the inadequacy of how autistic people are treated in our society, please read the following:

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Review: Happy Valley, The A Word

26 March, 2016 - 21:32

Picture of Sgt Cawood, a middle-aged white woman with blonde hair wearing a police uniform with a yellow flourescent jacket, approaching John Wadsworth, an older, balding white man wearing a dark-coloured suit, from behind in the corridor of a police stationLast Tuesday, The A Word started at 9pm on Tuesday, the slot that had been occupied by the second series of Happy Valley, the Yorkshire-based six-part police drama starring Sarah Lancashire as a police sergeant in Hebden Bridge. The A Word, which a number of my friends with children on the autism spectrum said they couldn’t watch for fear of it being too upsetting, is about a young autistic boy (or perhaps a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, although that distinction is no longer made) in a family full of squabbling adults, or maybe it’s about a family of squabbling adults who have an autistic son; that will presumably be revealed later in the series. I found that Happy Valley was nowhere near as dramatic as the original series, with neither of the murderers involved being apprehended, and in some important aspects unconvincing; The A Word’s depiction of autism itself has been described elsewhere as uncharacteristic and the diagnostic process ludicrously optimistic.

Happy Valley originally showed in 2014 and featured Sarah Lancashire as Sergeant Catherine Cawood investigating the disappearance of a local businessman’s daughter, who was kidnapped and her father blackmailed. One of the captors turned out to be Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton) who had raped the sergeant’s daughter eight years earlier and thereby fathered her son, who was presenting with behavioural problems and although Cawood was bringing her grandson up, she clearly had trouble forming an attachment with him. It ended with the businessman’s daughter being freed from a cellar where she had been raped and Royce being arrested after trying to murder his son. In this series, Royce grooms a middle-aged woman to influence Cawood’s grandson; a local misfit who lives with his mother and may have learning difficulties supposedly murders five women who are in prostitution, while a male colleague of Cawood’s, John Wadsworth (played by Kevin Doyle), murders a woman who has been blackmailing him. The misfit is shot dead by his mother when he confesses to her (it’s later revealed that she had been raped by her father and he was the result), while Wadsworth is found out when other victims of the same blackmailer come forward; he jumps from a railway bridge.

I was unconvinced by some aspects of the plot this time. To begin with, Karen Ingala-Smith on Twitter pointed out these dubious plot elements:

Frances, a middle-aged white woman wearing a top patterned with small flowers with glasses on, facing Tommy Lee Royce, a young white man with very short hair wearing a maroon red top, with an angry expression on his face.I pointed out that Wadsworth could have simply brought up the matter with his superiors if he was being blackmailed; the fact that she had the incriminating matter on her mobile phone is something they could easily have ascertained after arresting her. For whatever reason, the two other male victims of this blackmailer only came forward towards the end, around the same time as the other murderer was himself murdered and the crime was revealed as being unconnected to the others. I found it disappointing that the murderer of the prostitutes was revealed as the local misfit; men with learning disabilities are often falsely accused of crimes including rape, and such accusations have been factors in disability hate crimes. If he really had been guilty, surely his DNA would have been taken after he was arrested for attacking with a hammer some local youths who had been harassing him, and matched with DNA found at the crime scenes. It was also odd that the police readily believed his mother’s story about his confession after she was arrested for killing him, and declared the cases of the five women solved. Finally, Wadsworth jumped from a bridge onto a car which was emerging from underneath; the cops had failed to block off the bridge, and this oversight was never remarked on.

The last episode ends with Cawood bemoaning the “shit week” she’d had, and it had the feel of an episode of The Bill ending, ready for a new one to begin, rather than the conclusion of a dramatic murder plot. Of course, the series cannot go on like the Midsomer Murders with improbably large numbers of murders happening in small communities, but it can’t turn into a soap opera either. The scriptwriter, Sally Wainwright, has said she would like to write a third series but that it would take time as she would hate to make a series which people said wasn’t as good — which would be very easy to do. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t hear some of the dialogue properly, although the criticism of “mumbling” was said to have mystified the production team as a programme has to be perfect when it leaves the editing suite, and they said it was, or so they thought.

Joe, a young white boy with brown hair, wearing a red jacket over a blue and white striped top, wearing light blue headphones and holding a figure of some sort in his hands.The A Word had its first episode last week. It featured a middle-class family in Cumbria whose five-year-old son Joe was obviously autistic (some characteristic features, such as being unable to make friends, while others not so characteristic — the scene where he silently drops to the floor during a meltdown at a party struck one mother as very unlike her experience). He has taken on his father’s love of 80s rock and pop lock, stock and barrel, and can recite lyrics to songs most kids his age have never heard of (e.g. “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League, which I thought a bit disturbing until I realised that this song was a hit when I was about his age). He is also surrounded by adults who argue an awful lot, particularly as his uncle is recently reconciled with his wife, who is a doctor, and they are shown noisily making love and then noisily arguing; his grandfather aggressively interferes and finds fault with both his father and his uncle. He wears headphones and listens to music most of the time, and is seen putting them on when his parents start arguing in his presence. The idea that his behaviour might be influenced by that of the adults around him is never mentioned.

The process of diagnosing him was condensed into the last 20 minutes of the programme, but even so, it was improbably quick and easy. Through the aforementioned doctor, the family get him seen by an autism specialist of some sort in a very short time, and despite the fact that his parents present incomplete documentation (no school reports, which they “don’t bother” with) and play down his difficulties, she diagnoses him with ASD in one sitting. This is, of course, extremely unlikely. It took about five sittings to get my diagnosis, but even so, it takes years for many families (even if they get a diagnosis in childhood at all) to even get seen by the right type of professional, and an uphill battle to get the accommodations they need for their child at school, for example. Of course, not all families are as wealthy as those in this series and don’t have the sort of family connections available to these people, and the fact that they got such easy access to specialists living in Cumbria makes it all the more unrealistic. (See a critique of this aspect from a mother who’s been there here.)

So, even for a middle-class family (and trust the BBC not to complicate a middle-of-the-road drama by setting this on a council estate somewhere), this is a really unrealistic portrayal of both autism and the process of getting a diagnosis. The acting of the other characters can’t be faulted, but Joe is a humourless cardboard cut-out displaying all the stereotypes in the book. I hope this drama doesn’t repeat the awful ending of a serial about a boy with ADHD a few years ago, which ended with him being sent to boarding school as if that was a happy ending. (Simon Hattenstone and his daughter Maya review it for the Guardian here.)

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Guardian promotes child abuse

25 March, 2016 - 22:52

A picture of a derelict two-storey red-brick building set behind a broken-down white fence, with weeds growing in between.Experience: I paid to have my daughter kidnapped | Life and style | The Guardian

This article was published today and appears to be due for publication in the “Experience” slot in the Weekend supplement of tomorrow’s Guardian. It allows a woman, using a pseudonym, to tell how she hired two ‘escorts’ to take her daughter to Utah to go on a seven-week “boot camp” course after she decided she wanted to be a hairdresser rather than do whatever high-end career her mother wanted her to do, and after her 14-year-old brother got caught with drugs. The camp appears to be one run by the so-called World Wide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools (WWASPS), an organisation that runs (or ran) a chain of boot camp type institutions in parts of the USA as well as Jamaica and Mexico:

I had paid $16,000 (£11,380) for seven weeks of gruelling physical and mental challenges. The other kids were in desperate situations: young offenders, drug addicts, some were suicidal. I was aware my daughter didn’t share their circumstances. They lived like cavemen: they didn’t see a roof the whole time, took care of their sanitary waste, learned survival skills and did physical labour; some cut off their hair because they couldn’t bathe.

They had daily therapy and wrote letters to their parents. My daughter’s were full of apology: how she had made mistakes, wanted to be forgiven, how she loved me. Sure, she was angry at first when she didn’t know what was going on, but she soon understood why I’d sent her there and was embarrassed.

The woman goes on to describe how her daughter finished high school with straight A’s, got a degree and then a master’s, and now works “in the legal system”. Readers may remember that the BBC (among other British media outlets) promoted this organisation in 2003 and 2004 by running a series of features ([1], [2], [3]) on Susie el Madawi from Halifax, who was tricked into going to “Casa by the Sea” in Mexico. The features made much of the improvement in Susie’s behaviour while at the facility, and ironically given today’s story, at the time of writing she was attending a beauty therapy course at a local college. However, CBTS was shut down by Mexican child protectiion services in September 2004, just months after these stories aired, for among other reasons that the school’s employees lacked the relevant qualifications and that out-of-date medications were in use.

Parents and young people interviewed by the NY Times in 2003 tell of outright abuse, including being held in solitary confinement for days for trivial infractions of harsh rules. One girl was ‘demoted’ for giving another girl a hug; more advanced ‘pupils’ were allowed to punish junior ones. The victims were often kidnapped and shackled in order to take them there, and some were guilty of nothing more than skipping school or listening to ‘dark’ music. The camps were promoted as fostering educational achievement and that students supposedly graduated with high-school diplomas, but in fact ‘students’ were just expected to study by themselves from textbooks and many have been unable to access their records as adults.

It’s shocking that the BBC and others who picked up this story did not bother to do basic research about the abuses perpetrated by WWASPS institutions in the Americas before publishing uncritical stories that portrayed it as harsh but effective. The fact is that the ends do not justify the means — the improvements in behaviour of some of the victims do not justify the abuses, particularly when the behaviour that led to them being sent there was not even close to being a crime. These abuses would be a scandal in a detention centre that took genuine convicted criminals; almost none of the individuals sent to WWASPS institutions were sent under court order, rather they were forced there by their families. Of course, abuses do happen in state-run or state-authorised institutions, but we don’t see these places, and their methods, openly promoted.

Kidnapping and false imprisonment are crimes, and they are crimes for a reason. That these things happen reflects a contempt for young people’s rights and a lack of the rule of law. There is no excuse for ‘respectable’ media organisations like the BBC and the Guardian to be promoting this outfit or its institutions or the criminal parents who fed them victims. A bit of research would have shown that the camp where this woman sent her daughter was run by an organisation with a long history of proven incidents of abuse and may well have been one of the camps implicated; most of them were shut down in the late 2000s. It’s utter, inexcusable negligence.

Image source: Al-Jazeera, which sourced it from a former resident of the WWASP Ivy Ridge institution in New York.

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