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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Why I’m not closing my Facebook account (yet)

22 March, 2018 - 11:24

A red billboard with the claim "Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU. Vote leave". The poster has an image of a British passport with footsteps leading to it.Since the scandal broke about Facebook data being leaked to Cambridge Analytica, a New York-based political consultancy which served the Trump and Brexit campaigns and used the data to channel propaganda to susceptible voters, I’ve seen at least two people I follow on social media suggest that it’s time to close our Facebook accounts and it’s become fashionable to ask the question as a matter of when I’ll delete my account, not if. Yet I’ve not seen many people close their accounts (although, if they were not on chat, I would not notice it immediately) and my feed is as lively as it was before. I’m not planning to close my account just yet and this is why.

First, there is no real alternative. There have been other social media systems before and since Facebook but none of them have the flexibility and feature set. When Google launched Google+ a few years ago, I immediately said I would not be switching because it lacked any kind of group or discussion forum feature, which is why I suspect it never caught on, despite having access to Google’s existing user base (and despite Facebook’s reliability problems at the time). MySpace foundered not long after Facebook came on the scene, largely because its home pages were often saturated with graphics and animations which made browsers crash or at least slow down drastically while Facebook’s was clean and uniform (it was set up so that artists could promote their work, and has retreated into providing this niche service). Other niche social media apps have disappeared because they could not compete with Facebook (Friends Reunited being the best-known example). If I was to close my account I would simply lose contact with most of my friends — my friends in the learning disability activism community in particular — because along with Twitter, that’s how I keep in contact with them; I have never met most of them and do not have their numbers. The alternatives are just as problematic as Facebook — they are also data-mining companies (this is how they can make social networking available free of charge) and are also notorious for using data for profit and for colluding with various secret police forces, particularly China’s.

Second, the data breach and the use of the data is consistent with how social media already works: the “echo chamber” effect. People already select the channels they want to read news and views from, be they left-wing or right-wing, and the content will be skewed accordingly. As is documented elsewhere, they get the impression that the whole world thinks the way they do, and sometimes get a rude awakening when a general election does not go the way they expected. So the propaganda that supposedly tipped the balance in favour of Trump was targeted at people already receptive to it. I don’t believe that they (or their computer programs) are really clever enough to precisely target the propaganda at swing voters.

Third, I doubt the propaganda that resulted from this breach had as big an effect as is being made out. In both the UK and the USA, the mainstream print and broadcast media (print especially in the UK, broadcast especially in the USA) is already notorious for its right-wing, anti-welfare, anti-immigrant and (particularly in the US) anti-science bias. These media already have a record for driving irrational and vicious policies, especially on immigration; the law that requires that any non-citizen with a criminal record be deported, even if the offence was years ago, time had already been served (or it wasn’t that serious) and they had their whole families in the USA (or were an adoptee whose American ‘parents’ had neglected to get them citizenship), traced back to a campaign whipped up by the right-wing broadcast media and the same was true of the “foreign criminals” crackdown in the UK in 2006, which also led to people who had lived in the UK for years being locked up and threatened with deportation over matters that were thought to have been settled long ago. In the UK, where Cambridge Analytica are also known to have tried to influence the Brexit referendum, a number of the biggest-selling daily newspapers had taken an anti-EU stance for years, often peddling downright misinformation, and Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, had been a regular on TV and radio panel shows such as Question Time. It’s true that both results were narrow and so a small influence could have made all the difference, but there were so many other factors in both cases and CA could not have had any influence in a country with responsible and balanced media.

And let’s not forget that Hilary Clinton won three million more votes than Donald Trump. Trump won the post because of an electoral college system designed for the era of slavery and which persists in counting provincial (mostly white) votes as if they were of greater importance than the votes of people in major cities. He also profited from mounting resentment among American whites of a Black president, which may well have been reflected in the rise in police shootings of unarmed Black Americans in the second half of his presidency and from promises he made to bring jobs back to “rust belt” states in the north and east which had supported both Obama and previous Democrat candidates, promises he has yet to fulfil. The Brexit referendum was held largely because David Cameron wanted to settle the matter within the Tory party and the result could have been avoided had a threshold been set of, say, 60% in favour given the dire consequences of even the vote, let alone Brexit itself.

Donald Trump won because there were enough voters racist enough to vote for a racist; the Brexit referendum went the way it did because of years of mainstream media misinformation. Facebook’s influence could not have been that great. I won’t be deleting my account (on which I don’t post much personal information anyway) because the costs to me are too great and the benefits too meagre. I’m well aware that Facebook has edged competitors out of the market and destroyed the blogging community I was once an active member of, but until there’s a better alternative, I’m staying.

Image source: Geograph, posted there by Neil Theasby. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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Why disrupt a picket line?

21 March, 2018 - 21:09

A white woman wearing a black puffy jacket with orange trimmings, with her finger pointing in the direction of the cameraFootage has emerged of a group of trans activists, all women, one of them perhaps trans, protesting at a Bectu union picket line outside a cinema in Brixton (where there is a long-running pay dispute) on the grounds that one of the women on the picket line is a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) who attended the same meeting I went to last month organised by Woman’s Place UK. The women chanted “TERF, TERF” and shouted that she was not there in solidarity with anyone. The incident took place on International Women’s Day (8th March) and the focus of the protest has been named in the Morning Star as Paula Lamont, an elected member of the union’s Sector Executive Committee (SEC) who was visiting as an elected official. The accusation that she was “not in solidarity with anyone” is curious; she was there in solidarity with workers who were striking for a living wage, an issue not directly connected to the matter they were protesting about. (Note: ‘sector’ refers to BECTU itself, a media and entertainment workers’ union, within the wider Prospect union.)

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am against people on the Left who are opposed to the proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act colluding with Tories (by approaching the Tory press with stories about disputes about gender within trade unions and the like, for example) and blaming Jeremy Corbyn for something which has support on both wings of the Labour Party and in other parties as well, and things which are ongoing practices in the NHS and social care at a time when the Labour Party is not in power. Some of those I have seen agitating on this basis are people with a long-standing animus towards Corbyn, people who blame him for anti-Semitism, weakness on Brexit and other issues and once Corbyn is out of the way, the Tory press support will likely evaporate.

However, to disrupt a picket line where people are striking for a living wage is not helping ordinary, struggling people either: workers need to be able to organise without the threat of disruption from people with no connection to their issue. People can believe two things at the same time and it’s possible that a third party will share one of these beliefs but not another: someone can be an enthusiastic advocate for workers’ rights and the living wage but have a conservative stance on transgenderism or be resistant to the demands for accepting self-identification, for example. I often enough agree with the stances of people like Nick Cohen on civil liberties, libel law and alternative medicine while being nauseated with his pro-war stance and his sneeringly arrogant attitude to religion and religious people. These activists did not like Paula Lamont appearing on that picket line, but are they members of that union, or any union? Perhaps the members of BECTU find her an effective enough campaigner that they can overlook these things. It’s their union, not yours.

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Enough of the naivety about Putin

17 March, 2018 - 19:18

A picture of an English cathedral with a tall spire, with a large two-storey red-brick house in front, across a large lawn.Last week the British prime minister, Theresa May, took most of the action she had promised to do after the Russian government did not answer for the attempted murder of a former spy and his daughter in Salisbury two weeks earlier. The attack used a nerve agent developed in Soviet Russia, an organophosphate compound of military grade (that is, much stronger and purer than the organophosphates that are notorious for making sheep farmers very ill), which it is thought no state other than Russia still has stocks of, and the victim is someone it is thought nobody other than his former homeland would want to harm. The action consisted of expelling 23 diplomats on the grounds that they were undeclared ‘security’ personnel. There was a suggestion that the Kremlin-backed TV channel RT (originally Russia Today) may have its licence to operate in the UK revoked and that England may not send a squad to next year’s World Cup in Moscow, but there is absolutely no talk of military reprisals.

What disappoints me about the reaction of the Left to this incident is the instinctive hostility to the idea that Russia must be responsible and to any governmental reaction. There has been a suggestion that when Tories want to bury bad news, they start a war, a claim that does not really have any basis in recent history; the last time we were involved in an aggressive war, there was a Labour government and the British involvement in the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi (initiated by the Libyan people, not the US president) had widespread public support which, though not universal, cut across left-right boundaries. In this case, there is no question of war. Let us not forget that this is the second time a Russian exile has faced an attempt on his life in this country and that the method used was one that endangered public health: Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London in 2006 by two Russians who put the radioactive metal polonium in his food, causing his death from radiation sickness weeks later.

The attitude of the Russian state is the clearest indication that they were behind this. If they had no involvement, one would expect their reaction to British suspicions to be sympathetic, forthcoming and helpful, even though the victim was an enemy of theirs; it has in contrast been sarcastic and contemptuous and allies of Putin have responded with various conspiracy theories such as that the assassination attempt was a distraction from Brexit — similar nonsense is being touted by the Canary-reading Left here. Let’s not forget that Theresa May opposed Brexit, that good relations with Russia are essential if we are to make anything approaching a success of it, that Salisbury has been a Conservative constituency since 1924 (and for most of the time since 1886 in fact, with three brief interludes of where a Liberal was elected) and that Wiltshire (which is a unitary authority outside Swindon) voted narrowly in favour of leaving the EU. Why would the British government harm someone who has helped them so as to damage relations with a foreign country for no reason, when there are already plenty of good reasons to limit the activity of untrusted Russian exiles here — including multiple suspicious deaths and one previous known murder?

As for Jeremy Corbyn, it appears that he does support downgrading diplomatic relations and some of the media have wasted no time in portraying him as a “Russian stooge” (explicitly on the Daily Mail’s front page, and implicitly in the backdrop to a BBC Newsnight feature on the controversy, featuring him in a hat altered to look Russian against a red-tinged background of Russian architectural features, for example) — behaviour that is more worthy of the media in Putin’s Russia than of a free country. I think perhaps he should have waited a while to make any reservations known, as both Labour and Tory MPs are eager for any opportunity to make him look weak, naive and instinctively anti-western, as a lot of his supporters in fact are. I don’t think for a moment that Theresa May would have staged something like this to put out a trap for Jeremy Corbyn; there are many ways of doing this without giving a police officer a dose of nerve agent. But with so many enemies on his own back and front benches and so many admirers who actually have such a loathing for their own country that they would side with Putin, he could really have shown better judgement on this.

And finally, let nobody be naive about what Vladimir Putin is capable of: he’s a product of the old Soviet KGB who keeps his people in line with tales of external threats and conspiracies against them. He’s largely responsible for the terrible destruction in Grozny and elsewhere in Chechnya after the republic broke away from Russia in the 1990s, and the power behind the throne of the notorious, thuggish ‘president’ (i.e. dictator) Ramazan Kadyrov, who is thought to have ordered the murder of the Russian investigative journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya. He is currently backing dictator Bashar al-Assad of Syria, an old Soviet ally whose secret police, before and after his own people rebelled against him after the Arab Spring, were infamous for the use of torture and rape in their prisons. I’m barely scratching the surface here; this is a ruler with no democratic aspirations and no respect for the rule of law either in Russia or abroad (he has already started a civil war in a neighbouring country and annexed part of it, remember) and under whose rule corruption has thrived and political and press freedom has been greatly curbed if not ended as far as criticism of the government is concerned.

If anyone was seriously talking about war, I would be opposing it strongly and would expect the leader of the Opposition (as well as many MPs on both sides) to do so as well; it’s disproportionate and we could not win. But we cannot have normal relations with this despotic, murderous gangster regime while they are linked to assassinations on British soil. One does not have to be a hardline nationalist or even patriot to understand that.

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Silent liberals?

12 March, 2018 - 13:50

An image of Maajid Nawaz, a middle-aged South Asian man with greying hair, moustache and (short) beard, wearing a white, open-necked shirt, sitting in front of an LBC microphone and against the backdrop of a backlit LBC logo. Above the caption reads, "The uncomfortable truth about UK grooming gangs".Last week a half-hour feature by Nick Cohen of the Observer on the supposed “silence of the liberals” on the ‘plight’ of liberal Muslims in the UK who are, he alleges, facing death threats and being called unbelievers (which he claims is effectively a death warrant) for supporting women’s rights and advocating the same liberal vision they themselves do. He accuses them of a colonial attitude, preferring to speak to ‘leaders’, and accuses left-wing politicians of relying on those leaders to procure Asian votes through the ‘biraderi’ block-vote system. He interviews Amina Lone, Fiyaz Mughal of Tell MAMA/Faith Matters, Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam and the LBC radio station, and Maryam Namazie, an Iranian communist exile who runs “One Law for All” which opposes religious tribunals for settling personal and marital disputes. He makes much of the fact that no Labour MP would appear on the programme and claims he asked a wide section of the parliamentary party, including people for and against Corbyn’s leadership.

Cohen starts by interviewing Amina Lone, the former Labour councillor and parliamentary candidate in Manchester who was deselected on the grounds that her attendance record was not good enough. Lone claims that she was singled out for her so-called women’s rights campaigning, the sole example of which was her campaign to stop girls of primary school age being allowed to wear the hijab at school. Cohen made no attempt to refute the claims about her attendance record — the claims of persecution made by Lone and her friends in the Tory press never do. It should be remembered that Lone’s anti-hijab campaign has had the support of the Times and the director of Ofsted and one of her articles on this subject has in fact appeared in the Guardian, so Lone is no voice in the wilderness here. It’s just that she doesn’t have the support of the Muslim community.

He then moves on to Fiyaz Mughal who runs the hate crime monitoring organisation Tell MAMA, which he claims is based in an anonymous-looking office. Fiyaz also says he changes his route to work every day so as to avoid threatened violence from neo-Nazis and, he suggests, other Muslims who objected to him taking advice from the (Jewish) Community Security Trust and having Peter Tatchell, a well-known gay rights campaigner, as a patron. I personally wonder how truthful he is about all the ‘death threats’; such claims are a standard tactic of people who wish to discredit their opponents and their supporters always take the claims at face value. Peter Tatchell is not an uncontroversial figure even among gay rights activists; he notoriously wrote a letter to the Guardian in 1997 defending a book published by the Gay Men’s Press on “boy-love”, claiming:

Prof Gilbert Herdt points to the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea, where all young boys have sex with older warriors as part of their initiation into manhood. Far from being harmed, Prof Herdt says the boys grow up to be happy, well-adjusted husbands and fathers.

The positive nature of some child-adult sexual relations is not confined to non-Western cultures. Several of my friends, gay and straight, male and female, had sex with adults from the ages of nine to 13. None feel they were abused. All say it was their conscious choice and gave them great joy.

Why would Tell MAMA appoint this grubby little man as a patron? To provoke Muslims. There’s no other logical explanation. Since we have already mentioned the Community Security Trust, let’s look at a major difference between them and Tell MAMA: the CST is unapologetically pro-Jewish and pro-Israel, and does not go around telling Jews that they should stop supporting Israel if they want to stop anti-Semitism, which it blames on anti-Semites, not Jews, and does not give this message to the mainstream media. Tell MAMA, meanwhile, has a history of blaming Muslims for prejudice against them — they blame terrorism, homophobia, hostility to Qadianis, discrimination in Saudi Arabia; everything but the media and everyone but the white bigots who are primarily responsible. This is why the community does not trust them; they claim to be fighting hatred against Muslims, but foment it in their statements to the media and on their social media feeds.

Maajid Nawaz is another “voice in the wilderness” despite having a show on LBC, a well-listened-to London-based talk radio station. We are told about his history as an “Islamist” with Hizbut-Tahrir which landed him in prison in Egypt, through his founding of Quilliam, supposedly an anti-extremist think tank. Cohen tells us that Nawaz has been called various things including an ‘unbeliever’ which he tells us is tantamount to a death warrant, which is an entirely baseless assertion; it’s only a death warrant if it’s issued by someone with the intention to have the subject killed and followers so minded (or with the power of state). The reason people have called Maajid Nawaz that is not because he turned his back on Hizbut-Tahreer (which most Muslims want nothing to do with) but because of such remarks as “if there is a holy grail, it is embracing uncertainty, and not knowing what happens after death” (to an American radio programme); belief in the afterlife and in specific things happening are fundamental tenets of faith in Islam.

Cohen also attacked the Southern Poverty Law Center, an American organisation which monitors hate groups, for including Nawaz in a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” alongside Brigitte Gabriel, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others. Cohen calls this a “hit list” which “outs” people who spread “misinformation and hateful rhetoric”. We can hardly call their inclusion on this list “outing”; what the people on it have said is public knowledge, having appeared in the mainstream and sectarian media and on blogs for years. Cohen accuses them of calling people who advocate liberal or feminist readings of Islam “Uncle Toms”, sell-outs, native informants or Islamophobes and calling “actual Muslims, anti-Muslim bigots”. But he does not quote from the piece itself, which says that Nawaz’s story has been disputed by some of his old friends who accuse him of self-promotion and that he had sent a “secret list” to a British security official accusing “peaceful Muslim groups, politicians, a television channel and a Scotland Yard unit of sharing the ideology of terrorists”. In other words, he agitates against other Muslims and informs on them to the authorities, which comfortably fits the description “native informant”.

Cohen also allows Amina Lone to attack the ‘biraderi’ system whereby Asian votes are supposedly bought en masse by appealing to one or two community leaders, and candidates are frustrated for not belonging to the right ‘caste’. However, this system does not deliver Islamist politics but rather keeps power in the hands of older ‘uncles’ and is as frustrating to younger Muslims who want to see back-home caste systems broken down for whatever reason, as it is to secularists who dislike (for example) old men defending ‘conservative’ practices such as hijab. It’s noticeable that despite the large number of Muslim women of all ethnicities who wear hijab, not a single MP has ever been elected who wears one; Muslim male MPs are usually clean-shaven, which practising Muslim men usually are not.

Cohen is accusing ‘liberals’ of colonialism — looking to ‘chiefs’ to tell them what Muslims really think and expecting them to vote as the chief tells them — while displaying actual colonialist attitudes, namely listening only to Muslims (or people of Muslim origin) who tell him what he wants to hear, as he does not interview anyone to give the mainstream Muslim viewpoint on Lone, Nawaz or any of the others he interviews. It isn’t “colonialism” not to give undue exposure to fringe elements in a minority community who deride their own culture and religion, and if they look into their claims of oppression and isolation and find them wanting, because they have shows on mainstream radio stations and ample exposure in the tabloid and broadsheet press for example, they are just doing their job as journalists. Muslims generally read the liberal press as it is less blatantly hostile to us than the Times or Telegraph but it does not actually give much airtime to mainstream, practising Muslim voices; the Guardian has a handful of Muslim women columnists who appear fairly regularly but none wear hijab, it has allowed Polly Toynbee to advocate banning hijab in schools here, and when it ran a feature on Muslim fashion a few years ago, it subsequently printed a letter from a non-Muslim woman demanding that the women featured in the article question and reject their beliefs (phrased as if the latter was a natural consequence of the former).

As for why Labour MPs will not answer his questions, perhaps it’s because they know he is using rhetoric about feminism and human rights to pursue an anti-Muslim dog-whistle campaign and that it can only fuel racism. It’s not “fear of being called racist”, which no racist nowadays is, but the fact of racism bubbling under the surface. It should be noted that the liberal media has a fraction of the circulation of the Times and Sun, which advocate the same “muscular liberalism” we first saw being advocated by Cohen’s Euston Manifesto comrades in the mid-2000s, and which represent the party currently in power; the campaigns of people like Lone are much better served by them than by the Guardian. They have plenty of exposure and do not need any more.

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The myth of the “conference of 72 sects”

9 March, 2018 - 17:54

The other day on Twitter someone retweeted a Qadiani (a member of the so-called Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam) repeating a much-rehearsed claim: that according to a newspaper report at the time, 72 sects of Muslims had a conference so as to denounce the 73rd, namely them. They claim that this was foretold by the Prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) in a hadith and thus the conference was the fulfilment of a prophecy and proof of the authenticity of their so-called prophet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who lived in then British India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This claim can be very easily refuted. There actually aren’t 72 sects of Muslims (or of Muslim origin) in the Indian Subcontinent; there are more like four or five. There actually is a Hadith that the Ummah (Muslim community) would split into 73 sects (in comparison to the Jews’ 71 and the Christians’ 72) and all of them would be in the Fire (Hell) except one. This is understood to refer to the mainstream of the Muslims, called Ahlus-Sunnah w’al-Jama’ah or the “people of the prophetic Way and the Community” which is defined by the four major schools of Islamic law and the two major schools of Islamic doctrine. It is inconceivable that a small sect based entirely in one corner of India with very few followers outside that region which behaves completely differently to mainstream Islam, such as using deception to spread its message or requiring a big financial commitment from its adherents, could be what this Hadith refers to (Islam is not a closed sect; all its texts are open for anyone to read, there is no clergy and there are no secrets).

An Iranian colour drawing of a castle, with a walkway leading to it with men passing along it in both directionsIn the first century or so of Islam, the Ummah did split into a lot of sects: the Khawarij and the Shi’a both split many ways, some of the divisions being so extreme that the sects fell outside Islam and others not quite. The Khawarij or “secessionists” in particular were notorious for very bitter and acrimonious splits and for the murderous behaviour of some of the factions produced. However, only one remnant of that movement remains, the Ibadiyyah which are found in Oman and parts of North and East Africa. There were also the Mu’tazilites and some other sects which disagreed over the concept of Free Will and Predestination and the role (or lack thereof) of Greek philosophy. They flourished in Baghdad and a few other places during the Abbasid era, but that era came to an end with the Mongol invasions which also finished off some of the Shi’a statelets found in Syria and Iran (such as depicted in the image on the right, showing an Ismaili fortress in Iran). Today there are two main groups of Shi’ites (the Twelvers based in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan) and the Zaydis, based in Yemen, while the more extreme groups such as the Ismailis and the Dawoodi Bohras mostly keep themselves to themselves (in their early years, they were also notorious for violence, hence the name Assassins, and the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt, from which the leaders of the Bohras claim descent, produced a number of bloodthirsty tyrants).

How many sects were involved in denouncing the Qadianis in the early 20th century? Definitely not 72. Probably not even ten. The four main groups were Deobandis, Brelvis, Ahle-Hadith (an Indian offshoot of Wahhabism) and the Twelver Shi’a all pronounced their own refutations but outside the Indian subcontinent, mainstream scholars do not regard Deobandis and Brelvis as sects, and you have Arab scholars who have studied with scholars from both groups. Schools of legal thought such as exist in Sunni Islam and Sufi orders such as the Naqshbandis, Shadhilis and so on, do not count as sects. Muslim organisations do not count as sects.

Finally, there are a number of hadeeths that refer to the Muslim community splitting into 73 sects — you can find them with a Google search or on any online hadith database — but you will find no reference to a conference in which the 72 denounce the 73rd. If we look at how the sects emerged, it would have been impossible for them to do that, not only because they hated each other and differed among themselves too much to come together to denounce anyone, but also because not all of the sects survived long enough to know of the existence of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad or his followers. They would have known about the early false prophets such as Musaylima and would all have agreed that a new prophethood was impossible and that any claimant to prophethood was a liar, but they had many other similarities which were not enough to prevent them splitting numerous ways and committing acts of mass murder and other atrocities, as well as treachery against the Muslims as in the case of the early Shi’ites in Iraq.

It goes to show the importance of learning for Muslims, and new Muslims in particular. These facts can easily be found out, even more nowadays than when I first became Muslim when the Internet as a public medium was very new. The very first thing we were told in Islam was “read!”. They can only deceive people who are unaware. Remember: there are no secrets in Islam.

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Who’s more culpable for the M1 truck crash?

7 March, 2018 - 22:30

A picture of a tractor unit with the Fedex logo being picked up by a winch attached to a blue mechanical arm with the word "COW" printed on it in white. The truck's front is very badly damaged, although the driver door is intact.Last August there was a three-vehicle crash on the M1 outside Milton Keynes in which eight people were killed, all of them in a minibus which was crushed when a moving truck from behind crashed into a stationary truck in front. Today, the British driver of the truck from behind, David Wagstaff, was cleared of eight counts of causing death by careless driving, having already pled guilty to the lesser charge of causing death by careless driving. The driver of the stationary truck, Ryszard Masierak from Evesham, was this week convicted of the more serious charge. He stopped his truck in the inside lane of the motorway when a hard shoulder was available, was drunk behind the wheel and his professional driving licence had been revoked (something his boss should be answering questions about, as they have a duty to make sure their drivers are legal). What the media was reporting today was just that Wagstaff had been ‘cleared’, but he has already admitted eight counts of a less serious offence which could easily mean he goes to prison. The question is: is Masierak really more culpable for this accident than the other two drivers?

Usually, when a moving vehicle strikes a stationary one, the driver of the moving one is at fault, because the driver is meant to be watching the road and not distracted or tired. If the driver in front stops suddenly, he is meant to have been keeping a safe enough distance behind that he could have stopped in time — this is why, on many motorways, there are stretches where there are guide marks and signs telling drivers to put two of these between them and the vehicle in front. Tailgating (sitting on the tail of the vehicle in front) is dangerous and illegal, although some truck drivers insist on doing it because it cuts down wind resistance (and thus increases fuel efficiency a bit). The only exception is where a vehicle turns across the path of another motorist who has no opportunity to stop; this is why a driver was found guilty for turning right across the path of a motorbike whose rider was too close to stop in time, and hit the vehicle that turned right and was killed.

However, Masierak’s truck was stationary on a motorway, with its hazard lights on, and had been in that position for more than ten minutes. The minibus driven by Cyriac Joseph pulled up behind and indicated to pull out, but was hit by Wagstaff’s truck before it could do so. The sad fact is that Cyriac Joseph should have seen Masierak’s truck in plenty of time and pulled out; why wasn’t he looking at the road? Although that stretch is not streetlit, CCTV footage shows that the road was fairly busy and that other vehicles’ headlights would have illuminated the stationary truck. But he cannot answer these questions as he’s dead. Wagstaff should also have been paying attention; he had been on a hands-free call for about an hour, talking to a colleague, which is itself legal as long as it’s not taking the driver’s eyes off the road. Pictures of the scene show a curve shortly before the location of the crash, on the southbound carriageway at junction 14 for Milton Keynes, but a look at a map shows that the curve is a good 500m back from the junction. At 70mph, the stopping distance is roughly 96 metres (314 feet) or 24 car lengths.

All that is not to say that Masierak has no share of the blame in this. He was drunk, disqualified and had parked where he should not have done. But parking where he did would not have caused this accident if the two other drivers involved had been paying attention and this includes Cyriac Joseph. His role is not equivalent to, say, the Polish driver who killed four people on the A34 when he drove his truck into the back a stationary car (at the back of a queue) while using his mobile phone to choose what music to listen to. I’ve had a few near misses while driving myself, particularly with vehicles stopped in lane 1 of so-called smart motorways (which have no hard shoulder, or one that can be used as a lane or not, depending on traffic conditions) including the bit of the M1 at Luton (which is narrow and has poor visibility), and some drivers prefer not to use the hard shoulder when it’s opened as lane 1. I’m not in favour of sending drivers to jail when they cause a crash when momentarily distracted. But I’m also not in favour of attaching undue blame to someone who behaved irresponsibly but did not cause the resulting carnage, a huge temptation when the driver primarily responsible is dead (and all the more so for a foreign driver from a nationality widely blamed for “stealing jobs”).

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Corbyn stands no chance without a second referendum

6 March, 2018 - 21:49

Two lines of cars approaching a border post with three lanes visible. Signs say "keep right / garder la droite", a Canadian flag hangs from a pole to the left and there is an orange, diamond-shaped sign with an up arrow and the word "Construction" on it.With every week that passes, new disadvantages to this country from Brexit become clear: yesterday it was revealed that Theresa May had confirmed that the UK would not be part of the EU’s Digital Single Market, which means that roaming charges — abolished last year — would start to apply to British travellers again, while she also claimed to have been looking into the US/Canada border as a model for the border on the island of Ireland, a border which is very much a hard border with full passport controls (passports have been a requirement for US and Canadian citizens since 2005) and it is looking increasingly likely that the border will require a much greater physical presence and, probably, far fewer crossing points than there are now. Meanwhile, Labour have also caved in to the noise from the tabloids and some Labour MPs whose constituents voted for Brexit and increasingly advocates a hard Brexit, the end to free movement and so on. It talks of a “jobs-first Brexit” but cannot answer for how ‘jobs’ will be delivered in a Britain cut off from its neighbours, other than that fewer eastern Europeans will be able to take them.

I have seen some people mock Corbyn’s appeal to the youth vote, particularly in regard to the party’s decision to allow trans women to be nominated to all-female shortlists. One feminist opponent accused Corbyn of banking on a “pretend youthquake” while ignoring those that count — people like herself. A similar sentiment was expressed by Claire Jones, displaying the disdain for young people that is typical of radical feminists:

With the country inexorably heading towards the Brexit cliff-edge, any election without a major party advocating caution on or reconsideration of Brexit will be an apathy election in every district where there is a red-blue contest unless one contestant is vocally anti- or pro-Brexit (in my area it’s a Tory/Lib Dem contest, although even here, despondency about Brexit could easily cost the Lib Dem candidate votes). His best hope of getting young voters out is to make a second referendum on Brexit part of his party’s manifesto. This would have the advantage of offering a bone to Brexiteers who would at least have the chance to vote to leave again, while attracting both those who voted Remain last time and those who voted Leave, perhaps on the understanding that Brexit would take the form of the “Norway option” rather than vague talk of some sort of bespoke trade deal the details of which we still do not know a year before we are due to leave. The second referendum should take place on a public holiday (possibly a special one) so that retired people have no advantage over those who have to rush off to work, and not on a day that coincides with a major sporting event or music festival such as Glastonbury.

(On the subject of rad fems, I saw some tweets earlier from the so-called Socialist Feminist Network complaining that Labour’s policy on transgender women on all-female shortlists had been made without consulting “women or the trade union movement”. I asked them what they would say to women thinking of changing their vote for this reason, particularly if they had previously voted Labour. I’ve had no reply as yet. I think that if they are willing to squander the best chance we will have for perhaps another five years to end the Tory austerity regime because of discomfort over or animus towards trans women, they have no right to call themselves socialists — I’ll leave it to others to decide whether they merit the name ‘feminist’ but the hardship that this government has caused women who are disabled, who are carers, who live in poverty or in insecure rented housing, etc should be taken into consideration.)

Image source: A. Belani, cropped from an original image by David Herrera. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

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Unite, but follow me

2 March, 2018 - 23:03

 Is It Worth It?" and the URL below, making its way down a narrow London street with cars either sideAs a Muslim I have much experience of being lectured about ‘unity’ by certain people and most of it has come from people primarily responsible for causing the division. For example, almost every Ramadan and every Eid-ul-Fitr (the festival after the end of Ramadan) we are told by people following misguided opinions (sometimes plainly contradicting the relevant facts) from Saudi Arabia that it’s Ramadan when it’s not, or (worse) that it’s Eid when it’s not. So I was not particularly receptive to the sentiment Theresa May was expressing, reported on the front page of today’s Guardian, claiming “we must bring our country back together, taking into account the views of everyone who cares about this issue, from both sides of the debate”. I presume ‘we’ refers to the government, but her speech is not about bringing anyone together but about reaffirming the supremacy of the extremist tendency that has gained the upper hand since the 2016 referendum. (The full speech can be found here.)

The posturing of Theresa May and her Tory Brexiteer allies towards her EU negotiating partners has been belligerent and arrogant. The EU naturally takes an interest in the situation of the border on the island of Ireland: it is in the interests of the state of Ireland and of people in the North living close to the border that there be no return to a full-blown border. Ireland is Catholic as is most of mainland Europe, with the exception of Scandinavia, northern Germany and parts of the Netherlands. The Tories insist that there be no “Irish Sea border”, yet this is a more logical place for a border than across any tract of land, least of all one where the erasure of the same border 20 years ago was central to a hard-won peace and where the people living near it very heavily voted against leaving the EU. The EU knows that support for leaving was only just above 50% across Britain as a whole and also that few competent politicians and technocrats in the UK support it.

In the opening few sentences, she reels off a barrage of empty slogans and promises:

The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.

But this is a government of the rich and powerful. May is married to an investment fund manager; her foreign secretary is Boris Johnson, a notoriously over-indulged, gaffe-prone buffoon who, if he came from a more modest background (let alone, as Gary Younge noted in today’s Guardian, if he were Black, or a woman), would never have had the opportunities in journalism or politics he has had, or got away with so much. We know that this is not a government that represents everyone; that is why it went into an agreement with a sectarian party in Northern Ireland rather than a government of national unity with Labour, which (officially) also accepts Brexit. Currently it ‘listens’ only to those who say what it wants to hear, while its press hurls abuse at dissenters, calling them “unpatriotic” and worse (as if there was much to be patriotic about right now).

She outlines five “tests” any agreement with the EU must pass. The first is that it “must respect the referendum”. But a ‘deal’ which plunges the country into isolation is not one that respects a referendum in which nearly half the population (including most of her own constituents) voted to remain in, and including the majorities in two of the four nations. In the run-up to the referendum the status of Norway was suggested as the best hope for us outside the EU (depsite the fact, stated at the time, that it would mean less control over the laws we had to implement from Europe, not more); now, it’s dismissed for that very reason. Some Tories have advocated it as a means to a quick and easy Brexit but it is a minority view. May also rejects the “Canada option” of a free trade deal, or trading on WTO terms, which she says “would mean a significant reduction in our access to each other’s markets compared to that which we currently enjoy” and “mean customs and regulatory checks at the border that would damage the integrated supply chains that our industries depend on and be inconsistent with the commitments that both we and the EU have made in respect of Northern Ireland”. Yet she cannot guarantee that she will get any better offer than that, and many in her own party prefer to talk about free trade deals with far-off countries and to downplay the importance of the EU to British trade.

Like it or not, there just is no good deal outside the EU for the UK other than what Norway or Switzerland enjoy; no other country is comparable, because countries surrounding the EU that are not in it are either very large (Russia), poor (much of North Africa, Ukraine, Albania) or far away and engaged in other free trade zones (Canada). We cannot simply go back to trading mostly with the Commonwealth as all those countries have found other trading partners since. It is not the European Union’s fault that parts of the UK have been “left behind” by the economics of the past 35 years; it is the result of British policy, and the present government show no sign of changing it. Discontent with the EU is largely the result of misinformation and propaganda in the popular press, most of it in the Tory media and Boris Johnson himself being the origin of many of the most egregious myths. The EU knows this; it knows that the better educated are against Brexit, and that Theresa May (who was against Brexit before the referndum) is desperate. Why on earth would anyone want ‘unity’ with small-minded, ignorant people or with politicians who do not know what they are doing?

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Mental health campaigner Claire Greaves dies in Cygnet unit

1 March, 2018 - 16:13

Picture of a young white woman with dark hair tied up with a large clip at the back of her head, wearing a white T-shirt with the logo "Beat eating disorders", a rainbow-striped pair of long socks and a pair of black leggings with a white flower pattern on them.I learned this morning that Claire Greaves, a mental health blogger and campaigner who has worked with Mind, Fixers and eating disorder charity Beat until she was moved to a secure unit in 2016, and who tweeted under the handle @mentalbattle, has died in an eating disorders unit run by the private company Cygnet, owned by Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services, in Coventry. Although she suffered from anorexia which nearly killed her in early 2017, sources on Twitter say she took her own life. She had been moved to that unit in May 2017 after five months in a mainstream hospital receiving tube-feeding after the crisis brought on by the anorexia in the Partnerships in ‘Care’/Priory-run secure unit, Ty Catrin, in south Wales, the conditions of which were the subject of this interview and which she wrote about on her blog here.

I previously wrote about Greaves’s experience at Ty Catrin in my BADD post last May here. It ticked all the boxes of bad mental healthcare: excessive security (including unnecessary denial of internet access), denial of family visits and using them as a weapon, poor safety, lack of activities, lack of privacy and deliberate and cruel denial of dignity:

I never went outside, the whole 8 months I was there the only times I went out of the tiny ward were to go to hospital. I wasn’t allowed anything in my room, not even cards people sent me, I wasn’t allowed a pen or cutlery or access to the Internet or my phone or iPad or computer. At one point I wasn’t even allowed my clothes and I wore anti rip smocks for months. One time early on in my admission when I was still having periods I wasn’t allowed a sanitary towel and I literally had blood running down the insides of my legs.

We were often locked out of our bedrooms leaving us with a little room with a tv to spend our entire day in with very few activities going on. We were never allowed in the toilet alone and were given toilet tissue one square at a time.

I had to move rooms during my admission after another patient tried to strangle me and I have to admit I didn’t resist. I hoped she would kill me.

To reiterate what I said in my BADD post:

It is well-known that a major cause of eating disorders in girls is discomfort with the changing body, which includes starting periods, and part of recovering from malnutrition is starting periods again; the fear of further indignity will make this process an awful lot harder, especially if someone is out of hospital and not compelled to eat, or tube-fed. The insistence on ‘supervising’ people in the toilet also strikes me as an abuse stemming from disregard for dignity: some people find it difficult to ‘go’ when being watched, and it cannot be necessary for everyone, particularly when they are intensively supervised in everything else they do.

If her death was indeed suicide, we need to ask not “why was she able to take her own life?” but “what is it about this unit and her treatment that was so wretched that she felt the need to take that action?”. We cannot simply chalk her death up to her illness; she was under section in a locked mental health ward and her life was what the staff made it. A friend who was in contact with her on Facebook tweeted that her last post said she was going to die there and remarked “after seeing her ‘care’ over the last few days I am sadly not surprised” (about her death). Issues with Cygnet’s units were known of before Claire was sent to one (which was newly opened at that time); friends tried to warn her but she regarded this as potentially “her way back into the world” and in any case had no choice in the matter.

Both Cygnet and Priory need to be held accountable for what happened to Claire. Mental health care which is undignified, unsafe and unnecessarily restrictive is not therapeutic and adds trauma to people’s existing difficulties. We must bring back localised, publicly-funded inpatient mental health care and stop sending people hundreds of miles to private units which are run for profit.

(Also: this week a study on seclusion of women with learning disabilities in mental health units was published by Lancaster University and found that the practice is “counter-therapeutic” and that the victims find it “aversive, bewildering and distressing”. While not directly relevant as she did not have a learning disability, Claire suffered this as well while in hospital. It should go without saying that men with learning disabilities probably do not benefit from this treatment either, and that this should be the subject of further research.)

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Woman’s Place: Is the tail wagging the dog?

28 February, 2018 - 22:37

Last night I went to a public meeting organised by a group called A Woman’s Place UK (@WomansPlaceUK on Twitter), ostensibly to discuss the potential impact on proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act on women’s safety. There were three speakers: Lucy Masoud, a woman fire-fighter and FBU regional officer, Steph Pike who is a co-founder of AWP and Pilgrim Tucker, a community organiser who became well-known after the Grenfell Tower fire last year. The chair was Megan Dobney, who is or has been regional secretary of SERTUC (Southern & Eastern Regional Council of the Trades Union Congress) but is simply called a “union organiser” in the programme. All of them claim to be “of the left” and a major bone of contention was the Labour party allowing a person in the early stages of transition, known as Lily Madigan, to become women’s officer, but there have been a number of women leaving or threatening to leave the party over this (as well as more general discontent over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and policies). For avoidance of doubt, I tweeted the organisers beforehand to ask if it was an all-women meeting; I was told all were welcome. I did not need to sneak in and there were a number of other men present, although mostly accompanying women.

The stand-out speaker was Lucy Masoud, who told of how women fire-fighters in the London Fire Brigade had demanded women’s toilets and changing facilities and had to campaign for a long time, facing management attempts to divide the men against the women by threatening that the new facililties would take the place of the TV room or other social facilities, all while women were changing behind screens or in their cars. She claimed that having “gender neutral” facilities would set back the gains women had made in her industry as the service could claim that they were “gender neutral” when in fact they would mostly be used by men. Steph Pike’s was the least memorable, but she did mention the right-wing press at one point and at another she said that we should not be looking at “queering gender” but at eradicating it, to rapturous applause. Pilgrim Tucker talked about the likely effect the organisation believed the GRA reforms would have, for example allowing men to simply sign a form and be recognised as a woman, thereby allowing access to domestic violence shelters, women’s prisons and so on with obvious implications for women’s safety. She claimed that the sex offending rate for trans women was some ten to twenty times the rate for the general female population and that “some studies” put it at the same rate as for men (this is presumably the one study that every TERF likes to quote). While she at one point said that everyone knows that someone with a penis was not a woman, none of them baldly stated that trans women were simply men.

At this stage I’m going to state that I have some sympathy with the basic concerns about self-identification and allowing people who are very early in the transition process into women’s prisons or shelters, especially as, in some of the high-profile cases and those which have appeared in my social media feeds, many of those in the prison cases are people who, as men, committed serious violent and in some cases sexual offences. It was even reported last year that Ian Huntley, who murdered two young girls from the school where he worked as a caretaker in 2002, had tried to change his gender (though recent media interviews with him make no reference to that). As for people later in the process, who have had surgery and could not be easily told apart from a ‘born’ or, to use the jargon, ‘cisgender’ or ‘cis’ woman, I see no reason to continue insisting that they are male. While it’s true that they do not have uteruses and will not menstruate or be able to carry children, the same is true of a lot of women with certain genetic conditions and nobody disputes that they are women. I do not believe that the body is of no significance and that ‘identity’ is all that matters, but as far as I can tell, the people who insist on calling all trans women men are those who both hate men, and hate being female.

I wanted to ask the question of whether they thought it morally justifiable or politically worthwhile to approach a reactionary Tory paper, the Times, with such concerns given that it could give the impression that their concerns are Tory policy; it could give the message that “if we vote Tory, they will stop this self-identity nonsense”. The same paper, remember, put on its front page the story (later shown to be false) that a Muslim foster carer had told a child not to eat pork under her roof, a quite reasonable request even if it were true, and if you put a reasonable demand on the same platform as bigotry, it starts to look like bigotry. I know many women, particularly disabled women, who have suffered major losses under the Tory and coalition governments: benefit withdrawals (and fear thereof, particulary with the move from the old DLA to PIP), assessors who lied, inability to find social housing, traumatic hospital experiences (because of having to be admitted miles from home because the local NHS unit has been closed, particularly in mental health) to name but a few — as well as demonising press coverage and the resulting harassment and bullying. I can’t fathom any ‘socialist’ being prepared to let all this continue just so they won’t encounter a trans woman in an all-female space, even though that might make them uncomfortable. Much as I agree that what’s being proposed is wrong, the sheer numbers make it a lesser priority than the thousands or tens of thousands, men and women, threatened with penury or turned into hate figures because of disability or illness. (Many of those I know would not even agree with me on this; they are fully behind the idea that trans women are women, whatever their stage of transition, and are entitled to be treated as women.)

However, I never got to ask my question. Instead, the mic was passed from one of the “usual suspects” to another; we heard from a couple of other socialist-feminists such as Ruth Serwotka (wife of Mark Serwotka of the Public & Commercial Services union), but we also heard from the hardcore TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) such as Julia Long and Anne Ruzylo and from three supposed trans women who side with the TERFs and even claim not to be women. I commented on hearing all this that “the mask has slipped” — meaning that the true feelings of the people attending the meeting were now clear, and that the ‘reasonable objections’ about males being able to get recognition as women and access spaces where there are vulnerable women may have been just a cover. I got a flood of tweets from TERFs and their allies who pretended not to know what that expression meant, despite it being a very common idiom. Someone announced from the gallery that Justine Greening had kicked the self-ID idea into the long grass before she resigned, but none of the four socialists on the panel gave any answer to this.

Someone later asked me how as a Muslim I justified exposing women, including my mother, to “people with a penis changing in front of” them. I responded that I agreed with the concerns about self-identification; it was the more generalised attacks on trans women from the gallery after the speeches that I took issue with. But as it happens, I didn’t see that many Muslim women in the audience last night, and I don’t think I saw a single hijab despite the venue (a church) being fairly near the London School of Economics and only a short bus ride away from Whitechapel and other inner suburbs where there are lots of Muslims. As I understand it there are differences of opinions among scholars about the status of trans women (although many authorities insist that trans women are indeed men, but others do not) and I know Muslim women who are supportive of trans women and others who aren’t. I’m sure many would share the ostensible concern about self-identification that was meant to be the focus of this meeting, but sadly we do not have the luxury of being able to vote Tory, unlike the sort of privileged white middle-class woman who might read the Times — we tend to vote for whoever is most friendly to us as a community so as to avoid official hostility, erosion of our civil liberties and so on, much as is the case with other visible minorities.

As I mentioned earlier, this was a public meeting. The location was kept under embargo until a few hours before the event so as to minimise protests, but anyone could get a ticket; perhaps we were all subject to some vetting, but they did not know me and if they had checked my Twitter follower list, they would have found a lot of feminists with a pro-trans outlook and very few of the opposite persuasion. (Most of them do not like men very much.) Yet someone made some comment to the effect that one day feminists will not have to meet in secret, a silly bit of hyperbole. Secret would mean by invitation only in a venue owned by someone the organisers trusted, or under false pretences.

The event left me wondering if “Woman’s Place” is a legitimate movement with a serious concern with an extremist tail trying to wag the dog, or simply a front for the extremist lesbian separatists who piped up during the “audience contributions”. Is it the equivalent of Labour beset by Militant, or just a front for Militant? And it’s ironic that this movement keeps getting positive write-ups in the Morning Star when their commitment to socialism looks dubious. They say “I’m a socialist and…” then say nothing as socialism is trashed from the floor and the gallery and on the social media feeds they follow. It’s one thing to criticise the Labour Party or not to remain a member of it (I’m not — they are not very active at all round here) but let’s remember why we want a Labour government; not to change the decor but to stop the destruction of the NHS and the social welfare system, the social care system and so on, to safeguard the Human Rights Act and to arrest our descent into the abyss of Brexiteer isolation. How much of a socialist are you if your hatred of trans women is stronger than your passion for equality, justice and human rights?

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Bawa-Garba supporters must stop attacking parents

25 February, 2018 - 22:32

A picture of a Black woman wearing a long grey overcoat and a white headscarf walking along a street next to a Black man of similar age wearing an orange shirt with a beige jacket and trousers.In a previous post I expressed the opinion that the erasure of Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba (right) from the medical register was a miscarriage of justice and that a medical practitioners’ tribunal should not be expected to bow to a jury’s verdict when juries are prone to mistakes and prejudice and are not formed of experts. I joined a Facebook group of Dr Bawa-Garba’s supporters and have also witnessed some of the attitudes on Twitter of some of them. I must say at first that most of it is perfectly civil and I don’t blame them for concentrating on their colleague’s situation rather than the family’s grief or the fact that a boy died, any more than you can blame people who are opposed to the death penalty or in favour of prison reform or who seek to get an offender released after a certain time rather than throwing the key away for not always thinking about the victim or their family. However, I have come across some of them attacking the Adcock family themselves as well as other parent campaigners. This has to stop.

One of the issues is the attitudes of Jack’s father, specifically, evidence of racist attitudes from the material he has shared on his Facebook page. I looked on his Facebook and the posts were not there, though I was told they must have been deleted and I saw a screenshot of one of them. Still, his prejudices are of no relevance because Jack Adcock was six years old and had a learning disability; he was not a teenager or adult capable of sharing his father’s prejudices. The racism that can be suspected may have been on the part of some of the jury (again, because they cannot be asked about their deliberations, we will never know) and the GMC itself; overseas medics and nurses are disproportionately represented among those struck off or referred for sanction.

Some of them have also been attacking other parent campaigners who opposed them with personal insults or slights to their intelligence; one example is Dr Sara Ryan, mother of Connor Sparrowhawk of “Justice for LB” fame, whom they have referred to as “Mildred” after the woman in the Three Billboards film (who put up the billboards to campaign for an investigation into a woman’s murder; why anyone would use that as an insult is beyond me) and one of them told her “you failed in science, now write fluff”. This is not really the way professionals running a serious campaign should speak to someone whose son died as a result of the incompetence of NHS management and more than one doctor and has spent years trying to bring those involved to account and has resisted attempts to blame nurses and support workers which the NHS trust involved has a record of doing in that and many other cases.

A picture of Valerie Murphy, a middle-aged white woman with thin-rimmed glasses wearing a black V-necked T-shirt and a string of large crystals round her neck, walking along a street past some shops.This past week, the psychiatrist who had been the responsible clinician while Connor was in the STATT unit in Oxford where he died in July 2013 was suspended from the medical register in the UK for a year (as she has moved to Ireland since Connor’s death). For anyone not familiar with the case, Connor died in the bath from drowning as a result an epileptic seizure, after more than three months in the unit in which his epilepsy was not taken into account despite his mother warning them of it (leaving someone with epilepsy in the bath on their own is something anyone who works with people with epilepsy should know not to do, and people with epilepsy who do not have learning disabilities are warned not to bathe alone, if at all). The standard of care and treatment in the unit was judged so bad the following November that it was closed to new admissions and told to improve six specific areas; in the event, it closed altogether. The judgement gave as a “mitigating factor” the fact that Murphy was working in “the difficult world of adult learning difficulties”, a statement some commentators have taken as a suggestion that the lives of people with learning disabilities are worth less, or that such failures are only to be expected. In other cases where a person with a learning disability died and a terrible amount of suffering had been inflicted on them in the months or years leading up to that (Stephanie Bincliffe and Nico Reed come to mind), the managers and consultants responsible have not faced any sanction.

The fact that those responsible for incompetent care and sometimes downright cruelty over a much longer period — seven years in the case of Stephanie Bincliffe — leading to the needless death of a patient still have their jobs and no criminal conviction reinforces my belief that Hadiza Bawa-Garba, who was responsible for Jack Adcock (and many others, over several wards, in the absence of three other doctors) for only a few hours, was made an example of because of her race, relatively junior position and overseas status. Even without the racial undertones, the case looks like a classic case of stereotyping inviduals for the failures of a whole organisation and much as this course of action may satisfy some people (Sharon Shoesmith springs to mind, and one may recall the savaging she got from the papers following her dismissal on TV), the injustice reeks too strongly for the decisions to stand for very long.

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Another FGM wild goose chase

23 February, 2018 - 22:14

A picture of a youngish South Asian man with a short beard and moustache wearing a blue shirt with no tie and a dark jacket over it, sitting at an outdoor table under a black umbrella holding a small cup of an identifiable drink in his hand, with a saucer underneath it.Yesterday a Somali man living with his family in Bristol was cleared on the judge’s direction of a child cruelty charge, brought as a result of his supposedly telling a passenger in his taxi that he had allowed his daughter to undergo a form of female genital mutilation (FGM). The passenger, Sami Ullah (right), was an activist with Integrate UK, formerly known as Integrate Bristol, and as a result of his information, two separate examinations were carried out on the girl in question (aged 6) and one on her two younger sisters, the first suggesting that some injury might have been inflicted on her but the second finding nothing. The man swore his accuser was lying and that he would not discuss his private life with strangers, and also that he did not want his daughter to suffer the health problems associated with FGM. This is only the third prosecution of anyone for FGM-related offences in this country and the third acquittal. A detailed report of the case can be found here.

I must say, I find it astonishing that anyone would think that a Somali man would disclose a thing like that to a total stranger who had been in his car less than ten minutes and who is not even of his race: the man’s name was Sami Ullah, a name commonly found among South Asians, not Somalis. The man (who cannot be named to protect his daughter’s identity) had been living in this country since 2004 and everyone knows FGM is not only illegal but the subject of enormous official and media interest, especially in Bristol for some reason where this clique of scaremongering busybodies hold rather too much sway (this was the city where a girl got an honorary doctorate for anti-FGM work at 19, two years younger than most people graduate with their first degree). If the authorities were not so desperate to demonstrate that they are “doing something” to bring perpetrators of FGM to book, they would not have given this case based on a mixture of hearsay and inconclusive medical examinations a second thought. The man’s computer and mobile phone had no evidence of research into FGM at the time of his arrest, although some might say he would not have needed to research this online.

A police spokeswoman said that the force accepted the court’s findings but insisted “FGM remains a deeply entrenched practice and we know these harmful procedures are happening in this country right now”. What on earth is her evidence for this? Every time statistics are published on FGM, they are always about “new cases” which are in fact old cases, i.e. adults being found to have undergone FGM, not fresh cases which would be evidenced by serious injuries, infections and even deaths, in the case of severe forms, in young girls. There is no excuse to submit a girl to an intrusive examination on the basis of a bit of hearsay and FGM really were happening in the UK, the evidence would come to light by itself rather than having to be manufactured.

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Swype dies unnoticed

22 February, 2018 - 16:10

Swype, for a long time my favourite keypad to use on Android phones which I first encountered on my Samsung Galaxy S back in 2011, has been killed off after years of slow development by Nuance, who bought it out in 2012. The announcement was made at the start of this month but has only just been picked up by the tech media which some might say demonstrates why its owner felt the need to discontinue it. Swype was the original keypad that let you trace words by moving your finger from letter to letter without removing it from the screen; other keypads just predicted words as you tapped on letters (you might recall that iOS lacked even this until version 8). Nuance is best-known for its Dragon dictation and voice-control software (widely used by quadriplegics who cannot use their hands to control their computers) and a version of this was included with Swype which for a while was branded “Swype + Dragon”. However, Nuance was a relative minnow once SwiftKey, its major competition among ‘independent’ Android keypads, was acquired by Microsoft, Google improved its own keypad and both were offered for free on the app stores.

A screenshot of the Android app Tweetings, showing the text "Swype always was one of the most elegant ways to enter text on an Android phone -- shame it's being killed off this month. You could copy and paste just like this". The Swype keypad is visible at the bottom with an orange line traced from the Swype logo to the letter A.I’ve used SwiftKey on and off since I had my first Android phone, an HTC Hero (branded T-Mobile G2), in late 2009. SwiftKey was a vast improvement on the bundled keypad and its predictions were really fast and accurate, which the HTC keypad’s weren’t. Swype was also a revelation when I first saw it on the Galaxy S; it came bundled with the phone as part of Samsung’s OS and was not available independently then, so when you upgraded to the now-defunct CyanogenMod because Samsung would not update their own Android offering for that phone, you lost it. But SwiftKey was still a good choice, it still had fast predictive text and it also copied Swype’s tracing method of typing, and improved it, predicting as you swiped. But SwiftKey never copied some of Swype’s best features: the ease of copying and pasting using gestures that copied standard key combinations (e.g. swiping from the Swype logo to C, X, V or A as shown in the picture) and its handling of common English apostrophe-letter endings (’s, ‘d etc) — you’d just trace from the apostrophe to the letter or letters. SwiftKey forced you to enter them manually and still does. It also has not been very good with hyphenated phrases; again, it would treat them as single words while Swype knew they were joined words.

I always thought Swype was the visually most elegant keypad app on Android; the themes were often understated with good contrasts. However, the performance of the app slowed with use and development appeared to slow with it; no major new features were added for a long time and very few bug fixes. The iOS version was never comparable with the Android version, only ever offering three word predictions for example and having fewer ‘learning’ options. At the same time, GBoard improved somewhat (although I always found it awkward to use compared to SwiftKey or Swype), SwiftKey introduced Flow and Google Keyboard introduced a Swype-like trace-typing method; neither were as good as Swype at first but got better. GBoard (as it is now known) was introduced for download on phones that came with third-party keypads; SwiftKey became free of charge and then so did all the themes. Swype just couldn’t compete with bigger companies giving away the thing it invented for free.

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Review: Dispatches, “Inside the Priory”

20 February, 2018 - 21:36

Picture of Amy el-Keria, a young white girl with dark hair brushed across her forehead, wearing a maroon T-shirt with a dark blue apron over it, holding a plate of unidentifable food in both hands.This documentary on Channel 4 last night (19th Feb) exposed abusive practices, short staff, over-reliance on temporary staff (including the undercover reporter for this programme) and poor safety at a hospital unit, The Dene near Burgess Hill, Sussex, run by a company called Partnerships in Care which was taken over by the Priory Group in 2014. As it happens, many of us know of abusive practices in both pre-merger Priory and PIC units going back years, and had been waiting for a programme like this to be shown; it was a bitter disappointment, as it only focussed on one unit rather than a selection, and was too short at 25 minutes — when it finished, my thought was “is that it?” because Dispatches was always an hour-long investigative programme and there was so much more to expose than what was shown, which was bad enough but not the most egregious abuse I have heard of from both former patients and their families over the past few years. (Available on the Channel 4 website in the UK for the next 29 days.)

It is significant that they chose only a former Partnerships in ‘Care’ unit. This was, by the way, the same unit where Claire Dyer was held in 2014 after being moved while on section 3 from an assessment and treatment unit (ATU) in Swansea. I wrote about that at length at the time. The unit is a medium-secure unit which does not specialise in autism or learning disabilities, both of which Claire has: they took on a patient who was out of their expertise. Claire was transferred because of challenging behaviour towards staff at the unit, but had spent much of her time while at the unit, before she was sectioned and after, with her family on unescorted visits both home and outside, yet on arrival at The Dene was not allowed outside the building for several weeks. In the event she was allowed on unescorted outside visits after a few weeks and released from section after three months, but this kind of “institution-centred” care, taking no account of an individual patient’s condition, is a common phenomenon in the British mental healthcare world.

The Priory Group trades on its name: the Priory Hospital in Roehampton, south-west London, is a ‘prestige’ mental health unit for the rich and famous, but when people who do not know any better are facing a spell in one of their other units, they think they are getting the best mental health care going and in fact they are getting the bog-standard package the same company provides on NHS contracts. The Priory Group operates the Cheadle Royal hospital which ‘benefited’ from the closure of the West End Unit in Hull, a former weeknight-only inpatient unit which was closed down in 2013 because NHS England declined to fund it on that basis (and the American CEO was heard saying he hoped the NHS would close more beds so that private providers could fill the gap); teenagers were sent there from Hull (and elsewhere in the country) because of a lack of local (or even regional) inpatient NHS beds, making it difficult for their families to visit on a regular enough basis. Here are some of the abuses and bad practices I know of there:

  • Overuse of seclusion and restraint, often with an obvious punitive intention regardless of how staff dressed it up
  • Punitive responses to self-harm
  • Lack of respect for dignity (e.g. refusing sanitary protection to girls and women at risk of self-harm during their periods, something noted at PIC’s Ty Catrin in South Wales as well)
  • Incompetent management of self-harm, particularly involving ligatures (a girl took her own life in 2014 using the metal spiral binding of a notebook, after a staff member allowed her to keep it — which he should not have done — but said to her “you won’t hurt yourself with that, will you?”, something she had not previously considered)
  • Other incidents of neglect, such as noted in the case of Amy el-Keria, a 14-year-old girl with Tourette’s syndrome and various mental health problems who died at Priory unit Ticehurst House, East Sussex, in 2012
  • A cruel and inflexible approach to risk management: for example, a girl who had spent an afternoon in bed to avoid confrontation with other patients was then refused off-ward access in the evening because staff could not “risk assess” her
  • Lack of understanding of autism (other patients and low-status staff such as healthcare assistants knowing better about it than nurses and psychiatrists is often reported; this was noted at The Dene as well)
  • On one occasion at Cheadle, a teenage patient had to re-site another patient’s catheter after it fell out during a physical altercation.

There are many, many people Channel 4 could have contacted across the country if they wanted to make a programme exposing widespread abuses and safeguarding failures at Priory units, but they chose to focus entirely on the footage gained by one undercover reporter. Weirdly, despite uncovering criminal behaviour on the part of one of the full-time staff at The Dene — assaulting a patient who had entered the medicine room — the programme disguised his voice and face and does not give his name, perhaps because the intent is to expose the failings of the institution rather than individual staff members. But if the attack on the patient was not bad enough to show the perpetrator’s face, why did they stop at showing only that instead of the stories of other Priory Group patients who have experienced far worse?

This programme was a major missed opportunity; there is so much abuse and suffering of adults and children to be exposed at the Priory Group’s units. It hinted at the Care Quality Commission failing to investigate properly (a factor in the Winterbourne View scandal in 2011) noting that they had given it a good inspection report not long before footage shown last night was filmed. Again, the 25-minute documentary format has a lot to answer for, although in this case it was not a soundbite-filled bit of infotainment (like a lot of the more recent Panoramas) but what looked like the start of a serious investigation. We need to see part 2. Same time next week?

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Let’s investigate “death threats”

19 February, 2018 - 22:21

A small bottle of a red ink-like substance with a skull symbol on the side of the bottle. In the background is an old-style fountain pen and an inkwell.So, in the wake of Mary Beard’s ill-considered (patrician, soft-racist) tweet last week about how she wouldn’t go out to a disaster zone and do what those brave Oxfam staff (accused of sexually exploiting local girls) did, the usual accusations have been made by various journalists, political and media groupies and various other well-placed individuals, that Prof Beard has been “bullied” off Twitter by mobs of one sort of another. Beard may well have taken her Twitter account offline for a while, but I witnessed a lot of the reaction to her original tweet and it was roundly critical of her and much of it linked her attitude to her race and class, but a lot of that aimed at a public figure hardly counts as bullying. Ava Vidal, the comedian who has also carried out disaster relief work in Dominica after last year’s hurricane, suggested that “if someone uses their huge platform to make unsubstantiated claims of bullying, and this leads to someone being attacked, that person should be prosecuted”.

I would go a stage further: all accusations of “death threats” or other threats of violence should be investigated by the police. If you go public with such claims, you should have a duty to provide evidence to the authorities; if they are genuine, it is in everyone’s interest for the perpetrators to be found, and if they are not, it is in everyone’s interest for the falsehood to be exposed. In my experience every time there is a campaign of any kind and there is a lot at stake for some people and feelings run high (because there are people with a lot at stake, such as their health or independence, rather than small change), someone makes an accusation of “death threats” and this is used to discredit the whole campaign. I saw it with ME five or six years ago and I’ve seen it with almost every political campaign since the Tories came to power in 2010. It’s always the establishment, and people taking a pro-establishment line, that make these accusations, particularly Tories and the right-wing of the Labour party, and very often a little examination will reveal the claims to be, at the very least, exaggerated. It deflects from the fact that they are the powerful ones and encourages the audience to regard them as people who are being brave in the face of hostility, persecution or threatened violence. It is about time perfectly valid and necessary campaigns stopped being derailed or discredited by claims about what it at most a tiny minority of clowns and often, I suspect, outright fabrications.

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Mary Beard and the defence of low expectations

17 February, 2018 - 18:56

Two men dispensing rice and curry of some sort out of large tubs into small plastic containers. There is a queue of women in black niqaabs waiting.Earlier today Mary Beard, the Cambridge historian well-known for championing the role of women in academia as well as for her TV series, posted tweet defending aid workers accused of sexual abuse in disaster zones such as Haiti. She said,

Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us [would] not tread.

In response to people who criticised that tweet, she elaborated that, for example, “disaster zones are regions that none who have not been there understand” and that “from what I have read it involves the breakdown of fundamental values”. The original tweet and her defence of it was roundly condemned as colonialist and racist, defending white men who “gave into temptation” while stuck in parts of the world most people, including Beard herself, would not venture into, some of which are often given stereotypically as examples of places that are not very civilised at the best of times (for this critique see Anaïs Duong-Pedica; Priyamvada Gopal has called it “the progressive end of the institutional culture I have to survive day in day out”). I find the argument objectionable for another reason: it is a very common defence of abuse in institutions and by soldiers, and is no more valid there than here.

Firstly, disaster zones are not marked by the “breakdown of fundamental values” but by the breakdown of bricks and mortar: the destruction of homes, schools, roads, bridges, water treatment plants, hospitals and the like. In that situation, some people will do things they would not do otherwise, such as beg or steal, because their home, property and workplace have been destroyed and they have no other way of feeding themselves. Criminals may also find their activities disrupted but they have the ‘advantage’ of not being bound by the normal rules that everyone else lives by; they will often have no problem exploiting other people’s distress and desperation even though they have suffered losses themselves. But desperation is an excuse for theft; it is not an excuse for rape, because that has nothing to do with feeding oneself but only harms another. Disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes happen in places with every culture and belief system and every degree of technological advancement. Historians such as Beard are fascinated with Italy — ancient and early modern, in particular — and that’s an earthquake zone.

Second, this is not even about the “breakdown of values” among a disaster-afflicted human community but people who go there willingly, usually as part of a job for which they are paid, and do not live in broken-down houses or packed refugee centres but in fairly basic but clean workers’ accommodation. Unless they are there for the first time, they will have had this experience before and known what to expect. There are also aid staff based permanently in major cities such as Nairobi whose standard of living is equal to what they enjoy back home, if not better because they are paid in “hard” currency rather than, say, Kenyan shillings. We do not know if all of the people accused of sexual abuse and exploitation were there for the short or long term. For many of them it’s a job that involves frequent ‘adventures’ and requires hard work and doing without creature comforts for a while but pays well and adds to their CV. Again, no excuse to sexually abuse anyone else.

The argument that “work stress”, being in a hostile or less-than-civilised environment full of people you wouldn’t want to rub shoulders with unless you were paid is one that I have heard before to justify all kinds of abuses. To give an example, when I was at Kesgrave Hall, a special boarding school (now closed) with a violent and destructive culture, in the early 1990s I heard of an incident in which a British soldier stationed in Northern Ireland had harassed a local man on a regular basis for several weeks, then ordered him to stop and when he ran away, shot him dead. I mentioned this to a teacher who was known for assaulting boys and dragging them around rooms and down corridors, and he made some excuse about how I’d never been in such a stressful job with bombs going off and where you don’t know who’s a terrorist/murderer or whatever and how I’d behave in that situation. On another occasion, where a care worker also known for his foul language and violent behaviour was sacked for drinking with a group of fifth-form (year 11) boys at the Black Tiles pub in Martlesham, he made the same excuse about how stressful the man’s job was. I have heard variations on this excuse made for mental health staff who over-restrain or humilitate or otherwise abuse the people forced to suffer their ‘care’. I once saw an interview with a former mental health worker who had witnessed a colleague whack a patient over the head with a bedpan, and gave the excuse that “if you live among shit, you become shit”. But it’s not an excuse; the man who did that had no compassion for the people he was meant to be caring for and one wonders if he had developed that attitude through interacting with other members of staff rather than through dealing with the patients or residents. And whether he had gone into the job because he loved people and enjoyed caring or because it was “a job”, ultimately he had power over another human being and chose to hurt them for his own gratification.

And that’s even before we get to the subject of people who seek out caring jobs where they have direct power over others because it gives them access to vulnerable people: those who physically cannot fight back or would be punished if they did, or who cannot tell or would not be believed if they did. Doubtless a few of these aid workers had heard from their friends of opportunities to “get laid” in exotic locations with women who are ‘willing’ (read desperate) much as institutional abusers seek out homes and hospitals with easy targets and lax vetting of personnel; others come with pre-existing prejudices against the people they will be looking after, especially if the institution is a prison (or is called some euphemism for prison). Was it really the ‘stress’ of being away from home and in basic living conditions and having to deal with desperate people or violence in the streets that turned them into sexual abusers or was it the fact that law and order had broken down somewhat, the police were loath to hold to account aid workers (or forbidden to) and they could get away with it?

The excuses reflect a certain type of low expectations some people have towards men: they believe some men “can’t help” but take advantage of any sex on offer and if they’re under any kind of stress, God help them. The truth is that men can and do restrain themselves all the time, whether they are in a stressful job or work situation or not. The same goes for using other forms of violence: those of us who weren’t at the top of the pile, or even the middle, got used to keeping our heads down, to keeping away from trouble and to turning our anger on ourselves and our property rather than people who were bigger than us (one very frequently hears of women using the first two of these behaviours to avoid or defuse interactions with aggressive men). I strongly suspect that many of those who commit abuses (and it is worth remembering that some of the abuses are against colleagues, especially women, as well as locals) in the countries they have been sent to help rebuild after disasters are dominant characters who have become used to being at the top of a hierarchy, who bullied and got away with it, who was never in the position of needing to learn self-restraint. Shaista Aziz, who has worked at Oxfam (one of the major charities implicated) has linked it to the “bro culture” of organisations dominated by white men from the top down and aid-worker teams which are also male-dominated in themselves; to “a culture where bullying was rife, women were frequently belittled and racism was casual” and where people who tried to draw attention to the problem were made into the problem. It’s ridiculous to defend these sorts of people as having succumbed to temptation while doing a job a lot of people would not touch; there are plenty of jobs many people would not want to do, but we would not excuse this from a bin man or toilet cleaner and we mustn’t when it’s white western aid workers who are getting paid, went out of their own accord2 and will go home again.

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A lesson they’ll never forget

15 February, 2018 - 13:19

A cover of a book, Collected Poems, by Roger McGough, a drawing of whom -- a white man in his 60s bald in the middle with white hair on the sides, wearing glasses, a blue shirt with no tie and a black jacket, standing against what looks like a kitchen with plants and flowers on the worktopEvery time there’s a mass shooting in the United States, the anti-gun-control lobby insist that the right way to stop such incidents is for there to be more guns rather than less; that the best defence against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. If the massacre is at a school, as with yesterday’s atrocity in Florida, the same people will call for teachers to be armed. The fact that no other country in the world has such massacres on a regular basis, and most other developed countries have none at all (or at least one or so every decade or two) does not occur to them. We last had such a massacre here more than 20 years ago, at Dunblane in Scotland, and the result was that the government introduced legislation to ban the keeping of handguns and automatic weapons by private individuals; only single-shot rifles are allowed, and then only by vetted and authorised individuals who need them for a lawful purpose such as hunting. When the founding fathers of the USA passed the Second Amendment, the weapons that they had access to were much less powerful than some of these.

Growing up in the 1980s, a staple of children’s verse that we all read was the work of Roger McGough, a Liverpool poet best known right now for presenting the Radio 4 show Poetry Please. One of the most memorable is called The Lesson in which a teacher, angered by struggling yet again to make his voice heard above the din of the “nooligans”, uses a sword, a shotgun and his bare hands to slaughter the lot of them. Mid-way through, the headmaster put his head through the doorway and on seeing what was going on, “nodded understandingly, then tossed in a grenade”. Given that state school teachers are not the best-paid profession in most western countries and in some schools have to deal with threatening or abusive situations on a regular basis from children and adolescents that are bigger than them but with whom they are required absolutely never to transgress the limits of reasonable force, as well as having family crises, mental health problems (diagnosed or otherwise) or grudges and embitterments of their own, the chances of a teacher with an automatic weapon perpetrating a McGough-style “Lesson” are probably greater than one becoming the proverbial “good guy with a gun”. And that’s if teachers even want to carry guns into lessons.

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Why Aditya Chakrabortty (may have) called himself Paul

7 February, 2018 - 12:47

A 'Welcome to Haringey' sign outside a shop on a road in Wood GreenThis morning I saw a Twitter thread (starts here, ends here) from Haringey councillor Joe Goldberg, purporting to expose the middle-classness and inauthenticity of the pro-little-people and anti-establishment stance of the Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty, who has been a strong critic of the Labour council’s “Haringey Development Vehicle” (HDV), which involves selling off whole tracts of public property, including housing and a library, to a private developer which is expected to demolish most of it. This has led to a local revolt with a number of pro-HDV councillors deselected from the forthcoming local election and the (female) council chair resigning, blaming bullying and intimidation. The thread claims that on a previous occasion, Mr Chakrabortty took a similar “David versus Goliath” position on a major redevelopment project, championing the opponents as “David” and conveniently ignoring an ‘elected’ chair of a local residents’ association (I have not investigated this myself so I do not know how representative this “residents’ association” was) which supported the project. The Twitter thread claimed that Chakrabortty claimed to have been brought up in Edmonton, a deprived part of neighbouring Enfield borough, but in fact was brought up in well-heeled Winchmore Hill and went to a grammar school there.

Other people have condemned the thread as stalkerish behaviour unfitting of a local councillor. One tweet stuck out for me, though, the one where Goldberg claims that Aditya was called Paul when at school, though this may be a case of mistaken identity (e.g. another Aditya Chakrabortty). Perhaps he wants us to think that his real first name is Paul and Aditya is some sort of affectation. I can think of a simpler explanation, namely that he wanted to stave off racism from white peers who would have wilfully mispronounced his first name or at least not bothered to pronounce it correctly.

At my first secondary school I had a half-Polish friend. His first name was James and his second Władysław. His dad was known as Bob, and I never found out his real name but it was longer than that and it wasn’t Robert (he had a business refitting old pianos, or “shitty pianos” as he called them). His surname was also one that has a direct English equivalent but the Polish version was always mispronounced. James and I and a third boy had a conversation once, in which the third boy told me James’s middle name was what sounded like “Wuddiswuff”. I repeated this to James later and the other boy said, “no, it’s Vwuddiswuff!”. I thought this was even more absurd and laughed out loud. It was only years later that I saw the name written down and it kind of made sense — a lot of Eastern European names begin with “Vlad” (we’d had a Vladimir in my junior school, who wasn’t Russian) or have “slav” in them (like Miroslav) and this was just the Polish rendering of it.

And I didn’t make fun of James’s middle name but others might have done. So, you can understand why Bob, James and Paul didn’t want to use their names from back home in front of white English peers who would have mocked or at least mangled them, and if Joe Goldberg knows a thing or two about life in the multicultural but deprived inner London borough whose council he sits on, he should know this.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons, released under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International licence.

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If you don’t like trucks, don’t buy stuff

6 February, 2018 - 22:05

A picture of a main road through a village which is not wide enough for two cars to pass or to justify putting a line down the centre. A four-storey red-brick house is to the left of the road with a pharmacy on the ground level. A car is making its way up the road (on the left side) and other cars are parked on the pavements on each side.A member of Kent County Council has called for trucks to be banned from roads in Kent, claiming they cause “more damage than 10,000 cars” driving through his village. Seán Holden, council member for the rural ward of Cranbrook, called for Kent to follow Leicestershire’s example and restrict truck access to roads in Kent, claiming that 87% of the lorry traffic through Kent is not going to Kent:

“When you see a lorry going down the roads, like I do, between Cranbrook and Benenden knocking down the hedges on both sides with its wing mirrors, that’s doing the equivalent to, if you have half a dozen of those down there over a day, around a year’s worth of cars.

“Those roads are not built for that. The potholes, that are the bane of the lives of everybody, costs us millions of pounds.

“This is a direct consequence of heavy vehicles using those roads. I want to see a strategy come into place because people’s lives are being ruined.”

A few of these statements are factual errors that can easily be refuted. Potholes are not always caused by trucks using the roads but by a mixture of poor maintenance and bad weather conditions such as heavy rain or snow. There are already weight restrictions on local roads in Kent; I’ve seen them when travelling around areas like Pembury and Paddock Wood where trucks have to use the main roads unless they’re delivering to villages along the restricted minor roads. There are also signs warning truck drivers that the road through Goudhurst (see image), where the road is narrow there are overhanging buildings, is unsuitable and it is true that there are no weight limits near Cranbrook and Benenden but there could be good reasons for that — one may be that there is no real need, as the road through Benenden is not a major cut-through and even if you take the trucks off that road, they would have to go along other narrow roads through other villages.

The overwhelming majority of the traffic passing through Kent on the way to other places goes nowhere near these places, which are on the Sussex border; the traffic going to and from the Channel Tunnel and the three seaports (Dover, Ramsgate and Sheerness) use the M2 and M20 and a few connecting roads. Traffic passing through that area would mostly be going from London or Kent to the East Sussex coast, places like Rye, Hastings, Bexhill and Lewes. All the roads in that area are narrow and windy, including the A21 (the trunk road from London, bits of which have been upgraded but not most of it) and the A229 from Maidstone. The A259, which runs from Folkestone to Hastings and along the Sussex coast, is also a slow two-lane road, complete with a switchback outside Rye. There is no way of avoiding villages if you need to deliver things to anywhere in that part of the country and if they proposed to build dual carriageways to replace the current roads, it would provoke a flood of complaints, not only from environmentalists but from local NIMBYs as well.

And really, before anyone complains about the noise of trucks coming through their village, they might consider that everything they buy comes on the back of a truck, whether it’s manufactured goods or food. Kent is an agricultural area; the milk, meat and crops needs either a truck or a tractor to haul it away (and they would soon be complaining if they were being held up by tractors on main roads) and more trucks are needed to get them to the local shops. I as a city-dweller have to put up with trucks using roads near my house every day, so I don’t see why someone who lives in a leafy Kent village should have a better right to a quiet life than I do, and why do people choose to live in villages in Kent and commute by car to nearby large towns and cities, clogging all the villages up for several hours a day? Rules banning trucks from roads should be reserved for where they are too narrow or there is a risk of damage to buildings, or where they have been superseded by a by-pass. Otherwise, public roads are public and truck drivers are part of that same public as car drivers.

Image source: Ron Strutt, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

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Zac Goldsmith, an authority on FGM?

5 February, 2018 - 22:39

Two girls with their faces painted white, both wearing blue caps and a skirt made of strings hanging from the waist over other clothing, take part in a dance.Earlier today, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour featured a 6-minute segment on FGM, tomorrow apparently being “International Zero Tolerance on FGM Day” and who better to invite on than the co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on FGM, Jess Phillips (Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley) and Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park who was returned to Parliament last year after being unseated when he called a by-election over the expansion of Heathrow airport; many of us associate him with the Islamophobic smear campaign he ran while running for mayor against Sadiq Khan in collusion with the Australian race-baiter Lynton Crosby. You may notice a curious omission: all the three participants were white (the presenter being Jane Garvey) and therefore nobody is from a country where FGM is or has been commonplace. In fact, given that it was Woman’s Hour, you’d think they’d have found a survivor (they’re all women) or at least a woman who works with survivors. But no.

Woman’s Hour has a long history of sycophantic interviews with powerful people and especially powerful women; Madeleine Albright wasn’t asked about all the Iraqi children who had died as a result of sanctions, or about birth defects caused by depleted uranium and more recently Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, was not asked about the woman who killed herself after the man she accused of rape launched a private prosecution of her and Saunders’ department, despite the police not having charged her themselves, took it over. I suspect that its presenters (mostly if not all white) would rather spend a few minutes talking about something that affects only people of other cultures with two white, middle-class people she doesn’t have to worry about offending.

To give Goldsmith his due, he did mention the fact that, unlike other forms of abuse, children at risk of FGM are often at risk of no other abuse; this is an answer to those who claim that FGM is not being prosecuted because the police are afraid of being called racist or otherwise antagonising immigrant communities. The foster care placements that would be required when parents are locked up are already needed for children at risk of other forms of abuse or neglect. But neither of them challenged the myth that FGM is still widely practised in this country; despite the long history of settlement of people from Somalia, Sierra Leone and other FGM-endemic countries in the UK and despite endless series of statistics showing “new cases” of FGM that become known to the authorities, not one person has successfully been prosecuted. FGM is a killer and if the practice was going on on any significant scale in the UK, girls would be dying. The communities concerned would not be able to conceal it for very long.

Last week I saw someone tweet a letter he had received from Ivan Balhatchet of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) in response to two letters he had sent. The letter partly read:

May I apologise for the tardiness in my response, you can appreciate that as the National Policing Lead for this portfolio the need to prioritise resources to tackle all forms of Honour-Based Abuse, including Female Genital Mutilation. This includes working wtih both statutory and non-governmental organisations, in ways to prevent FGM and protect girls and women.

There are many nuances to this crime type, which even third-sector charitable organisations, do not claim to share a nexus with your rationale of concerns for the lack of successful prosecutions.

The letter gives no suggestion of any doubt that FGM is really going on in this country. The conviction rate of zero and the prosecution rate of just three in 33 years (since FGM was made a specific offence in 1985; two cases are ongoing, one has already resulted in acquittal) reflect a lack of cases, as it is inconceivable that not a single victim (as opposed to a minority) would have come forward in all that time with a credible case and a known perpetrator. Most of the communities involved are not closed; they do have contacts with outsiders, both of their own religion and others. The idea that these people are implacably set on continuing one part of their culture while changing many others (such as their language and ways of dressing) and hugely clever in concealing it is simply preposterous as well as racist.

Ava Vidal, the Black British comedian and writer, commented when I told her about the Goldsmith/Phillips interview, “I’ve noticed how the only issue that affects predominantly WOC (women of colour) certain feminists like to latch onto is FGM”. FGM is an ideal issue for a certain type of white imperialist as there are always a new lot of statistics they can put a newsworthy and alarming spin on and the fact that it involves a community they really do not know much about and do not want to means that the lack of evidence of it actually happen does not matter. Of course it’s happening, and anyone who denies it is just “in denial”. It allows white feminists to form alliances with the political Right, it gives them an excuse to throw off the pretence of intersectionality, to rant against multiculturalism, to feel superior to someone. There are those who want an ‘interventionist’ form of feminism, as is dominant in France, where white people assume they know what is best for everyone, and white women are assumed to know what is best for other women. It also allows the government to extend the surveillance of minority communities.

The question remains: where is the evidence that FGM is going on here? Not the rumours, not the statistics of “new cases”. The infections, the injuries, the deaths. We would be seeing these things if girls were being cut, or even if they were being brought back shortly after being cut. Where are they?

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