Last week seven men from Oxford were found guilty of various sexual offences, including rape, for ‘grooming’ young girls and ultimately raping and allowing other men to rape them. Many of them were in local authority care and others (as in Rochdale) were placed in care by their parents in an attempt to stop the abuse that they were complaining about, but carers refused to listen to the girls’ and their parents’ complaints, in one case telling one of the victims that it was ‘inappropriate’ to talk about the issue at that time. On Wednesday’s Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2, he had two guests: John Brown of the NSPCC’s sexual abuse programme, and Taj Hargey, an “imam” that the media commonly wheels out to issue sweeping negative generalisations about Muslims. The programme can be listened to here until next Wednesday and is the first feature (which starts after Michael Jackson’s Thriller ends).
I’ve written about my problems with Jeremy Vine’s type of “journalism” here before, and then as now it was a Muslim issue: the supposed “no-go areas” in east London that Muslims were trying to establish; this came after the then (thuggish New Labour) Home Secretary Charles Clarke was heckled by Muslims during a speech there for coming to a “Muslim area” with threatening talk. Then, Vine pitted Anjum Choudhary of al-Muhajiroun with Sara Khan, someone who had been on “The Apprentice”. Apparently just being a famous Muslim gave her the authority to talk about any issue related to Islam. The encounter became a slanging match with Choudhary speculating on whether she prayed or did the ritual ablutions. The purpose of the exercise was to give the impression of a “robust debate”, but was really just a good barney for entertainment’s sake.
In this encounter, John Brown made the point that the crime was about abuse of power and particularly male power, rather than anything to do with the perpetrators’ religion, and he also made the point that when sex crimes in general, the most common type of perpetrator was a white man, not an Asian one, and that there were currently cases under investigation of sexual abuse by groups of white men. This is one particular sex crime among many and the fact that “all” the perpetrators are of a given race or religious background is statistically less significant if the actual numbers are tiny. There were seven men convicted here. We are not talking percentages of the Asian community. The same statistical trick was played in reports of Muslim men’s involvement in rape in Norway, in which it was alleged that all rape in Oslo was perpetrated by Muslims. In fact, it was one category of rape, and the total number of perpetrators over the period referred to was six.
During Brown’s contributions, Vine persistently interrupted him, such as when he mentioned “the economy” as a possible reason for why Pakistani men were disproportionately involved in this particular type of crime (he explained that he meant their involvement in the “night-time economy” such as cab driving and take-away restaurants). I could tell that Brown was talking faster to try and fit things in before Vine interrupted him. By contrast, Vine did not interrupt Hargey, who was telling him what he wanted to hear, namely that the gangs do this because Muslim society and Muslim imams condition them to believe that white women are immodest, are pieces of meat and are there for the taking. Vine then suggested that they believe that “white women, and by extension the host society, are trash” and Hargey readily agreed with him.
Vine then presented Hargey’s claims to Brown and emphasised the fact that Hargey was an imam, clearly playing on Brown’s ignorance of Hargey’s position, or lack thereof. Hargey is a self-appointed imam in a self-established organisation and has no standing in the Muslim community whatsoever. He is known only for publicity stunts consisting of acts of fake worship calculated to embarrass the Muslims by making them look backward, such as prayers led by women, ‘religious’ marriages of women to non-Muslim men, and most recently, a Friday sermon given by a Christian bishop, and his take on the sources of Islamic law make his claim to be a Muslim, let alone an imam, extremely dubious. There were plenty of Muslims who could have given a more constructive answer to Vine’s questions, but would not have delivered the answers Vine wanted and suspected his audience wanted. Brown did not have any answer to Vine’s “but he’s an imam” line, and Vine persistently played the card that he had no explanation for why Asian men were responsible. Asking this is a bit like asking why Italians are disproportionately involved in the mafia.
These were criminal gangs. The majority of Muslims are not criminals and religious Muslims, as is well-known, are not supposed to drink alcohol, take other drugs to get high, or sleep with prostitutes or otherwise have sex outside marriage. What it is against Islam to consume, it is against Islam to sell, although some Muslims do indeed run shops that sell alcohol. You can find all of this on any Islamic website, and particularly on the fatwa websites that the media like to attack and mock every so often. It is all so well-known that there would not have been a need for any imam to tell his congregation that it was also haraam to ply teenage or pre-teenage girls with alcohol, to rape them and to offer them to other men to rape them, to take them away from their homes and parents to other towns for several days to do all this to them. It was probably completely beyond their imagination until the facts were revealed in the media recently, much as was the case with many other people. If these men had been to mosques and read any books on Islam, they would have known that everything they did was against Islam, but did it anyway.
There is a common argument that “Muslims regard white women as easy meat / trash”, besides being a huge slur which has very little truth in it, is entirely irrelevant when we take into account that several of the girls abused by the Oxford gang were only about 11 when first targeted. These rapes would likely have been their first sexual encounters. These were not young men casually taking advantage of young women of the same sage; this was calculated sexual abuse of children by a criminal gang of adults. Melanie Phillips made the same mistake in her article in the Mail in January 2011:
Who can be surprised that young white girls willingly go with these sexual predators who pick them up when so many stagger in and out of pubs and nightclubs in a drunken haze wearing clothes that leave little to the imagination and boasting of ‘blow jobs’ or how many guys they have ‘shagged’?
Who can be surprised when even sex education materials in schools advise on oral sex and other sexual practices; teen-targeted magazines, clothing and popular culture are saturated by sexuality; and family life has often disintegrated into a procession of mum’s casual pick-ups and gross parental indifference, leaving young girls desperate for affection from any quarter?
The disgust felt by some Muslim youths at such sexually promiscuous girls can then feed into a more general hatred and hostility towards Britain and the West. Such youths form themselves into gangs bound by a common feeling of being outsiders united by a profound hostility to the society into which they were born.
The fact is that girls seen around nightclubs are mostly adults, and regardless of what one may think of their dress and behaviour, they are not easy marks for these gangs because they are a bit older and wiser, they often have college courses or jobs to go back to, and the things offered by the gangs, such as alcohol or drugs, are no longer novel or exciting to them. The young girls exploited by these gangs were vulnerable; many of them were in care (and clearly not adequately supervised), but clearly it seems that they were easily led by the promise of ‘adult’ pleasures such as alcohol and the promise of ‘love’. These gangs not only know they cannot exploit Muslim girls; they also cannot exploit adult women of any cultural background either.
Hargey, in his Mail article published last Tuesday, blames pretty much every aspect of Muslim culture, generalising that Muslims in general regard women as second-class citizens and that mosques, including in Oxford, preach that women are “little more than chattels or possessions over whom they have absolute authority”. This is something that mosque committees in Oxford should take notice of, as if no such sermon has been delivered recently, Hargey’s claim is libellous. To claim that a sermon endorsing women obeying their husbands or wearing the hijab or even more than that amounts to a green light for criminal gangs to rape young girls is an enormous leap of logic. He then spuriously connects this to the “growing, reprehensible fashion for segregation at Islamic events on university campuses, with female Muslim students pushed to the back of lecture halls”. The fact is that separation of men and women at Islamic events, public and private, has always been standard practice and they are either in a separate room or on a different side of the hall from the men, not at the back. (In the recent event that caused so much fuss, there was actually a mixed seating area in the middle, with separate men’s and women’s areas in the wings.) It has become a matter of controversy only recently, due to agitation from secularist groups.
The media should not be blaming the generality of the Muslim community or “Muslim attitudes” when there were very real failings by the people who were meant to be looking after the girls, but there is also evidence that they are not empowered to protect the girls and prevent their abuse, by restricting their liberty if necessary. In the past, children (and particularly young girls) were not allowed out at night, and often not even in the daytime unless supervised or with trusted friends. These days, care homes are powerless to prevent them leaving if they want to, unless the home is a designated secure facility, and such places have been closing one after the other for years, mostly for economic reasons. This should change, and the police should return children to their homes or a place of safety if found hanging around at night or with strange men or ‘undesirables’. The fact of adults hanging around with young girls they are not related to should, in itself, be a cause for investigation, and should be prevented if there is not a very good explanation; supplying minors with alcohol is illegal, and if this had been stopped at that stage, the rape and trafficking could have been prevented. Finally, when the girls complained that they were actually being abused, they were told to go away, as were parents when they complained to both police and social services. There is ample evidence that care workers, social workers and the police knew that this was going on (they even took the girls to a sexual health clinic in Reading), but did nothing until the abuse had been going on for years.
There are attitudes to women among whites that match anything found in the Muslim community. There is a casuality about rape nowadays in some quarters; there are rape jokes told in theatres and on TV and people talk about a sports team getting “raped” rather than beaten. This translates into actual rape when a bunch of juvenile sportsmen get together and a drunk 16-year-old girl stumbles into their midst, and come within a hair’s breadth of getting away with raping and publicly humiliating her until international outrage force the authorities to take action. There have been plenty of surveys carried out that show that many white people, not only Pakistanis, think a woman who wears a short skirt is “asking for it” if she gets raped. So, it is not unsurprising that the same negative attitudes may have influenced the actions of the social services and police when told that young girls on council estates in Oxford, Rochdale and elsewhere were being abused — oh, they were in care (nuff said), they were from broken homes and/or council estates, they were hanging around with older men, they were half-dressed, they were drinking and having sex … no better than they should be. It’s not imams’ job to police Asian criminals or to look after girls in care. It’s the state’s job, and the people whose job it was didn’t do it.
Last week Professor Stephen Hawking pulled out of a conference in Israel, reportedly as part of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions on the grounds of it operating an Apartheid-type regime against its Palestinian subjects. The decision prompted a number of Israeli sympathisers to reassess their views of Hawking from being a genius who triumphed over adversity to being a “stupid cripple” who should hurry up and die, or similar, but one Israeli law firm recommended that Hawking change the processor he uses in his tablet to communicate, namely the Intel Core i7 which is developed at an Intel base in Israel. There are a number of reasons why the demand represents the ignorance and bias of those making it.
The Intel Core i7 is a standard PC processor which runs standard PC software, and this chip architecture dominates the computer market except for most smartphones and tablets (which use ARM-designed chips) and some legacy server systems (which run on RISC chips designed by IBM, HP and others, now mostly defunct or taken over, in the 80s and 90s but which are largely being phased out). Its dominance is not due to its technical superiority but because of the dominance of the ‘Wintel’ hardware and software stack on the desktop from the 90s onwards, and the ‘Lintel’ stack in the server market. The last consumer computer maker to use other processors besides Intel’s (Apple) switched from IBM and Motorola PowerPC processors in the early 2000s to Intel, because IBM could not produce energy-efficient 64-bit processors for laptops. The latest major advance was in fact conducted by AMD in the early 2000s, which pioneered 64-bit PC technology before Intel, but Intel took that technology and ran with it and now makes the leading 64-bit PC processors.
I did a brief investigation of links between other chip makers and Israel in the early 2000s when looking into buying my Mac, after reading pro-boycott material that suggested using AMD processors which were, then, superior to Intel’s Pentium and discovered that AMD in fact also had investments in Israel. They invest there because it has a highly-educated population with a high proportion of immigrants from the USA and Europe who speak English or other European languages, and which has a substantial interest in developing high-tech security products. It’s virtually impossible to use any computer technology without using some that has links to Israel. This blog uses WordPress, which itself depends on PHP whose lead developer, Zeev Suraski, lives in Israel (although nobody has to pay to use it).
Of course, there are serious ethical objections to the political regimes in several of the other countries which contribute to the cheap technology we all enjoy, as well as the other cheap consumer goods — the lack of political freedom and rights to organise as workers in China, for example, and the minerals used in smartphones that come from war-ravaged parts of Africa, which often passes through the hands of armies which plunder and rape local populations. Some, like George Monbiot, will not use this technology for that reason, but George Monbiot is quite able to speak and to use his hands to type and write, and able to cycle so as to hand-deliver his missives if he so wishes — he is not almost completely paralysed like Hawking, or bedridden and unable to use a laptop or desktop computer and thus dependent on a smartphone or tablet as are some disabled people that I have read and written about here in the past.
Hawking has in fact visited Israel four times, and has visited a number of other countries with poor human rights records including China and Iran. Those countries are repressive across the board; Israel runs an Apartheid-type regime backed with a fair amount of dehumanising and racism which I have personally seen plenty of on pro-Israel blogs over the years. Its boycotting is entirely justified. This would not be the first time that such people have reminded critics of their racist policies of what they have done for them: I recall hearing a recording of Pik Botha, a minister under Apartheid in South Africa, telling the British that they had no business telling South Africans what to do with the natives there as South Africans had fought for them in the war. If Israel wants to be regarded as part of the “western club”, it should expect criticism of its open discrimination and brazen racism.
Image source: Wikipedia.
“I’m not a ‘person with a disablity’, I’m a disabled person” (from xojane by Lisa Egan)
Recently I’ve noticed that a number of blogs by disabled people in the UK insist on referring to themselves, and similarly affected people, as “disabled people” rather than “people with disabilities”, the internationally recognised term which was commonly used in the UK until fairly recently, and that this term has become common (though not used consistently) in organisations such as government departments and student unions. The theory behind this is that the former term reflects a “social model” in which disability is the product of social barriers rather than a person’s physical impairments — the latter being termed the “medical model” in which disability is a medical problem to be cured, if possible. I see several problems with this use of language: it puts the British disability community out of step with those abroad, it regularly causes misunderstandings and misrepresentations, it is not inclusive, and is a false dichotomy in which an ideal model is presented in opposition to a composite of the worst disablist attitudes.
British social-modellers present the social and medical models as an “either-or”: according to the medical model, they say, disability is inherent and the social and physical barriers just have to be accepted. The British activist Lisa Egan, who wrote the piece linked at the top of this article, called it a right-wing, “tough shit” attitude (here in the comments), while the British charity Scope (for people with cerebral palsy) offers this example:
A teenager with a learning difficulty wants to work towards living independently in their own home but is unsure how to pay the rent. Under the social model, the person would be supported so that they are enabled to pay rent and live in their own home. Under a medical model, the young person might be expected to live in a communal home.
This is quite a big leap of logic, and not one that is accepted by the disability community overseas. In other countries, there has been a focus on rights, rather than definition of disability, and the right to live in as unrestrictive a situation as possible is considered a right by disability campaigners in other countries such as the USA, where there have been legal rulings (such as Olmstead v EW & LC) that people should receive care in the least restrictive setting (in that particular case, the two named litigants, Elaine Wilson and Lois Curtis (right), had been held unnecessarily in a mental hospital for most of their lives since adolescence). Such restrictive care is not opposed because it is the source of their disability, or is disability itself, but because it is a denial of civil rights and a kind of oppression. At the moment, the Washington, DC-based Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities is fighting to get Jenny Hatch out of a group home in which she is being held against her will. The habit of calling an impairment “a disability”, or the impaired person a “person with a disability” does not equate to “it’s your problem” or “stay where you are” to them, clearly.
I have heard some people with chronic illnesses say that the medical model is in fact valid for their conditions while the social model is valid for physical impairments. They will say that for them it is not the lack of lifts, ramps, voice-activated or talking computers or support to live independently that is disabling (indeed, some can walk and do not even need adaptations), but chronic pain, persistent vomiting and repeated infections and hospitalisations that are disabling. There is some validity to this: the social model was invented by those with physical impairments and (partly) reflects their experience, and has been criticised by Tom Shakespeare for ignoring the experiences of women (although the enthusiasm of disabled women for the model perhaps is enough to dismiss the gender critique) and people with learning difficulties, and for downplaying the relevance of the body in public while its advocates “talk about aches and pains and urinary tract infections” in private. Many physical impairments also bring various health complications which cannot be overcome with technology or adaptations and which significantly impinge on someone’s ability to lead a full, independent life. However, it is a mistake for chronically ill people to embrace the “medical model” because this is a straw man invented by the same people who invented the social model; it is a peg to hang hostile ideas on.
That it has connotations with physically impairment makes it advantageous to that section of the disability community, and allows one of them to say “I am disabled”, such that a layperson will believe that the physical condition is being referred to, while an “in-person” will know that they are referring to the social model and being “disabled by society”. The term ‘disabled’ makes any lay-person think of someone with an obvious impairment, such as a physical condition that requires the use of a wheelchair, which is perhaps a legacy of the time when such people were the most prominent disability activists, as they were the most able to get out and about while those with mental illnesses and learning difficulties were still trapped in long-stay hospitals and the chronically ill were more isolated than they are now because nobody had Internet access. The term “people with disabilities”, still common parlance internationally, is inclusive: people learned that a disability might be something they could not see, but might not be so accepting of the idea that someone with Asperger’s syndrome, for example, who can walk, talk, see, hear and speak coherently if a little oddly, is “disabled”, and at a time in which the press are on the lookout for people to expose as “fake disabled”, and pouring scorn on the idea that “10% of the population is disabled”, using misleading terminology (particularly at an official level) puts people in danger.
A further complication with the social model is that anyone with a learning difficulty which presents partly with behavioural problems will often have been accused of blaming other people for their problems, even when they are under significant pressure from bullies and unreasonable teachers and other adults in authority. Any attempt by them or their parents or carers to claim that their disability comes from society and not from themselves will be met with derision. The nature of these impairments means that dealing with normal social situations is made more difficult or stressful, although they can be made easier by such measures as getting rid of unreasonable demands or stupid rules. As with so many other impairments, the exclusion that results is a mixture of individual and societal factors.
A recent article on Disability Now criticised a new textbook for claiming that the social model was outdated and that it posited a “false dichotomy” between the disabled and the able-bodied. In my opinion the real false dichotomy is between the “social model”, and a doctrinaire version of it which makes ideologically-loaded jargon of everyday English words, and a “medical model” which calls disability “tough shit” and denies the necessity of any support or adaptation. Not everyone who does not adopt this version of the social model wholesale adopts the so-called medical model or the ideas attributed to it, and it is insulting to disability activists in other parts of the world, where barriers to acceptance are often higher than they are here, to suggest that they do.
Yesterday there were local elections in large parts of the UK and the news reported the fact that UKIP had made significant gains, with their number of councillors rising from eight to 147 and both the Tories and Liberal Democrats losing huge numbers (335 and 124 respectively). You can find the full results (including a clickable version of the map on the right) here among other places, and it is noticeable that three rural councils in the western Midlands and three in eastern England have gone grey for ‘no overall control’. In some of these places, the Tories could form an alliance with UKIP to control the council, but not all of them — in others (e.g. Gloucestershire), the Liberal Democrats are still the second party. The press made the UKIP surge the story because it’s new; what they do not report is what has not changed, and this reporting makes UKIP look more important than they really are.
The most important thing to note is where there were no elections yesterday. The white bits on the map are the most populated areas of the country: the unitary authorities and former metropolitan counties such as Greater London, Merseyside and West Yorkshire, which are where the big and small cities all are. Many of the counties that had elections today have had the urban centres excised to form unitary authorities, and the only major city which has had an election is Bristol, and then only a third of the seats were up for election. This was an election in rural and small-town England (and one small part of Wales) and these are the Tory heartlands where there was the most to lose to UKIP. David Davis, a former Tory leadership contender who is on the right of the party, suggested that the party listen to its grass-roots rather than the “metropolitan elite”, but there are plenty of metropolitan voters who vote Tory not because they are little Englanders but because they are liberal Thatcherites, some of whom supported New Labour but many of whom have now gone where they think the tax cuts are. They are likely to have friends who are from ethnic minorities, even in mixed relationships, as well as gay friends. They are more likely to vote Labour or Lib Dem than UKIP, which despite its elitist leadership, appeals to a provincial white base.
Second, they are still a minority party, even in the white provincial ‘heartlands’, and are only the fourth biggest party in those areas, with fewer UKIP councillors than independents and the Lib Dems still having more than double their total. Only in Norfolk and Lincolnshire (which excludes the Scunthorpe and Grimsby areas, which are separate unitary authorities where there were no elections yesterday) are UKIP the second party and who knows, perhaps they might coalesce with Labour or, in Norfolk, the Lib Dems instead. That their share of the council seats is only 13% of the Tories’ may be because people associate them with their anti-EU stance and so are less likely to vote for them in a council election where they cannot do anything about that, so it is possible that their Parliamentary vote in these areas might be higher. These being council elections, there is a lower turn-out and people are more likely to vote for fringe parties because they are not voting for a government.
However, next time round, it does appear that the Tories are going to face a heavy challenge from UKIP, which will seem like less of a one-man show by Farage now that they have councillors as well as MEPs and thus a body of members who have fought elections. Labour really need to redouble their efforts to win back disillusioned voters who defected to the Lib Dems during the New Labour era and particularly the Bush wars, but they also need to make the case for remaining in the EU to counter the Little Englander threat. Pulling out of the EU will not only be bad for trade but also mean our freedom to travel and work abroad is greatly restricted, and there may well be a back flow of British ex-pats as well as an outflow of formerly legal EU migrants. People with spouses from the continent might find the going a lot more difficult as well, much as with Brits with other foreign spouses — since we are unlikely to join Schengen, as Norway has. Labour should remember that UKIP run on a similar platform to the Tories’ in 2001 and 2005, both largely based on “common sense” and press sentiment appeals, and lost handily both times. Daily Mail readers are, after all, a minority as well. Labour should also head off UKIP’s appeal to the disillusioned working class by exposing their populist appeal for what it is, because as this blog notes, Farage is not a ‘man of the people’ but an extremely wealthy man from an exclusive London suburb and his party’s policies are to benefit the rich, not the rest of us. He and his friends no more know the price of eggs than Cameron and Osborne do. It’s not envy (unlike all the Tory benefit scrounger resentment politics), it’s about electing people who know about real life, not people who just presume to tell people what they’re thinking.
I received a letter today from the Attorney General’s office, in response to an open letter I had sent (which many readers of this blog had signed) regarding the sentence of Jordan Sheard, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for the killing of Stephen Simpson at a party in June 2012. The letter was dated 18th April, so it may well have been sitting in our mailbox for a couple of weeks (we tend to pull letters out of the top of it rather than open it up), and this news has already appeared in the local media in Sheffield. The letter says that the Attorney General (Dominic Grieve, QC MP) has decided to refer the sentence to the Court of Appeal, where it will be heard by three Court of Appeal judges who will decide whether or not to increase the sentence.
I am very pleased with this news: three and a half years is a derisory sentence for causing a brutal death to a vulnerable man. It is still a mystery that he was not charged with murder.
Rosa Monckton, as I have written on this page before, is an extremely privileged lady. I do not mean privilege as in white or, needless to say, male privilege. I mean she has enormous advantages: a lot of money, very powerful political connections and the ear of the national media. Not for her an article published in an obscure corner of the Daily Mail website, no, this woman can get a BBC documentary produced to air her views. She was a friend of Princess Di, she’s married to the former editor of the Sunday Telegraph who is also the son of a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher. Her views are taken seriously, particularly when they concern something which is no doubt very dear to her: the welfare of people with learning disabilities. Like her daughter, Domenica, who has Down’s syndrome. Unfortunately, she is somewhat set in her ways, not very fond of people with such disabilities having personal autonomy, and they bring out the prejudice in a lot of readers, such as the comment posted below her most recent lengthy article in the Daily Mail:
Thank you for highlighting this…independent living didn’t work before it won’t work again, nothing has changed people with downs are children and the do gooders need to get to grips with that ,not promoting human rights on the vulnerable people that are at risk..at the bottom of this it purely down to finances …yet again.
Rosa Monckton portrays her daughter as an eternally innocent child who will never be able to live on her own or make decisions about anything significant. She also gives a few extreme examples of people with learning disabilities whose ‘autonomy’ led to them making bad decisions and living in squalor or getting into serious danger whose parents were unable to extricate them from these situations because they were freely chosen and the disabled person had every right to make the choice. These incidents could well have been the results of poorly-trained social workers who did not have the resources to try to talk the disabled people out of these ideas; it also seems she is biased towards the families’ point of view, as she is in the same position, and so when they tell her that their relative wanted to leave his residential home “in a fit of pique”, “following a disagreement with one of the other residents” (rather than because of a serious conflict), she believes them and relays their story unquestioningly. We know that there is a Court of Protection in the UK which rules on such decisions when someone does not have the mental capacity to make them themselves, although it is reported that it is very expensive. However, the Mental Capacity Act (which regulates the Court of Protection) stipulates that making mistakes or unwise decisions does not mean someone lacks mental capacity, and acts that others disapprove of do not necessarily justify being put into a care home when the same would not happen to anyone else, and less than optimal housekeeping skills (as evidenced by an untidy room or messy kitchen) also do not necessarily imply incapability.
However, Rosa Monckton’s daughter is not every person with Down’s syndrome, or every person with a learning disability. There are those who can manage their own affairs or at least some of them, to gain qualifications, to hold a job, even to get married, and some have found enormous barriers stacked against them. Recently a British newspaper reported that a man who had sustained a brain injury in a motorcycle accident in 2003 was still unable to gain control over his own money, years after doctors had found him to be of normal intelligence (the same case was exposed in a BBC Radio 4 documentary in 2010, so it is depressing that he is still disempowered, and disturbing given that his deputy has a vested interest in keeping things that way). A few years ago a young woman with a mild learning disability, Kerry Robertson (now McDougall) tried to marry in a church in Scotland, but her plans were thwarted when social services objected, telling the church she did not have the mental capacity to understand marriage. When she told them she was pregnant, the social worker told her that this was foolish as the baby would be taken off her. She and her boyfriend, now husband, fled to Ireland, but the baby was removed and only returned to them after months in foster care and a couple of weeks in a supervised mother-and-baby centre. The mother had, in fact, gained a qualification in childcare and had been employed looking after children in Scotland before having to flee. It appears that a mixture of prejudices against her disability and family background contributed to the social workers’ devastating decision.
More recently, I have been following the case of another young woman with Down’s syndrome, Jenny Hatch, who has been held against her will in a series of “homes” in Virginia since last summer because of a hostile guardianship application. Jenny had lived and worked independently up until last year, but was forced into a group home (what we call a care home) because of disputes over who would pay for medical treatment following a bicycle accident. Jenny has friends who would take her in and employ her again, and has expressed her hostility to her mother having control over her affairs very clearly, but the authorities have so far disregarded her wishes. As her computer and mobile phone have been seized by the ‘home’ staff, she will not be able to read this or any other BADD post at the time of publication, but Blogging Against Disablism Day 2013 coincides with the day her case is due to be heard in the Virginia courts. The repeated sneers at “human rights” (quotes hers) in Monckton’s article stick out a mile, but the denial of human rights — there is no “so-called” about it — leads to disempowerment, isolation and misery.
Monckton refers to the case of Gemma Hayter, a young woman with learning disabilities who was murdered by some so-called friends in Rugby, Warwickshire, in 2010. She made the same point about hate crime in her documentary last year, and then also used it as part of her argument that people with learning disabilities are just not cut out to live in the real world. The problem is that abuse exists in care homes as well, and while no evidence has been found of other homes quite as bad as Winterbourne View that exist now, there has been a whole history of serious abuse (neglect and physical and sexual abuse) of disabled and elderly people, and indeed children, in communal homes for years. More recently there have been reports of serious sexual abuse of girls at a school which caters for teenagers with learning disabilities in Hampshire, and at such places (like the special school I went to), certain types of abuse (particularly by peers) is perceived as trivial, even normal. Residential care is not an option for every learning disabled person: besides the potential for abuse by staff, there is also the potential for conflict with other residents, something that is largely absent when someone is living on their own. Moving people out of their own flats into ‘homes’, besides being very expensive because of high land costs and the need for high levels of staff, is not an option for everyone; it may result in trading one type of abuse for another, and it only guarantees protection from hate crime if the disabled people are never allowed out unsupervised.
We cannot live in fear of what probably will not happen, and we should expect people with learning disabilities, particularly mild ones, to do so either. A few days ago someone drew my attention to a Twitter account called @EndingRape, which posted a whole series of “safety tips” among which were some fairly sensible ones (although they are often quite valid for both sexes and for threats other than rape), but also a whole lot of liberty-restricting, fear-mongering ones, like this:
Tip 52: Girls walking home from school should always walk with another person.— Ending Rape (@EndingRape) April 26, 2013
I have no problem with public advice warning women of known threats such as unlicensed minicabs or people who would spike their drinks, but this series of tips seems to take no account of differing situations — there are places in the western world where it is quite safe for young girls to walk home from school without a chaperone, much as there are places that are fairly safe for people with learning disabilities to live and where they will not be harassed or threatened (although there is no entirely reliable ways of identifying them — in some areas there are middle-class people who think that having mentally disabled people around lowers property prices, while in others you have council-estate yobs with nothing much to do who attack vulnerable people for fun). People’s liberty should not be more restricted than is necessary; some sort of middle path needs to be found so that people with these kinds of impairments are able to enjoy some degree of autonomy and liberty while still being protected from hostile outsiders and, if necessary (and it is not always) themselves.
Monckton acknowledges that part of the reason why some people are placed in the community without support is because it is financially convenient for local authorities: it is the authorities’ duty to pay fees if they are in residential care, while central government pays if they are in their own flat and receiving Housing Benefit. However, we do not see Monckton mention the word “cuts” anywhere in this article or in her earlier BBC documentary at a time when the government are cutting funds to local authorities, including for services to disabled people such as day centres and support to find employment, as well as to centrally-funded provision for disabled people, such as the Independent Living Fund. Local authorities have been constrained in what they can raise and what they can spend for years, and this got worse from the 1980s on when her father-in-law’s friends were in government, to the point that they are reduced to selling pockets of land (such as playing fields and car parks) for development, just to raise money. Monckton can name a certain part of the problem but will not talk about the cause of it because she is politically compromised. It has been common to criticise a programme to release people from institutions into the community on the grounds that “it’s all about saving money” when the real agenda is that some, or most, of the people released really should not have been.
In the 1990s, I recall seeing an episode of the British police drama, A Touch of Frost, in which a man with Down’s syndrome, who was preparing to marry his fiancée who also had Down’s syndrome (against her family’s wishes) was suspected of murdering a young girl, wrongly as it turned out. The female manager of the home he was living in (who looked close to retirement) told the lead detective at one point, “what I do know is: the less the mentally handicapped expect from life, the easier their lives are; the less they have to do with sex, the better”. Attitudes like these that needlessly restrict people’s lives should be a thing of the past, but whatever Monckton intends, if her views are allowed to dominate the discussion on the care and autonomy of people with learning disabilities, they will become more prominent: the attitude that people with these impairments should not expect too much, and not much should be expected of them. While I do not dispute that some people with these conditions live quite happily with their families and others in care homes, others do not want or need either. People should not have their lives needlessly restricted because of others’ fears. Let’s not just complain about bad decisions and penny-pinching: let’s campaign for proper funding for different levels of supported living, as this will reduce the risk of all the abuses described.
This rather hilarious article represents a BBC journalist’s ostensible attempt to live on £1 worth of food a day. You’ll notice that the food is rather appetising and colourful and looks expensive. A brief look at the price lists reveal that it was in fact more expensive than the single-serving cost and that the journalist cheated, one ingredient from the first meal alone blowing his daily budget and the total spend (of that meal alone, remember) coming to £8.27. The article is an insult to those who really do have to live on a tiny amount of food a day.
The Goldfish has already done a brilliant point-by-point takedown of this ridiculous article. Briefly, they consist of:
The bit about shopping around is particularly relevant, because where I live, there are three supermarkets (Waitrose, Co-Op and Tesco) within walking distance; in the nearest town, there’s a Sainsbury’s and another Waitrose. There isn’t a Morrison’s in either place — the nearest one to me is in Wimbledon, which is a 20-minute bus ride away and definitely not in convenient walking or even cycling distance. If I had nothing to do but make food, I could do a round trip of the New Malden and Kingston supermarkets on my bike, but Morrison’s is really not feasible. If I had to work, I’d be able to choose really one or two of these. If you don’t live in a big town, you might not have access to more than one or at most two — or even a pretty small Co-op which won’t have all the ingredients you might need to live on an extremely limited budget.
The article does not use genuinely frugal ingredients. If you really had to live on £5 over 5 days, soup mix is your friend. A pack of it costs 89p from Waitrose (I tried finding it in Sainsbury’s, but no luck) and it contains pearl barley, green and yellow split peas, marrowfat peas, haricot beans, lentils and brown rice. You can make considerably more than five meals with this stuff. You soak the mix in water for at least five hours, replace the water, boil it for ten minutes then simmer for 20 to 30 more minutes. Given that this will take some 5p out of your budget daily, this adds space for stock cubes or maybe some chopped tomatoes, or some tinned meat or fish (the price of that has gone up, but a tin of sardines costs 55p — mackerel used to be affordable, but a tin of that is around 90p or more). You might even be able to fry up some of that courgette and add that to the mix (and you don’t have to buy a pack of six — if you use a quarter or a third of it, the rest will keep in the fridge for a few days).
That won’t make a meal replete with huge amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables, but will be a balanced meal even if a rather dull one. Milk and bread will add quite a bit to the cost — a four-pint bottle of milk costs £1.29 and a loaf of bread starts from about 75p, so that’s more than £2 out of your five-day £5 budget to begin with. However, the soup mix will last you for much longer than five days, if you’re only cooking for yourself. The budget only covers ingredients — it doesn’t cover the water bill, especially if it’s metered, or the gas or electricity you need to cook any of this, or the container you’ll need for the soup mix once you open the packet. But it’s possible to eat on £5 over 5 days, and it’s a healthy but somewhat boring and repetitive diet although there will be left-overs and you will be able to vary the diet if you have to go another five days on another £5. The BBC’s “attempt” only shows the cluelessness of a journalist who has never had to live anything like this frugally, and poor editing by the BBC’s website staff. It uses more than eight times its budget in a day and if you were on Jobseekers’ Allowance, you could not afford to spend this much on food, and certainly not to waste this much money and food.
Recently there has been a major outbreak of measles in South Wales, thought to be largely the result of large numbers of parents not getting their children vaccinated during the MMR scare of 1998. Despite the scare, and its author, having been utterly discredited in the years since, there remains an industry seeking to ‘cure’ autism through purging the body of mercury, supposedly the agent (delivered in the MMR vaccine) that caused the condition. It’s not only autism: chronic illnesses in general are held up as reasons not to vaccinate and anyone with a chronic illness apparently triggered by a vaccine is seen as an easy mark, as I saw a couple of weeks ago when a friend of mine, who has severe ME, sought the advice of an anti-vaccine group on Facebook (which also has its own website) to “detox” from the chemical in a vaccine she received which triggered her illness.
I do not have a problem with parents who refuse specific vaccines because they fear for their child’s safety (or individuals who fear for their own). The people I am against is those who promote the refusal of all vaccines, and they usually fall into two categories — one seeks to make money out of selling books about how harmful vaccines are or quack “cures” for people who have supposedly suffered vaccine damage (Andrew Wakefield and the Geier father-and-son team are examples), and the other consists of people entirely sold on the theory of vaccines being harmful and causing all manner of diseases in themselves, and that these diseases are worse than what they prevent (when in fact the diseases they prevent are often mass killers and inflict terrible suffering), and are unable to think past this when asked a question about a vaccine. The first group are definitely worse than the second, of course, but one can easily cross the line from the second to the first type and it is the second type you will mostly encounter in online anti-vaccination forums and they are just as capable of spouting harmful nonsense as the first.
My friend told them that she had had a vaccine more than ten years ago, as a pre-teen, and had suffered all the severe pain and disability associated with very severe ME since then. She asked them what she could do to “detox” from that vaccine. The answers included “CEASE Therapy” (which stands for Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression, when this woman is not autistic and ME is not an autistic spectrum disorder), chlorella and cilantro (for the elimination of “heavy metals”, which she had not mentioned), seeing a homoeopath (when she had already said that she had seen one, to no effect, and in fact the homoeopath had become “frustrated” at the failure of any of his remedies to remedy anything), along with suggestions to eat a lot of fresh vegetables — a perfectly healthy idea, but not a cure for ME. None of them disagreed with the need to “detox” from what was in that vaccine, or tried to put her off. The truth is, almost all of it is probably out of her body already, and her symptoms are caused by a virus, or her immune system’s reaction to it.
Anyone familiar with the ME community will know of a number of people who developed ME after having a vaccine, and the vaccine differs from case to case: Lynn Gilderdale famously became very seriously ill after her BCG and there have been cases involving the MMR and HPV vaccines as well. The strongest theory about the causation of ME is that it is caused by an enterovirus, a virus that lives in the digestive system but when it gets to other parts of the body, it has a ‘preference’ for nerve tissue. When an infected nerve is disturbed, as by the insertion of a needle, this provokes an escalation of the infection; there were documented cases of people developing paralytic polio (the polio virus is also an enterovirus) after receiving a polio vaccine. It is also possible that there is an auto-immune reaction to the deactivated virus in the vaccine or some other component, and either of these theories might better account for the degree of suffering over such a long period, which is greatly out of proportion to any ‘toxin’ (which, remember, does not appear to have poisoned anyone else) delivered in the vaccine.
I don’t, of course, blame my friend for wanting to get well, and for looking in whatever place seems to offer a cure. I blame the people on the forum who give her false hope, suggesting one pointless and expensive false cure after another. They do the same, of course (often making a lot of money) with parents of children with severe autism: selling them cures, often based on “chelation” (detoxing from minute quantities of mercury) which are often both cruel to the affected person (often a child) and expensive for the parents. Much as with multiple sclerosis and with so many other debilitating long-term conditions, you cannot detox your way out of ME. As with MS, we need a cure, or an effective treatment, for ME. Until there is one, quacks will continue to make money and well-meaning blinkered people will continue to point desperate people in the wrong direction.
Recently you may have heard that Rolf Harris, a well-known Australian entertainer who has been on the TV for one purpose or another (and in the pop charts occasionally) since the 1960s, was taken in for questioning over a historic accusation of a sex offence of some sort, and released on police bail (i.e. he has yet to be charged with anything, let alone convicted). There is a post here on a feminist blog I read occasionally, which makes the not unreasonable point that Harris having been arrested hasn’t ruined anyone’s childhood even if it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth — it’s those who were sexually abused whose childhoods were ruined. I made the point in a comment that actually, Harris hasn’t been charged, let alone convicted, and that we do not know anything about the claims — where and when the alleged offence happened, for example. Stavvers (the blog owner) called my comment a “non-sequitur” which “smacks of being linked to this obsessive focus on perpetrators rather than survivors”. Another comment, however, from one “rachel scotland”, really took the biscuit:
I’m going to say this one more time today:
“Innocent until proven guilty” isn’t meant for individuals and it’s utterly disingenuous when people pretend it is.
People can (should) assume people are guilty simply on the word of the victim. That simple. There’s no philosophical victory to be won here over who is the most magnanimous towards accused rapists, or who’s the most even-handed with their “listening to both sides” of a sexual assault.
When someone tells you they were raped, you believe them. “Innocent until proven guilty” when you are not a fucking judge means “I don’t want to believe the victim”.
This is a really dangerous position to take. Members of the public are expected to just believe someone is guilty of rape, just because someone says he is — and not someone who has even come to us and told us, but because the media tell us that the police say that someone, about whom no details whatever (not even their sex) have been disclosed, says they have committed a sexual offence of some sort (they have not said rape), that this person is guilty.
The only person who has a duty to believe that a self-identified rape victim is telling the truth is a rape counsellor or some other person whose job it is to advocate for them (and if they do not, they should resign). A juror or judge, depending on who is conducting a trial (if there even is one) has the duty to be unbiased and weigh up the evidence presented to them and judge accordingly. Anyone who doesn’t know about even the first detail of the evidence against someone has no duty whatsoever, other than to refrain from saying something in a public forum that could prejudice any trial (this is actually the law in the UK). If we all assume that a man is guilty of rape just because someone says it, then how are we going to find unprejudiced jurors? It’s not a question of “not wanting to believe the victim”, as I do not know if there is one. While it is known that the proportion of false to genuine rape accusations is small (3%), it’s not negligible and when the accused is wealthy and famous, there are added reasons for doing it — the desire to knock a famous person down, annoyance at having lost out on a contract or been leapfrogged, to name a couple. And the fact that the conviction rate is so low means that mud sticks, even if there is a not-guilty verdict.
Besides which, a culture in which people generally believed that any specific accusation of rape or sexual assault were true would lead to a lot more false ones, particularly against vulnerable or friendless people (quite possibly, those with learning disabilities — think Stephen Downing or Stephan Kiszko), or those with enemies of whatever kind, or in some places, men from certain minorities. “Innocent until proven guilty” may not be a firm principle for ordinary people, but neither should we believe serious accusations without proof, let alone from unknown quantities on a third-hand basis. It leads to injustice, even if not to wrongful imprisonment — to marriages breaking down, to people losing their jobs or businesses, to violence. It will probably not cause Rolf Harris much harm to see a TV show get pulled at his age, but for a younger artist it could mean a career ended, which is entirely right and proper if he is guilty, but obviously not otherwise.
Michael Gove, the current education secretary, has announced extended school days and longer terms, allowing schools to stay open until 4:30pm and reduce the length of the summer holidays to four weeks. He has given two reasons: one being that British children are supposedly being left behind by those in Asia who already have longer days and shorter holidays, and the other being that the current pattern is out of date, not taking into account the fact that there will be nobody to pick many children up at 3pm as there were in the past. Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has pointed out that private schools have a holiday that is two weeks longer in the summer than state schools and do not apparently feel any need to change. David Priestland, in today’s Guardian, notes that Gove has already dismissed the reactions of experts, as free-market ideologues (both Tory and Labour) have done for the past 35 years, and will carry on and do what he thinks is right.
Nobody seems to have mentioned the effect this change (which has been talked about for years in one form or another) will have on children. I have heard mention of the ability of children (especially younger children) to concentrate as long as they to currently, let alone longer, but that is not the only way this harms children. Put simply, school is for some children an ordeal, sometimes because they have special needs of one sort or another, and they find the stress of having to mix with numerous other children they find are hostile to them, or deal with shouty or bossy teachers and uniforms and rules, and some because they are being bullied either by other pupils or teachers. For these children, a home-time as early as possible is vital, and forcing them to stay longer will cause serious problems and possibly end up making it impossible for them to stay there.
There are other practical problems: ending a primary school day at 4:30pm will mean children are going home in the dark in winter, and even if “Berlin time” is adopted (in which case sunset will be around 5pm in mid-winter), children finishing school at 4:30pm will only have 30 minutes to get home before sundown, so it takes no account of those who have long journeys to make and the added dangers they are likely to face. On top of this, they will also have only 30 minutes to beat the evening rush hour, which will make their journeys home even longer and more difficult, along with every other commuter’s journey. It has added convenience for anyone using the roads before that time, of course, ending the “long rush” that runs from 3pm to 7pm in some areas with schoolchildren and workers commuting at different times, but the advantage to delivery drivers (and I am one) is not worth the extra risk to children. If the extra time is going to be spent teaching, does this mean homework will be ended? That will, of course, mean that even more of children’s lives are going to be dominated by school and schoolwork and they will have no time for play, or out-of-school activities, or sitting and talking with their family, before they have to go to bed. Late finishing times are good only for boarding schools (where there is no commute) and for places like sixth-form colleges where not all the day is spent in actual lessons.
It’s an all-round stupid idea, which will be entirely impracticable for everyone except some working parents, and other alternatives should be found for where children are too young to go home alone. Schools are not meant to be creches serving parents who need a babysitter while they work; they are meant to be places of stimulation and education.
The David Priestland article, besides giving a useful history of governments heeding the advice of experts only when they tell them what they want to hear, also notes that “intellectuals and ‘boffins’” do not enjoy the status in the UK that they do on the Continent:
So highly esteemed are academic qualifications in Germany that two ministers have recently resigned over accusations that they plagiarised their doctoral thesis. This would never happen in Britain, where those rare politicians who do possess doctorates are at pains to disguise the fact – witness Dr Gordon Brown.
He might have pointed out that this mentality starts at school, where there is a culture in which boys are not expected to be seen doing their work or studying as it’s seen as effeminate or not in conformity with the faux-rebellious norm among their peer group. There is a stereotype of a “geek” who wears glasses, smells, talks funny and isn’t sporty or sociable, and if you resemble this then you are likely to get bullied, even in an ostensibly academically strong school, or if you are black, accused of “acting white”. For girls, being seen as too ambitious or choosing “male” subjects such as physics is regarded as unfeminine. particularly in mixed state schools. We also sometimes see columns attacking “jumped-up” experts in the tabloids, characterising academics and other experts who disagree with the paper’s view as “nutty professors” or people who are “too clever”, another favourite of school bullies. That we are a country which ridicules rather than respects its intellectuals is perhaps a reason why we our universities are falling in global rankings compared to American and East Asian universities. It is ironic that the same political right which attacks calls for fair taxes (meaning higher taxes for the rich) with the phrase “the politics of envy” harnesses popular envy and resentment towards people who know more than us, have spent their lives pursuing knowledge (often for the public good) and speak with authority. This situation, and our intellectual decline, are not going to change any time soon while our government makes education more of a grind and an ordeal than it already is.
Margaret Jean “Jenny” Hatch is an American woman, aged 29, with Down’s syndrome. Until early last year, she lived independently in Newport News, Virginia, and had been working in her friends’ store. She had an active social life and according to the Quality Trust for Individuals for Disabilities, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of people with developmental disabilities, counted “past and present members of the Newport News City Council and the Virginia General Assembly” among her friends. In March 2012 she was involved in a road accident while cycling, and briefly moved in with her friends but because of a dispute over who was to pay for her care, she was forced to move into a “congregate setting”, i.e. a “group home” (or care home as we call it here in the UK), which confiscated her phone and computer, rendering her unable to communicate with her friends. Since then, her mother and stepfather have petitioned for guardianship and have insisted that she remains in the “home” against her wishes. Her mother acquired temporary guardianship in February and her case comes to trial early next month. (I first heard about this story through the blog of Rachel Cohen-Rottenburg, Disability and Representation, and a more detailed story, as of last November, is there.)
Clearly, in many cases involving social services and guardianship, it is difficult to gain an accurate picture of the situation because only one side is able to speak and to a large extent, you have to take them on trust, or not. I’ve reported stories here in the past involving children in care, and on one occasion ended up withdrawing my support because the parents’ actions made me suspect that I was not getting the whole truth. In this case, the person affected is an adult, albeit one with a developmental disability, whose wishes have been clearly expressed in a number of interviews with local media which can be viewed online. Her mother could speak, if she wished, but was last seen leaving court, flanked by local policemen, refusing to comment. Worse, her father has cracked Jenny’s Facebook account, as I discovered when I mentioned their reportedly negligent record as parents and received a message from him, using her account, as the screenshot on the right demonstrates.
Jenny’s friends run a Facebook page, Justice for Jenny, through which they have kept their supporters abreast of developments and posted links to the local media’s coverage of the legal process. It has to be said that if this was happening in the UK, the media would likely be barred from reporting it and no public discussion of it could take place, although in the case of a person with Down’s syndrome (quite unlike the situation with autism, as the Neary family found out to their cost a couple of years ago, although the Court of Protection found in their favour in December 2010), this is in any case much less likely to happen in the UK as there is a stronger presumption against keeping someone in a “home” when they can live independently. They have reported some disturbing details, among them that friends who have seen Jenny on trips to the church have said that she has become more withdrawn and is no longer as demonstrative to others as she used to be. During the guardianship hearings earlier this year, Jenny’s court-appointed guardian ad-litem, who opposed Jenny being able to live with her friends as it would result in her further estrangement from her mother, had put out a bowl of sunflower seeds for Jenny’s mother to eat, clearly not a gesture of neutrality.
Parts of the United States is in many ways behind the UK in terms of ensuring that people with disabilities, even perfectly capable physically disabled people, are able to live in their own homes rather than in a “home” with other disabled people or, all too often, people far older than them. Disability advocates often point out that nursing home care often costs much more than the cost of enabling someone to live in their own home (or even with their families) but that an entrenched nursing home industry and an aversion to using public taxation for “handouts” stands in the way. While the money argument makes sense, however, this is not primarily a matter of finance but of civil rights and freedom, of keeping families together (where appropriate) and of protecting vulnerable people from abuse and maintaining people’s dignity. I don’t doubt that there are many people with developmental disabilities living in care homes because they are not able to make decisions for themselves and their families decided that was the best for them, and that some of them are quite happy; this is rather different in that it involves someone who lived successfully in the community for several years, with the apparent consent (or indifference) of the people who are now demanding she lives in a “home” against her will, yet has been moved from “home” to “home”, been silenced in court and then forcibly removed when she made her wishes clear, who has made her opposition to having to live in a “home” quite clear at every opportunity, and is still being forced to live in a “home” and still forcibly separated from her friends and employment.
I use the quote marks around “home” here not because I don’t believe a care home can be a real home and a good home, but simply because it’s not Jenny’s home: she has friends who are willing to give her a home, but she is not being allowed to see them or speak to them. This is in clear breach of her civil rights; she is an adult, with a developmental disability but not one that is so severe that she is incapable of living her own way, albeit with some support. This whole situation should have been sorted out round a table some time ago, and she should have been allowed to live with her friends in the interim, as was her wish, not forced to accept some stranger’s textbook idea of “her best interest”. She has now secured the services of an attorney from the Quality Trust which has featured Jenny’s story on their Facebook page, and the case has gained much (almost entirely sympathetic) local media coverage. We can only hope the judge sees sense when her case is presented. It further underlines why we in the UK should maintain absolute opposition to the fragmentation of the NHS and the slashing of funds to social services and of disability benefits which enable people to live independently, because there is no dispute about who pays for healthcare here, and if people cannot access the resources they need, they will be thrown on the mercy, such as it may be, of friends and family who do not always have their best interests at heart.
Now that I’ve got your attention …
There’s currently a measles outbreak in South Wales, the reason for which is that a lot of parents didn’t vaccinate their children with the MMR vaccine during the late 90s and early 2000s when the scare produced by Andrew Wakefield’s discredited and biased research was at its height. Many parents thought that these illnesses were mild, transient things that all children got and couldn’t do you any harm, least of all brain damage. In fact, measles, mumps and rubella (German measles) can cause encephalitis, which can lead to brain damage and death.
If you’re an adult male who hasn’t had any children yet, mumps can harm you particularly — it causes inflammation of the testicles and that can make you sterile. So if you didn’t get vaccinated when you were a child, you are well-advised to go and get it done now. If you don’t have strong counter-indications (i.e. medical reasons not to get vaccinated) and you are healthy, you should get vaccinated because others who can’t rely on others’ immunity to stay clear of these diseases themselves (this is called herd immunity, and when I mentioned this to someone on Facebook, she haughtily told me “I’m not a heffer [sic] to be herded”, a prime example of the cluelessness of anti-vaccination activists).
I’ve mentioned some scare stories and misconceptions about vaccines and ME on this blog in the past. Although there have been cases of ME being triggered by vaccines, it can also be triggered by infections including mumps. Read the story of Emily Collingridge then put that scare story to the back of your mind.
BBC Question Time from Finchley, north London, 11th April 2013 (available in UK until 11th April 2014)
Last night the BBC’s weekly Question Time programme was filmed in Finchley, the area of north London represented for more than thirty years by Margaret Thatcher, and focussed on her legacy, featuring Polly Toynbee (a Guardian columnist who was a member of the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s), David Blunkett, Charles Moore (former editor of the Daily Telegraph and Thatcher’s biographer), Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, and Kenneth Clarke, who served as a cabinet minister throughout Thatcher’s time in office. A stark distinction was obvious: those who lauded Thatcher talked about the past, the 1970s, before she came to power, and those who were against her usually talked about the time during and after.
The Tories, along with their press (especially the Sun, which targeted the working class) for years used the memory of the “Winter of Discontent”, a wave of public-sector industrial action in the winter of 1978-9, the most notorious of which were by rubbish collectors and by gravediggers in Liverpool and Tameside, a district of east Manchester (the claim “we couldn’t even bury our dead!” is often used to typify the whole period, but in fact affected only those two areas, not the whole country, although the binmen’s strike was more widespread). They generally paint the 1970s as a time in which the country was falling apart and becoming a laughing stock, and insist that Labour could not control the unions; a strong hand was needed to do it. Kenneth Clarke also referred to the types of industries that were in public ownership at the time, including British Road Services which owned the Pickford’s removal company, which was making a loss; most of those concerns have since been closed or privatised. Their motto is “things just had to change”.
The problem is that what did change was often harmful, and Thatcher did not attempt to reform the industries that were inefficient and overmanned but simply closed them or allowed them to run themselves down. The upshot is plain to see in the motor industry: French and German motor companies own companies outside their borders, such as Daimler (Mercedes) owning Chrysler and the American Frieghtliner truck company, and Sweden’s Volvo Group owning truck makers in the Far East, India and the USA (as distinct from Volvo Cars, which is Chinese-owned). The British truck industry, or what is left of it, is entirely in foreign hands: Leyland was subsumed into DAF, which has now been acquired by Paccar, the American truck giant which makes Kenworth and Peterbilt, and engines as Cummins and under its own name; Foden was also sold to Paccar and ceased production in 2006; ERF was sold to MAN and ceased production in 2007; Seddon Atkinson was sold to ENASA, a Spanish company (best known for the Pegaso brand) which became part of Iveco, and it too has disappeared.
I was 12 when Thatcher left office, and I’m really too young to remember much about her time other than what I was told, and my personal experience is probably too particular and Thatcher probably didn’t have too much to do with it. But people who were a bit older than me tell of crumbling school buildings with huge class sizes of much more than 30 (I’m pretty sure I remember a class of 40), although I do remember the stories of long hospital waiting lists (though not through personal experience). Some of these problems were righted by the Major and Blair governments because large and ungovernable classes and long hospital waiting lists were electoral liabilities, but her enduring legacy is the economics — the laissez-faire approach when things are good, using state funds to bail out banks (but never any other industry) when things go bad, the welfare state for corporations represented by PFI, the ham-fisted attitude to regulation for the public good (in everything from the disability rights laws that the Tories talked out in the 1990s to the refusal to tackle sexualised images or advertising aimed at children).
The upshot of eleven years of Thatcher’s government, and 23 more years of government based on much the same set of principles, is a country which relies on imported goods for just about everything — for clothing, for technology, for vehicles, even for the plates and knives and forks we eat with. It was reported that 40% of this country’s energy needs last winter were met by coal, yet we import almost all of that. Our capital and the countryside around has become the playground for the super-rich from around the world, with the younger generation of ordinary British citizens, in the south especially, scrabbling for shoebox houses and flats on old industrial land. And it has become a country where ordinary people are suspicious of each other, where newspapers peddle a mixture of smut and sanctimony and cheer on mean-spirited benefit cuts for poor and disabled people while still extending open arms to wealthy gangsters and oligarchs. In short, we are a much less powerful country because we are nothing like self-sufficient.
Do we want to go back to the 70s? Nobody under 40 even remembers much about the 70s. It is not an either-or between accepting that Thatcher did a world of good or wishing to be back in the 70s, any more that there is an either-or between supporting the Bush wars or wanting Saddam Hussain back. We want an end to the baggage of a failed ideology, and we want a fairer society where people look out for each other rather than enviously looking over each other’s shoulders.
This is the party election broadcast by the Labour party that was broadcast just now on British TV. You might notice that the first thing Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, talked about was immigration and how the last Labour government got the subject wrong. I recall that, in the 2004 London mayoral election, both BNP and UKIP talked about things that were outside the remit of the mayor, including immigration: UKIP’s Frank Moloney talked of “less illegal asylum seekers” while the BNP’s Julian Leppert simply said “we offer the BNP’s national immigration policies”.
Labour are clearly treating this as a parliamentary election, when in fact councillors are there to perform certain legislated local duties. Their duty is to administer a local budget for things like education, social services, housing and culture. They have a very limited power to pass by-laws and these must be approved by a secretary of state (i.e. by the government) and must comply with national legislation and European law. They do not have the power to set or vary immigration policy; that is only the ability of Parliament.
Labour have a history of playing to the tabloid-reading anti-immigration gallery when it suits them, and they also know that they cannot really do much about anything by winning council elections because their hands are tied by central government budget cuts. Clearly they are trying to distract from what they can’t do as councillors by talking about … something else they can’t do anything about but would like to be associated with come 2015, as they have no intention of restoring to councils the powers that have been stripped from them since 1979.
So, in case you saw this evening’s broadcast and you are really interested in keeping all the foreigners out: you can’t do it at a council election. They really missed an opportunity to tell us why we should vote Labour at a council election.
Only yesterday, someone tweeted that when asked where he was when he heard that Margaret Thatcher had died, and the answer was he was on Twitter on all five occasions. Why people publish hoax death announcements on Twitter I don’t know, much as it’s a mystery why people post derogatory comments on teenagers’ Facebook memorials, but this time I did not quite believe it until I looked again at who was posting the announcement, among them Ed Fraser from Channel 4 News. Almost immediately, some of the people I follow said they might have to leave Twitter, because they could not tolerate a flurry of tweets celebrating her death, and others pointed out that this was an old lady who had dementia and died of a stroke. The BBC has devoted huge news coverage to tributes and interviews about her, among them BBC London which has pulled the drive-time show (normally at 5pm) forward an hour. Glen Greenwald has set out the differences between taking the “don’t speak ill of the dead” attitude when the deceased is a private individual and when he or she is a public, particularly a very divisive, figure like Thatcher. Thatcher wasn’t an old dictator who died in office, but neither was she the kindly old school dinner lady, and given her legacy, it’s only to be expected that some people in this country are celebrating.
Outsiders may think it entirely fitting that a “great” prime minister is getting huge media coverage, and may not have heard that there are plenty of people not celebrating. Thatcher did win three general elections, yes, and never lost one (the reason being that her party ejected her because it regarded her as an electoral liability because of the Poll Tax), but in the UK it is possible to win an election outright on the basis of a minority of the votes because your opponents are divided, and she never got 50% or more of the vote even at the height of her popularity. It all depends on how your support is distributed. In international terms, she is best known for defeating the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland islands and for “ending the Cold War”; however, other factors were at play there, including the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the stance of Reagan, the Chernobyl disaster. As for the Falklands, unlike many on the Left I do not object to that war on moral grounds — the islands were occupied by British people and had been for generations even if it had been a Spanish or Argentinian possession previously, and Argentina at the time was ruled by a vicious military dictatorship which fell after they lost that war. However, winning a war over a set of islands with a population in the lower four figures — hardly the size of a small town — hardly makes her Winston Churchill.
There was also a petition calling for there not to be a state funeral for her, something that was being suggested some ten years ago when Blair was still PM. However, it was confirmed early on that her funeral would be a “ceremonial” funeral in St Paul’s cathedral in London, that she would not lie in state (as she had wished) and that all three of the armed forces would be represented. While that is to be expected to some degree that she should be honoured by the establishment, it really should be held on a weekend rather than a working day when a procession through some of the busiest streets in London will cause a tremendous amount of disruption to public and delivery traffic. She was not a generally loved, unifying figure. She did not have any major achievement that benefited everyone. Her policies disproportionately benefited the wealthy, particularly in the south; her answer to the industrial disputes of the 1970s was simply to destroy the industries they worked in, rather than to invest in and modernise them, as the Germans have been doing ever since the War, and the result was mass unemployment and a de-industrialised country that does not make most of the things it uses but is reliant on foreign imports; she sold off much of the country’s social housing stock and did not replace it. People who lived in London in the 1980s and early 90s will remember the huge homelessness problem of that time. She was also notorious for rubbing shoulders with every pro-western third-world dictator from Pinochet to Suharto, as well as the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The Tory press reacted with apoplexy when Blair finally called an end to the open door policy for such people by honouring an international arrest warrant for Pinochet in 1998.
We cannot blame Thatcher for the policies that followed under Major and Blair, but she is often credited with establishing the “consensus” of the “free-market economy” ideology that persists to this day. That ideology included deregulating the City and making London a centre for international finance and haven for the international super-rich, which has pushed the cost of housing in London (and in the wider south-east) up astronomically. You can, of course, still buy houses in some northern towns dirt-cheap — a whole street for the price of a house in London — but they are cheap because there are no jobs nearby. The UK she left behind is perhaps a more high-tech place and a glossier, glassier place, especially down south, but it’s also a harsher place if you are poor, and the rhetoric of the popular press that supported her has continued apace until the present day.
An unpleasant consequence of the saturation coverage of Thatcher’s death is that the legal action against the government over the abolition of Disablity Living Allowance has been cut out of the news since mid-morning after a number of activists managed to get interviews on a number of TV and radio stations over the weekend and this morning. A friend who was interviewed on Sky News (an interview that was syndicated to various commercial radio stations) found that his interview stopped airing as soon as the news of Thatcher’s death broke. It’s possible that the same long-awaited news that pushed this case out of the news may also dampen the debate about whether child benefit should be restricted for everyone because one guy claimed a lot of it (or his wife and girlfriend did) and then killed several of the children, but it does reflect a lot of effort by some quite ill people to make their case known, only for it to be lost in all the repetitive news and non-stop tributes. It’s true that there are better ways of mending the damage done by Thatcher than by posting hateful messages in response to her death (the Don’t Hate, Donate initiative funds charities that directly respond to Thatcher’s legacy), but really, we shouldn’t get sanctimonious about Thatcher’s death. She had her supporters and she had her bitter opponents, even enemies, which she made for herself. Rejoicing isn’t the most dignified response, but it’s understandable from people who felt the cosh of Thatcher’s police or saw their community destroyed, whether in South Yorkshire or south London.
Cathy “Bug” Brennan, someone who I have heard described as one of the most extreme and irrational radical feminists, has done a brief comparison of two music videos, namely Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy (1991) and The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony (1997). They both take a similar format of the singer walking along a street while singing their song to the camera, but their behaviour is radically different: Nelson breezes through a very rough LA neighbourhood, apparently noticing and noticed by nobody, disturbing and disturbed by nobody, while Ashcroft, walking along a market street in Hoxton in east London, bumps into one actor, I mean, passer-by after another, and some of the actors, I mean passers-by, are young women, some of them are old, some of them are powerfully-built men (and all of those just glare at him), and at one point he jumps over a car bonnet (and the young female driver pursues him up the street, but he manages to ignore her and keeps singing) and when his path really is blocked, he stares into the window, either at the occupants or his own reflection, depending on your point of view.
Brennan (who is well-known for her bugbear against transsexuals, most of her blog being a diatribe against them, hence the picture on the right) analyses them as follows:
Women take up space differently from men.
In the first video, Shara Nelson walks through a Los Angeles neighborhood. I am not afraid of her. I am comforted by her.
In the second video, Richard Ashcroft walks around London. I am afraid of him. I want to cross the street to get far away from him.
This is why Women want Women-only space. We want to be with Shara Nelson and away from Richard Ashcroft.
Can you blame us?
I asked some female friends for their impressions and as to whether they thought it was worth refuting Brennan’s “analysis”. This was one of the responses I got:
I must say, seeing the video on Brennan’s blog made me see the song in a new light. I had always thought it was a mediocre, repetitive song (perhaps the repetition is purposeful), but his behaviour is obviously very threatening; he barges people out of the way regardless of whether they are big or small, and clearly he is trying to big himself up. He is behaving like a minor gangsta, boasting that he’s “here in his mode”, that he won’t or can’t change, that he’s always on that road and, by implication, that’s always how he rolls (or rather, how he makes others roll). Like a gangsta wannabe, he won’t or can’t change — a common theme of criminal artists such as Tupac Shakur (“Me Against the World”, “Only God Can Judge Me”) and Chris Brown (“F.A.M.E.”, standing for “forgiving all my enemies”, and see his tweets from last year). He is taking his aggression out on the whole of humanity, treating all of them as his enemy. In reality, a man with his physique would not barge two powerfully-built men out of his way. At the very least, the men he pushes through at 3:10 would not budge.
He comes across as remarkably self-important, and perhaps the message is that he and his song are so important and so profound that people would just get out of his way. A 2002 review of his solo album, Human Conditions, in the Guardian satirises Ashcroft’s fondness for pseudo-profundity:
Beyond his penchant for orchestral heraldry and epic pretensions, however, Ashcroft has evinced a career-long interest in stating the blindingly obvious. The Verve even had a song called This Is Music, a handy pointer for anyone who thought the Verve were a crown green bowling team. Ashcroft’s greatest skill may be wrapping pub philosophies - “you’re a slave to money then you die”, “it’s a crazy world” - in music portentous enough to convince people they are hearing a sage’s arcane wisdom.
It speaks volumes that The Verve’s successors as kings of pseudo-profundity and cod philosphy, Coldplay, invited Ashcroft to sing the song with them at Hyde Park in 2005. Chris Martin, according to Wikipedia, called Ashcroft “the best singer in the world” and the song “the best song ever written”. The band managed to play it after only one rehearsal — which it might be expected that a band with a sliver of musical talent, like Coldplay, might be able to (it’s only four chords repeated for four and a half minutes, after all).
Brennan says she is comforted by the sight of Shara Nelson walking through LA, and is not afraid of her, which she is of Ashcroft. Nelson is clearly playing a stranger in a strange land: she is from London, she is walking through what looks like a rough part of a strange city (complete with a gang with a vicious-looking dog at the start). She is wearing a long, flowing black dress, the choice of colour suggesting a sad occasion; the style is very feminine, and at the beginning you would think she is an old lady although this impression is dispelled when you see her face. Her appearance is distinctly unlike that of anyone else in the neighbourhood, male or female. She is graceful, almost ethereal. (It just so happens that Ashcroft is not from London — he grew up in a place called Up Holland in Lancashire.)
The problem with her analysis is that you cannot judge all men or all women by the acts of two unrepresentative members of their sex in two different pop videos. I live in London and most people do not act like Ashcroft in that video, even when they are angry. Most people say “excuse me” when they want to get past someone. The only time you would push through people is when you are in a particular hurry, as when your bus or train is about to leave, and even then you would be careful not to push over an elderly person. Most men of his build would not dare push through two powerfully-built men, because you do not know if they will remonstrate (and you assume they will) or respond with violence, and depending on what part of town it is, you do not know if they are armed or not. The whole walk is an act, much as Nelson’s is, and is no more typical of how men walk on an average day in London than Nelson’s is of how women from London behave while in LA.
As for “taking up space”, this is also a sign of either conferred social dominance or not having learned good manners, if not both. Men who spread their bodies out at the expense of others are demonstrating their dominance by being wilfully inconsiderate; men who are not used to dominance over anyone do not behave in this manner, something Brennan may be oblivious to. Some people spread their belongings around them on a train, but this may be as much a way of protecting their personal space by making it less likely that anyone (who stinks of bad perfume or is eating fast food, for example) will sit next to them and, possibly, spread their legs into their space. I have, on a number of occasions in London, been told to move my belongings by someone (usually, but not always, a man) who insisted on sitting next to me when they did not have to, as there were double seats on the train or entire free tables at the curry house where I was eating. This is a way of imposing on someone for its own sake. It’s bully behaviour, and I am not sure how often it happens to women, or whether these men will do the same to any men or just those they think look weak or easily intimidated. In any case, these two videos are irrelevant to the issue of “taking up space”, because Nelson is walking along a mostly empty street and Ashcroft a busy one, but “taking up space” is not the same as Ashcroft’s display of petulant aggression.
When it comes to respecting personal space or not, there is a detail about Nelson’s recent past that might make the spectacle of her frou-frouing through LA rather less comforting: she has a conviction for stalking. In 2011, she was handed a restraining order by the courts after the British DJ Pete Tong complained that she had made nuisance calls to him and told his colleagues that she was his wife and was expecting his child. She was prohibited from contacting Tong or his family or friends indefinitely, and was issued a 12-month community order and required to complete 80 hours of community service. So, those in the “women’s space” are more than welcome to Shara Nelson. (I posted this detail in a comment on Brennan’s entry, but she did not approve it. Let’s not let the facts get in the way of our stereotypes.)
That women might sometimes want space to discuss things of interest to them with no men around (particularly traumatic things like sexual assault) is not in dispute, but these spaces do not take the form of whole streets (and I suspect that her “women’s spaces” would take in a fairly narrow subsection of mostly very like-minded women, which would keep it a lot more “harmonious” than simply keeping men out). The streets, at least in London (and even inner London, where Ashcroft’s video was set) are not full of men barging others out of their way. London is a pretty polite city, and his behaviour would have been offensive to everyone. Ultimately her post is a good example of the distorted thinking that results from bigotry. Using an act in a pop video to judge an entire group (especially as big as half the human race), for good or ill, is even more ludicrous than judging Muslims by 9/11 or a given race by the skin colour of a school bully or street mugger.
This is the front page of tomorrow’s Daily Mail, one which cynically exploits the tragic death in 2011 of six children in a house fire started by their parents and their parents’ friend in a bid to get a bigger council house. The man, Mick Philpott, was a thorougly unpleasant character who, it now turns out, had previously been jailed for seven years in 1978 attempting to murder a previous girlfriend by stabbing her (and also wounding her mother). He had previously appeared in the media demanding a bigger council house because the one he occupied (with his children, wife and then girlfriend, whose departure appears to have triggered the Philpotts’ crime) was too cramped; he also appeared on the Jeremy Kyle show, in which a stream of seemingly inbred low-lifes shout at each other over petty disputes.
However, the Mail attributes his behaviour to “Welfare UK”, at a time when there have been savage cuts aimed at the poorest: to take just one example, a couple I know have seen their rent more than double as a result. Doubtless some of their readers will have their qualms about the benefit changes of this week expunged by reading of Philpott’s exploits. The system may well have enabled his sordid lifestyle to some degree, but the fact is, he was an immoral degenerate and would have been whether he gamed the welfare state or scammed other people (most likely women, as he did anyway). As I saw someone posting on Twitter just now, he no more represents welfare claimants than Lord Lucan represents the wealthy. Much as I do not like paying for the lifestyles of people like Mick Philpott — none of us do — it is better than the alternative. I have several friends who rely on the welfare system to make life liveable, because they and/or their partner or children are disabled, mentally ill or, in some cases, both. If they could not get help from the state, it would have to be from friends, until they fell on hard times themselves or get sick of them. It keeps people from being put in “homes”, ending up on the streets, or being trapped in abusive relationships. Maybe with a man like Philpott. Think about it.
Earlier this afternoon I saw an announcement on Twitter from SwiftKey, the people behind my favourite keyboard on Android: a new way of using their keypad that they called “SwiftKey Tilt”, which meant you could type by simply moving your phone up and down and from side to side while a “pinball” typed out words for you. This had a lot of people fooled, perhaps because phones do, after all, have gyroscopes which detect the position of the phone and trigger such things as automatic rotation (not very accurately in my experience, which is why I have that feature turned off). The most recent release of SwiftKey had something called SwiftKey Flow, which enables you to draw your finger across the keyboard to form words, rather than touch key after key (i.e. their version of Swype, effectively). I got annoyed at the Tilt announcement:
@swiftkey before starting on the next big adventure, why not sort out the problems in your app NOW, like how it deals with hyphens & colons?— Matthew Smith (@indigojo_uk) April 1, 2013
I got home and saw the video with everyone dancing around and somehow managing to type, despite their movements being rather haphazard. The comments revealed that it was actually an April Fool’s joke. One other thing that had me fooled was that it came out after midday — traditionally, April Fool’s jokes come to an end at noon. And I read Twitter a lot, and I don’t think I’d have missed the announcement if it had been posted in the morning.
SwiftKey Flow is the major feature in the most recent release of SwiftKey (version 4). The app was already best known for its advanced predictived text; it was able to learn from your typing so it would be able to guess fairly accurately what word you are likely to type next by your previous typing, and it can analyse your blog, Facebook and Twitter feeds, emails and texts to further train its prediction engine. It’s not so good with names; it is more likely to assume you want to type a famous person’s name, like Matt Damon’s in my case, than your own or a contact’s name. However, SKF is not as good as Swype, as I discovered when I tried it out. It’s slower than normal SwiftKey typing, where it will guess a whole word fairly accurately from just a few letters, even if it didn’t guess the word in advance. SK4 can even detect where you should have inserted a space in between words, even if you typed the words wrong. Flow really slows you down, because moving your finger from letter to letter, can take longer than just typing the two keys in succession, even with one finger (let alone two). It’s not as accurate as Swype, in my experience, and there are only the standard few choices if it gets the word wrong, and you have to just type the whole word again if the right word is not among them (the current Swype Beta offers several choices of corrections).
The thing that got me annoyed was that SwiftKey seemed to be dabbling with new technology rather than fixing the bugs in their existing app. There are some persistent problems with the app as it stands. One is how it handles certain punctuation marks, particularly colons and semicolons. It should do the same as with a comma, i.e. insert the punctuation mark at the end of the previous word, insert a space automatically, then move on to the next word. However, it doesn’t; you have to press the backspace, then type the semicolon or colon, then the space, manually. Otherwise, you will end up with the punctuation mark at the beginning of the next word.
Then there is how it deals with hyphenated phrases. We use such phrases when combining multiple words to form an adjective, as in “the well-documented problem” or “the all-female club”. As things stand, it will offer the corrections “all female” or “all - female”, both wrong (especially the second), and will make you type out the whole phrase and then hit the word on the left to program the term into SwiftKey as a new word. Given that SwiftKey is developed in London, you would have thought it would accommodate this commonly-used (there’s another one) feature of the English language, but no. (Yes, you can use a space, but that is nowadays more common in a descriptive phrase — “the problem is well documented”, for example. When putting it before the noun, we use the hyphenated phrase.)
A third bug is its handling of the “‘s” ending. Any noun can end in ‘s, yet SwiftKey only recognises a small subset as standard; again, if you want another noun ending like that, you have to program it in explicitly. Swype solves the problem by allowing you to swipe from the apostrophe to the S, but SwiftKey doesn’t, even in Flow mode. It should recognise ‘s as an ending, and not require every word you ever use ending in ‘s to be programmed as a separate word, because it’s not. It’s the same word with a standard English ending.
I submitted the apostrophe problem to the SwiftKey bug tracker, but I can’t find it when I search for the word “apostrophe” or “apostrophes”. Perhaps this is because it did not get enough votes. The problem is, when I submit a bug report, I don’t want it democratically voted on by other users (not all of whom even speak English so the bug won’t affect them anyway); I want it assigned to a developer and fixed. Perhaps this post will get it through to them if I mention them when I tweet it out. I notice the SwiftKey team responded to a lot of tweets from people who played “find the Tilt feature” but they did not respond to my tweet which I included above.
And yes, the “Tilt feature” does exist: you’re supposed to type “tilt”, long-press on the word when it comes up in the selections, and then select “SwiftKey Tilt” and the little pinball thingy appears. The feature does not work very well: I had a go and it typed a lot of nonsense. Perhaps the gyroscope on my phone isn’t very good, but as I said before — they never are. I thought it was a pre-programmed slogan, but it did not make enough sense for that. It was clearly something they built into the last minor update, ready for this joke. However, the problems their app has in handling standard English punctuation are not a joke, and they need to fix them before they work on the next headline-grabbing new feature. I bought SwiftKey early on, I’ve recommended it to friends and family and continue to do so, but these bugs detract significantly from its stand-out, indeed named feature: fewer keystrokes and speedy typing. They need to be fixed pretty quick, not when the community votes on it.
This letter appeared in yesterday’s Daily Mail in response to the article by David Goodhart about the Ahmadiyyah centre in Morden last Monday (see earlier article). The letter starts off by stating that her family lived in Merton Park, “near Morden Underground station”, but decided to move away “when the Labour council gave permission for the mosque to be built”. She goes on to complain that Morden town centre has become run down and full of eastern European and Asian shops and “South Wimbledon, Colliers Wood and Mitcham are much the same”. For the record, there is a large Sainsbury’s, a Marks & Spencer’s and a shopping centre with a car park in Colliers Wood with no Asian shops in sight; Merton High Street has always been full of small shops that served the local population, which includes a large council estate. Clearly, as more Asians have moved to the area (there is now a Bengali-run mosque on that road), the shops have changed. It has always been a busy road (barely less so since the A24 was re-routed to the south) and not exactly a desirable shopping location, hence the preponderance of small shops. Wimbledon is also very nearby and has the usual town centre shops.
Her comment about Merton Park cannot go unchallenged either. Merton Park is not close to Morden underground station; it is close to Merton Park tram stop and is much nearer Wimbledon train and tube station (walking distance, in fact). Here is a map of the area:
Merton Park is the area centred on the “A” arrow. Merton Park tram stop is the green and blue roundel where the A238 road meets Dorset Road. Morden Underground station is the red and blue roundel near the bottom next to Morden Library, and the Ahmadiyyah centre is right at the bottom, on the green road (the A24) next to the red British Rail logo. Wimbledon town centre is at the top, where it says “Centre Court Shopping Centre” with the other tube station symbol (it’s also a main line train station with trains to Waterloo). So Merton Park is some distance from that building, and it is inconceivable that anyone living in Merton Park would have been inconvenienced by the centre. As for the complaint that “the police hold up the traffic on the dual carriageway for the Muslims so they can cross the road”, I have never been there during Friday prayer times, but that is the first complaint I have heard in 13 years that it causes any inconvenience. Any mosque, or any place of worship for that matter, will generate pedestrian and vehicle traffic round their times of congregational worship, with some degree of inconvenience to people using the surrounding roads. For that matter, so do rock concerts and football matches. The only difference between the two is that the Ahmadiyyah centre, and mosques (and Muslims) in general, are fairly new to this country, although we have been here in large numbers for a couple of generations now.
It goes to show that, despite the differences Muslims have with the sect that runs that centre, to white racists and Daily Mail moaners, they are just foreigners, brown people, and the differences between them and similar looking people do not really matter. I should add that a few years ago I was talking to a black Muslim friend in Streatham who was looking for an affordable place to live in south London (his wife is Pakistani and he has three sons) and I suggested Mitcham, and he said that he could not live there as it was a racist area, something I would not have noticed. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Merton moans about its new Asian residents, while neighbouring boroughs like Croydon and Kingston just get on with things.
On Wednesday a former prison worker and two former policemen were jailed for selling information to the papers, and the information the prison worker passed on concerned one of the murderers of James Bulger, Jon Venables (he is now known by another name, which cannot be revealed to protect his safety). Richard Trunkfield was at that time in debt and had been caring for his mother who had cancer in 2008 and 2009. However, we know the reason the Sun would have wanted this information: because the story sells.
As with Myra Hindley, the press have kept interest in Venables and Thompson going ever since the boys were convicted in November 1993. The tabloids branded the boys “evil freaks” and “freaks of nature”, they campaigned against their release after eight years; they seem always to have amplified everything James Bulger’s mother has to say (which is always very hostile to them, as might be expected) and their coverage is plainly sensationalised and biased. The release of convicted murderers is a political decision — it was the decision of the Home Secretary then — although usually it is routine after someone has served their minimum tariff and there are have been no serious incidents while they have been inside. The release of a high-profile murderer is very political, however, and it is the sort of thing that can send the tabloids into a frenzy. The tabloids kept the Moors Murders very much alive in the public’s memory, even those among the public who had not been born when they happened. One paper even printed an editorial saying that committing suicide was the one decent act that Hindley could perform; papers and radio talk shows carried threats to kill her
But Myra Hindley, the party to those awful crimes who was seeking to be released (she never was) had at least been an adult when she committed the crimes. Venables and Thompson were not even teenagers: they were ten, and in most of Europe, would have been below the age of criminal responsibility. The tabloid-influenced public perception is that if someone is capable of doing that sort of thing at age ten, then they could well do something far worse when they are adult, because adults commit worse crimes than children. However, Thompson and Venables both came from very violent and dysfunctional families and had prior record of anti-social behaviour and cruelty. Kids from loving and stable families do not just go out one day and decide to bash a toddler to death, and eight years in what sounds like a well-run secure home has not led to either of them murdering another child since (and no, downloading pornography is not the same).
We are rather fortunate in this country to have a judiciary that stands against the worst excesses of policy driven by public (or press) sentiment, and a Human Rights Act that enables them to do so. In the USA it really hasn’t, and trying juveniles as adults and sentencing them to life without parole is often justified by “if you commit an adult crime, you should expect an adult penalty”, when of course there is no such thing as an adult crime, only an adult. This does not work the other way round: no good deed or show of maturity by a 15-year-old will earn them the right to vote, drive or consent to or refuse surgery, but they can still be handed a life sentence for a peripheral role in a robbery in which someone was killed. We have not got to that stage in the UK yet — although we have seen a blind boy getting a life sentence for just being there when two others killed someone — but we do have a press which incites a mob sentiment in which someone could easily get killed.
I have personally reported someone to the police for revealing what was alleged to be Robert Thompson’s new identity (the person was foolish enough to reveal his employer and home town to the public on his Facebook profile). I did that because the only reason to reveal his identity is to get him killed. These were not adults or even teenagers but disturbed pre-teen children from violent backgrounds, and it is not rational for people unconnected to the victim’s family to want to kill them person twenty years later: it is the product of years of exposure to a sensationalist press. It is the power of this press to motivate the government to interfere in the judicial process that is the clearest reason to keep the Human Rights Act on the statute books, something that perhaps Labour realised when they passed it, much as they may have regretted it later. And it should not only be the prison officer who sold Venables’ details to the Sun who should be behind bars; whoever solicited and paid for them should be as well.