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Review: The Theory of Everything

25 January, 2015 - 18:23

Picture of a young man and woman playing croquet on a lawn outside a grand stone buildingThe Theory of Everything is a bio-pic of Professor Stephen Hawking, the British professor of theoretical physics and former Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge university, who is best-known for his book A Brief History of Time and for being one of the world’s most famous severely disabled people. It tells the story of his life from his days as a graduate student in Cambridge, his romance and marriage to Jane Wilde Hawking, a professor of Romance languages on whose book Travelling to Inifinity the film is based, up to just after the publication of Brief History and his divorce from Jane. It stars Eddie Redmayne as Prof Hawking and Felicity Jones, previously best known for roles in The Worst Witch, Like Crazy and the BBC radio soap The Archers, as Jane.

I’d give this film 3 out of 5. That’s because it’s a very well-made costume drama — exactly the sort of thing the British drama industry does so well. There has been some criticism of the dominance of public-school products in the British arts recently and Eddie Redmayne, who went to Eton and then Trinity College in Cambridge, is one (although Jones went to a state girls’ school in Birmingham, though then to Oxford), but he is well cast in this role. He at least looks like Prof Hawking. I don’t think Felicity Jones looks much like Jane Hawking, though — there’s a page here which shows the real faces next to the “reel faces” — and none of the other characters looks much like their real counterpart. They’ve got the race and the sex right, but that’s about it. (I saw clips from a film called The Brooke Ellison Story, about a quadriplegic woman who went to Harvard and became a major advocate for stem-cell research in the USA, and for all the resemblance the actress bore to the real Brooke Ellison, they might as well have cast Whoopi Goldberg.)

The film’s a typical modern British costume drama. It’s set from the 60s to the 80s, mostly in Cambridge, mostly among nice middle-class Brits. Full of slightly scruffy but well-spoken men and very ladylike ladies. You hardly see a woman in a pair of trousers in this whole film. (Jane wears one to a holiday in the country, but it was a very dressy blue pair of trousers, which I suspect she’d not have wanted to get ruined by wearing it up muddy tracks.) If this film were fiction, it would be a very good bit of fiction — it’s a nice little tear-jerker and a film which doesn’t have stereotypical heroes or villains. But it isn’t fiction, or at least isn’t meant to be; it’s based on the life of a real person, yet a number of details throughout the film have been altered and while some of these are minor, there are quite a few big changes, and the story of how Stephen and Jane’s marriage ended is somewhat sanitised in Stephen’s and his new wife Elaine’s favour. The film over-emphasises Elaine’s role, depicting her as being the nurse that was finally able to get Stephen to communicate and to breathe a spark of life back into him, which Jane could not; in fact, she was one of several nurses hired after he lost his ability to speak, and Jane was quite good at communicating with the alphabet frame. I must say, it didn’t make me all that sympathetic to Stephen Hawking; I saw her as exploitative, and wondered how Stephen could ditch Jane, who was still beautiful (as you’d expect as she was played by an actress some fifteen years younger than Jane Hawking was at the time) and had borne his three children (you wouldn’t notice the signs of that on Jones either).

The film compresses too much into too little time. It glosses over too much. It doesn’t have much depth about the onset of Hawking’s impairment, nor about his science. It boils the science down to two or three of his papers, the ones that made the headlines, yet his role as a professor of mathematics and of teaching doctoral students over the years aren’t mentioned. I found the depiction of how he got his diagnosis improbable; it seemed from the film that the investigations that led to his diagnosis of motor neurone disease occurred after he fell and banged his head in a Cambridge courtyard, something which surely would not prompt that kind of investigation (in any case, it is one of the film’s many liberties with the facts). Jane Wilde’s book mentions that Hawking obstinately refused to get a full-time carer in as his condition took hold, even requiring his 9-year-old son to help him in the toilet; this was barely touched on in the film. I did think Jones’s performance reflects Jane’s frustration with her life with Stephen, in particular the demands his condition and his refusal to get help placed on her.

There is a scene towards the end where Prof Hawking is delivering a lecture in the USA, after he has left Jane and embarked on his relationship with Elaine Mason, where he sees a woman drop a pen in the audience, and it shows to him rising to his feet and giving it back to her, and then returning to his wheelchair. Of course, this is a fantasy, and it is not clear whether this is something Hawking said he fantasised about doing or wished he could have done at the time, or whether it is just the invention of the scriptwriters. Disabled film critic Scott Jordan Harris notes that this film “flickers weakly with truisms that can be mistaken for insight only by people who are not disabled, because it was made by—and for—people who are not disabled”, and this particular scene gives Eddie Redmayne the opportunity to jump out of his convincing portrayal of disability just for a moment. Myself, I think the scene should be judged on whether it comes from Hawking’s account or not; if it does, it no doubt reflects something that many physically impaired people (particularly those as severely impaired as he is) have experienced at one time or another. If not, it’s dishonest, unnecessary, highly unoriginal and quite unrepresentative of Hawking’s attitude throughout the rest of the film. I should add that while the film does show Hawking and his friends overcoming obstacles in their way, none of them are presented in such a way that it resembles an injustice. It’s not a campaigning film at all.

Despite being two hours long, the film really does not do the story justice. It could have been better done as a three-part TV series, but then, it would not have had the global reach and been nominated for Oscars. It’s a very well-made costume drama, but reading about all the liberties the team took with the story rather ruined it for me after it ended. It would be a fairly good film if it were fiction — but it’s not.

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“Due process”: the baneful legacy of Magna Carta

22 January, 2015 - 11:33

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, the treaty which protected the rights of the Norman barons during the reign of King John, and has since become a byword for long-established rights (even those not in it) both here and in other English-speaking countries. David Cameron has been harping on its virtues while campaigning to get rid of the Human Rights Act, which provides rights associated with a modern constitution and modern notions of human rights; Melvyn Bragg recently presented a four-part series on Radio 4 about the charter and the events leading up to its sealing. In the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne has criticised both the series and the political celebrations, the former for ignoring a charter issued around the same time which did protect common people’s rights and for glossing over how people’s rights have been trampled by this and the last government, and the latter for being full of hypocrites who themselves trample people’s rights. There is a crucial inadequacy in Magna Carta which has survived into both law and legal discourse throughout the English-speaking world to this day, which also should be considered when promoting its virtues above that of the Human Rights Act: the satisfaction with Due Process and the notion that it is synonymous with justice.

Right now, a man called Krishna Maharaj (below left) is sitting in a jail cell in Florida, having been convicted of the murders in 1986 of Derek and Duane Moo Young, both money launderers who worked for Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel based in Medellín, Colombia. According to the charity Reprieve, there were six people able to testify that he was 30 miles away at the times of the murders, but his lawyer did not call them (which means that they could not be called at subsequent appeals). He was initially sentenced to death, but because of the obvious corruption of the two judges in his original trial, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2002. Subsequent appeals to overturn the sentence have been rejected because the system refuses claims of factual innocence, only accepting appeals based on irregularities in the legal proceedings (e.g. evidence actually withheld at trial that could have altered the verdict). In one hearing in 2004, a magistrate rejected an appeal for a retrial for Maharaj on the basis that “newly discovered evidence which goes only to guilt or innocence is insufficient to warrant relief”, in what his lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, called “ten pages of nonsense”.

Picture of Krishna Maharaj, an elderly dark-skinned South Asian man wearing orange prison clothesI’ve followed other cases of miscarriages of justice in the USA, particularly the South, and a common feature is evidence of innocence being rejected on procedural grounds such as that it has been submitted too late. Another feature is the cosy nature of the legal profession in which judges are often unwilling to overrule other judges’ decisions, or verdicts based on their friends’ cases. In one case, a man convicted of murder had his conviction overturned at appeal, only for it to be reinstated by the same judge when the judge or prosecutor involved in the original case asked him to reconsider. In the UK, appeal courts will consider new evidence of innocence, but not an appeal based on the simple premise that a jury’s decision was wrong unless the defence can show jury misconduct. According to Dr Dennis Eady of the Cardiff Innocence Project, “the greatest problem is the court of appeal’s irrational belief in the infallibility of the jury and its demand for a few neat, precise, new and compelling appeal points rather than an appreciation of the holistic picture”.

Three clauses of Magna Carta remain in British law: articles 1, 9 and 29, and it is the last which states that:

NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.

As the reader will notice, this article only mentions “lawful judgment” and the “law of the land”; it does not stipulate that nobody be subject to criminal sanction unless he is actually guilty, and this oversight has been maintained, explicitly, in opinions by conservative judges in the United States in the present day. It is assumed that due process is sufficient to deliver justice, and fails to account for the system, or the people who work in it, being inadequate or corrupt. The article does provide that nobody be imprisoned or deprived of their property capriciously by the king or one of his officials, so it is still a progressive document by the standards of the time, but it still allows for injustice to be committed and then maintained on the basis that all the legal boxes have been ticked. Any modern constitution or bill of rights should stipulate that nobody be subject to criminal sanction unless factually guilty, and that the judiciary should allow innocence to be demonstrated without hindrance; it should not be assumed that this is the law just because it looks like common sense.

As I have said on this blog before, Magna Carta itself did not improve the lot of the common people of England at the time, only protect the rights of the nobility against the king. It is really no substitute for a modern constitution with a bill of rights, and for the present government to stress its virtues while campaigning for the abolition of the nearest thing we have in the UK to a proper bill of rights demonstrates that it is reactionary and that its aim is to disempower the common people and maintain the power of the rich. Their legal aid reforms have already deprived poor people of legal representation in many non-criminal cases, including housing and challenging custody decisions over their children, so we can see that they do not even believe in equal access to the law. Due Process can easily be a smokescreen, an excuse to turn faces away from obvious injustice leading to enormous suffering. Let’s leave the feudal past where it belongs: the Magna Carta may look like progress compared to 12th-century absolutism, but we do not congratulate an adult on the baby steps he took when he was months old. A modern state demands modern rights and modern protections for its citizens.

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Message to the animal rights lobby: women aren’t vermin

20 January, 2015 - 11:03

These days a regular annoyance is getting an email from a petition-hosting organisation (having absent-mindedly signed up for their emails when you signed a petition once) asking you to free someone who’s been “caged” for so many years and opening the email and finding that this someone is an animal, not a human being. The other day it was a bear which had been held captive in an ice-cream parlour (?!) for some years. As someone who has been following (and sometimes participating in) the efforts to get the illegal prison at Guantánamo Bay shut down and the illegally abducted detainees sent home, or to a safe place, it’s offensive to see an animal compared to them, or to a person held when they are innocent. The animal rights lobby routinely indulge in this tactic: during the protests against live animal exports in the UK a number of years ago, one woman was seen on TV comparing them to trains taking people to the gas chambers.

Usually, the comparison is with abuse of women, and although the organisations are run by men, there is apparently no shortage of female fanatics willing to let themselves be assaulted or humiliated by way of comparison with the fur, meat or circus industries. The other day I saw a video of some animal rescuers putting a man head-first down a manhole, and at the mention of animals I immediately assumed it was a grown-up version of the schoolboy bullies’ game of putting a boy’s head down a toilet and flushing it, and I thought “hey, makes a change from humiliating women, but could you try campaigning without abusing anyone?”. But no, the man being put down the hole was actually rescuing a duck, but it shows how the likes of PETA have coloured people’s views of animal rights or rescue organisations.

Picture of a woman standing outside a stone cottage holding a baby. She is obviously frightened as she can hear the hunt pack approaching.The latest example is from the League Against Cruel Sports, who three weeks ago released a video, What if it was you?, showing a young woman hearing the hounds approaching, putting her baby in a cot and then fleeing through some woods before being overrun, climaxing with a scene of the woman lying on the ground terrified, while the hounds bark off camera, before cutting to the now motherless baby lying in her cot. This is a grotesque comparison. Foxes are hunted because they are vermin; chiefly because they menace livestock, particularly when they are too old and sick to hunt wild animals. There is cruelty around hunting, and I do not believe the claims that many foxes evade the hunt by going to ground (because they are known to dig them out) or that they only kill old and sick foxes, and it causes other problems for people living in the surrounding areas, but it’s still not comparable to the abuse of a human being and in a country where a woman is killed every two to three days by men, and where official figures showed last year that more than 1.1 million women reported domestic violence of some sort in 2013 (and that’s not counting unreported violence), comparing a form of cruelty that’s not currently happening much (and is currently illegal) against verminous animals to widespread violence against human beings is offensive.

The video is part of a long-standing trend to consider the welfare of animals as being of equal or greater importance to that of people, or even people’s lives — consider the campaign of intimidation against people who breed animals for medical research which is vital to save human lives, and when cornered about this fact, they often resort to eugenic arguments — essentially, let sick and disabled human beings die. The majority of civilised people the world over regard it as quite acceptable that animals be used for milk, meat, clothing and other uses by people as long as there isn’t unnecessary or gratuitous suffering caused, i.e. cruelty. Perhaps some people regard themselves as equal or inferior to foxes or rats, but if you don’t, and you don’t think that of friends of yours who have suffered violence or abuse (and you probably know a few), think carefully before you share a video that compares the murder of a woman by a group of men with dogs to fox-hunting. That difference — it’s a woman, not an animal — is not a minor detail.

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No, not “regrettable errors”. Lies. #FoxNewsFacts

18 January, 2015 - 17:15

Image of a St Patrick's Day parade in Birmingham, showing at its centre a white woman and two girls playing drums, with various other white people wearing Irish flags and similar regaliaFox Correction: “We Have Made Some Regrettable Errors On-Air Regarding The Muslim Population In Europe” | Video | Media Matters for America

Fox News, on which a number of ludicrous and obviously false claims about British and French cities, that there were zones and “whole cities” where non-Muslims cannot go, have been made since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, has put out an “apology” in which they “apologised” for things that actually weren’t said. You can see the video at the above link, but here’s a transcript:

A correction now: over the course of this last week, we have made some regrettable errors on air regarding the Muslim population in Europe, particularly with regard to England and France. Now this applies especially to discussions of so-called no-go zones, areas where non-Muslims allegedly aren’t allowed in, and police supposedly won’t go. To be clear, there is no formal designation of these zones in either country and no credible information to support the assertion that there are specific areas in these countries that exclude individuals solely on the basis of their religion. There are certainly areas of high crime in Europe, as there are in the United States and other countries, where police and visitors enter with caution. We deeply regret the errors, and apologise to any and all who may have taken offence, including the people of France and England.

The impression I got when I saw the clip of Steven Emerson claiming that whole cities in the UK, including Birmingham, had become no-go areas for non-Muslims was that he meant non-Muslims were simply scared to enter, rather than that they are officially designated Muslim areas closed to non-Muslims. Birmingham is Britain’s (not just England’s) second city and has a population of over a million, more than half of which is White British (very few of them converts to Islam; as of 2011, the Muslim proportion of Birmingham’s population was 21.8%). So for Fox News to ‘clarify’ by claiming that they know of no evidence that there are formal Muslim-only areas in Europe really does not dispel the impression that Emerson and others have given.

The idea of Muslim no-go areas has been a common theme of Islamophobic scaremongers for years, and very often they play on the ignorance of a foreign audience. Areas where there are large concentrations of Muslims, where (for example) Muslims feel comfortable to wear traditional dress rather than western dress, and women often wear the niqaab, are presented as “no-go areas” where non-Muslims cannot go without fear. In fact, the area in London most commonly cited (the central part of Tower Hamlets) is crossed by several major commuter rail lines and two main roads out of central London, and also borders the Docklands and contains Banglatown, an important centre of the Indian restaurant industry, which often caters to non-Muslims and serves alcohol. Similarly, when John Reid was heckled by al-Muhajiroun during a speech in east London (in which he told Muslim parents to watch for signs of radicalisation in their children), the media was full of talk of how there should be “no no-go areas”, but in fact what was meant was “how dare you threaten us in our own neighbourhood” (see earlier entry).

Steven Emerson is not a junior reporter; he has been around a very long time and has spent much of that time stirring up hostility to Muslims. He is still most famous for trying to pin the Oklahoma City bombing on Muslims, when in fact it was the work of white right-wing extremists. His career should have been over with that ‘mistake’; that any network would still hire him reflects malice (journalists have been dropped from major networks and newspapers for much less). The claim itself can only have been a deliberate attempt to tell Americans that Europe is being taken over by Muslims and to shore up American support for Israel; if he had just heard that claim, he could have checked the truth of it by looking at the State Department travel advice, the Lonely Planet travel guide, or any other reputable source of information. David Cameron called him a “total idiot”, but really he relies on his audience being stupid, ignorant and too prejudiced to care about the truth of his claims.

Image source: Wikipedia; originally sourced from the Bongo Vongo account on Flickr. Published under the Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

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Walking into Trouble: How ‘shared space’ shuts blind people out

16 January, 2015 - 16:16

Some friends drew my attention to the above video, which is about how the ludicrous “shared space” fad (in which ‘street furniture’ is ripped out, pavements and roads levelled, and surfaces smoothed out to give a more open, less ‘cluttered’ appearance) is shutting blind people out of town and city centres across the UK. A scheme like this was recently imposed on a busy road junction near where my sister used to live, which has already started causing accidents, as has been reported in the local media. It also tells how these schemes have been bulldozed through, and the well-grounded fears of blind people, that they are dangerous for them as they do not provide the tactile clues as to where the road begins and the pavement ends, were simply ignored. (More: Rob Imrie on Vimeo.)

The people who made the video are from Leek in Staffordshire, where a scheme was imposed and blind people who said it would make them less safe and make it impossible for them to go into their town centres without being accompanied, as they have been doing for years. They visit a number of schemes across the country, including the notorious Exhibition Road in London, and the blunders and their effects on blind people’s ability to use (and cross) the spaces are obvious. The Dutch originator of the scheme did not even envisage the scheme as being for busy roads like Exhibition Road or the Hackbridge junction, but for low-traffic environments; but even in an area like Cliffe (part of Lewes in East Sussex), it shows its pitfalls and limitations; loading bays there are set into the pavement, not the road, in a way that no blind person can tell where it begins, so they end up walking straight into the back of a truck.

Roads without high kerbs are, of course, easier to access for someone in a wheelchair, and also make it easier to get goods from a truck to their intended destination without spilling them (anyone who’s tried that with an unwrapped pallet will know what I mean). But they are a huge obstacle for blind and partially-sighted pedestrians, something that was known about in advance but simply ignored. Also, the main blind people’s group involved in this video was the National Federation of the Blind, a small grouping compared to the RNIB, which was not involved in this project although they have some material about their ‘concerns’ about shared spaces on their website. Perhaps public bodies expect representations on behalf of blind people to come from the RNIB, and thought “NFB, who are they?”.

Shared space reflects a current trend in design, whereby everything has to be flat — consider how electronic user interfaces used to have sculptured buttons, and now all they have is rectangles in primary colours, or even just text (the change was most dramatic on iOS when version 7 came out; ‘skeuomorphism’, or apps resembling real-world objects, became taboo, or what might have been called oldthink in Orwell’s 1984). There has been much talk about clearing the streets of ‘clutter’, which includes benches, barriers, high kerbs, pretty much anything that makes the street look less flat, but little thought was given to the functions some of these items had. Of course, improving access for wheelchair users is vital, but the major supposed advantage of these changes is visual, which is of no use to totally blind people and the result makes life more dangerous for all visually impaired people — and for other types of non-wheelchair-using disabled people. Surely, the needs of some disabled people can be met without sacrificing those of others, and nobody’s safety or access should be sacrificed on the altar of a design fad. It will pass, like all the others did.

Some reports on the negative consequences of ‘shared space’ (thanks to the Sea of Change team on Twitter):

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How France can really ‘protect all religions’

15 January, 2015 - 16:49

François HollandeFrance ‘to protect all religions’ (BBC News)

The French president, François Hollande, has announced that France “will protect all religions” and that Muslims are the “main victims of fanaticism” in a speech at the Arab World Institute:

Speaking at the Arab World Institute, he said:

Islam was compatible with democracy and thanked Arabs for their solidarity over terrorism in Paris.

“French Muslims have the same rights as all other French,” he said. “We have the obligation to protect them.

“Anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic acts have to be condemned and punished.”

Mr Hollande said that radical Islam had fed off contradictions, poverty, inequality and conflict, and that “it is Muslims who are the first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism and intolerance”.

Speaking as a Muslim (though not as a French citizen) who has benefited, to some degree, from living in a democracy, I have to say that a democracy is only as good as its voters and that sometimes laws are needed to make sure some voters can’t trample over others’ rights. In the UK, the moderately wealthy can trample over the poor; in the USA, the whites have always done the same to the blacks, to one degree or another, and in France, and much of mainland Europe, the majority population always rides roughshod over any visible minority, whether it’s Jews, Roma, Muslims or anyone else.

Muslims do not need the French state to protect Islam. Allah protects His religion. There are always millions of people at any given time who have memorised the whole Qur’an, for example. We don’t need them to build mosques for us. We can do that ourselves.

The French state needs to protect Muslims in France. If Hollande is serious, he should do all of the following:

  1. Repeal the ban on Muslim girls wearing the hijab to school, at whatever age.
  2. Repeal the ban on Muslim women wearing the face veil in the street
  3. Abolish all bans on the hijab in public spaces and on identity cards, passports etc.
  4. Ban all local authorities, state bodies and businesses from discriminating against Muslim women on the grounds of their fees
  5. Similarly, ban the same bodies from trying to make Muslim children and young people eat haraam food

If Hollande is serious about protecting all French citizens, regardless of religion, he should show that he will have no truck with racism, xenophobia or chauvisism of any kind. This includes white feminists who think they know what’s best for all women, what makes femininity, freedom or anything else. As long as Muslims in France are daily confronted with bigotry and cultural white supremacist ideology, and as long as their women and girls are molested while white women cheer it on, they will know that France, its Republic and its culture have nothing to do with them.

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Panorama: an parade of irrelevance

14 January, 2015 - 17:55

John Ware and the director of British Muslim TV, climing a flight of stairs.So, on Monday night BBC’s Panorama responded to last week’s massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices by dusting off a 25-minute feature on “British Islam”, in which John Ware, who had fronted a previous ‘investigation’ into Muslim leadership which used secret filming and promoted the wholly unrepresentative Taj Hargey as the answer to everything that is wrong with Muslims in Britain, used the “Happy Muslims” video and various other snippets of one or two Muslim scholars saying offensive things to promote the idea that the root of terrorism is a “them and us” attitude among Muslims, rather than genuine violent extremism or western foreign policy. No attempt was made to prove a link between the massacre in France and the state of the Muslim community here, probably because there isn’t one. (You can see it here until next year if you’re in the UK.)

Interestingly, the programme didn’t even investigate the claim that one of the attackers had been ‘mentored’ by someone who ‘had connections’ to the Finsbury Park mosque, which until 2005 was run by genuine, violent extremists originally led by Abu Hamza until he was arrested. They were not just violent in terms of supporting armed extremist groups around the world; they were violent to other Muslims in various mosques, starting fights and, in one case in the mid-90s that I am aware of, disrupting weddings on the grounds that alcohol was being consumed (in a mosque, of all places — it wasn’t). However, the Finsbury Park mosque community more closely resembles, in terms of the backgrounds of its members, the French Muslim community than the British one. The majority of Muslims in France are north and west African; most of ours are South Asian, with other minorities (notably Somalis) dotted around.

Second, there was no investigation of real conflicts between sectarians and other Muslims in the UK. There is, for example, currently a fight to prevent a major mosque in north-west London being taken over by Wahhabis who are registering new members in large numbers to oust the presently mainstream committee. This is all over social media and any thorough investigation into conflicts in the British Muslim community would have revealed it, and people willing to talk about it (though perhaps not to John Ware). Of course, that a mosque in Britain which has a history of promoting a moderate version of Islam was under threat does not really concern the programme-makers; they are really only interested in telling non-Muslims that Muslims hate them.

The programme claimed that what it called “non-violent extremism” served as some kind of conveyor belt to terrorism, in the words of one of the interviewees, taking them to the door. “Extremism” no longer means promoting hate or hostility; it means ideas that are contrary to what mainstream society believes, particularly as regards the status of women, homosexuality or popular culture in general. The programme offered the notorious “Happy Muslims” video from last year as an example of how “good Muslims” behave, dancing to one of the year’s biggest pop songs. Lots of Muslims objected to that video and the culture of conformity and bullying surrounding it; the branding of people who objected to the demand that we approve of and share a video which was un-Islamic in many elements, besides being an irritating and banal song written and performed by someone whose other material was objectionable; the programme went along with the dominant view that these people were just puritans and killjoys. (They featured a video criticising it by a group of Muslim women in niqaab, but that seems to have been taken down.) This may sound appealing to some white, middle-class viewers, but it sets up a situation where Muslims can be found at fault for being too different, particularly when it could possibly cause any social difficulty. There is already an attack on halal slaughter by the self-styled animal rights lobby; it could be extended to portray Muslims as self-isolating by refusing non-halal meat, as well as social functions where it is going to be served. The upshot is that Muslims are only allowed to be Muslims in the sense of private belief and worship; in other words, kind of like another form of Christianity but with slightly different terminology, as far as outsiders can see. And that’s not Islam.

John Ware and an Asian man holding a piece of paper, with an old-style red British phone box behindThey also attacked Muslim satellite TV, the Islam Channel in particular, for cultivating a sense of victimhood or “grievance narrative” among Muslims, and for using slogans like “Voice of the Voiceless, Voice of the Oppressed”. Well, when the British media routinely cast Muslims in a bad light, when a publicly funded broadcaster puts out a hit job on Muslims in Britain when something happens involving Muslims in another country, when talk shows are full of jabbering bully-boy hosts like Nick Ferrari, manipulators like Vanessa Feltz, and bigots whose bigotry is rarely effectively challenged, perhaps a channel is needed to give a voice to those excluded by the mainstream media. In the middle of this is a segment on the murder of Lee Rigby, as if Muslim anger about western foreign policy will necessarily lead to murders in the street, and as if Muslims shouldn’t talk about it in case it does. Even the police said that the two men’s intentions were not known even to al-Muhajiroun, let alone to better established groups.

Britain’s Muslims are in many ways in a stronger position than those in France. The religious mainstream is based in traditional Islam, albeit a divided version of it which is heavily laden with Indian and Pakistani culture, but it does heavily rely on scholarship, not on ill-informed opinion. It is not compromised by having to survive in a dictatorship and do deals with politicians, as the scholarship in many Arab countries is: I have never heard it said of an Indian or Pakistani scholar (however much he may be criticised for anything else) that you cannot trust him as he’s in President or General so-and-so’s pocket. This is important in keeping some young religious people away from genuine (violent) extremists, who often call mainstream scholars sell-outs or infidels. Of course, neither mainstream conservative religiosity nor the “grievance narrative” of the likes of the Islam Channel will satisfy some people, whose grievances are fed by stories in the mainstream press. They believe it, if it fits their prejudices.

In short, it’s an unnecessary programme designed to stir suspicion against Muslims for something that Muslims in Britain have nothing to do with. It neither established, nor attempted to establish, a link between the Charlie Hebdo attack and British Muslims. There has not been a single successful terrorist attack in the UK since 2005 and only two attacks on individuals (the MP Stephen Timms, who survived and Lee Rigby), both committed by individuals, not groups. They provided no evidence that the concerns they raised had anything to do with terrorism, only speculation. Its message was “a good Muslim is one who isn’t too Muslim”: one who waves Union Jacks on demand, dances to pop songs and doesn’t think too much about foreign policy. Well, this type of Muslim who will sell other Muslims out for the camera will always be a minority.

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Charlie Hebdo and the limits of free speech

12 January, 2015 - 09:30

 hands off our benefits!'.Last week three gunmen raided the offices of the French ‘satirical’ magazine Charlie Hebdo (Weekly) and killed its editor, three other contributors, two policemen and various other staff (including bodyguards but some not named) before taking hostages in a Jewish supermarket the next day and ultimately being killed in a shoot-out with police. Charlie Hebdo is best-known as the magazine which printed a derogatory cartoon strip called “The Life of Mahomet” (sic), as well as a number of other offensive cartoons, including one portraying Egyptian demonstrators being shot while holding copies of the Qur’an, with a slogan saying said text is rubbish if it cannot stop bullets. The incident made heroes of a Muslim policeman, who was shot by one of the attackers outside the Charlie offices, and a Muslim shopkeeper at the Jewish supermarket, but otherwise has led to the usual demands (both from non-Muslims and unrepresentative Muslims) for Muslims to apologise for or distance themselves from the attackers, and a series of “solidarity” marches, including one today which is led by kings, presidents and foreign ministers of various repressive régimes, several of them in the Arab and Muslim world.

The media has been full of the predictable outrage from people who regard the attack on a newspaper — any newspaper — as an attack on the supposed fundamental western values of, among other things, freedom of speech. There have also been claims that satire has become cowardly, attacking ‘easy targets’ who will no longer bite back, like current and retired politicians, but not those who will, such as Islamists and Islam itself. The first is a lot of hypocritical nonsense, since these fundamental values only apply to newspapers on western soil; western powers have been known to bomb TV stations and support régimes which imprison and harass journalists, including several of those at today’s Paris march. Furthermore, some of the same people who expressed outrage at the murders at Charlie Hebdo supported the coup against President Morsi of Egypt, conveniently overlooking the principle that democracy means you tolerate a government you did not vote for or do not like. There are restrictions on free speech in both the UK and France; people are serving jail time in the UK for tweets which caused passing offence to a couple of hundred people on Twitter, while in France, the denial of the Holocaust and similar events elsewhere is a crime, and people have faced prosecution for defaming the French state and foreign heads of state.

As for the ‘cowardice’ of modern satire, the fact is that nobody would object to them targeting terrorists or the leaders of their movements, but these people (with the possible exception of the leaders of al-Muhajiroun) do not have the media profile necessary for any satire on them to mean anything to most people. Who knows how Osama bin Laden talked, or any of the leaders of Hamas or ISIS? All they would have to fall back on is stereotypes of Arabs or Muslims. Related is the persistent demand to reproduce the offending material in British newspapers (the same demand was made to reproduce the Danish cartoons). Why do newspapers not do this? Because they serve the public, which includes a large number of Muslims which they have no intention of gratuitously offending. The “cartoons of Muhammad” (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) are nothing more than western stereotypes of nasty Arabs; such attempts at satire by white, public-school educated men, aimed at a white, middle-class audience would degenerate into racism very quickly.

As ever, the media sought the opinions of anti-Muslim extremists, including Nigel Farage who proclaimed that this attack was the result of multiculturalism:

Last night, Mr Farage told Channel 4 News: “There is a very strong argument that says that what happened in Paris is a result - and we’ve seen it in London too - is a result I’m afraid of now having a fifth column living within these countries.

“We’ve got people living in these countries, holding our passports, who hate us.

“Luckily their numbers are very, very small but it does make one question the whole really gross attempt at encouraged division within society that we have had in the past few decades in the name of multiculturalism.”

He repeated the message on LBC Radio [a London-based talk station], saying: “What should have been done is we should have had a controlled immigration policy and made sure we did full checks on everybody who ever came to this country from anywhere - and that applies to everyone else.”

“We in Britain, and I’ve seen evidence in other European countries too, have pursued a really rather gross policy of multi-culturalism. We have encouraged people who come from different cultures to remain within those cultures, and not to integrate fully within our communities.”

This is all complete nonsense. France ghettoises its minorities, subjects them to harassment and discrimination, and routinely humiliates their women and girls. Britain, by and large, does not. During riots in 2005, the French prime minister referred to the rioters as “scum” and said France should use a powerful hose to clean the suburbs of them. While it’s true that Britain committed massacres and caused famines as a colonial power, its withdrawal was peaceful in most places; France withdrew from Algeria only after a war in which they perpetrated numerous atrocities against the native people. The majority of people in the UK who have become Muslim extremists were born in the UK or came here well before their politics were developed, so no screening before their arrival would have worked. By and large, Britain has done multiculturalism more successfully than France has, and Britain has had no serious terrorist incident in nearly ten years. The majority of actual violence has come from white racists, not Muslims or anyone else.

Of course, talk radio picked up this nonsense and ran with it. There has been a three-minute segment from LBC shared on social media, in which daytime host James O’Brien challenges someone who claimed that Muslims should apologise for what extremists do in the “name of Islam”. Sadly he took a rather silly tack, asking the caller, whose name was Richard, why he wasn’t going to apologise for what the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid had done in the name of all the Richards of the world. Vanessa Feltz took a call from some guy supposedly in Forest Gate complaining that his Muslim neighbours don’t mix, and that they will not allow their children to play at his house. Feltz did not really challenge him; she said that perhaps the reason was that he might serve them non-halal meat, but some might actually not want their children going to play at anyone else’s house, Muslim or not. He also complained that his children were being served “halalled meat”, as if it made a difference (it’s only what most curry houses serve), and then claimed that “they came here”, which Feltz did not challenge him on at all. The truth is that most of them were born here and cannot call any other country home.

There is an article on the French MediaPart website, in English, in which the author explains that Charlie Hebdo chiefly targeted the French National Front, then crooks including politicians and businessmen, then organised religion of all kinds, and “took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza”: “please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience”. While they could have attacked a genuine extreme-right newspaper, they instead hit “the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism”. The answer may be that their real motive was to cause outrage so as to force Muslims to choose sides, preferably theirs, but it is also possible that, being well outside any French intellectual tradition, they really knew nothing about what Charlie Hebdo carried except anti-Muslim front-page cartoons and various other offensive junk. Besides, cartoons that are defamatory to Muslims (or any other minority) that come from the Left, from people who purport to be committed to social justice and against racism, can be more damaging than the routine racism of the Far Right; it can certainly be of greater propaganda value, as it can be held up as proof that even their allies really despise them. (They are also valuable propaganda for haters on their own; nobody needs to see what else Charlie published.) I’m sure many a bigot has read that anti-Semitic screed of Voltaire and barely registered the grudging concession at the end: “still, we ought not to burn them”.

I would also take issue with the idea that the media is some sort of cornerstone of “our free society” and that any attack on it is a cornerstone of that. Only someone benefiting from a lot of social privilege — white and, to a lesser-extent, able-bodied privilege — could think that. They are a monied interest, a propaganda machine for their wealthy owners, and to many people a threat, continually printing and broadcasting inflammatory and distorted propaganda masquerading as news, which if not threatening to their life itself, is certainly threatening to their way of life and quality of life. It is not a matter of our faith being threatened intellectually by the crass insults of some decrepit moron who still thinks it’s May 1968. Violence has occurred as a result of what they print, but they cannot be held accountable unless they directly incite acts of violence; their code of conduct is written so that common abuses of media power are acceptable, and they are accountable to nobody. It is preposterous, as one of Charlie Hebdo’s surviving staff was reported as saying after the attack last Wednesday, that a newspaper is not a weapon of war: in every war, both broadcast and print media either assist or is shut down, either by force or because a populace geared for war deserts them. In Nazi Germany and Rwanda, and probably elsewhere, the media actively connived in genocide, printing racist cartoons and other propaganda, and in the case of Rwanda, giving directions to the gangs as to where to find victims. In both cases, directors were tried for war crimes, and in the case of Julius Streicher, of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, hanged.

We need to accept that the media is not the guarantor of freedom of speech, or of anything else, for some parts of society, and that we are not obliged to put up with lies and hate-incitement in perpetuity. Attacking the religion of a despised minority is not the same as caricaturing a politician; you may be sowing the seeds of their downfall, but it does not mean their embarrassment or resignation from a higher office to a lower one, maybe temporarily. It means their murder.

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Review of 2014

31 December, 2014 - 23:45

Picture of an elderly white man with a grey patterned jumper, reading the Observer with a magnifying glassTwo big things happened in my life in 2014. The first was that my Grandad died, in January. He had been living with us since the previous November, and had been getting steadily weaker. He was 90. My Nan had died the previous August at age 87, following a stroke; after this, he began to visit us every weekend (he hadn’t been out of the house much in the years leading up to that, only to the shops) and we thought he would have a new life, but his health declined rapidly a couple of months after that. They lived in a two-bedroom house in East Dulwich, which we’re currently selling for more than £500K.

The second (related, because I did it with money I inherited from him) is that I passed my class 1 driving test, which means I can drive any heavy goods vehicle. This took three attempts, and I approached three driving schools and had two bad experiences. I still haven’t had the £1,000 I paid to one driving school, which cancelled the lessons the day after I booked them and then insisted on holding onto my money, when I cancelled the refund when it looked like I’d fail a test. I failed the test largely because the school I then went to gave me a lousy instructor who got abusive when I didn’t learn at his pace. I then went back to the same school I passed my class 2 with in November 2013 and passed in early September. I’ve got an entry saved up somewhere about that experience, but haven’t got around to finishing it. There has been quite a bit of work going, and I’ve had one regular booking with a pharmaceuticals company in west London, driving an ‘artic’ out to Worcester every Monday. As I alluded to last Sunday, the CityLink failure may mean there’s less work to go round.

Blog-wise, my main interest has been the plight of people with learning disabilities in this country and in particular, the LB Bill, which aims to keep people with learning disabilities in their communities and with their families as much as possible, and out of the mental health system. People have asked why I’m interested in this given that I’ve not got a learning disability as such myself. The answer is that this is the last group of people who can expect to be separated from their families and put in distant institutions for no other reason than that it’s easier for other people to do that than to make an effort for them, or because no provision has been made, increasingly because of funding cuts. In the past, it was the norm for any child with a disability to spend most of their school life in a boarding school, and many of them found that they landed in long-stay institutions as children or as adults. I know how traumatic this can be, because someone is often suddenly moved from a loving home where they are a member of a family unit, to a large institution full of strange rules and often very hostile people, sometimes a long way away, and this is before any actual abuse takes place, which it often does.

Picture of Claire Dyer showing newly-painted nailsThe person I’ve concentrated on in my writing on this issue has been Claire Dyer, from Swansea. At the start of 2014, she was facing the threat of removal to a hospital in Northampton, which was a 4-hour drive from home. She and her family fought this tooth and nail, challenging the section which had been imposed on her in September 2013. Eventually, the doctor in charge of her affairs backed down on this issue, but insisted that the section remain in place. After another crisis in the summer, he again started scouting round for secure units he could put Claire in, as well as sympathetic clinicians who would attest to the “need” for this, without having met her. Eventually he found one outside Brighton, 230 miles from home, and after the family fought this in court and lost, she was moved there without a chance to say goodbye to anyone. Thankfully, three months later, with a mental health tribunal two days away, the responsible clinician there removed the section and discharged her home.

Claire came home in mid-October on home leave, and remained after the section was lifted. She and her family have just celebrated their first Christmas in years where they were all together and she did not have an institution to go back to. She’s also gone back to her old activities, like trampolining, and been to her first football match in years. They are still pursuing the idea of finding a bespoke independent living placement for her some time next year, but right now they are just enjoying family life together. Many autistic people round the UK, however, can’t enjoy this now. Tianze Ni, for example, who has been under section in a hospital in Middlesbrough, has only just started being allowed out of the hospital with his parents, who live in Scotland. He is being threatened with being moved to Northampton, even further from his family. Another young man, this time in a secure ‘home’ in Bradford, was allowed home for only a couple of days, and even this his carers tried to take away from him. Joshua Wills is likely to be moved back to his native Cornwall from Birmingham in 2015 after more than two years in a hospital unit there, but even this is hitting bureaucratic obstacles.

Picture of Claire Dyer wearing red sound-blocking headphones and a purple jacket, next to a fence at a zoo, with a goat behind itAnd how could we forget that some people are dying in these places, often because of neglect: because they were kept in a padded cell for years and allowed to eat themselves to death, or because their carers left them alone in a bath when they had epilepsy, or because their physiotherapy was abandoned, communication stopped and they eventually choked to death at night. And while the state has limitless resources to throw at defending legal actions, relatives of people like Connor Sparrowhawk and Nico Reed have to scrimp and save and ask friends to raise money for their legal representation at their disabled loved ones’ inquests.

This is why I blog about learning disability. If it were still blind children being routinely separated from their families and exposed to abuse the way I was as a teenager, I’d still be blogging about that. This is probably the most powerless section of society and which is suffering the worst neglect, with very little media attention, unlike when the same happens to elderly people. The Guardian published a lengthy article by Rebecca Solnit yesterday arguing that 2014 was the year women fought back against male violence in society and the threat of it online. 2015 should be the year we stand up and say “no” to violence and neglect against people with learning disability. Unlike the women in Rebecca Solnit’s article, not all of them can do it for themselves: we must all stand up for them.

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City Link failure shows limits of cost-cutting

28 December, 2014 - 12:09

A depot with a green and yellow City Link sign above, and several green Renault Premium trucks with yellow City Link trailers halfway out.City Link: 2,000 staff to be made redundant on NYE - RMT

Last week the British logistics firm City Link went into administration, with the potential loss of nearly 5,000 jobs once self-employed contractors and the supply chain are taken into account. The firm started as an adjunct to the British Rail Red Star parcels operation, allowing parcels to be transported by rail without the need for direct train links and actually delivered rather than simply held at train stations, but since British Rail was broken up in the 1990s, they had to provide their own distribution network. The company had been part of the Rentokil Initial group from 2006 to 2013 but was sold for £1 in April 2013 to Better Capital, who reportedly invested £40m in the company (a small amount according to the staff union) but could not turn around the company’s losses or find a buyer. They went into administration on Christmas Eve and announced it on Christmas Day, presumably once most of the Christmas parcels had been delivered.

I’ve worked for City Link only twice, a day each; once was as a van driver in south London (that was the time they had me drive around after 5pm visiting closed business addresses, just so they could prove the delivery had been attempted), and the second more recently as a class 1 driver out of their Heathrow depot. That time, I was misinformed as to what the job involved, the trailer had the wrong fittings so the curtain could not be secured adequately (I did report this, but was given the impression that the problem would not be fixed) and also lacked internal straps, which are used to make sure that pallets or cages cannot fall out, either in transit or when the curtain is opened (in this case, they put tall cages on the upper shelf of a double-deck trailer). So, I’m not out of a job myself, but as I don’t have a full-time job and most of my work at present is through agencies, I expect the competition to be tougher in the coming months.

The company had 2,700 actual employees, and the BBC report above gives a breakdown of where they are located. Three of the depots had one or two staff, which I am told were caretakers as the actual depots were closed in the autumn and their work transferred to neighbouring depots. That the company was closing depots for places that size (Reading, Leeds and Leicester, plus Newmarket which served much of East Anglia) should have rang alarm bells, particularly as some did not have obvious neighbours (like Reading and Newmarket). However, the company’s ‘investment’ consisted of introducing new uniforms and scanners, some of which the staff had to pay for themselves and which some users complained were unnecessary as the old ones worked perfectly well (although, perhaps, they were incompatible with the company’s new IT systems). People did know about the plans to close CityLink on Christmas Eve as someone mentioned this on a thread on the truck drivers’ forum TruckNet, although it was slipped into a thread about another company so went unnoticed at the time.

The failure of City Link should show up some of the problems with the way many large companies do business at the moment. More and more regular work is casualised, with middle-men having to be paid as well but the workers (drivers or warehouse staff, usually) getting less. Other work is converted from proper employment to self-employment, with the worker responsible for buying or leasing the van, his uniform and PDA to manage deliveries and communicate with the depot, and maintaining the vehicle also (but, of course, this cuts the unemployment figures and allows the government to claim an upsurge in “entrepreneurial spirit”). One of the companies which delivers on behalf of online and catalogue ordering firms, called Hermes, relies entirely on self-employed drivers who use their own vehicles to deliver small parcels; the recipient is unlikely to ever come across the name when doing business with them. That’s all very well if the vehicle is a car you owned anyway for personal use and the parcel delivery money was never your main income; if you bought a van to make a living delivering parcels for one company, still more if you invested in a truck and a trailer, and an operator’s licence, and a maintenance contract, and a place to store it, and the courses required to become your own transport manager, and you cannot find other sources of revenue quickly after your main or only source of business goes bust, you are going to be seriously out of pocket. And unlike the full-time staff, you will not be getting any redundancy money.

I’ve been working for agencies for more than ten years. The wages have scarcely gone up in that time. In Surrey, minimum wage caught up with the agency van drivers’ wages a couple of years ago; small truck drivers are not far ahead of it. About three years ago, agencies suddenly began offloading their payroll operations, insisting that drivers open up “limited companies” or become sole traders, handling their own tax affairs. Others farmed them out to “umbrella companies”, insisting that drivers could offset their fuel and food bills against taxation. However, the umbrella companies also took a cut of your wages for these “services”, so the apparent “pay rise” was actually clawed back and your £9 an hour was actually £8 or less (and that was before tax). Your holiday money is also paid up front. How much of this is down to competition from eastern European migrants I am not sure, but the industry also has very weak union involvement — they do not work well when workers often nominally “own the means of production”, are not in daily contact with each other and thus cannot encourage each other to join the union in the first place, to take strike or other industrial action, to bargain with their employers in any way.

And, of course, customer service is suffering as well. When you were expecting a parcel, you were once able to call your local depot and ask if it had been received and if it had been loaded onto a van. Now, if you have a number to call, it will be an 08 number to a national (or overseas) call centre. On many mobile phone contracts, all 08 numbers, including ‘free’ or local-rate numbers, are premium-rate and not included in your price plan (some new contracts do offer 08 numbers on the price, plan, however). They all now have online tracking systems, but all they will tell you is that the parcel is “out for delivery”, not where it is on the list of deliveries, and some of them simply do not work on mobile devices.

The fall-out from City Link will be typical of the state of employment in the UK generally: the decline of wages, the decline of ‘proper jobs’, i.e. full-time employment with a company, the rise of part-time self-employment, casual labour and under-employment at a time when the cost of living in some parts of the country is rising and 2-bedroom houses sell for what used to be the cost of a mansion. It goes to show that you can cut your service standards and your employees’ standards of living to the bone and still go bust. We need an end to fake self-employment, which is nothing but a scam that allows companies to offload their liabilities onto their staff. Of course, it will take a government that is minded to act on behalf of ordinary people and not just their rich party donors and friends. Perhaps the failure of City Link could not have been avoided (or perhaps it should have been wound up sooner) but we can make sure that workers are paid off properly and not left with what should be the company’s own liabilities.

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Nick Cohen shows his irrational hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood

21 December, 2014 - 15:32

Why must we tolerate police spies in our midst? | Nick Cohen | Comment is free | The Observer

Nick Cohen, as long-time readers will know, has a long-standing hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well he might, being an atheist secular liberal while they are a religiously-based party. When hundreds of thousands demonstrated in central London against the Iraq war that he supported, he ignored the people marching and looked only at the organisers — the “enemies of economic freedom” (communists) and the “enemies of sexual freedom” (the Brotherhood). This was a common theme of bourgeois liberal critics of the anti-war alliance. In today’s Observer, he has a long article denouncing police spying on environmental campaigns, setting the scene for another dig at the Muslim Brotherhood, all Muslim groups which included any of their activists, and non-Muslims who supported them. In this case, it was Bob Lambert, a former police spy who was the head of the Muslim Contact Unit from the time it was established in 2002 until he left the force in 2007 and went into academia. He has been exposed as having been an agent provocateur, helping to write the pamphlet that became the focus of the McLibel trial, as well as fathering a child with a member of London Greenpeace, and then abandoning both of them when the police pulled him out.

After his long ramble about the police demanding to know who would be at an environmental debate in Canterbury and Lambert’s role in McLibel, he claims:

There are grounds for believing that Lambert carried on as a provocateur when he went on to run the Met’s Muslim contact unit after 9/11. He allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and other elements on the Islamist right. As the neoconservative writer Douglas Murray noticed this month, he secured their confidence by presenting “a small number of people, including me, as cold war-style enemies of Islam” – a dangerous charge to throw at anyone in fanatical times. Murray wants to know if Lambert was trying “to smoke out radicals by using me and others as bait”. If you believe the official line, the black ops have stopped and thus there cannot be “deep swimmers” in today’s anti-fracking movement urging it to be ever more extreme in the hope of discrediting its cause. All is well with our democracy. There’s no need now for comparisons with Russia.

To compare Lambert’s role in the MCU with being an agent provocateur is preposterous. The American police use such agents; they pose as converts to Islam (or sometimes they come from Muslim backgrounds) and their main tactic is to incite young men to join them in fictitious terrorist plots and then arrest them, or denounce them to their handlers. If the police had wanted to infiltrate the Muslim Council of Britain or any other group, they could have done so by using a fake convert or a compromised individual. Bob Lambert used his own name and took a conciliatory position, and supported the groups that were trusted by the Muslim community (despite theological differences) at a time when outsiders were trying to impose other “representatives”, sectarian outfits like the so-called Sufi Muslim Council, on it.

It would not have been difficult for Lambert or anyone else to portray Douglas Murray, currently editor of Standpoint magazine, as an enemy of Islam or Muslims — there is plenty of evidence of it in his own articles and speeches. Most notoriously, in his Pim Fortuyn Memorial Conference speech in 2006 (reproduced in full here), he advocated withdrawing freedom of speech from Muslims, and punishing any expression of support for Muslim hostility to western countries or western troops abroad with deportation, if not to the country one came from (as that might be the UK) then to the country of origin of a parent or grandparent:

All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop. In the case of a further genocide such as that in the Balkans, sanctuary would be given on a strictly temporary basis. This should also be enacted retrospectively. Those who are currently in Europe having fled tyrannies should be persuaded back to the countries which they fled from once the tyrannies that were the cause of their flight have been removed. And of course it should go without saying that Muslims in Europe who for any reason take part in, plot, assist or condone violence against the West (not just the country they happen to have found sanctuary in, but any country in the West or Western troops) must be forcibly deported back to their place of origin … Where a person was born in the West, they should be deported to the country of origin of their parent or grandparent.

I posted my own response to his speech at The Sharpener, but since that blog closed, I have since re-posted it here. Murray also spent years using his so-called “Centre for Social Cohesion”, supported by Civitas and run out of the same premises as the Tory think-tank Policy Exchange, attempting to infiltrate mosques and Muslim organisations to make it appear as though they were extremist or supporting extremism, and his “exposés” often received a lot of press fanfare, but on closer examination they often turned out to be baseless. Among Murray’s other attempts to stir up baseless hostility to Muslims:

  • An opinion poll (of 600 students!) that ‘revealed’ that a large proportion supported ‘killing in the name of Islam’ (2008)
  • An incident where he pretended to have been ‘ambushed’ into debating with al-Muhajiroun, when in fact the group involved could have easily been identified as such in advance
  • A claim that a Muslim woman quoted in a newspaper was an ‘Islamist’, when no evidence for it existed
  • An attack on a proposal for a so-called “mega-mosque” a few streets away from the former World Trade Centre site (in fact, it was 13 storeys — not at all ‘mega’ for that part of New York — and not run by extremists at all)

You can search for material I’ve written about Murray, or just use this link. I think it demonstrates that he is in fact an enemy of the Muslim community who has been using his platform in the media to foment popular and political hostility against us for years. Murray claimed in his blog on Standpoint’s website that it is possible that his presentations, in which he showed a slide-show of “culprits” including Murray, “constituted some kind of effort to smoke out radicals by using people like [Murray] as bait”. However, if you went home and Googled Murray’s name (that was before most people could have done that with a smartphone in the room), you would find a wealth of material that demonstrated that what Lambert claimed about him was largely true. The worst Murray can find about the results of Lambert’s presentations is that “a contact” had heard a Muslim in the audience say that it was “the time for actions, not words”, so if Lambert’s aim was to “smoke out radicals”, he would have been more effective if he had called himself Rasheed and grown a beard.

Much as I agree that Lambert’s behaviour with London Greenpeace and the mother of his child was despicable, and it meets at least some definitions of rape (not least my Oxford dictionary’s, which includes using “fraudulent means” to obtain sex), I do not actually believe his role with the Muslim Contact Unit was insincere. That Nick Cohen makes this claim demonstrates that he simply has a hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood that goes beyond any rationality. It also, by the way, demonstrates his tactic of writing a long article about an uncontroversial matter or civil liberties or science, for example, then using a spurious parallel to get in a plug for one of his pet causes. For example, in this piece from 1st November, he starts off by praising medics who treated Ebola patients and then defied ‘irrational’ quarantine rules, and then sidetracks it onto attacking people who are against putting flouride in drinking water, which actually is a threat to some people’s health even if not everybody’s, and is unnecessary given that fluoride toothpaste is readily available. His arrogance shows in his liberal use of logical fallacies: the false appeals to authority, the use of snide remarks as a substitute for argument, putting ideas with some merit that he disagrees with alongside plainly baseless ideas (e.g. that global warming is a myth). This is a tired, lazy writer who has long since passed his sell-by date.

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Discriminatory on every level

14 December, 2014 - 10:46

'Welcome to Britain' sign at Heathrow airportMan faces deportation as UK wife’s salary too low

Last week a couple found out that they had been refused the right to settle in the UK and would have to split or resettle to the husband’s home country of South Africa (which is what they have decided to do). The reason was that the British wife’s income, at £19,786 for 2014 (she runs a craft-making business in Cornwall) was too low for a couple with a child; the British spouse must make £22,400, while if they do not have a child, the threshold is £18,600). This is ostensibly so that someone cannot bring in a spouse and expect the state to look after them, but this does not appear to have been the case here. A female friend of mine posted yesterday that the ruling was “inhumane and sexist”, the latter because it is more likely to discriminate against women because they tend to earn less money than men. However, it is discriminatory on every level you can think of. As the BBC article points out, average earnings in Cornwall and in much of northern England are around half of that of London and parts of the south-east, so someone on about average earnings for those regions would be more likely to fall below the threshold, while someone living in London is more likely to (although actually, there are plenty of people in London making around the threshold or less, and are much less likely to be able to afford a house on a single salary).

A further impediment to most British people on that kind of money being able to afford to bring a spouse over is that not many jobs will actually allow someone to spend time out of the country with them while building up their relationship enough to justify marrying them. Many people nowadays meet their overseas spouses on the Internet and have online chat and video conversations before travelling to each other’s countries. The latter part is expensive, and one or other spouse will have to take time off work. That’s easy enough if you can get enough casual work and don’t have to pay rent (or more than a nominal sum to one’s parents); if you’re actually doing a job that pays £19,000 a year, you are unlikely to be able to take more than your annual leave and expect to have a job to come back to (although much the same can be said of people earning more than that in nine-to-five jobs). That leaves another group of people: those who met while the foreign spouse was in this country for other reasons, such as as temporary work, studying or a holiday. If they are here long enough, they could have had a child born in this country, yet if the British partner fails to earn enough money, the other parent could be sent home and the child lose one of their parents, or have to move.

The rules are also racist in their intent: their purpose is to control the numbers of Muslims by preventing those from the northern ‘ghettoes’ from bringing spouses from the ‘village back home’ — and it is always assumed to be a village, never somewhere like Lahore, and among other assumptions is that they are illiterate (or at least under-educated) and the marriages are abusive. This behaviour has its problems, not least the persistence of Urdu and other South Asian languages as the main language of instruction in mosques, generation after generation of children born in the UK whose first language is not English, and the division between this longer-established community and more recent groups of immigrants (e.g. Somalis) and converts. However, media discussion of the ‘problems’ coming from Pakistani ‘ghettoes’ in Bradford and other northern towns neglects to mention discrimination against them, bad schools, and the fact that many of the industries that used to provide jobs to these communities have been destroyed. There has been agitation to curb this immigration for some years, often from pro-Israel elements and others concerned with ‘security’; Denmark raised the age for bringing a non-EU spouse into the country to 24, although the rules do not apply if you bring them to an EU country other than your own. Britain raised them to 21, but this was found to be against the Human Rights Act, forcing the government to set the age to 18, which is what led to this latest set of discriminatory rules.

Still, there are surely ways of ensuring that ill-educated spouses are not brought into already deprived communities without affecting the majority of the population, including Muslims without any links to these communities. For starters, countries where English is the majority language, or where there is a significant English-speaking minority, should be excluded from the rules (i.e. Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), because most English-speaking British people who find a spouse through an online relationship will find them in one of those countries, and the numbers are going to be much smaller than the number of EU migrants who come into the UK, many of whom do not speak good English (although their English is often better than our French, let alone Polish), because the expense of travelling to those places is much greater, and you do not need to be wealthy anymore to have access to the Internet. We should understand that allowing genuine spouses into the country so that a British person can live with their spouse in their country is not going to produce an unmanageable flood of immigrants; we should also understand that children need both parents and their lives should not be disrupted by constant moving and school-changing to solve a demographic problem that has nothing to do with them. It is not the children who chose their parents’ marital circumstances; it is their right to a family life that should predominate.

These rules are classist, Malthusian, and discriminatory on every level. They are cruel and they split up strong families for no good reason. They are made for a pre-digital, non-interconnected age where establishing contact with people in other countries was difficult. There is, and has long been, a tendency to force the British spouse to move away, supposedly because other countries (like the USA and Canada especially) have the room, and we don’t (and Australia does not; it had a 10-year drought, and there is no reason to suppose there will not be another). There is, of course, no impediment to rich foreigners coming in, spouse or no, buying up property at inflated prices and making Britain, and London especially, a more expensive place for everyone to live. We need fresh blood at every level, not just the top in terms of wealth. The immigration and citizenship laws are pretty much unique in maintaining outdated and discriminatory rules, such as not automatically allowing parents to pass on their citizenship, depending on age, sex, marital status and where the children were born. This must stop.

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Quality, not quantity

13 December, 2014 - 12:10

Picture of Nico Reed, a young white man with very short hair wearing a striped T-shirt, in a wheelchair with a leather harness, smiling.On Thursday the inquest into the death of Nico Reed, who died in a Southern Health supported living unit in Chalgrove, Oxfordshire, returned a narrative verdict which stated that his death was the result of “aspiration of gastric contents” with an “underlying cause of cerebral palsy”. He found that Nico could have been saved if he had been checked every 20 minutes, as stated in the care plan, but that this was intended as a guideline and could only be a guideline as there was only one members of staff at night to look after four severely disabled residents. Yesterday BBC Radio Oxford covered the inquest result, which I was able to hear as my work took me to Reading and Newbury which are well within range, and I caught a phone-call from another parent with a son or daughter in the same unit, who called up to defend the unit and the Trust, saying among other things that checking him every 20 minutes would have been intrusive. He also attacked the “nasty blog campaign” against the trust (you can add this blog to that description, but he mainly meant people like Nico’s mother Rosi Reed, Sara Ryan (whose son Connor Sparrowhawk also died in Southern Health’s ‘care’), George Julian, Gail Hanrahan, Mark Neary, Justice for LB, People First England and a few others), at which point the host, Phil Gayle (who has covered the Southern Health care scandals in depth) cut him short. (You can listen to it online here for the next four weeks; it starts at 2hrs 7min. You can also read Sara Ryan’s write-up of the Southern Health rep’s performance.)

The story of how Nico came to be in that home and what happened to him there is told in more detail in this blog article from last June (again, from one of the ‘nasties’ or the ‘harpies’ as that parent previously dubbed the mostly female group of bloggers; see also here). He had been in a boarding school up to age 18, but when he reached school-leaving age, there had been no suitable adult provision, and his parents were told that unless they accepted what they perceived to be an inadequate local home, he could be transferred to a ‘place of safety’ which could be anywhere in the country, “and once there it would be almost impossible to get him out”. When he was moved to Barrantynes, the quality of his care deteriorated; at his school, the staff had developed ways for him to communicate, but these were not followed at Barrantynes and he lost the ability to use them as a result. They also neglected his physiotherapy which he needed to keep his breathing and swallowing muscles working properly; as a result, he developed muscle spasms and a tendency to choke on his saliva.

The conclusion is that if more attention had been paid to Nico’s quality of life while he was alive, and especially in the period after the transfer from Penshurst school, the circumstances that led to his death might not have happened. Although Nico had been diagnosed with a learning disability, Nico’s mother has written (long after his death) that she believed he did not have one, and challenging behaviour was also not an issue. Was his apparent ‘learning disability’ purely the result of a lack of ability to communicate with him? (There is another example here of a person who lacked any ability to demonstrate that she had intelligence or understanding, but when it came to the crunch, did so.) Although the Trust described him as a popular resident at the unit, his mother said he had become “thin, depressed and frightened” and his family were looking at ways of adapting their home so they could look after him there, but he died while this was being looked into.

The blog campaign I am part of is not about crucifying NHS trust staff for the sake of it. It is about making sure people with learning disabilities and severe physical disabilities that may manifest as such, have a quality of life such that they are not miserable or frightened: that they are not unduly separated from family, that they are not held in cells for years on end like an animal, that their physical needs are taken care of, that their families are not excluded from decisions about their care unless it is absolutely necessary, that they cannot be subject to unjustified mental health-oriented treatment, that decisions cannot be made about them without them, or if that is unavoidable, without their families or close friends, for the convenience of carers or clinicians or to save money, and that services do not drop off a cliff when someone turns 18. If we can ensure this then we might avoid future discussions as to whether someone could have been saved from choking on their own vomit if they had been checked on every 20 minutes as they slept, because that’s a pretty miserable way of being kept alive.

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Tories’ “£15bn roads revolution” is a pre-election con

1 December, 2014 - 22:30

Today the government announced their intention to spend £15billion on an ambitious set of new road projects, including improvements to several junctions on the M25, a tunnel near Stonehenge on the A303 and the dualling of the A1 north of Newcastle as far as the Scottish border. The reader may have already guessed that there is not the time to do even one of these things before the next election in May next year. A few of these schemes, however, simply will not happen.

To begin with, a brief look at the press releases (like this one for the South East) show that many of the schemes included are already underway or completed, such as the ‘upgrade’ of the M25 in Kent to “smart motorway” (meaning four lanes, no hard shoulder, with some new gantries and flashing light signs) and the widening of the A23 south of Crawley. A good few are in obvious marginal constituencies — the plethora of schemes in East Anglia are obviously intended to buy off UKIP voters, for example, while the target in the south (as with the A303) appears to be the Lib Dems. Some of them are indeed schemes which have been demanded for years, whether by motoring organisations or by local groups, such as the Stonehenge tunnel. Some are old schemes resurrected, such as the dualling of the A358 so as to link the A303 with the M5 at Taunton. Others are schemes previously abandoned because of the unacceptable environmental impact, such as the improvements to the A27 in West Sussex. Some of them, however, are just pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

A good example is a proposal to upgrade junction 10 of the M25 (right); the press release describes an “improvement of the interchange to allow free-flowing movement in all directions, together with improvements to the neighbouring Painshill interchange on the A3 to improve safety and reduce congestion”. It also calls that junction “the least-safe junction on the motorway network”. It’s true that this junction, which consists of a roundabout with slip roads leading to both the M25 and A3, which both flow freely below and above the roundabout, is a major cause of congestion and that queues leading up to it often stretch back a mile or two in all directions (particularly on the A3). However, there is a reason the junction was built like this, which is that the A3 at this point is not a by-pass but part of the old Portsmouth Road and has no alternative route. It carries pedestrians and cyclists as well as cars, has bus stops and direct accesses to properties including a hotel.

If you look at a detailed map, you will find that nearly all free-flowing motorway interchanges are with other motorways, not A-roads, including dual carriageways. All the M25’s junctions with A-roads are of the same type, i.e. the “three-level roundabout” with free-flowing roads above and below it, linked by slip roads (e.g., the A1, A12, A127, A13, A2 and A20). In theory, this means a cyclist can get across the junction without having to cross traffic entering the slip road, then have to use a windy flyover and then cross the fast-moving joining traffic. Without building an additional service road, it would be impossible to upgrade the Portsmouth Road to anything like motorway standard.

Also, the junction could not be remodelled on the same lines as current free-flowing motorway junctions without demolishing the current one, and that would raise the question of where all the traffic would go. The result would very likely be a gigantic interchange with a big hole in the middle, or two flyovers both built above the A3, so as to avoid interfering with the roundabout too much while the new junction is built. And any new junction would be vastly bigger than the present one (an advantage of the three-level roundabout junction is that they are smaller than other types of interchange), in an area where land prices are among the highest in the country; at least some of the land surrounding the junction appears to currently be used for public recreation, which is likely to cause public and environmental protest.

And improving this junction may, when (if) it’s completed, relieve the queues leading up to it, but it will not stop queues on the M25 itself backing up onto the A3 and may well lead to more people using that route rather than some local roads (the A309/A308 corridor from Hook to Staines in particular) which will add to traffic on the M25 and defeat the object of the whole scheme. I have not seen any detail of this scheme published yet, either on the Highways Agency website or on any news site, so I am not even sure if they have thought of what kind of junction to build. The most they could build is a couple of left-turn filter lanes. Anything else would be hideously expensive and take ages. This won’t happen.

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The stupidity of feminism part 1,553: throwing Billy-no-mates under the bus

29 November, 2014 - 16:27

A yellow road sign showing a bus, a person with his foot out, and a person falling under the busA letter to … the girl who accused me of rape when I was 15 | Life and style | The Guardian

I knew when I saw this piece in today’s Guardian Family supplement that it would provoke a torrent of outrage from feminists that the matter of false accusations of rape by women and girls is even being discussed. (Incidentally, in the Saturday pages in the main section, there is another article on how Legal Aid Cuts are putting victims of domestic violence in danger, something the paper has covered at length.) Sure enough, within an hour I saw a series of tweets from a radical feminist claiming that what the boy did is rape even if it wasn’t, because the girl was 13 and drunk.

The tweets went:

At this point, you will notice that she ignores the fact that the boy was 15, and not in law an adult, as the words “young man” seem to imply. The article states that, in fact, both the author and the girl were drunk, as was their friend. Who was more drunk, and whether they were drunk enough to impair their liability, is not stated in the article. It could be that the girl was more drunk, or that they were all very drunk or a bit drunk. Someone (some adult) should not have allowed them access to so much alcohol, or perhaps they bought it from a shopkeeper who was negligent in selling it to them, or perhaps they stole it; we don’t know. We know that if a woman is so drunk as to be insensible, then having sex with her (regardless of one’s relationship with her) is rape, but this girl was not so drunk that she could not remember it only a few hours later. Her contention appears to have been not that it was rape because she was 13 and drunk, but that he actually raped her. Note: that word ‘raped’ I used was English, not legalese.

Neither can 15-year-olds, male or female, and the 2003 Sexual Offences Act removed the anachronistic doctrine that it was always the male that was committing the crime, whether or not he was below the age of consent or indeed younger than the female. The Victorians did not even consider the possibility that a 13-year-old boy would want to have sex, or that any female would want to have sex with him. We know that the girl was a year and four months younger than the boy. He was probably the year above her at school; as he was in care, however, his education may have been sufficiently disrupted that he was in the same year as she was. As anyone who has been in a British secondary school (that is, anyone who was not home-schooled throughout their education), young people will more often know what year group someone is in than what their age is. He will have seen her as a peer. They were both in the same legal age range, i.e. from 13 to 15; below the age of consent, but above the age (12 and below) where sex is actually classed as rape — even then, however, the law was not envisaged to be used against people just above that age, but far above it (e.g. a 16-year-old having sex with a 12-year-old, let alone a person in their 20s doing the same).

No they’re not, because British law does not classify sex with someone under the age of consent as rape. It never has done; that’s American law (or rather, the law in some US states). In any case, the fact that the law does not recognise consent does not mean it does not exist. Teenagers under the age of consent consent to sex, usually with others of the same or similar age, every day. It just so happens that the law and police practice recognises gradations of maturity: children under 13, minors under 16, young people and adults over 16, people over 20 in a position of trust. Even so, fiction is fiction, even when written in stone.

This is fairly typical of the feminist pattern of conflating legal doctrines that suit them with fact. Look at any feminist article on abortion, for example (and some of them demand abortion on demand right up to term), and you will find repeated in every one of them the legal doctrine that “a fetus is not a person”, i.e. they are not a legal person who can sue or be sued. That does not mean it is morally acceptable to kill them for no reason, especially if they are developed past the point where the mother can be relieved of her pregnancy without the loss of the child’s life; this is why the law as it stands does not allow it. However, some legal doctrines do not suit them. The law held until recently that women were not persons, and that slaves were not persons. It also held until much more recently that rape was not rape if the attacker was the woman’s husband. It is rather amusing to watch them picking legal doctrines from times and places that suit them and then presenting them as facts or as moral absolutes.

I pointed out to Claire OT the fact that the “young man” was 15 and also drunk. She replied “And?”, as if his minor status did not matter; as if girls got a “child pass” but boys did not, when a girl knows full well she can get pregnant and a boy knows no better than she does (and has less reason to, and boys, despite being physically bigger, generally mature more slowly). She then tweeted:

The police did not pursue a case because they did not believe there was enough evidence, having heard both the girl’s story and his. They may also have believed that if they did put the case to trial, and the girl was lying, there was a chance of a miscarriage of justice if the girl put on a good enough performance. (He also notes that both of them could have been charged with having sex underage or with an underage person, but the police did not even take this action. In other words, if the man’s story is true, and there is no reason other than prejudice to believe it is not, both he and she were committing a criminal offence.)


Since I actually believe the man’s story, and it was published anonymously and gives no details as to where the event happened (I believe it was the UK as indicated by certain phrases, e.g. ‘binge drinking’, but it does not even give this detail explicitly), I suspect the ‘victim’ will neither know nor care. Who’s to say she reads the Guardian? Perhaps she got what she wanted out of making this accusation, as she moved schools and caused this boy a lot of hardship for several months and made him unable to hold down a relationship so far. It’s also possible that she thought she could get away with it, or get what she wanted out of it, because the boy was in care (we do not know if she was or not). It’s worth noting, however, that social workers appear to have concluded that he was not a threat to the girl also being fostered (or maybe they moved her instead). If they had, they would have moved him, and very likely into a much less favourable placement and in another area.

Claire OT’s attitude towards this boy’s age is another example of her cavalier, mix-and-match attitude towards the law. The law states that he was a child, and that sex with him was also illegal, including for the girl (unless, of course, he forced her), as she was above the age of criminal responsibility. She clearly thinks there should be a harsher law for boys in this regard than for girls, despite the well-known differences in maturity that I have already mentioned. I happen to think that young people that age are capable of taking more responsibility for their actions than we give them credit for, and that (for example) the chorus of disapproval at the naming of the boy who killed the teacher this year was misguided, as he knew what he was doing and planned his action, and there is no evidence that he had been bullied or otherwise abused, least of all by this teacher. However, when boys that age maliciously abuse children aged 11 or 12, we call it bullying and it rarely results in criminal charges. There is no such thing as consensually putting someone’s head down a toilet. Adults do not always teach people this age that they must not have sex until they are 16, let alone that boys must not have sex with girls their own age or slightly younger because it’s rape, because it’s not. They say it’s illegal, but if you must, make sure you use a condom or some other contraception but it’s better to wait. The exception, perhaps, is in some religious schools, and these may be getting fewer due to the present government’s clampdown on old-fashioned views being disseminated in these schools, particularly by Muslims.

I have no doubt that this woman’s attitudes are shared by dozens of feminists online and off. If you want to know why feminists are commonly regarded as stupid and illogical, you need to look no further than the logical fallacies they deploy. Besides the mix-and-match, convenientist legal absolutism I have already mentioned, there is also the matter of “particularising the general”: because most accusations of rape are true, this one is as well. In this case, they read an account by a man who was accused as a teenage boy of rape by another teenage girl and without even hearing the girl’s story, or anyone else’s, they assume he is lying. Since they are fond of filling in gaps in the story with details they have made up, I will take the same liberty here. The man’s explanation (that she regretted having sex and feared her parents finding out, so she cried rape) is one plausible explanation, but it’s also possible that this girl and her male friend could have conspired against this boy as a malicious stunt, to get Billy-no-mates care boy thrown out or at least isolated and have a good laugh at his expense. In this, they seem to have at least partly succeeded.

And this — the fact that feminists recognised the vulnerability of the girl by simply being a girl, but not that of the boy by not having the support of his own family and being in a foster placement that could have been taken away from him at a moment’s notice — is why feminists’ influence on policy-making, and their role in the care of vulnerable people, should be kept to a bare minimum. The chorus of “I believe her!” every time a man is accused, or found not guilty, of rape speaks of naked prejudice, of women feeling entitled to make baseless assumptions about an event they did not see and have never examined in detail, but also raises the danger that a woman can make a false accusation of rape so as to dispose of an annoying man, or one she disagrees with, or one who is a rival to a friend’s ambitions, or for any other reason. It does not even have to result in a criminal conviction; it can easily lead to someone’s relationship or friendship network collapsing overnight, as people cut that person off as it is socially unacceptable not to. I do not think for a moment these feminists are not conscious of the power this situation would give them.

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What’s missing from Bubb’s tepid report

27 November, 2014 - 22:18

Picture of the former Winterbourne View hospital, a red-brick building partly painted yellow, with cars at the frontThis week the long-awaited report by Sir Stephen Bubb into the care of people with learning disabilities and autism following the scandal of Winterbourne View in 2011 was published. Titled “Winterbourne View: Time for Change”, it offers ten recommendations to the NHS, local authorities, the government and regulators including a “charter of rights” for people with learning disabilities, giving them and their families a right to challenge decisions and to request a personal budget, and a programme of closure for “inappropriate” inpatient care facilities, and has prompted a surge of media interest, the best being this piece in yesterday’s Guardian. Also this week, the inquest into the death of Stephanie Bincliffe from complications of obesity in an assessment and treatment unit, after seven years in a padded cell which she never left, was published, and although it criticises the institution she was in (run by the private Huntercombe group) for having no plan to treat her weight gain or challenging behaviour, it cleared them of neglect despite the egregious denial of her human rights and liberty over an extended period. (More: Mark Neary, Housing & Support Alliance.)

This awful case shows how fortunate it was that there was one doctor (and it was only one of three who had that power) who saw that Claire Dyer did not need to be in a secure unit and could be at home, and released her from section only three months after her transfer from Swansea. If she had remained there, the situation could have got worse very quickly as the strain of living in an institution full of strange people and rules hundreds of miles from home and seeing family only once or twice weekly began to take its toll. This has happened to many others, as the families of Stephen Andrade (held in St Andrew’s in Northampton; home is London) and Tianze Ni (held in a hospital in Middlesbrough; home is Scotland) have testified. The BBC had interviews with Stephanie’s mother and sister, and the mother said that Stephanie was extremely distressed by her situation; she believed she had been kidnapped and told her she had been ‘trapped’ and wanted to come home. She saw the staff as “the people who were holding her” which is why she attacked them when they came and went without letting her out. This casts doubt on the claims that they allowed to put on ten stone and left her in that wretched condition until she died just because any attempt to address her dietary issues would have triggered self-injurious behaviour. Frankly, the excuses don’t wash and I wonder how well-informed the coroner was to accept their opinions. If they could not care for Stephanie properly, they should have found whoever could, and wherever.

The Bubb report has been widely panned by the learning disability advocacy community. That community are trying to get a legal framework for making sure people with learning disabilities or autism do not end up in units unnecessarily, or sent a long way from home, or have their human rights infringed in other ways. That effort is known as the “LB Bill”. If you do a simple page search of Bubb’s report, you will notice that the letters LB appear only in the word “wellbeing” (three times) and “bill” only appears as part of the word “billion” (once). A key section of the proposed bill is to exclude autism from the Mental Health Act except when there are co-morbid mental health illnesses; no such provision appears in Bubb’s report. The problem with the MHA in regard to autism is fairly simple: it gives too much power to psychiatrists who are not often autism specialists (indeed, this fact is often used as an excuse to transfer patients, not necessarily to places where there are any autism specialists). It takes only two of them to section someone, and the process for getting someone off a section without their say-so is long and complicated, and the lapse and renewal of a section puts the process back to square one. It allows them to treat challenging behaviour with psychiatric medication, which causes weight gain, can lead to liver damage, and does not address the causes of their behaviour but only the symptom itself. The report does not suggest that there should be a discipline of autism specialist, which can replace the role of psychiatrist or at least greatly reduce it.

A key recommendation is that personal budgets be made available to the people who are at risk of being admitted to a unit, or are already in one. This seems to be a response to the continual complaints that bad institutional care is expensive — thousands or tens of thousands per week — but the report does not address the problems with personal budgets, such as that the person running it, if they choose to employ staff directly rather than using agencies, becomes an employer and is reponsible for paying their staff’s income tax and National Insurance, and that many local authorities make life difficult for people using them because they are convinced people are out to defraud the system, as Mark Neary has exposed in a number of blog posts since he started using one to pay for his son Steven’s care. It is time-consuming and a huge responsibility with a lot of legal pitfalls.

Another thing missing from the report is any proposal to improve the standards required of institutional care workers other than nurses, in terms of training or qualifications, as besides being abusive towards patients, the staff responsible for the original Winterbourne View scandal were clearly not of the necessary calibre and I suspect this could have been gauged in some cases with one face-to-face interview. While it’s true that a qualification does not make someone a good carer, anyone applying for a caring role should be able to present either a qualification or some evidence that they can care, have been a carer, or have an understanding of learning disability, autism or the responsibilities of the job. If their pay were increased, it might be possible to expect better standards of them.

Black and white picture of Connor Sparrowhawk, a young white man wearing a dark-coloured suit jacket with a white shirt underneathAlso missing from the report is any mention of making sure mental health services, for learning disabled people or anyone else, look after patients’ physical health as well. This was a major factor in the death of Connor Sparrowhawk (left): staff did not consider that a man with a learning disability also had a chronic physical condition (epilepsy) which could be life-threatening, despite having been notified of it by his family and despite it being common among people with learning disabilities. The CQC report also noted that medicines at that unit were not kept refrigerated and there was no battery in the defibrillator. A less serious incident of such neglect was the woman admitted to a secure unit who was not provided with the incontinence pads she needed, presumably because the unit, which did not cater for learning disabilities, rarely needed to deal with that problem (although I find that difficult to believe). This type of neglect is not restricted to ATUs or learning disability mental health care: only last night a woman who was admitted last week to a psychiatric ward miles from home (because the women’s ward at her local unit, the Orchard in Lancaster, has been reassigned for male use) had an asthma attack and was without her inhaler. It took two hours for staff to take her to the urgent care centre and although the care there was excellent, it could have been avoided if the ward could have provided an inhaler, or she had been in the local unit and able to access hers from home which was only 15 minutes away. Surely any hospital, and certainly any hospital ward which confines people, which nearly all psychiatric wards (including ATUs and including those that hold informal, i.e. non-sectioned, patients) do, should have the facilities to deal with an asthma attack as a severe one can kill in much less than 15 minutes.

Bloggers Steve Broach and Chris Hatton have also drawn attention to its lukewarm attitude towards the rights of people with learning disabilities: it proposes a “charter of rights” but this does not include new rights but merely re-emphasises existing ones, nor does it propose any means of enforcing them, such as legal aid which is being cut. The report proposes a “right to challenge” decisions, but these rights already exist such as the right to judicial review, but as the Dyers found out in July, it is difficult to make a case to challenge a clinical decision even when it is plainly against the patient’s best interests. Section 2.2 says “the review triggered by this right to challenge would only recommend admission/continued placement in hospital if it concluded that the assessment, treatment or safeguarding could only be effectively and safely carried out in an inpatient setting”; however, it may be that a judge is easily persuaded that this is the case or indeed biased towards accepting clinicians’ or social workers’ opinion. The right to challenge does not equate to the right to overturn an unwanted decision that is not in one’s interests.

Picture of Claire Dyer, a young white woman wearing glasses, red sound blockers, a light blue and white striped T-shirt and a purple jacket, standing next to a fence behind which is a male deerThe media coverage of this report continually cut to footage from Winterbourne View in 2011 with the words “viewers may find some of these scenes disturbing” or words to that effect. The thing is that not every kind of abuse of the human rights of disabled people would necessarily make shocking footage, much as torture would, but long-term imprisonment of a political prisoner would not, but is still a major violation of their human rights. Neglect, lack of control and long-term misery do not make headlines or shocking images, but that is the best some NHS trusts and private care companies can offer Britain’s learning disabled people and the opportunities for challenging them are limited. They have a right to control over their lives, to personal freedom, to family life and to freedom from abuse, and when they need to be cared for, they have a right to be cared for well. This report does not really investigate why these are not happening for many people, is not really based on listening to those affected and those who love and care for them, and will not lead to well-entrenched rights and robust mechanisms to resist bad decisions. It’s great that the report, and perhaps Stephanie Bincliffe’s inquest, has brought individual cases of bad care and long-distance placements into the public eye for a day or so, but the people affected need to be listened to. They are all behind the LB Bill. Let’s not settle for this tepid report.

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Not being spied on used to be called freedom

26 November, 2014 - 14:30

Front page of today's Sun, with the headline 'Blood on their hands' and Facebook's logoYesterday a report from the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) came out that concluded that the murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London in 2013 could not have been prevented despite the two murderers being known to the intelligence services and having come up in a number of inquiries. The one bit of chatter they were aware of after the event that actually mentions a plan or desire to kill a soldier was on an American Internet service, thought to be Facebook, which is not obliged to share such information about users with foreign intelligence services. However, David Cameron claimed yesterday that Internet providers have a ‘moral responsibility’ to share such data and the Daily Mail’s front page screams “Facebook has blood on its hands”.

Nobody seems interested in considering how a company like Facebook, or any other company providing messaging services, would identify all content that indicates a plan to commit an act of terrorism or indeed any other crime. They already do provide a means of reporting abusive or illegal content, but that requires a reader to be minded to report it. Their reporting system is already overburdened with spurious or malicious reports, non-obvious spam and pictures that offend some people but aren’t illegal, and so on. What politicians seem to want is a means of automatically identifying leads to a criminal conspiracy, but how would they do this without providing a huge pile of innocent material to sift through to find just one possible lead? There are plenty of uses of words like kill, stab, shoot, bomb, explode and so on, not least people talking about things that have already happened and discussing means of preventing them.

It’s no wonder that civil liberties campaigners are already dismissing this report as a pretext for restricting civil liberties among unpopular sections of society. It’s also typical of the kind of “stable-door” legislation that often follows a tragic event; it’s concluded that if the state could have prevented the double murder or the mauling of a child by a dog of a particular breed by discriminating against a hitherto unidentified group or intruding on people’s lives in a way nobody had ever considered, because it was entirely unreasonable. For a comment made by an individual with no criminal convictions to be identified as suspicious purely because of words or phrases used would demand that private companies invest huge amounts of money in apparatus for spying on their users or customers, and that all our conversations are listened into by the state, or some private contractor - quite possibly the same giant IT contractor that helps decide what state benefits, healthcare or insurance we can access. The potential for blackmail should also be borne in mind.

It is usually tyrannical regimes like Assad’s Syria where the ‘walls have ears’ and you can’t say anything without risking attracting the attention of the secret police. That people can sometimes carry out a crime or an act of terrorism without being noticed is a sign that we live in a free country, not that there is not comprehensive enough surveillance. The price of freedom is not eternal vigilance, but risk.

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Palestinians are not just irrational haters

24 November, 2014 - 10:00

Avraham GoldbergLast Tuesday, two Palestinians attacked a synagogue in Jerusalem, killing four rabbis and a Druze Israeli policeman. It was revealed that several of the rabbis killed were immigrants from Britain and the USA; one of them, Avraham Goldberg, had previously been a rabbi in north London. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility, but Israeli police believed the two men acted alone. The Israeli police delayed releasing the men’s bodies to their families as a supposed deterrent to others, and also demolished their family’s homes, as is now standard practice (which satisfies Israeli desire for collective punishment, although it never seems to have acted as a deterrent).

I heard Michelle Hirschfield, a cousin of the Avraham Goldberg, interviewed on BBC London radio the morning after the massacre. She claimed that her cousin was a man who was not judgemental of others and wanted peace. She also claimed that the men served as janitors at the synagogue and that “you’re not dealing with rational people”. She claimed that Goldberg had moved to Israel because he believed in the idea of Israel as a home for the Jews, because he had a decision to make as his children had grown up and left home, and had a job that he could do as well in Israel as in London. The host did not challenge her in any way, and this was an adult who had lost an adult cousin who lived in another country, not a grieving widow or bereaved mother.

How can anyone who ‘loves peace’ move from a country where there is peace, and where Jews are safe, to a country which is essentially a war zone and where the ‘security’ Jews enjoy is achieved at the expense of oppression of the displaced native population? (At the time, the IRA were still active, but they did not target Jews and posed nothing like the threat suicide bombers did in Israel at that time.) It’s true that there was a peace process going on at the time, but Jerusalem was not open to negotiation; Israeli military officers would talk to Jewish student groups in other countries, including the UK, and proclaim that Jerusalem would remain Israel’s eternal, undivided capital, something Goldberg would undoubtedly have heard in synagogues and Jewish newspapers in the UK. Zionists want ‘peace’ only in the sense that they want the Palestinians to give up their resistance, or be crushed. They do not want peaceful coexistence on equal terms.

Along with the “not rational people” remark on BBC London, this is what Hirschfield said to Sky News (her BBC interview ran similarly):

“He was worried about the situation there. He could not understand the mindset of people who had no value for life, life meant so little.

“How does one deal with people who do not value life? How can a mother say ‘I have 14 children, I want them all to be martyrs to kill a Jew’. It’s a terrible, terrible situation.

“I don’t think animals kill for the sake of killing, like these people do. He would believe that people could live side by side.”

This is the same rhetoric we hear all the time from Zionists about Palestinian terrorists: that they are senseless killers who just live to kill Jews. They make no distinction between Palestinian hatred of their Jewish oppressors, and white European hatred of a Jewish minority. There is no considering the fact that Palestinians are being systematically squeezed out of east Jerusalem, that their homeland is full of illegal Jewish settlements, that those settlements monopolise the water supply, that Palestinians are subject to curfews for the ‘safety’ of these fanatical settlers, that there are checkpoints everywhere, that Palestinians living in towns 20 miles away cannot travel across their own country without passing through several and being humiliated, that Palestinians are harassed and abused by soldiers, that their houses are invaded by soldiers for use in killing Palestinians, that they kill and imprison children for throwing stones. None of this occurs to Israelis and their friends overseas. They insist that it is all just senseless hatred and murder.

The BBC should not be allowing this kind of nonsense to be spewed across the airwaves; it should be left to the Zionist blogosphere. While I have no issue with condemning the attack, which was unprovoked and against defenceless, elderly individuals, I would also like to hear supporters of Israel condemn the abuses I detailed in the last paragraph, much of which we do not hear about, as well as the terrorism waged by those who set up their state and its intelligence forces before and after its establishment. But of course, they will not. Theirs are vital for security; the Palestinians’ attacks are without context, senseless and racist.

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I’m a professional driver, and I’m not a knucklehead

23 November, 2014 - 09:09

Last week Mark Reckless, who had stood down as a Tory MP in the Rochester and Strood constituency in Kent and re-stood for UKIP, won the by-election with 42.1% of the vote on a 50.6% turnout. Remarkable in this election was the poor showing for the Liberal Democrats, who scored only 349 votes (0.9%, down 15.5% from 2010) and lost their deposit. During the campaign, the Labour MP Emily Thornberry, who had been Shadow Attorney General, tweeted a picture of a house festooned with St George’s Cross flags with a white Ford Transit van parked outside, simply captioned “Image from #Rochester”, which allegedly made Labour leader Ed Miliband “incandescent” because it gave the impression that Labour were full of metropolitan snobs who looked down on “real” working-class people they expected to vote for them. The Sun and the Daily Mail both made front-page stories of the tweet, the former headlining “Only Here for the Sneer” and printing a picture of the owner of the van, now covered in Sun mastheads, along with his ‘manifesto’; the Daily Mail’s headline this morning said “Labour row deepens over snob MP”. The idea that this man’s views and behaviour actually represent working-class men (let alone women) are not being seriously questioned, at least in the mainstream media.

First, there are a couple of other blog entries which take apart the ‘working-class outrage’ this tweet supposedly generated: Claire Bolderson demonstrates that the ‘storm’ really was “a twitter storm in a tea-cup” whipped up by the media, while A Very Public Sociologist notes that ‘White Van Dan’ is in fact a car dealer, suggesting that his ‘manifesto’ reflects the insecurity of his occupation (rather than years of reading the Sun), but that most people in fact despise displays of patriotism. The Sun likes to position itself as the ‘true’ voice of the white working-class (although they don’t emphasise the white bit) while the Mail openly claims to speak for the middle-class and equates purchases with votes. The Sun equates criticism of Dan’s kind of vulgarity with snobbery, and as with right-wingers who fake a common touch in the USA, love to attack members of the “left-wing metropolitan elite” and claim that they really represent ordinary working people, despite it being known that they actually call them plebs among themselves.

Now, I actually know a woman who sometimes posts British or English flags in her window, and she’s a Muslim with mild learning difficulties and certainly not a UKIP supporter, so this picture may not actually prove that the inhabitant is a reactionary knuckle-dragger and I’m glad this by-election was not in my friend’s constituency. However, as someone who drives for a living (I passed my class 1 HGV test in September, but have been driving smaller goods vehicles since 2000), I am sick of the assumption that people in jobs that do not require a degree must be reactionary idiots who read a newspaper that feeds them a diet of gossip, soft porn and bigotry and believe everything that paper tells them. I am also sick of the assumption that we lack critical thinking and all subscribe to their politics, of blaming outsiders, Gypsies or Irish travellers, benefit claimants, single mothers or whoever their chosen hate figure may be this week, rather than people in power, the super-rich and the press that serves their interests. Let’s also not imagine that real hard-working people don’t have the time for fussy intellectual arguments or big ideas. Wrong. My job often means I don’t have the time or the energy to write much anymore, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have the time to think. I also despise the ‘snob’ jibe which is used whenever there is perceived criticism of low-brow culture or vulgarity, whether it relates to culture, politics or food. Usually it is the taunt of bullies who tell people not to get “above themselves”, but really they fear someone getting above them. However, in this case it is the tabloids protecting the debased culture they sell. Perish the thought that anyone might desire something better.

(A number of years ago, while working as a van driver for a tool hire company, I stopped at one of their outlets where I heard the desk staff, who had a tabloid on display, voice some bigoted attitudes that were straight out of that paper. I mentioned this in an email to Jon Gaunt, then the presenter of the BBC London morning show, who I think was talking about a student union which had voted to stop selling the Sun in their shop, and referred to the paper as the “Scum” and a “low-rent rag”. He read this out, then a later caller said I must be a snob who looks down on van drivers.)

A common complaint on social media of the left-wing media response is that there are too many middle-class white males commenting on the voting choices of working-class whites, and blaming them for voting UKIP. My response is that the type of white working-class people who choose to vote for a bigoted and reactionary party are not people with a cognitive deficiency, or uneducated illiterates, but adults who choose not to think critically and to vote for a party that uses them to serve the interests of the rich. A number of years ago Lynsey Hanley wrote in the Guardian that there was a tendency to celebrate the political activities of the white working class when it served left-wing goals by calling it “resistance”, but to blame everyone but them when they voted BNP, attributing it to “a cry of distress”, thus denying them agency. The rise of UKIP is nothing other than a repeat of the American trend in which working-class white voters outside major industrial areas vote for parties that go against their economic interests because they affirm their identity while claiming to be “people like them”, when they are anything but, and care nothing for their interests. UKIP plan to leave not only the EU but also the European Economic Area, which would leave Britain economically isolated, unable to sell goods competitively to our nearest neighbours, thus destroying jobs, and turn the areas around seaports (of which there are four in Kent) into giant car and truck parks. Farage is known to personally support moving to an American-style insurance-based healthcare ‘system’, despite that system leaving millions of Americans without access to care. UKIP plan to scrap the Human Rights Act, the nearest thing Britain has to the constitutional bills of rights other modern democracies have, something which would lose any aspiring politician an election in any other democratic country. (They do propose a “British bill of rights”, but say nothing about constitutional reform, so it would be statute like any other, and could be overridden by simple Parliamentary vote.)

So, it was wrong of Emily Thornberry to make assumptions about the man behind those flags (indeed, that it was a man at all), and mocking local people rather indicates that Labour did not hope to win the seat, but it’s also wrong for Labour to pander to right-wing bigotry and unthinking “common sense” politics that are dictated by the tabloids. They will never win votes from people like this without engaging with and challenging their beliefs, or ceasing to be a Labour party in any meaningful sense. Britain is part of Europe, and we cannot imagine that trade links with the USA or the Commonwealth, all of which are thousands of miles away, are any substitute for close links with our neighbours which start 26 miles from our shores. Human Rights protect everyone, not just troublemakers and foreign criminals. The welfare state is an investment in our own futures, so we do not end up in the gutter if our employer’s main customer or supplier goes bust, not merely money people who work pay to those who don’t. And so on. Labour should stop being cowardly, have faith in the people they want to vote for them, and challenge senseless tabloid politics. Not all people who drive for a living are tabloid-reading bigots, and working-class white people are capable of critical thinking.

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Julien Blanc and swearing on talk radio

20 November, 2014 - 22:23

This morning on the Nick Ferrari show on LBC (which I don’t listen to very often; I always preferred the BBC London station), they were talking about the American “pick-up artist” Julien Blanc, who has been going around the world giving seminars on how to “pick up” women, which he seems to think involves using very physically aggressive methods, who was meant to be coming to the UK to give seminars but, following widespread protests from feminists in particular, now will not be as he has been denied a visa. Nick Ferrari (right) had two feminist guests on (unusual), namely Rahila Gupta and Louise Pennington. The discussion, however, came to a premature end when Pennington used the F-word, leading Ferrari to cut her off and say he would never invite her onto his show again.

Rahila Gupta opposed blocking Blanc from coming into the country, because she said that immigration laws were racist in themselves and because it is better to expose their ideas in debate than ban them. Pennington said she agreed with Rahila on the matter of immigration law being racist, she said that “we have to work within the system we have”. However, she then opined that “we live in a rape culture” in which girls are groomed to be sexually abused from an early age and women are not regarded as having the right to say no. Although this kind of thing is a standard argument on a certain type of feminist blog, including Pennington’s, Ferrari reacted as if this was the most stupid thing he had ever heard. She then said something about girls being trained or groomed to be “f**kable”, at which point the host said, “you know, when you’re losing an argument, you resort to foul language” and said he would make a note never to have “that woman” back on air. Later on, a (male) emailer challenged him by reminding him that he had said that Julien Blanc’s words were just words, and surely the same was the case with Pennington’s; Ferrari said that the word was on a list of words they couldn’t use on air, and told him that if he wanted his kids hearing that sort of language at 7am, he was listening to the wrong station.

I’ve been listening (on and off) to talk radio for years, pretty much as long as I’ve been driving for a living, and there’s a blanket ban on swearing on air, and unlike on TV there is no watershed (i.e. a time after which it’s permitted), so people have been cut off at any time. There was one occasion where a lady called in to the Eddie Nestor show one Sunday morning, saying that she had been smoking cannabis for years and was now dying of cancer. She said that while on the drug she would go into work and say “oh, f**k this”, at which point Nestor cut her off and issued a sanctimonious apology to us for her language, irrespective of the fact that some of us may have been more annoyed at the woman’s story being interrupted. On the other hand, when Jonathan Ross was heard telling Andrew Sachs, on air, that a man had “f**ked his granddaughter”, he was suspended only for a short time despite this having been recorded, and played at prime time. He got off far too lightly for that.

I turned over not long after he cut Pennington off, but they did not really get to why Julien Blanc should not be allowed into the country. The laws involved are not immigration laws and in this case the matter has nothing to do with race; the Home Secretary can block anyone from coming to the UK if their presence is deemed “not conducive to the public good”. If he was coming to teach people how to plant bombs or rob banks, he would certainly not be allowed in, so the same must be true given that he teaches men to sexually harass and abuse women. It is not just a case of someone with some unpopular ideas or someone who offends the sensibilities of certain powerful and vocal minority lobby groups. I do not know if Ferrari was familiar with the ideas Louise Pennington threw into the discussion (although he or his researchers must surely have read her blog or Twitter feed, where they appear pretty regularly), but they would have seemed extreme to many listeners and weren’t really relevant, as Blanc is not that typical of popular culture, even “lad culture”, but an openly racist, misogynist criminal that most people did not know about until last week. It is right not to let him into the country.

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