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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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Are we really much better than the Greeks?

19 November, 2014 - 11:10

Brightly painted wooden cage-like cells, photographed in a care home in GreeceLast Friday there was a story on the BBC website on a state home for both children and adults with learning disabilities in Greece, in which some of the inmates, who have conditions including Down’s syndrome and autism, are kept locked in cages for most of the time, have no access to personal possessions and rarely leave the centre. Other abuses have been documented over the past ten years, including people tied hand and foot to their beds and one 16-year-old boy who died and was found to have swallowed bandages as a result of poor supervision. A modern centre for people disabilities exists in the area was built with EU money and currently houses the head of an association for people with disabilities and their families, but has no residents as the Greek state has no money to staff it. The director of this centre has not been paid for a year.

I don’t think anyone in the UK should be feeling superior about this revelation. What’s puzzling is the continual surprise that this is happening in Europe in 2014, when this sort of thing has been happening in both western and eastern Europe throughout the modern era. Europe is not as civilised as we middle-class people like to think; there have been two genocides in Europe in living memory. We sat up and took notice of the Romanian orphans in 1989, but that was because we could blame Ceausescu and Communism; the Greeks were always on ‘our side’ (in fact, Ceausescu was pro-western and had enjoyed favoured trading relations with the west for years, despite Romania nominally being a Warsaw Pact country) so we did not look too closely at what went on outside the tourist resorts. We were more concerned about Mount Athos not admitting women than about disabled children being tied to beds.

There have been some horrific abuses of people, adults and children, with learning disabilities in Britain this century, let alone last. We pretend that Winterbourne View was unique, but the conditions that let it happen, including the low pay and status of carers which results in low recruitment standards, still persist. The CQC recently published a report titled “Three Lives”, one of them being that of a young autistic woman held in a cell in an NHS unit for nine years, her meals being passed to her through a letterbox, nobody going in or out, until inspectors discovered her situation and ordered her release. We are not told how many of the people in that Greek care home are local, but when learning disabled people in this country need (or are thought to need) specialist care or accommodation, they are often sent hundreds of miles from home, and often the conditions they find in these places make their condition worse. In the USA the authorities have tolerated a place that uses electric shock treatment to force autistic children and young adults to comply with their rules and to make them work. Abuse and even neglect can happen when there is plenty of money. It apparently cost more than £12,000 a week to keep the young woman in the CQC report in that bare room.

Part of the reason why such conditions persist in Greece is that the country has not seen the same level of activism and self-advocacy around disability that Britain and the USA have, and that mental disability in particular is greatly more stigmatised there than here. Greece joined the then EEC in 1986 and had been a dictatorship into the 1960s, but the same is true of Spain and Portugal and the same abuses are not reported to be going on there. If we want to improve conditions for disabled people in these homes, perhaps we should set up some kind of distress fund, much as was done for the Romanian orphans in the 90s, but we should certainly lobby the EU, and the dominant economic powers within it, not to impose austerity at the expense of the most vulnerable in the poorer parts of the EU, who after all are not responsible for the bad decisions made by those who ran their countries.

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Why does sport welcome violent men?

16 November, 2014 - 12:26

A picture of a street with a football stand backing onto it, with "Cobbold Stand" and "Ipswich Town Football Club" on the sides, and shops fronting onto the street. Another stand is to the left with turnstiles below.It’s not often that I write about sport here, mainly because I pay so little attention to it. I’ve watched only one football match in person (Ipswich v Oxford at Portman Road in 1991 I think; Ipswich won 1-0), and I don’t think I’ve ever watched one end to end on TV. I’ve long been disturbed by how much money is spent on it, how much the players in the top divisions earn for very little activity, and how much public inconvenience is tolerated for major sporting events. It’s great entertainment, but that’s all it is at the end of the day, and it isn’t an achievable life goal for most people. Recently, the news has been full of controversy about whether two men convicted of serious acts of violence should be allowed to compete again: Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic runner convicted of killing his girlfriend, and Ched Evans, convicted of rape in 2012 and now training again for Sheffield United FC in England, having served less than half his five-year sentence.

In the first case, the International Paralympic Committee decided that he cannot compete until his sentence elapses, even if he is released after ten months as is possible under South African law, although it is also possible that his sentence or conviction could be increased on appeal. During the period between his conviction and sentencing when two (male) members of the Committee suggested that he might compete again, Lisa Egan wrote this about how different oppressed groups don’t often support each other, even when they can both be murdered for existing. This past week there has been a huge amount of protest about the decision of Sheffield United to allow their former striker to train again; their shirt sponsor, a local logistics company, has threatened to remove its sponsorship if they sign him to play, and the Olympic runner Jessica Ennis-Hill has asked for her name to be taken off a stand at their ground if this happens (and received rape threats over Twitter for her stance). Evans still protests his innocence, and his supporters have harassed both the victim and her family, and anyone (particularly women) who speaks out against Evans’s return to the game. A group of feminists held a demonstration in Sheffield in which they chanted “kick rapists out of football” and “Sheffield loves football, not rapists!”. Last night the club (who are currently fifth in League One, or the third division, meaning they have a chance of promotion to the Championship if they keep up present form, so are doing well enough without Evans) decided not to re-sign Evans and (months too late) condemned the abuse issued to critics of Evans’s return by their fans.

Our sport culture is different from that in the USA; an incident like Steubenville could not happen here, because schools and colleges do not rely on sports for income and therefore sportsmen are not considered indispensible either for the school’s finances or its reputation. (Our legal system is also different; we have very few individually elected posts and no district attorneys, so decisions about prosecutions for serious crimes are not made locally.) The conviction of Ched Evans itself shows that being rich and famous is no bar to being held accountable (indeed, it may make it more likely as the papers will be more interested in a story about a rapist if he was a footballer than if he was a bricklayer). However, violence surrounding games is often commensurate with the inherent violence of the game. The entire football family of games is inherently violent; they may involve kicking balls with some force at other players, who are expected to deflect it with their heads or bodies if necessary; some of them feature tackles which involve throwing people to the ground which can cause serious injury (rugby in particular has a long record of spinal-cord injuries) and the rules of the games raise the pitch of excitement among spectators, even those watching on TV, such that a small setback for one’s team an provoke a disproportionate response. It is known, for example, that rates of domestic violence peak during major football tournaments, whether the team of the country in question wins or loses. One might excuse the inherent violence of the game by saying that professional players are consenting adults, but boys forced to play these games at school are not. Schools should not, in my opinion, foster or indulge football; they should tolerate it only inasmuch as it does not interfere with other children’s right to play or enjoy themselves in peace. There are better ways of keeping boys fit.

At school it was always the bigger boys (I cannot speak for girls here, as I was in genuinely mixed schools for very little of my school years) who were best at sport, especially football, and I made a half-hearted attempt to show an interest in the 1986 World Cup, but couldn’t disguise the fact that I hated having to actually play it, because I did not like having a ball kicked at me and avoided it instead of trying to deflect it. Worse, boys who were violent to other boys off the pitch (and sometimes even on it) found that was no bar to being praised for their sporting achievements. The result is that, in many of these places which are meant to be there to educate, children who are late developers physically who are weak at sport are at the bottom of the pile, regardless of how well they do in their school work. Sports in general do not shut out people for offensive behaviour away from the game, only on it, e.g. doping, cheating, match-fixing, arguing with a referee or violent fouls (and sometimes it takes years to prove, as with Lance Armstrong, during which time a cheat can shove many an honest sportsman out of the way). This means that someone with a well-known record for petty violence off the pitch, for getting into fights in pubs, for drink-driving, or for beating his wife or girlfriend, can still prosper and be respected as a sportsman (look at Paul Gascoigne or George Best). This is perhaps because we regard football as a low-class game, a way out of poverty for men from poor backgrounds who aren’t very bright, so we do not expect particularly high standards of behaviour from them.

I think we would have less violence surrounding sport and less of these controversies about players who are criminals if sport had an ethos that being a sportsman (or woman) entails being of good character. This does not mean they should go through people’s lifestyles with a fine-tooth comb, but it does mean that if someone has convictions for serious violent crimes, or crimes which are likely to affect their behaviour on the pitch (e.g. fraud), or if they have a long record of minor violent crimes, reckless use of guns where they are legal, or drink-driving, they should not be allowed to play, and teams should not be allowed to pay them either, much as any firm is entitled to fire a person who is convicted of a criminal offence, however minor. This should start in school; someone who is known to be a bully, for example, should not be picked to play for their school or house, no matter their sporting prowess. This is because sporting ability is in itself inconsequential, besides the money it can raise, mostly for the player and his team, but the same abilities can be used to harm others, and there is no virtue in being able to score goals or outrun a bunch of other people if you cannot control your temper, or you have no respect for other people. Such people are not fit to be held up as role models, especially for young men who are themselves in danger of falling into such behaviour. There should be no question that these men should be banned from competing, and not just after they have been released from prison or their sentences have ended, but potentially for life.

Image source: Wikipedia; author is Solipsist, released under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.

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In-your-face racism is back (but victim blaming never went away)

11 November, 2014 - 22:40

Picture of an old-style red London bus, with the number 9 on the front, under some leafless winter trees in a London streetA few people I know yesterday tweeted an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the mainstream media’s favourite “Muslim” and authority on all things Asian, which claimed that “in-your-face racism” had returned and that she was spat at on the number 9 bus the other day (although it appears to have missed and landed on the back of her seat), and that few people were doing anything to fight it, unlike in the 80s and 90s. Towards the end, which the people retweeting it did not seem to notice, she turns to blame the people she spends much of her media career railing against: Muslims.

Some of what she says about racism being on the rise and that racists often claim that “they’re not allowed to talk about race” are true, although the reason there is less activism at all levels in society is because a lot of that work has been done, including laws banning racial discrimination and setting up government bodies to monitor different types of discrimination. When these groups were all bundled into one under the last Labour government (the Equalities Commission), the person appointed to head it was a middle-class Black man with an English name — a safe and acceptable minority; nothing foreign-sounding or unusual-looking — who had started telling the Establishment what it wanted to hear. But it’s all scene-setting for delivering her real point: that it’s all the Muslims’ fault:

I blame the minorities, too, for the vulnerable state we are in. Islamicist separatism and now Isis terrorism have turned good people off diversity. The anti-white prejudices within some Asian families are mortifying. Grooming gangs have destroyed young girls and also cohesion and mutual trust between the brown and white Britons.

What has “turned people off” is the press repeatedly bringing their attention to obscure activities of small groups of Muslims or individuals, and putting pictures of women in niqaab next to many of them. While a small number of British Muslims have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight for ISIS, the majority of prominent Muslims here have consistently opposed them, and appealed for the western hostages they have held to be released. Nobody knows or cares about the fact that Asian families sometimes harbour prejudices against whites, because they will not randomly attack white people in the street, unlike when it’s whites who are racist, and their prejudices may have something to do with living or trying to raise children (or being raised) surrounded by white racists. Us converts have to deal with that more than most white Brits; many of us have been refused marriages on grounds of “cultural compatibility” and other excuses. Yet most of us do not become racists.

As for grooming gangs, the majority of those who abuse women and girls are white men, as whites are the majority of the population and men are the (vast) majority of sex criminals. That the majority of men participating in a particular type of gang are Asian does not mean most Asians are involved in or sympathise with them, any more than the majority of Sicilians are involved in or sympathise with Cosa Nostra. It does not give whites at large the right to become bigots.

Alibhai-Brown is trying to point the finger of blame downwards, at a weaker group of people (Asians and particularly Muslims) rather than upwards, to the press that foster bigotry (and also pays her wages) and to the white population, in much the same way that when a group of children are punished because one or two act up, they are more likely to turn on that child than on their teachers. I know of a lady who complains that people give her dirty looks because she is a black woman with a child, and assume she is a “baby mama”, but she blames other black women for being baby mamas, not whites for being racist. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is not really fighting racism, but just to persuade those with the power not to confuse the good Asians with the bad ones, i.e. the practising Muslims she despises, and rails against in her other newspaper articles and TV appearances (where she lectures people who were born here about “British values”, which she makes up as she goes along). So, anyone tempted to hold her up as a fighter against racism should understand that she defines racism quite narrowly, and that her solution is that all the “bad Muslims” should give up what makes them different, except for the cuisine and the prayer (when it’s convenient).

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Claire Dyer is free

10 November, 2014 - 23:08

Claire Dyer, a young white woman with glasses and multiple missing teeth wearing a blue and white striped T-shirt, holding a heart-shaped card with the slogan "There's no place like home".Today Claire Dyer and her family found out that she had been released from her sectioning under the Mental Health Act, and will not have to return to the medium-secure unit to which she was sent on 1st August. Claire Dyer is a 20-year-old autistic woman who had been in an NHS learning disability unit in Swansea who had earlier fought off an attempt to transfer her to St Andrew’s hospital in Northampton; the unit she spent more than two months in was near Brighton, which was even further from her home than Northampton. She had been on extended leave from the hospital for the past three weeks and was due to return for an MHA tribunal this Wednesday. This will now not be necessary.

Someone on one of the Facebook groups where these issues are discussed asked what the Brighton unit did differently. I responded that it was not Brighton that did something differently but the unit in Swansea that she had come from: it was they who misused the Mental Health Act for their own convenience, to try and transfer her to Northampton and later to Brighton without Claire or her family having the ability to prevent it. The Brighton unit management just did their jobs: they must have quickly identified Claire as someone whose condition was nothing like those of their normal clientele, who were women with serious mental illnesses or personality disorders, some of them sent there on hospital orders after convictions for serious offences including manslaughter. The unit also must have known that there was publicity surrounding Claire’s case and that her family and supporters were connected to other prominent campaigners who had had to fight the system on behalf of their autistic sons and daughters, some of whom had died, and that the unit and its corporate owners would have faced a blaze of hostile publicity if the same had happened to Claire.

Nobody should be under the illusion that this unit is any model of good practice, despite a good CQC report (following a dreadful one a year earlier); local mental health outreach teams avoid placing people there, as it is expensive and there have been safeguarding concerns. In the first month after she arrived, Claire was only allowed to see her family in the unit’s visiting room, and only for two hours at a time. While Claire was used to talking to her family over FaceTime before going there (which was essential as her sister is deaf), her iPad was taken away and, despite promising that Skype was available for these purposes, it took weeks to set up. The loom bands that were her main hobby before being moved were taken away as a supposed precaution against self-harm; she was not allowed crayons in her room unless she ate them. She was not allowed outdoors for several weeks; she was given grounds leave, but on the first occasion this was not passed on and so she did not get it; on other occasions it was cancelled because of meltdowns. After about a month there, she was allowed out with her family, but this too (including the first one) was sometimes cancelled for the same reason (and the family had to travel for five hours each way to see her). It was after these trips out began that the staff came to realise that the stories they had been told, among other things that she was not safe at home.

I would like to see a thorough investigation of the decisions that led to Claire being sent away. The family have not named the unit in Swansea or its responsible clinician, but the authorities know who he is. It was he who sectioned Claire in September 2013 and then told the family that he intended to move her to Northampton a couple of weeks later. He also told the family that if Claire were released from the section at the tribunal earlier this year, she could not stay at the unit at a time when the family felt that Claire could not live at home (as she had done for five weeks in early 2013 after an earlier care home placement broke down); he claimed that she should remain under section as she behaves better when on section than off it. He continued to allow Claire out with her family almost every day, and home for weekends, as he had done since imposing the section, and did so even after deciding that Claire needed a medium-secure unit — this is unheard-of, and entirely inconsistent.

The first draft of the so-called LB Bill, named after Connor “Laughing Boy” Sparrowhawk who died due to staff negligence in an NHS learning disability unit in Oxford in July 2013, was published last week; you can view the full text, explanatory notes and two easy-read books on the LB Bill website. The eighth clause of the draft Bill removes people with autism and other learning disabilities from the scope of the Mental Health Act unless they also had a diagnosis of a recognised mental illness; any detention would have to be done under the Mental Capacity Act. This is because there have been numerous incidents of machinations involving the MHA being used to transfer learning disabled people to places far away from their families against their wishes or their best interests. It places far too much power in the hands of psychiatrists; it takes only two of them to make the decision and it takes a lot more effort and time to challenge it, and sometimes the tribunal can outlive the section, as it did in Claire’s case, and the patient is back to square one. An autistic person usually does not need a highly secure environment; they need a familiar environment with consistency and support. It is an extremely common mistake to confuse an autistic person’s behaviour in the unnatural and stressful environment of a locked unit with their behaviour when in familiar surroundings and without stress. The conflicting laws which allow clinicians to abuse their power must be reformed.

As for Claire, she will be at home for the foreseeable future; support is being put in place and a long-term placement in the area looked at, although there is no date set for this. As someone who has been on a section 3, she is entitled to aftercare under section 117 of the MHA, which is more than she would have had before being placed on section; but the same was true before she was sent to Brighton. It was entirely unnecessary. There are so many young people with autism in the UK who are still suffering in unsuitable or badly-run units and hospitals, and it seems even prisons, often hundreds of miles from home, some of whose conditions are deteriorating and some who have been attacked and abused, as was reported on Channel 4 News last week. Learning disability and mental health are united in being underfunded, “Cinderella” specialities that can be cut and people moved from pillar to post without attracting much protest, as may have been anticipated by the management who transferred women’s beds to male use in Lancashire last month. But they are separate, and an autistic crisis should not get someone stuck in the mental health system.

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About those sarnies

10 November, 2014 - 08:19

Front page of the Daily Mail, with the headline "Is there no one left in Britain who can make a sandwich?". Also has a red poppy displayed at the top right, and a picture of the Duchess of Cambridge, a white woman wearing a black hat and coat with a poppy on the lapel.The Daily Mail’s headline today reads “Is there nobody left in Britain who can make a sandwich?” and refers to an Irish-based sandwich making company, Greencore, which is seeking to recruit hundreds of workers from eastern Europe for its new factory in Northampton because it cannot recruit them locally. As is often the case with these stories, however, the story does not match the headline; the firm’s own “human resources” director claimed that the reason was that there was low unemployment in Northampton, although the Daily Mail claims that the rate is 6.8%, and higher in surrounding towns (though I wouldn’t put Luton in that category; it is a good hour’s drive away and is not on the same railway line).

I’ve worked for Greencore; I was driving a fridge truck up and down the M1 over the summer, picking up pallets of sandwiches and other goods from their depot outside Rotherham to be delivered to branches of WH Smith’s at London airports, the Channel Tunnel and various railway stations in the south-east. The pay was good for a class 2 driving job (£10.50 per hour, which is more commonly found in class 1 jobs), although I cannot speak for any of the other staff as I did not ask what they were paid. The issues I had were minor compared with what some of the reports from others who have worked in different plants have said. I was frustrated by the fact that I was expected to negotiate things with the staff or management in Rotherham, such as when the goods were ready by or the arrangement of pallets on the truck, when I was an agency driver and not a Greencore employee. They also attempted to get me to take my break at the Rotherham depot when I was being loaded, but this was never possible as they insisted I help load the truck (I had to know where the different pallets were), and in any case I wanted to use a service station (the nearest of which is five miles away from the depot) as it has proper facilities. The job fell through after I disagreed with the transport manager over start times; he insisted I not come in until 11am on a Sunday (and tried to send me away when I came in before 10am), which would have meant I was late both picking up the goods and going home at the end of the day. He did not factor in traffic delays, which were highly likely as there were two sets of major roadworks on the M1. (The same manager also told me to keep the fridge running, and burning diesel, all the way to Rotherham even though the truck was empty, just in case it did not work when needed or I forgot to turn it on. The truck actually belonged to a fridge truck rental company, Petit Forestier, who would have repaired it in situ or supplied another truck if it broke down.)

Others online quickly searched for reports on what the company was like to work for, and quickly found very negative reports; the company pays a lot of its workers minimum wage or hires cheap agency staff; that there are a lot of foreign workers for the same reason; that they expect staff to work a long period without a break and did not let them leave their work to use the toilet, which had resulted in some people wetting or soiling themselves, that people have their leave cancelled, even in the holiday periods, at short notice and that there are “people suffering from serious stress issues” (see here and here, though you will have to register to see more than one page on the latter). There was also a BBC news report from 2012, in which their union accused the company of exploiting staff at Hull, abolishing certain premium overtime rates (e.g. at bank holidays) and threatening to make staff redundant and replace them with agency workers. If they are paying minumum wage or not much more, it is understandable that people are difficult to find in Northampton because it is within the London commuter belt and so the cost of living is higher than in places like Rotherham. I saw plenty of white British workers at the plants in the north, but mostly foreign workers, even in the office, in London. (I didn’t visit the other plants, like Sittingbourne and Wisbech, so I do not know what goes on there.)

So, the Daily Mail story smacks of lazy journalism, a story intended to demonstrate that Britain is a soft touch for foreign workers, attracting them with better paid jobs than back home with the pay topped up with tax credits and benefits supplied by the public. The truth is that these are subsidies for large companies (usually) who pay poor wages that are not enough to live on, especially in places with inflated costs of living such as in the south-east. The question should be asked as to whether Greencore plans to maintain its factories in places like Hull and Worksop or really intends to transfer its operations southwards and dispose of those pesky unionised workers up north (only time will tell; none of the reports I have seen say that). In that case, there will be a lot of British workers who can make a sandwich, but can’t find a job.

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The 4G rip-off

9 November, 2014 - 21:10

Website image showing 3G speeds compared to 4G. In practice, you will rarely notice the difference in speed.Last month I switched from the 3G SIM-only deal I’d been on with T-Mobile since 2012 to a new 4G deal with EE, which is part of the same company (I’m not sure who owns who). Under the old deal I’d been paying around £11-12 per month and getting unlimited data and a cap on my calls and texts, and 08 numbers (free or reduced rate on landlines) were effectively premium rate. This new deal included unlimited texts and calls but a 2Gb monthly cap on my data. And for the first time since I started using smartphones in 2009, I ran out of data (albeit only 15 minutes before the ‘month’ ended last Monday night).

I was not all that dissatisfied with the performance of 3G, but it had noticeably deteriorated in the last year or so. I had been unable to download anything in some places, including town centres where the phone said there was good coverage, and this could not always be explained by the network just being busy. I wondered if the shortage of IP addresses might be the reason, but others told me it couldn’t be. No, the 3G bandwidth had been reduced to make way for 4G, and of course my bill wasn’t being reduced to compensate. I looked into what 4G deals were available, but they all offered much less data than I used and were much more expensive (nobody is doing an unlimited 4G data plan except Three, and that costs £20 a month). I went into an EE shop in Cambridge and asked which 4G deal would be best, and was told I was using more than 3Gb a month, which would cost me £20 a month. There was no way I was willing to pay that much.

Then I got rid of the Twitter client that was using the vast majority of the data I was downloading, and EE increased their 1Gb 4G package to 2Gb, and it appeared that I could afford 4G after all. I signed up for that deal and got my new SIM on the 4th October (a Saturday). I have noticed that there are fewer data gaps although when out in the country (which I often am because of my job), I only get 3G or even 2G, but my usage has turned out to be more than I thought it would be, and I only use my phone for email, social networking and a bit of Web browsing. I never use it to download audio or video files and I have auto-play switched off for things like embedded videos on Facebook. The simple fact is that if you follow a lot of people, and they tweet and retweet a lot, it’ll eat up the quota pretty quickly. Web pages with a lot of images will do the same even if you only view six or seven in a day (mobile versions are often not much better than desktop versions in this regard). One day last week my Web browser used more than 50Mb of data and Twitter more than 40, which was more than the daily share of my monthly quota. So I changed Twitter clients again (to Tweetings, which lets me disable image downloads when on mobile networks) and set my browser not to download images except on WiFi either. I also turned off data while I was working. These things reduced my data usage considerably (though only to just below the daily share), and on days when I’m neither working nor out most of the day, I use a lot less (generally less than 20Mb).

Mobile phone companies are promoting 4G as a way to access music, video and TV over the phone networks, but these uses must run any data limit down in a very short time. Last night’s Doctor Who, for example, was a 320Mb download on the BBC iPlayer app; a 2Gb monthly limit will let you download six of those, but that won’t leave much data left over for, well, data. Or other TV shows. So, it’s not necessary for social media or web browsing, and the current data limits are inadequate for what it’s meant for. It’s hard to see how 4G isn’t a big con, intended to get people to pay more for less and get them off ‘over-generous’ legacy 3G data plans from the days when a phone was a phone and mobile internet was an afterthought. If you’ve got 3G, you use a lot of data and you’re not experiencing constant interruptions, don’t touch 4G. If you want multimedia, you’ll need a very big and expensive data plan.

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A rail geography lesson for jihadis and journos

2 November, 2014 - 18:30

Over the years I’ve noticed that a standard tactic of the dishonest journalist or columnist in the age of the Internet is to rely on the geographical ignorance of your overseas audience, most of whom will not know or care if you claim, for example, that Downe is a typical Kent village rather than a well-heeled London suburb, or that parts of London have become Islamic enclaves when in fact they are mixed, and Muslim women just feel more confident to wear the veil because they are less likely to get spat at. Latest offender is Shiraz Maher, whose lengthy piece about a group from Portsmouth who went to fight for the so-called Islamic State in Syria, in the current New Statesman (not currently online) contains this geographical howler:

They took circuitous and different routes to the airport. Rahman, Uzzaman and Roshid all took the train to Gatwick from Fratton Station in Portsmouth. Choudhury travelled by car, while Hassan made his way separately from Guildford.

The seven stops from Fratton, near Portsmouth, to Gatwick AirportI used to live in Croydon, which had a major station on the southern main line to the coast (East Croydon), and there were trains to Portsmouth at least hourly, with another taking a really circuitous route to Southampton (via Hove, the junior partner to Brighton). They all stop at Gatwick Airport. All the trains that go to Portsmouth stop at all four stations on Portsea Island, including Fratton. There’s an hourly direct train from Fratton to Gatwick, which is the nearest major international airport to Portsmouth, and it takes the most direct route, via Horsham and Crawley, and they take just over an hour. So they did not take a ‘circuitous’ route so as to disguise their intentions (and why would three of them travel together if that was the idea?), but a very common and fairly quick route that probably hundreds of people take every day. (And there is a direct train from Guildford to Gatwick Airport as well; it runs hourly, ten minutes past each hour, and is run by First Great Western.)

(Shiraz, readers may recall, is a remnant of the “celebrity ex-jihadi” movement of about seven or eight years ago, which imploded spectacularly when Hassan Butt revealed that his tale of having received jihad training in Pakistan was made up and that the injuries he’d received at the hands of former jihadis were self-inflicted. Shiraz, who regularly crops up as an ‘expert’ on Islamist and jihadi movements in the media, claimed he had joined Hizb-ut-Tahrir after 9/11 and left after the July 2005 London bombings, despite the first being a spectacular and the second, a routine operation for a major terrorist group, and despite HT and Al-Qaida being ideologically and organisationally entirely separate. I didn’t believe it then, and don’t believe anything he writes now, and these slip-ups, or deceits, show he cannot be trusted.)

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Lipman, the socialist, deserts the poor for Israel

2 November, 2014 - 10:09

Last week Maureen Lipman, the British comic actress best known for roles in advertisements in the 1980s (as in “if you’ve got an ‘ology, you’re a scientist”), announced in an article for Standpoint magazine that she was not going to be voting Labour at the next election, primarily because its leader, Ed Miliband, had supported the vote in the Commons to recognise the state of Palestine:

“The world is exploding around us. Isis is beheading our civilians while raping and pillaging across Syria and Iraq. Presidents Putin and Assad are playing such heavy-handed games that we don’t know which rebel group to support.

“Hong Kong may be about to see a replay of Tiananmen. Islamist terrorism in every spot on the globe and if one Jew had been responsible for any of those bombings, there would, I am afraid to say, have been another Kristallnacht.

“At this point in our history you choose to back these footling backbenchers in this ludicrous piece of propaganda?”

She went on: “May I remind you that no one is tunnelling into Dover or sending rockets into Coventry, yet we seem to have every right to bomb the living daylights out of Iraq.

“Again. Conclusion: one law for the Israelis, another law for the rest of the world. Plus ca change.”

She also criticised him for eating a bacon sandwich, inviting him for a Sabbath dinner at her house, and told the magazine that, despite being a socialist, that she would vote for “any other party” until Labour was again led by “mensches” (decent people).

Picture of Ed Miliband, turned on his heels putting a few coins in a cup held by a woman sitting on the ground.I have no particular time for Ed Miliband; his behaviour is in the tradition of New Labour cowardice going back to the time of Kinnock, and the sight of him walking past a homeless woman when out and about, and only then turning back and giving her a few coins (whether or not she’s a member of a Romanian gang that supposedly makes £50 a day), hardly gives the impression of him being a mensch. I think the “recognition” is a token gesture which will have really no impact because Israel will not tolerate a second state in the territory it occupies; it will be satisfied with nothing other than total submission by the native population to permanent Israeli domination. There is going to be no “two-state solution”.

I read a lot of feminist Twitter accounts and websites and the crass generalisations and brazen ideological lies they sometimes come out with are astounding, and I’ll probably write something about that in the near future (particularly with regard to the Pistorius affair), but they are nowhere near as offensive as the hyperbole that Zionists come out with, mainly because they are not supporting an oppressive régime anywhere. It’s hard to imagine any of them saying that it’s terrible that people blame rape victims, but this victim (that they don’t like because of her race) really was asking for it or this rapist is vital to national security. Zionists eagerly condemn oppression when it’s happening in Europe or in China (or in the Middle East when it’s in a country they want to see invaded), but turn a blind eye when it’s their friends in Israel doing it, or else explicitly justify it, or claim fakery or that it was the Palestinians’ fault somehow, even when it is clearly recorded on film. As there is no Zionism without the oppression or expulsion of the native population, they support whatever that takes.

Lipman clams she believes in socialism and has stood on the hustings with Neil Kinnock and “still thumb[s] through Tony Benn’s diaries with a fond smile”, yet she still admires Frank Field, who is not a socialist but largely sings to the Tories’ tune, despite occupying a safe Labour seat by the Mersey. Who, then, will she vote for if not Labour? The Green Party supported the vote to recognise Palestine; the Lib Dems will sell her vote to the highest bidder, and the Tories are not socialists, so unless she plans to vote for a whichever Marxist groupuscule is fielding a candidate in her area, it appears that she would prefer to throw her neighbours under the bus and consign them to another five years of government of the people by and for the rich (of course, she will not personally feel the pinch) than deny her friends in the Middle East the “right” to crush the native resistance. It goes to show where her loyalties really lie.

Lipman complains that Miliband ordered this vote at a time when the world is in chaos and Jews are suffering everywhere:

Just when the anti-Semitism in France, Denmark, Norway, Hungary is mounting savagely, just when our cemeteries and synagogues and shops are once again under threat. Just when the virulence against a country defending itself, against 4,000 rockets and 32 tunnels inside its borders, as it has every right to do under the Geneva Convention, had been swept aside by the real pestilence of IS, in steps Mr Miliband to demand that the government recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.

What “mounting savagely” means is a few attacks on synagogues and cemeteries by a small group of neo-Nazi thugs. The worst atrocity to take place in Norway since World War II was by a Muslim-hating white supremacist against young members of the country’s socialist party. Laws have been passed in much of Europe that are aimed at suppressing expressions of Islam, particularly by women. The fact is that Europe is becoming less and less tolerant of all minorities and Muslims and Gyspies are suffering far worse than Jews in many places. She compares the tunnels dug underneath the border with Egypt (which is not Israel’s border and never has been) and the rockets fired by the Palestinian resistance to attacks on a minority by racist thugs, as if the Palestinians were just racist thugs who wanted the Jews out because they are Jewish. This is not the case at all.

Cue wild applause from the unions, smiles of approbation from the far Left — and shock horror from the Jewish Board of Deputies. Why would he do this? And why now? Many people on the Left and the Right would like to see a two-state solution if it means peace and mutual respect. I am one of them. Any future Palestinian state will be entirely free of Jews, of course. Yet the Jewish state is labelled “apartheid” with 1.7 million Arabs in residence and represented in parliament.

A “two-state solution” is the pipedream of a declining number of white liberals who believe that Israel acts in good faith, that they have a God-given right to the territory and to dominance over the native, mostly Arab, population. The liberal Zionist overlooks Israeli brutality and Israeli racism, both towards the indigenous people and towards African immigrants and refugees. The fact is that Israel will permit no more than a Bantustan in the territory it occupies, without control of its borders, without meaningful armed forces, without the ability to obtain money from abroad without it coming through Israel, and without a direct link to any other Arab country; it also will monopolise natural resources, such as the water supply, for the benefit of Israeli citizens and their settlers. As Lipman mentions, the Arabs have rejected a number of “peace” deals, but these were unfavourable deals which permitted the settler state in the first place, and later gave the Palestinians only pockets of territory which were surrounded by occupied territory. The so-called Barak peace plan, commonly waved in the Arabs’ face since, was so unfavourable that it can be assumed that it was made to be rejected.

If you recognise a state you can officially arm that state. Already billions of pounds have been allotted to rebuild Gaza. Ha! Rebuild the tunnels and reequip the arsenal. Oh, how the propaganda has worked on these clever, concerned people again and again and again. If Hamas and Fatah cared one iota for the Palestinians, might they not have built schools and hospitals and streets for their people the first time the billions poured in and were converted into weaponry and hotel suites in Paris and citizens were used as human shields?

Someone must have built the hospitals, schools, care homes and general housing that were destroyed by Israel in the recent air attacks. If Israel (and their friends in Egypt) allowed materials to be openly carried across the border, the Palestinians and their supporters would not need to use tunnels. As for the observation that “if one Jew had been responsible for any of those bombings, there would, I am afraid to say, have been another Kristallnacht”, this is complete and utter gibberish. The Jews have no reason to bomb western targets because the western countries affected support Israel, but if they did, they would most likely carry fake Algerian passports, don fake beards and white thawbs and do it in a way that could be blamed on Muslims, and regardless of the evidence, Muslims would be blamed first and suffer the inevitable wave of media hostility and racist violence, and if there were Jewish grievances behind them, they would be taken a lot more seriously than Muslim ones. The King David Hotel bombing is all forgiven, of course.

Jews in pretty much all of Europe, and certainly Britain, are treated considerably better than minorities are in Israel, and better than other minorities in Europe. People who have investigated this, who have spent time in both Israel and Palestine and did not turn a blind eye, have seen the vicious racism and petty humiliations of Palestinians in the occupied territories who are trying to live normal lives and move around their own country. (A female friend of mine got her period in Bethlehem when the Israelis had turned off the water supply for several days. This happens to Palestinian women all the time, to say nothing of other reasons why you’d need to wash.) It’s entirely consistent that white liberals who wouldn’t even think of calling their neighbours by the P- or N-words also wouldn’t support a state which is founded on racism, where racism is inculcated into children in schools and into youths in the army, where violent racism is on the rise and where an occupied population is subject to routine humiliation. It’s remarkable, and upsets some people, only because it’s unusual.

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Bedroom Tax gag on Lamont typical of Labour’s cowardice

26 October, 2014 - 08:37

Picture of Johann Lamont, a white woman with fair hair wearing a light green jacket.Miliband barred Lamont from attacking bedroom tax for 12 months | Politics |

Yesterday, in the fallout from Johann Lamont’s resignation as leader of the Scottish Labour party (a nominally independent Scottish version of the Labour party), “sources close” to Lamont revealed that Ed Miliband had ordered her not to attack the Bedroom Tax (the policy by which a person or family’s housing benefit is cut if they are deemed to have “spare bedrooms”, which may not be spare at all) while he made up his mind on the issue; this resulted in the widespread perception that Lamont was indecisive and vague on the issue. This, to me, is typical of the cowardice which Labour show when the agenda is being set by the Tories and their press, and it goes back to well before Tony Blair came to office.

I saw it most clearly when I was active in the student union in Aberystwyth in the mid-1990s. The National Union of Students had been largely controlled by the Labour students’ group for years, but as that group became more right-wing, the union itself retained its policy of demanding a return to full grants and the abolition of loans. Labour wanted to introduce tuition fees, and its student wing was full of ambitious young politicians who wanted to impress the party and secure nominations for seats to fight. Indeed, Jim Murphy, currently MP for East Renfrewshire, was the president of the NUS at the time I attended conference in 1996; he was elected in 1997. Quite a number of presidents of the NUS became Labour MPs and other became chairs of Labour-associated groups like the Fabian Society. The NUS’s policy on grants was an embarrassment to Labour, and they needed to overturn the policy.

Labour tabled motions to abolish the grants policy at conference after conference and in 1996 they finally got it through. Labour students were seated in the central part of the hall so that someone in the balcony could indicate to them how to vote (as Aberystwyth was controlled by dissenters — mostly Plaid Cymru — we were in the wings and couldn’t see them, but a delegate on the other wing pointed this out in a procedural motion to expel the visitors from conference for this reason), and I remember one incident where a Labour union officer got up to speak and a couple of seconds later, the central part of the hall erupted in applause — as if they’d only just realised they were being told to cheer. It was an open secret that Labour students regarded it as their job to use positions such as student union sabbatical officers to help Labour win the 1997 election, and this often involved going against other union officers or union policy. At one college, for example, the Labour slogan “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” was printed on the union’s rape alarms.

The reasons why returning to 1979 grant levels was infeasible are obvious; the number of students had increased dramatically since then. Of course, this meant that a university degree had become a more essential qualification, which it certainly was not in 1979, but the drain on the economy would have been enormous. The same is not true of the Bedroom Tax; it is a new policy, conceived in obvious malice by wealthy Tories, known to be causing a lot of suffering and hardship because the ‘spare rooms’ are not spare at all, or because there is no alternative accommodation for many of the families affected, and because it takes no account of family circumstances. The amount saved cannot be very high, if any has been given the additional burden of administration. It is something Labour should make a priority of abolishing, but feels unable to for fear of an onslaught from the Tory-controlled commercial press. The same is much less true in Scotland, where the Tories have only a single MP, but as with the student unions in the 1990s, Labour has to control its affiliates and even nominally independent but ‘associated’ groups to make sure they do not step out of line and embarrass the leadership.

This tendency of toning down the Labour aspects of Labour, the elements who seek social justice, goes back further than Blair — recent interviews with Neil Kinnock mentioned that he was himself influenced by some young politicians, including his chief of staff Charles Clarke, who told him to tone himself down, say less and sound less working-class and less Welsh:

A posse of clever men and women a decade younger than himself, politicians of the harsher era of the 1970s, became his praetorian guard: the Cambridge graduates Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke, who had been president of the National Union of Students (NUS); the Oxford graduate Peter Mandelson, who had been chairman of the British Youth Council. Kinnock says they “had been student union officers very young, and after that they came and worked for me”.

Among the other Kinnock confidants who had cut their teeth in student politics were the former NUS president Jack Straw and John Reid, a former young communist. Fighting the ultra-left was in their bones. They had fought them in the student unions and now they fought them for Kinnock, unrelentingly and obsessively …

Kinnock’s protectors told him that his personality was all wrong. The noise, the passion, the bons mots, the houndstooth suits – everything that had endeared him to the public before he was elected leader – it all had to go. He started to wrap himself up in grey flannel suits and grey woollen phrases. Brendan Bruce, the Conservative director of communications for part of Kinnock’s time as leader, has said: “He was badly let down by his image-makers in recent years. There were endless things they could have done.”

I can think of so many other incidents, particularly in the 1990s but even well into Labour’s term in office, where policy moves were based on cowardice. There was, for example, the stamping on Clare Short when she proposed legalising cannabis, and the way they jumped when the Daily Mail attacked them for not deporting “foreign criminals” in 2007, something that up until then had not even been part of the deal. It is the New Labour tendency to cringe before power which is what led the UK into the disastrous Iraq war in 2003: Tony Blair simply was not prepared to say no to an angry and powerful US president. That they are not willing to take on the Tories on a policy which would not entail an enormous spending commitment demonstrates that they are still led by people without courage, and until that changes, they will only win empty victories, enabling them to mind the shop while the Tories regroup, or stay in opposition.

Image source: Scottish Labour.

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Julie Bindel does not deserve a “no-platform” policy

19 October, 2014 - 19:31

Julie BindelThis week Julie Bindel (right) is due to speak in a debate at Essex University about pornography. Bindel is a radical feminist best known for her work with Justice for Women, a group that fought to get women who killed violent husbands and partners out of prison starting with Sara Thornton in the early 90s; she has also written extensively on violence against women, on prostitution and people-trafficking, transgenderism and pornography. Someone has started a petition to get her dis-invited, however, and so far it has attracted 200 signatures, mostly from well away from the university. The event she is due to speak at next week is aimed at first year undergrads and is part of their “Think!” seminars, organised by the social sciences faculty. While other attempts to prevent Julie Bindel appearing at university events have been successful, at present she is still listed as attending the event. (I read about this campaign on the Edinburgh-based feminist Louise Pennington’s blog, but she does not accept comments from men anymore. She covered a previous attempt to exclude Julie Bindel, and I did comment on that.)

The cause of the hostility is a series of articles Bindel wrote on transgenderism; she is known to be opposed to male-to-female transgenderism in particular, and is notorious for an article she wrote for the Guardian Weekend magazine in 2004. The article has since been deleted, but is available in image form here; it includes a number of nasty stereotypes of transsexuals such as “at least those women were women, and hadn’t gone to gender reassignment clinics to have their breasts sliced off and a penis made out of their beer bellies”, but the opinions are pretty typical of a certain type of lesbian radical feminist: that transgenderism is a reaction to homophobia, that it consists of reinforcing traditional gender roles rather than breaking them down, and that “a surgically constructed vagina and hormonally grown breasts [do not] make you a woman”. The latter is probably more widely shared outside the rad fem community than the first two, along with the notion that having been a man, and lived as a man, until middle age does not make one particularly well qualified to counsel (female) rape victims (it is possible that some will not mind, but others will).

This event is not about transgenderism, however; it’s about pornography, and radical feminists are well known to be opposed to the popularisation of pornography because it often depicts abuse (albeit of adults, not children) and because it depicts women appearing to enjoy sexual acts that are degrading to them. In addition, the widespread availability of this material means that children can also easily get hold of it, and it is known to have an effect on what boys expect from girls in a relationship and the way they treat them. Some feminists also cast doubt on the consent given to the acts they have to engage in when in pornography; while they may have signed a contract at the beginning, they may not have fully realised or been informed of what acts the ‘job’ would entail. The fact is that there are plenty of objections to pornography, and reasons why it should be restricted or kept away from children especially, and if they did not get a feminist to debate that side of the argument, they would have to get someone with a religious reason to be against pornography, and he would probably come across as not trying to sound too prudish or conservative and his (or her) arguments would not resonate very well, particularly with younger and non-religious students.

Having seen some of the ‘objections’ to Bindel’s appearance that are listed on the petition, it seems that much of it boils down to “she’s a TERF” (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and little else. The person who wrote the petition is a man, and is from Durham, which is a long way from Essex. Most of the signatories were not from the university, or the area, or even the UK. They all objected to her writings on transgenderism, suggesting that her mere presence would make the university an unsafe place for trans women, and did not even touch on her opinions on pornography or the sex trade (probably they do not know about her campaigning on violence against women). There is one comment (from someone in Hale, which is also a long way from Essex) that says:

It is one thing to tolerate the views of the hatefilled, it is quite another to invite them to toss vitriol into our faces

But having heard Julie Bindel talk about the sex trade (and discussing the idea of a legalised sex trade with a Nevada brothel owner on BBC Woman’s Hour), I can say that she doesn’t “toss vitriol” at anyone or indeed bring her work on other issues, whether it’s domestic violence or transgenderism, into her anti-sex-trade work. She sounded pretty calm and reasonable to me, and had clearly done her research, which is more than can be said for many of the signatories to this petition.

This is not the first time Bindel has faced efforts to prevent her speaking at a university event; sometimes they have involved appealing to the university or the venue concerned, and other times it has consisted of sending her death and rape threats. This reflects a sinister ‘creep’ of the no-platform policy from its original application to racists and fascists to pretty much anyone who has opinions that anyone considers bigoted, even if they are not being given a platform to express those particular opinions; there has been a wave of incidents in which conferences have been cancelled because they were to discuss views that were less than liberal on matters of sexuality, but were not violent, much less racist or fascist. It is right to ban racists and others whose presence on campus may cause violence or intimidate dissenting or minority students or staff; Julie Bindel is not a violent person, has no history of using political violence and is no threat to anyone. (And if you have ever joined in or supported an effort to get a Muslim speaker banned because he has expressed “anti-Semitic” or “homophobic” views at some point, or shared a platform with someone who has, you are participating in the same tendency of using censorship to defeat ideas you dislike.)

There is much I disagree with among Julie Bindel’s views, much as with a lot of other radical feminists, but these are things that can be debated, because they are not going to bring a bunch of thugs into the debate or to hang around the venue afterwards. In the case of feminists hostile to transgender people, one might make an exception for those who harassed them, outed them or tried to interfere in their education or medical treatment, but I have never heard of Julie Bindel doing this. The debate is about pornography and she is one of the best people to put the case against from a feminist point of view, as it is a genre that thrives on the exploitation of women (the other speaker that springs to mind is Gail Dines, who is also known to associate with the same group of radical feminists). I hope Essex University lets the debate go ahead and is not swayed by this small, noisy, self-selecting group of would-be censors.

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From Clegg to Clacton

12 October, 2014 - 23:21

Douglas CarswellThe other night I was driving home (I had a long drive from Diss, Norfolk to west London, which takes three hours by any reasonable route in an 18-tonne lorry) and listening to reports on Nick Clegg’s speech at the (now forgotten, I think) Lib Dem party conference. In that speech, he told everyone off for looking for someone to blame for the current crisis, be it big business, immigrants or Europe. He also reminded everyone how he’d toned down the Tories’ worst instincts during his four years cosying up to them, and promised that he’d never repeat the mistake of caving in on increasing student tuition fees. Then on Friday morning, we woke to find that UKIP had gained the seat of Clacton in Essex in a by-election in which the sitting (former Tory) MP, Douglas Carswell (right), had defected and put himself up for re-election. In a 51% turnout, Carswell won 60% of the vote, more than double the nearest rival (a Conservative). In another by-election in Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester, Labour held the seat and increased its share of the vote by 1%, but UKIP came second with only about 600 fewer votes.

To deal with the Lib Dem conference first, Clegg and other Lib Dems are deluding themselves if they think his voters’ sense of betrayal is purely down to the tuition fees issue. He caved in on so many other issues, including the Tories’ welfare reform programme and the cuts to legal aid, which leave some very vulnerable people without legal representation (e.g. mothers trying to secure custody of their children, when their husbands often have better ability to afford a lawyer). Last Monday (before the speech), Sue Marsh posted an entry in which she described Clegg and Danny Alexander at the time of the formation of the coalition as “eager as 6th formers convinced they are ready to play men’s games”, and this sums up my impression of why they gave so much away: they were just too eager for the privileges and prestige of “office”. Nor can it be said that they have tempered the Conservatives’ wilder instincts as these elements are snapping at the leadership’s heels as we speak. They have an established group within the party that wants to take Britain out of the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights; some of them are defecting to UKIP and their press are egging both groups on. They did not accept a coalition and blame the Lib Dems for everything that they were unable to do if they had been a “Tory government”, apparently ignorant of the fact that they did not, in fact, win the election. The Lib Dems have not gained as a party from coalition with the Tories; only their ministers have gained, and only personally. Their values are treated as if they are on the fringes of current thinking, with the two major parties (and there are only two now, and if there is a third, it is not the Lib Dems) competing to be ‘tough’ on right-wing media issues such as immigration and Europe.

That the Lib Dem vote has collapsed is evident from both of last week’s by-elections: in Clacton, they received only 483 votes, a loss of 12%, and lost their deposit, coming fifth after the Greens; in Heywood and Middleton, they lost 18% of the vote and received only 1,457, coming fourth. While the Clacton result can be explained partly by there being a popular local MP who would have won whichever party he represented, in Heywood the Labour party gained only 1% of the vote while UKIP gained 36%. I’ve seen blog posts and a diagram (since deleted, it seems) suggesting that this was not hugely significant because Labour held its vote while the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ votes were transferred to UKIP. The problem is that the Lib Dems appealed to an entirely different demographic to UKIP, which expects to take votes from people who are swayed by the right-wing press rather than progressive, well-educated voters who actually think about what they are voting for. The Lib Dems also benefited from a large number of left-wing votes during the New Labour era, and from left-wing voters in mostly affluent areas where they were the main opposition to the Tories. It is inconceivable that these voters will vote UKIP in large numbers. The only possible explanation is that Labour (and the Tories) lost voters to UKIP while gaining them from the Lib Dems (although the Greens, who also increased their share of the vote in Heywood, may have gained from both). A possible reason why UKIP gained such a large share of the vote was the low turnout, which demonstrates the danger of not turning out to vote because you believe you live in a ‘safe’ seat and because it’s “only a by-election”.

The success of UKIP also shows that being wealthy and having a background in the financial sector is no bar to winning votes among impoverished and poorly-educated voters. In theory, it shouldn’t be, on its own, but Farage, like a lot of American right-wing politicians, affects a ‘common touch’ that disguises policies that benefit only his own class, while exploiting people’s fears and resentments, however ill-founded they may be. Thomas Frank exposed this tendency in American politics in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? (America, in the UK version): that white voters across the USA, except in the big cities, the university towns and coastal metropolitan areas, had taken to voting for Republican candidates whose economic policies were against their interests, largely for reasons of morality (e.g., opposition to abortion) or because it was not acceptable to draw attention to their wealth and background; that was the “politics of envy” and wealthy men are winners. The same rhetoric can be seen creeping into British politics, along with the same dishonesty, the same fake common touch, the blunt talking, the hostility to experts and intellectuals. The deception is perpetrated on the BBC and in papers which are meant to be a bit more balanced: the Observer, for example, portrayed him taking a beer (a common theme in the American version of this deceit as well - they can’t be shown sipping a latte) in his “village pub in Kent” when it was actually in an exclusive and expensive London suburb.

I’ve found the media’s coverage of these by-elections disappointing, but perhaps I shouldn’t as they have been talking up UKIP for years. On Friday morning I followed a link which appeared to be to a story about the Heywood result, but it turned out to be mostly about Clacton and contain mostly chatter by various politicians, as if that was the news. There were no statistics — no tables of the candidates and their votes and percentages, nor of the changes since 2010 (after I complained to the BBC myself, graphs showing these details appeared). This result is disturbing: it’s a victory for apathy, unthinkingness, fear and resentment, stoked by the commercial right-wing press and recklessly fed by the BBC, and is in no way comparable to the “protest votes” cast while the Liberal Democrats seemed the only principled party during the New Labour era (let alone to tactical votes for the Lib Dems cast in constituencies where Labour could not win). It used to be said that people vote with their pockets, hence the recurrent victories for the Tories in the 1980s and 90s, but now it seems people will vote against their interests on the vague notion that a party “says what they are thinking” or “are on their side”, even though a cursory investigation will prove that they are in fact firmly part of the establishment and playing a trick. The BNP were brought to earth when their incompetence, lies and criminality were exposed; will anyone expose the deceptions of UKIP? Or do people just not care?

Image source: Wikipedia.

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Would Braille have thrived in inclusive education?

4 October, 2014 - 11:30

The other day I had a brief tweet discussion with Liz Ball, campaigns involvement officer with Sense, the British deafblind charity, about whether Braille would have become established as the major means of written communication for blind people had the Victorians embraced inclusive education. That was prompted by an article on the BBC’s Ouch (disability) section on a forgotten group of Victorian educationalists who deplored the trend towards segregated schools for deaf and blind children which often taught particular trades which sometimes enriched the institutions, not the pupils. In the 21st century, the majority of blind children in the UK are taught in mainstream schools and Braille has declined in popularity. I do not think that these two facts mean that Braille would have been forgotten without the segregated schools of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Image of a thin print volume on top of a large ring binder containing the same book in Braille, with a tape measure diagonally across the bottom-right corner.For one thing, at that time computers did not exist. The technology available now, with computers available on the High Street with inbuilt screen readers (Macs), was not even available at the turn of the current century, let alone in the Victorian era. These days many blind people find that talking computers are easier to use and more convenient than Braille, particularly for large volumes. Liz mentioned that this technology is also more convenient for teachers, not many of whom in mainstream education know Braille, which is still widely taught in special schools; she suggested that the raised print that was favoured in the 19th century (which was originally taught in the school Louis Braille was in) was favoured because it was easier for teachers. Braille’s system was originally opposed by his teachers, although the school adopted it after his death, at the pupils’ insistence.

I am not convinced by this argument. Braille was a pre-Victorian invention, first presented by Louis Braille to his fellow pupils when he was 15, in 1824. The raised-print system he was exposed to was dreadfully inefficient, and could only be read, not written, by a blind user, but it had the prestige of having been invented by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy. Had he not been in that school, and yet received an education at all, he would likely not have been expected to read raised-print books but simply to learn books and facts from memory. However, he may still have learned about the Barbier raised-dot system used in the French military and may still have been inspired to develop his system. Without the environment of a boarding school, he may have had greater liberty to promote his invention, but may have had less time to develop it because of requirements to do house chores; however, his teachers may have been unencumbered by loyalty to someone like Haüy and embraced an invention that allowed blind people to read and write. During both that and the Victorian eras, there were more blind and deafblind people (at least relative to the population at large) because of the prevalence of diseases like measles, smallpox and rubella (although Braille himself was blinded by an accident), so he may still have known enough blind people to find a user base for his system.

Inclusive education can be good or bad, and have good or bad motives, much as with inclusion of disabled people (and mentally ill people) generally. It can be done for the welfare and educational betterment of the children, or it can be done because it costs less than special education, especially if you do little to accommodate the blind (or otherwise impaired) child’s needs. A progressive, inclusive school might pay for one or two of its teachers to learn Braille so as to make sure Braille learning material is available for blind pupils or students, while a badly-run school with a transient staff might provide them with a laptop but provide little support, let alone maintenance. In the Victorian era, it might not have seemed progressive to “integrate” blind children into schools that were not taught by proper teachers, where the methods were Gradgrind-esque, where discipline was harsh and physical and which were located in insanitary, polluted cities; the reason why many institutions for disabled people and the mentally ill were built in the countryside in that era was not to do with segregation but with its health benefits (élite schools were often similarly located). In the case of the better institutions, having a place there was seen as a benefit, not a way of getting rid of an embarrassing or burdensome disabled child; in the case of the inferior ones that taught basket-weaving and other manual crafts, how important were they in teaching and popularising Braille anyway?

I think Braille, or something a lot like it, may still have thrived if the Victorians had embraced inclusive education for positive reasons (as the BBC’s article says was already happening in France and Belgium). The same philanthropists who funded blind schools may well have instead funded Braille Institutes or something similar, to print and distribute texts in Braille and to train teachers and blind adults to use it. Despite raised print having the advantage of being easily readable by a sighted person and thus slightly more convenient for teachers, it is still a lot more limited than Braille; the letters are huge, and the resulting book would be enormous, or spread over several volumes. They would not have been considered in a school with only a handful of blind pupils, or just one. Braille has the clear technical superiority of being easier to produce than raised print, both by the blind writer and the commercial printer; the schoolteacher is only one link in the chain and will not dominate a child’s life forever (and does not teach someone blinded as an adult). Braille and talking computers both serve the purpose of allowing a blind person to both record and read back information; raised print was a one-way means of communication. Faced with the inefficiency and bulk of raised print, I suspect many blind people would have preferred memorisation, and the better-off would have hired scribes. Raised print could not have enjoyed widespread popularity; the need for something like Braille would have been obvious until it was met.

Image source: “Braille book” by Karl-Heinz Wellmann - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

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Niqab in Camden: where are the Muslim voices?

27 September, 2014 - 17:20

Picture of a white woman wearing a white headscarf and separate face-covering, with an embroidered 'border' under the eyes.The niqab is not just a fashion statement | @guardianletters | World news | The Guardian

These two letters appeared in today’s Guardian in response to an article in yesterday’s edition by Gaby Hinsliff, a former politics editor at the Observer, which argued that people who wear unusual or disapproved-of clothing, including niqaab, should not be denied an education even if banning niqaab could be justified in other contexts. The second letter raises the issue that the veil could make it difficult for deaf fellow students or teachers to interact with this girl; the first is just the standard, uninformed white woman’s opinion about what the niqab ‘represents’:

However, she wilfully ignores what it means to cover schoolgirls’ faces: the face-veil is no more just “a scrap of fabric” than a gag is, it is an iconic manifestation of an ideology which holds that women’s faces are analogous to their genitals as a source of shame which must be hidden from all men other than their husbands.

If it is a fashion choice, it is that of Isis, the Taliban, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, who – along with our Saudi allies – brutally enforce this particular deletion of women from public life. Tolerating misogyny is one thing, but it is depressing that a certain patronising mindset seems to cover its own liberal face so it cannot see and challenge it.

Neither of the names below these letters are Muslim ones. It appears that when it comes to discussing a young Muslim woman’s education, their voices should not be heard. It is the same every time this ‘controversy’ arises, and when there is purportedly a Muslim woman’s opinion offered, it is almost always a secular one, often a “Muslim in name only” (e.g. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown). Experiences of niqab are often by women who “tried it on” for a few weeks and reported that it was a hellish experience, particularly because they experienced more public hostility than they usually do (the connection between this and attempts to ban it, and the erasure of Muslim women’s voices from the discussion, is never made). A few years ago, the Guardian printed interviews ([1], [2]) with a teacher in Loughborough, Rahmanara Chowdhury, who wore niqab (and taught “interpersonal skills, teamwork, personal development” to teenagers), but such opportunities for real Muslim women to speak are rare. A few years ago I published an interview with a young woman I knew who had worn niqab to school in Canada from age 17 (although she has since stopped wearing the niqab); you can find that here. I personally knew a young woman who wore niqab at my sixth form college in the early 1990s; she attended some of the same classes as me and was in my tutor group. Her attire did not cause any trouble or inconvenience to anyone and it did not seem to hinder her from participating in classroom discussions, etc.

The niqab has nothing to do with any ‘ideology’; it has to do with Islam, and forms of it have been found in Muslim societies since the beginning, although the niqab worn today was probably invented more recently (and is a lot more practical than wrapping a large head-wrap around one’s face). Calling something an ‘ideology’, of course, makes it sound less legitimate and more threatening, a practice popularised by the likes of Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz. It does not “hold that women’s faces are analagous to their genitals”; even according to the opinion that holds that women covering their faces in public is mandatory, women can show their faces to other women and to close family members. (Others hold that they can actually show their faces to other men, but not show them in public mixed situations.) Neither men nor women are allowed to show their genitals to anyone except their spouses, or to medical staff when necessary.

The comparison with ISIS etc is also ridiculous. The Taliban, as is well-known, enforced the Afghan burqa, which bears no resemblance to the niqab and which is almost unknown among Muslim women anywhere beyond Afghanistan and neighbouring parts of Pakistan. Boko Haram kidnap girls and kill boys; ISIS murder peaceful people so as to provoke a war. The vast majority of women who wear the niqab in the UK and elsewhere are in no way connected to any of these groups. In fact, not all the jihadist preachers who have been active in the UK have said that niqab is compulsory, while some who opposed al-Qa’ida and related violence have said it is. Women in many countries where niqab is normal go to school and college, work, run businesses, drive and vote (with the obvious exception of Saudi Arabia).

As for the concern for deaf students or teachers in the college, it is not known whether there are any deaf people in her classes and if there are, it is possible that she may agree to take it off if they cannot communicate with her any other way. (The same was the reason why Jack Straw asked a woman to take her niqab off during a constituency surgery, but this detail got lost in the controversy which led to an explosion of hostility against women who wear the niqab; it has since become quite rare outside a couple of ‘safe’ Muslim areas such as Whitechapel. I have not seen one in Kingston for years; it was common among Muslim students when I briefly studied there in the early 2000s.) It is a red herring which has been raised as an excuse, and I have not heard of campaigners for deaf people’s rights, or disability campaigners in general, make any issue of this. If you are not deaf, you can still hear what she is saying — you just have to listen. It is disappointing that a newspaper which is aimed at educated and intelligent people, with a cover price to match, prints ill-informed and prejudiced drivel like this and silences the people affected. Women should not be paying the price for acts of terrorism perpetrated by a minority of male Muslim extremists; the niqab has never been proven to be a factor in any terrorist incident here.

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ITV’s soft focus on learning disability crisis

21 September, 2014 - 09:49

A woman and man sitting on the floor with their baby son, who has Down's syndromeLast Thursday ITV broadcast a 24-minute programme titled Against the Odds, which supposedly revealed “the reality of life for people with learning disabilities in the UK, with many experiencing harassment and violence and just 6.4% in paid work”, as part of its Tonight strand. They interviewed several families, including the parents of a boy with Down’s syndrome who had faced the suggestion that they abort him, a young woman who had participated in equestrian and running events at the Special Olympics, a man who had been the victim of public harassment when trying to live independently a few years ago, another who was bullied at school because of his condition and had been out of work for four years, and a man in his 40s with Down’s syndrome who was preparing to move into a shared house. The format of the documentary did not give enough time to investigate all these issues, but very little attempt was made even within this limited format. The programme just consisted of a procession of happy endings. (It can be viewed in the UK here for the next four weeks or so.)

There were only two stories which featured bullying or hate crime, and even then that aspect was only mentioned briefly, and it was all in the past and not recent. Nothing was said about prosecuting the people responsible, or about prosecutions for disability hate crime generally (and, for example, the fact that the police often fail to investigate the disability connection when disabled people are attacked, when it can result in increased sentences). In the first of those stories, the man returned home to live with his mother after the attacks made his life impossible, but has more recently decided to move to his mother’s home town in Kent, where he’s happy. The second man was bullied at school because of what was described as a “language disorder”, including having his head forced down the toilet. That stopped when they transferred him to a special school. As an adult, he had a good job as a receptionist but quit for reasons that were not fully explained. He was out of work for four years, during which time he became depressed — until Mencap stepped in, and found him work in McDonalds, clearing up tables.

They also interviewed a mother who had an autistic daughter, who after finding that the services available were inadequate, set up her own charity called New Hope, providing “out of school respite care for children with learning disabilities”. They didn’t explain how she got the money to do that; most people do not have the resources. The last family featured was that of a man with Down’s syndrome who had been living with his parents all his life, but his parents were getting old and their health was declining, so a local charity managed to find a house which they could adapt, so that he and three other disabled people, plus a care worker, could move in. They were still refitting the house when the programme was being made, but he and the three other residents were all interviewed briefly and were enthusiastic.

Picture of Claire Dyer, a young white woman wearing a pink and white striped T-shirt, holding pictures of Swansea City footballersThere was no mention of the fact that some families struggle for years to get access to any services for their disabled children or adult children. It doesn’t always happen that there is a local charity on hand that has the resources to buy a house and re-fit it. In some parts of the country, like London, property prices are sky-high and four- or five-bedroom houses are just way out of reach. Some people with learning disabilities do not have strong families that are able to support them for most of their adult lives. Some do not have families who have the money, know-how or connections to set up charities. It did not, of course, even mention that families are having benefits and services cut because of austerity, and it appeared to concentrate on middle-class families as nobody mentioned poverty or long-term financial difficulty. The programme did not even touch on the fact that people with learning disabilities often die because of negligence in the healthcare system, nor on the miserable way that challenging behaviour is dealt with: there is no specialist service for dealing with autistic adults in crisis, and the result is that they end up in psychiatric units, and when they say they cannot deal with them (because they are not autism specialists), they ship them to other special units often hundreds of miles from home, like Claire Dyer (left). People are spending years in some of these places, because of lack of support for them to live at home, or because they are being judged on how they behave while locked up, deprived of family and normal activity.

This documentary was rubbish. I’ve always said that if something is worth investigating, it is worth a good 45 to 60 minutes of TV time, but this programme barely scratched the surface of what it purported to investigate. It went for the feel-good factor, implying that life is generally pretty good for people with learning disabilities although there’s room for improvement. Well, it often isn’t good unless you’re from a fairly wealthy family. There is a crisis, and people are suffering and dying. ITV did not even look.

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The UK is not the USSR, nor an abusive relationship

19 September, 2014 - 21:20

Recently I’ve seen some quite preposterous commentary on the Scottish independence referendum, which is taking place as I type this. I have heard that the turnout for this has been higher than at any recent general election, which shows what happens when voters think voting will make a difference. Social media seems to favour Yes, but a fairly large proportion of the population do not have access to it, or just don’t use it. Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, published an article on his blog, based on a conversation he had with a Polish friend who had changed his mind and decided to vote Yes. The article compared Scotland within the UK to Poland under the Warsaw Pact, and the British media now to Poland’s under communism. It’s a quite ridiculous comparison.

The article reads:

He had supported Solidarnosc as a young man, and he had lived through the overwhelming barrage of state media propaganda against it. All the newspapers, radio and TV had broadcast for month after month that if Poland left the Soviet orbit the economy would be destroyed, trading links would be severed, everybody would lose their pensions and housing, they would be invaded, the currency would collapse. Democracy campaigners were branded as right wing nationalist thugs. The people had no access to a fair hearing on the media, and communities had to organise alternatively through social networks.

A few weeks ago he had suddenly realised that precisely the same thing was happening in Scotland that he had witnessed in Soviet controlled Poland. A monolithic and all-pervading media was pumping out the same propaganda on a permanent basis, and even the arguments they were making were precisely the same arguments the Soviets had made. He had suddenly realised that democracy in the UK was an illusion – the apparatchiks of the main political parties and the entire media, both state and private, in fact belonged to and promoted the same ruling establishment. Only the methodologies were different, and raw power slightly better hidden in the UK than in the old Soviet bloc. But the truth was of hard rich men wielding power, in both cases, and keeping the people down.

This is quite a ridiculous comparison between the state-controlled media of a dictatorship and police state with the merely biased corporate and publicly funded media in a democracy. There are good reasons why a commercial media company should oppose the truncation of the country where they are based; it means their reach is likely to be less and selling copies in the newly separated country may well get harder, for example because new taxes make the papers more expensive. This bias is less justifiable coming from the BBC, which is funded by a licence fee which is compulsory for anyone who has a TV set, but it’s still not comparable to a police state’s controlled media. It reflects the prejudices of the people who run it and work for it. However, the major difference with 1980s Poland is that the Internet was available and there was a free social media in Scotland; the corporate media and BBC could not control what was said over Twitter and Facebook, or over mailing lists, forums or blogs. The groups campaigning for independence, which included a major political party, did not face state persecution or harassment. There was a space in which people could organise without fear.

(The rest of this was written after the result was declared.)

Another bizarre comparison that has done the rounds is between the UK and an abusive relationship. This actually had some truth to it in the 18th century and even more recently, where there was no Scottish parliament and the Tories plundered their oil wealth and tested out unpopular policies (such as the Poll Tax) there first. Some political unions really are abusive relationships, and some even started with a forced marriage. This is why a lot of the federations of the old Eastern Bloc broke down as soon as the opportunity arose. In 21st century Britain, Scotland does not get that bad a deal out of the UK. They have a legislature of their own, so they are cushioned to a certain extent from the depredations of the London political and economic élite. If the UK is an abusive relationship for anyone, it is the poor and disabled and they are all over the country, but in England they do not have their own parliament to protect them.

This is probably why the Yes campaign could not persuade the majority of Scots to support it: because they knew that they got a good deal out of the UK and because the fears stoked by the No campaign, much as they may have been motivated by self-interest, were at least partly justifiable: the country would not be able to immediately join the EU, they would have a weak currency and they would be a small, weak country rather than part of a substantial one. Some may have been swayed by last-minute appeals and promises to transfer more powers or to reform the UK’s constitutional structure, although already many Tories are saying they will oppose any such measures and the Prime Minister has already made a speech about listening to “English voices” that object to Scottish MPs voting on English laws. He is clearly referring to Labour governments using Scottish Labour MPs to vote for their policies in matters that only affect England, but his own government uses Lib Dem MPs from north of the border for the same purpose; Labour have a much greater number of MPs in England than the Lib Dems do in total. There has been some talk of devolving power within England, but the most worrying suggestion is devolving it to cities like London. The problem is that London does not have a democratic assembly, so without a radical reform of London local government, this will mean giving more power to the Mayor.

The biggest danger is that a pretext may be found to simply reverse devolution. This could easily happen if the Tories win the next election with a majority, or in coalition with UKIP: they will find a big hole in the finances, or there will be a financial or sex scandal; there may also be a national security crisis, which may lead senior Tories or UKIPpers to claim that devolution had brought the UK to the brink of collapse, and that Britain needs to be strong and that means united. Power-sharing has never been in the Tories’ DNA; their world is the “corridors of power” in Westminster, and their way of administering ‘troublesome’ parts of the UK was through centrally-appointed quangos, not elected assemblies. The Scots do not have the power to stop this if the Tories are determined, and nor are many English very enthusiastic about devolution in England.

The video shows a young woman having a saltire flag torn from her hands by a man holding a Union flag. This was taken in George Square, Glasgow today.

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There will be FUD

13 September, 2014 - 18:00

A demonstration in favour of a Yes vote in Glasgow, today (13th September 2014); people are filling a street and there are Scottish flags being held in the foregroundIn under a week as of this writing, the Scottish independence referendum will have been held and the votes will either have been counted, or will be in the process. Last Sunday in the Observer, Will Hutton proposed a constitutional settlement to save the union: a wholesale change to the British constitution, giving each of the constituent nations an assembly of its own, including England, the replacement of the House of Lords with a “House of Britain” representing the nations and regions, and greater autonomy for cities and towns. The major parties have already promised to transfer more powers to the Scottish parliament in the event of a No vote, in particular greater control over taxes.

The campaign for a No vote styles itself “Better Together” but its major tactic seems to consist of what the computer industry calls FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt. The fears are mostly about the economy: of major companies moving their headquarters to London, of prices in shops rising, of North Sea oil running out (or sometimes, of a large part of it being claimed by England), of what currency Scotland will use or of it having to join the Euro, of whether it can join the EU immediately, of whether the British armed forces will still get ships built there, even of border controls at Gretna (which, of course, there aren’t on crossings to Ireland; you did not need a passport even during the Troubles). Last week it started to appear that the FUD tactics were not working and that opinion polls showed that support for a Yes vote was increasing (in some cases that the Yes vote was ahead); Prime Minister’s Questions was cancelled so that the leaders of the three major Westminster parties could go up to Scotland and campaign against independence, and promises of more power for Holyrood were made. Nobody was suggesting a comprehensive reform of the British constitution. The last thing any politician down south wants is more power slipping away to the English regions, or having to share power with anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary, or of meaningful regional assemblies in England. Labour and the Tories are used to power being an all-or-nothing affair.

As a British citizen of English and Irish origin, I do not particularly want to see the UK split up, but I do not blame Scots for wanting out, particularly in the present political climate. If I was a Scottish voter the topmost thought in my head would be “no more Tories”. Of course, independence will give the political right a chance to re-emerge in Scotland once it is no longer associated with support for the union (witness Alex Salmond’s fondness for Donald Trump’s developments and golf courses), but they will in the short term be free of the mindless, uncaring vulture capitalism which has been imposed by the present coalition (and even then, the Scots are partly protected from it by devolution). I am more worried about what it will mean for the rest of the UK. Many minority populations in Scotland identify as Scottish, but not many in England identify as English; they use the term to mean white (although in my experience, they can often spot the Irish in someone at ten paces). Much like those with a Soviet national identity in parts of the former USSR after that union broke up (notably Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine), there are a lot of people around the UK who identify as British, and their home country will no longer exist if Scotland leaves (even though the name “Britain” in fact refers to the Celtic ancestors of the Welsh and Cornish). I am less worried about the “perpetual Tory government” scenario; the recriminations over the break-up of the Union may well prevent the party winning the next election, particularly when the party faces competition with UKIP. Nobody seems to have considered the status of Northern Ireland; the loyalty of its mostly Scottish Protestant population is to Britain, not England.

The major reason why nationalism has grown in the past couple of generations has a lot to do with the failure of the British state to adapt to modern times. Britain likes to pride itself on taking the first steps towards the Rule of Law and constitutional government, but it was left behind by other large modern democracies such as the USA, Germany, Spain, Canada and Australia decades ago. We now have a political structure built for a time when most of the population was illiterate and disenfranchised; the political classes resist reform because it would likely mean neither of the big two parties would ever form a single-party government again. We have had decades since the end of the Empire to redress the political balance, but the political classes have formed a vested interest in their own right and resisted at every step of the way. Even the current “five-year Parliament” law was enacted only to stop the coalition being broken up if the Liberal Democrats decided to back out. The signs are that the Tories want to sink us deeper into the past, celebrating the feudal Magna Carta while campaigning to strip away from British citizens the rights that citizens of those countries take for granted by removing us from the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Union. Elsewhere in Europe, physical borders and obstacles to travel have been torn down; the Tories and their press defend ours, despite the unnecessary expense and inconvenience they cause.

I do agree that in the event of a Scottish No vote, the UK will need major constitutional reform, but it should happen regardless of which way the vote goes. It should have happened decades ago, rather than merely being discussed in a panic just as it seemed that Scotland would leave the union in a referendum held as a challenge to Alex Salmond. A hundred days was probably too short to “save the Union”; ten days certainly was. We have no hope now, except to pray that the Scots vote No. But we cannot blame them if they voted Yes. Our sclerotic and antiquated political system and the political classes and press that defend it are to blame for the current crisis.

Image source: @YesVoteScots.

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Ice buckets and cruelty

6 September, 2014 - 10:14

 you waste clean water as a challenge in order to avoid raising money for charity?"I’m sure everyone has heard of the “ice-bucket challenge”, in which someone is filmed having a bucket of freezing water poured over their head in response to donations to a charity, usually one dedicated to Motor Neurone Disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or, in the USA, Lou Gehrig’s Disease after a baseball player from the 1930s who died of it aged 37. Various complaints have been raised about it, including that it’s a waste of water (see image right), that many people aren’t donating at all or don’t really understand what it’s about, and that it’s already leading to bullying incidents or assaults. However, the silliest complaint, in my opinion, is that the major ALS charities fund research that uses experiments on animals.

I’ll be straight about this: I support experiments on animals, especially for developing medicines. The animal rights lobby has a number of facile and often baseless claims, such as that the same medicines have opposite effects on different families of mammals, that you can simulate effects on a particular organ (the kidney, if I remember rightly) by using a potato, and that animal experiments just don’t work. This simply isn’t true; all medications are tried on animals before they are tested on humans, and there are nowhere near enough people to test every medication ever developed on. They can only use healthy, young, male volunteers, and not every young, healthy man would or could volunteer. They can only do it once they are satisfied that the medication will not just kill them. (I have heard it suggested that we should test new medication on murderers and rapists; needless to say, there are not enough of these for this purpose either, and we cannot breed them like we breed rats. In addition, some people imprisoned for such offences are innocent.)

I have seen someone recently express similar sentiments about a particular drug being trialled for the treatment of ME. I have my own doubts about this treatment which is why I haven’t contributed to it, but the idea that laboratory rats or guinea pigs might suffer is not among them. The life-span of these animals, if allowed to run its course, is barely five years (less so for rats); there are people who have been suffering from severe ME for twenty years and counting, spending most of it lying in dark, quiet rooms in pain. ALS does not feature the extreme pain and isolation of severe ME but it is a killer, and it causes progressive muscle weakening and paralysis in the years leading up to death (usually from respiratory failure); people can spend years unable to walk, look after themselves, speak or swallow. True, technology and good care can enable the sufferer to communicate and perform some functions, but they will still be increasingly dependent and will still die.

There is a strong reason not to encourage this particular charity stunt, and it’s connected to human suffering: pouring water over someone is assault, and while obviously the challenge is meant to be voluntary, it has already been done to people without consent, as bullying or hate crime. In Liverpool, a group of thugs poured a bucket of water over the head of a homeless man in a wheelchair, who then had to sleep in the open in his wet clothes. (More recently, people have had fluids other than water poured over them as a ‘prank’.) When a trend gets to this point, it should be understood that the good humour has run its course and people should find other ways of raising money for this particular cause.

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