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Unbefitting of a democracy

17 April, 2021 - 23:48
 a green open-backed Land Rover. His coffin (draped with his coat of arms) lies in the open back. Soldiers in formal uniforms can be seen behind the hearse in the grounds of Windsor Castle, the turreted walls of which can be seen in the background.Prince Philip’s hearse

Good morn or evening friends
Here’s your friendly announcer
I have serious news to pass on
To everybody

What I’m about to say
Could mean the world’s disaster
Could change your joy and laughter
To tears and pain

Stevie Wonder, Love’s In Need of Love Today (last song played on BBC London before it was interrupted for news of Prince Philip’s death)

Yesterday (Friday) the BBC broadcast a Feedback programme largely dedicated to the public reaction to the corporation’s decision to suspend most of its programming the Friday before last to broadcast the announcement of Prince Philip’s death and not resume normal programming for several hours and in some cases days. Most of the response was critical of it; the fact that Prince Philip was a consort, not the sovereign, was mentioned and the coverage was described as sycophantic and one writer asked where BBC executives were trained and suggested North Korea, echoing similar comments on social media. There have been a number of clips published on YouTube of how the different channels, BBC and commercial, announced the prince’s death and how if at all they then diverged from normal programming. The clips reveal something that was not mentioned at all in Feedback: the quite ungraceful way some of the existing programmes were interrupted. You can hear an example from Radio 2 here; the interruption takes place just after the six-minute mark.

Some of the stations, including BBC Radio 2 and BBC London, were simply switched off, sometimes mid-song and sometimes with the presenter in the middle of a sentence (the last Robert Elms show before the cut-off is still available on the BBC’s website at the time of writing and just cuts out mid-way through the Stevie Wonder song quoted above). There was then several seconds of silence before an official announcement from BBC News was made. This must have led some listeners to wonder what on earth had happened; had there been a power cut? Was their radio defective, or had the station itself “gone down”? A news announcement that was that important — had the bomb dropped? Were we at war? Had there been a military coup? “Buckingham Palace …”, oh, the Queen’s died. How sad. What? Prince Philip?!

I’ve heard BBC reporting of major disasters and of terrorist attacks and not once have I heard stations simply cut off at the flick of a switch in the middle of a presenter’s sentence. When the 2005 London bombings happened, the story was allowed to develop with the morning phone-in continuing to talk about other matters until it became clear that this was a terrorist attack and not a set of unrelated mishaps on different Underground lines; when this happened, the phone-in was ended and the station began broadcasting as one station with the Asian Network and one national station. True, this was not a single announcement but a developing story, but more than 50 people died and they still didn’t just cut into programming.

In comments under the various YouTube clips, there are a number of people trying to ‘school’ those of us who said this was over-the-top or redolent of North Korea, telling us that we don’t understand that Britain is a monarchy. Someone even claimed that Britain isn’t a democracy. Many of them seemed to have been overseas and did not realise that some of those objecting were British. I told them that this behaviour wasn’t befitting of a democracy and was asked why. The answer is that among the principles of democracy are that everyone is equal and that the media is free and not subject to interference. The idea that public broadcasting should be stopped dead to tell us of the death not even of the Queen but of a member of her family is just not what you expect in a modern society, and the sight of presenters on the edge of tears for someone they probably did not know very well was also rather unsettling.

I don’t think for a moment that the Royal Family demanded or expect any of this. It’s odd that people associate the Queen with graceful behaviour, yet this was anything but graceful; it was rude and imperious. It looks a lot like the BBC running scared from a resurgent Right which sees the monarchy as central to British nationhood and would regard anything but the height of ‘respect’ at a time like this as unpatriotic. It’s no denigration of the Prince’s achievements to say that the rest of us should not have been expected to stop what we were doing and sit up and listen as if something really important had happened when he died. He’s not the only person who fought in World War II; he’s not the only man who stood by his wife for 70 years. I had no objection to programmes being run on his life and achievements but for programmes to be rudely interrupted and then replaced by gushing tributes for the whole of the rest of the day is simply excessive and more redolent of a dictatorship’s media than that of a free country.

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National mourning?

9 April, 2021 - 20:35
Prince Philip's coat of arms that show a shield with a crown atop it, with a lion on the right and a "wild man" on the left, with the 'garter' bearing the old French "honi soit qui mal y pense" (shame on whoever thinks ill of it) slogan and a slogan "God is my help" underneath. For imagery and full explanation see his Wikipedia page, linked in the caption.Prince Philip’s coat of arms (explained here)

Today Prince Philip died. Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was the Queen’s husband and had the title Prince Consort and was known as the Duke of Edinburgh. He was probably best known for running the award scheme for young people that involves volunteering, physical training, skills development and an expedition; he was also well-known for a series of ignorant racist remarks he made to both adults and children when representing his country abroad or carrying out duties here in the UK. Nearly all the BBC’s radio channels (including the digital ones), local and national, and their two main British TV channels have cancelled normal programmes for the rest of the day to run “news specials” on the prince’s death (and interviews, obituaries and the like, mostly no doubt containing fawning coverage of his life) while politicians have announced that there will be no further press conferences (in the middle of a pandemic in which more than 100,000 people have died in the UK alone) nor appearances on weekend political shows. I tuned in on the way back from a delivery run this afternoon; Radio 4 had replaced its You and Yours programme with royal coverage and the tone of it was pretty sickening and rather embarrassing.

There were a bunch of the corporation’s royal correspondents, and maybe some regular journalists, but Nicholas Witchell among them, spouting off ridiculously obsequious and sycophantic nonsense about how central the prince was to national life and what a special place they have in our hearts, and how people will mention “Elizabeth and Philip” in the same manner as they talk of “Victoria and Albert”. All of this is nonsense. If we mention “Victoria and Albert” it is mostly in reference to the London museum of that name. There are a few other buildings named after Prince Albert, notably the Albert Hall in Kensington and the Albert Bridge over the Thames in west London. Albert died quite young and Victoria famously spent the next several years mourning him, appearing in public only rarely and even then dressed in black. The idea that Prince Philip has a great place in the public consciousness is simply wrong. We just know he’s there, some of us do the award (I haven’t) and those of us involved in charities they are patrons of at a high level (I’m not) have to remember our HMs and HRHs on the few occasions we are at events with them. But that’s about it. It’s the Queen and the younger royals that people have actual feelings about; when there’s a moment of national crisis, we hear from the Queen and some of us tune in and listen and some of us don’t.

Social media, of course, didn’t stop and I saw a thread of the various racist remarks Phillip had made during his life — asking a woman in Kenya who was presenting him with a gift if she were actually a woman, a comment about “slitty eyes” in relation to the Chinese — as well as a remark to the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner that “it’s a pleasant change to be in a country that isn’t ruled by its people” as well as the father-of-four’s comment that, if reincarnated, that he would like to come back as a deadly virus so as to reduce the human population — the ugly face of environmentalism, the type that favours ‘cuddly’ big animals over poor people driven from their homes for wildlife reserves and whose livestock these animals often menace. Someone else drew our attention to his coat of arms which features “a representation of a wild man (or Hercules) girt about the loins with a lion skin, crowned with a chaplet of oak leaves, holding in the dexter [right] hand a club”, i.e. a nearly-naked, very muscly man, which some people find hilarious. Footage of tributes on numerous advertising billboards on motorways were also posted.

I felt some sadness for the Queen; I don’t know her, of course, but a few years ago I lost both my paternal grandparents within a few months of each other. My nan died of a stroke (the result of congestive heart failure) and then my grandad’s health declined precipitously over the next few months. It happens a lot, though clearly the Queen will not have been solo caring for Prince Philip for several years at the expense of her own health. But it’s not befitting of a democracy for all public radio and TV broadcasts to be put on hold for the rest of the day, or even longer, because of the death of one person who was not that important, just because of his status. I have no problem with there being TV shows about his life, but the enforced saturation coverage and atmosphere of “national mourning” for someone most of us did not know, makes us look like a banana republic, albeit without the bananas or the republic.

Image source: Sodacan, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 licence.

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Avoiding some common scams

28 March, 2021 - 12:01
". Fogarty asks in the tweet "Is this a scam?".A screenshot of a tweet by Shelagh Fogarty.

The other day the British radio presenter Shelagh Fogarty tweeted asking her followers if a text she had received, telling her she had a parcel to collect but to click a link and “confirm the settlement of £1.99”, and the link was not to a Royal Mail site but to “rm-parcel8319.com”. (The comments underneath the tweet said that similar texts were being sent out in the name of other parcel companies, notably DPD.) The answer is that this is a scam and has a very clear red flag: that the web link in the text does not bear any resemblance to the carrier’s own website address.

What used to be known as ‘phishing’ scams rely on the victim to open a web link and provide them with access to their money through their bank account or credit card number. Email scams can disguise such things more effectively, because you can provide a web link that looks like an actual address but the actual target of the link is different. (On a computer, this can be worked around by running your mouse over the link and pausing it; a little box called a ‘tool tip’ will appear which shows the real address.) With text and telephone scams, however, the disguise is usually a lot thinner than that. They do not even bother with the old trick of using an address that uses similar-looking numbers or capital letters to those in the real address (e.g. roya1-mail.com, royal-maiI.com), though it would be quite useful if the carriers could buy these fake domains up themselves, which I can confirm that they haven’t. They just use their own domains, which allow the scam to be obvious.

41am. Not going to be in? Track it at [tracking address]". The second reads "today" instead of the date.Real tracking texts from Royal Mail (tracking numbers obscured for privacy).

To begin with, if you have a parcel coming through the Royal Mail (or any other carrier for that matter), you will know about it. It will have a tracking number which the sender will have told you about: these all have a particular pattern of letters and numbers (in the case of Royal Mail, it’s two letters, nine numbers and two further letters which denote the country it was sent from, such as GB). If payment is required, they will try to deliver it and if they cannot, they will leave a card inviting you to collect it from the depot and pay any fees then. Royal Mail might text you about the progress of your parcel, but they will mention the name of the sender, so you know it’s what you ordered. In the image above you can see an actual Royal Mail tracking text: it included the name of the company I ordered the goods from, in this case the British clothing company Seasalt, and a tracking number which corresponded to one on an earlier email (the domain name is their shortened domain name, ryml.me; although not their usual domain name, the personal details make it clear it is real). Scam texts will typically come out of the blue and have no details you recognise.

A totally different web address on a cold-call text is a dead giveaway, but a slightly cleverer disguise is to use the company’s real address as a subdomain to their own address. A subdomain is a site within a site; for example, a department or college within a university might well have a subdomain on the university’s website (as in: balliol.oxford.ac.uk). This relies on victims not knowing how a web address is structured. The key is to look for a slash after the legitimate web address (e.g. royalmail.com or tsb.co.uk); if there is a dot after it, it is a link to a completely different site that belongs to fraudsters, as in “royalmail.com.fraudsters2345.com”. If you see that in a text, delete it.

Another common trick of scammers right now is to use colloquial or out-dated names for actual institutions. There was one scam exposed on the BBC’s You and Yours programme recently by people calling themselves “the gas board”, a name people used to refer to regional state-run gas providers up until the 1980s when British Gas was privatised. Nowadays, there’s no “gas board”. The scam was probably targeted at the elderly. Another is “Inland Revenue”; this was Britain’s actual tax authority until a few years ago when it merged with Customs and Excise to become Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or HMRC. Yet, some scammers use this name. I have received calls recently from “National Insurance”, the name of the contributions we make to our pension, but this is not an actual institution and you will not be contacted by anyone calling themselves this, except scammers. This practice serves as a “clue filter”: it filters out people who ask questions and might be wise to them, leaving the easy marks.

So, the best way to avoid falling victim to scams is to consider the following things when you receive a phone call or text which invites or demands your money:

  • Do you do business with the company purported to be sending you the text? If it’s a bank you don’t have an account with but it mentions “your account”, it’s a scam.
  • Are you expecting anything from the company? If it’s a parcel from a company you don’t remember ordering anything from, it’s probably a scam.
  • Does it mention your name or have other identifying details? “Dear customer” is a sign that they do not know who you are, and have sent the same message to many others. It’s a scam.
  • Does it use the organisation’s real name? If it uses an old or colloquial name, it’s a scam.
  • If you click the link and your browser or Internet service provider tells you this has a bad certificate or is a known scam site, do not continue. If the website looks shabby and unprofessional and is meant to belong to a major parcel service or bank, it’s not real.
  • Does the organisation do business like this? Reputable companies don’t do cold calls; they normally rely on physical mail which will include your name and some identifier, such as a social security or National Insurance number that you can verify. In the UK, HMRC will not make threatening phonecalls and tell you to “get in touch now” to get you to pay your taxes or “face the consequences”. This is a scam. If you owe taxes, they will send you a letter.
  • If you receive a phone call playing a recorded message that is not from a company you currently have business with, you can safely put the phone down. Most reputable companies do not use automated (‘robo’) calls.
  • If the domain name does not match the company’s real one (you can just use Google to search for the name) or the real name does not have a slash after it, the domain name is fake. It’s a scam.

Many companies have pages giving details on how they will or will not contact you so you can recognise a real approach from a scam; Royal Mail’s is here. Your bank will likely send you a letter or give you a leaflet telling you these things. There are a lot of scams around but they all follow similar patterns and if you delete any cold text that asks for money or details and put the phone down on any cold call, especially if it plays a recorded message, you can’t go wrong.

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‘Free speech’ irrelevant to Batley cartoon row

27 March, 2021 - 10:53
A 17th-century stone school building behind a low stone wall. A silver-grey hatchback car can be seen behind the railings. A yellow parking restrictions sign is in front of the railing.Batley Grammar School

This week a teacher at a school in Batley, Yorkshire was suspended after showing his year 9 (aged 13-14) pupils, some of them Muslims, a cartoon originating with the French magazine Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) with the exaggerated facial features characteristic of that publication and a bomb in his turban, then invited the class to discuss whether they or the attackers were to blame for the massacre of their writers and staff. This has led to demonstrations outside the school by a group of angry Muslim parents demanding he be sacked and/or charged with inciting hatred on religious grounds; the school has reverted to online learning as it had been until the beginning of March. What I want to discuss here is a detail I was told on social media: that the teacher told his pupils that some of them would find it offensive, but that it was his right to freedom of expression, as per “British values”, to do so. Similar claims have been made by others, often with the suggestion that Muslims could leave the country if they do not like it. There has also been criticism of the school for suspending the teacher; they have been accused of caving in to the ‘mob’ (which was actually an orderly group of protesters) while the local authority has been accused among other things of not considering how the matter affects “the overall health of British democracy” by not coming out in condemnation (the school is an academy so out of their control).

To put it simply, free speech is not relevant if you are a teacher in front of a group of pupils. It applies in wider society and the media; anyone can criticise any political figure, any religious figure past or present, any industrialist or entrepreneur or pop star they like as long as they do not incite violence or make false claims about a living person. The difference between someone like Rod Liddle writing some offensive drivel in the Spectator and a teacher spouting the same stuff in front of a group of 13- and 14-year-olds is that we can call Rod Liddle a jerk (or worse) and face no consequences. A pupil who says the same to a racist teacher could be punished; although it’s no longer legal to physically assault them, they could be sent out of class, be kept behind after school or lose their place in an extra-curricular activity. A teacher who shares this kind of material is also sowing the seeds of racism and bullying among the pupils and giving them the impression that this is acceptable or that the ideas are true or valid. Teachers have responsibility; their freedom of speech is something they leave at the gate or at least the staff room door. (In the recent past, teachers were not allowed to tell pupils anything that gave the impression that homosexuality was acceptable, and civil servants are not allowed to express political opinions in public to preserve the institution’s neutrality. So, the right to cause offence isn’t that much of a British value; it has its limits.)

The Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) forbade depictions of human beings or animals, and the Sahaba (may Allah be pleased with him) accordingly left no visual representations of themselves or him. We have to rely on verbal descriptions of his physical form but, most importantly, his words and behaviour and the same is true of every mainstream Muslim scholar and leader until the advent of photography. Most scholars regard photographs not to be equivalent to hand-drawn pictures and many will allow students and others to take pictures of them, though not all. The upshot is that such pictures tend to be drawn by those with hostile intent. The Danish cartoons were not only derogatory to the Prophet himself but were also racist: they represented a stereotype of a nasty Arab with an angry, brooding face and the obligatory bomb in the turban, an image repeated in one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The bomb gives the clear impression that terrorism has approval from the very top, which (even taking into account the fact that gunpowder and bombs had not been invented in the 7th century) it actually does not; vigilantism and banditry are not allowed in Islam at all.

The Danish cartoons are 16 years old, older than the children involved in this latest incident. As the cartoons are a historical fact, it may become necessary to reproduce them to show people what the fuss was about (I do not need to do so here; you can google them). In my opinion, it is not an insult to reproduce them; the insult is in claiming they are of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), as the newspaper that commissioned them did when it published them, rather than a mere ugly stereotype of an Arab. An ugly, threatening man in a turban would more likely make Muslims think of Abu Jahl (Mr Ignorance), the violent pagan enemy of the early Muslims, or some modern Hindu extremists as the turban is popular among Hindus as well as Muslims. However, it isn’t a teacher’s place to force this issue on a group of 13-year-olds, cavalierly justifying it as his “free speech”, without a thought to the consequences for them. It’s true, there is no blasphemy law in this country anymore and there never was one about Islam, and non-Muslims are not expected to observe every detail of Islamic law about how Islam or the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is talked about, in our presence or otherwise, but teachers are in a position of trust and are supposed to consider their pupils’ well-being and maintaining peace and order in their schools when conducting lessons and choosing material. If teachers fail to do this, they must be disciplined and sacked if necessary. It’s an internal matter and what the rest of the country thinks is of no importance.

Image source: J Thomas, via Geograph. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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The link between street harassment and bullying

14 March, 2021 - 23:22
 "On the way home I want to feel free, not brave".Flowers left at the Clapham Common bandstand in memory of Sarah Everard. (Photo: Rosianna Rojas)

Last week, in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard in London, for which a police officer has been charged and is in custody, a lot of women have been sharing stories about being harassed and threatened in public as adults and children and by adults they trusted as children, which cover the spectrum from annoying to seriously threatening. There have been a lot of lists such as this one, shared by a friend on Facebook, of “how men can help”, such things as not sitting too close to a woman on public transport or walking near her on the streets at night but also “calling out” one’s friends when they use sexist language or make unwanted approaches to women, which despite the article’s claims are nothing new. Some of the claims are quite reasonable while some are less so, seemingly based on an assumption that men have power over each other that we really do not. There has also been some hand-wringing over how boys are brought up or educated, and while I do believe the problem lies partly here, how boys regard or treat girls and women is only part of the problem.

I believe that harassment in general should be something we do not tolerate as a society and that it would be tolerated a lot less if it were dealt with firmly in school. When children complain of harassment by others — usually in the form of teasing or taunting that is persistent — they are often told to “just ignore it” and that adults will not always be there to “fight their battles for them”. Bullies see this and know that the child they are victimising will not be protected if they carry on. I would draw a distinction between the odd unkind remark and harassment that is in the child’s face, that stops them doing what they are doing such as reading or playing or making something and forces them to listen to taunting about their appearance, way of speaking, some slur on their family or race or something else. Teachers and parents will often tell them that if they ignore it, it will go away; my experience is that determined bullies will escalate to physical goading and then assaults if their victim does ignore it. Feminists often decry “victim blaming” in which (they allege) advice to women to avoid risky situations so as not to get raped implies that the responsibility lies with women rather than the men who rape; responses to bullying often explicitly blame the victim for being ‘mouthy’, holding themselves the wrong way, for getting upset, or not being tough enough. Teachers will sometimes say that if everyone is picking on one person, there must be something wrong with them, not the others.

Bullying carries on beyond the school gates and anyone seen as vulnerable could be a target. Disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities, are a common target and when they complain to the police, it has been known for them also to be told, “just ignore them”. This also does not always confine itself to merely annoying behaviour; it can escalate to threats of violence, damage to property, actual violence or murder. Our media and politicians also feed the climate of hostility by circulating stories that suggest that disabled people claim benefits they are not entitled to, are a drain on the public purse or exaggerate their condition; even when people are quite entitled to the funds and need it to maintain their independence and quality of life, the stories feed envy and resentment at someone getting “something for nothing” at their expense, when if they needed it, they would also be entitled.

As for the demand for men to “stand up” when women around them are being harassed in public, if a man did this and it led to a fight, he might be prosecuted if the law deemed the level of force used to be greater than reasonable, which means whatever is strictly necessary to prevent a crime being committed, not to teach the aggressor a lesson or make sure it doesn’t happen again. There is a story in a book called Yob Nation by Francis Gilbert of a man who saw a group of youths charging down a public street knocking people, including some elderly and disabled people, over. When they got to him, he made sure that the person who approached him was knocked down, and went on his way. He was subsequently summonsed to court, convicted of assault, bound over and as a result of the conviction, lost his job. When he asked what he should do if he saw such a thing happening again, they told him to walk on by. So while it may be some people’s instinct to intervene if people are being harassed, it may actually be illegal. Similarly, teachers’ advice to children being bullied to hit back at bullies could also be setting them up for trouble with the law.

In short, we simply do not have a culture in which people are seen to have a right to go about their business without being harassed, obstructed or threatened; it is a right in theory, but society does not deliver it wherever it would require effort or expense. We do not teach children that it is not OK to bully others; if we do, it is only deemed to be bullying when it involves stereotypical physical assaults rather than harassment which affects someone’s life and their ability to study and go about their business. They must be taught not just by words but by action: the bully punished and the victim protected. I accept that people cannot be protected from unkind words and that people cannot expect others to tiptoe around their sensitivities, but there is a big difference between the odd nasty word and repeated harassment that will not stop unless the victim gives their tormentors the reaction they are looking for. It is no wonder that children who bully and are given licence to do so grow into adults who harass others in the streets — men who harass women, men and women who harass disabled people, those who look or sound odd, members of ethnic minorities, newcomers, refugees. Ending street harassment of women is important but the issue does not exist in isolation.

(I wrote an earlier blog post on these two issues when it came up on local radio in London in 2012.)

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Burning your child’s past

10 March, 2021 - 09:53
A metal fire grate with embers inside.

Last night I saw a thread on Twitter from an individual called “Autismomum” in which she talked of burning the documents about her child’s school life in case they were discovered by the child when an adult and it upset them. Here’s the thread:

1/ Imagine this. You’re in a job you love, have a partner and drive. You have lots of friends and and are well respected in the workplace because being autistic is an asset, you are passionate and focused. One day you clear out your parents loft and you find a very large box..

2/ You look inside and find a heap of school documents about yourself. You discover at primary age you were frequently excluded. The documents clearly show nothing was done to help you. You were rejected, restrained and forced into a room where adults held the door.

3/ No, no, no. You will not discover that box when you are older, for I have put the past behind us. I love you. (Accompanied by the picture above of a fire grate with a lot of embers inside.)

I was a “special needs” child who was in a number of special units in primary school and then a ‘special’ boarding school as a teenager and my parents kept a big stack of letters and other documents about my school history which they didn’t burn and which I did read later and which didn’t tell me any traumatising details which I did not already remember. If a child was restrained, locked in rooms or otherwise physically abused, it is unlikely that they will need a file to ‘unlock’ memories when they are an adult. They will already remember.

What this file will do is help them understand decisions that were made about their lives that they may remember only one side of. It may be useful to them or their lawyers if they decide to seek compensation or may be useful for anyone else seeking to document abuses (or educational practices in general). If they believe as an adult that they had been betrayed by those supposed to help or care for them as a child, it will not help if they find that all documents relating to it have been burned, and they might not believe you if you said you did it because you thought it best for them.

I’m not normally one to join in attacks on “autism moms” as I know quite a few (some of them also autistic) but this is exactly the behaviour that gives them a bad name. If your child is capable of understanding what is in these documents, they have a right to read them and a right to know what is in them; if they are not, you may need them to secure things they need. Don’t burn their past; it’s their life as much as it is yours.

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The Queen’s gardens

4 March, 2021 - 22:49
A 19th century map showing the area around Buckingham Palace, including the Palace Gardens, Green Park and St James's Park.Green Park and St. James’s Park, 1833 (Buckingham Palace Gardens shown as The Palace Gardens)

This past week it’s been suggested by the writers Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (or Alibi-Brain as she’s known in these parts) and Simon Jenkins (in the Guardian) that the Queen should make some of her vast gardens open to the public. Previous dynasties bequeathed to the nation the huge royal parks of London such as Richmond Park, Hyde Park and Epping Forest but “alas the Windsors seem incapable of such gestures”. She complains that her 15 local parks “are knackered and overcrowded” and that other quiet spots fill up just as she discovers them. Royals and aristocrats, she complains, own 1.5 million acres and offshore companies also own a number of desirable properties. “The Queen has urged Britons to think of others during this pandemic. She should lead by example by opening up her vast, beautiful, arboreal treasures. That won’t happen,” she says.

I’m not sure where Alibi-Brain lives but it can’t be very close to Buckingham Palace, otherwise she would know that Buckingham Palace Gardens would not add very much space even if it were opened to the public. It’s a fair bit of land and would make a good size public park if there weren’t already vast tracts of public parkland in the area: it’s about two-thirds the size of Green Park which lies across Constitution Hill and about half the size of St James’s Park, which is the other side of the palace. It’s just across Hyde Park Corner from Hyde Park, which together with neighbouring Kensington Gardens dwarfs all three combined. All are heavily used by tourists as well as by locals and by workers on their lunch break, but as commuting has been somewhat reduced by the lockdown, locals have the parks to themselves. Buckingham Palace Gardens is the nearest of that group of parks to the residential area south of Victoria, but Hyde Park is not too far to walk and people living there may also have access to Ranelagh Gardens and Battersea Park to the south.

It’s true that the royal family owns a lot of land, but much of that is tenanted and farmed; some of it is people’s homes. There are vast parks open to the public at most of the royal palaces such as Sandringham in Norfolk and Windsor, outside London; the palaces themselves and some of their gardens are also open to visitors, and in Scotland there is “right to roam” legislation which applies to royal estates, including Balmoral. Not everywhere in the country has a royal house nearby, of course. Opening up Buckingham Palace Gardens or other royal private garden won’t help people who live a long way away from them. What might be more useful is to open some of these gardens to people who are shielding and need fresh air but cannot use public parks because of their condition. But this too would not help people who live far away from the site. A local park in any given area could also be set aside for this purpose (many areas have several parks).

I am no great fan of the royal family, especially given the treatment of the Sussexes (though the media is as much to blame for this) and the relative indulgence of Prince Andrew. They are obscenely wealthy and are known to have interfered in legislation when it affects their financial interests, as recently reported. However, the idea that they are sitting on huge amounts of land like dogs in the manger while people remain cooped up in their homes or condemned to wander in overcrowded bits of parkland is nonsense; there are vast amounts of open space in almost every part of London and in other cities and towns across the country. These include royal parks (in central and south-west London), municipal parks and privately-owned parks open to the public that are owned by organisations like the National Trust. Their private gardens are bigger than most people’s, but a fraction of the size of the country’s public parks.

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Reasons reasons: why the Tube never reached Croydon

3 March, 2021 - 20:16
East Croydon station

This morning I watched a video on YouTube about a plan to build an Underground line that would link King’s Cross and Victoria stations, major London rail terminals serving the north-east and south respectively (and the neighbouring suburbs), which would have ran through both Finsbury Park in north London and Croydon to the south. A version of the line was eventually built as the Victoria Line, opened in the 1960s, which runs from Brixton to Walthamstow and takes a shorter route than originally planned between Victoria and King’s Cross. It never reached Croydon, though, and someone in the comments claimed it was “absolutely scandalous that Croydon has no tube stations”. As someone who grew up in Croydon, I explained why this was, and why it’s really no scandal and no great cause of discontent locally. He dismissed my explanation as “excuses excuses”.

Well, they’re not just excuses. South London doesn’t have many Tube lines, it’s true; the Northern line stretches all the way out to Morden along the A3 and A24, the District Line goes down to Wimbledon on a surface-level track acquired from British Rail in the 1990s and that’s it (there was the East London line which served New Cross, but that’s been integrated into the Overground and that now does reach Croydon). What south London has is lots of suburban overland railways and they criss-cross the area, making it possible to get between most places by rail without making huge detours, albeit often requiring a change of train. Croydon itself has a main-line station where fast trains to and from two London terminals (Victoria and London Bridge) and the south coast stop every ten minutes or so. There is also a tram system which serves the suburbs east and west of Croydon and the new Overground service, which runs up to the north-east and links Croydon with north, east and south-east London and the Docklands. It would have been possible to extend the Victoria Line southwards to Croydon, but this would have been used more for local journeys than by people travelling between south London and Croydon, who might well prefer the fast train from Victoria to East Croydon than a rattly underground stopping train and almost everywhere on the A23 corridor to Croydon already has a rail link. If this line were to have been built, it would mostly be used for local journeys, not for journeys into London.

As a child I only travelled on the Underground when we went up to London (Croydon, although part of Greater London, was not really considered to be London as such and had been a town in Surrey until the 1960s) and I disliked it intensely; it was noisy and dark and there are places where the lights go off because the train passes over a gap in the power line. This may just be a child’s reaction, but an overground train, all other things being equal, will always beat an underground one as there is natural light, less noise and more to see out of the window. Even in north London, most of the ‘Underground’ lines that reach the outer suburbs actually run above ground along converted old main-line railways; many of them were not intended to become part of an underground railway system when first built, among them the District and Metropolitan lines. There are also suburban main-line trains there, so not everyone in north London travels by Tube when commuting into London, and it’s not always a choice. As few of the existing Underground lines go south of the river, there is little scope for connecting southern suburban lines to Underground lines; only the Victoria and Bakerloo lines have loose ends south of the river. The Bakerloo line is now set to be extended at least as far as Lewisham (where it may link up with existing suburban rail lines, possibly to Hayes in south-east London) via a line under the Old Kent Road, while there are no such plans for the Victoria Line.

We did eventually get our rail link to Finsbury Park, via the new Thameslink connection to the line out of King’s Cross (the trains run from Peterborough to Horsham and from Cambridge to Brighton); it runs fast to London Bridge on an overland line, so it still beats a noisy stopper under the A23 to Brixton. In short, there are good reasons why Croydon never got the Tube and why that’s not considered a problem there.

Image source: ‘Hzh’, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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Not just a child

2 March, 2021 - 18:52
Picture of Shamima Begum, a young South Asian woman wearing a black headscarf which drapes over her body, carrying a baby who is dressed in a blue-and-white striped garment. Behind her are two large white tents.Shamima Begum

Last week the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Shamima Begum, the “ISIS bride” who ran away from home to join the self-styled Islamic State aged 15 in 2015, had no right to come back to the UK to contest the government’s decision to strip her of British citizenship on “national security” grounds in 2019. The government claim she has right to Bangladeshi nationality as this is where her family originate, but that country denies that she is a citizen (she was born in the UK) and refuses to allow her to live in the country, even saying that she could be tried and hanged if she entered Bangladesh. The Court of Appeal had allowed her appeal as she had been unable to contest the government’s decision from a detention camp her lawyers have been refused access to, but the Supreme Court claims the Court of Appeal “mistakenly believed that, when an individual’s right to have a fair hearing of an appeal came into conflict with the requirements of national security, her right to a fair hearing must prevail”, but in their view, “the right to a fair hearing does not trump all other considerations, such as the safety of the public”. The judgment strikes me as naked deference to executive power, taking secret ‘evidence’ at face value.

There are two separate issues at play here. One is that British citizenship has been degraded to a glorified visa for anyone with a single non-British grandparent or with perceived right to any foreign nationality: the government can strip you of your citizenship on grounds that your presence here is “not conducive to the public good” on grounds of “involvement in terrorism, espionage, serious organised crime, war crimes or unacceptable behaviours” and you would not be left stateless. This means that the government can strip you of your citizenship because they do not like you, or because the press has mounted a campaign against you. There is no other way of interpreting these words; “unacceptable behaviours” could mean anything. It’s the same phrase that enables the government to refuse a visa to a foreign national, often used to refuse entry to foreign rabble-rousers and hatemongers from Geert Wilders to Louis Farrakhan, but to deprive someone of citizenship is another matter. This plays to the demands of Islamophobes such as Douglas Murray, who called for anyone who sides with anyone fighting western forces anywhere to be deported, in the case of people born in the UK to the home country of a parent or grandparent. While obviously chiefly aimed at Asian and African Muslims, anyone of partly Irish or other European background could similarly be deported on a whim; any Jew could be denaturalised on the basis that they are entitled to Israeli nationality.

The other is Shamima Begum’s degree of responsibility. We know that, with two school friends of the same age, she travelled to Turkey on her own accord in 2015 and crossed the border into Syria. This followed contact with ISIS recruiters of some sort online which her parents were unaware of. Her defenders, particularly women, claim she was ‘groomed’ online and that her marriages in Syria were invalid and that if consummated, she was raped. These are dubious claims. ‘Grooming’ is a term normally associated with the sexual abuse of children and means the “softening-up” of a child for abuse: for example, men or older boys posing as friends or boyfriends, buying them food or giving them money with no apparent strings attached, only to demand sex later because “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. With younger children, it often consists of plying them with sweets or toys and inviting them for a ride in a nice car. To issue propaganda to someone over an Internet line that they could easily break off, claiming that ISIS is some sort of paradise when the opposite was well-known, is not grooming and many adults have fallen for the same propaganda and chosen to believe it over copious other evidence.

The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is 10; the age of majority in Islam is puberty. This is significant as I have heard many Muslims repeating these claims, often in conjunction with observations about how white society ‘adultifies’ Black children (although of course Shamima is not Black). There have been comparison with lighter sentences given to teenagers who had joined neo-Nazi groups and in some cases acquired weapons, but their plans never came to fruition and the Third Reich was abolished when Germany was occupied in 1945, 76 years ago, while Shamima Begum and her friends joined an extant criminal, terrorist state. While it is true that she was too young to marry in the UK at the time she left, she would have been old enough a few months later; in ISIS territory, however, English law did not apply and nor even did Syrian or Iraqi law, something she knew before she left: ISIS was dedicated to pulling down the colonial boundaries and the states that existed between them, and to installing some semblance of Islamic law and doing away with legal systems which had colonial heritage. In the pre-colonial Muslim world, 15 was quite a normal age for girls to marry (above average in some places) and no Muslim should be echoing the comments of non-Muslims that this is rape or “sex slavery”; this would be a slur on almost every Muslim man from the time of the Sahaba to very recent times. That said, it is unacceptable for the organisation to marry her to one man after another and then send the man off to fight and die for them, not allowing them time to get to know one another, or to allow her to carry and then lose two children. That’s cruel, but then, the cruelty of ISIS was well-known outside its borders (though so was the Assad regime’s). Perhaps she allowed herself to be persuaded that it was “all propaganda”, or perhaps she thought she would only be dishing it out, not taking it.

However, her actual guilt depends on what she actually did; the media talks of her “joining ISIS” but what she actually did was move to their territory, intending to live there. She then married someone and bore his child, which makes her neither a terrorist nor a war criminal. A mere member of a terrorist organisation (the IRA, for example) is not the same as someone who has carried out a lethal terrorist action such as a massacre or bombing, though we may condemn them for condoning such actions or blaming their victims. People inspired by ISIS are known to have carried out attacks in Britain, France and elsewhere, among them the Manchester Arena suicide bombing, but the attacks have largely ceased as the state itself has been destroyed by Syrian and Iraqi forces and Kurdish guerrilla armies (some of these forces themselves linked to terrorism), so her potential to pose a national security threat (especially if in prison!) is likely to be limited, if there is any. The government have acted not out of any concern for justice but in reaction to public hatred, itself stirred up by the commercial media. There is also no consistency in how the government have treated different people associated with ISIS; consider how Anjem Choudary, who released a video pledging allegiance to them and was imprisoned for it, was allowed to retain his citizenship despite many years of such agitation with al-Muhajiroun and its successor groups.

Four or five years ago, when ISIS was still fairly strong, I saw people in the West, including Muslims, say that people who choose to move to their territory should lose their citizenship; they should “just be a citizen of their caliphate”. That was then; the ‘caliphate’ no longer exists and the societies that it oppressed and who overran it, much to the delight of the outside world, have no responsibility to feed and house foreign ISIS recruits or settlers (some of whom oppressed them) indefinitely, nor to try them: if they do this, there will always be outsiders carping about the shortcomings of the justice system used. Bangladesh is also not responsible for Shamima Begum’s actions either. The Supreme Court was right about one thing; it is not just about this individual’s rights — the people of Syria and Iraq should not bear responsibility for a problem which largely originates in the West (right back to Abu Ghraib where the Americans tortured some of its founders). The West, including Britain, should take care of its responsibilities. But let’s not pretend that Shamima was an innocent victim; she listened to propaganda and made a choice, and her action was not on the spur of the moment.

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Jewish white privilege is no myth

28 February, 2021 - 19:56
Image of Anas Sarwar, a clean-shaven South Asian man wearing a dark blue jacket over a white shirt and silver and grey tie.Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour leader

Jewish Privilege is a myth by Giles Fraser (from Unherd)

In this article Giles Fraser, a London vicar married to an Israeli, complains that Jews are commonly left out of definitions of ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, a British classification equivalent to terms like ‘BIPOC’ in the US). He refers to David Baddiel’s recent book, Jews Don’t Count, which gives an example of a book review which identifies an author, surname Rosenberg, as writing from a “white-male-cis-het perspective”, and then takes issue with the description of Sajid Javid as the “first BAME chancellor of the Exchequer” which he says glosses over the fact that Nigel Lawson, whose paternal grandfather changed the family name from Leibson in the 1920s after they had immigrated from eastern Europe, much as his own family had changed its name from Friedeberg in 1917, had held the position in the 1980s (this past week, there was a similar controversy when Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar claimed to be the “first political party leader from an ethnic minority”, overlooking Ed Miliband). “Jews are considered to be white or non-white depending on the political perspective of the viewer”: not white or a threat to the purity of the race for those on the Far Right, “archetypally white — powerful, privileged, wealthy” to those on the “progressive Left”. I hear complaints that Jews are omitted from definitions of ‘minority’ or ‘BAME’ fairly regularly; I came across a complaint on Twitter recently that an ethnic monitoring form gave the usual White, Black and Asian definitions but ‘Jewish’ had to be stated, if the respondent wished, in the “Other (please state)” box. I don’t regard Jews to be BAME and regard them as a religious but not an ethnic minority; they are a subset of the White majority. This is why.

All the complaints about Jews being “left out of BAME” demonstrate wilful blindness to the fact that times change and concepts of race change from time to time and place to place. They are heavy on explanations of how things were in the past and light on acceptance of how things are now. Quite frequently people cannot believe that the new racists are different from the old Nazis and will court Jews and Hindus (who have a violent fascist movement of their own) to play them off against Muslims, for example. Mediaeval and early modern Europe characterised itself as Christian; Jews were in most places tolerated and allowed to run their own affairs but not allowed to integrate or enjoy the full rights of citizens (such as they were) because they were not Christian and regarded their true home as the Middle East. In the 19th century, the idea emerged that there were different races of human beings that shared common descent and were identified by language and physical signs. This was a pseudoscience, but Jews were identified as a race and conversion to Christianity came to be seen as of lesser importance than one’s ancestry (to Nazis it was of no consequence at all, and practising Catholics, most famously Edith Stein, were murdered because of their Jewish origins).

In other modern societies, such as ours, ‘race’ is associated with physical appearance; the native population is mostly white, and darker skin is associated with foreignness, immigrant status and, in some cases, slavery. When people migrate from one European society to another, they are regarded as foreigners but their children often are not; Irish and Italian Americans, for example, come to be seen as ‘White’ even if they maintain aspects of their culture and it is often observed that White immigrant communities leapfrog African-Americans, who remain poor (often as a result of discriminatory policies, such as ‘red-lining’ in the housing market which prevented them from acquiring property).

Thus, a Jewish immigrant can change his or her surname and get elocution lessons and lose any traits that give them away as an immigrant and two or three generations later the fact that someone is Jewish is unimportant, to those who even know it, when he runs for Parliament or is appointed to a ministerial job. A Black person will always be seen as Black in a country where Blackness is associated with immigrant status, poverty and criminality. There is a joke that asks what you call a Black person with a BA, an MA or a PhD and the answer rhymes with ‘trigger’. I rarely hear of a Black person now who has changed their name to something “more English” because that would make them more integrated, although stories of people with foreign names often report that they do not get job interviews until they Anglicise their names (or submit an application with an English pseudonym). It has often happened that they change their names the other way, to shed a surname that dates back to slavery or reclaim their African roots; an English surname does not help when one’s colour and appearance automatically marks one out.

This is the essence of White privilege: it means you do not look out of place in a western society. You will not be assumed to be an illegal immigrant, you will not be assumed to be a criminal; if you are seen in an expensive car, it will not be assumed that it is either stolen or drug-financed. If you have an encounter with the police, it will likely be polite and you do not risk being physically harmed if you are not brandishing a weapon. It means you can travel without being selected for “enhanced screening” again and again, even after numerous negative screenings. It does not mean that there is no prejudice against your background or religion or that there is no derogatory term ever used about them, but even though they might be used by people who work with or go to school with you and you might hear language you find hurtful or offensive, you can still walk down the street unmolested. This is particularly important in the case of people who do not mark themselves out by their dress, which is the case with many Jews outside Orthodox congregations.

I wouldn’t be foolish enough to suggest that antisemitism does not exist in the UK. I saw it pretty much every day while at boarding school outside a provincial town: there were three or four Jewish boys at any one time and slurs about their origin were commonplace (and the word Jew was used as an insult towards others as well). However, prejudice is not all that makes a group oppressed; it also matters whether it is fostered or tolerated by the state and media. There are prejudices that pass the “dinner party test” and those that don’t and if mild expressions of one prejudice (or even statements that bear vague resemblance to them) are policed more stringently and are more costly than open expressions of hatred towards another minority or actual policies that contribute to innocent people being expelled from the country for no good reason, it should be clear that antisemitism is not politically acceptable while other prejudices are. The issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party was never out of the news for most of the time Jeremy Corbyn was leader; much of it was not new but was old material dug up from social media by people who must have been looking for dirt, much of it was about Israel rather than Jews per se (and given how Israel treats Palestinians, such condemnation is justified; there is no such restraint when atrocities by Muslim groups are being condemned) and much of it seemed to strain the definition of an “antisemitic trope” through the needle’s eye. The sheer volume and regularity of the stories gave the impression of a media campaign and led people to believe that the problem was extremely serious and certainly much more serious than it actually was. Why would the media give such prominence to the claims if they believed that the public would not care?

Compare this to the hostility being mounted against activists who seek to remove monuments to slave traders from the public space, or the use of ‘woke’ (a term of African-American origin meaning politically and racially conscious) as an insult, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that Jews are at least privileged among minorities. Jeremy Corbyn is ‘exposed’ for writing a foreword to a major work of socialist theory with a few disparaging words about Jews while Tories campaign and promise legislation to keep monuments to slave traders (as stated before: anyone involved in that trade would have been party to the murder of tens of thousands) in public spaces. I have seen on the British media people claiming that antisemitism is not like other forms of racism (not materially, but not morally equivalent) and someone stating that Islamophobia is merely a way Muslims seek to escape criticism, and this person has made numerous bigoted claims about Muslims in particular over many years (particularly since 2001) and is still regularly allowed to appear on the BBC and in mainstream newspapers, something that would not be allowed if antisemitism was this clearly expressed. I am sure this individual is not typical of Jewish attitudes, but this is hardly the point; she keeps appearing again and again.

As a White Muslim of English and Irish origin, I am considered to be in a privileged position despite the fact that White Muslims as well as Arabs, Asians and Somalis have suffered from discrimination and political oppression stemming from the “war on terror” policies. The fact that Muslims were massacred in Bosnia only 20 years ago and persecuted by various communist regimes around the world, including Europe, does not change the fact that White Muslims are to a certain extent privileged now. Similarly, the fact that Jews were victims of persecution and genocide at other times and in other places does not change the fact that in the UK, where Jews have never been actively persecuted, they are a fairly prosperous community, mostly associated with leafy north London suburbs, with ample media access and well-represented in Parliament, including at ministerial and Cabinet level on both sides of the House, and their tales of woe are indulged to the hilt again and again, becoming front-page and prime-time news while serious discrimination against other communities is ridiculed. The bottom line is that a white Jew in Britain today is no less white for being a Jew, which is why an Asian political leader means progress in a way a Jewish one does not.

Image source: Scottish Parliament, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution (BY) licence, version 3.0.

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Did Anthony Williams get lucky?

22 February, 2021 - 23:21
Ruth Williams

Last Thursday a man who throttled his wife to death last March, shortly after the initial Coronavirus lockdown was imposed, received a five-year jail sentence after a jury accepted his plea of guilty to manslaughter rather than murder. During the trial, a psychologist advanced a theory that his level of control was reduced because of anxiety prompted by the lockdown, which had exacerbated a depression he had been suffering since retiring in 2019 (this theory, or its significance, was disputed by another psychologist who said that he had no history of depressive illness). It was claimed that he had suffered irrational worries about money, but the couple had no mortgage and £150,000 in savings. The incident allegedly started when Ruth Williams told her husband Anthony to “get over it” when she expressed these fears, but he pursued her down the stairs when she escaped from his initial attack and was found on the sofa, a pair of keys in her hand, which to many indicated that Williams was a determined if not premeditated killer and it has been widely suspected that men who murder their wives can easily get away (or get a lenient sentence) by claiming that they ‘snapped’. Harriet Wistrich, the lawyer who got a number of women who killed violent partners released from prison in the 1990s, called it “more proof that the criminal justice system is institutionally misogynist”.

I’m personally not convinced that Anthony Williams’ professed mental illness was genuine — the lockdown was cited, but it was days old at that point and was not stringent; people were allowed to go out for exercise and shopping, and did so quite freely — but I have my doubts as to whether misogyny was anything to do with it. Sometimes defendants get lucky and sometimes it appears that a defendant who had been “under stress” can get sympathy from professionals, the legal system and the jury — if indeed it even reaches a jury. The case that springs to mind here is that of Tanya Clarence who killed her three disabled children in 2014; she was part of a wealthy family with a large, adapted house and had ample professional support, but killed the three children when her husband was away on business by smothering them with a nappy, yet her plea of diminished responsibility was accepted by the Crown and she was sentenced to a hospital order without a jury hearing the case. In this sense Ruth Williams’s killing got a fairer hearing than the Clarence children’s and there is widespread suspicion in the disabled community that the sympathy was based on prejudice against disabled people: a sense that their lives are worth less than others’, that their lives are not worth living, that they are burdensome, that it’s quite understandable that you would not want to be the parent of a disabled child, let alone three.

The law distinguishes murder, which is deliberate or premeditated killing (where the intention is death or serious harm), from manslaughter, which is where a killing is still culpable but to a lesser degree, whether because of mental illness or because conduct was reckless rather than deliberate. For example, punching someone in the face, causing their death, would constitute manslaughter rather than murder, because this type of assault does not normally cause death, while a sustained beating that causes death would be murder, as there was a clear intent to cause serious harm even if this would not always kill. A street murder that involves a gun or knife attracts a longer tariff (minimum amount of prison time in a life sentence) because the killer will have brought the weapon to the scene and will likely hand it to someone else afterwards, both are more likely to cause death or serious harm than anyone’s bare hands and in the case of guns, they are not readily available in the UK and thus reflects a deeper level of criminal involvement. Strangulation is a painful death — we stopped using it to execute criminals in the 1860s by introducing “the drop” — but as some people can do it with their bare hands, it requires a lesser degree of premeditation than the use of a weapon.

In my experience, society is sometimes too tolerant of people who respond to non-physical provocation with violence; when I was in a violent institutional environment as a teenager, the ones who would use violence when someone was rude to or offended them were those who had got away with such behaviour in the past. Those who had not, and who had been on the receiving end of it more often than the other, would harm themselves or damage property (their own or the school’s). A number of years ago I read of a young boy who was assaulted by a man who had caused an accident that damaged the car he and his mother were in; the police refused to press charges as “you can’t give ‘verbal’ and not expect something in return”. This is why I’m sceptical that someone could “just snap” and harm someone else; people are more likely to attack someone who is smaller than them. That said, it was not noted at Anthony Williams’s trial that he had been previously habitually violent. I wonder if he was an undiagnosed autistic; it is common for people with autism to have crises, with extremes of behaviour, when their routines are disrupted especially by major life changes, and given his age he would have left school and gone straight to work at a time when many secure jobs were available, but retirement might have had the same effect as school ending has for many autistic teenagers; this may explain the heightened anxieties about money.

It was also complained about that a domestic violence activist made remarks on Twitter during the trial that there must have been a history of domestic abuse (which is usually the case when a man kills his wife), calling the claim that he had snapped “complete bullshit” and saying she hoped the jury found him guilty of murder. This was then retweeted by Helen Mary Jones, a Welsh Assembly member, and both were summoned to appear before the court for contempt and were reprimanded. Making public remarks or publishing printed material (including in a newspaper) that could prejudice a jury trial is illegal and always has been, for good reason. Newspaper editors have always had to be mindful of it, but it’s only recently that ordinary people have had such reach that what they say may also be prejudicial.

I find the feminist response really quite childish. They sound a lot like children whinging “it’s not faaaaiiiir!”, and the response is one they’ve probably given their children in the face of that complaint about their parenting decisions many a time: sometimes life’s not fair. There is an automatic assumption that Anthony Williams was “let off” because he killed a woman, and let’s face it, women’s lives mean nothing. This just isn’t true; he wasn’t let off, he may have got lucky with the jury but he took advantage of a law that treats unpremeditated homicide differently from premeditated murder, which is quite right and proper even if many men are more able to kill on the spur of the moment than most women because they are stronger. When an actual expert explained the verdict and sentence on his blog, accusations of mansplaining ensued — the standard ad hominem argument that follows a man telling a woman something she does not want to hear, regardless of his level of expertise or hers. They are all leaping to assumptions that the case resembles some they are familiar with, and Anthony Williams represents every male abuser and killer and Ruth represents every female victim, but none of them were in court, as far as I can tell; they rely on newspaper reports and make assumptions based on generalisations (notice also how they casually dismissed Anthony and Ruth Williams’s daughter’s description of her own father’s character). Maybe Anthony Williams lucked out with a sympathetic jury but maybe the law worked as it should and a man who killed when the balance of his mind was disturbed was treated accordingly.

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Not expensive

20 February, 2021 - 11:52
Eden Park station

Yesterday a report into the death of a partially-sighted man, Cleveland Gervais, who was hit and killed by a train at Eden Park station in south-east London last February was published by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), a government agency that investigates rail accidents in the UK and on the Channel Tunnel, and found that the accident could have been prevented had the station been fitted with a tactile paving strip near the platform, a standard fitting to alert blind passengers when they are near the platform edge. The organisation’s chief inspector, Simon French, said:

Although RAIB (Rail Accident Investigation Branch) recognises that the immediate provision of tactile strips across the network would be very expensive, there is a need to develop a new policy to guide decision makers. … It cannot always make sense simply to wait until platforms are refurbished to install the strips.

It can’t actually be that expensive and need not wait for a full refurbishment; it’s a single strip of tiles per platform which could have been installed at any time over the past several years when the station was closed for weekend engineering or any other kind of maintenance. A Freedom of Information request revealed that a third of stations around the country, among them 79 in London including major stations in London such as Waterloo and Victoria, lack the correct tactile paving (none or only partial) and that the target for installing them on all stations is 2029. The RNIB estimate that 9-15% of falls from railway station platforms involve blind or partially sighted people and they have started a petition to get tactile paving installed quickly. It does not only help blind people but anyone who may not be conscious that they are too close to the edge, such as when the platform is crowded.

I appreciate that it cannot happen everywhere overnight but it’s not a huge job; it will take a small team a few hours’ work per platform. It’s not like installing lifts at an Underground station. That there are still a third of stations without this simple adaptation reflects lack of commitment, not cost.

Image source: Auguste Blanqui, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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Newark: a pointless road scheme

13 February, 2021 - 19:45
A map showing an improved dual carriageway going south-west to north-east across an unchanged dual carriageway running south-east to north-west outside Newark on Trent, with an inadequate junction connecting them.Part of the scheme to improve the A46 at the junction with the A1. (From the consultation brochure PDF.)

On Thursday the Guardian reported that the government had ignored official advice to review a massive road-building programme on environmental grounds; taking such advice has been a legal requirement since 2014. This revelation forms part of a legal challenge to the set of projects by the Transport Action Network which claims that “the significant subsequent changes in climate policy and scientific understanding of pollution means it needs review”, both in terms of the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also of the newly identified problem of particulate pollution from tyres, which remains an issue even if much road transport moves to electric engines. The schemes include widenings of the A303 in Somerset and Wiltshire, including the Stonehenge tunnel, an improvement to the A63 in Hull and an upgrade to the A46 Newark by-pass in Nottinghamshire.

It’s this last scheme which suggests that the new roadbuilding programme is a worrying sign of a return to the days of “motorway madness” in the 1990s under the previous Tory government. The consultation brochure (PDF) describes the scheme as part of “a commitment … to improve the A46 ‘Trans- Midlands Trade Corridor’ between the M5 and the Humber Ports, to create a continuous dual carriageway from Lincoln to Warwick”. This points to future plans to upgrade the rest of the ‘corridor’ which presently includes 39 miles of single carriageway between the Lincoln by-pass and the M180 outside Scunthorpe. The scheme involves either a flyover or throughpass for the A46 across the junction with the A616 and A617 to the west of the town as well as a flyover over the A1 that avoids the existing junction. A consultation was carried out last year which proposed two fairly similar schemes, both of which feature the flyover over the A1 but no serious improvement to the rest of the junction. This would improve access from the A46 which comes up from Coventry and Leicester (with a road in from Nottingham also) and continues north-east towards Lincoln; anyone travelling this way would have their journey times reduced by the flyover. For whatever reason, the option that includes a flyover for the A46/A616 junction also includes two parallel dual carriageways north-east of the junction with the A1, with the traffic from the junction meeting the A46 at an upgraded roundabout further up.

However, the junction with the A1 would be unchanged: there are two signalised roundabouts either side of the A1 with some short, tight slip roads and very insufficient turn-off lanes which frequently cause traffic to back up onto that road, which has a 70mph speed limit for cars, causing delays and increasing danger for anyone travelling along the A1 or switching to the A46. The A46 and A1 form an important secondary route for people travelling from the Midlands to the north-east and Yorkshire particularly at times when the M1 is congested (or closed because of works or accidents) and this junction is a major weak link. Anyone travelling from London to Hull via the Humber Bridge (the most direct route, despite the toll) might also come up the A1 and then take the A46 and A15 via Lincoln; the junction is also the end of the A17, a fast route to northern East Anglia and south Lincolnshire. So traffic from Leicester to Lincoln is only one of many flows of traffic across this junction, yet it’s the only one that will see any change, and even there, there will still be two roundabouts between the improved bypass and the upgraded A46 down to Leicester. Perhaps this will cause the least disruption while the works are taking place, but has the least long-term benefit even if improving traffic flow is the only important thing; there is obvious room for direct slip roads between the A46 from the west and the A1 from the north.

It just looks like a grandiose scheme to boost the economy with some big infrastructure projects while filling the pockets of a few big construction firms, some of them no doubt with links to the Tory party. It will be a gift from the taxpayer to these companies that will keep on giving for decades to come. Now that the previous fad for converting motorways to “smart motorways” with four lanes with no hard shoulder has been quite rightly discredited, the only way they can increase road capacity is to actually build new roads again. This particular scheme will be of limited benefit and only makes sense in the context of future major upgrades to other main roads in the region; it resembles previous A-road upgrades in the east of England which left important work undone, to be redone at further expense and disruption later. This should be done properly, or not at all.

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Zero Covid: totalitarian? A cult?

12 February, 2021 - 23:13
A picture of three or four men wearing masks, holding up a sign saying "We need a Zero Covid strategy", on a rainy day outside Downing Street, London.A small demonstration for Zero Covid in Britain outside Downing Street. (Source)

I saw a piece by Freddie Sayers (former editor-in-chief of YouGov, now at UnHerd) billed as a look “inside the Zero Covid campaign”, a report from the conference of the “Covid Community Action Summit”, a pro-elimination group, the aim of which was to “share evidence and political advice to help campaigners lobby Western governments to abandon any notion of living alongside the virus, and instead to follow the lead of Asia-Pacific nations in aiming to eliminate the disease entirely within their borders”. The movement has a number of ‘believers’ among scientists who appear in the media regularly, notably Devi Sridhar, as well as MPs who believe in the strategy explicitly or in not so many words, among them Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Hunt. He accuses them of a “a unanimity of world view … that was unsettling; a fusion of overt progressive-Left politics with an ironclad certainty about their interpretation of the science”, referring to people who do not share their conviction as conspiracy theorists, deniers or “herd immunity apologists”.

Sayers’ criticism is that they do not look at “the cost” of achieving and maintaining Zero Covid within a society: first that you would never be able to relax border controls, and second that it is a totalitarian goal best achieved by an authoritarian state such as China. He quotes David Rennie of The Economist saying that you have to scan a QR code to do anything or go anywhere and to have a Covid test to enter or leave Beijing, leaving nobody with any privacy; “it’s very hard to know where Covid containment starts and a Communist police state with an obsession with control kicks in”. But the same isn’t true of other countries which implemented a harsh lockdown early on and stringent border controls and quarantine policies since, leaving their people able to enjoy normal life but not foreign travel, unless they agree to quarantine on return. Australia and New Zealand are not totalitarian societies and their governments are on different sides of the political divide but have both been fairly successful in keeping most of the country Covid-free much of the time. New Zealand has had better success, principally because it’s a fairly small, non-federal island nation while Australia has multiple states over a much wider area.

Sayers tells us that “British voters have not chosen to reject liberal democracy, no matter what the epidemiological allure of a ZeroCovid regime”. British voters were not given a choice in the matter any more than voters anywhere else were. It’s possible that Boris Johnson read the public mood, but that mood was influenced by a long-standing mistrust of politicians that has much to do with the Tories’ other main policy — Brexit — and this has only grown stronger over the course of the past year with one revelation after another of politicians and advisers flagrantly breaching lockdowns, contracts going to political insiders, policies chopping and changing over the space of a week (including the original lockdown which was being denied the Friday before it was imposed). Even during the relatively relaxed period last summer, we had to wear masks when we shopped and keep our distance from everyone else, neither of which are the case in Australia or New Zealand most of the time; the roads were gridlocked as people resumed leisure activities but avoided public transport and local authorities blocked off minor roads to facilitate “low-traffic neighbourhoods”. The country turned itself into a giant leper colony, only for the UK to be the origin of a new, more virulent virulent strain of the disease.

The main problem with achieving Zero Covid in the UK is the same one that was a major stumbling block for Brexit: our food supply. Much of our fresh fruit and vegetables come on trucks from Europe, and we don’t have the infrastructure right now to get produce into the country, and especially to places further north, without the driver coming in with it and possibly running into contact with other people at service stations and logistics depots (logistics companies make efforts to minimise such contact, but cannot eliminate it entirely). We would have to look at how other countries, including Australia and New Zealand which are both English-speaking democracies with similar cultures to our own, secured their food supply while ensuring that nobody entered the country without being quarantined. In the medium to long term, some relaxation of the border and quarantine regime could be achieved by establishing a bloc of ‘safe’ countries which also have the same bio-security rules, such that you could travel between those countries but not into or out of the bloc without going through quarantine. (This would obviously be difficult if the bloc included us and Australia and New Zealand, since flights to both those countries tend to stop in the Middle East or Asia.) The development of more rapid testing for Covid would cut the quarantine time to a few days for those who turn out not to be infected.

The comparison of strong public healthcare and social security with totalitarianism goes back a long way: we recall that Winston Churchill threatened the electorate in 1945 that if Clement Attlee’s Labour party, with its promise of a national health service and welfare state, won the election, they would “have to fall back on some form of Gestapo” to implement it; the voters saw through his rhetoric, no doubt offended given that Labour politicians had contributed to Churchill’s war cabinet and Labour voters had participated in the war effort itself, and voted Attlee in. American conservatives use similar rhetoric to ward off the ‘threat’ of a public healthcare system in the USA, with talk of ‘communism’ and even raising the spectre of “NHS death panels” deciding who lives and who dies. In fact, many democratic countries have not needed any kind of secret police to get people to pay for a national health system; in contrast from fearing the police, people have one less fear, that of illness bankrupting them, of having to sell their home to pay for a hospital bill. That doesn’t happen in the UK. In countries which have eliminated Covid, people do not have to worry about infecting others or being infected by just being around other people. There’s plenty to criticise both Australia’s and New Zealand’s governments about, but as British police raid students’ flats on flimsy grounds, they have not needed a Gestapo yet.

It could well be that it’s no longer practical to pursue Covid elimination in the UK; perhaps that ship sailed last March or even February. Every democracy that has achieved a low to zero Covid casualty rate is either physically or politically an island nation: New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan — countries not closely integrated with their neighbours nor dependent on close surface links with them, as we are with Europe. Whether or not it’s a realistic goal for the UK today, it’s not totalitarian to think a serious health threat should be eliminated when this would mean freedom within our own borders.

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Do they know what representation means at all?

7 February, 2021 - 19:09
A still of Emma Barnett, a young white woman, wearing headphones and speaking into a large red studio microphone. Behind her is a back-lit pink backdrop with he words "BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour" on it. A caption reading "How many female imams are there?" appears at the bottom of the image.Emma Barnett

Last Thursday the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour (10am, Radio 4) interviewed Zara Mohammed, the new secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain and the first woman to be elected to that role, and a clip has been widely shared and criticised on Twitter as the BBC presented it as a ‘gotcha’ in which Ms Mohammed was unable to answer a question from the presenter, Emma Barnett, about how many “female imams” there were in the UK. (The answer is none; an imam, in the sense of a prayer leader at a mosque, has to be male.) Zara Mohammed did not give a straight answer, and although she hinted at the fact that this is not actually part of her role at MCB, she did not say that very clearly, to the point where people have accused her of being evasive, though this is not a fair criticism when the question is a loaded one, intended to make a point about Islam itself rather than elicit information. The interview can be heard on BBC Sounds here and starts at 9:24 and runs for about 13 minutes.

I’ve listened to the whole interview and most of it is not as confrontational as this particular section; Barnett could have been harsher in the discussions on Muslims who claim the MCB does not represent them, including self-styled ‘moderates’ such as Qanta Ahmed who claimed as such in an article for the Spectator, and on the ‘strained’ relationship between the MCB and the government which have refused to engage with them since at least Cameron’s time; fashionable right-wing opinion holds that the organisation is dominated by ‘Islamists’ and there were attempts to cultivate “dissident voices”, often people with sectarian agendas. (Barnett said that the government had been approached for a statement and had not given one.) On the other hand, there was not a huge amount about what the MCB actually does and Barnett mentioned that she would talk about the pandemic at some point but they didn’t. She asked about the size of their membership; Zara explained that its membership consisted of about 500 affiliate bodies such as mosques and charities, rather than individuals. Again, this is the sort of thing Barnett should have researched before conducting the interview.

In the section about “female imams”, Barnett first asked her about the Muslim population of the UK (she replied 3 million; Barnett responded that this is what she thought it was) and then asked her how many women imams there were. Zara asked her whether she meant prayer leaders or chaplains and Barnett responded, “well, you tell me” as if she was supposed to remind her of her own question. Zara told her, “my role is making sure that we include our affiliates, particularly women, in the work that we are doing in making sure that our structures, as well as the work we do, are truly representative”. Barnett reminded her that there had been female ‘priests’ and rabbis for some time in this country (in fact, there are women vicars and deacons in the Church of England and female rabbis in some liberal branches of Judaism, but not in the Catholic church and not in orthodox Jewish communities whether ‘modern’ or Haredi). Zara told her, “I think my role isn’t really to adjudicate or examine that part of spirituality”. Pressed again, she said, “I think what’s really important for the Muslim Council of Britain, the work that we do, actually is that … it’s not about defining or going into these types of questions regarding spirituality but actually looking at how we can benefit our communities, especially given the pandemic and the role that everybody needs to be playing”.

That’s a rather round-about way of saying that the MCB are a representative body; they are there to represent the Muslim community, not to dictate to Muslims. If you want to compare it with any similar religious body, it has more in common with the Jewish Board of Deputies than the Church of England’s General Synod which did authorise female vicars. It’s not a theological body and its members are, for the most part, not religious scholars or theologians. It doesn’t have the power to reform Islam, least of all for the satisfaction of outsiders, nor even to dictate to affiliated organisations how they should run themselves. Zara Mohammed seemed intimidated by Barnett’s line of questioning, which is why the impression may have been given that she “could not answer” when in fact she knew (and I suspect Barnett did as well), but any representative of the Muslim community is going to face loaded and hostile questions so they had better get prepared. The simple answer should have been that the MCB does not dictate to Muslims in the UK, cannot change Islamic law, cannot legislate for women imams, that it’s not in the job description and that’s that.

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Where did Captain Tom’s money go?

5 February, 2021 - 21:30
Black and white picture of a young Tom Moore, a white man with a moustache wearing a British army officer's uniform.Tom Moore as a second lieutenant during World War II.

Earlier this week Captain Sir Tom Moore, a World War II veteran who raised £33million for NHS-related charities by walking miles in the form of multiple lengths of his back garden during the first lockdown last Spring, died of Covid-19 which it is believed he contracted while on holiday in Barbados (or on his way there or back) in December, before the current lockdown was brought in. (He had been a second lieutenant during the war; the rank of captain was honorary.) Moore’s efforts inspired a number of others to undertake similar feats for charity, such as climbing mountains of their own house stairs. It has been widely claimed on social media that the money he raised was spent on routine supplies, in particular PPE (personal protective equipment) which was in desperately short supply at that time and a number of clothing manufacturers suspended normal operations to produce PPE instead. This is actually not true, as a friend with a locked Twitter account pointed out in a thread yesterday.

Moore’s money went to NHS Charities Together, an umbrella body for healthcare charities, not to the NHS itself or to NHS trust themselves. Charity money cannot in fact be used for routine supplies or for standard medical equipment such as CT scanners, nor for employing normal healthcare staff; it can, however, be used for better equipment than the NHS would normally supply, and for additional staff to perform roles that are specific to a given crisis, such as the current pandemic. In the case of Covid-19 appeal money, some of it was spent on technology such as tablets to keep patients in contact with their families at times when visiting was impossible; some was spent on the wellbeing of staff whose mental health was suffering as a result of working in the pandemic; other money was spent on bereavement support for both staff and patients. There is a FAQ here on the NHS-CT website although some of it is quite vague about the specifics of what the donations are spent on and how it differs from normal, tax-funded NHS spending.

I write this because I personally avoided donating money to this fund last year as I believed it was being spent on disposable PPE and that no amount of charity could supply any single trust’s PPE needs, much less the entire NHS; it would be a drop in the ocean and the money raised would be better spent elsewhere, especially as fundraising for other charitable purposes would have been reduced. This doubt was misplaced but it was encouraged by the media which referred to money being raised “for the NHS” in the context of a dire PPE shortage and did not tell us where the money was actually going.

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Call this devolution?

3 February, 2021 - 08:00
A group of five middle-aged to elderly people (one South Asian man, one white man and three white women) holding up a map of West Yorkshire with the five boroughs (Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield) marked. Behind them is a river with two boats visible, and a plate glass building behind to the left and a red brick building behind to the right.The leaders of West Yorkshire’s councils

I saw a tweet earlier this week from the political scientist Matthew Goodwin, a noted media and Twitter Brexiteer, hailing the “devolution deal” that came into force this past weekend which paves the way for mayoral elections this May (coronavirus permitting, of course) for a “metropolitan mayor” for West Yorkshire, the county which includes Leeds, Bradford and the surrounding area. “£38 million budget & powers over housing, transport, etc., and access to £1.1 billion to invest in region. Send power down not up.” Really?

For anyone who grew up in the 20th century and remember Tony Blair coming to power with promises of devolution for Wales and Scotland, the term is associated with law-making powers being devolved from Westminster to a national assembly which had real powers over policy areas such as health and education. Blair also promised a referendum on a mayor for London and this was delivered in 2000; Ken Livingstone then served two terms as mayor (first as an independent, then as a Labour mayor) before losing to Boris Johnson in 2008. This was not spoken of as devolution but rather as some form of democratic city-wide authority for London which had not had one since the GLC was abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1986. The mayor’s power is in limited areas, mostly transport and policing, but the London Assembly only has the power to reject his budget, not veto his policies. Once his policy decisions pass the ‘consultation’ phase (and he is free to reject the results of any consultation, as Livingstone did when extending the Congestion Charge to inner west London in his second term), they require central government approval.

The West Yorkshire mayor will be the head of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority whose governing body consists of council leaders and some additional borough councillors; it is not, therefore, directly elected at all. The ‘devolution’ will consist of some finance decisions currently taken by the government being transferred to the mayor, but some powers will also be transferred upwards from local councils to the mayor; public transport, for example, is currently the responsibility of borough councils, and the new authority will also control a network of strategic roads, which again are currently the responsibility of local government (apart from trunk roads which are controlled by central government) which is controlled by an elected council, not a single executive mayor. The mayor will also take over the powers of the elected police and crime commissioner. So it is not quite true that this just represents a transfer of power ‘downwards’.

And all the power-to-the-people rhetoric cannot disguise the fact that there has been no referendum on this; it is the fruit of several years of negotiation between the local councils (many of which favoured a “Leeds City Region” authority which would also have included a number of districts of North Yorkshire) and central government. When referendums were held in three boroughs (Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield) on directly-elected mayors for their authorities in 2012, all were rejected (indeed, all but one of ten such proposals that year were). So, let’s not pretend that this is a victory for people power; it’s a limited transfer of policy and spending power (not law-making power), some of it from central government and some of it from elected local councils, to a single directly-elected mayor whose decisions will need to be rubber-stamped by government, not a locally-elected body.

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How should Muslims react to Holocaust education?

2 February, 2021 - 08:00
The gateway to the Auschwitz concentration camp with a metal sign overhead reading "Arbeit macht frei" (work liberates). Behind the gates are the red-brick former Austrian barracks buildings.Entrance to the Auschwitz camp

Someone on Facebook shared an article from Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, on how immigrant (or immigrant-descended) Muslims in Germany react to Holocaust education efforts such as trips to concentration camps. The article notes that since the dawn of the century, “Turkish and Arab background Germans went from being considered irrelevant to Germany’s attempts to come to terms with its Nazi-era past, to being considered its prime obstacle, a status shared to a lesser extent by Germans from the former Communist state of East Germany”. They are accused of being reluctant to go on educational trips to old Nazi camps and of reacting ‘inappropriately’ when they do:

Holocaust educators often complain to me and to others that Muslim Germans express “unsuitable” emotions in response to the Holocaust. What were these “inappropriate” responses? The most common complaints were that participants expressed fear that something like the Holocaust could happen to them too; that they were jealous of the “status” of Jewish victims, and that they felt pride in their own national backgrounds.

The article features interviews with a German camp tour guide identified with the pseudonym Juliana and a woman of Turkish origin identified as Neshide who organises Holocaust education for immigrants (both are pseudonyms). Juliana calls the Turkish and Arab visitors “different from other visitors” and says she and other guides are “irritated” by them:

“For example, when they go to visit the camps, immigrants start to feel like they will be sent there next. They come out of the camp anxious and afraid. I do not like it at all when they do that, and [so] I do not even want to take them there.”

Neshide concurs with the sentiment, and says that Germans become angry when people of immigrant origin express it:

“A month later we were at a church as part of our training program. We told them about our project [to educate immigrants about the Holocaust] and then told them that we are ourselves afraid of being victims [one day]. 

“The people at the church became really angry at us. They told us to go back to our countries if this is how we think. I was really surprised at their reaction. I could not understand why this is not a legitimate question. Why should I not be concerned, personally, about the Nazis?”

During that heated conversation, Neshide repeated Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s statement: It happened once, so it can happen again. 

But this made the ladies in the church even more furious. Neshide and her friends were asked to leave the church. Neshide’s face reddened when she told me this story. She was reliving the shock and dismay she experienced when she was confronted with extreme anger instead of admiration for her empathy and identification with the history of the country of her new citizenship. 

The author notes that German Holocaust education focusses on “triggering feelings of remorse and responsibility” while Muslim Germans do not react in such a way; they react more viscerally, relating what they see to their own experiences of racism and Islamophobia. Germans see this reaction as evidence of a lack of “the correct moral qualities and … the capacity to be good citizens”. However, the article does not raise any questions about the character of those who judge immigrants for fearing for their own safety in a country which perpetrated a genocide within living memory, in a continent where there has been another — against Muslims — only 25 years ago, one which was aided and abetted by European politicians who, according to American sources, were reluctant to assist Bosnia because they regarded it as “not belonging” as a Muslim country in “Christian Europe”.

A street demonstration with a group of men and women holding a banner that reads "Rapefugees not welcome, stay away!" with a group of men with knives shown pursuing a woman.An anti-immigration demo with a banner seen at many such events across Germany and elsewhere

The Far Right in Europe today have Muslims as one of its principal targets, if not its main target. The same questions that were asked about Jews for centuries in Europe, about whether they could truly be citizens of the countries they lived in when they were not Christians and had roots abroad, are now asked about Muslims. Then as now they were presented as pressing questions which needed to be answered. Then as now, customs such as circumcision and methods of animal slaughter are targeted for prohibition, though in the past Jews had a certain amount of autonomy and were allowed to manage their own affairs in a way Muslims now are not. Muslims are accused widely of being sexual predators, branded “rape-fugees”, both by the Far Right and by feminists who also whip up attacks on Muslim women by branding the way they dress as an ‘oppression’ while refusing to acknowledge anything oppressive about the expectations on women in their culture. German newspapers have portrayed mosque minarets as military formations; such propaganda led to a referendum in Switzerland which went in favour of a ban.

That Germans expect people whose ancestors were not in Europe at the time of the Holocaust and were in no way involved, and who have become a focus of their suspicion and hostility themselves since, really shows that the leopard, so to speak, does not change its spots. Jews are no longer seen as a threat to the German way of life because there are too few of them; Germany is content to show off its guilt, pay substantial reparations and to assist Israel in its repression of the native Palestinians and to attack pro-Palestinian campaigners in Germany, even entertaining the idea that the very name ‘Palestinian’ should be rejected as anti-Zionist and therefore antisemitic, while finding new “enemies within” and building a new narrative of suspicion against them. I should add that Germany is not unique in this; Europe in general does not tolerate different cultures for very long and in every country that was occupied by the Germans, there were collaborators and informers, some of whom joined in the genocide. In France, parties compete to impress voters with their hostility to Muslims, and announce ever more new laws to restrict their normal activities.

Muslims can hardly be blamed for not joining in the German guilt trip: it is becoming part of the German national myth, a way for those in the political mainstream to feel better about themselves and justified in their racism while the Far Right directs the boots and fists. White Germans are as uncomfortable with immigrants telling them that they fear that the racism they face is no different and no more justified than the antisemitism of the past and could have the same deadly consequences in the future as White Americans are by being reminded that their country is still racist, that African Americans have personal experiences of racism from both ordinary Whites and the State and indeed that the racism of the past has not been reckoned with.

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Vaccine ‘scepticism’ is not about religion

29 January, 2021 - 11:23
 Covid-19 Vaccination Centre. Follow the signs". A man in a long light-blue robe and a white 'topi' hat is walking through the car park.A Birmingham mosque being used as a Covid vaccination centre.

Sneering scientists won’t win over anti-vaxxers by Giles Fraser (UnHerd)

This article is sub-headed “Public intellectuals risk alienating religious believers” and the author is a vicar in an inner London Anglican church with, as he says, a large ethnic minority population among its parishioners. Some of his fellow clergy have noted that conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccine have been circulating in their communities, among them claims that it is some sort of conspiracy to wipe out the “Black race” or that it marks recipients with ‘666’ (the mark of the Beast in the New Testament). He and they have been making every effort to reassure their flocks that the vaccine is safe, but accuses scientists who are also known secularists or Humanists of ridiculing people of faith:

Take Professor Alice Roberts, the Professor of the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, who is also the President of Humanists UK. At the same time as Bishop Karowei and others were pleading with their communities not to see science as a threat, she was doing her level best to ridicule people of faith.

Without any consideration for whether now is an appropriate time to go on the offensive, Professor Roberts, displaying that jocular, superior tone so beloved by professional religion haters, took to social media to sneer about the resurrection, the virgin birth and so on. It “all seems a bit … makey-uppy,” she proclaimed.

I followed the link and it was clear that the discussion had nothing to do with Covid-19, the vaccine or any theories about it on the radio; she was talking about Christian beliefs on Twitter and the target was not an inner-city church with high levels of deprivation but Anglicans in Oxford. So, this exchange would have had no impact on Christians or anyone else not privy to that particular discussion. He cites a few other examples of other recent utterances by atheist scientists of forthright dismissal of religious beliefs such as the soul. Indeed most of his article is about the fact that many public scientists are atheists and hold contemptuous attitudes towards religion or even religious people; he does not make any effort to link this to their stance on Covid-19 or vaccines, at least not on public forums like the BBC or other mainstream news sources. He tells us that a National Secular Society member said about “religious attitudes towards Covid-19” in a forum post on their website, “some of these fanatics are obstinate, some are deluded or exploitative”, which is absolutely true of some cranks who have stirred up groundless fears about the vaccine or baseless doubts about the virus itself. Just because these people are usually hostile to religion does not mean they can’t be right about something.

In my observation, mainstream religious leaders of most if not all religions have sought to encourage people to follow government and scientific advice about the virus, to observe the lockdown and to accept the virus if there is no medical reason for them not to. Mosques have suspended communal daily and Friday prayers during both the major lockdowns, something that would have been unthinkable previously (although it has happened during previous times where there was an infectious disease spreading in the community) and some have been used as Covid testing or vaccination centres. I have seen scores of posts on social media from Muslims who have recently lost family to the virus begging people not to put their lives or other peoples’ at risk or to believe lies about the virus.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theories and denialism spread among both religious and secular alike; the principal agitators against lockdowns, in favour of opening up schools and businesses when many scientists believe the time is not right, and against the belief that the virus is a serious health threat are not religious leaders but columnists and radio broadcasts, many of whom are not known for having strong religious beliefs if any. People believe a lot of it because they do not want to believe that they are in danger or that harsh measures are necessary (much as with action on climate change: people do not want to believe that changes to their lifestyle are necessary), not because their religion tells them to. In other cases they are long-established beliefs which have been common in certain minorities for years (e.g. that vaccines are intended for sterilisation or for spying, which in some cases have their roots in real incidents) and have nothing to do with religion even though many who believe them are also religious.

He accuses the scientists of using the virus as another opportunity to wage a culture war, but this seems to be the intention of his article: it’s another variant on the “these educated metropolitans can’t resist showing their contempt for ordinary people”. It’s true that many atheists regard people who hold religious beliefs of any sort as credulous fools who will believe any crank with any ludicrous theory, but Covid or vaccine scepticism has nothing to do with religion or religious belief; it feeds off common logical fallacies and cognitive biases which are independent of religion. Rather than furnish us with some irrelevant examples of recent expressions of atheism, Fraser should have tried to disprove the link between religious belief and Covid denialism and anti-vaxery, which is quite easy to do, rather than suggest that “religious believers” need to be won over from it. We don’t.

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The ex-boyfriends aren’t the villains

26 January, 2021 - 23:00
A small garden (underneath which is a mass grave of babies). In the foreground is a stone wall with a gap for an entrance; on the ground next to it is a sign which reads "In loving memory of those buried here; rest in peace". There are some flowers next to it. In the opposite corner of the garden is a shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary and a larger deposit of flowers.Mass grave of babies who were born and died in a maternity home in Tuam, Co. Galway, Ireland

Last week, following the publication of a report into the abuse of women incarcerated in church-run institutions in Ireland in the mid-20th century, I saw series of tweets assigning guilt to the men who impregnated the women who then ended up in the institutions as a result:

What we do know is that for every one of those 56,000 pregnancies, there was a man who shuddered, and came, and said “thanks very much” or “I love you”… and who subsequently buggered off and didn’t have his life ruined one bit. And never came back. And NOBODY. EVER. TALKS. ABOUT. THE. MEN. So all these men are STILL protected by the silence of the women that they put into these camps. F**k ‘em. Let’s find out who they are by DNA. “Oh but they’re lovely fellas and they went on to have nice families”. Well, they’re NOT lovely fellas. They’re complicit in crimes. As I’ve said elsewhere: the Israelis are capable of finding and prosecuting 90 year old war criminals. What’s stopping the Irish?

I’ve not named this person as I don’t recognise their name and there’s no reference to a publication, university or government department or any other institution of any sort in their bio. But I do want to address the argument. There was a song written back in the 1980s by the late John Prine and Bobby Braddock called Unwed Fathers about a young mother cast aside by her family when she got pregnant (unlike in the majority of cases in Ireland, she got to keep her child) which has the refrain:

From a teenage lover to and unwed mother,
Kept under cover like some bad dream
But unwed fathers, they can’t be bothered
They run like water through a mountain stream.

But to complain that it’s the mothers who carry the shame and punishment as well as the hardships of pregnancy and childbirth while the dads just disappear and pretend it never happened is a different matter from saying they are criminals and should be hunted down using DNA profiling. Some of the fathers were rapists, some of them priests, teachers and others who might have known what lay in store for the women they abused. However, many were just naive young men, including teenagers, who didn’t know this and didn’t think of it and the phrasing used suggests that the women got no pleasure from the consensual sexual encounters. The boyfriends played no role in the subsequent abuse; this was carried out by the people who ran and staffed those institutions and who oversaw the organisations that ran them and most of those are dead. If anyone else bears responsibility for the women’s suffering, it is their parents and most of them, too, are dead.

It seems to me that some people are desperate to find someone to blame for the scandal who is still living and still in decent health. (Let’s not forget there were other abuse scandals involving Irish church-state institutions, such as the industrial schools; the victims were children as well as women.) It is more important to compensate those still living and to reunite families, where desired. As for the former, all the organisations in question took their orders from the bishops and cardinals who could have intervened to stop the cruelty and exploitation and the culture which fed it, but chose to enrich the church through it instead. The church surely still has land, buildings and other assets in Ireland and much of this could be sold to compensate the victims of their abuses. If the individual orders still exist and have assets, these could be seized but if not, they had parent organisations which are equally responsible.

As for the comparison with Israel and Nazi war criminals, this is also quite ridiculous. Israel tried and failed to bring a number of Nazis to justice using kidnappings and assassinations but in any case those targeted were non-Jews who were involved in a genocide against Jews, not Jews who abused Jewish girls and women in Jewish institutions in Israel. If such institutions had existed, no doubt there would be every bit as much difficulty bringing the perpetrators to justice as there has been in Ireland and elsewhere. Look at how difficult it is to bring Israeli soldiers and settlers who kill Palestinians to justice: it’s pretty much impossible. The war criminals are, in any case, more comparable to the actual abusers in the Irish institutions than to the victims’ ex-boyfriends.

Image source: Auguste Blanqui, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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