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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Stonehenge, and the A303, really need that tunnel

13 January, 2017 - 22:26

A picture of Stonehenge, a collection of standing stones, some with stone lintels on top, on a plain with a path leading behind it to a car park.Stonehenge Tunnel plan finalised by government — BBC News

So, the government have finally agreed on plans to build a tunnel to the south of the ancient stone circle, Stonehenge, outside Amesbury in Wiltshire. The site is currently one of several bottlenecks on a major route from London to the south west of England, a two-lane stretch in between two sections of good-quality dual carriageway, one of which links to the M3 motorway from London; however, a lot of the delays are caused by people slowing down to look at the stones as they drive past. The scheme will also include a by-pass around the village of Winterbourne Stoke, also affected by the slow and heavy traffic along the A303.

Stonehenge is not the only famous landmark to fade from public view as a result of a bypass. When I was a child, we went to Portsmouth for the day, and the main road there, until 2011, ran past a formation called the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a “natural amphitheatre” overlooking Hindhead Common in Surrey. On the way out, you drove out of the village of Milford, along one of the A3’s many “silly little bits of dual carriageway”, as my Mum called them (all now either by-passed or linked together), which soon ended, the road climbing for several miles through thick woods which then opened to show this dramatic hollow on the right-hand side. As an adult when I started driving lorries, I relished trips to Portsmouth because — despite the inevitable traffic jams — I got a glimpse of the Devil’s Punch Bowl. That ended when the Hindhead Tunnel was opened in 2011 (there was a serious proposal to simply by-pass it through the common, but the landmarks’s Site of Special Scientific Interest status, as well as public opposition, scuppered that plan) and the original road was mostly removed. The upshot is that you can explore and see all the areas of the landscape in peace now, but few people get to see it on their way past and so it is probably less well-known now than it was until 2011.

Stonehenge had no such effect on me; we stopped there once on the way back from Devon, and I remember being bored to tears, especially as I had not been expecting to stop anywhere other than perhaps a service station. I still find it rather underwhelming, but those who want to enjoy the stones will be able to do so in peace once the passing traffic has been re-routed underground, while those who just need to get to and from the south-west will be able to do so without getting stuck behind farm tractors or people slowing down to have a look at the stones — although, it has to be said, the traffic delays have eased considerably since the A344, which ran to the north of Stonehenge, was demolished (people wanting to visit Stonehenge now have to turn off at the roundabout to the west and approach it from the Salisbury-Devizes road). I suspect they will rebuild that, and remove the existing A303 (or at least whatever of it isn’t required for farm access).

Building the tunnel will be good for Stonehenge. Not only will the noise of the passing traffic be gone; the pollution it emits, which no doubt has discoloured the stones as traffic pollution once discoloured Buckingham Palace in London, will also disappear. A place doesn’t have to be right on a major highway for people to appreciate it; when we went to the Lake District or North Wales on holiday, we would stop at Stratford or Ironbridge on the way there or back, neither of which are right by the motorway, and Stratford has prospered since being taken off the A34 trunk road from Birmingham to Southampton, which used to choke it with heavy goods traffic. Stonehenge is still quite well-known, people know what it looks like, and people who are interested and have time will still visit it.

I’m not in favour of building huge new roads for the sake of it, but there are places where they need to get built, because bottlenecks cause not only inconvenience but also extra pollution. The Hindhead tunnel needed to get built, the Tonbridge-Pembury upgrade on the A21 (in progress) needed to get built, and so does this. Stonehenge will be all the better for it, and I’ll be admiring the scenery further down.

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Jill Saward, the Press and civil liberties

10 January, 2017 - 19:54

Last week Jill Saward (pronounced Say-ward), best known for having been the victim of the notorious “Ealing Vicarage” rape attack in 1986 in which she was raped and subjected to other sexual assaults and her father and boyfriend were beaten up and suffered head injuries during a burglary, died of a brain haemorrhage. In the 31 years since the attack she had become known as a campaigner on issues surrounding rape, at one point supporting the introduction of a kind of second-degree rape as found in the USA and perhaps other places, more recently for better education of jurors in rape trials. In the early 90s she testified about the intrusion her family had suffered from the press after the attack; more recently, she stood in a by-election in Yorkshire, in which the sitting MP had resigned in protest at extended detention for terrorist suspects; her platform was in favour of all of these things and of making the national DNA database universal; however, she made very little impact and lost her deposit.

Jill Saward is the person who first really made me aware of rape and the impact it has on victims with a programme she was featured in, titled No Great Trauma?, which I saw in late 1992; in the couple of years following that, when rape was used very widely as a weapon of war in Bosnia, with the perpetrators often people who knew the victims’ families before the war and there had been no previous hostility between them, there was much discussion in the press as to why men rape and whether “all men were potential rapists”, which the pattern of behaviour in Bosnia suggested to some that they are. At the same time there was a series of controversies about media intrusion, particularly into the lives of politicians and the royal family but crime victims, including the Sawards, were also affected. She gave evidence to the National Heritage Select Committee that year:

Ms Saward described how she and her family were besieged in the vicarage by the press after the attack. She told the committee that the press had hired a room in a pub across the road from the vicarage and used long-range cameras to take photographs. ‘The first thing the press wanted was to photograph me continually. They photographed anything that moved anywhere near the house. I had to leave the house covered by a blanket in a policewoman’s car so that the press could not photograph me,’ she said.

The law forbids the identification of rape victims, but she was offered large sums of money to sell her story exclusively to some newspapers. Ms Saward said the News of the World used a cartoon inaccurately depicting the attack, which she found ‘totally offensive’, and the Sun published a photograph of Ms Saward with her eyes blacked out, which she said was a ‘major invasion’ of her privacy.

A Tory MP asked her whether she preferred to see legal regulations of the Press or self-regulation; she answered that she preferred the latter, but did not trust the press to regulate themselves. The scandal disappeared, nothing much was done until 2011 when another scandal involving press intrusion into the lives of crime victims triggered the Leveson inquiry, at which Baroness Hollins, whose daughter Abigail Witchalls was attacked by a stranger in her home village in Surrey, leaving her permanently severely disabled, told a similar story of relentless intrusion and inaccurate or fabricated stories (particularly when the family refused to provide the Press with material), but as in 1992, despite a new corporate self-regulation body being set up, the state of the Press has not improved. It’s worth noting that the Daily Mail opined on its front page on Saturday that Jill Saward should have been given an honour, and that paper was sympathetic to her, but Hollins named them as the worst offender in the intrusion against her family. (Members of Jill’s family wrote two blog pieces on the press intrusion they suffered in the last week: here and here.)

She took a rather more reactionary turn during the “war on terror”, when she stood in the 2008 Haltemprice and Howden by-election on an explictly anti-civil liberties, “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” platform. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of David Davis (a long-time Tory outsider, though now secretary of state for leaving the EU) as a protest against the erosions of civil liberties represented by the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which extended the period of detention for people arrested on suspicion of terrorism to 42 days. (Extended periods of arrest had been a factor in previous miscarriages of justice; it gives the police time to pressure confessions out of arrestees, for example.)

I wrote about Saward’s position (and her earlier remarks about rape victims of lesser virtue than her own, which outraged feminists in the late 1990s) in an entry in 2008. She was interviewed by Julie Bindel and I quoted these two paragraphs:

Isn’t she worried that she’s deflecting debate from the important issue of detention? “I know that some people who support Davis’s stance on the 42-day issue will criticise me, but the reality is that terrorists are using increasingly clever methods to escape detention, and the investigation into these crimes are always complex. If the police say they need more time to work on these cases, then I support them. I want to be safe from terrorism.”

And what about the effect of the 42-day change on the Asian community? “It will target people who are seen to be a threat to our nation’s freedom. At the moment, that might be some Muslim men, 10 years ago it was the IRA - so people with Irish accents were the target - and soon it could be Mugabe’s men.” In this case, her sympathies tend towards victims of terror attacks and those who enforce the law, rather than potential victims of the detention policy.

42-day detention was not the only civil liberties issue affecting Muslims at that time; control orders (seemingly copied from the “banning orders” of Apartheid-era South Africa) and internment of foreign suspects (then extended to British citizens when reserving them for foreign nationals was ruled discriminatory and thus unlawful), often on the basis of mere association or dubious ‘intelligence’ from Arab governments, were also in force and although those directly affected were all men, as far as I remember, their families — women, children and men — were left to deal with the hardships they caused, visiting them in prison and dealing with the restrictions placed on their lives, such as curfews, seizure of assets, restrictions on who they could have at their house and on their Internet access, which was increasingly necessary for schoolwork. I concluded:

Her stance is a selfish one, buttressed by a spurious “victim’s licence”; perhaps she really expects a constituency of people like her - provincial, middle-class whites, unlikely to be caught up in the “war on terror” - to kick out a long-standing MP for her, at a time when the Tories are in the ascendant. It would be interesting to see if they fall for it.

In the event, Davis comfortably won with 71.6% of the vote; Saward came sixth, polling only 492 votes (2.1%); Labour and the Lib Dems did not stand, the Greens came second with 7.4% of the vote, and the English Democrats and National Front were behind them. (She was still peddling myths about short skirts and rape as recently as that, as the interview with Julie Bindel demonstrates.)

In recent years, she had begun a campaign with feminist Alison Boydell to educate potential jurors about common myths about rape and was involved in fundraising for research into Ehlers-Danlos syndrome ([1], [2]), which she had been diagnosed with in 2012. She had written a book about the rape (which appears to be out of print, but there are second-hand copies on Amazon — note that the music that link brings up is by a different Jill Saward), and was working on a follow-up at the time of her death.

In short, Jill Saward was a hero of mine when I was a teenager but became somewhat tarnished by reactionary stances on matters of importance to me and my fellow Muslims later on. However rare false accusations of rape are, false accusations of terrorism have blighted many lives during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and I do not favour giving the police ammunition to blight more during the “war on terror” (during which the threat to life and limb in this country has proven to be much less serious) when they, not ordinary people, are the main source of them. She supported these policies because they would not affect her; there are many women, including some rape victims no doubt, who didn’t have the privilege of being able to trust the police and security forces as readily as Jill Saward did.

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Watership Down: the significance of Cowslip

30 December, 2016 - 23:09

A yellowish book cover with the words "Watership Down" and the author's name "Richard Adams" on it, with a drawing of two rabbits among some bushes.In today’s Guardian, there is a piece by Giles Fraser about what might be the significance of the book Watership Down, whose author Richard Adams died earlier this week. Focusing on the part of the story where the migrant rabbits are briefly taken into Cowslip’s warren, where the rabbits had ready supply of vegetables (flayrah), are uninterested in the old stories of El-Ahrairah, the “prince of a thousand enemies”, that they knew and regularly were caught in snares, Fraser cites an American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, who opined that story “contained an important message about the relationship between stories and moral values; that Adams’ rabbits – like human beings – are shaped into a community by the power of the stories they tell each other. And these stories are the bearers of our moral values”. This leads me to wonder how closely he or Fraser read the book.

Cowslip’s warren was essentially a supply of wild rabbit meat for a nearby farmer; farmers normally apply pesticides to keep rabbits from eating their crops (and it’s quite legal to shoot them also), but he wanted well-fed rabbits. As they no longer had to stray far from the warren to find food - far enough to attract foxes or badgers, or to take a risk crossing a road, the stories Adams had the wild rabbits telling each other no longer had any meaning, though they had a statue (or ‘shape’) of El-Ahrairah on the wall of the warren. However, the rabbits were aware of the danger but lived in denial, which is why anyone who asked where another rabbit was was quickly interrupted - the likely answer was that the rabbit in question was lunch. The Cowslip rabbits did in fact have poets, “beautiful and sick” like the others as Fiver, the runt rabbit who had persuaded the migrants to leave the original warren which was about to be destroyed for a housing development, called them, but they were not telling stories that were about survival. So, the lack of interest in storytelling was not the cause of their situation but a symptom; the refusal to help Bigwig when he was caught in a snare was another.

Is there a political message in Watership Down? Adams always said there wasn’t, that it was a book intended to entertain his daughters. A lot of kids’ books are set in real places, but Watership Down is written in very adult language (complete with swear words) and most books aimed purely at children don’t come with a detailed map and aren’t based on serious research into the habits of the animals featured. The most important encounter the migrant rabbits had was not with the Cowslip warren but with Efrafa, the overcrowded police-state warren where most rabbits never saw daylight but were more likely to die of old age than of predation or disease. It was the 70s and comparisons with communism are inevitable, but the idea that a heavily controlled environment might make someone safer but might result in them having not much of a life is applicable to a lot of other situations - the lot of disabled or mentally-ill people in institutions, for example - whether or not Adams was thinking of you. It would also be easy to read a very conservative message into the book, that nature is as it is, “red in tooth and claw” and that the same applies to humans; whatever we do to improve life for everyone, if it means people can’t do what they want and when, is the start of a slippery slope to totalitarianism, the start of a “road to serfdom”.

I don’t think Watership Down is a political fable like Animal Farm. It’s more of a celebration of freedom in general, and of the “great outdoors”, of nature, of wildlife, and no doubt the stories would have brought the scenery to life on a long, slow journey to the West Country but it would also have encouraged people to get out there more and to take more notice of what they saw when they did. Like rabbits, people (and children especially) need to have the freedom to run around and play, to imagine, to live life, and being cooped up is no life.

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On Hamza Yusuf, BLM and Muslim participation

26 December, 2016 - 23:22

Picture of Hamza YusufOn Friday evening Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, in an interview with the British journalist Mehdi Hasan at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) 2016 conference in Toronto, made some offensive and inaccurate remarks about racism both in American society and within the Muslim community. This has caused outrage online, with African-American Muslims particularly hurt and his traditional supporters closing ranks, claiming he said nothing wrong, disimissing it as social media gossip and emphasising his greatness compared to those criticising him. Although the video was initially deleted from the RIS website, two eight-minute clips of his interview were eventually posted on YouTube and there is no getting away from the offensive nature of some of his comments.

Just to clarify, I became Muslim in 1998 and the teachings of that group of English-speaking scholars and speakers formed the backbone of my Islamic education: Shaikh Nuh Keller, Abdul-Hakim Murad (also known as Timothy Winter; he has also used the pseudonym Kerim Fenari), Zaid Shakir, Abdullah Hakim Quick. Theologically I haven’t moved from that position. Politically, I’ve become more disenchanted by how conservative and pro-establishment the movement has become since 9/11 and especially since the Arab Spring, although not all the speakers mentioned are implicated. In the past I’ve defended Shaikh Hamza in particular from accusations that he was a sell-out and worse. I’ve noticed that the most eager to condemn him in this case were those who have hated him since 9/11 or even before that, when he was on the same side as Shaikh Nuh (during the “Literalism and the Attributes of Allah” period of the 90s) but not all of these people are particularly active in fighting social or racial injustice other than where it affects Muslims. A few of the attacks were personal, vulgar and appeared motivated by envy.

There were several fallacious aspects of Shaikh Hamza’s response to Mehdi Hasan’s questions. One was to compare unjust police shootings, mostly of unarmed Black people but of some others as well, with “black-on-black” crime. Regardless of the statistics, which others have addressed better than I can, the comparison isn’t valid because common crime isn’t committed, usually, by people paid by the public to keep the public safe. As they carry arms in public and may be called on to use them, they should be expected to be calm in the face of provocation. It’s true that not every police officer who shoots a Black person does so because he is a racist, but a disproportionate number of unjustified shootings or killings of unarmed Black people who were seen on camera not giving the officer any cause to use lethal force, followed by the officers invariably being let off by the law, has prompted widespread protests. It should be pointed out that other victims include disabled and mentally ill people; in one case, an officer shot a man during a crisis after declaring, “I don’t have time for this shit”. It’s well known that Black parents give their children, sons especially, a “talk” on what to do if they are accosted by aggressive police demanding to search them; families of the mentally ill are commonly advised never to call the police when their relatives have a crisis. Both of these are signs that the police are aggressive, out of control and unaccountable.

The comparison is rather like the observation that Muslims only demonstrate against wars against Muslim countries and not against terrorism; the simple answer is that those wars are perpetrated with public money, including taxes levied on Muslims, while terrorist attacks are not. We are not responsible for what al-Qa’ida or ISIS do as they finance their activities themselves, through donors (and, no doubt, criminal activity).

Shaikh Hamza also claimed that the US has some of the world’s best anti-discrimination laws, which has some truth to it (although some of these laws have been eaten away at both by legislation and by the Supreme Court), but it also has some of the most unjust criminal laws (e.g. mandating life sentences for sometimes trivial offences, making non-citizens liable for deportation, despite having family in the US and no remaining connections to their home country, often for misdemeanours committed long in the past), a judicial system in some states where “due process” is considered to be of greater importance than the facts, such that innocence is not enough to get someone released from prison, an education system which fast-tracks poor youth into the prison system from their teenage years and a constitution which has, among other things, twice in recent history handed the country’s, and the world’s, most powerful office to a moron despite his losing the popular vote, substantially in the most recent case. If you’re white and middle-class, you can generally expect rational and unprejudiced treatment from the law — as, for example, happened to a mother in Irvine, California, who had drugs planted in her car by a local couple with a grudge against her. A poor woman from a Black or Latino background might have had a very different experience. Shaikh Hamza can say this only because he comes from the race that is most favoured by the American political and judicial systems.

Finally, he tries to divert discussion of American racism against Blacks by bringing up Muslim racism against Jews — the whites’ favourite ‘minority’ — and racism against Pakistanis or southern Indians in some Arab countries (and notably not Arab anti-Black attitudes which are rife throughout the Arab world and in the USA). He tells us that his shaikh, Abdullah bin Bayyah, has never said a bad word about Jews; the shaikh is from Mauritania, a country where Jewish settlers are not harassing native Arabs going about their daily business, building fences between them and their land, stealing their water and so on. Hostility to Jews is only to be expected in a population facing these abuses, or an immigrant population with a high percentage from that country or its neighbours, particularly where Jewish Americans are heavily involved in supporting Zionism, lobbying for military aid to Israel and punishment of anyone choosing not to do business with them, and agitating against Muslim (and particularly Arab) participation in society and in favour of wars against Muslims and attacks on Muslims’ civil rights. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the mainstream of Jewish society, both in the UK and the USA, is pro-Zionist; those Jews (or people of Jewish ancestry) who are sympathetic to Palestinian rights are a fringe group, many of them not religious.

He also mentions the racism (and appalling working conditions, etc) facing Pakistani and Indian workers in places like the United Arab Emirates. The fact is that, apart from watching Qatari TV news channels, most of us have no connection with the UAE, Qatar or any other Gulf country. Most of us don’t have the money to take holidays or attend Islamic conferences there. The UAE isn’t a democracy and doesn’t give permanent residency, much less citizenship, to other than its natives, so why on earth should Muslims with no right to live there, or even go there in some cases, be held responsible for what goes on there? Besides, Muslims (many of those in the UK are of Pakistani origin) talk about such things and share stories about it among themselves and on social media, but racism in the west, where we live, affects us, now.

He also made some remarks about whether racism or the breakdown of the Black American family was a greater contributor to the current status of African Americans. All I will say to that is: there is no record of the police asking questions about whether anyone’s parents are married or ever were before shooting them, and bullets do not discriminate on such grounds.

The US is not a country founded on justice. It’s a country with legislators and judges for whom injustice comes as naturally as mother’s milk, who hate anything most of us would think of as justice. Clive Stafford Smith, the British lawyer who worked for years getting people freed from Death Row in various southern states, said that the US is “a society that is so full of hatred of people” and blamed politicians, who constantly encourage Americans to hate and despise others. I’m not going to speculate on why he thought American Muslims should not be involved in a cause like Black Lives Matter, but Muslims of any ethnicity born in the USA are not going to turn a blind eye to injustice in the way that an Arab immigrant grateful for refuge from other oppression or poverty might do. He didn’t offer any reason why they shouldn’t — no Islamic critique of the ideas peddled on the BLM website, or call to concentrate on Islamic knowledge or their spiritual development — only a diversion onto things that are irrelevant to American Muslims. I’m not justifying anyone hating him; he’s a scholar who has invested years of his life in gaining and transmitting Islamic knowledge and his translations are of immense value — but these remarks are ignorant and damaging, and whether he changes his views in response to the community’s feedback or not, they needed challenging.

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CyanogenMod knocked on head

25 December, 2016 - 00:00

A screenshot of an Android phone, showing an analogue clock and various app iconsAs if 2016 couldn’t get any worse, I read today that the Android distribution CyanogenMod was being closed down; the parent company, whose founder (and founder of CyanogenMod) has left, will be turning off the servers at the end of the month. The developers have renamed the project Lineage and are currently being hosted at GitHub, but that currently doesn’t appear to include binaries that you can install on a phone. This isn’t the disaster that losing Alan Rickman or Leonard Cohen was, but is a pretty sad development, as CyanogenMod brought a lot of old phones to life, especially those whose manufacturers refused to provide further Android updates for them.

The first Android phone I installed CyanogenMod on was my second Android phone, a Samsung Galaxy S (the original from back in 2010 or so). Samsung only maintained that phone up to Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and its version of Android was customised and contained a lot of junk. I discovered that there was a working version of CyanogenMod based on Android 4.0 and, though it was a bit of a struggle, installed it. It’s no exaggeration to say that it brought the phone back to life, in particular running a lot faster than the old Android, though it consumed battery juice very quickly when mobile data was switched on, which was easily fixed as CyanogenMod allowed you to easily customise the pull-down settings so you could turn off mobile data, or switch it to 2G or 3G, with a flick and a touch. Another feature I found really useful was the configurable ‘buttons’ at the bottom of the screen — I always set it up so that it always showed a search button, which early Android phones came with as standard. When I bought a Galaxy Nexus, which came with stock Android, I was underwhelmed at the lack of these sorts of features.

I put CyanogenMod on the two further Nexus phones I bought (a Nexus 4 and 5), and then in early 2015 moved to iPhone. Despite the added speed and stability, I very much missed the configurability of Android which CyanogenMod took to the max (keep in mind, iOS had only just allowed the use of third-party keypads such as SwiftKey; Android had had these from the beginning). I moved back to Android with a Nexus 5X in mid-2016 and have been using the stock Android it came with. It doesn’t look like there will be a version of CyanogenMod based on the latest Android (Nougat) now.

I don’t know if I’ll try out LineageOS, if it ever gets a Nougat ROM for my handset out. As CyanogenMod was an open-source project, perhaps Google could implement some of its features in stock Android, even if you have to turn them on. Perhaps they could be made available as a sort of ‘advanced’ version of standard Android, but some of these features, like the configurable buttons, surely wouldn’t bamboozle most non-techie users.

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Regarding Brandon Reid

22 December, 2016 - 23:14

A still from a video of Brandon Reid, a young white boy with dark hair with a black waistcoat and trousers and a yellow T-shirt with black writing on underneath, beign escorted down the hallway out of his house by two male police officers.Brandon Reid is a 16-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome whose family home is in Sheffield. He was in the news in November when a local paper and then the Daily Mail reported that the local police had turned up and used excessive force to remove him from his home and force him to go back to his care home in Stoke on Trent after he refused to go back after a family visit. A campaign has been launched to “get Brandon home for Christmas” as well as a petition and a Facebook page in which they encourage supporters to email the head of Sheffield children’s services, but the local authorities concerned are refusing to allow him a Christmas trip home, apparently insisting that his mother come to see him instead and stay in a hotel (perhaps because they fear he will refuse to come back, with similar results to what happened in November). However, there are inconsistencies in the family’s story as represented by the two articles about the case that have appeared in the media.

The campaign page claims that Brandon’s social work team are refusing to allow him home as he is “not ready”. There is no explanation as to why, so it is possible that it pertains to behaviour problems that stem from being in an unfamiliar ‘home’, i.e. an institution. It is not unknown for authorities to claim that such behaviour is a reason for keeping someone in the institution (such was argued in the case of Steven Neary, for example), and if this is the case, the family should be arguing this in any care proceedings. Social services are not allowed to give their side of the story, but the police gave a statement that said that threats of violence were made to the police, that all efforts were made to reason with Brandon and his mother but as “a resolution could not be reached […] a decision was made use police protection legislation to place the boy back into the care of Social Services”. They said Brandon had caused minor injuries to police officers. (A video the family has released, and which appeared on YouTube and on the Daily Mail website, showed him walking calmly out of the house accompanied by two policemen.)

The media reports contradict each other regarding how Brandon ended up in care. The local paper, the Star, reported on 14th November that he had been admitted ‘voluntarily’ in May as his sister had just had a baby and there were doubts as to how he would respond to the situation, but as he proved to behave “fine” with the baby and his sister had moved out, the care arrangement was no longer needed. However, the Daily Mail reported a week later that he had in fact been placed in care a year earlier, in May 2015, after his school placement broke down (we are not told how or why, or whether this was a day or boarding school) and his mother began suffering with depression. He was the subject of a section 31 care order as of June 2015, admitted to a home in Manchester, but his mother brought him home as she said he was ill-treated. She claimed the local authority allowed Brandon to live at home with his mother until 8th August 2016, when he was moved to his current placement in Stoke. There are pictures of him on visits out with his family (e.g. to Chester Zoo), and he has posted to Facebook during this period, so the home does not appear to be a secure unit.

This story does not make much sense. A section 31 care order (referring to section 31 of the 1989 Children Act) is not the same as being in care voluntarily; it is a court order given when the court is satisfied that a child is at risk of harm or out of control. He could have been admitted initially voluntarily and the order issued later, of course. Second, it is odd that he would have been allowed to live at home for nearly a year after being withdrawn from care (and surely, he could not have been withdrawn from care unilaterally by the mother if he was under a section 31 order), and then re-admitted unless a new, serious situation had emerged. Care home placements cost money; they would not put someone into a care home in such circumstances just because a new placement had been found. However, if the care order was somehow still in force and had been acted on at the mother’s request because of the sister’s baby, it is no surprise that the authorities are not willing to allow him to just go home to his mother four months later, because if you elbow a disabled child aside for the sake of an able-bodied adult relative, it does give the impression that the disabled child is not your top priority.

The case appears on the surface to have similarities to other cases where autistic people have been kept in hospital or residential care against their will or their families’, although the usual methods for doing this are the Mental Health Act or the Mental Capacity Act. I’m well aware that social workers, doctors and others overstep the mark and, as with the police, a lot of them are ill-trained in dealing with people with autism. However, I’ve previously tried to help someone in a similar position with an autistic daughter in foster care who had an emotive and seemingly consistent story to begin with, yet as more was revealed about the ongoing legal process, it appeared that there was much more to the story than the mother originally let on, and I pulled out (the daughter was not released from care for more than a year after that). I get the impression that Brandon’s case is not as straightforward as the family and their sympathisers are letting on.

Anyway, their campaign to get Brandon home for Christmas has failed. The local authority and the care home should be trying to help the family spend Christmas with Brandon, even if he cannot go home, rather than expecting them to pay hotel bills. This has been a problem for many families of people with autism who are detained or housed a long way from home. But we do not know the full reason why the local authority believe Brandon needs to be in residential care, and the family’s story and the story given in the sympathetic media coverage are inconsistent. I will not be signing their petition and I urge anyone thinking of signing to think very carefully.

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Some thoughts on the Berlin truck atrocity

21 December, 2016 - 13:05

A black Scania R-type tractor unit with the owner's name 'Ariel Suraski' on its headboard, and a broken windowOn Monday evening, someone hijacked a 40-tonne Scania articulated lorry, murdered the driver, and then drove it into the Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 people. Police arrested a suspect, an asylum seeker from Pakistan, but have since released him, having found no forensic evidence linking him to the truck; latest news is that the police are seeking a Tunisian they have named only as “Anis A”. The truck, which was carrying steel girders on its trailer, is owned by a Polish haulier and the owner’s cousin was the murdered driver. The so-called Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) claimed responsibility and both they and al-Qa’ida have encouraged Muslims to carry out similar attacks.

As might be expected, the media has been full of talk of protecting public places from similar attacks in the near future. A number of public buildings already have barriers designed to stop trucks from ramming them, but rarely are pedestrian shopping centres so protected. I read this article by Dominic Casciani on the BBC News site, which notes a number of sometimes subtle barriers, such as the letters spelling “ARSENAL” outside the club’s Emirates Stadium in north London. A number of such barriers have been tested to withstand a 7-tonne truck being driven into them, and both the tests depicted on that page show 7.5-tonne trucks, a mainstay of home and shop delivery but actually the smallest type of vehicle recognisable as a truck in Europe. The standard domestic haulage truck in the UK is rated at 44 tonnes; in Europe, as with the truck used in Berlin, 40 tonnes. Standard rigid truck weights are 18, 26 and 32 tonnes (the latter normally used for tippers). Clearly, some of these barriers will not in fact withstand attacks by trucks that are more than double the weight (especially if laden) they were tested for.

The Guardian claimed this morning that Scania had been contacted with questions as to why the truck’s automatic braking system had not prevented the disaster. One might ask why the same did not happen in any number of on-road collisions, such as when a truck whose driver was looking at his mobile phone ploughed into the back of a queue of traffic. Not all trucks have such devices; what they more often have is alarms which beep or buzz when the vehicle goes over a lane marking, or is anywhere near another vehicle or object, which is a huge annoyance to the driver as such situations (especially at slow speeds) do not always equate to danger. The owners probably did not anticipate such a situation as they are in a country where terrorism is rare, and most hauliers do not currently need to consider this situation as a priority. Load, vehicle and diesel thefts and, in the case of drivers going to England, illegal migrants are a bigger problem than hijacking or terrorism.

Third, I do not believe ISIS are really responsible for this. If they were really responsible, they would have mounted more than one attack at more than one location, perhaps at Christmas markets across Germany. Whatever else could be said about ISIS, they are not a rag-tag outfit or a splinter group and if it’s really true that they can smuggle guns or explosives across Europe, it should be asked why they have not used them here. If it really was ISIS, it would not indicate their capability to carry out major destructive attacks, but rather their lack of manpower, organisational capacity and weaponry. Pointing this out would not make for a very sensational story, however, which is why you don’t hear it much from security “experts” in the media.

Fourth, hauliers will have to take a serious look at how they protect their vehicles from this sort of action if there are any more of them. Some hauliers already insist that drivers take their keys out of the vehicle when leaving it, which prevents not only theft but also accidents, as a third party could otherwise move a truck when the driver or other workers are on the back, securing or positioning loads. This would also stop opportunist thefts, for terrorism or any other purpose, but it would not stop a determined terrorist (or gang of them) from killing or expelling the driver. A system which informs the owner if another driver has taken over (e.g. a fingerprint locking system) would offer some protection to the public, but not if the owner is the driver, and it would not protect the driver (who could be retained to activate the fingerprint lock).

Speaking as both a truck driver and a Muslim, I’m appalled by this attack on a country which has welcomed over a million asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere when other countries have shut them out. It will strengthen the hand of the anti-immigrant Right who have already made gains in poorer parts of Germany where there is less exposure to immigrants and diverse cultures, including the regions around Berlin. However, it’s not in the interests of either the Syrian régime or ISIS for Muslims from Syria or anywhere else to be able to find a home in Europe. It’s worrying that I become the terrorist’s first target and also potentially a target of suspicion; I already do my best to hide my religion from employers so as to avoid awkward questions. The further you get from ‘diverse’ areas around London and other big cities, the more open people are about their bigotry, which as their exposure to other cultures is fairly limited, has never been challenged.

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Does Sleaford really matter much more than Richmond?

13 December, 2016 - 10:00

A large Anglican church with a spire, with a war memorial in front of itWhy Sleaford matters more than Richmond - CapX

Last week there were two by-elections in the UK triggered by resignations of MPs. One was in Richmond Park, in which Zac Goldsmith had resigned from the Conservative Party and stood as an independent (albeit unopposed by the Conservatives) and lost to an unknown Lib Dem. The other was in Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire, in which a Tory resigned, citing differences with the government over Brexit, foreign aid and child refugees, did not defend the seat, and the Tory candidate who stood in his place won. The above article claims that the Sleaford result was more important than the one in Richmond, that there are many more places like Sleaford than like Richmond, and that the media’s fixation on Richmond is because the media tend to focus on those who live near them and think like they do.

I dispute a lot of what this article says. Richmond Park, to start with, was held by the Liberal Democrats from 1997 to 2010 (first Jenny Tonge and then Sarah Teather), and was one of a number of south-west London seats held by the Lib Dems during the same period although it was the first to fall to the Tories (others in the same area fell in 2015, when the Lib Dem vote was split as a result of the coalition). So, the by-election can be seen as the Lib Dems starting to claw back their old territory, and significantly by putting up a fresh face who is untainted with association with the Coalition. It is indeed a prosperous commuter belt seat, and probably more so than the other former Lib Dem seats in this part of London.

Sleaford was a safe Tory seat, and the only surprise is that the Tories held the seat on a turnout of only 37.1% (Richmond’s was 53.44%). The seat is mostly rural, consisting otherwise of one small town (Sleaford) and one suburb of Lincoln (North Hykeham). It was represented by Douglas Hogg, son of Quintin Hogg, a minister under Tory Prime Ministers from Eden to Thatcher, until 2010 when he resigned over controversies about his expenses. Douglas Hogg himself had held a cabinet post under John Major, so it’s a safe enough seat for Tories to put up members of political dynasties and cabinet ministers, although the outgoing MP, Stephen Phillips, was neither. The CapX article claims:

Sleaford isn’t, by the way, an island of deprivation. It’s actually one of the most prosperous parts of Lincolnshire – the sort of quiet, productive, largely monocultural place that attracts patronising descriptors about “the heart of England”.

Which is precisely why it matters. There are, in the end, far more places like Sleaford than Richmond – places that are conservative not just electorally but culturally, where people are doing more than “just about managing”, but are by no means in the economic stratosphere.

Sleaford isn’t unique (Huntingdon, to the south in Cambridgeshire, has a similar profile), but there actually aren’t that many places like it, and there are quite a few other places like Richmond (consider the tract of anti-Brexit territory to the south and west of London, including Theresa May’s Maidenhead seat), many of whose residents have expensive properties but are not money-rich (although quite a few in Richmond are rich). The idea that it’s monocultural (apart from all the eastern European farm and factory workers, who couldn’t vote) and conservative is commonly used to mean it’s the “real” England, but those places are no more or less real than the wealthy commuter belt or the inner cities or university towns. None of them can be taken for granted but no party can rule by taking one of these groups of constituencies on their own.

An aerial view showing two towns either side of the River Thames, which forms a C-shaped bend in the picture. As for the performance of the Labour party, it should be remembered that they have never won either seat. The article states that the results showed how “Jeremy Corbyn demonstrated his matchless ability to simultaneously alienate Northern workers and Southern commuters”. Sleaford isn’t the North; it’s a lowland farming area that has more in common with parts of the northern Home Counties or East Anglia than with anywhere in the North. In Richmond, there was a debate as to whether Labour should even put up a candidate as the Lib Dems had the best chance of unseating Goldsmith, which was seen as an imperative because of his involvement in the racist campaign against Sadiq Khan. Their candidate, Christian Wolmar, who had the same views on both Brexit and Heathrow expansion as the Lib Dem candidate, is a long-standing campaigner on rail issues but does not live in the area.

In Sleaford, the Lib Dems were the only party other than the Tories to gain in terms of vote share; this is perhaps because they were the only party which was unequivocally anti-Brexit and thus represented the 40% of the people in the district that voted to remain in the EU; Jeremy Corbyn is seen as being pro-Brexit and many Labour politicians thought to have been pro-EU had been publicly reconsidering their positions since the referendum. In short, even given their historical second place in the constituency, the party had become the third pro-Brexit party and thus gave nobody any real reason to vote for them.

As for why the media covered Richmond more avidly than Sleaford, the obvious reason is that in Sleaford they expected the Tory to win, as they have for generations, while in Richmond there was a real chance for someone else to win, despite the incumbent’s celebrity status, and indeed someone else did. Richmond is that much more accessible from anywhere in London than Sleaford, but Sleaford is only a couple of hours’ drive from London; it doesn’t require cutting through dense bush to reach it. There are in fact plenty of Tories in the mainstream media; you need only look at some of their front pages. And lastly, as only 37% of people in Sleaford bothered to vote, how can you blame anyone else for taking little interest in it?

Image source: Wikipedia. Image of Sleaford sourced from Dave Hitchbourne and one other, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence. Image of Richmond and Twickenham sourced from “Cmglee”, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 licence.

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Why ban National Action?

12 December, 2016 - 16:02

A bronze statue of Nelson Mandela, which has had a banana placed in its left hand. Two young white men, one with his face covered in a grey and black scarf, are standing at its feet.Today the Home Secretary announced that she intends to proscribe the Far Right group National Action, which she describes as “a racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic organisation”. An organisation can be proscribed if the home secretary believes that it is “concerned in terrorism”, but the BBC’s report does not quote her as giving any evidence that it is doing this; rather she claims that it “stirs up hatred, glorifies violence and promotes a vile ideology”. The group’s website quotes the Labour mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, as saying that National Action “makes the BNP look like Amnesty International” and Searchlight magazine as saying it does not appeal to “thickos looking for a fight” but to people willing to die for National Socialism. The trigger for the decision seems to be a tweet issued by a branch of NA praising the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in June, but there is no suggestion that the group itself was responsible for the killing although its website uses the slogan her murderer Thomas Mair used in court — “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

National Action is not that big. The rhetoric on its website reminds me of Crosstar, an American “nationalist” group whose website I examined as part of a college project in the 90s, although the graphics are a lot more sophisticated. Its homepage proclaims, “we are a group who are tired of seeing injustice; our people exploited and abused, our women raped and murdered, society crumble, our nation dying”; Crosstar had a similar appeal to white school students who were tired of minorities “rapping all around you, raping your girl friend”. Rape and rape culture are real, but the majority of rapists are not immigrants or members of any minority and most people know that. Meanwhile, this is how a NA goon shows how much he respects women (and the English language):

Whilst waiting I noticed a small group of UAF [Unite Against Fascism] slags. They took special interest in me, they were pointing, nodding their heads, and getting out their phones to google me. Even with in disguise I am a stunner and also among the recognisable as an infamous members of the group. Confirming this they started snarling at me like bitches in heat, so I obliged them by lowering my mask and blowing them a kiss. This display of patriarchal aryan supremacy sent the thots into a fit of rage and they had to be restrained by police. Cognitive dissonance amongst ‘females’ of the alleged opposition is to be expected when they encounter an alpha, after being made to feel strong and in control by the effeminate beta-cucks of the ‘left wing’.

Nazism is an old ideology which has gone out of fashion throughout Europe. Even the likes of the BNP and the National Democrats in Germany deny being Nazis; the modern far right plays down anti-Semitism and even attracts Jewish supporters, emphasising Islam as the major threat to modern liberal values and to freedom itself. In this, they are joined by the mainstream Right and in many places, whole tracts of the Left. (It is significant that Rudd did not mention Islamophobia as a reason for banning NA, despite their self-professed association with the “Scottish Defence League” and the “North East Infidels”.) So it is easy to pretend to be “doing something” about far right hatred by banning a small, fringe neo-Nazi organisation. Meanwhile, the English Defence League and various other Defence Leagues and “Infidels” groups have remained unbanned despite having a membership of known football hooligans and a history of violence, albeit thuggery rather than terrorism as such.

In this country, you get banned or imprisoned for offending popular or mainstream sensibilities, rather than posing a threat as such. This is why we have had people prosecuted and even imprisoned for taunting Manchester United fans about a plane crash that happened when their grandparents were children and for posting tweets celebrating the deaths of soldiers, on the grounds that such statements had caused widespread offence even though they had not; al-Muhajiroun were banned not for actual involvement in terrorism but for ‘glorifying’ it (before ISIS had been heard of). Threaten ordinary people, minorities especially, and you are generally OK. Offend the Establishment and you are likely to get clamped down on, and when an extremist group goes mainstream (by having MEPs elected, for example), far from getting banned, they get airtime.

A cutting from 'The SunIf the government really were serious about eradicating far-right hate and hate groups, they would have not only targeted the EDL, but also made sure that white racists found stockpiling weapons to use in a race war got similar sentences to Muslims found even associating with terrorist groups. But banning far-right groups on spurious terrorist grounds is pointless when hate is being mainstreamed by the right-wing tabloids who have access to every news-stand at every corner shop and train station in the country. Front page after front page about Muslims, Gypsies and immigrants demanding special treatment, demanding bans on this or that or getting them, getting council houses worth six-figure sums at taxpayers’ expense, and posing a threat by simply covering their faces does far more to make hateful and suspicious attitudes towards minorites mainstream than demonsrations by men in masks and rhetoric about women being raped as if we were the Rohingya. The same papers elsewhere peddle smutty, intrusive, often misogynistic ‘journalism’ (such as this awful example from yesterday) mixed with sanctimonious moralising, none of which serves any public good.

Yet there is no talk of any of these papers being subject to any legal sanction or control, let alone banned. These are the organiations that foster hate in British society, and there are many others more guilty of it than National Action, which is a tiny fringe group that many people (including me) only heard of today when it was announced that they would be banned. Of course, I am against racism and Nazism, but there is no point targeting the small numbers of old Nazis and ignoring the racists and haters who are in the mainstream of politics and the media.

Image source: Wikipedia. Sourced from National Action.

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Time to change the law on disability hate crime

10 December, 2016 - 11:08

Lee Irving, a young white man with very short hair wearing a light blue T-shirt with white, green, dark blue and white stripes, in what appears to be a garden with a house and fir trees behind him.Update 12th December: The Disability Hate Crime Network has written to the Attorney General to seek a review of James Wheatley’s sentence.

Last week in Newcastle, a man who had imprisoned and tortured to death a friend with a learning disability was sentenced to life with a minimum of 23 years for his murder. His mother, girlfriend and lodger were all imprisoned for between three and eight years for such offences as perverting the course of justice and causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable adult. The main offender, James Wheatley, could have been jailed for a minimum of 30 years if the judge had ruled that the murder was motivated by hostility to his disability, i.e. a hate crime, but the judge ruled that it was motivated by money (Wheatley persuaded his victim, Lee Irving, to sign up to online banking so that he could clear out his account) and thus not a disability hate crime. The usual tariff for murder is 12 to 15 years; the seven years’ difference between the two sentences is roughly half that. As a friend put it on Facebook, ‘unless the defendant screams “I hate disabled people and think they should die” in the dock no judge in the UK will ever treat disability hate crime as disability hate crime’.

Irving’s murder fits a pattern commonly referred to as “mate crime” in which a group of people (often mixed gender; individuals who commit such crimes alone are usually male) who befriend a person who usually (though not always) has learning difficulties and gradually turn abusive, pressuring or intimidating them into signing over money or giving them their possessions, progressing to physical abuse, torture and sometimes murder. We hear about the ones that end in murder; perhaps we do not hear about the ones that do not. While often horrific and protracted crimes, they do not fit the typical pattern of a hate crime in which someone is attacked in the street by people shouting abuse obviously targeting their race or sexual orientation, or a house is firebombed by a group attracted to each other by racism. But while the offenders often do not display signs of hatred towards disabled people in general, they often exploit their vulnerability and desperation for friendship.

Steven Simpson, a gay man with Asperger's syndrome murdered by so-called friends.I’ve always been opposed to making “disability hate crime” a particular category of offence, precisely because, being based on patterns of hate crimes against other groups, it excluded a lot of violence targeted against disabled people and “mate crimes” in particular. Some attacks or incidents of harassment could be dismissed as mere bullying, or the attacker could have been irritated by his victim’s behaviour, such as staring at his attacker or talking to himself; the attackers are, as you might have guessed, people with an existing tendency to violence. Some of this is true of racial or anti-gay hate crime, but hatred of, say, gay or Black people in general (or, more recently, eastern Europeans) is more commonly a factor in hate crime than hatred of disabled people as such. Some activists a few years ago countered that using language other than “disability hate crime” was tantamount to denying that there is a problem, but requiring evidence of ‘hate’ filters out a lot of violence that many people would describe as bullying, or where disabled people are being exploited. Sometimes, bullies who kill are not even charged with murder, as in the case of Stephen Simpson (left).

The law should not require proof of such hatred to make disability-targeted violence an aggravating factor in murder or assault. It should be necessary only that the attacker knew of his victim’s impairment, had sought to exploit it in any way, and had no other reason to want to hurt them (e.g. the victim had slept with the offender’s partner, cheated them out of money or in some other way hurt or offended them). Any gratuitous violence against a disabled person should attract stiffer sentences, and there should be an end to cases where torture and murder over a period of weeks attracts shorter sentences than a street attack lasting minutes, just because the attackers in the latter case made their prejudices clear by using explicit abusive language.

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Why I’m against Universal Basic Income

4 December, 2016 - 21:58

A 32-tonne tipper truck dumps a load of coins in front of a town hall, as people stand and applaud.Recently the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has gained a lot of traction in Left circles in the UK, with calls for Jeremy Corbyn to adopt it and try and make it Labour party policy. This morning, I saw an article on Medium by Frances Coppola, Why the changing nature of work means we need a Universal Basic Income, which suggests that we cannot and shouldn’t try to turn the clock back to a time when there were plentiful jobs in manufacturing because they were “mind-numbing, repetitive jobs”, but rather we should embrace the automation that got rid of them: “bring on the robots, and let the humans go to the pub”. I think this is a rather naive view of both the problem and of UBI as a solution.

To begin with, automation is only one of the reasons why jobs have been destroyed. The other major reason is that manufacturing has been exported to third-world countries which can simply supply labour cheaply, in the case of China without the impediments of democracy or free trade unions, which goes a long way towards explaining why the cost of most manufactured goods, but especially technology, has stayed the same or come down since the late 1980s. A country which prides itself on high standards, in which well-paid workers manufacture high-quality goods, needs to resist unfair competition from sweatshop economies. Automation often does not free up human beings to do more interesting, creative work; it often destroys skilled craft jobs and replaces them with tedious and repetitive ones. In recent months there has been much talk of driverless cars and trucks replacing ones driven by human beings; even when the safety implications are ironed out (which will take a long time; even trains still have human drivers, except on a few closed systems such as the Docklands in London), the result will be the removal of an easy entry-level job (taxi driving) and a job that is often enjoyable without the stress, as some people would see it, of constant social interaction. So automation does not free people up to “go down the pub”.

The problems with UBI start with what it is: a guaranteed, unconditional basic income, presumably paid to everybody by the state. This means that people in work would be taxed to pay for an unconditional monetary gift to everyone else, regardless of the payers’ or recipients’ existing means or need. Unless other benefits were reduced or abolished at the same time, it would mean a huge increase in taxation for everyone at every income level, and possibly the removal of tax-free allowances. Assuming it is politically possible to institute it in the first place at all, the level would be a constant source of contention (which may delay its introduction, or keep it at a minuscule level, rendering it pointless). It would likely not be increased with inflation, ultimately reducing it to a token amount in real terms. Although, unlike with other benefits, everyone would receive the payment, the fact that a flat payment benefits the poor more than the rich would mean that any increase would be unpopular with upper to middle income earners, and these are the people more likely to enjoy their jobs.

UBI would become an excuse to deny funding or work to almost anyone. People would think it more acceptable even if it’s illegal. A boss would feel justified in denying extra working hours to someone who had caused him annoyance on the grounds that “he gets his UBI, doesn’t he?”. The same excuse could be used to refuse accommodation to disabled potential employees, deny disability benefits, funding for adaptations or disability-related equipment, funding for social care, legal aid or a host of other things. It would be an excuse to refuse wage increases, or even cut them. The fact that UBI would not be enough to live on would not change any of this. As the payment would likely only be made to citizens, not immigrants, it would fuel the perception that immigrants are harder workers because they have to work to get paid, unlike poorer citizens (citizens in highly-paid and professional occupations would be less affected by that stigma) — consider how British workers are already stereotyped as being inferior and lazy compared to “hard-working” Poles. This might be an incentive for industrialists to prefer immigrants or even ship jobs out, resulting in tension and resentment; it would be used as a pretext to make acquiring citizenship more difficult.

And we might also consider that not everyone has the means to receive and look after the money. I don’t mean spend it wisely (some people will squander it, but this can apply to people of any economic class and to any money, earned or otherwise); I mean physically look after it. A rough sleeper might be just as entitled to the money as someone with a three-bedroom house, but if he has no bank account, he would have cash on him and would be an easy mark for a thief when asleep (or for robbery when awake), particularly if there was a regular date for the money being distributed.

So, I do not believe that UBI would alleviate poverty or make the country a more generous place. On the contrary, it would reduce the perception of need without reducing need itself, and make the country a meaner place and make people feel justified in their meanness. The plain fact is that there is no such thing as a free lunch, that food, clothing etc have to be paid for, and that the money for UBI will have to come from ordinary taxpayers, who will understandably resent paying for it. Part of this may be down to our commercial press, which stokes envy and resentment about such things, but the same papers will have to be challenged if any fair or rational welfare system is to be established. UBI will mean that a payment (or tax rebate) to people who do not need it will take funding and benefits from where they are needed and result in underpayment of already low-paid workers.

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Castro saved his country

27 November, 2016 - 21:51

Poster of Che Guevara, a former member of Fidel Castro's cabinet, on a red background with the slogan "Hasta la victoria sempre" at the bottom.Years ago, there used to be a common explanation for why communism didn’t work. It was all nice on paper, people would say; the state would share all the wealth around and make sure everyone had what they needed and worked as they were able; yet human greed made the dream impossible in reality. I heard this from an older boy at school around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall; I also saw it written in an opinion piece in the Sun, by Michael Winner if I remember correctly. It was also commonly claimed that the very early followers of Christ practised a form of communism, foregoing personal possessions and sharing everything they had between them.

It was all wrong, of course. Communism is bad, not just wrong, because it necessarily involves theft on a grand scale from people who have worked all their lives and who have earned what they have fair and square. Once you run out of Romanovs and high-handed aristocrats, those who “by theft and murder … took the land; now everywhere the walls spring up at their command” and still haven’t built your paradise, you are left with those with family farms and businesses that they have built up over generations of hard work and own fair and square, who may treat and pay their employees very well, and who may know how to run those concerns better than a nobody answering to some party bureaucrat hundreds of miles away, hence we get the Stalinist and Maoist purges of “kulaks”, “rich peasants”, “capitalist-roaders” and so on who do not think that being reduced to labourers on their own land much resembles freedom. This explains why communism in Europe always rapidly turned into dictatorship (along with the ideological necessity of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which of course was not really of the proletariat), why it was nearly always imposed and always maintained by force, and why secret police forces, walls and closed borders were needed to stop the workers fleeing the places they were supposedly the masters of.

In Latin America, however, the story was entirely different; the people really were oppressed by a ruling class of white settlers, mostly allied to American fruit-growing interests, and the US openly favoured these interests, inspired by a top-secret paper by a senior diplomat, George Kennan, who observed that his country had 50% of the world’s wealth and only 6% of its population which “cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment” and advocated that his country “devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity”, dispensing with “unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization”. The US favoured a model whereby poor central Americans supplied wealthy (or at least wealthier) Americans (and Europeans) with cheap luxuries while living in dire poverty without access to healthcare and education. So, as Marxism preaches that human beings are not only all equal but that this should be reflected in terms of power and wealth, it is no surprise that it should be attractive in a part of the world where poverty and powerlessness were being deliberately maintained with force.

Castro and his men succeeded in taking control of Cuba and forcing the white upper class and their friends in the American mafia out, and have maintained power ever since despite numerous ham-fisted attempts by the CIA and its supporters, particularly exiled Cubans in Florida, to get rid of them. Elsewhere, communists or Marxists had briefer periods in power, in the case of Chile being overthrown by the military which set up a right-wing dictatorship, and in Nicaragua being forced to hold elections in which they were defeated. Elsewhere, the military interfered in the political process or seized power so as to “crush communism” or politicians they alleged were communists, used “communism” as an excuse to imprison, torture, rape and murder political activists of any kind who spoke of equality or justice. Some of these were actual communists, many were not, and some allied with communism because there was no other alternative to the kleptocratic and racist Latin American face of capitalism.

In the hours since Fidel Castro’s death on Friday night, we have had people celebrate that “the tyrant” is dead, some of whom have been apologists for the right-wing military dictatorships who used rape and torture to enforce capitalism and keep poor people poor. Yet the comparisons with Pinochet are not the most appropriate, as Chile is at the far end of Latin America from the US border and the majority of its population are of European ancestry, rather than just its elite. Chile never was a banana republic and there never was an attempt to make it into one. Castro’s real contemporaries are the rulers of central America — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador especially — who allowed their countries to be used as plantations for American fruit companies and violently repressed the aspirations of their people. Although most central American countries are today democracies (Honduras excepted), they still have lower literacy, shorter life expectancy and higher infant mortality rates than Cuba (Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than the US’s). As Cuba did not export huge numbers of poor people to the USA, it has not had the explosion of crime caused by the dumping by the USA of foreign criminals (although they were usually not criminals when they went to the USA, usually as children). There has been none of the religious stupidity found elsewhere in the region; a woman who suffers a miscarriage in Cuba is not at risk of being prosecuted for having an abortion, as in much of central America and parts of the USA.

I’m not a partisan or fan of Castro. I’m well aware that his régime has links to the Assads of Syria, for example, and that it has political prisoners, and that it does not allow free trade unions or strikes, unlike many of the former dictatorships that are now democracies. However, by Latin American standards, and northern Latin American standards especially, he has performed well, as his country remained stable while brutal civil wars engulfed much of the rest of the region (and much as they should not be an either/or, a lot of the people who say they’d rather have free speech than free healthcare and education have never had to choose). Nothing better was on offer to Cuba in the 1960s, and it is doubtful whether much better is on offer now — certainly the Cuban exiles, if they ever regain power, do not even promise to maintain what has been achieved during the Castro era in terms of healthcare, education and standards of living. It would be nothing but a tragedy to see the current system replaced with a debt-ridden third-world republic in the name of capitalism or ‘democracy’ — all the more so if the democracy does not last.

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What is a congestion charge for?

20 November, 2016 - 18:04

A road sign saying "Transport for London, Congestion charging, Central Zone, Mon-Fri 7am-6pm". The street scene behind is blurred but seems to include a Hard Rock Café sign.London mayor Sadiq Khan issues £2.5m VW congestion charge call

So, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is demanding that Volkswagen pay up £2.5m to compensate the London taxpayer for a discount that drivers of some of their diesel cars received from the London Congestion Charge as it was thought that they produced low emissions, which it is now known, since the “defeat devices” scandal, that they did not. 80,000 of these VW, Seat, Skoda and Audi cars were registered in London, although how many of them went into the congestion charge zone (the area inside the Inner Ring Road) every day is not clear. Probably more of them were used for commutes outside that zone, where there are some of the worst polluted roads in the country (like sections of the North Circular Road).

I was always opposed to the Congestion Charge right from when Ken Livingstone first proposed it before the 2000 mayoral election. Although perhaps it was beyond the mayor’s powers, I supported simply removing most of the parking in central London other than short stay and for residents, traders, disabled badge holders and maybe a few premium parking spots. The Congestion Charge was intended as a tax to fund public transport and was levied on goods vehicles as well, resulting in increased costs for companies that needed to deliver into central London. When Livingstone extended it into west London (which was largely responsible for losing him the 2008 mayoral election), a lot of his fans justified this on the grounds that “rich bastards” in places like Kensington would have to pay, but in fact those who drove from the new zone into the old one ended up paying less (not everyone in either part of the zone was rich; there are substantial tracts of council estate in Newington, North Kensington, Pimlico and elsewhere.)

 Low Emission Zone". A metallic turquoise car speeds past behind it; some Mock Tudor houses are the other side of the road.Similarly, the Low Emission Zone had the effect of driving businesses that could not afford to upgrade to new or almost-new trucks out of business or out of London; companies that could afford it cascaded the old trucks to their depots out of London and probably moved the newer ones in, making the job of lorry drivers (and the air) in the provinces a bit less pleasant. They also imposed it on industrial estates that are right on the edge of town, entirely pointlessly (as they are often accessed only by roads which are excluded). Again, the effect is to privilege bigger companies or those with access to big credit which can afford to buy new trucks and vans; companies outside London still running ‘old’ trucks (and bear in mind, Euro 4 — the minimum standard requried to come into the zone without paying a £200 daily charge — only appeared in 2007) are put at a disadvantage.

None of the cars mentioned in that report are tiny. They take up as much space on the road as any other average-sized hatchback. Exemptions should apply only to motorcycles and to very small cars which contribute little to congestion, regardless of their environmental footprint. After all, a road jammed up with ‘clean’ cars is still a jammed-up road, and buses and delivery vehicles can’t get through; encouraging people to buy new ‘clean’ cars does not actually help the environment, as the old car will probably be sold and kept running, and the production of the new car also causes pollution. A congestion charge should be targeted at reducing congestion, which means reducing the number of people commuting and cutting through by car — the environmental footprint may be low but the physical footprint is still the same.

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Lego and the Daily Mail: Before you get too excited …

12 November, 2016 - 15:39

 Calls for BBC to fire Lineker as he peddles migrant lies"Lego ends advertising with Daily Mail after calls for companies to ‘Stop Funding Hate’ (from the Independent)

According to this report, widely shared by people I know on social media, Lego have announced that an advertising campaign they had been running with the Daily Mail has run its course and they have no plans for any more. This was in a comment to a post on Lego’s Facebook page from one Bob Jones, who said that he could not buy his son Lego for Christmas (which is what he wanted) while they advertised with the Mail. This has been taken as a victory for an online campaign called “Stop Funding Hate” which aims to pressure companies to withdraw advertising from newspapers such as the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express that demonise immigrants and lied to the public during the recent Brexit referendum. However, I believe the idea that this is a huge victory is premature.

First, companies have lied about taking ethical stances in the past, claiming to have cut links with, say, a sweatshop-based producer while in fact continuing to source product from them. In the film, The Corporation, an American labour activist named Charles Kernaghan said he and his team had met representatives of workers in garment factories in Honduras who passed them a tag bearing the name of Kathie Lee Gifford, an American entertainer who marketed a clothes line through Walmart. Wikipedia notes that Gifford then “contacted Federal authorities to investigate the issue and worked with U.S. Federal legislative and executive branch agencies to support and enact laws to protect children against sweatshop conditions”, and appeared with then-President Bill Clinton to support his efforts to counter sweatshops abroad. However, the film noted that clothes continued to be manufactured in such conditions for that line, and the activists said “we achieved nothing with Kathie Lee”.

Lego’s tweet only says that they have no current plans for more advertising in the Mail. This leaves open the possibility that they may develop such plans in the future. To find out whether Lego are really committed to not advertising with hate sheets, we need to look at whom they advertise with abroad — Britain is not alone in having popular newspapers which stir hostility to immigrants or minorities. Do they advertise with Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper which, for the sake of it, solicited and published the offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) in 2005?

We all remember how The Sun pretended to have terminated page 3 a couple of years ago, only to dramatically relaunch it days later. We need to be asking Lego some tough questions rather than accepting their platitudes at face value.

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So, about those Democrat infiltrators …

6 November, 2016 - 10:21

Yesterday, someone posted a link to the blog by the author of the Dilbert cartoons, alleging among other things that violence at Trump rallies had mostly been caused by infiltrators from Clinton’s campaign, who have since been sacked:

1. Trump’s Tough Talk Inspires violence: Ask Clinton supporters if they have seen the Project Veritas video of Clinton operatives talking about paying people to incite violence at Trump rallies. The people on the video have been fired, and we haven’t seen violence at Trump rallies since.

Well, only yesterday, a Republican who held a sign saying “Republicans Against Trump” at the front of a Trump rally in Reno, Nevada was wrestled to the ground by a crowd of Trump supporters who ” kicked, punched and choked” him and grabbed his testicles:

“I had a sign that said ‘Republicans against Trump’. It is a sign that you can just print off online.”

Initially, there was the expected reaction of people around him booing, he said. “And then all of a sudden people next to me are starting to get violent; they’re grabbing at my arm, trying to rip the sign out of my hand,” he said.

He said he could not be sure but “it looked like” Trump was pointing at him, and may have been “instigating something”. Either way, the crowd piled on him, he said, kicking, punching, holding him on the ground and grabbing his testicles.

He said he was a wrestler in his youth and used his training to turn his head to the side to maintain an airway open as he was being choked by one man who had him in a headlock. “But there were people wrenching on my neck they could have strangled me to death,” he added.

… For his part, Crites said he felt relieved when police arrived and placed him in handcuffs, but said officers had to fend off Trump supporters who continued to attack him. “As I was taken from the room, people are just looking at me like I’m a demon,” he said.

So, unless you believe that Trump his himself a Democratic infiltrator who ran so as to make Clinton’s path to the presidency easier (not a ludicrous theory, as Trump has praised and supported both Clintons in the past), it’s clear that there doesn’t need to be money from the Clinton campaign to cause violence at his rallies; enough of his supporters are thugs to make it dangerous for anyone to express dissent, which is a disturbing sign of what might happen to anyone who dissents once he takes office. If he is defeated, his thugs will know they do not have popular support, and someone else can champion the Rust Belt in a future campaign.

This should be a warning to any Muslims in particular tempted to vote for Trump or for third party candidates in swing states on the grounds that Clinton is just as bad. We heard the same rhetoric in 2000 — African-American Muslims did not fall for it, because they knew the Republicans were against them, but Arabs and other American Muslims did — that Gore was pro-Israel and that Clinton’s government had infringed Muslims’ civil liberties. Then Bush took power and we all know what followed — the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, Muslims locked up for decades for spurious offences or on the basis of speculation, talk radio and blogs full of anti-Muslim hate, and a war against Iraq whose disastrous consequences are still felt. In 2016 Muslims do not have the excuse of ignorance that they had in 2000; a vote for Trump is a vote for mob violence if not fascism, while a vote for Clinton is a vote for the rule of law, and if the mobs are not your kind, you do not want to vote for them.

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Is anti-Semitism really “a hate apart”?

30 October, 2016 - 20:10

Let’s be clear – antismetism is a hate apart | Howard Jacobson | Opinion | The Guardian

The above is in last Sunday’s Observer, and is part of a genre of articles in which an author tries to establish that anti-Semitism is somehow different from other forms of racism. This is in response to comments made by Jeremy Corbyn in regard to accusations of anti-Semitism within the Labour party, in which he condemned anti-Semitism along with other forms of racism and Islamophobia. He asserts:

To assert that antisemitism is unlike other racisms is not to claim a privilege for it. Hating a Jew is no worse than hating anyone else. But while many a prejudice is set off by particular circumstance – the rise in an immigrant population or a locally perceived threat – antisemitism is, as often as not, unprompted, exists outside time and place and doesn’t even require the presence of Jews to explain it. When Marlowe and Shakespeare responded to an appetite for anti-Jewish feeling in Elizabethan England, there had been no Jews in the country for 300 years. Jewishness, for its enemies, is as much an idea as it is anything else.

This is a common trope in recent explanations of anti-Semitism by those sympathetic to Israel; other forms of prejudice are explainable in terms of social pressures, while anti-Semitism is ‘primal’ and irrational; the idea of rationalising it is often denounced as anti-Semitic. But the suggestion that prejudice against anyone else is understandable while prejudice against Jews isn’t smacks of racism in itself.

Most of today’s minorities have been in Europe only a short time, mostly since the mid-20th century. Jews, Gypsies and, in some places, Muslims have been present a lot longer. When I was at school, terms related to gypsies and travellers were used as insults to mean dirty, unkempt, tramp-like. There was some anti-Semitic bullying and use of “Jew” to mean stingy, and we had a few Jews in that school (though they were not the only victims), but we had no Gypsies or Travellers of any kind. This was long before any of the recent controversies involving Travellers setting up sites without planning permission. So, prejudice against them in their absence is not unique to Jews. And as for the “Christian roots”, Christian churches stopped preaching this stuff after the Holocaust, and the churches in any case lost their congregations hand over fist in the same decades. So if someone’s really on an anti-Semitic rant and he’s under 70, he didn’t pick that up in a school RE lesson.

Another article in this genre appeared in the New Statesman in May this year, titled “The Longest Hatred”. The authors, Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, claim at one point:

Other groups – such as black people and gypsies – may suffer worse discrimination in European societies every day. Nobody, however, thinks that black people or gypsies run the world.

The thing is that claiming that a given minority has too much power is a feature of other forms of prejudice besides anti-Semitism. Claims that Asians are “taking over” whole areas of British cities have been a staple of racist discourse as long as Asians have lived here, with specific (false) claims about Muslims setting up “Shari’ah enclaves” or “no-go areas” having been aired on right-wing TV and in conservative newspapers and journals on many occasions since 9/11. Islamophobes have regularly made accusations about a “Eurabia”, a Europe in hock to its Arab minorities and Arab governments. IN 2005, anti-Muslim blogs made much of a document titled “The Project”, supposedly a plan for the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate Europe. This perpetrator of the 2011 Utoya massacre was influenced by these conspiracy theories.

Returning to Jacobson, he alleges that it is in the debate about Israel and Zionism “that all the ancient superstitions about Jews find a point of confluence”:

We dance around this subject, afraid to confront it full on. But it has to be addressed: partly because all that has been thought about Jews in the past has a home in what we think about Israel now and partly because it is axiomatic to Labour that Zionism is a racist ideology – from which it follows that anti-Zionism cannot be called racist; we will not fix antisemitism, in the Labour party or anywhere else, until we fix Israel. I don’t mean fix its problems, I mean fix the way we talk about it.

It certainly is not “axiomatic to Labour” that Zionism is racist. It is a belief held by some on the left of the party, and rejected by the Blairite wing, who were dominant until recently.

He later gives us a history lesson on Zionism:

Zionism originated as a liberation movement. It grew out of an urgent concern, voiced by 19th-century Jews and gentiles alike, for the safety and wellbeing of Jews, and concluded that only if they had their own country would the deracinated Jews of Europe and elsewhere, including the Middle East, be free from discrimination and persecution. To deny its necessity, whatever its subsequent disappointments and betrayals, is to deny history. Zionism took many forms, but neither conquest nor colonial expansionism was one of them. If anything, Zionism was marked by a dreamy, not to say utopian idealism. Jews would return to the land and work hand in hand with their Arab brethren in an amity that would benefit them both.

The problems is that whatever “dreamy idealism” about Jews and Arabs living together in friendship was present in early Zionism was largely absent by the time the state of Israel was set up, and is certainly so now. There was an unmistakeably colonial attitude; it was seen as imperative that the Jews be given a homeland, but that Europeans were not to pay the price for it despite being their main persecutors; it was easier to force a population of colonial subjects to pay instead. Consider that the British had previously offered the Zionists a chunk of Africa, which they rejected; Arthur Balfour later wrote, “in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country”.

He then claims, as he has in previous articles, that the Holocaust vindicated Zionism:

Not all Jews believed it would work. The world didn’t need another nationalism, internationalists argued. True, Jews had suffered at the hands of everybody else’s and it was bad luck on them if lifeboats were to be declared illegitimate just as it was their turn to jump, but history can be cruel. It got a little crueller later and many a critic of Zionism was forced to eat his words when the death camps emptied.

But the problem with Zionism — that it required the displacement or domination of the people already living in Palestine — did not change when the camps emptied. There is no way of explaining why the Palestinians should suffer to relieve the Jews of other people’s persecution without resorting to racism or to typical colonial rhetoric, such as calling the Palestinians “squatters” despite the Jews having been absent from the land by 1948 longer than most modern nations, including most of the nations of Europe, have occupied theirs.

What distinguishes anti-Semitism nowadays from almost every other type of hate is how mild it is: in the four months since the Brexit referendum in particular, people of every visible minority have faced open hostility, including violence and in at least one case murder, in the street from people telling them it’s “time to go home now” and have become afraid to talk in their own languages. Despite most British Jews also having originated from the same parts of Europe (albeit much earlier), I have not heard of anyone suggesting that they go ‘home’ — probably because they lost their accent decades ago and look and sound like any other white English people. Claims of anti-Semitism generally focus on words, things they claim hurt their feelings, often directed at public figures and often in response to well-jusitifed condemnation of the state of Israel and its oppression of the native people, and to justifications of it by fellow travellers, often Jews, in this country. Ask any Zionist how they would remedy that oppression, and you will generally find that they blame the Palestinians, despite the Israelis having the upper hand. In my experience, Palestinian rights activists are more measured in their use of language than any other group campaigning against injustice that I can think of, and are quick to disassociate themselves from anti-Semites, even if they are Jewish; the racism I’ve read on pro-Israel blogs in English over the years is sickening. They are not so scrupulous about who they take as allies.

A Facebook status by Naz Shah, posted 5th August 2014, showing a map of the USA with Israel superimposed in the middle, with a list of reasons why Israel should be relocated there.Anti-Semitism has become a “third rail”, an issue that can burn anyone who touches it with long-lasting consequences, in a way that other forms of hate that more commonly involve violence have not. Mainstream parties, particularly Labour, have worked to reinforce this situation while not adequately opposing other forms of hate. For example, the Labour MP Naz Shah can be suspended from the Labour party for circulating a meme (before she became an MP) that suggested that Israel be relocated to the USA while there are Israeli politicians who openly debate expelling all the Palestinians and Zionists are commonly heard claiming that Arabs have all the land from Morocco to the Gulf while the Jews ‘only’ claim Israel; meanwhile, an MP who runs a dirty campaign against a Muslim mayoral candidate, trading on suspicion and bigotry against Muslims, loses that election but keeps his seat in Parliament, and his party’s backing when he calls a by-election, and there is every sign that there will not be an alliance against him. He was supported by the right-wing media in that campaign.

People who hype anti-Semitism commonly remind us of the past. There’s a pamphlet which you can download, which someone on Twitter has been telling everyone to read whenever the issue of “left-wing anti-Semitism” is raised, titled “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” (PDF). The problem is that it has gone. It’s past. It’s not now. In the past, Jews were the most visible minority; now (and indeed for the past 50 years), they are not, and visible minorities are visible because of their colour, religious dress or foreign languages or accent. In the past, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza because of threats from neighbouring Arab states; now, it has driven native Palestinians off large sections of that territory to make way for settlements, allows a petty state in parts of it and continues to oppress and kill Palestinians throughout, while the Arab states made peace decades ago. In the past, anti-Semitism was the most violent hatred in Europe; today, it isn’t.

There are good reasons why anti-Semitism should not be treated with especial seriousness compared to other forms of racism that are present today. I am not suggesting that we should tolerate violence against Jews, or people openly peddling baseless claims of widespread Jewish conspiracies such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But neither should we punish those who don’t show the indulgence to a foreign power and contempt for its oppressed subjects that its supporters demand, or who advocate the rights of the Palestinians to first-class citizenship throughout their land. That’s not racism. There is serious and violent racism afoot in this country and if you’re condemning “anti-Semitism” over something somebody said about Israel, you’re not fighting it.

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Heathrow: No free ride for Zac Goldsmith

25 October, 2016 - 22:39

A village green in Harmondsworth behind which is a church; to the left is a pub, the Five Bells, and an old house is to the right. Cars are parked on roads outside the pub and house and a yellow litter bin is in the foreground.Today the government announced its preferred option for airport expansion in the south-east of England, and as had been expected, that was a third runway at Heathrow in west London. The other main option had been a second runway at Gatwick, to the south of London. This does not (contrary to the BBC’s report) mean that the plans have been approved, which means it will get built; there still has to be a debate in Parliament (where there may well be a free vote) and there are likely to be legal challenges. The Heathrow plan has long been opposed by Boris Johnson, currently foreign secretary, who represents Uxbridge which is in the same borough as most of the airport (Hillingdon), and Zac Goldsmith, who represents Richmond Park constituency to the south-east of the existing airport, parts of which suffer severely from noise from low-flying planes (having visited friends in nearby Isleworth, I know how disruptive this can be), and has ‘resigned’ in protest, triggering a by-election in which he intends to stand.

I’m against airport expansion in general; we already have four large airports surrounding London and we do not have as much land to spare as other large cities in Europe. On land grounds alone, Gatwick looked ideal, as there was already a strip of land to the south of the existing airport which could be used, and as it runs east to west, it will not result in significant noise blight nearby (the major towns in the area, Horley and Crawley, are to the north and south). It has better rail links than Heathrow, which has a slow Tube line and a branch line which only leads into London; Gatwick has fast rail links to both the City and West End, is served by Thameslink and a link to Reading, and the link to the West Coast Main Line could be reinstated if there was the political will. However, its road links are poorer; the road route to Gatwick from almost anywhere in the country passes via Heathrow. If Gatwick were extended, congestion on the southern and western parts of the M25 would increase, likely resulting in a need for another motorway link such as the long-abandoned ‘M31’ scheme. Pressure would also build to relieve congestion at the Dartford Tunnel, which already suffers huge tailbacks.

However, the Heathrow plan will extend the airport west of the M25, require the demolition of much of Harmondsworth village and the whole of Longford, on the north-western edge of the airport currently, and its flight path to the east will pass directly over the villages of Sipson and Harlington; it will require the demolition of a lot of airport-related industrial premises and require the demolition or rerouting of several major roads, including the A4. Quite apart from the carbon emissions, which will increase when the three runways are used to capacity (if one does not believe the promises of night-time flight bans, fewer delays and circumnavigations of the airport by planes that cannot land, and so on), the new runway will increase the area of London blighted by aircraft noise by a third.

The decision has led to the ‘resignation’ of Zac Goldsmith, triggering a by-election in his Richmond Park constituency, which includes part of Kingston where I live (I live in the Kingston and Surbiton constituency, represented by James Berry). Goldsmith was previously editor of the Ecologist and won the seat from the Lib Dems in 2010; they had previously held it since 1997 (Jenny Tonge until 2005, then Susan Kramer). He had a reputation as a progressive “green Tory” until he stood for mayor of London this year, during which he relied on Lynton Crosby to smear his Labour opponent, Sadiq Khan, with baseless stories of association with Muslim extremists, as well as courting Hindu and Sikh voters with anti-Muslim appeals.

On previous occasions where the sitting MP has triggered a by-election as a protest (e.g. Haltemprice and Howden in 2008), the main opposition parties have not fielded candidates. As this MP has a record of running campaigns based on bigotry, he should not be allowed a free ride. The Lib Dems have opposed the expansion of Heathrow airport for years and have the best chance of taking it from the Tories; this was one of their strongholds for years and they should field a strong candidate. The opportunity should not be lost to erase this stain.

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A waste of a life

22 October, 2016 - 23:29

Nicky Reilly with a bloodied face, being led away by two police officers, one male (off picture) and one female, after the 2008 Exeter bomb blastLast Wednesday, Nicky Reilly, who attempted to blow up a restaurant in Exeter with a home-made bomb which exploded in the toilet, injuring only himself, died in Manchester prison (otherwise known as Strangeways) where he was serving a life sentence for the attack, having been recently been moved from the Broadmoor secure hospital in Berkshire. The circumstances of his death have not been revealed, but we can assume it was not murder as this would have been made public. According to local press reports, Reilly converted to Islam at age 16 and was, according to his mother, a “peaceful follower of Islam” for several years before he was radicalised over a period of weeks in his early 20s by two so-called friends believed to have been in Pakistan and changed his name to Mohammad Abdul-Aziz Rashid Said-Alim, supposedly in reference to the 9/11 attackers (although all but the last are very common Muslim names); the two men apparently went through every last detail to make sure he got it ‘right’, which he of course didn’t.

I never had any contact with Reilly, so I don’t know how he presented to those he chatted to online and those he met in the kebab shop who encouraged him to carry out the bombing, but he had Asperger’s syndrome (note: that is not a condition people ‘suffer’ from) and was reported to have an IQ of 83, and I think it unlikely that they were entirely unaware of his impairments; he had been in contact with mental health services since the age of nine because of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and multiple suicide attempts and had been sectioned after one such attempt, and had had a difficult school and family life as a child. People in his condition are easy prey for various types of exploitation; besides the well-documented “mate crimes” in which people pretend to be friends to an individual with learning disabilities and then abuse or even kill them, there are cases of criminals using their eagerness to please others, their need for friendship and approval, to induce or coerce them into helping with criminal activities (e.g. letting their flat be used to store drugs). Whoever encouraged him to carry out the bombing played on his vulnerabilities.

I thought at the time that his sentence was unduly harsh, given his fragile mental state and the fact that he was not part of any major terrorist organisation, the device was crude and the bombing did not injure, let alone kill, anyone. The starting point for a tariff (that is, the minimum amount of time that must be served in prison) for an actual murder, a deliberate act in which someone was killed, is 12 years; his was 18 years. This was three years longer than that received by Roshonara Choudary, a young woman not thought to have learning difficulties, for stabbing the MP Stephen Timms in May 2010, two years later. Such inconsistencies are not uncommon in English sentencing for serious crimes; consider the fact that Adam Johnson, a footballer, received six years for sexual acts (not intercourse) with a 15-year-old girl, while Jeremy Forrest, a teacher, received a five-year sentence for running off to France with a 15-year-old girl who was his pupil and, as he later admitted, having sex with her. Much as with the sentences passed during the 2011 riots, often savagely harsh in response to trivial thefts that did not involve violence, the judge appears to have ignored usual mitigating factors (using his clean record against him, for example) and his disability.

Since we do not know the cause of his death other than that it was not murder, there is a distinct possibility that it was suicide. Reilly had recently been transferred from Broadmoor hospital, where his mother had said he had been treated very well (and where she had been allowed to see his room, very rare now even in low-security units for people with learning disabilities), to HMP Manchester, formerly Strangeways, which a recent inspection (PDF) had noted was overcrowded, where black, minority-ethnic and Muslim prisoners were much more negative about their relations with staff than other prisoners, and facilities for prisoners with disabilities were inadequate. The transfer may have been in response to his and another Muslim patient’s attack on a member of staff in a dispute over changes to Muslim prayer arrangements; however, it seems odd to transfer a vulnerable patient to a far-away prison over an offence much less than the one that got him sent there. His learning disabilities had, after all, not changed. It would also not be the first time a learning disabled offender was housed among a general prison population, male or female, and such prisoners are common targets for bullies.

This was a tragic waste of a life, of course partly by Reilly himself but also by those who bullied him as a child, those who exploited him after he became Muslim and by those who punished him out of proportion to the effects and the background behind the crime, treating him as a competent and sophisticated terrorist when he was neither. His imprisonment or treatment should have been aimed at rehabilitating him to a purposeful life in the community well within 10 years, rather than keeping him locked up indefinitely and thereby destroying him. This should be the same for all offenders with learning disabilities who, alongside those with challenging behaviour that leads them into the mental health system, are being failed with lethal consequences.

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What is the real “education gap” in politics?

16 October, 2016 - 18:39

A front page from the Daily Mail with a lead to their editorial, proclaiming "Damn the unpatriotic Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people". Other headlines include "Full steam ahead for HS2", a plan for a high-speed railway across England, and a picture of Rod Stewart and his family.How the education gap is tearing politics apart | David Runciman | Politics | The Guardian

This was the Guardian’s “long read” Wednesday before last, and it explores how education levels are becoming a dividing line in politics, with the better-educated being more likely to vote for broadly liberal or left-wing parties while the less well-educated being more likely to vote rightwards (i.e. Republican in the USA, Tory or UKIP here). This has changed a lot since the early 1980s when the less well-educated were more likely to vote Labour, but that’s because Labour still represented unionised manual workers and degrees were only a possibility for either those from well-off families or those who benefited from selective education.

It mentions that there have been doubts about democracy itself going back to ancient Greek times, where Athens was (for a time) ruled by public meetings of citizens (which did not include women and slaves) and Plato, who envisaged an “aristocratic” state ruled by an élite of “philosopher kings”, condemned it:

For Plato, democracy suffered from the basic defect of putting decision-making in the hands of people who were not competent to decide. Politics was a skill – and most people were simply clueless. Worse, that made them prey for hucksters and demagogues who would promise the earth and get away with it. Democracy was fertile ground for fantasists with a taste for power. If you tell the people that up is down, and the people believe you, then who is going to let them know that they are wrong?

I read the Republic in sixth form and the theory is a bit more complicated than that. Plato did not only believe the masses were “clueless”, he believed that mankind could be divided into people with gold, silver and bronze souls; the first were to be trained to be philosophers, the second were for the army and civil service so as to enforce the rulings of the philosopher class, and the third were the rest of the population whose thoughts were dominated by “base instincts”; this class was allowed to own property, but had to support the two upper classes through their work. He identified five types of régimes, namely ‘aristocracy’ (the rule of philosopher kings), timocracy or timarchy (effectively military rule, as found in ancient Sparta), oligarchy (rule by merchants), democracy (rule by the masses) and tyranny (rule by a lawless dictator).

What this article doesn’t examine is the influence of the mass media in shaping public opinion. (It mentions ‘media’ only once, in regard to Donald Trump, and ‘social media’ two more times, and ‘press’ and ‘papers’ not at all.) Future critiques of modern democracy are surely not going to focus on the school- and college-based education of the populace as much as on where the public got its information from, namely the corporate mass media which prominently contained propaganda, often on the front page (with unbiased reporting reserved for unimportant stories several pages inside the paper, if it is present at all), which encourages mistrust of people who are different, people who can be seen as getting something for nothing, some wealthy or prestigious people (e.g. lawyers, commonly presented as parasites, and academics, commonly presented as thinking they know better than the target audience) but not others, and encourages people towards irrationality and fear on a wide range of issues from drugs to immigration and foreign policy.

I believe it’s irrelevant whether someone has a degree or not; I have a degree in politics and history, but I took that in the 1990s and it wasn’t an in-depth examination of the politics of the time, and of course it could not examine the politics of future times. Schools should teach young people the basics of the British constitution, including the European institutions we belong to such as the Council of Europe and the EU so that people are not easily swayed by misinformation (e.g. linking the European Convention on Human Rights and the Court that rules on it with the EU, when in fact they are part of the Council of Europe). Only a tiny minority who came of age before the 1990s have degrees (including those with professional qualifications, some of which were later re-classified as degrees), and political education is not a mandatory part of any degree other than those related to politics.

It’s hugely insulting, and wrong, to suggest that people without degrees necessarily lack critical awareness or are ‘sheeple’. Neither of my parents had degrees when I was a child, but they were still able to see through media propaganda, most of which was pro-Thatcher and more generally pro-Tory then. Others are more credulous, particularly when what is claimed in a newspaper appears to match what they see or what their friends tell them they see (e.g. immigrants taking jobs or council houses), and people believe that “newspapers full of propaganda” are a thing you find in dictatorships, not democracies, and that newspapers do not simply make things up, which they in fact do, in both details and whole stories as revealed during the Leveson inquiry. And it is often observed that emotion matters more than reason in politics, as if this were a fact of life rather than the consequence of manipulation and propaganda.

The real “education gap” is between those able and willing to think critically, to educate themselves about politics and the issues involved, and those willing to believe propaganda and gossip. There are people with degrees in both groups and those without, although the Right currently fosters and trades on resentment and a sense of persecution among those without. There is no way of identifying who falls into which group without a test which could be manipulated to discriminate against some ethnic or class-based group, so the only way to stop democracy degenerating into tyranny — if not outright tyranny, then certainly the tyranny of the unthinking majority — is to target the corporations which manipulate and fabricate “public opinion” with stiff laws that require the segregation of opinion and fact, especially in prominent parts of newspapers, and punish distortions and untruths, not just personal libels. Policy and politics should not be dictated by what sells papers, as it is obvious that what sells papers is titillation and the confirmation of prejudice.

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Cure or accommodate? It’s not an either-or

13 October, 2016 - 23:01

A picture of a woman in a wheelchair using a ramp to board a red London busYesterday I saw an advert for a free public lecture at the University of Melbourne (won’t be going; bit too far for me to travel) on the subject “Persons with Disabilities: Cure or Accommodate?” (HT: Carly Findlay). Part of the advertising blurb for the event reads:

“Where should scarce governmental resources be channelled: to improving function and finding cures or making reasonable adjustments to ensure persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in society?”

It then says that “it is the voices of people with disabilities themselves that must guide this debate” and three of the speakers have a disability (blindness in two cases, deafness in one); the other two are an audiologist, who runs an institution that fits cochlear implants, and a psychiatrist. Including a panel member with another type of impairment — say, a wheelchair user, or someone with a chronic illness — would make the panel rather more representative of the disabled community.

I’m not familiar with the Australian disability scene beyond a few big names (e.g. Stella Young) or with the five speakers named, so this event could prove to be very positive. However, the synopsis reflects some quite disturbing attitudes towards the matter of disability accommodation. One is that it’s about how to spend “scarce” resources; i.e. if you want accommodations, you will be spending other people’s money or depriving someone else of something. Living in the UK, I remember how the previous government justified cutting benefits and social care that allowed disabled people mobility and dignity (as well as a host of other public services, such as libraries) on the grounds that “the cupboard was bare” after the 2008 crash and the Labour government’s bailouts, yet when it came to repairing damage caused by the 2013/14 floods in parts of the country that had voted for the two coalition parties — when “the effluent hit the affluent” as commentators put it at the time — David Cameron suddenly boasted that “we’re a rich country; we can afford it”. Resources often aren’t as scarce as is made out, and the root of the scarcity is often people’s reluctance to pay their taxes.

The other is that “cure or accommodation” is an either-or, or a choice at all in most cases. For the vast majority of disabled people, it is not a choice; there simply is no ‘cure’, although this term is not even accurate as they are not ill. It has proven that much easier to find ways of eliminating pathogens or growths that cause loss of life or ongoing sickness than to repair or replace body parts that are damaged or missing. The cochlear implant is one important success story, but it cannot remedy all forms of deafness. Bionic eyes (the blind woman on the Melbourne panel has one) are in an early stage of development, but even they would not be able to remedy blindness which is neurological. Corneas can be transplanted, but they can also be rejected. It’s possible, in some cases, to implant electrodes into the spinal cord to allow a paraplegic to stand up, but that’s only a small return of function. Research into a cure for spinal cord injury progresses slowly, and seems to have modest goals in terms of what function it can restore, especially to someone with a high-level injury. The majority of impairments just have to be lived with.

On top of this, not all disabled people want to be cured, or should be expected to take whatever ‘cure’ is presented to them. Some deaf people cannot adjust to a cochlear implant; some blind people have forgotten what seeing is like, what colours and people look like (and may not know, for example, what their spouse looks like). They may have tried an operation to remedy their impairment in the past, perhaps more than once, and found that it failed, and do not want to go through it all again with the risk of having to re-adjust to, say, being blind all over again. The ‘cure’ may well be surgical, requiring a lengthy recovery (and the risks inherent in general anaesthetic), and cause an enormous amount of pain. It may have side effects that are worse than the condition they were meant to remedy. And some purported cures are not cures at all, but ineffective or harmful potions peddled by quacks and con men (bleach and anti-androgens for autism spring to mind). It’s not fair to expect anyone to submit themselves to pain and risk so as to save others some degree of expense, or hassle, or being disturbed by looking at them.

So, the question of “cure or accommodate” does not really arise. If you are called upon to accommodate someone who is disabled by providing some sort of assistive technology, or a modification to a building, or perhaps a member of staff to interpret or otherwise assist someone, or to educate your staff so as to change their behaviour or attitudes regarding disability, you are almost certainly not in a position to cure their impairment. The choice is between accommodation and exclusion. The resources that might be used for this are a fraction of the cost of research into cures, which requires manpower (and highly-paid manpower at that), laboratory time, tests, the upkeep of all the buildings used, and so on, over a period of years, during which many people might have lost out on education or on employment opportunities, or may have spent the time confined in an institution because someone preferred “researching a cure” to facilitating them having a life in the community, and the research might not bear fruit anyway. Research also attracts private funding from trusts and individuals, so it need not take away resources that could be used to benefit disabled people now. Between certain gain in the short, medium and long terms and uncertain long-term gain (accompanied by certain losses for those affected), if it’s really a competition for resources, there’s just no contest.

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