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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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The authority fallacy and the “7-day NHS”

19 August, 2017 - 19:39

Prof Stephen Hawking with David AttenboroughEarlier today, the health minister Jeremy Hunt posted some tweets claiming that Professor Stephen Hawking was wrong in his assessment of the data regarding the “weekend effect” (the notion that people admitted to hospital over the weekend were more likely to die than those admitted during the week because fewer doctors, and in particular fewer consultants, are working). The ‘effect’ has been cited by the Tories and the right-wing press to support Hunt’s proposals for a “24-hour NHS”, while others have debunked the idea. Professor Hawking is to make a speech at the Royal Society of Medicine today criticising the plans and is accusing Jeremy Hunt of “cherry-picking” statistics to support his position. The social media response to Hunt has been to emphasise Hawking’s status as one of the world’s foremost scientists and Hunt’s as a relative nobody despite his powerful position. As obvious as it might seem that Hunt can’t argue with a famous scientist about numbers or data, it’s a classic logical fallacy, the “argument from authority”.

To put it simply, a ‘nobody’ and indeed a widely and rightly disliked politician can indeed be right and a scientist with a PhD and however many dozen peer-reviewed papers and books published can be wrong. This is particularly true when the issue is not the scientist’s particular kind of science. Professor Hawking is a theoretical physicist, not a statistician; his work has been mainly concerned with black holes and gravity, and doubtless there is a major mathematical element to all this (I’m no expert; I got an E in GCSE physics and dropped it thereafter) but it does not make him an expert in health statistics (his Wikipedia entry does not even mention statistics once) or indeed anything to do with healthcare except his own condition, and that could be said of anyone with his condition, PhD or no.

Citing someone’s status as “a scientist” is potentially a very dangerous use of this fallacy. As George Monbiot has noted, a lot of the material purporting to disprove man-made climate change is predicated on the scientific credentials of its authors, but most of them are in fact not climate scientists; the vast majority of those are agreed that it is real. In the early 2000s a number of women were languishing in prison for multiple child murders which were, in fact, natural deaths; a major plank of the prosecution was the insistence by the paediatrician, Professor Roy Meadow, that multiple cot deaths in one family just do not happen. In the case of Sally Clark, who had lost two children to cot death, he told the jury that the likelihood of this happening were 1 in 73 million; this was based on an elementary error in maths, the presumption that the two deaths (in which cot death affects one in every 8,543 babies born) were independent of each other, and thus you could just multiply the two probabilities together to get the 73 million figure. In the radio programme that exposed the case, the interviewer noted to his interviewees twice that Meadow was a distinguished paediatrician, and one of the interviewees responded that he was not a statistician. The same interviewer also made the point many people would have made when defending Meadow: will you believe a scientist and a knight, or an unemployed barman (the then-husband of one of the other wrongly-convicted mothers)?

Proving a fallacy does not, of course, prove that the entire argument is wrong. Others have countered the idea of a “weekend effect”, and doctors commonly work beyond their hours in the event of an emergency or, say, an operation overrunning the time it had been expected to take. The point is that it isn’t valid to argue that Hunt must be wrong and Hawking right because of Hawking’s stature in the world of theoretical physics or cosmology, because those are different disciplines from statistics, much as is paediatrics or any other form of medicine.

(On the particular subject of the NHS operating on weekends: I’ve known people who have been admitted to psychiatric wards on Friday evenings after the consultants have gone home and then found they are prevented from leaving the wards because the consultant has not approved it — which they should not have to in the case of informal patients, but this requirement is commonly, and illegally, imposed. There have also been cases where leave has been granted but not written up, and this is only discovered when the relative arrives to take the patient out and the consultant is at home. In such cases, consultants should at least be contactable at weekends or at least whenever a new patient is admitted, especially if it is planned; the patients they have power over do not, after all, get the weekend off. But if it really were dangerous to fall ill on a weekend, it would not have taken a politician to notice it; it would have been a public scandal going back years, and it has not been. Most of the public dissatisfaction around the NHS has been to do with under-funding and specific incidents of negligence and malpractice unrelated to the fact that many staff work weekdays and not, usually, weekends.)

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Trump, Clinton and a fair voting system

16 August, 2017 - 21:52

An image of Donald Trump wearing a dark suit and a blue and white striped tie with an angry expression on his face with the number 62,976,636 superimposed on his chest, standing next to a painting of Hilary Clinton in a dark blue pantsuit, smiling, with the number 65,844,610 superimposed across it.There’s a claim that has been repeated a lot on social media by former Hilary Clinton supporters (the graphic on the right posted to Twitter by Victoria Brownworth being an example) that Trump won only because of the electoral college; Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump and had there been a fair voting system where every vote counted the same, rather than an electoral college that dates from the time of slavery and over-represents small and predominantly white states at the expense of urbanised states with large minority populations, Clinton would have won. On the face of it, this appears to be true. However, this overlooks the 6 or so million Americans that voted for neither Clinton nor Trump, and particularly those who voted for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.

Most countries with a directly-elected president use preferential voting or multiple rounds. In the first system, voters list candidates in preference order and when no single candidate receives an outright majority, the least voted-for candidates are eliminated, their second or third preferences are counted. This means that a candidate which received the most first-preference votes may not win the election, as someone else may come out on top because those who voted for a minority candidate may have cast their second-preference votes for the person who came second in the first round. So, if most of Gary Johnson’s voters had voted for Trump as a second preference, he still could have won. (Of course, it’s possible that they wouldn’t have done; he received a greater share of the vote than Libertarians normally do because he was not Donald Trump. But it may well have been true, for example, with Bush junior in 2000, who also won more states despite gaining fewer votes than Democrat Al Gore.)

The majority of modern democracies do not use a “first past the post” system in which the biggest single share of votes is enough to win a position. This system persists in the UK largely because of entrenched vested interests — the two major parties are unlikely to command an outright majority in the House of Commons again if it is abolished — but it’s generally considered a bad way of running elections simply because a candidate can win on less than 40% of the vote, let alone 50, if their opponents are divided. A simple popular vote for the US presidency would be fairer than the current system, but a system in which the most popular loser wins is still not a fair system.

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Honi soit qui mal y pense

14 August, 2017 - 22:34

The British royal coat of arms, containing a gold shield showing emblems of all four nations of the UK, with a lion to the left, a white horse to the right, and the garter emblem around it with the slogan 'Honi soit qui mal y pense'.Outcry over sexualised hijab schoolgirl (from The Australian)

Honi soit qui mal y pense is a Norman French phrase, meaning “shame on he who thinks ill of it”. It appears on the British royal garter, which is the emblem of the Order of the Garter, an order of ‘knights’ which currently includes various royals and various pillars of the Establishment, plus various foreign rulers appointed by the Queen (I recall the appointment of the Japanese Emperor Akihito caused a rumpus a few years ago; his father Hirohito had been removed from it at the outbreak of the Second World War). One theory of the slogan’s origin is that when King Edward III was dancing with his cousin at a court function, her garter slipped down causing those present to snigger; the king then placed the garter round his own leg and used the phrase: shame on whomever thinks ill of it.

The phrase sprang to mind when reading the above report, in which a number of so-called Muslim feminists took umbrage at the use of a picture of a young Muslim girl in a hijab-like headscarf in a road safety guide for children originally commissioned by the former mayor, Boris Johnson, after the Times brought them to the attention of the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, who the story claims apologised and said that Transport for London would no longer be using the book. The book actually seems to contain various drawings of children of both sexes and different skin colours and ethnic appearance, one of them an Asian girl called Razmi who is wearing a red jumper, a blue pair of trousers and a yellow scarf over her head. I haven’t seen the book. Maybe it does contain a lecture to little girls about the importance of modesty and helping men control their sexual urges. Maybe it just has one child among many others wearing a scarf, which is popular among a particular religious community, to illustrate points about road safety.

The facts about young girls and hijab are these: some families where the women (and ‘adulthood’ for religious purposes, e.g. it being personally obligatory to pray, means puberty, usually in the form of menarche for girls) wear the headscarf, buy little headscarves for little girls which they wear sometimes when out and, usually, when at religious education classes. It’s not obligatory, because nothing is for a child in Islam. You don’t have to buy a specific type of scarf, but you can get some quite pretty purpose-made ones made of a jersey material with a sort of flowery headband. They serve a number of purposes: sometimes a girl wants to dress like her big sisters or older cousins; it also helps to get them used to dressing that way for when it becomes an obligation. They are usually not the very plain or long black ones worn by the very strict women; there is certainly no need for that, and no justification for having very young girls wear niqaab.

It’s ridiculous that anyone believes that the intention of giving young girls headscarves to wear “sexualises” them or is intended to. Actually, I don’t recall anyone talking about it in this way until after non-Muslims started using the phrase to describe the sexualised clothing marketed to pre-teen girls or, more recently, the new habit of having girls wear shorts under dresses “just in case the boys see their knickers”, when the real fear may be that paedophiles may be looking at (or photographing) them. So, the Times went to a bunch of “Muslim feminist” campaigners, namely Gina Khan, Shaista Gohir and one Aisha Ali-Khan, whom I’ve never heard of before, all of whom issued a denunciation of the book, with the last claiming that the “hijab is a Saudi-isation of British Muslim identity”, a ridiculous claim (Saudi women wear black headscarves and abayas, not colourful scarves) which uses the logic of the tyrant throughout the ages, denouncing a trend they do not like as foreign.

A drawing of two girls, one of Asian appearance wearing a red jumper, a blue pair of trousers and a yellow headscarf, and a Chinese girl wearing a green dress with flowers on.Admittedly, if the girl is always shown wearing the scarf, this is inaccurate as a portrayal of a Muslim girl that age; she would not always wear it when out (much less when in the home of female friends), just some of the time, but maybe they just wanted to be consistent (how much do the other characters vary their clothes?). But let’s not forget why a newspaper with a long history of anti-Muslim agitation would object to a pretty picture of a girl in a hijab in a book; they just do not want to see Muslims, much less anyone of distinctive Muslim appearance, in public life at all. It would take a very dirty mind to see anything sexual in a little girl wearing a yellow scarf over her head. The shame is on you if you think like that: honi soit qui mal y pense. Hijab is just part of what a lot of practising Muslim women and girls wear every day; it was not always a “symbol of Islam”, but became one when other women stopped wearing it and secularist governments in the Muslim world sought to suppress it. Don’t pretend you care about Muslim girls better than their families do; you just want to see them, and us, disappear.

Image source: Sodacan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link.

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Respect your elders, young ladies!

9 August, 2017 - 22:50

Two white women, one young and one old, on a fairground ride of some sort; the young woman is holding the rail in front of the seat. The old lady, who is wearing a colourful flowery scarf, has her head back and is smiling.There was an article on the Independent last week calling for younger feminists to concern themselves with the plight of the so-called WASPI women, the women born in the 50s who are being caught out by the rise in the state pension age from 60 to 65 for them and now to 67 for everyone (the term comes from their campaign group, Women Against State Pension Inequality). The feminist blogger and columnist Glosswitch accuses younger feminists of ignoring the needs of their elders because the campaign is unfashionable and reminds them of the old women they will become:

The voices raised in honour of smashing the patriarchy seem strangely muted when it comes to issues such as pensions poverty and the ongoing legacy of women having taken years out of the paid work. If we’re being honest, the WASPI campaign isn’t a very fashionable feminist campaign because it’s to do with the end stages of life, a narrowing rather than a broadening of perspectives. It’s not about sisters but mothers and grandmothers – women whom younger feminists might love, but don’t necessarily want to be. What’s more, there’s a degree to which younger women gain reassurance from deciding older women are at least partly responsible for the predicament they find themselves in.

There are a lot of assumptions being made here. I’m not one for “Boomer blaming” and as I’ve pointed out on this site in the past, a lot of the moderately well-off Baby Boomers (including the ‘sisters’ of the WASPI women) who are being blamed for “hoarding houses” that young people need actually provide free childcare for their grandchildren while also looking after elderly and/or disabled parents or other relatives. Similarly, some younger people who have done well in their careers are helping out their parents or grandparents who are ill or poor, and I’m guessing a lot of the women are doing the care tasks personally (and fitting it in alongside paid work) when the state will not pay people to do it. How many of them are feminists as such I couldn’t tell, but quite a few of those I know of are carers for someone or other, so the fact that they’re not actively campaigning on pensions doesn’t mean they don’t care.

She explains:

A woman born in 1951 will have been 15 when she left school to start work; 24 when the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Act came into force; 32 when the Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value Amendment was added; 43 when every working woman won the right to take maternity leave. She will have experienced direct and indirect sexism both at home and in the workplace – marital rape was legal until 1991 – and had little personal or state support in caring for dependants. If she was married, the unpaid labour she contributed in the home will have meant more money in her husband’s pocket, not hers.

This is fairly typical of certain habits I see a lot in feminists: generalising on a worst-case scenario for women and misrepresenting trade-offs as unilateral advantages or disadvantages. An awful lot of ‘coulds’ here are stated as ‘woulds’. People born in the 1950s had some aspects of life easier and some harder: they were more likely to have been free to play outside as children, the cost of living (especially housing) was lower, jobs were more plentiful when they left school which was why you could leave school at 15 until the early 70s; admittedly, some were forced to by their families who wanted the extra income, but not all girls born in 1951 left school at 15, and those who gained a place at university (a small minority then, admittedly) whose family income was low enough got a grant, while today’s students have to pay thousands of pounds in tuition fees and leave with five-figure debts, with many jobs that would have taken a school leaver in 1970 requiring a degree now.

For most of the post-war period, it was possible for a family to live quite adequately off one wage — for today’s mothers, being able to look after their children for more than a few weeks after giving birth is a luxury, and childcare is expensive if you don’t have relatives who are able and willing. The idea that this “unpaid labour” put money in their husbands’ pockets or anyone else’s (by saving him the cost of servants, which almost nobody had by then) did not occur to most people, especially if the family only just made ends meet or if the husband put money by to spend on things that benefited the whole family and not just himself. After all, she was probably not forced into an arranged marriage to a stranger but willingly married someone she loved, and may well have had the children because she wanted them. They were her children as well, and the job of looking after them needed to be done. Some of these marriages were miserable, some even violent; many were happy and people worked at making marriages work and last, which fewer people do now.

We all know that partner violence is just as much a problem now as it was in the 1970s or any other time. Rape in marriage may have been ruled illegal, but it still happens and the conviction rate is low. To give it as a reason why young women should be particularly concerned with sixtysomethings’ pensions when they face the same threat (and possibly worse given the prevalence of online pornography, revenge porn and other new ways to sexually exploit or violate someone) is ridiculous.

Regular Indepdendent readers may not know this, but the chiding tone she takes with young women is typical of the attitudes of many older feminists — certain feminist Twitter feeds, blogs etc feature complaints about “ageism in feminism” and about young women not listening to or appreciating the wisdom of their elders fairly regularly, often prompted by disagreements over such matters as the status of trans women, and it’s rather ironic that demands are made to today’s young women to respect their grandmothers when those older women just as vehemently rejected the attitudes of their own parents and grandparents on issues like homosexuality and couples living together before marriage. I don’t intend this as an attack on the WASPI campaign itself; we should be supporting women who no longer qualify for a pension but for reasons stemming from being a woman and doing what was expected of her or indeed necessary, has no money to support herself; but this does not justify an attack on young women who have enough challenges of their own including many not faced by the Baby Boomers.

Image source: Lora Leathco via Pixabay.

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Ain’t got the Knowhow

7 August, 2017 - 22:14

A black Iveco Eurocargo truck with the Knowhow logo of a black button with rings in rainbow colours in circles around it, with the words "Knowhow, the service available at Curry's PC World".I was listening to the BBC’s You and Yours programme and heard a feature on ransomware (malware that encrypts your files and then demands money for the key to decrypt it), and having data stored in the Cloud (in this case, Knowhow Cloud, run by the Curry’s/PC World group) corrupted by said malware (which is possible as cloud drives are often accessible directly from the desktop as if it were a drive on your computer). The aggrieved customer believed that he was buying the Cloud storage with a back-up, so that his (and his customers’) data could be restored if this sort of thing happened. However, restoring from Knowhow’s backups wasn’t that easy.

Apparently, you have to individually go through the backed-up files on Knowhow’s server using their web portal and restore each one, which if you have lost thousands of files would be a long-drawn-out and laborious process. But it shouldn’t be. Every programmer uses a version control system which can restore any file, or an entire group of files, to their state at a particular time when they were ‘committed’, i.e. a save or set of saves was recorded. It records changes, not a string of different versions, so as to keep storage overheads down. Apple’s Time Machine backups work on the same principle. Setting up a repository with some of these systems is just a matter of one or two commands, though automating regular, secure backups is rather less simple.

What on earth is a major company like Knowhow doing offering a ‘backup’ solution that requires the customer to manually restore single files when software is available for free, used on major projects such as the Linux kernel and Mozilla browser, among many other things, that will restore whole directories (folders) to a specified point in time with one command? It’s pathetic. (When I bought my laptop, they insisted on sitting me down to get me to buy their cloud storage, despite my having access to two cloud storage drives already, only one of which I use. And they’re free.)

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The Lexit delusion

6 August, 2017 - 19:08

Picture of the chamber of the European Parliament in Brussels. Seats are arranged in a semi-circle with an aisle separating them. A lectern is at the front with a blue backing; a row of 11 seats faces the semi-circle with a high-backed seat in the middle. A small EU flag hangs on the wall at the back, and larger, furled-up flags of the member states hang on either side of it.It’s no secret that the bulk of the support for the campaign to pull the UK out of the European Union last year came from the Right — UKIP and large sections of the Tory party — but it has been part of the hard Left’s campaign for decades as well, was Labour policy in the early 1980s and has the support of a number of Labour MPs; Jeremy Corbyn’s support for remaining in was thought to be lukewarm. The other day I saw a conversation between two online friends after one of them asked if anyone she knew who had voted for Brexit could tell her why. The other responded that the EU was “neoliberal, ruled by people lacking both public support and expertise, vindictive, selfish and tyrannical”, examples being the treatment of Greece and migrants. As true as these things might be, they are all at least as much British diseases as European ones.

Neoliberalism is an ideology which has found most favour in the UK, the USA and in various dictatorships allied to US interests, most famously Chile under General Pinochet who offered US-trained economists what were described as “laboratory conditions”, i.e. an oppressed populace that they did not need to answer to at the ballot box. It favours controlling the money supply so as to reduce inflation to the minimum (monetarism) and reducing state regulation on businesses, the doctrine being that regulation deters and hinders investment and economic activity and, by extension, jobs. This is typically associated with Tory policies in the 1980s and then Blair in the 1990s and 2000s. It is widely acknowledged that we do not really live in a free market and that companies receive favour rather than merely light-touch regulation from the state, and that risks are often socialised and profits privatised.

It is a fact that Britain has privatised industries that remain in state hands in much of Europe, and indeed that some of our industries are owned by foreign state enterprises such as Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway authority (which owns the Arriva bus company as well as a number of rail franchises). It is also a fact that John Major’s government, when negotiating Britain’s accession to the 1992 Maastricht treaty, negotiated an opt-out for Britain from the Social Chapter which includes a number of improvements to workers’ rights including maternity leave, rights for temporary workers, limitations on child labour and a 48-hour maximum working week. (This policy was reversed when Labour came to power in 1997.) Other countries in Europe have laws protecting tenants that are much stronger than ours, to the extent that in many countries renting is the norm, not something people do just because they cannot afford to buy. In much of developed mainland Europe and Scandinavia, rent laws are assessed as being pro-tenant or strongly pro-tenant, while in the UK and the less developed parts of Europe, they are assessed as being pro-landlord.

So, while the EU is certainly a free-trade union devoted to abolishing tariffs and other barriers to the movement of goods and people, it nonetheless accommodates the strong mixed economies of northern and western Europe as well as avowedly neo-liberal ones such as ours. If the EU can be called neo-liberal, it will be very largely the result of British influence and withdrawing the UK from the EU will not make the UK less neo-liberal, but rather, remove a strongly pro-business and anti-regulation voice from the room when future European laws and treaties are negotiated. At best, this is no guarantee of moving towards a socialist UK; if anything, it will make it much easier for the Tories to pass more laws that strip workers and tenants of rights.

As for its treatment of migrants, again, Britain is no better in this regard. Britain detains asylum seekers, often those with well-founded fears of persecution including rape and other torture, and well into the Blair years it detained children and families as well as adult asylum seekers. It routinely refuses asylum claims of people from countries where political repression and sectarian violence is known (e.g. Uganda), often on the basis of backroom deals with the countries concerned. The UK instigated a crackdown on “foreign criminals”, detaining a number of people who had been convicted of minor offences years ago who had served their time, on the whim of the Daily Mail, which has also been a prominent voice against European integration and in favour of Brexit. The EU does not stop Germany taking a very substantial number of refugees from Syria, nor other countries from refusing them. Withdrawing the UK will not make us any more liberal in this regard; more likely the opposite.

She then said she would accept a “difficult transition” under Theresa May as a sort of stepping stone to a Corbyn-run left-wing government outside the EU. That, sadly, is something that will not happen; Brexit will bring crises as crops remain unpicked (this is already happening), home-grown and imported food will be more expensive as will imports of other manufactured goods which are currently subject to unified WTO tariffs through the EU. This could easily cause major unrest and the instinct of many will be to blame foreigners and the EU rather than to consider how to mitigate the problems. We are likely to see a rise in racist attacks on any foreign-looking or foreign-sounding people, including British citizens, and distraction stories about terrorist plots, Muslims refusing to integrate, FGM and the such like.

There is no valid left-wing case for withdrawing the UK from the EU as things stand. This may, of course, change, but in 2017 the pressure towards Neo-liberalism in the EU is coming largely from the UK and the countries with strong protections for workers’ and tenants’ rights, with state education systems that the wealthy and powerful use as well as everyone else’s, with nationalised railways etc. will be left in and will be more powerful as a result, to the benefit of their citizens and not to us. There is no evidence that the British public will rush to Corbyn once the Tory Brexiteers plunge the country into the abyss; he failed to win the last election and in fact lost seats in the Labour northern heartlands and failed to win back those lost by Miliband in 2015. I think it irresponsible to advocate a course of action that will lead to avoidable crisis and unrest in the vain hope that something better will come out of it.

Image source: Ash Crow, via Wikipedia; original here. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 licence.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: speculation so white

5 August, 2017 - 18:50

Picture of a young white woman in a long red robe with a large white bonnet that stops her seeing other than in front of her, exiting a brick building.The Hulu TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel set in a New England taken over by a fundamentalist Christian theocratic police state that styles itself the Republic of Gilead, concluded on Channel 4 last Sunday night. The series (like the novel) follows the story of Offred, AKA June, who has been conscripted as a ‘handmaid’ to provide children to wealthy élite families in a society beset by a so-called plague of infertility which seems to be affecting other countries (such as Mexico) as well. The series has been described as not fiction but “a warning” by an Australian feminist columnist, and it seems many people are watching it despite finding it distressing, most likely because everyone is talking about it so everyone else needs to understand it. I found it a very weak and unbelievable piece of TV and its biggest weaknesses are its back-story and its handling of race, which are connected.

The novel was written in the mid-1980s and set at the turn of the present century; the TV series appears to be set about now or in the near future. The novel was clearly set in an age following a war, most likely a nuclear war although Agent Orange was mentioned as a reason why people cannot conceive healthy babies; there are only the barest references to that in the series, mostly to the “colonies” where women who refused to be Handmaids or Jezebels (prostitutes in officially tolerated brothels) are sent to “clean up toxic waste” and die. The novel is a sort of cross between 1984 and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a book set in Labrador after a “tribulation” has rendered most of North America uninhabitable; that is also a fundamentalist Christian society which fetishises “the Norm” as the war has resulted in widespread birth defects which are referred to as “Offences” or “Blasphemies”, and anyone with so much as an extra toe is killed. At the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a transcript of a conference on “Gileadian Studies”, set a hundred years into the future, which puts the material sourced from Offred in context. That is missing from the TV series which ends with Offred being taken away in the back of a van by two men in black, who may be taking her out of the country or to prison or her death; she does not know, and we are not told.

The war seems to have had no environmental impact on the parts of Gilead we see, other than the fertility problems, which are otherwise unexplained though briefly alluded to in the scenes set before the takeover. Apart from people mutilated as punishments, such as the Handmaid whose eye is removed after she tries to run away during training, we see no disabled people, which we would expect to after a war. This fact is never mentioned. Why so many women are supposedly infertile despite being otherwise perfectly healthy (which I suspect they would not be, if the cause was environmental) is not explained either. American conservatives are in general capitalists who serve and defend corporate interests and oppose regulation and state welfare and healthcare, yet capitalism is muted or absent here; there is little talk of money and no advertising to be seen, for example. Life outside the élite, even that of the so-called Econowives from the book, is not mentioned anywhere. There are also some strange inconsistencies: how is it that June and her daughter were captured trying to flee to Canada and her partner escaped only through great danger, but Moira, her friend from before the takeover who had been forced into the Jezebels, gets out very easily with no apparent help from anyone by stealing a client’s car?

A scene set in a green field with trees surrounding it, with women in identical red robes kneeling on the grass in rows and columns, with armed men in black surrounding them.Gilead is also suspiciously, and mysteriously, racially integrated. This is by far the biggest credibility problem. Gilead is a highly stratified society in which nobody really has any rights although some people have a lot of power, but you find people of all races at every level including Commanders, which was not the case in the book, in which Black Americans had been exiled to a colony in the Midwest. Although we are told Catholics are being persecuted and nuns executed by public hanging from a crane, people of other religions such as Muslims and Hindus are also absent. Both these absences and the mysterious racial harmony are never remarked upon. This is odd, to say the least. American Christian conservatives are not openly, ideologically racist, but they tend to prosper in areas where they can appeal to a racist vote, to stereotypes understood to be of people who are Black, poor or (usually) both, and they are also notorious for trying to peel back protections for Black people’s right to vote, for supporting laws which are impediments to voter registration and opposing those which make it easier to vote. Although they are in favour of banning or restricting abortion, their principal injustices have been against Black and poor people of both sexes, not women. It’s ridiculous to suppose that these sorts of people could produce a racially integrated society, where racism was so thoroughly defeated that it is not even spoken of, in the space of a few years. The series’ ‘showrunner’, Bruce Miller, explained that “it just felt like in a world where birth rates have fallen so precipitously, fertility would trump everything”, but that does not explain why the absence of racism or race as an issue is never mentioned. Besides, many racists actually would not think like that.

In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith hears about an underground conspiracy and believes that his inner-party handler, O’Brien, is in on it (he is in fact a Thought Police agent who later tortures Smith). The fake ‘Brotherhood’ he tries to join is echoed here by ‘Mayday’ which Offred hears rumours of among the Handmaids and later tries to retrieve a package for, which turns out to be writings by women captured and imprisoned during the Gilead takeover. Offred does not know if the men who take her away are members of ‘Mayday’ or state agents, but I’m inclined to believe the latter especially given that it came right after she instigated a mass refusal by the Handmaids to stone another Handmaid to death after she attempted suicide when her Commander (who had been having an affair with her rather than just having ceremonial sex with her in front of his wife) dumped her and gave the child to his wife, as was usual with Handmaids.

Picture of a late-middle-age white woman wearing a brown hooded robe with a whistle round her neck and holding a microphone in her hand.The series does explore the relationship between Offred and Serena, her Commander’s wife, showing Offred’s fear and Serena’s resentment of Offred which abates somewhat when she gets pregnant (meaning no more ‘ceremonies’) — pregnant Handmaids are treated with extreme kindness by both the couple and their servants — and returns with a vengeance when it turns out she was not pregnant after all. Despite the series being ten, hour-long episodes long, no other classes of women except (briefly) the ‘Jezebels’ are examined in detail; we do not see much of the lives of the so-called Marthas, who include the servants in the Waterford household (and are also seen guarding the ‘Jezebels’), or how they came into that role; in the book they were older, infertile women, but the Waterfords’ servants do not seem to be that old. And it’s a decent portrayal of a ‘total’ police state in which people’s interaction with each other is monitored and controlled, where friendship is fleeting and nobody is able to trust anyone.

But I wouldn’t describe the programme as essential viewing. It’s over-long, and I regularly had to look at the Wikipedia descriptions of each episode (which were available as the episodes were shown in the UK weeks after they aired in the USA) to keep up. For what its author claims is ‘speculative fiction’ rather than sci-fi, the society it portrays is unconvincing and the backstory and connection to present trends is weak. It has been claimed that all the oppressions depicted in the programme have happened somewhere, but they are out of context: it was not women but Black people that were banned from reading and writing; nowhere are women expected to wear a ‘uniform’ all the time (even in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, women wear ‘normal’ clothes under the outer clothes, which actually is not a uniform, and when at home, which is not the case here). We keep hearing that the story is of added importance in the age of Trump, but Trump is an amoral, anti-religious capitalist, not a religious fundamentalist and real fundamentalists in the USA show no enthusiasm for a police state or depriving women of rights beyond restricting abortion and birth control pills. Only race-blind, middle-class white feminism could produce ten hours of TV with such a weak narrative on race and none on class like this. So there’s no need to watch this if it is distressing; it’s not real, and it’s not realistic.

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Dumping Hopkins didn’t hurt LBC’s ratings

4 August, 2017 - 23:07

A black and white photo of a man in a German army uniform looking through barbed wire at a topless man with ribs showing through emaciation, an a number of prisoners sitting in the background on the same side of the barbed wire fence.LBC sees audience numbers rise after Katie Hopkins departure | The Independent

According to Rajar, the organisation which researches the listener base of radio and TV stations, the national talk station LBC did not lose listeners as a result of sacking Katie Hopkins, a professional bigot who had a slot on the station until she was sacked in May this year after saying a “final solution” (a term used by the Nazis to refer to the Holocaust) to terrorism was needed after the bombing in Manchester that month, and in fact its figures increased in the quarter from April to June. (Hat tip: MEND.)

A lot of people who listen to local radio stations do so for local and traffic news (which LBC has despite having gone national a few years ago; they were originally a London talk station), so sacking a host will have less impact on a local station than on a national one, but even so, any change of presenter is likely to cause a temporary dent in listenership figures as a new show, however good, will be an uknown quantity at first and need time to ‘bed in’ and build up its audience. That Hopkins’s departure did not have that effect suggests that she was putting people off, not bringing them in.

I was a regular listener to the BBC London morning show in the mid-2000s and I remember what happened the week after bully-boy host Jon Gaunt was replaced, temporarily, with Geoff Schumann: the following week, there was new caller after new caller who had not dared call in when Gaunt was on the other end of the line. How many of them were new listeners I don’t know, although perhaps they might have started listening more frequently after Gaunt left. But the moral is that managers should not be afraid to ditch a host who, despite their big name, is a bully or bigot or thrives on needless controversy, because it may bring new listeners in and, importantly for a station with a lot of phone-ins, lead to new voices joining the ‘conversation’.

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Reverting to type

1 August, 2017 - 22:36

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyib ErdoganDemocracy is dying – and it’s startling how few people are worried | Paul Mason | Opinion | The Guardian

This was in today’s Guardian, and uses a few examples of democracies turning back into dictatorships to support a contention that “democracy is dying”: Erdogan holding show trials for journalists and purging dissenting academics (or those suspected of it) in Turkey, Putin banning virtual private networks (VPNs) in Russia, Apple withdrawing VPN apps on the Chinese app store, Venezuela’s Marxist government setting up an assembly to rewrite the constitution, Trump’s shenanigans in the USA. The fact is that it’s not, and these examples aren’t evidence that it is.

Most of them are age-old dictatorships reverting to type. Russia has never known democracy except for brief flirtations with it in the late 19th and late 20th centuries. Apart from that, all it has known is tsars, the communist one-party state and Putin’s version of “guided democracy”. Turkey was not a democracy under the Ottomans and it hasn’t been as a republic either; it was dominated by secularists who used their control over the courts, civil service and military not only to suppress Islamism but also to suppress the expression and teaching of Islam in Turkish society. They changed the language so much that people could not even understand the language of their grandparents, or (ironically) that of Mustafa Kemal himself. Erdogan’s behaviour now is shocking, but it is only how his enemies would behave if they were in power.

Eastern Europe’s democracies are only 25 years old; Venezuela’s, although it has lasted a lot longer (including through the 60s and 70s when much of South America fell under dictatorship), it had a history of serving the white elite and neglecting the poor majority. Other parts of South America which emerged from those dictatorships in the 80s and 90s show no sign of returning to dictatorship. The United States is not turning into a fascist dictatorship or the Republic of GIlead; it’s in for at least a term of conservative Republican rule, most likely under Mike Pence once Trump resigns or is impeached, but it survived that under George W Bush and will survive it under Pence. Lawlessness, in the form of racist violence from the White Right, is a bigger threat than anyone trying to bring down the constitution itself.

Mason observes that “that the ‘enemies of the people’ meme is doing the rounds”, and offers Hungary, China and Trump’s America. But the People’s Republic of China has used that kind of justification for as long as it’s existed. He then links it to the rise of neoliberalism which judges everything according to its economic outcome; yet the undermining of democracy by Maduro in Venezuela is against neo-liberalism, not in support of it. It has always been the pro-American elites in South America that support stripping away subsidies, cutting welfare, health and education spending and deregulating industry to allow foreign (e.g. American) ownership.

Samuel Huntingdon proposed a theory that there had been a series of “waves” of democratisation, a first consisting of ‘revolutions’ such as in France and the American war o independence, a second after World War II and consisting of the emergence of strong democracies in western Europe and then de-colonisation, and a third at the end of the Cold War with the ending of Communist states and third world military dictatorships, especially in South America. After the first two there was a ‘backwash’: the emergence of fascism in the early 20th century, for example, then the imposition of Communism in eastern Europe and the slide of the newly independent countries in the former empires to dictatorship. There is much to criticise in this; France, for example, slid into dictatorship very quickly after the Revolution and later restored the monarchy for a while. So, the backsliding of Turkey and Hungary could be seen as a backwash to the post-Cold War democratic wave, except that Hungary, so far, remains a democracy. But business as usual in China and the reverting to type of places like Russia and Turkey do not mean that democracy is dying.

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We all knew Kevin Myers was a bigot

30 July, 2017 - 19:31

Picture of Vanessa Feltz, a middle-aged white woman with very light blonde hair, wearing a sleeveless red dress with a silver embroidered bodice and a sheer red part at the top, on a purple carpet with her arms outstretched.Today, social media has been abuzz about a column by Kevin Myers, about whom I last wrote on this blog in 2009 in response to a column full of stock false Islamophobic assertions by him in the Irish Independent (free registration required), in the Irish edition of today’s Sunday Times about the gender pay gap at the BBC, generally defending the higher pay given to men as being deserved because men “work harder, get sick less frequently and seldom get pregnant”, while also pointing out that two of the highest-paid women are Jewish, one of them being Vanessa Feltz (right). In response to social media outrage, the Times have pulled the article from their website, although I presume that print copies containing the column are still on sale at newsstands across Ireland, and sacked him. It’s good that people have noticed he’s a bigot and protested, but depressing that warnings have been ignored for years because the minorities he attacked in the past were not their favourites.

To be fair, this is not his first flirtation with anti-Semitism; a few years ago he published a column (deleted today) in the Irish Independent in which he proclaimed himself a “Holocaust denier” and expressed solidarity with Richard Williamson, a schismatic Catholic bishop, before making a series of minor quibbles about the exact numbers murdered and whether it was all one big programme or not. Really, it still justifies that title even if there was, say, fewer than six million but much more than five million murdered (which a lot of scholars believe to be the case), and even if they weren’t all gassed to death (which is true; they were still murdered, or at least the Nazis caused their death by putting them in camps and then exposing them to disease or starvation). He also complains that you can be put in prison for saying these things in Europe; however, you can’t in Ireland or the UK, which were never occupied by Nazi Germany and never elected an explicitly fascist government.

My friend Candi O’Reilly tweeted earlier today that Myers had once taunted her that she was not a “real journalist”. A former copy-editor on the Irish Independent tell us that Myers, who was known as “My Arse”, isn’t a journalist himself and never has been:

He is an overpaid star columnist on the Irish edition of The Sunday Times who writes a weekly rant that is based solely on his own warped view of the world. There is no striving for balance or fact-based evidence with Myers: just an outpouring of bile and sermonising that is intended to offend, shock or outrage readers. He makes the likes of Katie Hopkins and Kelvin Mackenzie seem like reasonable human beings.

The paper also indulged him far more than it did its other writers, refusing to change so much as a word or a stray punctuation mark (and there were a lot of them) and anything that “caused alarm” had to be “referred to the Comment Editor, the Editor and ultimately My Arse himself”. It seems the Sunday Times has taken the same line with him, publishing his article on the nod because it was his. It might seem inconceivable that the Times would deliberately publish an anti-Semitic article — the paper has always been a haven for Thatcherites, Neocons and pro-war Blairites and there are plenty of Jews in all three categories, and it was Melanie Phillips’s outlet of choice for several years after she left the Guardian — but perhaps they reasoned that his bigotry sells so well that the odd bit of anti-Semitism, away from where they thought it would be noticed (London), wouldn’t harm their position. My experience is that they are more sympathetic to Jewish interests than those of other minorities; in their coverage of the case of Abdullah Faisal, jailed for inciting murder in 2003 in talks given throughout the 90s and early 2000s, I noted that they reported that he had used jokes about Jews in some of his talks but did not mention that his talks advocated (“in theory”) the murder of certain categories of Muslims that he regarded as unbelievers.

I have not closely monitored Myers’ output (his articles don’t appear in London papers) but did examine a few of his columns in 2005, which included snipes at Turks, the “gipsy problem” (conflating Gypsies and Irish Travellers, and using the spelling ‘gipsy’ which they use as a slur, which they cannot do with the word ‘gypsy’) as well as intellectuals and modern artists; he also wrote the piece about the Fort Hood massacre linked in the intro to his article, in the Irish Indie in 2009, which alleged that jihad could be used as a pretext to break any law, including the Shari’ah, a quite baseless idea; he also simplistically linked the mere presence of Muslims in a country with terrorism (an easy route to “send them all home”), and claimed that authorities are scared to pursue terrorists by the threat of being branded Islamophobic. These are standard tropes of Islamophobes and nobody seemed to notice or care, much less clamour for him to be sacked, despite the fact that they, like today’s piece, appeared in a newspaper with a sister paper in London. (The Irish Times also noted that the Irish Indie had published in 2008 an article by him titled “Africa has given the world nothing but Aids”, and that his defence was that he originally wrote “almost nothing”.) Brian Walker of Slugger O’Toole has noted that Myers is admired by some for “iconoclasm about hoary Irish republican myths” such as the events after the 1916 uprising, but suggests that “he seems to have carried perversity to the level of self-willed dementia and is destroying himself”.

By coincidence, I saw an article on Salon earlier from one Phil Torres, proclaiming his break with “new atheism” which he claims has become a misogynist and intellectually sloppy movement in bed with the Alt-Right. However, by his own admission, the movement has been beset by “gaffes” ever since the early 2000s, with Christopher Hitchens embracing a pro-war, neo-con stance after 9/11, Sam Harris proclaiming that “we [the west] are at war with Islam” (he also produced a series of other Islamophobic outbursts, such as a scene of Muslims praying in the street with the headline, “Is this the end of Europe?”), and Richard Dawkins displaying his bigotry to Muslims on too many occasions to count. I have generally found aggressive atheists to be prone to sloppy, fallacy-laden reasoning because they are convinced they won the argument a long time ago and are now dealing with a few obstinate stragglers. But as with Myers, it seems people are only just waking up to the fact that the core personalities in this movement are bigots when they stray beyond targeting Islam and the Muslim community.

On the subject of Vanessa Feltz, I was a long-time listener to the morning talk show which she has hosted since 2005; before her, Jon Gaunt hosted it for several years and had a reputation as a bully-boy who liked to brag about his “Jagwaah” and his many Sony awards (the latter any time anyone criticised his style). Her Jewishness has rarely been the source of my dislike of her, except for such occasions as where she hosted some Israeli guests for reasons I cannot remember but did not challenge them when they said the Palestinians hate them and not the other way round (there’s a reason for that) and on another, asked a guest “is there such a thing as Palestine?”. She’s just irritating and manipulative; she likes to twist people’s words and trap them, and has an exaggerated ‘sincere’ pseudo-empathetic way of speaking (especially with guests) when dealing with emotive subjects. But none of that is because she’s Jewish. I could think of many better presenters for that show than either Feltz or Gaunt, including many of those who have sat in while they’ve been sick (e.g. Eddie Nestor, Julia George, Geoff Schumann if they’re desperate), but the BBC seem more interested in a ratings-boosting, sensationalist presenter than a sober one who will report responsibly.

But for a Muslim, the conclusion from this episode is that a hoary old stereotype about Jews and money can get someone sacked while claims that Muslims can justify any atrocity by means of a “personal contract with Allah” and that if you’ve not got Muslims, you won’t have terrorism aren’t even noticed. It’s good that he’s been fired, although I do not doubt that he will find another outlet, but his stream of garbage could have been stopped a long time ago if his outrageous claims about Muslims (and other minorities) had been examined, and his services dispensed with. Islamophobia, as the former Tory party chair Sayeeda Warsi once said, passes the dinner-table test.

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Charlie Gard and NHS versus private care

28 July, 2017 - 19:59

A handmade poster hung on the railings of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. It is decorated with lots of green and clear glass 'jewels', some arranged in two heart shapes. There are pictures of Charlie, the words "Save Charlie Gard" and a map of the world with the words "The world stands with Charlie Gard" above and below.So, the tragic story of Charlie Gard, the terminally-ill baby boy whose parents have fought a legal battle to stop doctors at Great Ormond Street in London from turning off his life support, has drawn to a close; his family spent their final moments with him in a children’s hospice today and he died this evening. The American neurologist who had claimed to have treatment to offer that could have helped him turns out never to have examined Charlie and to have had a financial interest in the treatment which, at this stage, could not in fact have helped. Melanie Phillips has written a series of interesting articles, such as this one, condemning the American right-wing ‘mob’ which has been busy condemning the NHS and the doctors involved for being motivated by a desire to save public money, which (unusually for her) are worth reading. It is worth exploring the paradoxical relationship the American pro-life Right have with the world of disability, and their attitudes towards life itself in contrast to having to pay for anyone’s healthcare.

It has long been a myth on the American Right that a single-payer public health system like the NHS would ration care strictly on a financial basis, making decisions on who lives and who dies based on cost. In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain’s running-mate, Republican former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, suggested that Professor Steven Hawking might be left to die by an NHS “death panel”, when in fact he has used NHS hospitals all his life. The claim is not entirely untrue, as some treatments have been rationed on cost or cost-effectiveness grounds, including new and expensive drugs (mostly for cancer) and some second-chance cancer treatments for people who have already been treated once and relapsed, but for the most part, if you have a treatable disease you will get treated and the cost of your medication will be heavily subsidised (if you have certain specific conditions, entirely subsidised). The NHS is not without its critics or its problems, but it’s something many of us are proud of and do not wish to see sold off or dismantled. Our answer to problems in the NHS that lead to bad care or rationing is usually more money.

My involvement in disability activism came largely as a result of a prominent news story involving someone with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or ME in 2010, and the ME activist community is strongly linked to other chronic illness communities. The case of Justina Pelletier, who was held in a psychiatric unit at Boston Children’s Hospital for more than a year because doctors there disagreed with doctors in her home state about her diagnosis (she had been diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, similar to Charlie Gard’s although obviously milder; they suspected a psychosomatic disorder, a suspicion which has bedevilled many an ME patient), was widely debated on the British ME social media platforms. The people who stood up for Justina and her family against the arrogance and cruelty of the Boston psychiatrists were the pro-life Right, not the liberal Left, who have a long history of siding with the ‘experts’, i.e. doctors, in such cases — as had been the case with Terri Schiavo, which brought about the split between pro-life conservatives and liberal hawks that had made up the Bush coalition before the 2008 election. In the UK, I noticed that both the liberal and Tory presses and the BBC took the side of the psychiatric lobby over the patients, eagerly recirculating stories of death threats sent to researchers who supported a psychiatric origin for ME and portraying ME sufferers who believed the origin of their illness was a virus as ‘nutters’ or liars (implying that, for example, that as they clearly had enough energy to harass Simon Wesley and friends, they should have had enough for work, this also being the time when the reforms to Disability Living Allowance were first being threatened).

Disability activists are often perplexed at the spectacle of American conservatives who are opposed to any kind of public funding for health and social care leap to the defence of a disabled person when their life is under threat. Someone asked me why “forced-birthers” do this and the best I could offer was that “they’re for life after birth as well as before, just as long as they don’t have a tax rise to pay for it”; she pointed out that the same people are also in favour of police shootings, as long as the shooter isn’t Muslim. The answer could be simple partisanship: they regard the medical profession as part of the ‘liberal’ educated class, therefore “the enemy”, while ‘rationalist’ (if not always entirely rational) liberals rally round the medical profession and brand anyone who doesn’t accept their authority at face value as anti-science fools. Personally, I regard defending sick or disabled people against doctors with pet theories that abuse their position as neither a left nor a right issue; history shows that such abuses can be committed by people of any political views, but a professional position always helps.

I’m sure Melanie Phillips has spent time in the USA and knows what healthcare there is like, and was before the Affordable Care Act (which many Americans apparently support, while opposing ‘Obamacare’, unaware that they are the same thing): that many people simply cannot get healthcare because they cannot afford insurance, or because insurers will not entertain them because of pre-existing conditions which mean they actually need the care more than someone who can get insurance. She also knows that people go bankrupt to pay for medical treatment and that if you have treatment forced on you in an emergency (e.g. because you’ve been stabbed in the street), you can be hit with a huge bill. Their system denies home care to disabled people who need it, resulting in their having to enter a nursing home (which often costs the state more, but does not give the impression of a ‘handout’) while both industry lobbyists and trade unions resist the closure of large long-stay institutions which deny disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities, freedom. Will Melanie Phillips defend the NHS as robustly when the Tory party seek to slice bits of it away and sell off whole chunks of it (including to American healthcare companies such as those who profit from the American insurance-based model) as she does when ignorant Americans attack it as being run by penny-pinchers with no regard for human life?

As for the rest of us here in the UK, I have long believed we should distinguish between the medical profession and the NHS when we talk about failings in healthcare. The NHS is a funding mechanism and model; the health service itself is made up of institutions such as hospitals, clinics and civil service departments which use public money to pay staff and buy and maintain equipment to deliver care. We should be careful in talking about “the NHS” when talking about attitudes or behaviours that damage people’s lives or health and which are just as prevalent in private healthcare as in publicly-funded healthcare; they are the same medical and nursing professions and trained in the same colleges. We should talk of specific hospitals, specific trusts or the medical or nursing professions or management, as appropriate, and when we see failures such as neglect leading to patient deaths attributed in the media to “the NHS”, we should protest and demand correction. It is widely understood that the privatisation of the NHS requires the population to be dissatisfied with its performance and to blame it for the failures of specific individuals, trusts or the government; all attempts to foment that discontent have to be resisted, or we will wake up with a system which delivers less care, costs more and benefits its private owners, not the people.

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Blaming the colonials for everything

24 July, 2017 - 12:13

Fatimah Ouaziz, holding her school textbook and grade certificateOver the weekend I saw a touching story about an elderly Moroccan lady who completed the first grade of her country’s school system after having been illiterate all her life and having spent three years, in her 80s, studying for it. She is a mother of six who has made two pilgrimages to Mecca in the nine years since the death of her husband, described as a “kind, caring and compassionate man” despite being twice divorced and marrying his wife in her early teens, thanks to his origins:

As a traditional Middle Atlas Berber, he had never absorbed Arabic cultural influences in matters of gender relations. He was more matriarchal than he was patriarchal.

Besides this racist aside about Arabs, this story blames the French for Fatimah Ouaziz’s illiteracy, which is not tenable.

The author, John A. Morrow, claims:

Born in the tiny town of Tazoughart in the Middle Atlas of Morocco, Fatimah Ouaziz suffered through the famine provoked by the secular French occupiers during the French “Protectorate.”

From an Amazigh family, she grew up speaking Tamazight. Like most Moroccans of the time, the lively little girl was deprived of even a basic education.

Since the traditional Islamic school system was dismantled by the French, and mosques could no longer operate as a medium of literacy teaching, Fatimah, like millions of others, became part of a lost generation that mastered neither French nor Classical Arabic. While Moroccans could speak Berber languages and Darija, the Moroccan Colloquial Arabic dialect, they could neither read nor write them.

The problem is that Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956, when this lady was 22. France may have interfered in the country’s affairs since, but I don’t believe it was they who dictated that much of the country’s rural and poor population should remain illiterate for more than 50 years. That can only be blamed on the country’s three kings in the post-independence era: Mohammed V, Hassan II and the present incumbent, Mohammed VI, and their responsibility for this is nowhere mentioned in Morrow’s article. The present king is generally regarded as a reformer (despite his Arabic origin!), but has been on the throne since 2000 and I’m sure Fatimah Ouaziz is not the only adult in Morocco who has been illiterate all that time. Only a couple of years ago, a young girl was forced into marriage with a man who had raped her, resulting in her suicide; this sort of thing can still happen in Morocco despite the much-vaunted reforms in personal law and education.

The destruction of traditional Islamic learning did not end with the departure of the French; Hamza Yusuf mentioned in a lecture about the elimination of such places of learning that the last one fell (i.e. closed or was converted to a modern university) in Marrakesh in 1962, six years after independence. This is not to belittle Fatimah Ouaziz’s achievement, but it’s ridiculous to blame a long-departed colonial powers for the failures of three autocratic kings to ensure that their subjects are educated and the sight of westerners (Muslim or otherwise) hymning such rulers for such trivial achievements is just as ridiculous. On top of this, adult learners should not be sitting classes designed for five- or six-year-old children; they should receive tuition aimed at equipping them for the modern adult world now. When children start school late in England because of, say, having arrived as a refugee from a country where there is war, they do not go into reception if they are older than four or five; they take the same classes as those of the same age.

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A 20-year-old is not a baby!

23 July, 2017 - 18:49

Picture of Rashan Charles, a Black teenage boy wearing a baseball cap (most of it cropped out), a short-sleeved white T-shirt with a black 'puffer' waistcoat over it. He has a long metal chain round his neck and his arms are folded.Yesterday a young man called Rashan Charles was killed in an encounter with the police in London, and the footage has been posted on social media with the hashtag “Justice for Rash”. The footage shows him being pursued by police into the back of a shop, and then seized and held on the floor (initially by one officer who is later joined by another) for a minute or two; he is seen swallowing something or trying to, and was pronounced dead later in hospital. At the moment, we do not know why they sought to arrest him. It’s being automatically assumed that ‘Rash’ was innocent and was stopped simply because of his race; the NUS Black Students group has posted a tweet claiming he was ‘murdered’ well before all the facts about the incident have come out, which I think is rather irresponsible for an organisation of their profile. What really took me aback about this campaign, though, was seeing tweets referring to Rashan as a child, or even “just a baby”. That’s a ridiculous thing to call him.

I’m well aware that there is a tendency (observed particularly in the USA) to treat Black children as older and more mature than they really are, and to treat them as a threat, as much as an adult would be, from the first signs of puberty or even earlier. There is one story about a white school inspector asking a girl aged about 8 about what she used to do when she was a little girl, and the girl responded “I still am a little girl”. But 20-year-olds are not little girls, or boys, let alone babies. They are adults: they can drive, vote, work in a full-time paid job, serve in the armed forces, get married, have children. Both my parents were married at that age (they still are). The age of majority has been 18 in this country for more than 45 years.

‘Child’ can of course be a term of affection, even for adults, and there are plenty of songs addressing a love interest as ‘babe’ or ‘baby’. I remember being in a summer job in the late 1990s, and my work colleagues included a Muslim lady of about my age who wore hijab and long skirts and a white Welsh lady in her 70s, and when I referred to the former as a woman to the latter, she said, “she’s not a woman; she’s a child!”. But it can also be an insult, a way of belittling someone or dismissing something they are trying to tell you. When I was much younger than 20, being classed as a child meant having no rights, not being taken seriously and having to take orders off abusive people, and was a status I was eager to slough off as soon as I could, and it is one reason why I am uneasy about considering people in their mid-teens as children (in regard to matters of sex or personal responsibility, for example) now. In recent years it has become fashionable to point to the “developing brain” and to excuse teenagers’ erratic behaviour on such grounds, ignoring the particular pressures that come from the artificial, institutional school environment and from only having others of the same age and stage of development as friends (and slightly older people dominating and being the role models), as well as the lesser degree of personal responsibility young people often have now. Academic work has become easier, while fewer young people have paid jobs, either because of college or unemployment. Marriage in the early 20s is relatively rare now.

So we are not giving a 20-year-old any credit by reducing him to a child or a baby, especially when (as is the case here) he already has a child of his own. There have been attempts to link police-related deaths here to those in the USA, where the number vastly exceeds ours and has included children as young as 12 and very obviously innocent people, and some of the activism here (particularly the setting-up of a “Black Lives Matter” group and holding road-block protests at Heathrow) strikes me as “me-tooism”, wanting some of the action and the instigators wanting to make themselves leaders on the back of it. It appears that Rashan Charles died struggling while resisting arrest; why he did that may become clearer in the coming weeks, but it is a criminal offence in itself and the community need to accept that Rashan Charles likely had some responsibility for that situation. He was a grown man, clearly suspected of being in the process of committing a crime, and was treated accordingly.

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Polygamy and being Muslim

22 July, 2017 - 22:43

A graphic showing a man in the middle wearing a tuxedo and bow tie, and a woman on each side, both wearing wedding dresses of different styles though both white.Earlier a Facebook friend (an African-American Muslim woman) posted a status that Black Muslim men should just accept that most Black Muslim women hate polygamy and that “no amount of guilting and shaming is going to change that”. This provoked a big debate about why this is and what it says about Black Muslim women and their attitudes, but there were a number of men insisting that it meant they did not accept what God had made lawful in Islam, and accused them of shirk (idolatry/polytheism, in the sense of thinking you know better than God). The sister who posted the status said there were particular “circumstances that make polygyny worthy of consideration” for African-American Muslim women, but didn’t spell out what these were.

It’s never been any secret that polygamy has been going on in Muslim communities both in the UK and USA “on the quiet” for decades now. The law does not recognise it, meaning that if a man in a multiple marriage dies intestate, at most only one of the wives (the one whose marriage was registered) has any rights; the others are simply regarded as mistresses or girlfriends. It is debateable whether the practice is even legal or not; no government has seen fit to prosecute anyone (the authorities in the USA went after Mormon offshoots, but other crimes were being committed such as tax fraud), but it may be only a matter of time (and one scandal) before they do. Governments in Europe take a much dimmer view, and people have been stripped of citizenship in Germany and Switzerland after being naturalised because their polygamous marriages are deemed incompatible with the way of life of the country they are trying to settle in (or were born in).

It’s also been widely known for a long time, among Muslims included, that women are often opposed to polygamy, especially for themselves. Among Muslims there is evidence of this in even the first generation of Muslims and there are rulings on what a woman can and cannot do to protect herself from it (particularly as a first wife) going back at least to the Four Imams (the originators of the four major schools of Islamic law, who were all second- or third-generation Muslims). Essentially they ruled that a woman cannot stipulate that her husband cannot marry again (i.e. the second marriage is still valid) but can stipulate that if he does, she can release herself from the marriage. So there is no reason for anyone to say that a woman who does not like the idea of polygamy for herself is selfish or arrogant, much less accuse her of thinking she knows better than God or not being a proper Muslim.

We — both white and black Muslims who are converts and not immigrants — come from a culture in which the ideal is a love-based marriage of one man and one woman. If a woman has grown up in a family in which her parents had been married since before she was born, and most of those she knew had similar families and she felt sorry for those who didn’t, because their parents were divorced or one of them had died, she is not going to expect to be one of a man’s four wives (even if he is rich); she is going to expect a marriage similar to her mother’s. In case anyone has not noticed, polygamy is rare even among Muslim immigrant families, not least because they know it is against the law even if it is accepted in the Shari’ah, but also it is not all that common in the country where they come from. So then, why should a woman who converts to Islam expect a lesser deal in marriage than either her non-Muslim sisters or cousins or Muslim women brought up in Muslim families?

More than once I’ve got the impression that there are quite a few male converts to Islam who believe it can “restore their manhood”, and take from it a sense of entitlement towards women. Polygamy is only one of the results; you also get men who marry women on the basis of promises that they break after marriage (or had no intention of keeping); in one case, for example, the man (a white convert) promised to allow the wife to continue studying, then demanded that she leave college after they married. It spoke volumes that all the people in that thread lecturing about “shirk” were men (although I have come across women lecturing other women in this vein in the past). On top of this, there is regularly talk of polygamy being necessary to “prevent zina” (out of marriage sex), a consideration which is never used as a justification for polygamy among any other community, which links to the idea that converts from a western background aren’t as pure as other Muslims, and if they are still virgins when they marry, it was not for want of trying. The upshot is that we are commonly expected to settle for less than a born Muslim looking for marriage, whichever our sex or race, and selling it in terms of “reviving a Sunnah” does not take away the insult.

I’m not entirely against polygamy; it is a Sunnah, it is something that is allowed and it is something the early Muslims practised, and it has some uses in this day and age but should not be the norm. Whenever people have tried to argue (on the basis of novel interpretations of the verses of the Qur’an which relate to it) that polygamy is in fact forbidden, I have always opposed that, but men need to respect the fact that Muslim women in this part of the world don’t want to partake in polygamy. Whatever the rights and wrongs, you won’t have a harmonious marriage (or a lasting one) if you strong-arm or trick unwilling women into polygamous marriages when they do not want to be in one.

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Are ISIS really Khawaarij?

19 July, 2017 - 11:00

An ISIS fighter carrying an assault rifle points towards some grassland in the background. A man stands behind him holding the ISIS flag aloft. The subtitles read "we've brought a bulldozer to take down the barricades".Yesterday I saw a Facebook post which linked to a story about a paper by Craig Considine which claimed that “newly translated” stories from the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) demonstrated that ISIS’s treatment of Christians and other non-Muslims in the lands they have occupied are at variance with the teachings of the Prophet and the Salaf (the early Muslims) in that regard. I responded by saying that we already knew that anyway, and that the lack of an English translation for these materials up until now is not that significant because the language of that region is not English and the English-speaking section of the Muslim community, globally, is not that large. The majority of hadith literature, much like the majority of Islamic scholarly works, have not been translated into any other language, and in the case of hadith, a lot of the less well-known compilations are also those of lesser reliability. However, that was not what I wanted to discuss in this. The Facebook post simply read “ISIS are the Khawarij”, a claim that has been made many times since they arose. Are they really, though?

The Khawaarij — the term means those who secede, or who go out (the singular is Khaariji, and this is often anglicised to “Kharijite”) — were a group that arose during the early period of Islam and made trouble for the Muslims over many generations. Initially they arose during the disputes between the Companions Ali and Mu’awiyyah, opposing any negotiated settlement between them and then making ludicrous demands. The majority were won back when reasoned with; others remained obdurate, launching rebellions and assassinations, splitting into small sects which regarded anyone outside their group (which included the majority of Muslims) to not be Muslims. They committed dreadful atrocities, including the murders of Sahaba (Muslims who had been companions of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and of pregnant women. Overwhelmingly they came from the desert Arab tribes of eastern Arabia, particularly the Bani Tamim tribe. This article notes how many of them were from that tribe and the other tribes of the Najd.

The book The Four Imams by Muhammad Abu Zahra (Dar al-Taqwa, 2001) notes that, although they had dissenting ideas on such matters as who could be the caliph (leader of the Muslims) and the status of one who commits a sin (i.e. that he is an unbeliever, which is not the belief of most Muslims), another important motive was their enmity for the Mudar tribes of western Arabia, of which the Quraysh was one, and this enmity predated Islam. I mention this as some modern texts portray the Kharijites as idealists with democratic or socialistic ideas, when in fact they were tribalists who resented the rise to ascendancy of a tribe they had long regarded as rivals, if not enemies.

There are hadiths about the characteristics of the Khawaarij. The most notorious was a man named Hurqus bin Zuhair, better known as Dhu’l-Khuwaisira, who challenged the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) over the distribution of some alms, demanding that he “be fair” or “fear Allah” (some scholars regard him as a hypocrite). The incident continued:

‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) said: O Messenger of Allah, give me permission to strike his neck. The Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “Let him be, for he has companions, in comparison to whose prayer one of you would regard his prayer as insignificant, and he would regard his fasting as insignificant in comparison to their fasting. They recite the Qur’aan but it does not go any further than their collarbones. They will pass out of Islam as an arrow passes out of the prey.”

The Khawaarij were indeed noted for assiduousness in worship. It was reported that the camp where plots to murder Companions were hatched “sounded like a beehive” with all the recitation of the Qur’an going on; it was reported that the men found in the camp of some of the early Khawaarij had foreheads that were bleeding from prostrating on the ground in prayer, and were in poor condition from much worship and little of anything else, including self-care. Even the Sahaba would think their worship insignificant compared to these people, yet it counts for nothing; they are, as mentioned in another hadith, the “dogs of Hell”.

Other characteristics of the Khawaarij as detailed in the hadeeth or observed by Companions or classical scholars were that they would kill Muslims but spare idolaters and use verses revealed about non-Muslims and interpret them as if they referred to the Muslims, to justify fighting them. The classical Khawaarij were noted, indeed, for displays of kindness towards non-Muslims; one story I have heard is of a Khariji who was doing business with a Jewish merchant in Iraq, which borders onto their Najdi homeland, and insisted that he kept the change, telling him that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) had told the Muslims to be good to the People of the Book. The Jew then chastised him for being kind to him while being violent to his fellow Muslims.

Reading any account of the behaviour of today’s extremists, one does not see the important characteristics of the Khawaarij. They are harsh with the Muslims, yes, and often oppressive, but no more so than the Taliban (who in their original Afghan form were Hanafis and whom nobody accused of being Khawaarij) or the Saudis (who have been, but not by some of the people who accuse ISIS of being khawaarij), but their acts of terrorism are aimed at non-Muslims, even if they are civilians and not fighters. Their roots trace back to Arabs who fought against the Russians in Afghanistan. So they are the opposite of the Khawaarij in that regard. As for excessiveness in worship, we have heard from people who have been held captive by ISIS that they never saw a copy of the Qur’an; we have heard that some young people who have travelled to live in ISIS territory and fight for them that they tried to learn their religion at the last minute by buying books with titles like “Islam for dummies”. Again, quite the opposite of the Khawaarij. In the wider extremist-Wahhabi terrorist movement, we have heard that some of their bombers had had a lifestyle quite out of keeping with Islamic behaviour, frequenting bars, drinking alcohol and having girlfriends in the months before they carried out a suicide bombing. This, also, the Khawaarij did not do.

Before comparing any modern group to the Khawaarij, we need to consider who the Khawaarij made an enemy of: the Sahaba. We hear people say that ISIS are Khawaarij because they are run by and attract young people, and encourage them to go against the scholars and rulers. Who were the scholars of that time? The Sahaba. Who were the rulers? The Sahaba. Who were the Believers? The Sahaba and Tabi’een (the Muslims who knew the Sahaba). The Sahaba established Islamic rule — most of today’s rulers do not even try, beyond some aspects of family law, and the Khawaarij fought them as they did that. The Sahaba fought and defeated the non-Muslim powers of the day — Byzantium and Persia — and the Khawaarij fought them as they did that. They passed on what they learned from the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). How much did we not learn from Ali because a Kharijite murdered him? We’ll never know.

They did not entrust the Muslims’ wealth to Persian banks. They did not have Roman troops stationed in the Arabian peninsula, or get them to sort out disputes between themselves. They would not even think of turning over Muslims, who had fled China in order to live their lives freely as Muslims, back over to the Chinese authorities. And for that matter, they did not expect Muslims to start fasting in the month of Sha’ban and have “Eid” in Ramadan. Going against these men, at least by itself, does not make someone a Khariji. One article lists as a characteristic of the Khawaarij that they “advocate violent opposition of oppressive Muslim leaders” — no! They called one of the most just rulers in all of history unjust, and killed him for no reason. Big difference. (Rebels motivated by justice are called bughaat in Arabic, a separate category from khawaarij.)

We see people link ISIS with the Khawaarij because, for instance, we see young people moving from their parents’ lands to the lands of ISIS, much as the Khawaarij used to expect people to move — make hijra — from the lands of what they called “kufr” to their camps. But we cannot compare moving from a non-Muslim land to a Muslim land to people moving away from the Sahaba to a camp full of ignorant, bigoted, unkempt desert Arabs. Why would anyone move from leafy east London to Raqqa or Mosul? Perhaps because they want to live in a country where most people are Muslim, where nobody is debating whether Muslims even have a place there, where Islam and Muslims are not vilified on the front pages of newspapers, where all the food is halal and where Muslim women are not spat on in the streets. This is not the hijra of the Khawaarij.

In short, I believe ISIS are not the Khawaarij of our time. The similarities between them are only superficial and the differences enormous and fundamental. That they are ignorant and overstep the bounds of decency and humanity is not in dispute but this is not what makes anyone a Khariji, any more than it made some of the tyrannical rulers of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties Kharijites, or their lieutenants such as Al-Hajjaj. In addition, the grievances that motivate ISIS, much like those that motivated al-Qa’ida before them, and those that motivate those that flee to them, bear no resemblance to the complaints of the Khawaarij against Sayyidina ‘Ali, radhi Allahu ‘anhu. This does not mean we should encourage any young person to leave the country behind their parents’ backs and join them (though this is likely to be less common now that ISIS are losing), but you cannot dissuade anyone by comparing them to a group in history that they bear no resemblance to, and these young people can read, and can look these things up.

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HS2: worst of all possible worlds

17 July, 2017 - 23:07

A map of the route of the new High Speed 2 rail link.The juggernaut of HS2, the new high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham and, we are told, eventually beyond, ploughs on. Today the government awarded the contracts to various major construction companies to build the first stretch of the new line — joint ventures of a mixture of British and continental companies — and confirmed that 16 new houses on a development in Sheffield are to be destroyed by the new line, which is to pass outside of the city and be connected to it by a new spur line. I’ve made no secret of my opposition to this ludicrous project, which consists of the quite unnecessary destruction of already scarce housing as well as acres and acres of prime agricultural land. Seeing the revised map of the route on the BBC news website made me ask two questions: “what?” and “why?”.

To state the obvious, its main function is to link London with Birmingham and the major cities of central and northern England. Birmingham gets most of the initial benefit. Extensions are expected to go out to Manchester and Liverpool to the north west, and Nottingham and Leeds to the north east. There are already two major railway lines running to Birmingham, a fast one, mostly consisting of four tracks, that was upgraded to accommodate Italian tilting trains about 20 years ago which runs to a major station which has just had a major redevelopment (New Street), and a slower, cheaper one that serves smaller towns such as Amersham and Banbury and also received a major redevelopment in the 90s (before which there were no direct trains on that line). There is already a major line linking London to the East Midlands and Sheffield, which unlike the new line goes to all four city centres and serves a major interchange in London with direct links to Paris, Gatwick and Heathrow airports (Luton is on the line itself) and the South Coast, Kent as well as places like Cambridge, all of which Euston lacks. There’s already a major line between London and Leeds: the East Coast Main Line, which carries some of the fastest trains on some of the straightest, flattest track on the UK network and runs into the same major interchange.

There used to be another major line between London and the East Midlands: the Great Central Railway, or Great Central Metropolitan Extension to give it its full name (as the original GCR ran from Manchester to the East Midlands). It ran from Marylebone, where there remains space unused since its closure, on a sweeping arc of track through Aylesbury, Brackley and Rugby to Leicester and was closed in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Parts of it are to be used for the new line, but the bits that have been built on since closure will not; they will build whole new lines to bypass places like Brackley. Buying up all the old houses would no doubt be expensive, but surely less so than bulldozing a trail of houses in north and west London.

Whoever thought that combining rail services from London to all these places along the same pair of lines could possibly be a good idea? Unless the idea is to keep this line for premium fare-paying customers, any two-track line serving all the major cities of the Midlands and North will reach capacity very quickly and will need an extra pair of tracks from London to Birmingham. The map has no reference to south-west to north-east Cross-Country trains which currently link Birmingham to the north-east and originate from Bristol and Plymouth; there is no plan to electrify the Bristol-Birmingham line, so what will happen to these trains? And the lack of direct city-centre links in the East Midlands will put it at a distinct disadvantage compared to existing links (unless they are curtailed to force passengers onto HS2) and, of course, road — there are perfectly good motorways and dual carriageways linking Birmingham with all these places.

All this while the region is crying out for decent cross-country links — the line across the Pennines is already woefully inadequate and relies on diesel-based “Sprinter” trains, but a new link here is pencilled in as “HS3” and that’s far into the future if ever. Rail links from Birmingham eastwards are practically non-existent (trains to East Anglia, for example, run via Nottingham, a considerable detour, while road links have been greatly improved over the last few years). All in all it has the feel of a wasteful, destructive prestige project in which public money is being spent on a luxury fast rail link for wealthy commuters — people who may have been abundant in the pre-2008 world but may well be less so after Brexit, particularly if handled as badly as our politicians are currently doing.

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Charlie Gard: What if they’re just wrong?

15 July, 2017 - 17:35

A brain scan showing large areas affected by necrosis after a stroke.The case of Charlie Gard, the baby boy with a mitochondrial disease and allegedly irreparable brain damage whose life support doctors have been trying to turn off as they believe there is no hope of his recovering, has been in the news for the past several weeks as it has gone to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled against him, and now back to the British High Court where lawyers are representing his family pro bono. I’ve not followed that case particularly closely but I have been following the case of Emily Bauer, a young woman from Texas who suffered brain damage in 2012 after taking ‘Kush’ (also known as ‘spice’ and ‘K2’), a kind of synthetic marijuana which is available from some corner shops and filling stations and sold as “legal highs” or “pot pourri”. After she suffered a series of strokes, scans showed large areas of her brain affected by “liquefactive necrosis”, i.e. which were dead, and it was believed that if her life support were switched off, she would die.

They did switch them off and Emily Bauer is still alive 3 1/2 years later; she has some visual, cognitive and physical impairment — she still relies on a wheelchair and needs help doing personal care — but she has made progress far in excess of what doctors thought she was capable of in December 2012. Emily and her family have, since Emily’s injury, been campaigning for awareness of and legislation against the sale of synthetic marijuana and featured stories about police raids, prosecutions and other deaths connected to the drug (they are on Facebook here). Her doctors now say that her recovery is a miracle and that she is achieving things that “should not be possible”. The damage cannot be repaired, but “new pathways can be created to go around the dead areas”.

The situation may well not be comparable to Charlie Gard’s, but in that case as in this, doctors thought she was beyond saving and advised her parents to allow them to switch off her life support, which they did; there was no sense on either side that Emily had a life, and everyone was surprised when she survived having the life support switched off. Charlie Gard’s parents do not accept this and are willing to take up whatever treatment anyone suggests might offer him a life beyond the walls of a London hospital. There are some American ‘doctors’ with glossy publicity and apparently state-of-the-art facilities offering such things as cures for cancer which have no benefit, but the doctor who is expected to examine baby Charlie next week is a neurologist from the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, not a quack in the Burzynski mould, and believes there is between an 11% and 56% chance of “clinically meaningful improvement”.

We need to beware of accepting the doctors’ authority argument in such cases. Doctors have been known to be wrong, but sometimes egregiously so, with terrible (and sometimes lethal) consequences for a patient who cannot defend him- or herself. Some are wedded to pet theories (especially around physical symptoms being psychological in origin, and mitochondrial disease is often the disputed diagnosis in such cases, as in the case of Justina Pelletier, who was held in a psychiatric ward at Boston Children’s Hospital for more than a year after doctors there disputed a diagnosis from her local hospital in Connecticut) and others will make decisions on self-centred grounds. Liberal ‘rationalists’ in both this country and the US have a history of siding with doctors in such situations, while the “pro-life” Right support those trying to keep the patient alive, as we first saw in the case of Terri Schiavo. So I’m not joining those saying “just let the poor kid die”; if reputable doctors believe they can offer him an improvement in his condition, we should let them.

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Why Muslims aren’t pacifists

13 July, 2017 - 23:15

A demonstration featuring a large number of South Asian men, many of them with reddish dots on their faces and holding large metal knives or long swords.Martin Luther King junior famously wrote a Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a response to local White clergymen who had urged him to be less strident and roll back on the direct action. One paragraph sticks out:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This paragraph sprang to my mind when I read an article by a writer I had not previously heard of but who appears to be an Indian Hindu liberal, one Barkha Dutt of New Delhi, in the Washington Post. The article bemoans recent terrorist attacks in Kashmir including the lynching of a Muslim policeman, Ayub Pandith, outside a mosque in Srinagar and a massacre of Hindu pilgrims (a man and seven women) in the region, as well as the fact that “in the land of Mahatma Gandhi”, there is “not one nonviolent icon in the Kashmir Valley”. She proclaims at the start that:

There comes a moment when a “cause” gets buried under the debris of its own failings. Or when a single incident is enough for a journey to lose its moral compass. This moment has come for Kashmir.

This is not the first time I have addressed outside demands for “Muslim pacifists” on this blog; back in 2005, the Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore demanded an answer as to where the “Muslim Gandhi” was, advocating pacifism for the Muslims which, as I noted then, “he displays no intention of advocating for his own race”. The American liberal writer and film-maker Michael Moore has done the same for the Palestinians, advocating “non-violent resistance” as the answer to everything for them. It’s no coincidence that the same Michael Moore is an avowed Zionist who told the Republican rabbi Shmuley Boteach in 2004 that he regards the Jews as the “most oppressed people on earth” and “believe[s] strongly in Israel’s security and Israel’s right to defend itself”. Pacifism and non-violent resistance can sometimes grow spontaneously, as indeed it did in the western world in the years after the First World War. But it is also commonly the form of ‘resistance’ people like to preach to those whom they would like to see crushed. Zionists do not advocate Palestinian resistance, even if it was the cleanest war ever. They want nothing less than total Palestinian submission to permanent Israeli domination. If Gandhi were not so useful to “concern trolls” who are usually on the oppressor’s side, he would have been denounced long ago as the racist, sexually abusive dinosaur he was.

Gandhi’s movement made gains because the British were not willing to take the risks inherent in large-scale repression of the Indian public; by the time of Indian independence, the British public had just fought a war against Nazi Germany and the atrocities of that war were being exposed, and the British public (who in the age of film, even if not TV or the Internet, could not have been shielded from the goings-on as they could have been in Victorian times) would not have accepted being made an accessory to large-scale massacre. The British ruling class was also coming to regard the Empire as costly, and wanted to withdraw from it. Besides, the population of India was much bigger than that of Britain, which is not the case for the Palestinians against Israel, the Kashmiris against India or the African-Americans against their White oppressors. Martin Luther King is himself quoted as saying that if your enemy has a conscience, follow Gandhi, but if he does not, then follow Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who was hanged for plotting to assassinate Hitler.

The British songwriter Julie Matthews, in her song about the British empire Jewel in the Crown, attributes to it the attitude “we need no conscience; God is on our side”. The rulers of India also have no need for a conscience; they believe the “Gods” they worship are on their side and they, the VHP, BJP and associated movements, are on theirs. The ‘Gods’ are of course a mixture of dead men and mythical characters that never existed, but Modi had a friend in David Cameron, has one in Donald Trump and the Indian public are also on his party’s side, having elected Modi prime minister of India in 2014 after the infamous Gujarat pogrom of 2002 (after which his party won two further elections in Gujarat, in 2007 and 2012) happened on his watch and in which he is accused of complicity; he certainly publicly blamed the victims instead of condemning the violence. It does not do the Indian rulers’ electoral chances any harm to deploy any force necessary to suppress any stirrings of Kashmiri resistance, whether violent or otherwise; in recent years they have taken to firing pellet guns into the faces of protesters, resulting in demonstrators being blinded. His party’s current governor of Uttar Pradesh state has referred to Muslims as “a crop of two-legged animals” and at one rally shouted “we are all preparing for religious war!”. And this is the country where Muslims have been murdered, sometimes by mobs, on mere suspicion of slaughtering cows or possessing beef. Yet our liberal Hindu writer, who in a previous article gloated that Kashmir was on its own in the post-9/11 world where “there is no patience for armed uprisings associated with Islamist terror”, finds time to mention two acts of terrorism, both by Kashmiri separatists seeking to rid Kashmir of the rule of this latter-day cross between the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

I do not indulge the “politics of suspicion” on this blog; I do not condemn on demand. I have a two-pronged policy on condemning terrorism here. When it comes to situations where Muslims had been living peaceably but a group of renegades carried out an act of terrorism calculated to disturb it, such as the 9/11 attacks, the 2005 London bombings or the recent bomb attack in Manchester, I condemn those readily. When genuine resistance movements overstep the mark, I will not condemn such acts in front of those who support those whose oppression caused the conflict in the first place; for example, I will not condemn Hamas suicide bombings to Zionists, especially who defend any Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians in the name of security, much less those who openly use derogatory language against Palestinians in general. However right the cause, almost no modern war has ever been won cleanly; powerful nations get away with it, while leaders of small ones face sanctimonious TV exposés from countries that had been desperate for them to win, and the threat of war crimes tribunals. Marge Piercy, the Jewish American novelist best known for her feminist science fiction novel Woman on the Edge of Time, told a British left-wing magazine that she would not discuss Israel with them as she did not trust ‘lefties’ on the matter, preferring to keep her activism on Israel to the Jewish community. We should have the same policy when it comes to Muslims who resist oppression, be it in Palestine or Kashmir.

It’s true that not many Muslims are pacifists. Not many westerners are either. Pacifism flowered briefly in the inter-war years as the futility of the earlier war and the lies used to justify and prolong it were exposed; it was discredited by the rise of Hitler, when it became clear that he and his totalitarian and repugnantly racist empire could only be checked, let alone eliminated, by military force. Even the Indian emperor Ashoka, who is famous for embracing non-violence in later life, first waged a war to gain control of most of India and conquer the kingdom of Kalinga (now the state of Odisha, formerly Orissa). Pacifism gains popularity at times when there is a sense of security and threats are at bay, but it’s hard to get a sense of that when your country is occupied by men who regard you as animals and will blind you just for standing with your fellow countrymen in the street. The world is not a peaceful place, it never has been, and Muslims are not masochists or fools.

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What value “100% attendance”?

6 July, 2017 - 22:11

The middle of the front of a Victorian school building, with an arched front door and a tall arched loft window.Last Sunday I saw a Facebook and blog post by a mother who said her son would not be accepting his award for 100% from his school, which would have meant a trip to a soft-play centre with classmates who had achieved the same. She spelled out her reasons, namely that it rewards luck, which she disagrees with, as those who never missed a day did so partly because of good health which was beyond their control, because it was she who took him to school every morning, and because staying off when you are ill is actually a good thing as it means you do not spread germs around the school. I questioned whether the boy had decided himself not to accept the award or whether she had made that decision for him, but it did provoke a debate both on her blog and on Twitter and Facebook. It has since made it into at least two national news outlets, Metro and the Daily Mirror, so I decided to write my own thoughts on this.

I was at a secondary school (Thomas Moore, a Catholic high school in Purley) for a year (1988-89) which had “excellent attendance” and “100% attendance” certificates each term, as well as whole-year and whole-career 100% attendance certificates. I remember a teacher lecturing us on how the forthcoming term had to be one of “excellent health” as if that was something we had any control over. Our form tutor once told us of an incident whereby a fifth-form (year 11) girl had resisted being sent home when she was sick and the staff wanted her to go home, because she was afraid of losing that all-important award. I don’t know what the illness was or whether everyone involved knew it was neither infectious nor life-threatening; if it had been the Ebola virus, I suspect the incident would have brought infamy to the school that lasted decades. These awards encourage similar attitudes to sickness absence in the world of work; workers are afraid to lose pay or promotion by taking time off, while short-sighted managers might be inclined to punish the sick worker for causing a temporary slowdown when they may have prevented a much bigger problem by staying home with their germs. In addition, British school customs tend to be copied in parts of the world that were formerly British colonies, which is why children in Kenya miss out on school because their parents cannot afford uniforms; we would not want a major epidemic to be the result of a child attending school when infectious to make sure they kept their attendance up.

Some might say that such awards should make allowances for those who miss school for legitimate health reasons, but this would only leave other valid reasons, such as a wedding or funeral in the family, and things like truancy, and the first would be just as cruel to the child to force them to miss (particularly a wedding) and coming to school rather than playing truant is just what is expected; it does not merit a certificate. And there are some health concerns that might seem trivial at the time but are later discovered to be more serious; some teenagers struggle with undiagnosed health problems (e.g. ‘period pains’ that turn out to be the result of endometriosis) into adulthood. The bottom line is that rewarding 100% attendance in schools where it is known that some cannot achieve this for health reasons is cruel to those who can’t, particularly if they make a huge effort to keep up with their schoolwork. Worse, some parents reported in the comments to that entry that their children’s whole classes had missed out on rewards for attendance because of their health-related absences, and the others were told, which resulted in their being bullied. That’s simply beyond the pale.

Finally, there are some children whose attendance is excellent but whose behaviour is dreadful and of whom the teachers and other pupils might wish to see less. A bully who bunks off school really does everyone a favour, even if he causes a nuisance (or worse) elsewhere. I got one excellent and one 100% attendance certificate for the year I was there, but was expelled at the end of the year. (Oddly, despite the story of the fifth-form girl mentioned earlier, my regular trips to see a therapist at King’s College Hospital, which required me to leave school early once a week, did not affect my attendance record.)

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Tories’ road fund is no revolution

5 July, 2017 - 21:33

A two-lane carriageway of a main road (the other two-lane carriageway is mostly hidden behind plants in this photograph). There is a sign pointing straight ahead for "Lowestoft A12" and off to the left for "Framlingham B1116, Wickham Mkt and Orford B1078". A metallic dark blue Ford car is in the left-hand lane although it is partly in the right-hand lane, indicating that it is pulling in or pulling out. A yellow sign points off the road for "diverted traffic". There is a deep blue sky with a few small white clouds. There are trees along the left side of the road and fields and hedgerows in the background.This morning it was announced that the government was diverting just over a sixth of the £5.8bn assigned two years ago to the National Roads Fund (NRF) from trunk roads and motorways to regional main roads, particularly those removed from central government control under the Labour government (which the Times was eager to mention in their report) and transferred to local authority control. This has led to some stories in regional newspapers which eagerly reported that their local by-pass scheme was going to get funding; the Ipswich Star, for example, reported that this might include the Ipswich northern by-pass, a scheme which was under discussion in the early 90s when I was at school there, but (like the Kesgrave by-pass scheme which actually saw trees cut down before being abandoned) never went anywhere. The money is only going to be available from 2020 after ‘consultations’, but the announcement is less of a “revolution” than the press reports are making out.

The Times noted in their report that the Labour government had transferred a number of A-roads from central to local government control, which is true. Some of these arguably should not have been transferred because, regardless of low traffic volumes, they were the main routes to whole areas of the country — the A16 from Peterborough up the east coast of Lincolnshire, for example — but others were old main roads whose main volume of traffic had been diverted onto a new or upgraded trunk road, such as the A40 from Oxford to Gloucester; traffic from London to Gloucester and Cheltenham is now expected to use the M4 and A419/A417 via Swindon. Some have actually been transferred the other way (like the A21 from Sevenoaks to Hastings) and some of the remaining trunk roads also have motorway alternatives (e.g. the Dunstable-Cannock stretch of the A5, the A46 south of Warwick) and can’t possibly be in regular use by long-distance traffic. The A5 in particular is too slow for that. Central government already funds road projects that are off trunk roads. The Norwich “northern distributor road”, for example, is partly funded by the Department of Transport, and in 2014 the government agreed funding for three schemes in Oxfordshire, all of them off the trunk road network.

Some of the main roads which are in the worst need for improvements or resurfacing were never trunk roads: the A31 between Guildford and Winchester, for example, had to be closed two weeks ago for emergency resurfacing after the surface of the westbound carriageway melted in the heat. This is a county road in Surrey; the quality of some stretches in Hampshire is pretty poor as well. Although parts of it are dual carriageway, it has not been upgraded much west of Alton; traffic to Southampton (and places west along the other bit of the A31, which is a trunk road) are expected to go north to Camberley and join the M3. This is, I suspect, the thinking behind the decisions to “de-trunk” a lot of old main roads: they don’t want long-distance traffic using them. They want them on the motorways and a smaller number of upgraded dual carriageways.

There are, in my opinion, good reasons why some of the bypass projects expected to benefit from this “new money” were shelved in the first place. Ipswich has a good enough road to take people up to the north-east side; the eastern by-pass was open while the A45 (now the A14 from the Midlands) still went through the suburbs of Ipswich as the western by-pass was the last stretch to open. The convenience of a road from north-west of Ipswich to places like Martlesham, Woodbridge and Wickham Market is not worth the environmental destruction, while Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth are already served by roads from the west and south-west including the A47, a trunk road, and the single-carriageway but fairly good quality A143. Furthermore, a northern by-pass will lead to pressure for further upgrades to the A12 between Wickham Market and Lowestoft. A better use of public money in Ipswich might be to improve the existing dual carriageway and the Copdock interchange where the A14 meets the A12 up from London.

And local authorities cannot always be blamed for failing to maintain main roads to the same extent as trunk roads are maintained, as they get their money from central government — they do not keep all of the council tax money they levy, and their rates are capped — and have to spend it on schools, social care, rubbish collection and so on. Central government has cut funding to local councils and those councils are legally obliged to spend it on certain things, an obligation reinforced by court judgements since the cuts started after the 2010 election. Government could simply return some of those roads to trunk road status and central government control, or it could legislate to reform the way local taxes are raised, or to ring-fence council spending for main roads. It’s a classic case of councils being set up to take the blame for decisions actually made by central government; the government has had seven years to put right the Labour government’s perceived mistake, if it wanted to, by new legislation or other means.

*Image source: Geograph, copyright David Dixon, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.

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