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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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The electronics ban: malice or stupidity? Protectionism or security?

22 March, 2017 - 13:11

Picture of Donald Trump with a white cap with the words "Make America Great Again" on it, with a Boeing 757 with a dark blue, red and white livery and the word "TRUMP" on it.Yesterday, the Trump administration announced that ‘large’ electronic items such as tablets and laptops were to be banned from US-bound flights on some airlines, all based in the Arab world or Turkey, from airports in those countries to the USA. Hours later, the UK announced it would follow suit, banning such items on all aeroplanes from an overlapping group of countries to the UK. This immediately provoked an outcry, as the American ban smacked of protectionism, making the Arab and Turkish carriers uncompetitive for both business travellers, who need their laptops to write reports and so on while travelling, and families, who rely on tablets to entertain their children during long flights; the same accusation cannot be made about the new rules on UK-bound flights. There is a saying that one should not attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity, but given that the people in charge in the USA are Trump and his clique, there is plenty here that can be explained by both.

The American rules ban large electronic items on direct flights on local carriers to the US from Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia plus Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. The British rules ban them on all flights to the UK from the first five countries plus Tunisia, and Lebanon. The American rules immediately struck most people as making no sense: countries which also have current or recent civil wars or terrorist problems (Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan) are excluded, not all of which have direct flights to the US but some do. If a certain item is known to be in use as a means to smuggle bombs onto planes, the done thing is to ban them all on all flights; thus, when terrorists were found to be preparing liquid explosions to be ignited on board in 2006, the British authorities banned liquids on all flights for everyone; only drinks bought air-side after screening and bottles of less than 100ml are allowed on (if it’s baby food, you have to drink a bit of it yourself). When terrorists used knives to hijack passenger aircraft and slam them into buildings in 2001, sharp objects were banned on all flights, for everyone. Given that American airlines are owned by Americans and more likely to be used by them, their craft would be a more desirable target for terrorists than Emirati-owned craft that are full of Arab and Muslim families travelling between family homes. Particularly when Trump has promised support for American carriers against overseas, government-supported airlines and had been under pressure from their executives to do so, the accusation of naked protectionism is inevitable.

The British ban irons out some of those concerns, excluding the more stable countries (which also excludes the airlines with strong commercial links to the UK, such as Etihad and Emirates) and including some which have links to the Syrian civil war and those with recent ISIS activity, such as Tunisia which was the site of a mass shooting by ISIS operatives a couple of years ago, and whose political stability is not guaranteed, particularly if the present government attempts to ban the Islamist opposition or return to the conditions of the Bourguiba/Ben Ali régime. It makes more sense as an anti-terrorist measure, but Britain has a habit of both following the US in stupid policy and making laws that target specific populations but affect everyone — the overseas marriage bar for low-income British citizens, targeted at low-income Pakistanis, for example, but which provokes protest only when middle-class whites find that they cannot bring a spouse from the US or Singapore either. The UK, being as it is in the process of cutting itself off from the trading bloc it currently belongs to, needs to appear to be on the Americans’ side, so its participation, even on different terms, does not lend this as much credibility as if other European or Western nations had also followed suit, which so far they have not.

According to ABC, the new rules supposedly follow credible intelligence that “ISIS associates were working on smuggling explosives-laden electronics onto U.S.-bound flights”. Yet it does not explain why only locally-based airlines were targeted and not US carriers; surely, the same security procedures apply for all passengers at the same airport. If this really is the reason, it demonstrates that Trump and his team are spectacularly incompetent, putting passengers’ lives at risk by treating American commercial interests as if they were more important. We should watch how the US carriers respond; if they believe that the terrorist threat is real, they should introduce similar bans of their own; if they do not, we will know that the ‘intelligence’ does not exist and that the ban is motivated by Trump’s desire to privilege large American companies and to break links between American Muslim families and their relatives in the Arab world.

Of course, electrical items have always been regarded as potential terrorist threats; even in the 1980s, airport staff would ask you if you had had your Walkman repaired before you took it on (i.e. if it was still how it came from the factory). Many laptops have spaces where components such as hard drives, DVD drives and so on can be installed by the user or a dealer, but many don’t; newer Macs, for example, have no user-upgradeable parts (and in some cases cannot even be upgraded by Apple themselves) and any add-ons have to be through an external port. If this is a real anti-terrorist measure, some way should be found to allow sealed units, or devices whose identity can be certified, onto planes while excluding older devices which are easier to compromise. Meanwhile, stowing large numbers of lithium-ion batteries in the hold of an aircraft, to which neither passengers nor crew have access during flights, is believed to be a fire risk, while airlines cannot be trusted not to break laptops while throwing them around at the airports (they already have a woeful record on handling valuable, breakable items such as wheelchairs and musical instruments); owners are currently not accustomed to using the same kinds of protective casing for their laptops as professional musicians use for their instruments. As for the entertainment issue, I have heard it suggested that airlines provide free tablets for their passengers, but they likely will not have the same apps and are extremely unlikely to have the accessibility features switched on.

It is essential that the US government are pressed to explain the inconsistencies in their policies. Unless a satisfactory answer is forthcoming, there must be retaliation, such as the same rules being imposed on US carriers’ flights out of the same airports. Any genuine anti-terrorist security measure applies to everyone, not just to unfavoured commercial organisations.

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But it’s not Unix!

21 March, 2017 - 22:04

Picture of Matt WeinbergerA friend recently posted on Facebook this video in which tech columnist Matt Weinberger explains, in a minute and a half or so, why he switched to a Surface Book laptop running Windows 10 and never looked back. The main reasons are more new games (many games don’t even make it onto the Mac or iOS) and such features as being able to highlight things with a stylus, which Apple only offers on the iPad Pro which does not run desktop applications. Towards the end, he concedes that, yes, it is Windows and he has experienced his fair share of glitches and bugs that require a restart. I’ve been a Mac user on and off since 2004 and mostly on since 2011 and the thing that stops me going back to Windows is really quite simple: it’s not Unix.

I’m less of a geek than I used to be. I mostly use my computers (I have two Macs and an iPad Pro) for blogging, web surfing, watching TV online and email, including filing timesheets for my work. I still maintain an application (and use it for most of the entries on this blog) but I have less time for that than I did ten years ago, let alone in 2003 when I started work on it as an abortive college project. Still, a Unix base is vital for cross-platform software development: the industry standard command line shells, the compilers, editors and so on are all written to run on Unix and the conventions all come from the Unix world. Microsoft is putting off a lot of developers with its proprietary OS and developer tools. Linux is still the best platform by far when it comes to managing the software on your computer: it all comes from a central archive, updated regularly, and if you want to publish your own, you can set up your own archive and users can set the software management tools to download from it. Both Mac and Windows have such archives available, but they’re much less well-developed. Linux is the ideal platform for development; you can download what tools you need from the archives, while on the Mac you have to download an entire DVD-sized package that covers iOS development as well, just to build software for your Mac. But both are better than Windows in that regard.

I have strong memories of Windows XP, which although its appearance was nice, was a nightmare for security, while anti-virus software was a dreadful resource hog at a time when the average computer had a single 32-bit processor running at less than 1Ghz, a stark contrast to today’s four-core 2.5Ghz processors. I’ve used Windows 7 and never installed anti-virus software and never had any problems, although I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone. In 2012 I bought an Acer laptop which came with Windows 7 and made the mistake of upgrading it to Windows 8, then attempting an upgrade to Windows 8.1. It made my laptop, which by then was only a year old (a fairly cheap Acer, though hardly bargain basement), unusable and I ended up reformatting my hard drive and installing Linux on the whole thing. The next year I bought a MacBook Pro (the one that I sold to my aunt last Christmas) and the Acer went back in the case and has hardly come out since. Some might argue that Windows 10 is the new Windows 7 and that I shouldn’t be prejudiced by the upgrade disaster, but all that tells me is that Microsoft has produced a decent Windows before and then ruined it, and will probably do the same again.

I have no problems with Windows’s user interface itself. It’s elegant enough that all the major Linux desktops for a while copied it to a greater or lesser extent; KDE in the mid-2000s had only one or two elements that weren’t copied from Windows and you could easily style it to look like Windows. My problem is the underpinnings. If Microsoft ever wants to tempt me back to Windows, it will have to produce a Unix-based version of it which runs Windows and Unix software. A bolt-on “Linux subsystem” featuring a command line and a few utilities is not good enough. Unix has 50 years of history, has run on mainframes, minicomputers, micros, laptops and mobile phones (both Android and iOS are Unix-type operating systems); its source, with the exception of some System V remnants, is open to scrutiny, unlike that of Windows which remains a secret. I can’t remember the last time any of my Macs crashed or required rebooting when running Mac OS, although some apps have crashed (Safari currently has serious reliability problems, but is easily replaceable).

I realise these details don’t bother a lot of users, and they might not even be aware of them. But for me, games and a stylus are not essential features; reliability, interoperability and industry-standard command-line and development tools are. The Mac has enough applications (including Microsoft Office) to be more than adequate for my needs; I’ve recently spent a lot of money on Mac and iOS gear and can’t justify just switching and probably won’t get a review copy for the purpose; Surface Pros and Surface Books cost between £750 and £2,650 in the UK, so are easily as expensive as a high-end iPad or MacBook, and as long as videos promoting Windows continue to say “oh yeah, it crashes and I have to reboot it from time to time”, I’ll stick with my Mac. (And as for the comment that “who knows what the Mac will look like in another year”: it still looks like itself after 15 years; every new major Windows release since Vista, except 7, has been unrecognisable from the last.)

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Should we ban harmful bequests?

17 March, 2017 - 22:21

Image of two donkeys, both wearing saddles and a turquoise-coloured harness with the names Dixie and Noddy above their noses, on a sandy beach.This week, a woman who had been cut out of her late mother’s will in favour of three animal welfare charities lost her legal battle to claim a large share of the estate. The Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeal ruling that Heather Ilott, in her 50s with five children, should be entitled to some £160,000 of the estate which is worth around £500K such that she could purchase a house; this ruling reinstates a County Court ruling that she should receive only around £50K. The mother, Melita Jackson, had severed ties with her daughter when she left home to be with her boyfriend, whom she later married and to whom she remains married; attempts to reconcile the pair all failed, with both blaming the other. There is a longer article on the legal aspects of the case, written after the 2015 Court of Appeal ruling, here.

The reports do not state the reason why Melita Jackson disapproved of her daughter’s fiancé, Nicholas Ilott, although some reports suggest that the “final straw” was Mrs Ilott’s decision to give one of her daughters the same name as her mother’s sister-in-law, whom she disliked. None of them give information on who Nicholas Ilott is (there are a photographer and an Oxford scientist by that name, although the latter is clearly too young to be Mrs Ilott’s husband), but they do say that his work brought in little income (his former line of work is no longer available to him because of a back problem [PDF]), that at the time of Jackson’s death and the subsequent legal claims they were dependant on state benefits, that the house they lived in was owned by a housing association and that Heather Ilott had no pension. Melita Jackson had never even supported the three charities she named in the will, but left her money to them out of spite. Of course, the five grandchildren, who were not born when the dispute began, also lose out from this decision.

I’m a Muslim and in Islamic law, you cannot simply disinherit a child; there are fixed shares and although they are not equal, nobody closely related to the deceased is left out. You can only bequeath up to a third of your estate to people outside the group entitled to benefit from estate division, including charities. There is also a hadeeth (a saying of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) that if someone lived a righteous life for 60 years but behaved unjustly when leaving their will, they would be consigned to the Fire (there are two versions, one also mentioning a woman who does the same). While I don’t suggest that Islamic law on this subject should be adopted lock, stock and barrel in Britain right now, some aspects of it could be adopted to end injustices like this case.

I believe it should not be allowed to disinherit a child altogether without good reason, such as that the child caused injury or damage to their parents, rather than mere disapproval of their lifestyle or life choices or that their behaviour caused injury to another heir resulting in permanent disability. There are other circumstances which might allow that the heir not inherit major assets, such as a business or country estate, on the grounds that their lifestyle (or lack of interest or prior involvement) might mean they were not competent to run it, but these do not justify disinheriting them entirely. And I believe that charities should not be able to receive most of an estate while the children of the deceased are dependent on state benefits.

While at present, an heir can challenge a will if they believe that the testator (the person whose will it is) had not in fact written it, or had been manipulated into doing so while lacking mental capacity, they cannot challenge a will on the basis of simple injustice, spite or caprice on the part of the testator. This should change. We should not be seeing people left in poverty because their parents took exception to the person they loved, much less innocent grandchildren punished for the behaviour of a parent years ago; charities, especially those that do not work for the betterment of people, should not receive legacies intended as insults while the state remains responsible for the upkeep of those left out. Such displays of sheer spite should be ended.

Image source: Wikipedia, contributed by SleafordSue under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.

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If in doubt, blame Corbyn

12 March, 2017 - 14:00

A map showing the locations of the remaining grammar schools in EnglandThe other day I saw an exchange on Twitter between some Labour activists in which Jeremy Corbyn got the blame for Theresa May’s announcement that the ban on new grammar schools was to be lifted. The logic was that Corbyn had opened the way for May to become Prime Minister with his lacklustre performance in the Brexit referendum campaign, without which David Cameron, who favoured academies over grammars (although the manifesto pledge was to allow good schools, including grammars, to expand), would still be PM and none of this would be happening. I said that all this was on the cards from the moment the Tories won the last election, and Corbyn was not Labour leader then; Ed Miliband was. The reply came, “I see, blaming Labour leaders is OK as long as it’s not The Great Leader?”.

I never called Corbyn a “great leader”. I’m all for criticising his performance, both as leader and in the referendum campaign, but blaming him for grammars is taking things too far. Corbyn’s history as an opponent of the EU, and the EEC before it, was well-known (perhaps it should have been more of an issue in the original leadership campaign), and Labour had many other politicians able to campaign on behalf of staying in the EU, as did other parties — Cameron and Osborne, who might have been expected to win over Middle England even if not the Labour heartlands or some rural areas of England, also supported the Remain side. It’s tempting to assume that a bigger effort from Corbyn himself could have swung the vote, but if parliamentarians had done their job and imposed a threshold, or held the vote on a public holiday so that retirees did not have an unfair advantage over people with jobs, who would have had to squeeze voting in before or after work, the disastrous result could have been better avoided, and MPs of all parties, including the pro-EU mainstream of the Labour party, were to blame for these two failings.

While grammar schools were never the vehicle for social mobility their supporters make out (see this article for the criticism from the Tory perspective, although the Trump comparison is ludicrous), I really wonder whether they are worse than some of the academies the last two governments have brought in; the showy, inflexible and often expensive uniforms, the unaccountable trusts, the prison-like appearance (and atmosphere) of some of them, as well as the forced academisation of schools whose communities did not want it. Moreover, the conservatism of the Blair era left grammar schools that were already present when they took over intact; although they banned the opening of new grammar schools in 1998, they did not force the conversion of the remaining grammar schools in the minority of areas that retained selection. This is significant as Blairites routinely argue that Labour have to be in power to make a difference, yet in power they made a difference that the Tories can easily reverse now. If Blair had abolished grammar schools altogether, there would not be a base from which to expand them now; it could not be argued, for example, that as Tonbridge has a grammar school, nearby Sevenoaks should have one as well. Yet as on so many other things, he was too wary of antagonising the Daily Mail.

Let us not forget that it was Ed Miliband that lost the last election; if it had not been for his dithering performance, his total refusal to defend Blair and Brown’s legacy in the face of a hostile Tory media and sneers from biased Radio 4 presenters (especially their handling of the economy and how the 2008-10 debt was incurred), his party’s attempt to micro-manage the Scottish party, resulting in the collapse of Labour’s Scottish vote, and so many of his other failings, there might have been a chance of Labour winning the last general election and neither Brexit nor grammar schools would be on the table now. It was the failure of Miliband and his team which led to the election of Corbyn in 2015; they were uninspiring, seeking only to “mind the shop” in the Tories’ absence. Many Labour voters do not want a Labour government that will repeat Blair’s mistakes; they want a Labour government which will leave a permanent legacy.

Map source: BBC.

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Melanie Phillips has her history wrong

7 March, 2017 - 16:32

 How Britain is creating a terror state within". It has an image of four Muslim women in niqaab, one of them pushing a child's buggy, and another giving a V-sign to a journalist.There is an article in the Times today (paywalled) in which Melanie Phillips proclaims that the Scots and Northern Irish have no right to secede at the expense of the “authentic”, “ancient” British nation and that Brexit “expresses the desire for independent self-government by a sovereign state based on the history, institutions and cultural ties that constitute a nation”, while the EU, which “reduces nations to the status of provinces”, is attractive to “weak nations and provinces as a way of boosting their status and income”. She provides us with a history lesson as to why Britain is an authentic nation while Scottish and Irish nationalism are “rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other”, i.e. the English or Protestants as in the case of Ireland. However, she makes a number of major errors in history, glossing over the linguistic and ethnic history of the UK in order to dismiss the rights of the Irish and Scots to call themselves nations.

I haven’t replied to a Phillips diatribe on this blog in a few years, so it’s worth reminding ourselves of Phillips’s agenda. She is a neo-conservative and an Israel-firster and her book Londonistan (reviewed here) has been described as a contribution to the “Eurabia” genre, i.e. a set of books that portray Europe as being at best weak or supine in the face of Muslim “aggression” and at worst in league with Arab dictatorships and in danger of being taken over by its Muslim minorities, while the “Anglosphere” alone defends Western civilisation. This was particularly attractive to Jewish Zionists during the 2000s when some European nations were highly critical of Israel’s policies while the USA in particular supported it with financial and military aid. Phillips’s articles and books were liberally and admiringly quoted on anti-Muslim hate sites such as Jihad Watch and her screeds on the supposedly dire state of European Jewry were lapped up by American Jewish right-wing audiences. She is sometimes referred to as “Mad Mel” and the Guardian’s profile in 2006 described her as hysterical, but I believe she was deliberately playing to an international pro-Israel, anti-Europe and anti-Muslim gallery, and this article serves the same purpose. Britain is good because, along with the USA, it serves the interests of Israel; Europe is bad, because it refuses to unconditionally support Israel; therefore, pro-European Scottish and Irish nationalism is bad.

Her claim that the EU allows “weak nations and provinces” to enhance their status and income is false. No nation within the EU, federal or not, has split up in its entire history; all the splits in federations in Europe (former Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the USSR, the former British and Irish UK) happened before any of them, or any part of them, joined or helped to form the EU or any of its predecessors. In fact, the threat of not being able to join the EU was a factor in deterring the pro-independence vote in 2014 because it was feared that Spain would veto Scotland’s joining so as to prevent the secession of Catalonia. Europe keeps large countries together by lowering the stakes, promoting human rights and allowing the free movement of people.

She then alleges:

Scottish nationalism and Irish republicanism are cultural phenomena rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other in the form of the English or the Protestants.

However, Scotland was a country unto itself until 1707; it unified with England as a way of settling debts, but retained its own legal and education system. Scottish separatism was not popular until the late 20th century, in large part because, after the suppression of the Highland uprisings and the incorporation of some of its customs (some of them really of recent invention, such as clan tartans, kilts and bagpipes) into British military and royal tradition, the union made Scotland part of the home nation of the British empire, from which it profited enormously. Solidarity between the Scottish (and Welsh) working classes and those of England also kept separatism in abeyance for decades. When the Empire broke up, the benefits for Scotland decreased accordingly, and the use of Scottish oil revenues to fund tax cuts as well as the testing of the Poll Tax on Scotland before it was rolled out south of the border led Scots to believe the English establishment saw them as a colony, not a partner in a union.

As for Irish nationalism, the facts of the Irish language, a common heritage and Roman Catholicism serve as unifiers, but opposition to English Protestant rule was quite valid as England and its barons ran the place like a colony, oppressing the native Irish and reducing them to penury and in some cases starvation. England went through numerous periods of being a Protestant fundamentalist state, penalising those who refused to renounce the Pope and hunting down and killing Catholic priests. As late as the 19th century there were anti-Catholic riots in England that used the slogan “no popery”; similar slogans are still used by Unionists in Northern Ireland. Her claim that “Ireland itself has a tenuous claim to nationhood, having seceded from Britain as the Irish Free State only in 1922” (echoing the taunt of many an online Zionist: “who was the leader of the Palestinians before Arafat?”) is erroneous; the Kingdom of Ireland (albeit with the English king as head of state) had been in existence before the Acts of Union in 1800, although the majority Catholic population was denied the vote and the right to sit in the Irish Parliament. It is quite valid to criticise the tactics of the IRA and the politics of the Irish state after independence, but the desire of the Irish population to self-determination against an oppressive British state was well-founded.

Having swatted away the Scots’ and Irish people’s rights to nationhood, she proclaims:

The nation is not, however, artificial or imagined. It is solidly rooted in a group of people united by different things at different times: geography, language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, culture.

And furthermore:

Britain, by contrast, is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas. Throughout its history, it was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea.

But it isn’t. The UK as we know it did begin with the union with Scotland. There just was no UK before that: the then king exchanged the crowns of England and Scotland for that of the United Kingdom. The ‘British’ state really begins with the Norman invasions, as it was this that produced one kingdom of England which conquered Wales, both of which formerly consisted of numerous small kingdoms, some of them remembered in the names of counties, particularly in the south-east of England and in Wales. There were two distinct groups of Celts, one consisting of the Cornish, Welsh, Bretons and other groups in Cumbria and the south-west of Scotland, and another in Ireland, western and northern Scotland and the Isle of Man. There were also Germanic invaders from northern Europe, who brought the language that became English, but it was outsiders that ultimately forced a political union. As the Scottish singer Dick Gaughan wrote in one of his liner notes, “Sometimes we (Scots and Irish) forget that the first colony of the British empire was in fact England”.

She also claims:

Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation. Wales was subsumed into the English legal system by Henry VIII and so lost its separate identity except for residual ties to the Welsh language.

Northern Ireland is different again. The Unionists hate this being said but they are not British. They’re the bit that got tacked on to Great Britain to make the UK.

This has proven true only in a minority of cases. The kings of the Holy Roman and later Austro-Hungarian empires did not unify their subjects into “one nation”, and the semblance of unity in Spain did not last long after absolutism ceased, so far for the last time, in 1975. Wales did not retain mere “residual ties to the Welsh language”; it remained the majority language until the 19th century everywhere except south Pembrokeshire and some of the eastern border regions. Northern Ireland is not Great Britain, but the Unionists (who are mostly Presbyterians of Scottish origin, settled from Scotland and England during the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century) are indeed British; the term means a UK citizen, as anyone who has ever applied for a British passport will know.

There really is nothing ancient about ‘Britain’ or the UK. The British Isles as a single political unit existed only from 1800 to 1922. Even the name Britain refers to the country’s Celtic past but only from the invading Norman French perspective — the greater land of the Britons (as opposed to Brittany), excluding the parts where forms of Gaelic were, and are, spoken. If any nation within the British Isles has the claim to be ancient, it is Ireland. Both England and Scotland are stronger for being one country instead of two, but the Scots have every right to resist being dragged into an isolated, inward-looking state by people influenced by the bigoted London commercial press for reasons largely irrelevant to them. The Irish do not have an obligation to tolerate the imposition of a border in their country for similar reasons. Being in the EU may well be the price the English have to pay to remain the biggest nation in a strong UK rather than a “rainy version of Dubai”, and if a strong UK is needed for a strong Israel, the likes of Melanie Phillips should accept that, rather than insult the Scots and Irish who prefer independence in Europe to isolation and dominance by England.

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Why should disabled people work for peanuts?

4 March, 2017 - 20:56

A bowl of monkey nuts, i.e. peanuts in their shells.Last week Rosa Monckton, wife of Dominic Lawson (son of Nigel and former editor of the Sunday Telegraph when it emitted four of Will Cummins’s Islamophobic rants in as many editions — and before anyone accuses me of an ad hominem, the BBC mentions her connections to Princess Diana and she mentions Lord Freud’s descent from the great Sigmund, so …) and former chief executive of Asprey & Garrard, jewellers to the Crown and various sporting institutions, wrote an article in the Spectator calling for disabled people to be ‘allowed’ to work for less than the minimum wage as this would allow them the ‘dignity’ of a paid job, and that the minimum wage makes it difficult for employers to hire them. She claims that work is essential for fostering a sense of human dignity, quoting Freud as saying “love and work, work and love, that’s all there is” and a DWP green paper as saying that the “evidence is clear that work and health are linked”, but that employers are not charities and cannot be expected to pay minimum wage if the employee’s net activity amounts to a loss. Her comments have provoked outrage in the disability community, and rightly so.

Monckton has a daughter, Domenica, who has Down’s syndrome, and runs a charity in Sussex called “Domenica’s Team”, which trains people with learning disabilities in “supported employment” in partnership with Brighton City College. It has a “training café”, which is open to the public, and a business where their trainees “weigh and package spices, stick on labels and parcel up the goods” and a kitchen which “is also a mini-business: they select items they would like to see sold in the café, make the shopping list, do the shopping, cook, price up and deliver to the café”. All of this is work, and sounds similar enough to work that non-disabled people do in cafés and food businesses up and down the country. None of those businesses is exempt from the minimum wage. This appears to be an educational environment, but when ordinary employees are in training, they may be paid less than a trained member of staff (especially if they are doing a job with the trainer that they would normally do alone), but never less than the minimum wage. Why should a disabled worker be treated any differently?

What anyone who has researched sheltered employment for disabled people knows is that it can be, and often is, exploitative. On the pretext of providing disabled people who would otherwise “sit and do nothing” with something to do and a bit of pocket money, it has them doing repetitive tasks for hours and earning a pittance. A few years ago I followed the case of Jenny Hatch, a Virginia woman with Down’s syndrome who challenged a guardianship placed on her parents, which left her with no rights, and won in August 2013. While under guardianship, she was forced to live in a group home, was prohibited from seeing her friends or using her mobile phone or the Internet to communicate with them, and was expected to work in a ‘sheltered’ workshop where she “put labels on boxes and snapped plastic things together all day”, as her friends told me, which she found boring. They also told me that the organisation that ran the workshop got between $67 and $89 for every hour she was there, but she had no idea how much she was getting paid and had never received a pay slip.

Mrs Lawson pleads that “money isn’t the real point”, that many people with learning disabilities live with their parents, and that they often have no understanding of money; her daughter once received a £5 tip and asked if she could go to New York, for example. However, underpaying someone because they do not know the difference between £5 and £500 is deception. There are a number of conditions which result in someone’s ability to perform mathematical tasks being impaired; we would not think it acceptable that a stroke survivor be paid a trivial sum, or less than anyone else, for doing work that is of value because they would not know they were being underpaid. A deputy would be appointed to manage the financial affairs of someone in this situation, particularly if they did not appreciate that they had the impairment.

Monckton spends much of her article stressing the importance of work, quoting a statistic that 1.3 million of the 1.4 million people with learning disabilities in the UK are out of work and saying:

When I am in our training centre, speaking to our students when they return from a work placement, I can see how changed they are. When they say ‘I’ve been to work today’, they look confident and happy.

Yet these people are on a training placement, which one presumes is fairly short. If the job these people are doing is enjoyable in itself and varied, not repetitive, they might enjoy it for its own sake, regardless of money, but the same is true of jobs done by non-disabled people and this does not justify paying them less than minimum wage. As anyone who has done tedious and repetitive work could tell the woman who ran the poshest jewellery business in the land, the novelty of such work wears off after a while; people do not do it for ‘dignity’ but to pay the bills. When people have a choice, they would not choose work that was boring and repetitive if the pay was equal (and sometimes even if it was not), and they appreciate the time they spend doing other things (workers actually had to fight to get weekends and public holidays off). And some disabled people would not rather work for the illusion of independence; this morning I read a blog article by a visually impaired woman who had just secured a job as a vacation planner on a Florida theme park, and had ended a long term relationship with a boyfriend with cerebral palsy who wanted her to move into supported accommodation with him:

His idea of a perfect life involved having me and him move in together, live off the system and food stamps, and essentially have no control over my money while his staff take care of our bills, our meals, everything.

As cushy as that sounds, I didn’t buy into it.

Now I’m not trashing that lifestyle by any means, but what he was used to given his disability and what I was used to as a person who got denied for most government benefits just never added up to me. Where would I have fit in in all of this? What purpose would I have aside from being a live-in girlfriend? So many questions, not enough answers.

Monckton fears that without low-wage supported employment, those with learning disabilities “can expect a life spent in the shadows, slumped on a sofa, eating the wrong sort of food, watching daytime television” and also mentions the closure of services and day centres. She clearly has a very low expectation not only of learning disabled people themselves but also of their families (anyone who doesn’t have Nigella Lawson for an aunt, perhaps?) if she believes they will all end up in that situation, and very much of the decline of services has happened since the last two governments cut off funding to local councils, forcing them to sell off buildings, particularly in areas with high land prices, like London. I did not hear her protest against any of this.

Monckton’s arguments against minimum wage for disabled people are standard Tory arguments against minimum wages for everyone: that they make it more difficult to create jobs and thus hurt the people they are meant to help. While this can be true if they are set too high, no minimum wage means that bosses can pay a pittance to workers while pocketing the difference. No organisation should be allowed to employ disabled people at below the minimum wage on a permanent basis; it is a door to exploitation, and if money is being used to subsidise sheltered menial work, it should be used to fund worthwhile activities.

Image source: Ark Wildlife.

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Big hospital or small unit, bad care is bad care

2 March, 2017 - 21:41

Matthew Garrett with his parents either side of him; his mother is holding a dogOn Wednesday night, Channel 4 aired a Dispatches special, Under Lock and Key, which exposed the abuse and neglect of patients at St Andrew’s hospital in Northampton, an enormous campus which started out as a Victorian asylum and now functions as a charity, though drawing most of its income from NHS contracts. The programme interviewed the families of three people who had spent time in St Andrew’s along with two young former patients, now happily in supported living; the third had died of untreated complications of an anti-psychotic drug he had been prescribed, one of four people to die of similar causes within seven months in that ward. The programme did not have access to the hospital itself, which has only issued a bland statement (Google cachéd version, as they have since made it private) denying but not addressing the accusations made, and relied on the word of the families, some recordings of family visits and video calls, an MP who had helped one of the families, and a few words from the former patients themselves, Matthew (right) and Fauzia. (You can see the programme, if you are in the UK, at the link above for the next month or so.)

St Andrew’s, whose grand façade, as Mark Neary observes, closely resembles that of a Victorian workhouse (and whose vast new extension, with its tiny, high-walled courtyard gardens, looks no less institutional), has had a bad reputation in the world of learning disability and autism care for a long time. This has much to do with its practice of accepting patients from hundreds of miles away, supposedly because no suitable inpatient care is available anywhere nearer; this includes the entire south of England, including London (a legacy of decades of closures and sell-offs of hospitals). When Claire Dyer was first sectioned in 2013, the first place the management of the unit she was living in at the time tried to move her to was this, which was 185 miles away from her home in Swansea (they eventually moved her to a smaller unit in Sussex, which was even further away, although that unit discharged her three months later). I know relatives of other former patients and they tell me the same as Matthew’s and Fauzia’s did: that their relatives’ needs were not addressed, but rather they were sedated, and on occasions when they saw them, they were often filthy and smelly, could not talk coherently when they previously could, and were half asleep. The hospital (or at least the wards they were on) were not attuned to the needs of autistic people, despite the claims; they relied on punishment, segregation and sedation to force compliance. Patients’ views as expressed online include tales of short staffing and personal property that had got damaged.

The family of Bill Johnson said that when their son, who suffered from schizophrenia and who had a brain injury from birth, was admitted, the care was excellent, but the attitude of the staff had changed; families were treated as a burden and told to be grateful for the ‘privilege’ of being able to visit their relative, and ceased to be allowed onto wards to visit. This has been reported by families of many other people who have been held on mental health wards, including adolescents and those with learning disabilities. As many such institutions refuse to allow any recording equipment, this policy makes abuse much more difficult to detect. In Bill’s case, the side effects of his medication were making him so ill he felt he would die, bidding farewell to his father as if he would never see him again, which proved to be correct. The hospital broke the news on the phone without any display of sympathy, the woman saying simply “Bill is dead”.

The programme followed the family of Matthew Garnett, a teenager with learning disabilities and autism, who had been admitted to another secure hospital in Woking, Surrey, after his behaviour became more violent as he entered his teens. They had then fought to get him admitted to St Andrew’s, believing it to be a hospital that could offer specialist care. When he was admitted, however, the family quickly became very concerned that he was regressing, and in contrast to his becoming obese in the previous hospital, he became underweight at St Andrew’s. When trying to talk to him using Skype, they heard screaming in the background and Matthew could not talk coherently. His mother, Isabelle, complained that staff would not even talk of planning discharge, let alone setting a date, but when a care provider was found, the responsible clinician’s tone changed, saying something like “well, have him then”. Matthew had signed the minutes, despite not having been there and probably not being able to understand them anyway.

Fauzia Hussain, a young south Asian woman wearing sunglasses. Her arms (mostly out of shot) are raised into the air.Matthew and Fauzia are currently in homes run by the same organisation, Alderwood, which is based in Northamptonshire and specialises in autism care. Fauzia had spent 22 months in St Andrew’s and spent much of that time secluded, having contact with other patients only when they were also secluded. She was almost never allowed out in the grounds, let alone off them, yet within 24 hours of release, was in the park with her new carers, and began to take oral medication without difficulty; she had been receiving injections during her time in St Andrew’s. Talking about her time in St Andrew’s obviously upset her; she said that since being released, her “steps had got bigger”. Both demonstrated that they were capable of living in the community with the right support and had not needed to be restrained or isolated since leaving.

It has been observed that all the stereotypes of autistic behaviour (lack of empathy, rigidity of thinking, fixation on rules and routines, etc) are displayed by the school system. The same is even more true of these hospitals, which are also noisy and busy places unsuitable for someone who needs calm and quiet. It was observed that St Andrew’s had undergone a huge expansion at a time when hospitals should be contracting to allow for people with learning disabilities who cannot live with their families to be supported to live in the community. St Andrew’s uses this as an excuse in their public statement, accusing the programme of distorting material or taking it out of context, but it is a wealthy charity (it paid its chief executive nearly £500K last year, including a £99K bonus) yet does not use its wealth to pay for bespoke or small-group homes for the people they institutionalise hundreds of miles from their homes.

It’s been more than five and a half years since the abuse at Winterbourne View was exposed in a BBC Panorama programme, which went undercover and filmed the violent abuse of two young people with learning disabilities. One of them, Simone Blake, had to be moved to a unit in Norfolk after Winterbourne closed and was only returned to her home area this year. Winterbourne was not a big, impersonal hospital but a small unit (albeit one run by a large private company that had units and ‘homes’ all over the country). Besides the fact that, as Sally Gimson notes in the latest New Statesman (not online yet), hospitals just are not the place to care for anyone in the long term, whether they be people with learning disabilities, dementia, chronic physical illness or anything else, the size of an institution is not what makes it good or bad; good care can be provided a long way from home, although good care nearby is infinitely better.

The problem — much as with the abuse of children in care which went unacknowledged for so many years, until the victims were old and the abusers dead — is lack of care; the fact that some people’s lives are deemed to be worth less than others’, and the fact that learning disability care lacks the glamour and media-friendliness of, say, cancer treatment, making it a lesser priority for funding. We need inpatient mental health care available in every area, so that nobody has to go to the other end of the country if they fall ill or enter a crisis, and as mental health staff are the ones who look after autistic people in crisis, they must all have understanding of the condition, and of what works and what does not, and what is harmful. Some of these things were promised after the Winterbourne exposé, but thousands of men and women remain stuck in hospital units. The money is there; we need to stop it being diverted into rotten institutions like St Andrew’s.

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Short memories

1 March, 2017 - 16:49

A black-and-white image of a soldier loading or readying to fire a cannon, with another soldier behind him, against red curtains, with Bush 'singing' underneath at a lectern with the presidential seal on it.One of the signs that you’re getting older is that you start to become aware that there are adults who weren’t even born when you became an adult, or at least don’t remember the things you remember strongly from your formative years; adults who don’t remember the music which defined your coming of age, for example. I knew I was leaving young adulthood behind when I realised that some of my young adult friends weren’t born when albums like Parklife, Automatic for the People or the less-well-known (but memorable to me) Mirror Blue or Swamp Ophelia came out (both 1994). I’ve already mentioned on here that today’s young voters, and even more so those who will be first-time voters in 2020, do not remember when Tony Blair came to power and John Major was defeated, which felt like a huge turning point in not only British politics but the national atmosphere. However, it’s more disturbing that people seem to have forgotten the politics of just 10-15 years ago, which should surely be fresher in people’s memory. I’m talking about the new fashion for praising George W Bush, who apparently is starting to look noble and statesmanlike compared to the current president. And he wasn’t.

Just before the 2015 election, when John Major, who is currently being admired for his speech against “hard Brexit” at the British Chambers of Commerce this week, intervened to scare everyone into voting Tory just in case Labour ends up in a coalition with the SNP, I made a post here to remind everyone what Major’s second term in office was like. It was miserable, characterised by corruption scandals, shambolic morality campaigns, hospital closures and bitter disputes over Europe but, worst of all, the government’s joining the rest of Europe in sitting on their hands while a genocide raged on in Bosnia. Nick Cohen wrote in one of his books that Major, Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind and the other pro-Europe Tories of that era might be thought of as “kindly liberal Tories” but for their behaviour both in regard to intervention but also towards Bosnian refugees (who were not allowed to come here, explicitly to add pressure to the besieged Bosnian government to agree to a settlement), but it was actually very consistent with the sheer mean-spiritedness of his government. I presume John Major either thought Brexit was a price worth paying or couldn’t imagine the vote not going his way.

In the last couple of weeks (and to a lesser extent since Trump won the Republican nomination), it has become fashionable to compare George W Bush favourably with Trump. Even Bernie Sanders, the left-wing candidate for the Democratic nomination, said in a tweet:

This past week Bush jr has been praised for making a remark defending the mainstream media, which Trump has denounced repeatedly as a source of “fake news”, a term he seems to have got hooked on using as it it just meant lies; Bush has said that the media was needed to keep people like him on their toes. Fair enough. Others have observed (such as in this Twitter thread; the link is to the end) that he did not directly encourage hate attacks and praised Islam as a “religion of peace” after 9/11, clearly distinguishing ordinary Muslims from terrorists, while Trump has made no such distinction (and used similar broad smears against Mexicans).

The problem is that the hate against Muslims always bubbled under the surface during his time in office. The first four years I had this blog, I was using it a lot to rebut hate stories emanating from the American blogosphere, which exploded in the couple of years after 9/11 as “citizen journalism” was touted as the Next Big Thing, attacking the old mainstream media in league with the new, openly-biased right-wing networks, notably Fox News. Islamophobic neo-conservative columnists peddling scare stories about Muslims or the scariest angle they could find on any story involving Muslims, often light on facts, got airtime on both Fox and the mainstream networks very regularly. Ideas such as that Islam was a political ideology rather than a religion and that Muslims were encouraged by their religion to lie if it benefits them or Islam (taqiyya) were a staple of right-wing discourse and the ‘taqiyya’ trope was even used as evidence in court. Attempts by Muslims to assert their rights were condemned as threats; any concession to Muslim demands, even when the Muslims were paying customers, were denounced as losses for “civilisation” or examples of “dhimmitude” both on blogs and in right-wing news outlets.

I subscribed to the CAIR mailing list at that time and saw regular stories not only of hate crimes against people who looked like Muslims (some of whom, as is the case today, were not) but also of official and job discrimination, such as Muslim truck drivers being refused hazardous materials licences on the basis of groundless suspicion. There were widespread legal injustices and official harassment; Muslims arrested on flimsy grounds (such as for taking a picture of a scene that included a ‘sensitive’ public building), Muslims deported who had lived in the country for decades and whose children were American, Muslims prosecuted (and jailed) for paintball competitions that were interpreted as jihad training, Muslims subjected to wire-tapping, mosques infiltrated by spies and Muslims jailed on the basis of entrapment. All this had Bush’s sanction. Bush also introduced the “registration” scheme, by which immigrants from a number of mostly Muslim countries were required to register with the state; this is the structure Trump’s team have spoken of using for their “Muslim register”.

And, of course, there were two destructive wars that were waged with no thought to how to carry them through; only anger at 9/11 and a desire on the part of the American public to kill Muslims or Arabs. The long-term upshot of one of those wars is ISIS; true, its territory may be shrinking in Iraq itself, but its presence remains in Libya, the Sinai and Syria and its affiliates have waged terrorist campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Like Trump, he and Dick Cheney surrounded themselves with extremists, in their case men like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld who had been referred to as “the crazies” in previous administrations. So, yes, Bush was a politician (which Trump was not, before this year) and had an air of professionalism and ‘class’ about him which Trump does not. But let’s make no mistake: the signs of hostile populism, or fascism, began to show during Bush’s time in office and the attitudes and rhetoric of that era laid the ground for Trump and Trumpism.

Image: A still from the animation Doctor Bushlove by Eric Blumrich. The archive of his website Bushflash, closed in 2008 after Obama’s inauguration, can be found here.

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Milo is just a professional jerk

28 February, 2017 - 10:00

Milo Yiannopoulos, a young white man with unnaturally white hair, with a sleeveless T-shirt showing a gun in rainbow colours with the slogan 'We shoot back', standing in front of a lectern with the slogan "Trump/Pence: Make America Great Again" on it.Last week Milo Yiannopoulos (AKA Milo Andreas Wagner), once the darling of the “alt-right” and of a sizeable chunk of the American Right, suddenly fell from grace as a result of someone drawing attention to things he said in a podcast a year ago which appeared to defend sexual activity between ‘boys’ and men. This has resulted in a book deal with Simon & Schuster being cancelled, his invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) along with Donald Trump and his vice-president Mike Pence being rescinded and a number of senior staff at Breitbart, the far-right propaganda/hate/’news’ site he is associated with, threatening to resign unless he is sacked. The developments have, some say, exposed the hypocrisy of the American Right who are willing to tolerate men abusing women and even young girls, but draw the line when the target, even theoretically, is boys.

I didn’t listen to the podcast, but in the specific detail that paedophilia as such refers to adults’ sexual activity with, or attraction to, pre-pubescent children and not those who have reached puberty, he is correct (some legal systems define it as including anyone below the age of consent). However, his comments about older men helping young men (potentially including those below the age of consent, as he indicated) find themselves is a standard trope of predator-apologism: young boys really have homosexual tendencies and enjoy the advances of older men. This attitude is precisely why, when the age of consent for gay males was reduced to 16 in the UK in 2001, the age was raised to 18 where one party was in a position of trust, whether they were the same or other sex. Conservatives objected because all men know that they really don’t like the advances of other men, and they know that they didn’t as small boys either — especially if they were unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of it. (This was the subject of a BBC Storyville documentary in 2009, as the scientist Carleton Gajdusek and his friends used it in regard to his molestation of small boys from the Pacific islands where he carried out research; I wrote about that here.)

Yiannopoulos and his supporters habitually use the defence of “free speech” when his speaking engagements at major universities are objected to or disrupted, scorning the objectors as “snowflakes” who demand a “safe space”, meaning safe from opinions they disagree with or the sense that their lifestyles are disapproved of. As has been pointed out amply elsewhere, the right to free speech does not mean that anyone has the right to provide you with a platform; it just means that the state cannot punish you for what you say, and even then, there are restrictions, such as that your speech does not incite violence. But nobody seems to be asking why he is being invited to speak at universities anyway.

Yiannopoulos is not an academic. He is not an expert in anything. It’s possible to be an expert or an authority in something and have repugnant views on something else (besides Gajdusek and his defenders, James Watson being a recent high-profile example); that is not the case with Yiannopoulos who had two tries at getting a degree, at two major British universities (Manchester and Cambridge), spending two years at each before dropping out. He is not a major contributor to an important technological project; lots of those have bizarre or extreme views. He did not manage to run a tech website successfully — The Kernel closed in 2013 after just 16 months owing thousands of pounds to a former contributor. He is simply an entertainer who goes around causing controversy for whatever his personal reasons are; according to Laurie Penny who, controversially, spent time with Yiannopoulos and his entourage:

Before this week, Yiannopoulos was a bratty, vicious court jester of the new right who made a name for himself by saying grotesque and shocking things that he may or may not have ever believed. He does this compulsively, with no respect for the repercussions, or for the fact that a lot of people do believe what he says and act accordingly.

He can do this sort of thing on his own time, with his own resources if he wants. He should not be able to expect that a respectable academic institution with responsibilities to the welfare of its students as well as to its intellectual legacy should indulge or accommodate him or his rabble of followers. He has a history of harassment, of gratuitous outings of private individuals, of grudges, of spiteful behaviour. His right to free speech is not in question, but in times like these, political extremism cannot be treated as mere entertainment. It should not be left to protestors to deny him a platform: universities should do it themselves, for the sake of their own good names.

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Foreign criminal scum!

27 February, 2017 - 16:59

Front page from the Sun newspaper, with the headline 'American strangler dumped on Britain'The Sun are OUTRAGED this morning because an “American strangler”, as they call him, has been deported from the USA to this country after serving nearly 40 years in a New York state prison for strangling his girlfriend when he was 16 (she was 14). I immediately suspected that the man in question was British, and was right; he is, however, also an American, which is an usual feature of such cases. Dempsey Hawkins, born in 1959 in London to a British mother and American father, was first eligible for parole in 2000, but it was denied every time (every two years) until last year, when deportation to the UK was made a condition of his release. He was met by his cousin, a professor he had never met who wished to remain anonymous when interviewed for the New York Times article, but appears not to be subject to any supervision. According to the Sun, he now lives in Cambridge and works at a Mexican restaurant.

It’s rather ironic that the Sun has made a scandal out of his release and deportation. When the foreign criminals are in this country, it wants them thrown out, as they demonstrated last July with this story about “more than 6,000 foreign criminals” “freely roaming the streets”, sometimes more than five years since release from prison, while supposedly “waiting to be kicked out”. The same article protests about criminals who are EU nationals being allowed to remain in the country despite a prisoner transfer agreement; one of the people they are angry about is Learco Chindamo, an Italian national who killed a headteacher in London at the age of 15. Automatically deporting any foreign national found guilty of a crime on release from prison was never British practice until the Daily Mail manufactured the “foreign criminals” scandal in 2007, after which people who had served their sentences long ago, sometimes for minor crimes such as assault, were rounded up for deportation; some were spared, after their local communities fought for their release.

The press does not consider the welfare of people in the countries of origin when clamouring for the deportation of foreign criminals; why would they expect the Americans (or any foreign country) to care about our welfare? In any case, I do not think he can be much of a threat; he committed the crime when he was 16, and he is now 57, and if he had a record of violence while in prison, he would not have been considered for release, in the US or anywhere else, so we should not assume that he is already looking for someone else to strangle. If he had done this in the UK, he would have been released (albeit with supervision) 20 years ago at least, most likely with some protest from the victim’s family, but released all the same. There is much more of a belief in people’s ability to change for the better in this country, especially when they committed a crime as a juvenile, but much as we don’t allow foreign nationals with serious criminal records to remain here, regardless of family connections, we have to accept that British ones will be sent back here.

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Time for a rethink on third rail?

26 February, 2017 - 15:15

A British passenger train, painted red and white, with overhead wires which have been blown down by a stormLast Thursday a major (for this country) storm brought strong winds and rain, bringing down trees and power cables across coastal areas and central and eastern England and Scotland. Virtually all the major railway networks suffered serious disruption, the main exception being the southern region — not just the actual Southern network, serving Surrey and Sussex, which is beset by ongoing industrial disputes, but the south-eastern and south-western networks that serve Kent and the Hampshire/Dorset region respectively. This area wasn’t as badly hit by high winds as places further north, but even if it had, rail disruption would have been less, for the simple reason that they use ground-level electrics, not overhead power lines.

Third-rail electrics are found on some urban light rail systems (trams use overhead lines, for obvious reasons) such as the London Underground, and on suburban rail systems in Liverpool and south London and on main lines to the south of London; there are a few stretches in north London left that still use it also. The rest of the electrified network (which consists of the lines to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Norwich and Southend, but not Bristol, Oxford or Nottingham, or the cross-country rail network, which remains reliant on diesel power) uses overhead wires. I grew up in an area served by third rails and when I first encountered overhead wiring on the line to Norwich, while at boarding school in Ipswich, I was struck by how ugly and intrusive they were. Years later, when there were debates about the building of an “eruv”, an area bounded by poles and wires within which Jews can carry out certain activities on the Sabbath that they could not otherwise do, I remember people complaining that “people do not like to be boxed in like that”, yet they have no problem with much more noticeable wiring whenever they travel by train.

Third rails are confined, as a matter of policy, to the Southern Region and Merseyrail, because they are more likely to cause problems when it snows (the notorious “wrong sort of snow” which caused disruption in the 1980s). Yet because of the changing climate, snow has become a markedly less severe problem in recent years in southern England; we have not seen severe snowfall since 2011, while strong winds are an increasing problem and every year there are overhead electric wires brought down by them, resulting in trains having to be stopped until they are fixed; if ground-level electrics failed, diesel trains could still run, although train companies do not keep spare diesels around for that purpose. Even when we still had snow fairly regularly, it was still only one or two days during a whole winter, while we have started seeing several strong storms each winter in recent years.

The Great Western line, running from London to south Wales via Bristol, is in the process of being electrified using the overhead system. The process is already complete through west London, serving the Heathrow airport branch, but it is ongoing, although several major sections of the project have been deferred. This has resulted in bridges having to be closed so as to be raised so as to accommodate the overhead wires, in one case resulting in an important local road in Wiltshire being closed for months, resulting in an 8-mile detour. And when the wires are finally up (though even then, the lines to the south Devon coast will still use diesel, as electrifying places like Dawlish Warren is not feasible), locals will face the new problem of lines down every time we have strong winds, something that does not happen right now (trees on the line may already be a problem, however).

A large rail junction with several lines, all of them electrified with third rails, with a train wash with a train passing through it, and a passenger train with Stagecoach red, orange and white livery on the right.Very much of this additional disruption could have been avoided if a third-rail system had been chosen. The GW main line joins with the Southern region at Reading, and services already run (using diesel trains) from the south coast and London to Bristol and south Wales via Salisbury; a third-rail electrification of the line to Bristol would make electrifying these lines and running through services (such as in the event of the London-Reading line needing to be closed) a lot simpler. It is probably too late to switch the method of electrification used on the GWR, while the Midland Mainline is already wired as far north as Bedford, though those trains are dual-voltage as they run through London onto the Southern Region, but given the heritage status of the GWR (several of whose workings and stations are World Heritage Sites), it seems a mystery that they allowed it to go ahead.

There are two main weather-related hazards to electric railways: wind and snow. Given the ugliness of the wiring and the alteration it requires to bridges and tunnels, it does not make sense that the government refuses to consider third-rail electrics beyond the Southern Region and has even mooted using wires in parts of the Southern Region. The weather and safety implications are a trade-off, not a case of one being plainly superior, yet the government and rail industry treats overhead electrics as if they were plainly superior.

Credit for second image: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic licence.

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Review: Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?

24 February, 2017 - 19:23

Picture of Trevor Phillips, a middle-aged Black man thick-rimmed, black wearing glasses, with his hand pressed up to his face.Has Political Correctness Gone Mad? at Channel 4

Last night Trevor Phillips, the Daily Mail’s regular Token Black Man who has had two similar documentaries on Channel 4 in the past few years, had another one, this time arguing that “liberalism and a fear of offending minorities are stifling legitimate debate and have laid the ground for Brexit and the rise of populist leaders like Farage and Trump”. As befits his new role, he has been given the space for a long article in the Daily Mail, or at least on their website, in which he proclaims that he knew political correctness had gone mad when he was accused of being racist for saying critical things about former US President Barack Obama. In the programme, he asks various members of the public to grade the offensiveness of certain phrases which use some well-known offensive words or make offensive statements about disabled people, Muslims or whoever; he also discusses the movements to ban speakers such as Germaine Greer from speaking at universities, claiming in the DM article that “while our rulers seem to have all the time in the world to debate who should use which lavatory (in deference to the transgender lobby), they dismiss anxieties about overcrowded schools or doctors’ surgeries as merely a bigoted dislike of migrants”. You can watch the programme for the next 29 days at the link above.

I’m not going to do an in-depth review of this programme; it covers much the same ground as his previous documentary about race, and has all the same flaws. Specifically, he claims over and over again that things are unsayable, that the political classes, the “liberal élite”, are avoiding discussing things, allowing the agenda to be set by politicians like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. This is just not true, as anyone who has read the mass media and listened to British radio, both popular (local phone-ins, for example, on both BBC and commercial radio) and high-brow (Radio 4, BBC2 for example), could tell you. We see and hear anti-immigrant, pro-Brexit and otherwise right-wing politicians and columnists and commentators on all these channels regularly. Nigel Farage has his own phone-in on LBC and regularly appears on the BBC; Melanie Phillips has been a regular panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze for years. Farage’s media profile is greatly disproportionate to his party’s record of winning elections (they have never gained a seat in Parliament other than by defections from the Tory party and only one of those candidates retained their seat) and, for that matter, to their professionalism as a party — witness the utter shambles of Paul Nuttall’s campaign in Stoke, being caught lying at least twice, and his resulting vote tally (just 5,233 votes), to say nothing of their miserable performance in pro-Brexit Copeland, where their candidate received just 6.5% of the vote (2,252 votes).

Phillips gives Farage yet more room to pontificate about how he represents what real people really think and to accuse politicians and the media of not venturing beyond “the M25”. This is a tactic borrowed from the USA, where provincial right-wingers (actually with strong connections to DC lobbyists and who holiday in expensive East Coast resorts) accuse the “mainstream media” or “Establishment media” of having a “Beltway mentality”, the Beltway being the ring-road around Washington. The British equivalent is the “Westminster village”, and political obsessions and intrigues that are irrelevant to most people are sometimes called “Westminster village gossip”. London is actually a city of several million and includes areas of great affluence as well as of deprivation, and pretty much every shade in between. Farage actually lives well within the M25, in a villagey part of Bromley where average-sized houses go for half a million, and attended Dulwich College (a very much élite boys’ private school in London); yet despite having been previously pictured enjoying a pint in a pub in Downe, he now claims he is afraid to leave his home because of how the media has ‘demonised’ his party:

He told ITV’s Piers Morgan’s Life Stories: “It is because of these irrelevant people, who held no position, they happened to join an organisation, and because of these irrelevant people being demonised by liberal media, I’ve had to live years, frankly, of being frightened of walking out into the street all because the media picked out these people. And because of these people, attempted to demonise me and give me a bad name.

“And you’re surprised three years on, when I have to live like a virtual prisoner, that I’m not happy about it? Will I ever forgive the British media for what they’ve done to me? No.”

Phillips’s programme has footage of anti-Muslim demonstrations by a group called PEGIDA, whose German acronym stands for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”, whose founder is Steven Yaxley-Lennon AKA Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League. Phillips questions whether they really need to be confined to an industrial estate to have their demonstration, and the answer is yes: because they contain a large number of former EDL members who were known for violence, and because if they held their demo in the town centre, it would cause disruption to people who wanted to enjoy their Sunday in peace or go shopping. It’s not about freedom from offence but freedom from violence. I have a little bit more sympathy when he questions the wisdom of banning Germaine Greer or sacking Sir Tim Hunt (for making a sexist remark during a lecture in Korea), but I’m not convinced they have anything to do with “the liberal élite” being out of touch with ordinary people’s views on matters like immigration. The objection came from ordinary students and Greer’s right to be heard was defended by people with academic backgrounds and ready access to the media.

The idea that the liberal media does not discuss immigration or cultural change is ridiculous, as is the suggestion that this opened the way for Trump or Brexit. Immigration is one reason among many that people voted for Brexit, others being industrial decline that happened while the pro-EEC Tory party was in power and which Labour did nothing to reverse while in office, misinformation about European nuisance legislation, and a misguided sense that Britain did not “control its borders”. These complaints were stoked by the mass media over a period of several years, and politicians and the media have decided that immigration was the reason, as nobody wants to bring back heavy industry. Immigration and culture — as in what ‘society’ (meaning whites) should tolerate from ‘others’ — has been debated incessantly in the mass media for decades; if you listen to local radio you cannot escape it, and hosts freely collude in it. It may well be that the political class has not tackled the things discussed in inflammatory, reactionary newspapers and talk shows, but tackling them adequately would have meant shutting them down or at least regulating them, not capitulating to the shrill voices found therein.

Similarly, Trump won in part because he appealed to the white working classes in the Rust Belt with most likely empty promises to bring jobs back, hence the gains in places like Pennsylvania, but there is also no doubt that he exploited racism, his campaign promising a wall to keep Mexicans out and calling them rapists, and his apologists keep reminding the rest of us that he is popular and that his supporters love his rhetoric (despite the fact that some of his claims, and those of his supporters, are demonstrable lies) and his attacks on Muslim travellers, for example. How far are we expected to go to accommodate determinedly ignorant and violently racist ‘public opinion’, also stoked over decades by biased media? Jim Crow-like discriminatory laws and even massacres targeted against minorities have been popular among majority populations in some countries (e.g. Rwanda, Gujarat) in the recent past. One of the purposes of the rule of law is to prevent the majority oppressing a despised minority; the open lawlessness surrounding Trump is unprecedented in recent American history, and “it’s popular” is no excuse.

It’s extremely common for the political Right to claim that the Left, the “liberal élite” (which does not exist, as I explained in a previous review of a Phillips polemic) have no clue why they lose elections or their causes lose referendums, as in the case of Brexit. Theresa May spoke of how “a lot of politicians and commentators … find [the public’s] patriotism distasteful, their concerns about immigration parochial, their views about crime illiberal, their attachment to their job security inconvenient … the fact that more than seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering” at the Tory party conference last October. Yet some of us do not find this fact (as opposed to the likely consequences) bewildering; we understand it as the result of decades of disinformation and propaganda by the commercial press and the cowardly collusion by the BBC. It is this aspect which is rarely discussed in the media (even the debates surrounding the Leveson inquiry concentrated overwhelmingly on press behaviour rather than on its content), which finds it more profitable to foster prejudice than to report soberly and honestly and fears the threat to not only its freedom, but also its power — the ability to intimidate an elected government with a sudden, manufactured scandal, to induce it to stick the boot into someone on demand — which also explains their hostility to the Human Rights Act.

Trevor Phillips doesn’t mention this either in his programme or his article. “Has political correctness gone mad?” was coined, and answered, many years ago by the papers that give him column space. The ideas he claims can’t be expressed in civilised society are expressed freely in the popular press all the time. He is just spouting the usual right-wing shtick that they are the outsiders, the ones never listened to, when in fact their opinions are unavoidable, and that they represent and know what the common man wants, when in fact they are the super-élite and have no more connection with ordinary people than any other politician, except that they agree on whom to dislike. Phillips’s assertions were plainly false two years ago, and they are just as plainly false now. This dishonest patter is par for the Daily Mail’s course, but we should really be able to expect no more of this drivel from Channel 4.

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Why is age discrimination in housing allowed?

21 February, 2017 - 16:40

Someone holding up a poster featuring phrases commonly found in house/flat rental ads, including 'No DSS', 'DSS welcomed', 'Friendly warm house', 'Non-Smoker', 'No fix, no fee! Affordable rates' and many others in large and small lettering.This blog entry is by a friend of mine who is being evicted from her father’s flat where she has been living for some time. She has long-running mental health problems and is a wheelchair user and was told in December to find a new place to live within three months. She has appealed on Twitter for help finding accessible places to live which will take Housing Benefit in the London area but, despite the tweets being retweeted hundreds of times, has received no leads to suitable places, much less offers; she has also found none on the websites which specialise in accessible and DSS-accepting properties. It’s painful to read of this struggle as there are in fact plenty of suitable properties, but they are reserved for older people.

It’s not the first time I’ve read of young disabled people searching for an accessible property and finding none, and finding such properties which are subject to age discrimination is something friends have told me about in the past. I was thinking of bungalows and properties that are accessible to wheelchair users, but Mark Neary, who is well-known for his legal battle to get his autistic son, Steven, out of an unwanted and unsuitable care home placement in 2010, mentioned this afternoon that when looking for flats for himself and Steven last year after the council earmarked his old council house for demolition, that “each week there were several over 55s flats available but nothing else”. Besides level access, young disabled people would benefit from the same advantages these places offer elderly people (precisely because of their physical infirmity), such as staff on duty to assist in the event of falls and so on.

Worse, although new business premises are required to offer wheelchair access, new multiple residential buildings are not. I used to know someone who lived in Poundbury, Prince Charles’s showpiece village outside Dorchester, Dorset, in a first-floor flat in a purpose-built small block. Charles’s estate does accept housing benefit recipients as tenants (which almost no other private landlord in the area does) but, I was told, did not allow lifts to be installed at the Duchy’s insistence. This lady recently became disabled, and will now have to move out of her flat, most likely into a care home, or even out of the area; but not being able to visit friends’ houses freely is a way disabled people are excluded from mainstream society, and new buildings should allow them access.

The law should be changed so that accessible properties that any disabled person could live in cannot be reserved purely based on age (I accept that specific impairments, such as dementia, could be grounds for reservation) and if they are, it should be for old people, over 70 or 75 perhaps, rather than merely those at or nearing retirement age, given that we are mostly living longer and age 60 is considered quite young for an old person, and not an age at which people die of old age anymore; 55 is what most people consider middle-aged, not elderly. This is something that major disability charities and campaign groups should be fighting for; while nobody doubts that the over-55s have “paid their dues”, disabled people have the right to independence and family life and cannot even hope to start a productive life if they are trapped in an unsuitable home or with abusive or hostile relatives. There’s no justification for this discrimination; the over-55s are not more important than disabled people of any other age.

Image credit: Alison Barnes.

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Blair not the man to lead Brexit fightback

17 February, 2017 - 22:45

Picture of Tony Blair wearing a dark suit with a pinkish/purple tie with a microphone attached, standing in front of a blue backgroundThe former British prime minister, Tony Blair, today gave a speech in the City of London in which he declared that Brexit could be defeated if the people who opposed it “rise up” (the BBC have a video of part of the speech here). In the speech, hosted by Open Britain (the successor to Britain Stronger In Europe), in keeping with his previous positions on the subject, he is expected to say that “the people voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit” and while “the will of the people” should be respected, that opinion might change when the true costs of leaving the EU become clear:

Our challenge is to expose relentlessly the actual cost, to show how this decision was based on imperfect knowledge which will now become informed knowledge, to calculate in easy-to-understand ways how proceeding will cause real damage to the country and its citizens and to build support for finding a way out from the present rush over the cliff’s edge.

The problematic part of Blair’s speech concerns immigration. The Guardian notes that “many of his critics have accused him of presiding over a wave of immigration from eastern European countries without being straight with the electorate about its likely magnitude”. Yet instead of taking on the anti-immigrant argument head-on, he seeks to divert it towards what he sees as less desirable immigrants:

There is in some parts of the country a genuine concern about numbers from Europe – real pressures on services and wages. But for many people, the core of the immigration question – and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue – is immigration from non-European countries, especially when from different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue.

“Nonetheless, we have moved in a few months from a debate about what sort of Brexit, involving a balanced consideration of all the different possibilities, to the primacy of one consideration – namely controlling immigration from the EU – without any real discussion as to why and when Brexit doesn’t affect the immigration people most care about.

This goes to the heart of his policy towards east European immigration during the mid-2000s. The first set of east European countries (other than former East Germany) to join the EU did so in 2004, a year before the July 2005 London bombings, but it was three years into the “War on Terror” and three years after the Oldham riots. Muslim immigration was already being blamed for causing a breakdown of “social cohesion”, for fostering inward-looking communities which bred extremism. In the immediate aftermath of Oldham the problem of ‘segregated’ neighbourhoods and schools was raised, but “bringing brides from the village back home” (and the fact that the spouses rarely spoke good English) was widely blamed for the problems of ‘segregation’ — racism and discrimination in the job market was generally overlooked. Yet it was generally accepted that the country needed workers; few British people wanted to do low-skilled jobs that did not pay much.

Blair calculated that the labour shortage caused by shutting off the flow of south Asian immigrants could be plugged by allowing unrestricted immigration from the new EU countries of Eastern Europe, which it should be remembered that the rest of Europe did not, and which also had not been allowed immediately when Spain and Portugal joined the then EEC. He may have underestimated the numbers who would come, but I believe he also calculated that they would not provoke much opposition because they were white and Christian and would “blend in”, and likely be quickly assimilated into the local populations (doubtless he approved of the idea of them filling up empty churches, particularly Catholic ones, as well). This speech demonstrates that he has not moved on from his thinking then and not realised his mistake. He believes in the EU as a union of Christian nations, effectively a “fortress Europe”. (I actually dispute that “many people” were that concerned about Muslim immigration; the numbers were much smaller than the flood of migrants from eastern Europe, who went to different parts of the country and did entirely different jobs from the Asian immigrants. The opposition was much greater from the outset.)

Some people are saying we should not concentrate too much on the messenger but focus on the message. While I am not going to abandon the campaign to stop Brexit just because Blair is part of it — I always knew he was pro-EU, both while in power and during the referendum campaign — he is not the right person to lead it. Apart from being discredited for taking this country into war on false grounds against public opposition, his policies both electorally and in office are the reason we are in the mess we are in now. We don’t need the fightback against Brexit to feature side-swipes against groups of immigrants (including eastern Europeans, as they are here now and have children born here, some of them with British partners) or minorities. We should not be fighting for a white, monocultural fortress Europe; we need to rise above the bigotry and fear that characterises the Brexit campaign.

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On the “Muslim Luther” fallacy that won’t die

15 February, 2017 - 19:58

TV still of Graeme Wood facing from the side, with the words "Many have called for a 'reformation in Islam'" at the bottom, and the BBC Newsnight logo in the top leftLast night on BBC’s Newsnight, there was a two-minute slot by a Canadian journalist called Graeme Wood, who claimed that the rise of the “Islamic State” was equivalent to the Christian Reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther. There is meant to be a counter-argument from Tariq Ramadan on tonight’s programme (BBC2, 10:30pm). He says:

It’s part of a convulsion within Islam no smaller than the Reformation was in Christianity. When historians write about what happened, they won’t see it as a narrow local movement but as a global intellectual movement that remade the Muslim world. In the 16th Century, Martin Luther’s Reformation harnessed the power of the printing press and rising literacy. He told Christians to read and interpret scriptures for themselves, without the mediation of a priestly class that was obedient to Rome. Today’s radical Islamic movements are telling their followers to read the Qur’an for themselves and to ignore the voices of mainstream clergy. The result is a movement of power to the people.

For these Islamic Protestants, the power of liberation is not the printing press but the Internet. They follow their new authorities on YouTube. These new authorities are less, not more, inclined to live harmoniously in the modern world. This isn’t new. Remember, Martin Luther was radical too and the Reformation he started was a bloodbath. Many have called for a “Reformation in Islam”, hoping to make it more compatible with Western norms. But these calls are at least a decade too late. The reformation is already here and it’s called the rise of the Islamic State.

His own theory comes at least a year too late, as the “Islamic State” has been losing territory for the past year or so and has been chased out of several of its former strongholds, especially in Iraq. But the Islamic State movement has no real parallel with Luther’s theologically-based reforms. Luther was not, at least initially, interested in statecraft; he already lived in a state (the Holy Roman Empire) which was Catholic in affiliation and which enforced Church doctrines, including trying and executing heretics. His protest (not initially intended as a schism) was against what he saw as corruption in the Church, particularly the sale of indulgences to fund construction projects, such as the Basilica in Rome. He never served in, much less led, an army in his life. Lutheran kingdoms emerged as German dukes adopted the new faith in order to challenge the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, leading to its loss of power in northern Germany.

ISIL does not lead a theological protest; its priority is establishing an Islamic state which cuts across the colonial boundaries. This aspect of it alone makes it appealing to many Muslims who had become disenchanted with al-Qa’ida whose tactics of terrorism had achieved nothing in 20 years; the idea of a Caliphate, of one political leader for the Muslims, can be found in any classical Islamic textbook even if there was rarely unity in reality, and has been a goal of Muslim activists of all stripes for decades. ISIL’s theological heritage is “salafi-jihadi”, the same as al-Qa’ida, yet it is well-known that the business of running a modern state was left to former Ba’athists; its leaders are known not to be scholars, even within the “salafi”, i.e. Wahhabi, movement they emerged from. There have been comparisons of this movement with Protestantism going back years, but even there the parallels are limited.

It is well-known that in the Mediaeval Catholic church, the Bible was not available in vernacular languages such as English or German. It was only available in Latin and ancient Greek, neither of which were spoken languages by Luther’s time. The average Catholic was not literate; religious learning was restricted to ‘religious’, who were celibate. This had never been the case in the Muslim world; Muslims were encouraged to read and memorise the Qur’an for themselves and to learn and memorise the sayings of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), called Hadith, and this was the case before and after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and it is the case in Baghdad and the case in Raqqa. No Muslims regard it as acceptable for ordinary Muslims to simply read the Qur’an or whatever Hadith are available to them and derive a ruling about the Sacred Law from them, especially in regard to acts of worship where the rulings are already settled. The challenges to some such rulings that have come from Wahhabis are the work of scholars, not ordinary people. And neither movement moved “power to the people”; both led to the formation of absolute monarchies which in the case of Saudi Arabia still exist.

It’s true that for years, people have been insisting that Islam “needs a reformation”, when in fact the Christian reformation did not lead to modern secularism but to years of conflict (much of the bloodshed committed by the Catholics trying to maintain their power, and later expand it in Africa and South America), although it did make room for the expansion of literacy, including in the Catholic world where the church did come round to the idea of vernacular Bibles. And as for the suggestion that a reformation of Islam would make it more acceptable to Western norms — Luther was not looking to make Christianity more acceptable to anyone else; he was looking to reform Christian practice for the sake of truth to please God, much as any sincere Muslim who advocated any kind of reform would be.

All in all, I found his slot to be a rather uninformed and dated argument. The “Islamic State” has its roots in a puritanical reform movement, yes, but it is not that movement itself, and it is not similar to the early Lutheran reformation either in its aims or its behaviour.

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How prevalent is FGM in the UK really?

13 February, 2017 - 14:02

A poster showing a young white girl with a black sweatshirt with a red and orange triangle badge, saying "Wear the Red Triangle, Help End FGM. We are the generation to end FGM, Forced Marriage, Dishonour Based Violence".Last Monday was apparently FGM Awareness Day, and that means there were a lot of FGM stories in the media with vain attempts to interpret figures in a new way to make a story out of them despite their lack of statistical significance. This year it was the ‘news’ that a charity revealed that FGM victims present to the medical services every hour, or rather that a case of FGM was either discovered or needed treatment 8,656 times between April 2015 and March 2016. The BBC headlined this as “FGM victims need medical attention ‘every hour’ says charity”, when in fact the figures do not indicate that at all. The BBC mentions that no successful prosecutions for FGM have ever occurred in the UK, which the Home Affairs Select Committee (a parliamentary committee) has called “a national disgrace” in a report last October, but nobody appears to be considering why this might be the case.

To take the statistics mentioned in last Monday’s reports, the figures state that “there were 8,656 times when women or girls attended doctors’ surgeries or hospitals and the problem was assessed”, according to ITV News, and a new case is recorded on average every 92 minutes. However, this simply means that a woman who has undergone FGM needed any medical treatment and the fact of genital alteration was observed; it did not mean she had a complication specifically arising from FGM. News reports, which all seem to be rewrites of the same press release or wire copy, do not mention what type of medical treatment the women had sought or whether the treatment would have been ramified by the FGM or whether a doctor had asked as a matter of routine (e.g. when a woman or girl registered at a doctor’s practice). A new case being discovered does not mean it happened in the UK, of course; the cutting would have been done years earlier, most likely in the woman’s home country. It is possible that the figures include multiple presentations by the same woman.

As for the lack of any prosecutions in the UK, it is always assumed that there is some sort of conspiracy not to prosecute, the usual claim being that teachers, social workers and other professionals are afraid of being branded racist. I find this difficult to believe in 2017 given that it is a stereotype of Somalis, even though it is found across east and west Africa among Muslims and others, and since 9/11 there has been a barrage of material in the media identifying Muslims as problems, as people who will not integrate, and attacking multiculturalism as the cause of backwardness and terrorism. FGM is not a taboo subject; it has been in the news every few months, at least, since the 1980s. If there is a lack of aggression in reporting suspected cases of FGM, it may well be because it may lead to the break-up of settled families where no other abuse is taking place and the necessity of taking some of the children into care when the care system does not have good outcomes and its places are needed by children whose parents cannot look after them or those who are in further danger. FGM can only be carried out on the same victim once; other forms of abuse can be repeated.

I have always been sceptical that FGM is prevalent in the UK. Rumours abound of girls going on holidays to places like Kenya during the summer break and show signs of FGM afterwards (e.g. always spending a long time in the toilet), but the zero conviction rate is significant. When one considers other forms of abuse, it is widely acknowledged that the conviction rate is a fraction of the total incidence, but nonetheless there is that fraction. There are good reasons why the conviction rate is different; other forms of abuse are carried out for the perpetrator’s gratification, while FGM is thought to be beneficial, at least socially within their cultures; the family members who arranged for it may still be providing for the victims, even paying to put them through university; the children who had been mutilated still love them. However, surely there should be at least a few cases where none of these things is the case, where someone who arranged FGM for their daughter or niece was otherwise abusive, where someone had become estranged from their family and had no difficulty reporting them. Given the large diasporas of people from the regions where FGM is or has been the norm, if there were enough cases of it that were traceable to the UK, surely some cases could have been brought.

Last year, the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) published statistics on the 5,700 newly recorded cases from April 2015 to March 2016. They said that they could identify 43 cases (self-reported) in which the victim was born in the UK, and 18 cases where the cutting took place in the UK, and roughly ten of these consisted of genital piercings rather than cuttings. Such figures are available for only a minority of the total, but it does not indicate that the instance of FGM among girls born in the UK is that high, and crucially it is not high enough to overcome the impediments to successful prosecutions. People point to other factors indicative of the practice remaining part of people’s cultures, such as women coming to shelters with their daughters or of FGM Prevention Orders being taken out, but even where there was genuine risk of FGM and not mere suspicion (or other motives for seeking the order), it indicates prevention, not actual FGM. Avon and Somerset Police have applied for 10 such orders in the 18 months since they were introduced, in an area with a high Somali population; hardly a sign that all the Somali families are looking into this for their daughters.

It’s significant that a clinic in west London for women who have experienced FGM, offering trauma support and deinfibulation (re-opening of a closed vulva) is being closed as a result of the local council withdrawing funding (local councils have had their funding cut for all services over recent years; pressure on social care is the best-known consequence). FGM is a gift that keeps on giving for politicians; they can use it as a stick to beat immigrants with, persistently exaggerating the incidence and communities’ devotion to it, raising alarming but spurious statistics every few months, while knowing they cannot stop it all because the actions necessary would cause more harm than good, yet they withdraw help from actual victims.

I find the media coverage of FGM thoroughly unsatisfactory also, even in papers like the Guardian. It is prurient, sensationalist, often borderline racist, too willing to believe the worst of the communities involved and impervious to facts that contradict their cultural biases — continuing to claim, for example, that FGM is demanded by men, when all evidence is that it is older women who carry it out, often against the wishes of the girls’ parents; in west Africa, FGM is the ritual for initiation to the “Bondo society” which consists entirely of women; the practices and the societies are generally accepted and openly defended; the western media never contemplate reasons for FGM’s decline other than western influence (e.g. in the case of Muslims, contact with other Muslims from regions where FGM is not practised and never has been), and habitually quote out-of-date statistics which, if still true, would mean that all their campaigning had had no effect. FGM seems to give white liberals a chance to exercise their inner racist, to feel superior, to make assumptions about others they would not otherwise make and adopt a “white man’s burden” attitude that has otherwise gone out of fashion. Until someone brings hard evidence (rather than rumours and hearsay) of British girls being subjected to this on a significant scale, I will continue to treat the scare stories and massaged statistics about FGM in the British media as foreigner-bashing.

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Who are ‘Liberty GB’ anyway?

11 February, 2017 - 15:17

Picture of Barbara Ntumy, a Black lady with long, braided red hair extensions wearing a shirt showing large white flowers on an orange backgroundYesterday Channel 4 News broadcast a conversation involving Jack Buckby, the “outreach officer” and former parliamentary candidate for ‘Liberty GB’, and Barbara Ntumy, deputy president of the London Metropolitan University students’ union and a member of the NUS’s Black students’ campaign, in which Buckby handed Ntumy an application form for resettling a Syrian refugee and told her, “put your money where your mouth is … take in a Syrian refugee; I hope you don’t get raped”. The suggestion stunned her into silence for a few seconds before she told him she lived in a one-bedroom house and didn’t have the financial means to do so, but he probably did. But the question remains: what was he doing there?

Liberty GB, formed by former members of UKIP, the British Freedom Party and the BNP and whose main founder is said to believe that there would be a war between immigrants and the white working class (though his wfie is Romanian), is not a big organisation; it was registered with the Electoral Commission in 2013 and according to Wikipedia, its membership is 400. Its candidates in the south-east constituency for the 2014 European parliamentary election received only 0.11 of the vote (2,494 actual votes); they came 14th, after “An Independence from Europe”, the Roman Party and “YOURvoice”. In the Batley and Spen by-election, triggered by the assassination of the previous Labour MP by a local far-right extremist, Buckby polled just over 1% (220 votes) and lost his deposit; they have never polled more than 0.6% in any other parliamentary election. So, given his lack of expertise, qualifications or public office (even UKIP have MEPs), what was he doing on the programme? The only explanation, as with so many previous instances in the British media, is that C4 invited him because a good barney would make “good telly”.

It’s despicable that this man should be allowed to suggest on national TV that a woman having contact with a Syrian refugee would likely result in her being raped. It’s simply racist, even taking into consideration the sex attacks in Cologne last year, which were assumed to be by Syrian refugees despite lack of evidence that they were anything other than men with (in some cases) foreign accents, which gave racist mischief makers the green light to accuse the Syrians. But in any case, a woman who agreed to take in a Syrian refugee would probably be assigned a woman, perhaps one with a young child, so there is no risk of her being raped. I subscribe to a video channel by a young woman in south London who has hosted refugees; if you are interested, you can see her videos on the subject here.

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Citizenship is not just a visa

9 February, 2017 - 23:02

A picture of Simon Danczuk, a middle-aged, balding white man wearing a white shirt, dark blue tie and grey jacket with his lips turned down, standing in front of some old brick housesToday three members of the notorious ‘grooming gangs’ who raped and sexually abused girls in the Rochdale area lost an appeal against deportation to Pakistan. Two of the men, who were jailed in 2012, have been released on licence after serving part of their sentences; a third received a 22-year sentence and will remain in prison. All were born in Pakistan and were naturalised as British citizens; one of them came to the UK in 1967, aged 14, and has four children (presumably adults given his age) in the UK. His appeal includes the claim that his conviction is unsound because it was a “conspiracy” of all involved, that the jury was all white and that it was “fashionable to blame everything on Muslims these days”, a defence that was unsurprisingly rejected. The local MP, Simon Danczuk, has demanded that “foreign-born criminals should not be able to hide behind human rights laws to avoid deportation”.

There was a previous occasion in which I saw a tweet linking to a case in which a man, born in the UK but not a citizen because of his parents’ immigration status at the time of his birth, who was facing deportation to their home country of Jamaica. I immediately lost all sympathy when I read of his lengthy criminal record which dated back to his teenage years. However, I am also against first-world countries expelling criminals who had been there since childhood back to their countries of origin, usually third-world countries. Such policies caused devastation in Latin America, where thousands of criminals were deported from the USA; those deported for making one mistake were lost in their countries of birth where they had no remaining connections, while the gangsters re-formed their gangs and got back to business. It’s not ethical to deport someone who, while not born here, was ‘made’ as a criminal here. These three men were very likely not rapists when they left Pakistan; it was in their particular circle of British Asians in the fast-food and minicab industries that this happened. Pakistan is not to blame for their crimes and should not have to pay for or accommodate them; we may think we are protecting women and girls by deporting him but Pakistan has quite a high female population of its own.

I fully approve of removing people who committed crimes shortly after coming to the UK, and more so those who came here for that purpose. However, the whole idea of citizenship is that this is your country now, for better or worse, which is why it is not given out to just anyone. It is about belonging, not merely the right to live somewhere. Naturalisation is only revoked when it is found to have been obtained dishonestly, such as by lying about one’s parentage or concealing a criminal record or one’s conduct during a war; it may be revoked for treason or espionage, but not for common crimes or because the government believes that someone’s presence is not “conducive to the public good”, a phrase used as a justification for excluding foreign visitors because, for example, they are hate preachers.

One may not sympathise with these three men (I certainly do not) or any other individual affected. I am more concerned with the fact that it is getting easier and easier to throw people out of the country; anyone the government wants to throw out who has connections to another country, they can, and I suspect it will not stop with naturalised citizens, much as it did not stop with people who were not citizens but had been in the country for all their adult lives and had a spouse and children here (or, as has been documented in the USA, adoptees who were brought as babies or small children but whose adoptive parents neglected to naturalise them). If citizenship can be revoked after decades for committing a crime, or because a politician decides the country would be better off without you, it’s not citizenship at all; it’s just a kind of enhanced visa.

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Trump has no business in any parliament

8 February, 2017 - 17:08

 Refugees Welcome'The speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, has made himself unpopular (again) with a number of Tory MPs for announcing that he will not allow Donald Trump to address the Commons if and when he makes a state visit to the UK later this year. That he is has been invited as soon as he took office is a scandal; previous US presidents who made state visits did so after years in office. But Tory MPs insist that he has broken with convention by taking a ‘partisan’ view rather than maintaining neutrality or (as where there is a tie) voting with the government, and that maintaining relations with the “democratically elected leader of our closest ally” is vital.

The fear in the line the Tories are taking in cosying up to Trump is obvious: Britain is about to take a leap in the dark and once we have isolated ourselves from Europe, Trump and Putin become the nearest things we will have to friends in the world. Ever since 9/11, British leaders have treated angry and volatile US presidents like angry gods to be appeased at all costs. It is clear that they are doing this as a display of subservience, not because they really want to honour him. And I would dispute the suggestion that the Americans are really our ‘closest ally’ anyway; that title should surely go to our neighbours, who allow British citizens to freely live and work there. The US does not.

Many are calling Bercow a hypocrite for refusing to allow Trump to address Parliament but allowing some outright dictators such as the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The difference is that Xi never claimed to be anything other than the leader of a Communist state; he governs as part of the system he inherited from his predecessors. Trump is introducing the characteristics of fascism and tyranny to what was previously a representative democracy with at least nominal respect for the rule of law (though some citizens did not enjoy it fully). A ruler who threatens a democracy is not comparable to one who never claimed to believe in or practise democracy, at least as it is known of here.

The issue which should prevent Trump from addressing Parliament is not his view on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or even immigration. It is his attitude to — his contempt for — the rule of law both before and after his election; his attack on law-abiding legal immigrants designed to appeal to his ignorant voter base, and the threatening language he used towards the judiciary when they frustrated him. Surely, the idea of the rule of law is what peace as we know it is founded on; people’s freedom from capricious expulsion or imprisonment. Until Trump learns to respect this, he has no business addressing any parliament in any democracy.

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Trump’s election is no ‘rejection of elites’

6 February, 2017 - 20:25

Picture of Donald Trump with an angry look on his face, raising his middle fingerIn yesterday’s Observer, there is a piece by one John Daniel Davidson, identified as “a senior correspondent for the Federalist” who lives in Austin, Texas, defending Donald Trump from claims that he is a fascist and offering the standard defence that his election represents “a rejection of the elites” and that the real divide in America today is not between “fascists and Democrats” but between “the elites and everybody else”. He claims that Trump’s supporters cheer at such actions as ripping up trade deals, threatening Mexico with invasion and withdrawing from a deal to accept refugees Australia refuses, alleges that “For years, millions of voters have felt left behind by an economic recovery that largely excluded them, a culture that scoffed at their beliefs and a government that promised change but failed to deliver”, and alleges that the protesters and the “elites” do not understand why Trump and his policies are popular. It’s a familiar argument, also articulated on this side of the Atlantic by the Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore who claimed on the BBC Radio 4 Media Show the other week that BBC news programming is characterised by ‘groupthink’ on issues such as climate change (!) and immigration which blinded it to the popularity of Trump and Brexit and the reasons behind it, and a staple of the Right going back at least as far as the Bush years, and it’s wrong.

To start with, Donald Trump may not identify as a fascist as such, but the manner of his campaigning and his behaviour since certainly have some of the characteristics, much as have some genuine dictators who also do not identify as such, or are commonly called fascist — Assad of Syria being a classic example, more than some straightforward autocrats such as Pinochet. In any case, very few people identify as fascist; even the likes of the National Front (and its successor, the British National Party) have used terms like “nationalist” as the word ‘fascist’ has rightly become toxic. What’s not a secret is the violence that accompanied his rallies, which is not a characteristic of a politician who intends to govern as part of a democratic system, nor the wave of police and vigilante violence against minorities that marked Barack Obama’s second term, nor the appointment of unqualified men with clearly stated opinions consistent with fascism to positions of great importance. And the fact that he is popular with “heartland” Americans does not mean he is not a fascist; it may just mean he represents fascism in terms and behaviour that is familiar and acceptable to them.

Second, there is the claim that he is a “champion for the forgotten millions”. It is true that he won votes in some mid-western “rust belt” states that had previously voted Democrat (in some cases right throughout the Bush and Obama eras) with promises to tear up trade agreements that destroy American industry and bring jobs back. However, he is not previously known as a businessman who supports American manufacturing himself, as a Daily Mirror reporter found when he stayed in one of Trump’s hotels recently; it has also been observed that Trump campaign paraphernalia, such as hats and ties, were not made in the USA but in Far Eastern countries. In trying to restore manufacturing to places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, Trump will be ham-strung by Republican opposition in Congress, politicians who have their base in southern “right-to-work” states where unions are weak and companies were attracted by more “liberal” (for them) labour markets (ironically, Democrats are more likely to support him here). Davidson notes that Trump has promised a “border tax” to hit companies that move American jobs abroad and try to import the goods made there; he will not be able to do that by executive order. He will need congressional support.

Trump is, in addition, not one of the “forgotten millions”. He is a billionaire who did not build his empire from scratch, but developed it from his father’s. This fits a pattern with the sort of people the pissed-off American provincial middle class turn to to “save them” from the “liberal elite”; they are always extremely wealthy, though they will put on a common touch when out campaigning, and generally support reducing the tax burdens on the wealthiest and on business, reducing environmental regulations that stop companies polluting the environment that everyone else has to live in (though rarely do they pollute their own), cutting public services that benefit everyone so as to facilitate tax cuts, while focussing public discussion away from economics and onto moral issues like abortion. As Thomas Frank described it in his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? (reviewed here; published in the UK as What’s the Matter With America?):

The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistably against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privelege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills [a suburb of Kansas City], hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. “We are here,” they scream, “to cut your taxes.”

It is tempting to compare the invocation by Trump’s supporters of the angry, overlooked millions, combined with anti-intellectualism and anti-Semitism (and other open bigotry) with Poujadism, the populist movement of 1950s France, but Poujade was a small shopkeeper from southern France, not a big-city property magnate. Trump is from New York; the Bush family, although both the Bush presidents had been governor of Texas, actually originates from Massachusetts. Trump, therefore, is not one of the “forgotten millions” and is a poor champion for them.

It was not, of course, only the “rust belt” that voted for Trump. All the states that had supported Republicans since 2008 supported Trump, both in the South and the midwestern “heartland”. In the South especially, voters had to overlook Trump’s manifest foulness of character and his lack of any previous interest in their politics (he had supported Hilary Clinton’s previous presidential campaigns, for example) as well as Hilary Clinton’s personal connections to Arkansas. One can only assume that many voted for Trump out of blind partisanship, having been persuaded by 20 years of propaganda from the church and media that the Democrats were godless liberals who would not protect the unborn and would raise taxes — and they did not let the displays of thuggery, Trump’s contempt for women or the obvious shallowness and undeliverability of Trump’s promises deter them.

Davidson alleges that “the crowds of demonstrators share something in common with our political and media elites: they still don’t understand how Trump got elected, or why millions of Americans continue to support him”. Actually, they know why Trump was ‘elected’ despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes: because an electoral college system originating in the time of slavery reduces the voting strength of populous states while inflating that of smaller ones, allocates block votes regardless of turnout which usually all go to the single biggest candidate in the state, and so on. Trump ‘won’ an election that was biased in his favour, although it is true that Trump’s and Gary Johnson’s votes combined outnumbered Clinton’s, so perhaps a more credible Republican might have beaten Clinton, especially in the (unlikely) event of his embracing Trump’s trade policies. I’m sure most of them are well aware of why millions voted for Trump, but it was really not that significant; what mattered was that the misogyny, xenophobia, contempt for disabled people and contempt for the rule of law that Trump and his movement represented (and continue to represent) was not going to be accepted and would be resisted, and that the now-dominant faction knew they had a fight on their hands. Disabled people are not the élite; they are a generally impoverished group which had difficulty getting healthcare until Obama’s healthcare reforms, are often institutionalised even as mentally-competent adults, something that Obama actively opposed and which Trump’s allies have not, and are widely treated with contempt and abused, especially if they look or sound ‘odd’. Why should these people expend time on understanding why people voted to impoverish them?

Finally, there is the usual narrative of a “liberal metropolitan élite”, based in the USA’s case on the two coasts (the upper Midwest always getting left out), who looks on the rest of the country with snooty contempt; it has been a regular trope of the conservative persecution narrative since the Clinton years. Trevor Phillips, in his 2015 documentary “Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True” (reviewed here), makes the same claim about that so-called élite when depicting a man refusing to talk to him at a UKIP conference, suggesting that he was typical of the “ordinary white people” that vote UKIP. In fact, the ruling class of this country was not ‘metropolitan’ but based in the suburbs and south shires and its voting base was in rural and provincial England, and it was ‘liberal’ only on gay rights. Phillips was also praised by the Daily Mail for saying “things that nobody will say” about race, yet such claims had been the Mail’s stock in trade for decades. The same is true of conservatives in the US; they have ample access to the media via TV, talk radio and many newspapers, even if the New York Times, Washington Post, and other ‘establishment’ big-city papers don’t give their views priority. In the case of the recent election, where the mainstream media largely did not anticipate Trump’s nomination, let alone victory, one could say that they gave Middle America some credit by imagining that they would not vote for an openly racist, vulgar lout, possibly a criminal, with no political experience. It was once observed during the Civil Rights era by the first Black student in a hitherto all-white university in South Carolina that “if you can’t appeal to the morals of a South Carolinian, you can appeal to his manners”; whose manners could Trump possibly have appealed to?

It’s actually possible to understand why millions of Americans voted for Trump without justifying it: they are racist, blindly partisan, ignorant and resentful of people who know better than them. So he boasts that more Americans support than oppose Trump’s orders on immigration; what this demonstrates is that these people are racist ignoramuses, given that the order targeted the law-abiding and had no justification in security, terrorism prevention or anything else and was struck down by the courts almost immediately (pending appeal), resulting in Trump throwing one of his many Twitter tantrums and showing outright contempt to the judiciary. The contempt for the law, the use of the language of enmity and betrayal, the use of violence in political campaigning, as well as vicious and libellous verbal assaults on other nations, are characteristics of fascism, of tyranny, not of democracy or statesmanship. Whether “the people love him” or not is irrelevant, and in any case, they will not be so happy when Trump’s caprices result in companies moving their money or whole departments abroad — though whether they take it out on the government or on their fellow citizens, or immigrants, time may well tell if he does not learn his lesson nor is deposed quickly.

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