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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Yes, we need our hands-free phones.

18 August, 2019 - 22:20
A two-lane dual carriageway approaching a roundabout with a lay-by with two trucks, a van and a snack wagon parked in it leaving almost no space. There are trees to the left of the lay-by.A lay-by outside Bristol: we will be needing a lot more of these if we will need to stop to take any phone call. (Image by Neil Owen.)

Last week it was reported that the UK Parliament’s transport select committee (a committee of MPs drawn proportionally from each party with seats in the Commons) had recommended that consideration be given to the idea of banning the use of mobile phones at the wheel with or without a hands-free kit (which usually means connected with Bluetooth to a driver’s GPS or car stereo). It is already illegal to hold a mobile phone while at the wheel and it carries an automatic six penalty points (twelve points usually equals a year’s ban), which is generally considered reasonable given that using a hand-held phone while in motion can cause a very serious accident, especially when the driver is driving a truck, although the same cannot be said for using one when stopped at traffic lights or by the side of the road with the handbrake on. The ‘convenience’ of using a hand-held phone does not outweigh the risks, which is why they were banned in 2003. According to Politics Home, ministers said that “they accepted such a move would pose ‘practical challenges’, but added that ‘just because something is difficult this does not mean that we should not do it’”, the same idiotic logic being applied to no-deal Brexit right now. However, we really do need our hands-frees, particularly those of us who drive for a living.

The majority of new cars sold in the UK now, and a fair number of the newer trucks, have hands-free systems built into the stereos. We use these for all sorts of things: our employers or customers call us to tell us that a job has been cancelled, delayed or brought forward, or to warn us of some accident or delay on the route we may be going or that there is some other change to our schedule. We use them to call customers (or our employers) and tell them that we are delayed, or to ask for exact directions about how to get to their premises or into them. Sometimes we have to ring our families to tell them we’re on the way home, or have been delayed, or to ask them to get something out of the freezer or something similar. Some of us have to keep in touch with job agencies, and if we cannot take the call until the next stopping place, there’s a good chance we will lose the job. We also use them to notify the police of hazards such as stationary cars on running lanes of ‘smart’ motorways. There often is no convenient stopping place; while many main roads have lay-bys, motorways often have no service areas for 30 or 40 miles (sometimes, on a given route, it can be much further than that) and that means 30 minutes or an hour or more of driving. Being able to take a voice call using a hands-free phone can save us a very long wasted journey and a lot of wasted fuel, and money.

I am sceptical of claims from road safety lobbyists that using a hands-free phone is no safer than holding the phone in one’s hand; if anything, this may be because the risks of holding the phone to one’s ear with one’s hand while steering the car along a straight stretch of road with the other are overstated (it’s significant that radios were not banned when phones were) or that some kits (particularly older ones) are unreliable and awkward. What may cause a distraction is if the driver is too wrapped up in his conversation to pay proper attention to the road, or if he turns to read papers on his passenger seat (or shuffle them), but this does not account for the majority of phone calls taken with a hands-free and there a host of other in-car distractions, such as sat-navs (specifically their reprogramming), the stereo, passengers (who aren’t always mindful of a driver’s need to concentrate, especially when they are children), the scenery or things going on in the street and even the dashboard (such as when the driver has their eyes glued to the speedometer to avoid exceeding the speed limit when approaching a camera mounted on a hill), and none of the devices mentioned in this list are facing a ban. In my experience, there is often nowhere in many modern vehicles to mount a phone and a sat-nav securely within touching distance; sat-nav mounts are not standardised. Fixing these issues would mean some collaboration within both the motor and device industries but it would reduce the distraction caused by an insecurely-mounted device, or one at more than arm’s length, quite considerably.

Hands-free systems are built into cars for a reason: because people need to communicate while at the wheel, and they need to do so with their hands on the wheel. Safety campaigners in general want to restrict people’s freedom and to use legislation to reduce risk, but risk is a fact of life when we are dependent on large metal boxes that can do 30mph in any town environment and 50 or 60mph elsewhere. Unless the government proposes to install lay-bys on every major road, including every motorway, every half a mile or so, which would be prohibitively expensive, and allowing drivers to stop pretty much anywhere in towns, which would cause a lot of congestion, there is simply no way anyone who drives for a living can do without a means of communication with home or work. Driving while distracted is already an offence, and causing an accident while distracted a worse one, and the government should be emphasising these facts, encouraging drivers to keep conversations short and snappy and to save the conference or heart-to-heart until later.

Image source: Neil Owen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence.

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Equality feels like oppression

17 August, 2019 - 22:24
A clear plastic box of seedless white grapes, with the origin shown as Spain.Spanish grapes … will be a lot less plentiful after Brexit, like much of the food we eat.

There is a saying in social justice circles that when you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Earlier this week I saw a thread on Twitter which demonstrates this experience very nicely. It was about the prospect of a unity government, potentially led by Jeremy Corbyn (who has been anti-EEC and anti-EU in the past but opposes a “no deal” Brexit) to ensure that the Tories cannot lead the country out of the EU with no deal at the end of October by default, by continuing to reject the last government’s deal and failing to reach a new one (which the EU have said repeatedly that there will not be). A no-deal Brexit will mean tariffs on all goods entering the country, including the foodstuffs we buy in the shops daily which is produced in other European countries, as well as major delays at all cross-Channel ports leading to shortages of food, medicine and other products. This would be a disaster for everyone, and a matter of life or death for some.

Tom Doran, self-professed “friend of the Jews”, was the author of the thread. He begins:

Nobody who is not extremely rich could regard something like this as less of a disaster than Jeremy Corbyn becoming PM, especially if he is not leading a majority Labour government (and even if he is, it will not be a majority Corbynite government, as there is not a Corbynite majority in the parliamentary party) but a coalition designed to renegotiate Brexit or oversee a second referendum.

“Nobody thinks it’d mean gas chambers”? Nobody seriously suggests Jews will come to any physical harm under any Labour government, and Corbyn’s own record in serving his Jewish constituents attests to this.

The fact is that Boris Johnson, whose racist attitudes (as well as his lackadaisical attitude to the truth, decency to other people including his family and to the responsibilities of public office) have been expressed again and again in various public fora, is prime minister and has been promoted again and again and allowed by the Tory party access to a parliamentary seat, cabinet positions, the mayoralty of London and finally the keys of 10 Downing Street itself. Jeremy Corbyn’s offending is much less (in personal terms, approving of a mural with anti-Semitic overtones that are noticeable only by the educated) and many of the accusations against his supporters are spurious or even malicious. Boris Johnson’s prejudices clearly target ordinary people of colour, Muslims and others; the accusations of anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party are targeted at elites and the state of Israel on account of gross and unashamed human rights transgressions, not ordinary Jews living in this country.

His second paragraph (which I suspect some Jews will not thank him for) demonstrates what this is all about: the mainstream Jewish establishment has the ear of powerful people and they fear losing it and being treated like any other group of people in society. As the threat of violence and vandalism against Jewish schools and synagogues comes not from the Left but the Far Right, which Corbyn condemns, it is inconceivable that the government will attempt to restrict the deployment of security at these places. As for ‘slander’ against Israel, the facts are enough. Calling the oppression of the Palestinian natives ethnic cleansing or genocide is (at the moment) inaccurate, but in no other context is this kind of language deemed to be racist even when it is not quite accurate. It will be a positive change for the truth to be spoken about Israel by an influential western government and for them not to receive the over-indulgent treatment they get now.

When other minorities are attacked for their ethnicity or faith, they have never been able to be confident that their government stands with them: what we get are half-hearted condemnations and suggestions of how the victim or their community was to blame and what they should do to satisfy those who attacked them. We have experienced attacks from the front pages of newspapers, from political platforms, and from hooligans in the street; our people are treated with suspicion and have been subject to infiltration and spying by education and health workers on Prevent and anti-FGM pretexts.

But I’m not saying all minorities should be treated badly. I have every confidence that a left-wing Labour government will be less tolerant of hate or hostility towards any minority. While the Far Right do attack Jews for their ethnicity and various militant atheists and fanatics of various religions attack them for their faith, there is no suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn in number 10 would tolerate any violence against Jews or change the situation regarding customs like no-stun slaughtering or circumcision (both under attack from different quarters who have a “religion is no excuse” attitude). Every minority has much to fear from the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, because a burgeoning far-right movement will have vastly greater numbers of recruits if there are job losses, food shortages and other privations resulting from economic isolation and people will be looking for someone to blame other than themselves.

If we accept that Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour party under his leadership is racist, we have the choice of a racist who is seeking to drag the country into the abyss and one who intends to stop him doing this. The insistence (particularly by the Lib Dem leadership, who have always traded on their ‘implacable’ opposition to Brexit) on avoiding coalescing with Corbyn on those grounds would be understandable if there was not already a racist in 10 Downing Street. The only conclusion I can reach is that certain minorities are considered more deserving of racist treatment than others and that these tend to be the less white and less anglicised ones. People believe they are taking an anti-racist stance when actually they are taking a racist one, and one that threatens disaster for everyone who is not very rich and does not have an escape route.

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How the myth of ‘Eurabia’ went mainstream

16 August, 2019 - 22:29
Picture of an elderly white woman with grey hair wearing a blue floral blouse under a white jacket with black edging, holding a black microphone in her hand.Gisele “Bat Ye’or” Littman

The myth of Eurabia: how a far-right conspiracy theory went mainstream by Andrew Brown

A “long read” in today’s Guardian, about the far-right myth of “Eurabia”, that Europe’s leaders have caved in to Muslims left, right and centre for money and favours, tracing its origins from the witterings of Gisele “Bat Ye’or” Littman (right) to the war-blogs of post-9/11 America to the modern-day far right, EDL and other extremist organisations. As this blog in its early days spent a lot of time rebutting false claims and myths about Islam and Muslims that were spread on those blogs, this article was an interesting trip down memory lane but also emphasises how the theories that were incubated on these blogs have fuelled far-right violence, including the 2011 Utoya massacre whose perpetrator’s manifesto quoted liberally from some of these bloggers as well as right-wing mainstream media figures.

A small inaccuracy: Brown notes that Charles Johnson, the owner of Little Green Footballs, “excommunicated most of his followers in 2010 because of their increasing closeness to parties of western Europe that he regarded as being descended from fascists … Johnson was a genuine philosemite, who could not forgive the taint of antisemitism”. As I recall, the first signs of a split between Johnson and his right-wing followers came with the Terri Schiavo affair, in which some of his former conservative allies took the side of Terri Schiavo’s family who were using the courts to keep her alive following her catastrophic brain damage, while Johnson believed that it was right to switch her life support off. Johnson supported Barack Obama in 2008 which must have alienated a fair number of the Islamophobic right-wing supporters, some of whom were conservative Jewish Zionists. Johnson himself was a liberal before 9/11 and went back to being one before GW Bush was out of office. He had simply changed his mind and, although I’ve never followed him, the few times I’ve seen his tweets retweeted, his politics now seem to bear no resemblance to the attitudes he (let alone the commenters on his blog) displayed in the few years after 9/11.

But it was also interesting to read about how exciting blogs were back in the early 2000s, before social media ruined everything:

Nowadays, when Facebook effortlessly spreads disinformation around the world, it is difficult to recapture the sense of revelation, and of belonging, that once accompanied the discovery of a new blog. The cramped but, to its adherents, strangely comforting thought world of the counter-jihad blogs turned politics into a gigantic online game.

Blogs were heavily interlinked and authors formed communities, and people went from commenting below the line on others’ blogs to starting their own and rather than a formal system of online ‘friends’, people would keep in touch using old-fashioned email. Very many, of course, did not last; some were taken down and others were abandoned, but it was always nice to get to know someone through their blog or to get involved in debates. These days, much online discussion is through Twitter or other social media and few people make the effort to set out an argument or story in an article; they just write a snappy sentence or two. We had a thriving Muslim blogging scene, but few of those blogs survive and a few of the most prominent authors have dropped out of view entirely and in some cases left Islam.

One thing this article could have mentioned, however, was the bizarreness of the central claim of ‘Eurabia’, that Europe was being taken over by Muslims. The ‘evidence’ was every time any organisation made any concession to Muslim sensibilities whether it was a public body or a commercial organisation seeking to please paying customers. In fact, in most of Europe, legislation targeting Muslim customs was being introduced in almost every country in mainland Europe, particularly northern and central Europe, during the same period even as some of those countries were feted for opposing the war in Iraq; in particular, the campaign of harassment against girls and women in France who wear the hijab was stepped up with legislation banning it in schools being passed (after a ‘debate’ in which Muslim voices were shouted down) in 2004 and further laws, targeting women doing such things as accompanying their children on school trips and wearing the niqaab in the street, have followed. There have been laws banning halal slaughter and threats to ban male circumcision, as well as witch-hunts against immigrant populations (mainly African Muslims) suspected of continuing the practice of female circumcision or genital mutilation. Europe was for the most part a much more hostile place for Muslims than the United States was in the 2000s; the claim of Muslim ‘submission’ to Islam struck many of us as a sick joke, and a lie believed in a closed circle because it was politically convenient.

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Brexit and how ignorance has become a ‘virtue’

12 August, 2019 - 21:04

Over the weekend, we were reminded of how far Tory Brexiteers were willing to go to make sure we leave the EU, come what may: an article from the London Evening Standard from last November (shared by people, including me, without noticing the date) in which Matt Hancock, then health secretary, refused to guarantee that nobody would die as a result of medicine shortages stemming from a no-deal Brexit, merely that “we need to make sure that everybody does what’s necessary if there is no deal to have the unhindered flow of medicines that people need”. There is already evidence that medicine supplies are drying up and that people are suffering, even if not (yet) dying: Dan White, whose daughter Emily has muscular dystrophy and is a wheelchair user, has reported on Twitter that he has been unable to get hold of her medication this past week because of supply problems caused by panic buying. His first tweet attracted hostile responses from Brexit supporters accusing him of trying to scare the public, as if the collapsing value of the pound would not do that anyway. (Dan White has a website and there is an article there on what the EU has done for disabled people.)

 Those who have to live with Brexit don't want to!". He is holding a microphone and standing against a red background with white writing (too little of which can be seen to know what it says) on it.Femi Olowale

This morning, on the ITV morning talk show Good Morning Britain, the occasional journalist and talk show host Richard Madeley interviewed Femi Olowole who suggested that it would not be ‘moral’ to include leaving with no deal on any future referendum ballot “given what it would do to Northern Ireland” as the chief of police there had said it would be a definite security risk. Madeley said “he’s not a voter” and insisted it would be a “one-sided referendum” to ask people to choose between a deal which many people believe does not really take us out of the EU, because we would still be in the Customs Union, and remaining in. Olowole kept telling him that the Customs Union was not the EU, which it is not, and Madeley kept demanding “why do you think that so many people who wanted to leave are against the deal?”, which is a dubious question as many of the people who were always against Brexit, especially those outside the Tory parliamentary party, also opposed the deal, and then insisted that the majority of people who wanted to leave were against the deal for that reason and told him, “sorry, there’s the maths”.

Madeley was wrong on all counts: the chief of police in Northern Ireland is, of course, a voter; we can indeed remain in the Customs Union and leave the EU, as there are countries already in it but outside the EU, and a mere majority of people who voted to leave, even if his claim is accurate, almost certainly means a minority of the electorate as leave voters accounted for just under 52%. The idea that the proportion of the electorate which would support leaving without a deal with all that would mean for the economy, our way of life, the health service, the social care sector, the situation in Northern Ireland or even the status of Scotland, comes to anything like 50% is preposterous and it is seriously being considered only because the Tories have failed to come up with anything better or to agree on what their own team managed to negotiate. Gisela Stuart, the former Labour MP who supported the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, tells us in today’s Guardian that countenancing a no-deal exit on 31st October is not “extremist”, but it is. It would be a stupid, hugely destructive decision, and not one that was on the table when we were voting in 2016 when a number of senior Vote Leave figures, such as Daniel Hannan, claimed that we would retain our membership of the Single Market and Norway was repeatedly mentioned as a model.

Brexiteers keep waving the referendum result in our faces every time we question the wisdom of leaving the EU, dismissing ‘experts’ as if ignorance was a virtue. We see the same from Gisela Stuart, a politician of German origin who has lived in the UK since the 1970s, having taken advantage of rules that allowed EEC and then EU nationals to live, study and work in each others’ countries, an advantage she seeks to deny anyone who might want to follow in her footsteps: “Leave had a clear majority on a high turnout”, she reminds us. Except that 51.8% is not that clear a majority; in a binary referendum (as opposed to an election in which multiple candidates stand), it’s a wafer-thin one that in many democratic systems would not be enough to enact major change, and given what is now known about the overspending of the Leave campaign, its validity is, to say the least, dubious. Had a threshold been set of, say, 60%, we could have spent the last three years debating why, and what could be done to fix the way we engage with Europe and to readjust our economy so that people across whole areas of the country did not (justly) feel left behind. A slight majority in favour of leaving is not a strong mandate for leaving without a deal; it’s a mandate for a compromise, in which we leave, but leave the door open, if possible.

I’m not under any illusions that the “will of the people” has any bearing on the Tories’ position on leaving the EU without a deal. This is all about them and their lust for power: they and their media want to be untrammelled by European standards, the same reason for which they seek to extract Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights, despite this being of partly British heritage (much as, of course, is almost all the EU law they dislike). This is why they seek to hurry the UK out of the door and why they fear a further referendum, in case an electorate better informed of both the consequences of leaving and of the character of many of our Brexiteer politicians, might vote differently. The referendum was more than three years ago; there was a general election only two years after the Tories won a majority in 2015, and the electorate changed their minds. Let’s not pretend that any mandate is eternal, and let us not entertain illusions about Europe’s negotiating position: we know and they know that leaving without a deal would hurt us — ordinary British people — more than them.

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What kind of violence is this again?

8 August, 2019 - 22:07
A Walmart and Sam's Club sign, under which are memorials to individuals murdered in the 3rd Aug 2019 massacre, consisting of their names, hearts, flowers and other materials. A woman holding red heart-shaped balloons has her hand on one of the memorials.Memorials to victims of the El Paso massacre

Every time there is a prominent mass shooting in the US (or elsewhere, but it’s usually the USA), you can bet that there will soon appear a white feminist with access to the mainstream media who pops up and attributes the killing to masculinity, male power or male violence, and last weekend’s massacre in El Paso, Texas, is no exception: in Tuesday’s Guardian, there was a piece by Suzanne Moore which, although it acknowledges that racism and America’s gun laws have something to do with it, brings it back to these feminist concerns:

The substitute for difficult and intersectional discussion is that everyone has to agree that being a man today is a very difficult and confusing state.

Spare me. The “crisis of masculinity” that we regularly address is an alibi. Masculinity is crisis. But it is also in power, something the middle-class men who complain they are unable to express themselves take for granted. …

Male violence – for this is the issue – is everywhere. In the US it is armed to the teeth. Sure, change the gun laws. That may be easier than changing a culture in which men express their feelings nonstop, most notably through death and destruction.

There are two things we must be clear about. One of these is that regular mass shootings happen in the USA because civilians can get ready access to automatic weapons. Almost no other country allows this; some allow the keeping of single-shot firearms, and in most cases they have to be kept secure, the owners have to have a legitimate purpose, and they have to have background checks to make sure they have no criminal record and are of sound mind. Because of this, a single incident like El Paso can claim as many victims in a few minutes as an entire city’s gun crime toll in the UK, Europe or Australia in several months. Second, a number of these massacres are clearly motivated by white supremacist ideology and the attackers have left manifestos making this clear. Very often they claim that their country, or western civilisation, is under attack from migrants (sometimes Muslims, in other times Mexicans as in this case) and nobody is doing anything about it. Some have a history of domestic violence (the Dayton attacker killed a member of his family and their friend before his other victims), but not all.

Of course, many mass shootings are perpetrated by lone men who have an axe to grind and want to be infamous because they do not have the talent to be famous, but we must distinguish the ones perpetrated by people with a declared ideological motive from these incidents. Often they draw ideological inspiration from mainstream political figures, often those who get regular exposure in the media (the Norwegian mass shooter cited Melanie Phillips, for example, among many others including fringe figures from the right-wing blogosphere of the Iraq war years). Many have a history of violence towards women; others have no prior record of violence at all but have radicalised themselves through a mixture of mainstream and online fringe media and chat forums. The perpetrator of the Dayton massacre last weekend was a known misogynist who was part of a ‘grindcore’ music scene that featured overtly misogynistic band titles and lyrics, but no such thing is known about either the Christchurch or El Paso attackers.

When such things happen, people of colour (and people in the ethnic or religious groups targeted by the attacker) will notice the whiteness and white supremacist ideology of the shooter; white women always seem to notice the maleness. I am not saying there is no place or time to debate the role of masculinity in such attacks, but just after a white man has killed 20 Mexicans in El Paso or 51 Muslims in mosques in Christchurch (or six in a mosque in Quebec) really is not it: white supremacism is a spectrum that runs from policies that reinforce white norms and demand ‘integration’ at the expense of an immigrant culture or a minority’s religion, to massacres such as these and even genocide, and different strands of white supremacism have plenty of female adherents and women promoting them in the media and in various parliaments. When the dead are of both sexes, to brand a racist or white supremacist terrorist attack as an act of “male violence” is a slur on the victims: it is to say that any of them could have done this sort of thing, that they have more in common with their murderer than with you, and it reminds readers of whatever problems of relations between men and women exist in their community, or stereotypes about such problems. It takes the focus off this situation and the victims and puts it onto the writer’s supposedly more deserving cause, and those affected by it.

So, let’s have no more ramblings about “male violence” by white women in the aftermath of racially-motivated massacres. It’s distasteful, it’s disrespectful, it’s victim blaming. Feminists usually don’t like victim blaming when the victims are women; do not do it, by linking them to their murderer, when the victims are men of a different race or religion to you and murdered because of it.

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Reality check for BBC’s Brexit reality check

7 August, 2019 - 17:08
A red car with a skeleton in the driving seat, holding a copy of the Kentish Express in its 'hand' with a picture of a queue of trucks and the headline "End this chaos!". Behind the car is a sign saying "Welcome to Kent, the garden of England".Welcome to Kent. (Image: M. Laxton)

Yesterday the BBC News website published a “reality check” feature on what might happen at Britain’s sea ports in the event of a no-deal Brexit this coming October (or any other time), which the present government now seems to regard as a likely default ‘option’. The scenarios include the use of long stretches of motorway, as well as a disused airfield at Manston in north-east Kent, as truck parks to cope with the delays caused by customs checks on all goods going in and out of the country. Parts of the M20 as well as shorter stretches of road near other ports (such as the old Ipswich to Felixstowe road, known as the “old A45” as it was bypassed before the A45 became the A14) are already used for “operation stack” in the event of strikes and other delays, but these arrangements are likely to become a permanent fixture. However, I can see a quite different problem emerging.

Read any edition of the UK’s transport industry press and you will come across a reference to the “driver shortage” fairly quickly: there aren’t enough drivers, and this is why British firms rely so heavily on Polish and other eastern European drivers or else they would not survive. (Complaints about the quality of British drivers are heard quite often; they are often accused of being prima donnas who will not drive a truck that is not absolutely perfect or do difficult jobs.) In my experience, there is in fact plenty of competition for jobs that are pleasant to do and get you home for dinner, or at least bedtime. The jobs that are going begging, that you can sometimes walk straight into off the street, are the ‘tramping’ jobs which require the driver to spend days at a time away from home, sleeping in the narrow bed behind the driver’s seat, in a service station, if you are lucky and your boss will pay the fee, or a lay-by next to a busy road. There is a reason they cannot find drivers for these jobs, regardless of the pay, and this is because they are shitty jobs. Many drivers like to be out of town and to see the country, but this is negated by constantly having to contend with poor or absent facilities.

Being stuck on motorway truck parks for possibly days on end is not going to be most drivers’ idea of a good job; given that a lot of the foreign drivers will leave, chasing better conditions and a warmer welcome in France and Germany, and new ones will not be allowed to replace them, the industry will have to try to recruit British drivers to do the same jobs, and they will have the same difficulty as recruiting drivers for tramping — possibly worse, because the Operation Stack parks are likely to have even fewer facilities and only basic ones such as portable toilets at that. Currently, there are few British drivers doing international trucking as it is; only a few British firms still run to the continent, mostly events firms that transport stage equipment, musical instruments etc for concerts. Many will have to pick up the slack and will have great difficulty doing so. In addition, long waits at these stack points will eat into drivers’ hours allowances and may well result in journeys not being completed. Perishable goods such as food and medicines will get priority, so trucks carrying other goods will have even longer to wait.

Other solutions will have to be found rather than simply having the same driver drive one truck from the UK to almost anywhere in Europe except the immediate areas near to the Channel. One is to use “ferry trailers” which are loaded onto a ferry on one side of the channel and picked up by another driver, driving another tractor unit, on the other side; local drivers will have to be employed to take the trailers from the waiting area (which could be at Manston airfield) to the ferry port and vice versa. This system is already used to transport goods between the UK and the Netherlands, where the ferry crossing is eight hours long rather than 90 minutes, but may need to be used on the Dover-Calais route as well if every consignment has to be customs checked. It may become more profitable to send large consignments between the UK and the continent using a shipping container than a truck; drivers simply pick these up from a port or rail terminal and do not have to worry about dealing with customs. Large companies will be able to have customs come to inspect goods on their sites, of course (and others will spring up to provide that service for smaller businesses across the country, as is the case with air freight which requires scanning), and trucks will travel with the load compartment sealed (again, like air freight), but it will be a huge bureaucratic overhead for industry and require extra training for drivers. This could be put in place in a couple of years (and we have had more than three years to prepare), but we have fewer than three months now.

The bottom line is that not only will there be huge delays, but goods will not get through. Drivers will hit hours limits, or the limits of their patience, in both the official waits or the traffic delays they cause, or refuse to take the jobs on in the first place. The only reason we are facing this possibility is the Tory government and media with a lust for power, behaving like a dog with a bone they will not let go of. There never was any good Brexit deal, but the no-deal scenario is a disaster. Preventing this must be the highest priority for any parliamentarian with the good of the country at heart; the greater good must come before what people have (narrowly) said they wanted, as the same people will not be so enthusiastic when they cannot get the ingredients for an evening meal, or when fuel doubles in price because the pound has collapsed.

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“Fake news” and the lay-offs at the Canary

5 August, 2019 - 23:17
A picture of a white T-shirt with a logo reading "Stop funding fake news" underneath a man in a two-tone beige/brown shirt holding a red flag in his handSome “Stop Funding Fake News” merchandise

Last week The Canary, a pro-Corbyn activist ‘news’ and comment site, announced that it was “leaving the gig economy”, reducing its staff to a core of seven full-time editors and writers (smaller than their current “leadership team” of nine) rather than the previous much larger number of freelancers, following a fall in advertising revenue that has been attributed to a campaign by “Stop Funding Fake News”, which has also targeted Evolve Politics and three far-right news/comment sites, Politicalite, Rebel Media and Westmonster. The Canary has appealed to readers to donate so as to keep the site alive although they are still carrying advertisements (although there are still advertisements on the site today, including one from a major insurance company). Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the site’s founder, has claimed in an email to readers that her site has been vulnerable to attacks from “political Zionists”, which has been seized upon as proof that it is run by cranks and racists after all. But the claim may have some truth to it.

I’m not an admirer of the Canary; on this blog I’ve previously rebutted a false story they ran claiming that Manchester might join Liverpool in “banning the Sun”, which was simply untrue but widely shared by people on my feed. To me it is a site which does not let facts get in the way of a good rant; it is widely (and rightly) described as hyperpartisan to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party; it is often sensationalist. I never share stories from that site and when I see a link to it on my Twitter feed, I do not bother opening it because I know it will likely be sensationalist nonsense and that the story might not even justify the headline. However, friends of mine today described the Canary as a “missed opportunity”, a site founded with good intentions but which ruined its reputation by printing false stories and conspiracy theories. In one case, they undermined a real story about a report into the social care system by printing an unrelated false story, that was widely and prominently exposed the week before the real story ran. One of them (a long-standing disability activist but who tweets privately) wrote, “They do periodically have some excellent content about the impacts of austerity; but no-one pays any attention to it because it’s mixed in with so much untrustworthy, fake, hyper-partisan, antisemitic, bullshit, amateurish content”.

I’ve had a look at the SFFN website. Two things are very noticeable: one is its opacity. They declare:

We would like to be open about our identities, but doing so could put activists at risk. The Sleeping Giants campaign in America took on Steve Bannon’s alt-Right site, Breitbart, to huge success. In fact, their success inspired us to set up Stop Funding Fake News. But their family members’ details were published online by their opponents.

This is somewhat suspicious and convenient. It’s a fact that think tanks, while they have talking heads that are open about their identities, often conceal the sources of their funding. When, back in 2002, Brian Whittaker wrote about the Israeli-backed outfit MEMRI, which circulated news stories generally calculated to “reflect badly on the character of Arabs or … in some way further the political agenda of Israel”, he also noted that they had no named contacts or office address and a former employee explained this as being because “they don’t want suicide bombers walking through the door on Monday morning”, which as Whittaker said was “a somewhat over-the-top precaution for an institute that simply wants to break down east-west language barriers”.

A second suspicious feature is the selection of websites they choose to target for publishing “fake news”: four far-right sites (Politicalite, Rebel Media, Westmonster and TR News) and two pro-Corbyn sites (The Canary and Evolve Politics). One headline from the Canary justifies comparing the Israeli government to that of Nazi Germany; another (from a far-right site) denounces the campaign for a People’s Vote as merely a “Soros Vote”. The right-wing sites are noted for sympathy with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson) and Nigel Farage and one of them (Westmonster) was founded by Leave campaign bankroller Aaron Banks. What is notable, however, is that the anti-Semitism identified in the Canary seems to target the state of Israel, often in response to genuine human rights abuses against Palestinians, while the hate identified on the right-wing sites targets Muslims and migrants in the UK — individuals, in other words, not a foreign government. While some of the Canary’s contributors have produced material that crosses the line into anti-Semitism (like Steve Topple, as they note at length), even this does not consist of incitement to hatred or violence against ordinary Jews in this country, while much media Islamophobia does target ordinary Muslims and this is not limited to the fringe sites targeted by SFFN. This is rather reminiscent of the asymmetrical way the political Right presents ‘extremism’: where Muslims are concerned, it only takes a tenuous and very dubious link for a group to be branded ‘extremist’, such as anyone with Muslim Brotherhood sympathies on the executive board or as a regular speaker, while for the Far Right, it takes actual violence or open advocacy of racism. Looking at their Twitter feed and replies to it, it appears that they have been approached to add Guido Fawkes to their list of fake news sites, but have refused.

There is also no criticism of right-wing mainstream media, which is also heavily implicated in the spread of false ‘news’ which demonises migrants, minorities, poor people and real or imagined benefit claimants including disabled people. There are no links to other sites which combat bogus news or which fact-check stories in mainstream media (e.g. Stop Funding Hate, Full Fact, Channel 4’s Fact Check). There is also no satisfactory definition of “fake news” which is a term which seems to be used nowadays just to mean falsehood, as defined by the person alleging it. Fake news used to mean stories manufactured to look like they came from a real news source but did not, or attributed to a newspaper or other apparently legitimate outlet which in fact does not exist. The site’s list of the Canary’s failings really does not provide any evidence that they publish fake news, just (in some cases) false or unethical stories. Much the same is true, in fact, of most of their claims about all the other websites they encourage advertisers to boycott.

As a Muslim, I can say that I am more worried about damaging stories in the mainstream media about Muslims than on fringe pseudo-news websites like Politicalite; they get seen by a far wider audience even if the fringe sites give space to the likes of James Goddard and other Tommy Robinson hangers-on. They have real impact on ordinary people’s lives; they sometimes spur political action, as when the Labour government responded to a tabloid campaign against “foreign criminals” being allowed to remain in the UK by re-arresting non-citizens who had served their time years ago for offences committed years ago. The things that appear in those newspapers are then shouted in people’s faces in the streets. If SFFN really cared about improving the British media ecosystem, they might take a stand against the hatred and falsehood coming from the commercial right-wing media, not just obscure websites that advertisers feel they could do without advertising in. So, while many may not see the diminishment of the Canary as such a bad thing, it should disturb us that a shadowy, anonymous, politically partisan pressure group can bring a media outlet that they do not like to its knees while leaving far more damaging outlets untouched.

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Yes, it can be done (borders and Brexit)

2 August, 2019 - 16:11

Yesterday, I saw a video posted on Twitter by the Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib (for London region) in which he and a bunch of his colleagues stood on the Irish border and pointed out how the only thing that indicated there was a border was a speed limit sign in kilometres per hour and then proclaimed that there was no way the border could be closed and the “whole thing is a misnomer and a red herring”. It’s true that right now, you can cross the border freely using any number of major and minor roads, one of which famously crosses the border four times, changing numbers from N54 to A3 and back again, between Cavan and Monaghan (both in the republic) and then a fifth time to reach Armagh in the north. Benyamin Habib is 54 years old and so is well old enough to remember the Troubles, although if you weren’t there, you will not have known much about the border. There was one.

It’s spectacularly stupid to assume that just because there is no border infrastructure on an actual international boundary, that one cannot be built. Such borders have been built in places where there was previously no national boundary; look at how the allied powers carved up Germany from 1945, installing a border across central Germany where people had previously crossed freely from town to town but was now heavily guarded and more or less impenetrable. Similarly in Berlin, and on the new German-Polish border (east of which was formerly part of Germany), in Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish invasion, and in so many other places around the world. In most of those places, following the reunification of Germany and the accession of Poland to the EU and Schengen accord, all the border infrastructure is gone, with only a few disused buildings remaining and motorways running freely, but it was very much there during the Cold War and, depending on which country you were coming from, you could be taking your life in your hands trying to cross it. As for roads like the N54/A3, Germany had roads that crossed the border several times; they were closed during the Cold War. There was even a motorway that was half-built at the end of the Second World War that crossed what became the east-west German border three times (now the A4). It didn’t get completed until after reunification.

A watchtower painted in camouflage colours with a soldier peering out of one of the windows. Two more soldiers, in camouflage uniform with red berets, stand on the ground in front of it. The tower stands between two sections of wall, both painted in the same camouflage colours.A border watchtower during the Troubles in Northern Ireland

As for Ireland, even before the start of the Troubles, you could not cross the border freely anywhere you liked; you had to use official border crossings, and other crossing points were blocked by physical barriers or by ditches or blown-up bridges. Pictures of these abound, but you can see it on any late 20th century map: the N3 from Dublin to Enniskillen, for example, was closed when Loyalist paramilitaries blew up a bridge over the border, and anyone needing to travel between Enniskillen and Cavan, the nearest big town on the south side, had to made a detour via Swanlinbar and Ballyconnell until the new George Mitchell bridge was opened in 1999. There are photographs of queues of traffic on main roads between concrete blocks with uniformed men inspecting documents. Although the object will be to police a trade barrier, not to intercept terrorism, scenes a lot like these will be a reality again if we are outside the EU’s customs union; it might be less militarised, but the queues will return and there will be much less freedom to cross where one likes, especially for goods traffic.

So, while it’s true that the British government does not want a hard border on the island of Ireland, if we leave the EU with no deal and end up outside any trade agreements (as we will, because we are part of the WTO through the EU and do not automatically become a WTO member after leaving the EU), there will need to be a border as the north will no longer be part of the EU, and the republic of Ireland will still be. Therefore, if the Tories are serious about leaving, they will need to stop throwing weight around that they do not have and buckle down and get a deal, or end the process of leaving, because a border has been installed in Ireland in the same places as Ben Habib shot that video in the past, and it will be again if we are isolated following our departure from the EU.

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It’s not self-doubt

31 July, 2019 - 10:00
A cartoon showing Boris Johnson wearing a baseball cap with the word "Brexit" on it, and underneath, the words, "I lied to YOU. But don't worry, I'll be fine!".

So, last week the news many of us had been dreading for months finally arrived: Boris Johnson, the inveterate liar, bigot and money-waster who has a trail of diplomatic incidents behind him, became leader of the Conservative party and, by default, prime minister. He gave a speech announcing a whole load of domestic policies including thousands of new front-line police officers which will, of course, cost a lot of money, but gave us a lecture on “national self-doubt” in regard to people’s well-founded fears about Brexit. Johnson and other Brexiteers have been using this line of argument for some time, and not just on the Tory front bench: Brexit has not happened so far because of people’s defeatism or lack of positivity. It’s a classic example of magical thinking and will convince nobody who is living in the real world.

“Magical thinking” is a fallacy where you attribute cause and effect where no such relationship actually exists, and some people are very prone to attaching such notions to “positive thinking”. People will be encouraged to be ‘positive’ about something that in reality they have no control over, or over its outcome; someone might be encouraged to think positively about a medical operation that might have good or bad results, depending on what happens when they are under a general anaesthetic and have no power over the situation. It is also very conducive to “stab in the back” narratives: that a project failed because of defeatism and negativity on the part of people who never wanted it to go ahead in the first place, which is supposedly why Theresa May (a Remainer in 2016) did not succeed in getting us out of the EU. Tory Brexiteers always knew there were people in their own party, let alone wider society, that were opposed to Brexit; it suits their purposes to claim that it was these people’s fault that Brexit has not happened and that no deal acceptable to them has been made, rather than that it is down to their incompetence or their delusion that there was ever going to be. Joining the EEC was a Tory policy in the 1970s; staying in was Thatcher’s policy in the 1980s and leaving was Labour’s during its dark years.

The vote to leave the EU was narrow, with fewer than 52% in favour. This was not a decisive vote for a “clean break” but necessitated compromise. What happened was that the hardliners in the Tory party seized control and interpreted the result as a mandate for a ‘hard’ Brexit. The people who wanted to remain in the EU had strong reasons: that much of our economy is tied to the EU, that it allows goods to move freely across borders with no fees or paperwork (and that without it, we will have to make truck parks of several of our motorways, plans for which are now being made) and that these goods include much of the food we eat, that the leave campaign illegally overspent and lied, that they drew on a legacy of myths that emanated from the Tory press over the years, and that many of those who voted to leave would have been satisfied with changes to British policy, particularly (but not just) the way we engage with Europe. But over the past three years, we have not been allowed to discuss these things, because a political elite drunk on power have repeatedly stressed the ‘importance’ of “honouring the referendum result” as well as what they think was the chief motive behind it: immigration.

It’s not “self-doubt” that means we have no confidence in Boris Johnson’s ability to deliver a deal which is to the advantage of most of us. Many of us could try and live in a country with no food on the shelves, with the readily-available medicine we know now unavailable and with a crumbling infrastructure, but we do not want to because there is no need — the last time we were as isolated as that, there was a world war on and we were facing an invasion from Nazi Germany — and some people are disabled or chronically ill and could not. But much as, in the words of Stella Young, no amount of smiling at a flight of steps by someone in a wheelchair will turn it into a ramp, no amount of positive thinking by ordinary people will turn an overprivileged, ignorant buffoon into a competent diplomat and negotiator. The outcome of Brexit is not in our hands, but theirs. We are awake on the operating table and we do not know if they’ve read our notes. It is not ourselves we doubt, but them.

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Why this isn’t rape

30 July, 2019 - 17:14
Warblington School, where Sean Aldridge was assistant deputy head and head of safeguarding

Yesterday a teacher in Havant, Hampshire (a small town near the south coast of England) was jailed for 12 years for engaging in sexual relations with four girl pupils, ranging in age from 13 to 16. He was convicted of 24 counts of sexual activity with a child which in one case resulted in a girl becoming pregnant and then miscarrying; in between the incidents themselves and their coming to light, he had been promoted to assistant head teacher and head of safeguarding. The girls themselves did not report the incidents until they were adults; the police had interviewed two of them between 2010 and 2012 but the teacher, Sean Aldridge, had persuaded them to lie to the police. The case has resulted in a familiar flood of complaints that the media report these cases using phrases like affairs, sexual relations or just sex rather than what the complainers believe it is, which is rape. Why isn’t it?

The simple answer is that, when sexual contact occurs and one party is between 13 and 15, or 13 and 17 where the older party is in a position of trust (such as a teacher, as was the case here), the legal term is “sexual activity with a child”. The term rape is used only where someone was forcibly penetrated or a competent person had sex with a person so impaired as not to know what was going on or who could not agree. When one party is below age 13, this would be automatically charged as rape under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, regardless of whether the older person knew the younger person’s age or not. I am guessing the reason is that, while a 14- or 15-year-old might be mistaken for a 16-year-old by someone a little bit older than 16, a 12-year-old could not be (although this defence has been used and in a case last year resulted in a man getting an absolute discharge). The same law introduced the higher age of consent where a teacher is involved; previously, the age of consent was 16 and so relations between teachers and sixth form pupils (or even fifth formers, in cases where they had been held back a year) were perfectly legal, while even in cases where both parties were underage and the boy was younger, the boy was committing a crime but the girl was not. The law was stuck in Victorian times and it was generally accepted that the situation had to change.

So, when the media uses phrases other than rape, they are reporting the story both factually and legally accurately. With the exception of cases where one party is under 13, British law has always used ‘rape’ to mean sex which is forced on someone, not where consent is legally invalid, because that is what rape has always meant in common parlance; the term has inherent connotations with violence. Many US jurisdictions use the term “statutory rape” to refer to such situations, but that is not the case here and never has been. The law recognises that under-16s have some degree of agency; the age of criminal responsibility, for example, is 10, not 16, although crimes other than murder committed by under-16s tend to be treated more leniently. If a 15-year-old could be sent to prison, even if he had been talked into the crime by an adult, it makes no sense that any sexual act involving them be assumed to be rape (especially by people who would also call it rape when a 15-year-old boy has sex with a 13-year-old girl).

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Review: The Left Behind

23 July, 2019 - 22:20
Gethin, a young white man, sits on a sofa in a living room and a young woman sits on the arm looking at a mobile phone in his hand.Gethin shows his sister a video about a new housing development, in their old home before eviction

The Left Behind is an hour-long BBC Three drama in which a young man who is facing homelessness as a result of his family’s eviction and gets very rapidly groomed into racist violence, leading to a fatal attack on a halal butcher’s shop. The BBC’s blurb describes it as a “factual drama” and “a steel-tipped state of the nation drama based on deep research into the realities of life in ‘forgotten Britain’”; however, the drama, set in Cardiff, is fiction. There is an interview with the writer and director of the drama on the BBC’s website, in which they draw the connection between being stuck in the “gig economy” without secure housing and becoming involved in the Far Right. There is, however, a lot they left out about this process.

The central character is Gethin, who seems to be sleeping in his sister’s shed and using her bathroom, but they are being evicted as the landlord wants to put up the rent and are forced to move into a “family hostel”, which means they cannot take Gethin. Gethin is working in a halal fried chicken restaurant and has a Muslim female friend (who he may or may not imagine might become his girlfriend), but the council tell him they cannot house him as he is a single man with no dependents; they also tell his sister that they cannot house her family with him and that they should not consider him part of their family. There is a development being proposed in his area, but this turns out to be a private housing development at market rates where 30% is to be set aside for ‘affordable’ housing, which is clearly well beyond the means of most local people. At a meeting to discuss that development, a councillor pleads that she understands everyone’s predicament, which makes everyone more angry; as it progresses, people start to blame ‘others’, particularly Muslims, for the fact that they cannot get housed.

Gethin, a young white man wearing a black jacket and trousers and a red T-shirt sits on a red sofa in the street with a young South Asian woman who is wearing jeans and a yellow jacket. There is a concrete wall behind them, and a new red-brick house behind that.Gethin and his Asian friend, as her family move in

Gethin has a group of friends, two white men and one black woman (later revealed also to be gay; she accuses the Muslims of hating women and gays, meaning she would be ‘fucked’ on both counts) and is approached online by someone who accuses Muslims of “taking over”, of demanding Shari’ah law and various other things, and Gethin also hears a news report about a group of men convicted of grooming and abusing young girls. He gradually begins to use a lot of the same rhetoric with his friends and while meeting an officer at the housing office, he demands to know why ‘they’ are getting housed rather than him when this is “his town”. Eventually he gets together with three friends who don pig masks and attack a butcher’s shop and break windows. He is later recognised as one of the perpetrators and waylaid in the street at night by two Muslim men who beat him up and spit on him; he then gets together with three friends and they set fire to the butcher’s shop, resulting in the death of a man who was sleeping in the building at the time, unknown to them. At the end of the programme, he is being visited in prison by his sister, who begs to know whether he knew the man was in the shop.

I’m not a film critic and my critique of this drama will be about its core premise, not the quality of the acting or camera work, though I found the slow-motion filming of the attack on the butcher’s shop near the end to be confusing; I was not sure what Gethin was doing or where he was at any given time during that scene. I would have preferred that they just film it in “real time” as they did the rest of the programme. So, to come to my main issue with this programme: it gave too much weight to the idea that poverty breeds extremism and examined no other angles. Apart from the report about the grooming gang, the only other media we saw in the programme was a snippet of a BBC Question Time programme from Barking. We saw the ridiculous spectacle of someone going from having a Muslim best friend and really not exhibiting any racist tendencies to setting fire to a butcher’s shop after being approached by some unknown online, admittedly when he was at a difficult point in his life.

A South Asian man wearing white butcher's clothes, a red and white striped apron and blue plastic gloves tries to calm a man wearing a pig mask who is threatening him. An electronic scale and hanging cuts of meat are behind him.A halal butcher confronts one of his four attackers.

The role of the broadcast and print media in fomenting racist attitudes was not even acknowledged here; not a single front page in which Muslims were accused of demanding Shari’ah law or a ban on this or that, or news story in which a women wearing a veil gets a council house with a six-figure value, or indeed any reference to them. Neither did we hear any talk radio show about hijab in primary school or any other Muslim-related issue. These outlets have been sowing racist and otherwise bigoted attitudes among the population for decades, and not just among the desperate. It was, for example, the overblown media reporting of the tiny al-Muhajiroun protest in Luton in 2009 that led to the formation of the English Defence League and may have won it many more followers than it would otherwise have had; the protesters were referred to simply as ‘Muslims’ when they were the remnants of a group which was known for causing trouble, which had been dwindling for years and whose leaders were always being offered microphones because their statements would make good copy. The recruits for the EDL came from the football hooligan community, not from the ‘desperate’ or ‘left behind’.

This is not to say that poverty, family breakdown and housing insecurity have no role in fuelling the growth of racism or the Far Right, but these things feed on prejudices which have been built up over years by organisations that profit from doing so. Sadly, the links between the ‘respectable’ and the commercial tabloid media are strong and writers and editors will often move from one to the other or take jobs on both at the same time and the BBC itself has promoted this kind of journalism on some of its local stations — it hired Jon Gaunt to shout at its London listeners for several years on its morning phone-in show until 2005 when they replaced him with the equally insufferable (though for different reasons) Vanessa Feltz. But the media must face up to their role in fostering the growth of the Far Right rather than, as happens here, suggesting that it is purely the product of poverty or desperation. It is a big missed opportunity.

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We can’t blame ‘Wahhabis’ for everything

21 July, 2019 - 19:43
A collection of modern skyscraper buildings, the biggest of them a huge office and clock tower with a cupola at the top and the name of Allah in Arabic above the clock face. The sacred mosque and two of its minarets are at the bottom of the image, dwarfed by the modern buildings behind it.Abraj al-Bait Towers in Mecca, with the clock tower towering over the minarets of the great mosque.

In response to Boris Johnson’s article from 2007 on what he regarded as being ‘wrong’ with the Muslim world, and how Islam itself was to blame for it, the Guardian printed an article yesterday by Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, which answered a few of Johnson’s claims about the ‘backwardness’ of Ottoman Istanbul versus the record of Byzantine Constantinople of “keeping the flame of learning alight for a thousand years”, as well as the claim that printing presses were absent from the Ottoman empire for centuries, when in fact they appeared in the 1720s and had been resisted because the word was regarded as art. Towards the end, however, Brotton claims that today’s “fatal religious conservatism” is primarily down to Wahhabism, “the puritanical doctrine founded in the 18th century that is now the official state religion of Saudi Arabia, which condemns millions of Muslims – including Shias – as apostates and has inspired terrorist organisations such as Isis”; Johnson will not acknowledge this, he says, for fear of offending the Gulf oil sheikhs. This is a common line of reasoning when defending mainstream Islam and the Islamic cultural legacy, but it is misplaced.

To begin with, when he was editor of the Spectator, Boris Johnson did print an article which puts the blame for destructive political fundamentalism firmly on Wahhabism; it was by Stephen Schwartz and can be found on their archive site here. He claimed that what were then called “rogue states” such as Iraq, Libya and Syria were less important in radicalising the al-Qa’ida terrorists than Saudi Arabia itself and that, apart from the revolution in Iran, all the violent movements around the Muslim world were Wahhabi or, like the Taliban, practised a “variant of Wahhabism” (which in fact they did not). He claimed that they could be described as Islamofascists, a line he repeated in a number of other essays, most of them on American conservative opinion websites; in another of them he claimed that “the Wahhabi death cult represents naked Islamofascism”. The line that Saudi Arabia had an unaccounted-for responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks was a popular one on right and left: Michael Moore made accusations like this a number of times, including claiming that the skills necessary to steer the two aeroplanes into the twin towers must have been learned in the air force, not a small flying school.

I am not a Wahhabi and have been critical of Wahhabism all the time I have been Muslim, including many times on this blog. There are, within Wahhabism, pro-establishment and extremist tendencies and so you will find Wahhabis condemning terrorism as well as those practising it. But its fundamental departure from the Islamic mainstream is in its theology, not in anything to do with politics (the very early Wahhabis displayed Kharijite behaviour, rebelling against the Ottoman sultan who at the time held the position of caliph, and killing Muslims who rejected their doctrines, but their descendants do not do this). It rejects the idea of allegorical interpretations of certain passages in the Qur’an that refer to the hands and eyes of Allah, for example; to them, these words mean exactly what they say, although they do not believe that His hands and eyes are like ours. Mainstream Islam suggests metaphorical interpretations, within the bounds of the classical Arabic language, while some scholars refrain from interpreting them entirely. They also reject a lot of the ‘cultural’ side of Sufism, such as the practices that resemble dancing during gatherings, and nowadays they reject the idea of Sufi ‘orders’ or ‘paths’ which have been the norm in the Muslim world for most of its history, although their popularity has declined. They were noted in the 1990s for being aggressive and argumentative in their dealings with other Muslims. But they are not solely to blame for everything that is wrong with the Muslims now.

Western conservatives tend to blame Islam itself for the politics of the various Muslim countries, and politics for ‘backwardness’ and lack of intellectual rigour (in particular, the poor state of the Muslim world’s universities which largely function as training schools for doctors, engineers and so on). The fact is that many of these regimes are secular and backed by either western powers or by Russia, and are opposed to there being any ‘religious’ influence on politics and in some cases to the practice of Islam itself. In many Muslim countries, particularly Arab countries outside the Gulf region, Muslim men are afraid to grow their beards, cannot wear traditional clothing and are afraid to attend mosques, especially for morning prayers, for fear of attracting the secret police’s attention. The teaching of religious knowledge has been suppressed and the traditional schools closed or converted into western-style universities, but even in such places, a police state is not a good environment for any intellectual flourish. It is the repressiveness of some of these regimes, accompanied by their suppression of mainstream religion (and the same policies under the colonial powers that preceded many of them), that drives some young people into the hands of the fanatics; the group that formed ISIS were men tortured in American prisons in occupied Iraq.

Some of Johnson’s claims are just plain ignorant; in the 2007 article he claimed that “virtually every global flashpoint you can think of – from Bosnia to Palestine to Iraq to Kashmir – involves some sense of Muslim grievance”. Bosnia had nothing to do with “Muslim grievance”; it was a genocide perpetrated by Serbian Christians against Muslims who, like the Croats and Slovenians before them, had tried to free themselves from the increasingly Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation. It was the Serbs who had tried to resurrect old hatreds, not the Muslims. Even without the printing press, the Muslim world had always been highly literate (including at times when the western world reserved literacy for celibate churchpeople) and there were professional copyists who manually copied out books; there have been numerous examples of slowness to automate or resistance to automation, often for the preservation of jobs, in western society much more recently. Johnson is an ignorant man with a deep-set hostility to Islam and Muslims and an over-developed sense of his intellectual prowess; no doubt a facet of the confidence that an English public school education gets you. But Wahhabism is not the only source of fanaticism in the Muslim world and it is not the only source of backwardness or conflict, and not all Wahhabis are fanatics or terrorists. “Blame Wahhabism” is an easy way to avoid western responsibility for the state of countries they colonised for much of the last century and the one before; it is not a great leap from “blame some Muslims” to “blame Muslims”.

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Public interest?

14 July, 2019 - 22:46
 as tensions mount in the Gulf, what the British ambassador told London about the President's act of 'diplomatic vandalism'". At the top, in white on a small red patch, are the words "Fighting for free speech") with quotes from Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson defending the right of the paper to publish the material.

So, last week the British ambassador to the USA resigned after Donald Trump wrote tweets denouncing him after his emails were leaked, thought to have been done by a Brexiteer mole who is out to destroy senior civil servants he sees as standing in the way of Brexit. Yesterday (Saturday) morning, the police were threatening to prosecute editors who published any new leaked material and they urged them to send it all back. This led to an outcry, with both MPs and various editors denouncing the threat as an attack on a “free society” and proclaiming such things as “this isn’t Russia”. The Mail on Sunday today (under a banner “Fighting for free speech”) published more material from the leaks, among them the opinion of Kim Darroch, the ambassador at the centre of the leaks, expressed in the leaked emails that Donald Trump only scrapped the nuclear deal with Iran to spite former president Barack Obama.

I was surprised to hear Tories pontificate about the importance of a “free society” when the matter at hand was the leaking of confidential material which is covered under the Official Secrets Act. In the past, Tory governments have prosecuted civil servants who leaked papers that proved that what the government had been telling the Commons was false (e.g. about the direction of the Belgrano, the Argentinian warship sank during the Falklands war), and passed tougher legislation to remove defences, such as “public interest”, used by whistle-blowers. We are even seeing Tory politicians threaten to suspend Parliament itself if it gets in the way of leaving the EU this coming October, and politicians and the media defend this in the name of “the people’s will” as expressed more than three years ago now — so much for their love of democracy; we regularly see people have to hide under blankets to avoid press photographers who decide they have a ‘right’ to a story; so much for their love of freedom. In this case, it is alleged that the leaks were not motivated by any desire to hold the powerful to account or expose malpractice but simply to further Brexit by intimidating other civil servants and possibly politicians who are not committed to Brexit. The newspapers or websites which might be motivated to publish such material are the ones committed to Brexit themselves. This material might be of interest to the public but there is no pretence of it being in the public interest; it is malicious.

As for the material published today (which was also linked to the demand to “hand back papers”), this is of lesser importance as the damage had already been done in terms of forcing the former ambassador’s resignation. But publishing confidential material is illegal, and it is illegal for a reason, and whatever the rights and wrongs of doing so to expose wrongdoing, to do this to further your own political agenda, in collaboration with powerful factions in society that share that agenda, is simply dishonest and treacherous and is not supported by free speech laws anywhere. It is only right that any new leaks be met with the full force of the law, and the same for anyone publishing them.

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Anti-Semitism in context

12 July, 2019 - 22:30
 for the many not the Jew".A demonstration in London against anti-Semitism in the Labour party.

There was a piece by Gordon Brown, the former chancellor of the Exchequer and prime minister, in the Guardian last Saturday demanding a “more radical” approach to the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. His suggestion was that there should be automatic expulsion in any case where there is “irrefutable evidence of antisemitism or any kind of racism”, that appeals should be heard by a body “independent of the Labour party’s hierarchy, with members chosen for their standing and integrity among the public – and after consultation with the Jewish and other communities” and that a future Labour government should appoint a dedicated minister, “backed up by an ambassador”, to “combat antisemitism – by monitoring and reporting on its evil presence and pressurising governments everywhere to eradicate it”. The piece was unusual in that, in places, it put anti-Semitism in the context of other forms of racism, but the solution was really not all that radical, precisely because it detaches anti-Semitism from racism in general and treats it as a hate apart, deserving of special condemnation or energy in fighting it, while all other forms of racism are lumped together.

There has been a resistance to see anti-Semitism as one form of racism among many; it is sometimes called the “oldest hatred”, dating back to the dawn of Christianity, a claim often repeated but rarely subjected to scrutiny. It is no coincidence that Jews are western and central Europe’s oldest minority; mediaeval Europe did not tolerate the presence of Muslims or indeed Christians of mildly differing beliefs for very long, while Jews were allowed to live here, albeit in separate communities, while Gypsies were persecuted anywhere they lived. There is a hypothesis that anti-Semitism is primal and regardless of the rationale, never rational, while other prejudices are often the product of circumstance (e.g. a new inflow of workers seen as “taking jobs”). That the prejudice morphed in the 19th century from Jews being vilified as “Christ-killers” or just not Christian to being viewed as economic saboteurs or conspirators in various things proves this hypothesis, to many people: it’s part of Europe’s DNA. Christopher Hitchens once observed that, while other minorities are despised as inferiors, anti-Semites often seem to admire Jews as being clever. This is not unique, however; some conservative Islamophobes profess admiration for Muslims in some regards. Mark Steyn has been heard praising Muslims for having strong families and family values. This cohesion is what he believes makes Muslims a threat, especially to a Europe he sees as losing its sense of itself.

Sometimes this doctrine veers into an open declaration that other minorities deserve the prejudice they suffer while Jews do not. Melanie Phillips, on Saturday Politics in May 2018, declared that there was never any excuse for anti-Semitism, which was not like other forms of racism but is “a unique derangement which is based entirely on lies and demonisation”; Islamophobia, meanwhile, was a means of “shutting down legitimate criticism of the Muslim community”. Many dismiss Phillips as an unrepresentative crank, but she gets an awful lot of access to the mainstream media. Much as with terrorism, there is a demand for unconditional condemnation without any equivalence made to anything else; anything less is denounced as equivocation, “whataboutery” and proof of guilt. It is obvious to many of us that other prejudices are not taken anything like as seriously, even within the Labour party, let alone in regard to the Tory party in which serial, open racist Boris Johnson is still the front-runner for the leadership; Sarah Champion in 2017 wrote the below for an article in The Sun and, although relieved of a shadow cabinet position (not immediately but after public protest), remains a Labour MP:

BRITAIN has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls.

There. I said it. Does that make me a racist? Or am I just prepared to call out this horrifying problem for what it is?

For too long we have ignored the race of these abusers and, worse, tried to cover it up.

No more. These people are predators and the common denominator is their ethnic heritage.

In recent days I have seen much discussion on Twitter as to whether Jews are white or not. There is a doctrine that Jews should be excluded from this category and in Israel, the majority of Jews are of Middle Eastern origin (Sephardim and Mizrahim) and some are Black, from Ethiopia. But that is Israel and this is the UK, where the vast majority are of eastern European origin and, apart from the minority of strictly religious Jews who live in a few small areas such as Stanford Hill in north London, look like any other white people. Both the definition of whiteness and its importance in a minority being accepted by the majority changes over time; when Irish and Italian people first arrived in the USA, for example, they were not regarded as white, and were impoverished. Irish people were discriminated against both in employment and housing until well after the Second World War, with houses and flats to rent being advertised with the rider “no Irish, no Blacks, no dogs”. That has since changed, as it has with the Jews who mostly arrived in the UK in the early 20th century mostly from what is now Poland, fleeing persecution under the Russian Tsars. From the late 1940s onwards, the ‘face’ of immigration was a black or brown one; to this day, those immigrants and their descendants are still associated with their countries of origin while British Jews are called just that.

British Jews are accepted in a way non-white minorities are not. I have never heard of British Jews being subjected to disproportionate stops and searches by police, for example. I have not heard of British Jews being shot dead or choked to death by the police. This is what “white privilege” means in a society like ours: that you look like you belong to the majority, that you do not look foreign, you are not seen as a threat just for being in a public place and your place in this country is accepted: you are not told to “go home”. Media coverage of Jewish issues amplifies the voices of ‘mainstream’ representatives and often vilifies dissenters (or censors them, as we saw with a letter to the Guardian that was published this week and then removed from the website after a complaint from the Board of Deputies), while trusted and mainstream Muslim voices are dismissed as unrepresentative or politically biased (usually as Islamist sympathisers) and fringe voices, often hostile to the majority, amplified. When Jews try to police the boundaries of their community by pointing out that many anti-Zionist Jewish figures are really not all that Jewish, they are believed; when Muslims do the same, they may be accused of using the “True Scotsman fallacy” at best or of calling for someone’s murder at worst.

It does not matter if Jews were not regarded as white, or white enough, in the distant past in Europe. What matters is where they stand, and where the majority stands in regards to them, now. In Europe, cultural or religious sameness has been important to be accepted in society in the long run; in Britain and the USA now, white skin is the most important factor followed by native dress and speech. Anyone who proclaims, as I have seen on Twitter in the last few weeks, that there is “no such thing as a white Jew” is being wilfully blind to obvious facts. A dark-skinned person spouting the nonsense Melanie Phillips does would not get anything like as much media coverage, and a dark-skinned minority would have to fight to get racism they were experiencing recognised by a whole swath of the media. Look at the university racism scandal reported on the front page of the Guardian last Saturday; this is something that has been bubbling on social media for years and only just got into a mainstream publication, yet the Guardian and other mainstream publications have covered the “Labour anti-Semitism crisis” in huge detail with regular front-page stories and sanctimonious opinion pieces, like Gordon Brown’s, since it began.

So, let’s not pretend that the past is still with us, the past where the Jews were a persecuted minority and suffered outright discrimination and worse. The past doesn’t “go anywhere”, to use the title of a popular pamphlet on this topic, but it is still past; it is not still here. It is not anti-Semitic to claim that this is no longer the case; it is fact. It is not anti-Semitic to say that a white Jew who can walk down the street and not fear the police is no less white for being a Jew, much as is the case with white Muslims (and Black Muslims both here and in the USA never let us forget it). While it is not true that all Jews are rich or that they control capitalism or the media, it is true that they are not a community associated with poverty nowadays and it is true that they are better represented in the mainstream media and get a more favourable treatment from it than most visible minorities. It is not ‘radical’ to foster hypervigilance to what may (or in fact may not) be mild expressions of prejudice towards a minority which is relatively privileged nowadays, while glossing over very overt hostility, even hatred, towards other minorities. It’s not radical to use a superficial “anti-racist” stance to shore up an oppressive regime perceived as a western ally. No, “anti-Semitism versus Islamophobia” is not and should not be an either-or, but as long as people openly display the latter while denying it exists, while reminding us of the “oldest hatred”, any warning about anti-Semitism which pointedly omits mention of other racism must be answered with “what about?”, because history proves that all racism can have the same result, i.e. violence.

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Of mice, men, mockingbirds and caged birds

11 July, 2019 - 18:30
A picture of three stacks of three different editions of "To Kill a Mockingbird", of which one has a sticker advertising Harper Lee's other book, "Go Set a Watchman", to be released July 2015.Various editions of To Kill a Mockingbird

Today I saw a piece in the Globe and Mail, a Toronto-based newspaper, in which a professor at York University (the one in Toronto) called for schools to change the way they teach the novel To Kill a Mockingbird or to stop teaching it. This is because the novel uses the ‘N-word’ very liberally, which according to Professor Carl James “lends legitimacy to the word particularly in the absence of critical analysis in terms of the historical context, who is using the word and its effect on learners”. The article also quotes Poleen Grewal, the associate director of instruction and equity support services at Peel school board, which serves a district west of Toronto, as saying that the frequent use of the word was “hurting and harming black kids” and that the book’s sole major Black character, Tom Robinson, was “one-dimensional”. The board has started to recommend other texts which discuss issues of race and are more relevant, including books by Rohinton Mistry, Malorie Blackman, Richard Wagamese and Lawrence Hill. (The Star, another Canadian newspaper, published this article last November, arguing that it was time to “move on” from To Kill A Mockingbird. Hat tip to sis. Taqwa who tweeted both these articles.)

I grew up and live in England and have never read Mockingbird, but as a teenager I did English at A-level and studied Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which was about a brutal quadruple murder in 1950s rural Kansas whose perpetrators were ultimately hanged. My sister studied Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at school and my mother studied a selection of American literature which included Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. In Cold Blood is not really about race but about American justice, and demonstrated that judges and politicians were willing to sacrifice human life for power, using legal doctrines to discount evidence of a defendant’s insanity, for example. But the others were set in mid-20th century southern America and used racial slurs, especially the N-word, very liberally. Some of the authors were Black and some were White, but we all got to read out passages of it.

The overuse of the N-word is only one criticism of these books; another is that Mockingbird in particular focusses on a “white hero” who saves a Black person from injustice rather than on the lives of Black people themselves. The problem of one-dimensional characters is not confined to Mockingbird; it is noticeable that all the characters in The Color Purple other than the Black women are either vicious or stupid, or both. However, their biggest weakness as set texts for our time is that they teach racism through the prism of another place and time and a specific regime — segregation — which is no longer in place. It’s possible to grow up white in a diverse city nowadays and not realise racism exists, especially if you do not live in a diverse area yourself, so reading a book about small-town Arkansas in the 1940s where there was segregation and obvious, violent racism backed by officialdom, where a dentist will openly racially abuse a little girl to her grandmother, will not teach you anything about your own time. Young people in London need to know about the experiences of different people in their own city or one a lot like it, but in practice will not be expected to read a book set in their own country in modern times. (I also studied Jane Eyre, Hamlet, The Knight’s Tale and the Post-Romantic poets such as Tennyson and Browning; for GCSE, at an all-boys boarding school, I did not study a single whole novel by a woman.)

I am not suggesting that school pupils never study texts set in 20th century America; it’s an important body of literature by a diverse group of authors in terms of race and gender. They cover other important subjects besides race (sexual abuse and trauma in the case of Caged Bird). But race in modern Britain and Canada is not Black and White and the books our children study at school should reflect the realities of the world they grow up in, not a bygone era.

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Restorative justice is no substitute for prison

4 July, 2019 - 22:26
A photograph of the bronze sculpture of "Lady Justice" on top of the Old Bailey criminal court in London, England. The statue has a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left hand.Lady Justice, the Old Bailey, London. (Source: Andrew Middleton.)

Recently I came across a long thread (starting here) arguing against ‘carceral’ (prison-based) responses to serious crimes and, in particular, rape. The argument is that the justice system serves the state’s purpose, which is incarceration, that trials re-traumatise victims (which is certainly true), that victims often sink into depression after trials “primarily because they expected to gain some measure of healing through the criminal justice system that they just didn’t get”, that prisons cause PTSD which increases re-offending (as does having a criminal record), and that a better way of dealing with the crime, assuming the rapist (as it is mostly about rape) admits responsibility, is to require both to undergo a year of intensive therapy and then to allow the victim to place conditions on the attacker’s life. Most of the premises and solutions I find, to say the least, dubious.

Really? I’m sure some survivors would find great comfort in knowing that the person who assaulted them is behind bars and no longer has access to them and cannot attack anyone else. This is particularly the case if the rapist was a man and the victim a woman; of course, a man who attacks boys and men and is sent to prison may well have access to vulnerable men.

This is where we start to see the US-centricity of this whole thread. The American legal system has particular problems; you have elected prosecutors and judges who are looking to score points with the public and media in expectation of re-election, for example. There have been cases where judges have adjudicated young people as delinquent because they had been receiving bribes from the prison industry; in other cases, there is covert lobbying by the prison industry to impose harsher sentences which make them more money. However valid the claim that the state’s goal is incarceration is in the USA, it is not the case in every country where there is a criminal justice system where the default punishment for serious crimes is prison. Historically, societies dealt with serious crimes that posed threats to public safety with either imprisonment or physical punishment, such as flogging, amputation and the death penalty; in many western societies, these have been abolished, either because they were seen as barbaric or because they were irrevocable and innocent people were known to be being killed. To do away with prison will mean society will have no means of keeping the public safe from repetitively violent offenders.

As for victims being forced into testifying: sometimes this is necessary to protect the public, or to avoid the collapse of the trial where there are other offences or defendants, or because large amounts of money have been spent on the trial, a jury dragged away from their lives and sworn in and so on. To make a point I will come back to: the purpose of prison is not just to punish, but to protect.

There are a few tweets following this about the traumatic effect of rape trials themselves: that victims’ accounts are scrutinised to make sure that the incident fits the legal definition of rape, that victims are questioned about what they were wearing at the time, and so on. These are not arguments against having rape trials or a ‘carceral’ justice system to deal with rape but in favour of reforming the way rape trials are conducted and eliminating irrelevant questions that are calculated to simply discredit the victim as a witness. As it is a fact that the victim’s dress makes no contribution to any rape that starts with an attack in the street, such questions should not be asked. Some progress has been made in this area in the UK; maybe not in the USA, or at least in many jurisdictions as laws on rape differ from state to state.

A rape victim experiencing mental illness after the conclusion of a rape trial may not be because she is dissatisfied with the outcome or the penalty; it could well be because this is the hurdle of the trial is past and this is the first time in months that she has time to think about the situation. Some feel intense guilt at having been responsible for someone else’s suffering (see, for example, Maya Angelou in her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, after the man who raped her as a child was murdered after she reported it; also, the 1992 interview in the Guardian with the victim of the 1988 London rape known as the “Babes in the wood” rape, whose attacker was jailed for 12 years, who said that this “seemed like too much power for a 15-year-old to have” but also that “when everyone else stopped caring, [she] started caring”). It shows the importance of counselling being available in the aftermath of a trial, whichever way the verdict goes.

Therapy is not a replacement for a criminal-justice response to a serious crime. It should not be linked to it at all. In the UK, rape counselling centres have been closing because of funding cuts linked to austerity policies; in some cases, abuse victims have been told not to access therapy before a trial as it could result in their evidence being deemed unreliable. There are other ways to “tell your story to an empathetic other” and other “empathetic others” besides therapists; they could be a relative or friend who believes you rather than instinctively doubting you or telling you all the ways you brought the situation on yourself. But none of these things are alternatives to punishment of the offender or getting them off the streets.

And the problem with using restorative justice as a substitute for a criminal-law penalty is that it assumes that the rapist is a first-time offender or is amenable to being taught the error of his ways or that learning to empathise with the suffering of his victim will necessarily ensure he never offends again. The truth is that many rapists are recidivists and that even if the victim that comes forward is his first, she might not be his last. There is more at stake than the feelings or ongoing mental health of this particular victim; everyone in society who might be a future victim has to be protected from him. There are two ways of doing this: imprison him, or kill him. And I am sceptical about empathy-based approaches to serious crime for the same reason as I am about its usefulness in tackling bullying; the offender knows that his behaviour hurts his victim; it is often the reason he does it. The traumatising effect of any of these things, of any element in a street rape, for example, is obvious. They often enjoy the power it gives them; to a torturer, like the torturer in Orwell’s 1984, ‘real’ power comes not only from making someone do what you want, but from making them suffer.

As for the effect of prison on the offender, of course prisons should be safe and sanitary and free of needless infringements of prisoners’ dignity; of course, they should be free of bullying and abuse. These aren’t arguments for abolishing prisons because society as a whole should be free of these things as well. As for it being difficult for ex-offenders to get jobs, many countries have a set time during which they may be required to disclose a conviction but if they are going into certain professions, this is for life, for the protection of whomever they may be working with (e.g. children, disabled people, sick people). Some US jurisdictions have particularly harsh rules on this, or allow employers to require any applicant to declare any conviction up-front (hence the recent “ban the box” campaigns in some states), but they can be reformed in such a way as to protect the public from the most serious offenders while leaving open the possibility of rehabilitation for the less serious ones.

There are cases where restorative justice can work in rape, but they are at the lowest end of the severity scale, where the rapist may not have intended rape as such or realised that this is what he was doing, or with disturbed juvenile offenders. Any case involving premeditation has to be dealt with through the criminal justice system for the protection of the public. If there is only one victim and no realistic prospect of conviction for some reason, it needs to be kept on file because of the very likely prospect of their being more. Prison abolitionism seems to be popular among a certain type of American idealist, largely because their criminal justice system is racist, corrupt and riddled with political interference, but we must not generalise from the American particular to every criminal justice system everywhere. The aim of the state should not be to incarcerate people for its own sake, but to ensure both justice and public safety and this sometimes involves imprisonment.

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999 (is no joke)

1 July, 2019 - 18:33
An iPhone screenshot of What3Words, showing a stretch of the M1 running north to south outside the grounds of Hardwick Hall. There is a dark blue dot with a square showing three slashes, and near the top is a box showing the words "neater, begun, reporting".What3Words’ three words for roughly where I saw the pick-up truck. Though “outside Hardwick Hall” would have been more useful.

Last Saturday I was driving an articulated lorry down the M1 in Derbyshire, on the way back from delivering a trailer load of Mars bars to a depot outside Chesterfield, and I saw a broken down pick-up truck partly obstructing the inside lane (as it was a “smart motorway”, which was installed in two to three years of roadworks a few years ago, there was no hard shoulder he could have pulled over onto). About a hundred yards further on was an overhead matrix sign showing a reduced speed limit because of a “report of obstruction”. I immediately called 999, as this is what you are supposed to do to report a hazard to life and limb (not just an ongoing crime or accident just happened). I got through straight away and when I asked for the police, I got through to them without delay. I then told the operator the issue and he asked me exactly where. I told him the number of the mile post it was nearest to; he told me that “Highways [England] use those; we don’t” and wanted an approximate distance between one junction and another, which I could not give him. Before ending the call, he wanted to know my full address and date of birth.

I must say, it was very surprising to me that the police did not have any way of identifying a location on a motorway from a mile post, as these are found along every British motorway and a fair proportion of A-roads, and in the early 2000s, when mobile phones started to be used routinely to report accidents, larger signs were installed every 500m so that drivers could see them more easily. If the police do not know where a given mile point is, they should — it should be easy enough for a computer to pinpoint a location from a milepost on any given motorway (and there is actually only one motorway in Derbyshire) and they should have a list of which point each junction is at. While I was trying to explain where the broken-down vehicle was, any number of cars and trucks were passing it, quite possibly narrowly avoiding it because the driver will have seen the matrix sign above before they saw the vehicle itself. And why the need for my address and date of birth? He could have just asked my name; he had my phone number as I have been called back by the police after reporting things in the past. 999 is for reporting emergencies, and time is of the essence; it is not for carrying out surveys.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, someone suggested I use the app What3Words on my phone. I was unaware of this at the time; it assigns a unique set of three words to every location in the UK which you can relay to the call handler in any participating emergency service so as to identify the location. Derbyshire police indicated on Twitter last September that they do use the app. However, reading out three random words on what might be a bad phone line (especially on a hands-free in a noisy truck cab) is not the most reliable way of doing this as there is a danger of the word being misheard or the operator misspelling it, even if they have taken trouble to eliminate homophones from the database. I have installed it; it works, and you can use Siri on an iPhone to bring the app up, but it does take a couple of seconds, and if you are doing 56mph (let alone 70mph), your location will have changed by the time it starts looking for the three words; Siri will not open it if you just say “hey Siri, which three words?” and if the environment is noisy, it might not understand you anyway. Quite apart from that, why should I have to install a third-party app when there are marker posts by the side of the road? Why is the police not availing itself of readily-available information?

Of course, I would likely not have had to make the call and distract myself from driving if there had been a hard shoulder and the pick-up truck driver had had somewhere to pull in rather than park halfway onto the inside running lane of a motorway with traffic doing 70mph. Yes, these motorways allow the ‘management’ to put lanes out of action and reduce speed limits when there’s a “report of an obstruction” but if they do not know where you are talking about when you give a specific milepost reference then they cannot do it very accurately, though it may well explain why speed limits are reduced over whole sections rather than the mile or so before the obstruction. It only takes a driver to be distracted for a second to hit a stationary vehicle and if you’re reading a sign that’s just above and beyond a hazard, you might not see the hazard until it’s too late. This is why I’m not convinced by ‘studies’ that show that hard shoulders do not in fact increase safety and removing them is quite safe; it’s very convenient that this discovery was only made when they needed to increase road capacity and did not have the money to actually widen the road. (If they are not necessary, why is the hard shoulder not used as a running lane all the time in places where it can be, such as Luton?) There should be no more of these; road safety should not be sacrificed for the sake of cheap extra capacity and if traffic is flowing at 60 or 70mph most of the time, there must be a hard shoulder or, as on most A-road dual carriageways, frequent stopping places.

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It’s in the Times.

29 June, 2019 - 20:11

Last week a detailed report into three stories ‘researched’ and written by Andrew Norfolk, the Times’ chief investigative reporter, was published, all of which involved Islam or Muslims, painted them in the worst possible light and demonstrated negligence about making sure of basic facts. One was the notorious Muslim foster care case from August 2017, about which the report reveals that Norfolk was advised by an expert not to touch the story as the details “didn’t ring true” but published it anyway; the others involve a Muslim-run charity in Yorkshire called Just Yorkshire which closed as a result of an inaccurate story by Norfolk in the Times, and the rapist (of Pakistani origin) supposedly given visitation rights to the child he fathered with his victim, which was not true, but what was done was in keeping with official guidelines (right or wrong as these may be). The report, by journalists Brian Cathcart (also a professor at Kingston University in London) and Paddy French, can be found in PDF form here at the Hacking Inquiry website.

A front page from The Times, with the headline "Corbyn too frail to be PM, fears civil service".Today’s Times front page

Talking of stuff that doesn’t ring true … the same paper had a story in today’s edition in which unnamed civil servants are alleged to speculate that Jeremy Corbyn is likely to have to step down before very long for health reasons, that he is too frail to be Labour leader, let alone prime minister, and that he is being “propped up” by his inner circle. People who actually know him say he runs every day and cycles regularly. Corbyn is 70 years old and while that is certainly not young, it is not extremely old by today’s standards, it is a good 15 years short of average male life expectancy, and lots of people that age are not frail nowadays. The idea of his being a ‘stooge’ and that the real power will lie with advisors or other shadowy figures is a classic trope of fear-mongering about the Left; think of the suggestions that “union bosses” (really elected leaders) will enter 10 Downing Street by the back door and call the shots, as was routinely alleged during Neil Kinnock’s time as Labour leader. Civil servants are not allowed to openly make commentary about politics; they are supposed to be neutral and to serve whoever is in government.

I’ve made no secret of my reservations about Corbyn. But this is classic right-wing fear mongering from the Murdoch press. The biggest cause to doubt this story is the masthead it appears under. It’s in the Times, a paper notorious for shoddy or malicious reporting which uses its past reputation as a cover.

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My Jewish friend, your Asian friend

28 June, 2019 - 18:00
A front page of the Spectator with the headline "Boris wants you! The former mayor talks to James Forsyth about Brexit, sovereignty and aubergines". It features a cartoon of Johnson pointing at the reader and wearing a "Vote Leave" cap. Other articles referred to include "The War on Trump by Jacob Heilbrunn" and "The death of Internet Freedom by Brendan O'Neill".“Boris wants you”: a previous adulatory front page from the Spectator about Boris Johnson and Brexit.

Yesterday I came across the outgoing edition of the Spectator at Smith’s and there were about four articles hymning Boris Johnson in anticipation of his crowning as prime minister, as was expected when it went to press. I thought it was the new edition, but that was on the shelves today and so I realised that those articles went to press before his row with his girlfriend became headline news. Today there was a little more of the same, including one from Conrad Black, former proprietor of the Telegraph group and the Spectator calling Max Hastings a ‘flake’ (despite his having employed him as editor of the Telegraph for nine years) and claiming he has more confidence in Boris Johnson than in Hastings, who is not running to be Tory leader or prime minister. But one of the articles, by James Forsyth, claimed that Johnson’s Britain would be a more liberal place than Theresa May’s and he airily dismissed fears about his racism and prejudice towards Muslims in a few short sentences. The piece does not seem to be on the website, so perhaps they thought better of it after last weekend’s news. But I’m sure the attitude is widespread.

The article referred to the incidences of racism as a few isolated sentences from his back catalogue and dismissed the idea that he is Islamophobic by mentioning Sajid Javid’s support for him. This last is a classic example of the “Black friend defence”, in which a person accused of racism falls back on having Black friends or on the support of one or two Black (or in this case Asian) supporters. Sajid Javid is in no way representative of Muslims, having risen to prominence in a party most British Muslims do not support, having a spouse who is not Muslim, having said that only one religion is practised in his household and it is not Islam. His right-wing White friends will of course never forget his origins, as we witnessed when others in the leadership race were invited to meet Donald Trump during his state visit and he was not; as an Asian friend of mine said, “they will never allow a P**i, even a ‘house’ one, to become leader”. We have to understand that anti-Asian racism is not the same as Islamophobia, which is prejudice against Islam itself or people understood to be Muslims, and Boris Johnson’s hostility was clearly in the latter category as clearly demonstrated during his editorship. As for the racist language, there were multiple incidents of it; it was not an isolated case of inappropriate language where the person responsible apologised. He was writing for a sympathetic audience which is more than willing to overlook the racism.

Also this week, the Derby North MP, Chris Williamson, was reinstated to the party (though this has now been overturned) having been suspended over numerous accusations of anti-Semitism; this action has led to widespread protests from Labour MPs, staff members and from people outside the party as well as sanctimonious condemnations from Tories whose party does much less than Labour does to keep much worse racists out. One of the more common accusations that has been made is that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters rely too heavily on the support of left-wing, often secular Jews (though there are a minority of ultra-religious Jews who loudly oppose Zionism as well), and ignore the ‘mainstream’ religious Jews who are sympathetic to Zionism. These people will cast aspersions on the Jewishness of members of Jewish Voice for Labour and Jewdas (claiming that they have one Jewish ancestor generations ago, for example) and have made it clear that their approval is no defence against any charge of anti-Semitism when it comes from the ‘official’ voices of “real Jews”, even when these groups are either self-appointed or not fully elected (e.g. elected from synagogues that do not allow women to vote).

I’m well aware that Boris Johnson is not in the Labour party, but there are many who are willing to do whatever it takes to stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister even if it means getting Boris Johnson instead (or another Tory who will give him a cabinet post, until Johnson stabs him, the country or some hapless Brit abroad in the back again). There is a sense, rarely expressed openly, that anti-Semitism is a prejudice apart that does not bear comparison to any other form of racism; the reality is that, despite some differences in how anti-Semitism has manifested itself over the generations, any prejudice can lead to violence, oppression, mass murder and genocide. There does not even have to be any visible racial or religious difference. Displays of revulsion at anti-Semitism (and willingness to accept the dictates of the Jewish ‘mainstream’ as to what is anti-Semitism, which they will not when a mainstream Muslim group alleges, or tries to define, Islamophobia) are simply how white middle-class people who will often tolerate racism against visible minorities or policies with a racist effect persuade each other that they are not the worst kind of racist. The real reason is that Jews are an acceptable minority: white, Anglicised and not associated with poverty.

So, let’s be clear: if you will not let Jeremy Corbyn or his supporters fall back on their numerous Jewish friends or the years of service some of them have shown to their communities, including Jewish members, don’t insult us by reminding us that Boris Johnson has a Pakistani friend or that, say, Zac Goldsmith’s former brother-in-law is Imran Khan. If you don’t mind shaking hands with Narendra Modi, on whose watch Hindu fascists staged a re-run of Kristallnacht in Gujarat when he was state governor, resulting in thousands of Muslims being killed and on whose watch as Indian prime minister Indian Muslims have been lynched on the pretext of slaughtering cows, please don’t be pointing fingers at anyone dubiously accused of anti-Semitism. Many a racist has Black friends. Many a racist has had sex with a person not of their race, or produced children with them. A racist politician is not the same as an ordinary racist; it does not depend on personal prejudice but on a tendency to use prejudice for political advantage. Boris Johnson has amply demonstrated both, over pages and pages in the Telegraph and Spectator. If Jeremy Corbyn as PM turns your stomach but Johnson does not, it does not make you less of a racist, just a different type of racist.

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Boris Johnson and the Stasi

24 June, 2019 - 23:01
A front page of the Evening Standard, with the headline "Boris's show of unity" with a picture of Johnson and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, sitting on wooden chairs in a garden looking at each other.Today’s Evening Standard, the London evening paper also known as the Evening Boris.

So, last weekend the story broke of a row between Boris Johnson, the man who looked until then as if he was certain to become the leader of the Tory party and Prime Minister, and his girlfriend at her house in south London, which was reported to the police and then taped by the neighbours and the recording sent to the Guardian. As I was on a delivery run to Kettering and Dartford last Saturday, I spent much of the day glued to Radio 4 which ran an interview with the author of a critical biography of Johnson, who had worked with him in Brussels and told us that he was notorious for his temper, and Allison Pearson of the Daily Telegraph who compared the neighbours to the Stasi, the former East German secret police. Over the weekend, Twitter was abuzz with two different narratives: one saying that many women have died because neighbours heard fights and other signs of abuse and did not call the police or otherwise intervene and that women have been saved because they did, and the other making Johnson out to be the victim of a politically-motivated action by nosy neighbours acting like self-appointed secret police and to take one example, from a pro-Brexit radio presenter:

I found the reference to the Stasi grotesquely inappropriate. The Stasi, like other secret police forces in other dictatorships, did not principally spy on their communist bosses but on ordinary people and particularly for any signs of dissent; it was an organ of the state and consisted of people employed by the state. Although it did use information sourced from ordinary people, it also relied on paid spies and informants and on people tempted by inducements and blackmail. What was reported in this case was not Boris Johnson using crass racial slurs, printing inflammatory nonsense about a minority community or expounding ridiculous theories about Britain’s place outside the EU; he does that in public, often in the same newspapers that have been backing him. It was a domestic argument that disturbed his neighbours and gave them concern for the welfare of his girlfriend, who (despite being of similar political mind to him) said things that ring true with many people: that he is selfish, spoiled, and unconcerned enough with money (because he’s never been short of it) that he thinks red wine on the sofa is no big deal.

Let’s not forget, the Tory press (and the smaller liberal tabloid press) have themselves behaved in a manner reminiscent of a secret police force over the years, relying on malicious stories, employing people to search people’s bins, using material from people who illegally access others’ voicemails, and using outright harassment with packs of reporters waiting outside people’s doors and following them down the street, such that people have sometimes had to be bundled into a car with a blanket over their head to avoid their demands. They ruin lives and end careers. Only a few weeks ago the Daily Mail ran a front-page story (and several pages inside) to an “expose” of Jeremy Corbyn filled with tittle-tattle about petty details of his private behaviour from so-called friends and maybe one of his ex-wives. If this is appropriate treatment for Corbyn, an incident of actual inconsiderate and possibly abusive behaviour from Johnson, who unlike Corbyn is likely to be appointed prime minister within a few weeks without a public vote, is just as much in the public interest. Come to think of it, another common feature of a dictatorship is a cowed or sycophantic press which is full of propaganda and this is exactly what the Daily Telegraph in particular looks like right now: one front page after another praising Boris Johnson, who has a high-profile weekly column, and attacking his critics.

I don’t think this incident would have become public knowledge if it were not for the fact that Johnson is likely to become prime minister without a public vote, and were not so obviously unfit for the job; if he had not displayed racism so repeatedly, if he had not sowed the seeds of discontent about the EU by fabricating stories while employed at the Telegraph, if he had not embarrassed this country repeatedly with his ridiculous remarks and exposed British citizens abroad to danger. His supporters seem at best absolutely blind to his faults and at worst they regard them as strengths, or as a sign of how powerful they are that they do not need to worry about pesky minorities that he has offended or, worse, endangered. The prevailing attitude among them seems to be: never mind the snowflakes. I even heard Vanessa Feltz today suggest that Johnson is the opposite of what Theresa May was accused of being, the “Maybot” always reading from the script and reciting stock phrases again and again; it was suggested that his “colourful” character inspires people rather than boring them. The Tories’ attitude to ordinary people was also prevalent in the assault by Mark Field on a Greenpeace activist who protested at a bankers’ and politicians’ banquet last Friday, which prompted a stream of Tory politicians to excuse an obviously unnecessary act of violence.

I don’t think that, politically, there is much to choose between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson; they are both Brexiteers, open to a no-deal exit from the EU, and both slavishly devoted to the US president and willing to follow Trump into war with Iran. Johnson is just more openly racist, a proven liar, a philanderer and a man with zero diplomatic ability. After seeing the disaster with Trump I do not believe anyone should be taking chances by calling for people with a vote to vote for him in the hope that he will lose a general election, or his seat; we cannot guarantee that there are not enough Labour members with an “anyone but Corbyn” attitude or Labour Brexiteers fearful for their seats to keep him in office. This man is simply unfit for any position of public responsibility whatsoever; he should not even be an MP, let alone prime minister, and it sickens me that he has got away with so much while people have been expelled from the Labour party for things interpreted as anti-Semitism which are much milder than the things Johnson has come out with in mainstream journals again and again. So, well done to the people who leaked this to the Guardian. If the Tory party had not been about to foist this wretch on all of us, it would not have been necessary. As it is, the disaster may have been averted.

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