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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Is there really a driver shortage?

20 May, 2018 - 20:22

An aerial image of the car park and buildings at Cobham services in Surrey. A couple of weeks ago I had a very brief stab at being an all-week truck driver, or as they call them in this country, a tramper. The job would have involved picking up loaded containers at the various ports in the south-east, taking them to their destination and then either having them swapped or unloaded and then taking them back to a port (not necessarily the same one) and then starting again. I didn’t really want to do that job but I had not had either much work out of the agencies nor much success in finding permanent work since the start of the year; for whatever reason it’s been an unusually slow few months. About the same time, an article appeared on the website of a British truckers’ magazine that said drivers were being forced to sleep in places that were not easy to sleep in: service station truck parks and roadside lay-bys which often had no facilities, and that frequently they were not able to sleep properly and were driving tired. And then a familiar moan about a driver shortage.

In my experience, there is no shortage of drivers for the good jobs. There is a shortage of drivers for tramping work, which is for good reason. To give an example, on the day I interviewed for the shipping container job, I had another interview that afternoon for another tramping job, but the first company I went to were obviously so desperate to start me as soon as possible (no doubt because they had a truck sitting idle which they were paying a daily road user levy for, but was not earning them any money) that they just gave me the job even though they had other candidates to interview. The second company had been advertising for tramping drivers for months, and when I called them that week for the second time in about a month, the job was still available. Companies cannot give these jobs away and when they do, the drivers often do not last long.

I enjoy the actual driving bit. It gets me out across the country, seeing the countryside, allows me to listen to whatever I want to for hours at a time with nobody looking over my shoulder. However, the nights are another matter. Many companies refuse to reimburse drivers for parking in service stations because they cost £25 or more per night, even though, apart from truck stops which are less well-advertised, they are the only places about which have facilities such as toilets and showers. I drove around looking for places near my home where I could park the truck, but everywhere was too narrow or already taken, so I headed out to Cobham services. The truck park there is awfully noisy, with the M25 yards away with no trees or anything to screen you from the noise, and the surface is appalling, with blocks of concrete with thick joins so you can hear it every time a vehicle goes over it. Partly because of that and partly because of the heat, I was unable to get more than about an hour’s sleep that night. I gave my notice in before the night was out and refused to carry another container once I’d dropped that one off; I went home and slept both in the afternoon and, quite soundly, that night as well.

I’ve never spent a night in a proper truck stop so perhaps the facilities there are a bit better, but at Cobham there are just four showers for all the (male) truck drivers who stop there overnight, and the ones I saw were not very clean and the handwash basins were clogged. I’ve stopped at Warwick in the past and they have a shower room in the filling station building which has a toilet and wash-basin inside; surely they should all at least have the washbasin, as it allows you to wash your hands before you put your clothes on, but most of them do not have this. They also only have overhead shower heads, never hoses, which means that if you need to wash part of yourself that doesn’t face upwards, you’ll need to bring a water bottle or watering can or stand on your head. Not very accessible. I know that standard bathroom hoses can be stolen easily, but surely someone should have developed a shower hose attachment that cannot be easily unscrewed and removed? Or at least, people should be able to plug in their own hoses. Oh, and the usual way of preparing food when tramping is to use a camping gas stove, but Cobham has a sign saying “no naked flames” even if this may be frequently ignored.

As for sleeping in lay-bys, it’s no surprise that someone who could barely stomach spending the night in a service station that at least has toilets, could not tolerate spending it in a lay-by which does not even have those (and where the truck shakes every time another vehicle passes by). And yet this is where many transport bosses insist that tramping drivers spend 11 hours on the average night, because they cannot spare £25 for a service station spot or an account to pay for truck stop parking. Is it any wonder nobody wants the jobs?

Perhaps I’m too picky; the job I really want is a day-time, longish distance driving job. But from having spent months trying to find one without much success, I can say that there is no shortage of drivers for this type of work, nor for daytime urban driving in the building materials or waste disposal industries that let you spend the night in your own bed, cook in your own kitchen (if you’ve nobody to cook for you!) and shower in your own bathroom. If roughing it for the whole week appeals, then there is no shortage of work and companies so desperate that they will let you walk off the street into a job.

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The mystery of Ruth Wilson

5 May, 2018 - 22:55

A picture of the view from Box Hill. In the foreground is a viewing platform with a semicircular wall with two steps up; two white women, one wearing a red jumper and white pair of trousers and holding something under her arm, the other wearing a blue or grey top and white trousers. Behind the viewing platform there is a steep downward drop, with a playing field, houses and an office building at the bottom of the hill. It is a misty day and the buildings further away appear whitened, while the greenery in the foreground and the viewpoint are clearly visible.Recently a half-hour film featuring Martin Bright, the former New Statesman, Spectator and Jewish Chronicle contributor, and a retired Northern Irish cop named Liam McAuley, was published on YouTube about the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl named Ruth Wilson from Betchworth, near Dorking in Surrey. Bright wrote an article about the case and the film for the Observer last Sunday and had earlier written a piece for the Observer about various cases of teenagers disappearing and about why some (such as Milly Dowler) attract ample media attention and others attract much less (particularly those who have been in trouble, though boys generally attract less). The film interviews a number of friends of Ruth who shed some light on Ruth’s state of mind in the weeks leading up to her disappearance, but Bright and McAuley were unable to persuade Ruth’s family to participate, and they could not get answers out of people in Betchworth either. (More: Scepticpeg.)

The film glosses over some important facts about the area. It portrays Betchworth as a rural village, and Wilson as a “village girl”. In fact, Betchworth is a commuter village in the Surrey “stockbroker belt” and people living there commute to surrounding towns and the south London suburbs to work, and to London by train. There is a railway line running through the area with a station at Betchworth. The village is equidistant from Reigate and Dorking though it is in the same district as Dorking (Mole Valley) rather than Reigate. Ruth and her sister went to school in Dorking and would not have been unsophisticated ingenues or country bumpkins; they would have had the same access to information and technology as young people growing up in nearby Croydon, as I did. Betchworth is practially suburbia and if it had not been for the green belt, it probably would be.

Second, Box Hill is described as a local beauty spot but it is actually a major tourist trap, popular with day trippers, school trippers, bikers (push and motor), walkers and nature lovers. These days it’s famous as the climax of the 2012 Olympic road race and still features in the London and Surrey “classic” bicycle race each August. There is a pub (as mentioned in the programme), a shop, a National Trust-run cafe and information centre and at least one caravan park in the area. This matters, because if her body had been buried on or around Box Hill, it would have been found before very long as footfall in the area is very, very high. Needless to say, if she had killed herself there, she would have been found. It takes a very clever person to kill themselves and make sure they are never found, especially in a place like that.

At the time, Ruth was portrayed as a happy young girl who was doing well at school and her disappearance was quite out of character. In fact, she was very unhappy, having recently discovered that the story she had been told about her mother’s death (that it was an accident) was false, and that she had in fact killed herself. She had asked a friend, who was leaving the area for a new life in Sheffield, to take her with her but the friend was unable to and they were unable to stay in touch properly after the friend left. She also was known to regularly visit Box Hill after school, which would have been quite common as it is only a short bus ride from both Dorking and Betchworth (and a longish but manageable walk), which suggests that it was thought safe for a woman or girl to visit the area on her own.

Comments on the YouTube video about the case reveal a lot of suspicion about the father’s role, particularly because he will not speak to the investigators about his daughter’s disappearance. It appears she intended to go somewhere (hence the flowers, to be delivered two days later) but whoever she trusted to take her there killed her. There were some supposedly reliable sightings of her in Dorking in the days after her disappearance, but it is odd that nobody thought to approach her despite the claim that they knew her well. Notes from Ruth were found on Box Hill along with an empty packet of paracetamol tablets and a bottle of vermouth, but if she had really used those to kill herself, her body would have been found nearby; if this report is correct, the likelihood is that they were left by her killer. Finally, I wonder if the police investigated the veracity of the cab driver’s story, since he is the only witness to the claim that he left her on her own opposite a pub and that she did not move until he was out of view. Cab drivers were much less well-regulated then, before the Criminal Records Bureau was introduced after the Soham murders, and the number of abusive ones, even those who transported children, was fairly high. There was no GPS tracking or network of number plate cameras and few people had access to mobile phones, so the driver’s opportunity to disappear with Ruth undetected would have been greater than it is now — and certainly far greater than Ruth’s own ability to disappear undetected.

The least convincing theory is that Ruth left the area and made a new life for herself somewhere else. To do that she would have had to know people who could have made that possible; it is not known that she did, and surely whoever those people were would have been investigated following her disappearance. If she had done that, she would not have remained in hiding all her life; she would have been out and about living a life, and would have been seen even if she had changed her appearance. And would she really have not even let her family know she was OK, even if she did not want them knowing where she was? It’s difficult not to conclude that she was murdered that day or shortly afterwards, but the stone wall that Bright and McAuley faced when trying to investigate, and even the suggestion that Surrey Police might not like the suggestion that their investigations were not done properly, really suggests that a lot of people around Betchworth have a lot to hide.

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No, this treatment won’t save Demi’s life

3 May, 2018 - 17:43

Picture of Stanislaw Burzynski, an elderly white man with brown hair and a short moustache but no beard, wearing an open-necked cream/white striped shirt and a white lab coat over the top, standing in front of a red and green wall display with some images of brain scans on it.This morning I came across an appeal to raise money to help an 11-year-old British girl, Demi Knight, to receive ‘treatment’ for her cancer in Houston, Texas, from a guy called Stanyslaw Burzynski at a private clinic. Today the papers were reporting that enough money had been raised (around £25,000) to help Demi start the treatment (and that the family had “cut some corners” and borrowed money) but they were still soliciting money for further treatment as a ‘course’ can cost up to £150,000 including flights and accommodation. The story was repeated in the Lincolnshire local press (such as here and here but the Sun was also promoting the story. Doctors in the UK have told the family that there is nothing more they can do and that the cancer is spreading, is likely to affect her senses and movement before long as it is in her brain and spine, and that she has months left. What the papers have not mentioned is that the treatment is most charitably described as unproven despite Burzynski having been in business for 40 years, and that he is widely accused of being a charlatan who sells false hope for money. (More: Respectful Insolence with more detail about past cases and links to articles exposing Burzynski’s methods and behaviour, and his run-ins with the law.)

A few years ago BBC’s Panorama did a 30-minute feature on Burzynski (which you can view here) and interviewed two British families and one American couple who had paid money to Burzynski for his treatments. The two British families both had daughters who were ill, and one of them found that Burzynski’s treatment made her daughter very ill with hypernatremia, or high sodium in the blood, and she ended up in intensive care at the nearby Texas Children’s Hospital, which is intensely opposed to Burzynski’s methods because they always end up clearing up his mess, and a doctor they interviewed said she had never known a Burzynski patient to survive (and by the way: if a Burzynski patient requires treatment in another American hospital, it costs money — people go bankrupt because of medical bills there). The American man had gone to Burzynski because he did not want to take ‘traditional’ chemotherapy or radiotherapy, but Burzynski said he was not eligible for the antineoplaston treatment which is his top selling point, but prescribed a cocktail of other drugs instead. His oncologists back in Georgia were appalled.

Burzynski is opposed by the medical community at large because he does not share his methods or the results of his ‘trials’ with the wider scientific or medical community. He claimed when approached by the Panorama team that he could not reveal how many patients he had treated and how many had survived because of FDA (Food & Drug Administration) rules, but the FDA says otherwise. Burzynski prefers to sell his treatment to patients directly by means of a film (which can be viewed on YouTube here) and trading on conspiracy theories about the medical profession, “Big Pharma” and why they supposedly sit on cures for cancer. He has been in this game since the 1970s and if antineoplastons worked, they would have gone mainstream many years ago, much as is the case with laetrile, the chemical extracted from apricot kernels and bitter almonds which supposedly cures cancer (if you do not die from cyanide poisoning first).

Burzynski has been peddling this treatment as “experimental” after forty years — that is simply too long to be credible. It is not normal to expect patients to pay to be included in a clinical trial. Not a single randomised, controlled trial has been published in any peer-reviewed journal, and the American Cancer Institute says there is no evidence of a single incident of cure or even that any patient’s life has been extended. According to USA Today, the clinic mainly prescribes chemotherapy rather than ANPs (despite its supporters in past decades having used the slogan “say no to chemo”), but even this has raised the suspicions of the Texas Medical Board which has accused it of prescribing chemotherapy drugs in “random and unapproved combinations, with no known benefits but clear harms” (Burzynski personally got off that charge by claiming that another doctor at his clinic wrote the prescription). In short, what they offer now is nothing more than you will get in any British hospital, and quite possibly more haphazardly and less well-targeted.

I have been told I should not sneer at someone for trying what they can when all other options have been tried and “conventional medicine” has not worked. However, this is not alternative medicine but, simply, wannabe conventional medicine or bad conventional medicine. It is an adult’s prerogative to try things like this either when conventional medicine has failed or, indeed, instead of it, but to subject a child to unnecessary suffering for this is cruelty. The money for this would be better spent on a trip to Disneyland, as it will enable her to have a trip of a lifetime and enjoy herself before she becomes too ill to travel anywhere, rather than suffering through futile and haphazard treatment in a clinic thousands of miles from home, and then dying anyway.

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Money versus culture in care

1 May, 2018 - 14:41

Picture of Oliver McGowan, a young white man with light brown hair combed from a parting on the left side, wearing a blue and white patterned shirt and a tweed waistcoat, standing in front of a large parasol.In the light of two recent inquests into the deaths of young men with learning disabilities, one in an NHS hospital (Oliver McGowan, right) and one in a Mencap-run care home (Danny Tozer), both of which resulted in very bitterly disputed findings of no neglect and no suggestion of error in Oliver’s case, Rosi Reed (mother of Nico Reed whose death in 2012 was the subject of an earlier campaign and inquest) retweeted a link to a blog entry she wrote in 2015 titled “What does good look like?”. She quoted at length from a speech in 2011 by Jim Mansell, a professor of learning disability in Kent who had pioneered living in the community for people with learning disabilities and had managed the closure of long-stay hospitals (such as Darenth Park in Kent), in which he said that “good services cost the same as poor services. Good services are not more expensive, they’re just better”.

He is right, up to a point. It’s certainly possible to spend lots of money and still deliver bad care, and the consultant who ignored multiple written warnings and administered the anti-psychotic to Oliver McGowan, who was suffering a seizure (not psychosis) and was understood to be allergic to the medication in question after a previous reaction, resulting in his death, was not an underpaid care worker but a senior medic likely earning a six-figure salary. Furthermore, such people are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt when they make a fatal mistake in their work than someone in a less prestigious occupation, such as a chimney sweep, a gas fitter or a truck driver — such people have received jail sentences for mistakes of forgetfulness which have led to someone’s death. Monica Mohan, the doctor responsible in this case, is unlikely to face any sanction, because the coroner deferred to her ‘expertise’ rather than entertaining the family’s view that it reflected arrogance.

Money is no excuse for neglect, and the boards and managements of the institutions responsible often have enough money to pay themselves very generous salaries and to spend it on pointless PR and development seminars and so on. The novelist Diana Athill, when writing about her experience in a women’s retirement community in London, wrote that she was aware of care and nursing homes which charge fees much higher than hers (which, admittedly, was not a nursing home and was for generally healthy older people) but were much worse places in which to live. However, it is not the whole picture and to say that “good care is not more expensive, it is just better” lets the people who pull the purse strings off the hook. Underfunding often results in wages taking the biggest hit because mortgages, fuel bills and so on are less likely to give, and poor pay means it is difficult to attract and staff and especially the right calibre of staff. I have known people who had carers they trusted but who left because they were offered better pay in a care home or in another industry entirely; others left the area because they could not afford to live there on a carer’s wages; needless to say, this is a particular problem in areas such as London with high rents and house prices. It also means that there is less money for training and often less time to make sure a newcomer knows how to do some of the caring tasks and is aware of common hygiene practices. I have also been told by friends that carers who worked for agencies did not know some of these things.

It is a fact that capitalism tends to reward jobs that are most closely linked to making money with the most money; jobs that simply need doing but which do not make anybody any money are often paid as little as the employer can get away with. People resent paying taxes; a party promising a tax cut is more likely to win votes than one promising an increase, while there have been incidences of local councils running consultations, asking people what they would not mind paying more council tax for, and the people respond that they just want to pay less. In addition, the personal budgets which are now regarded as important to facilitate a disabled person’s independence can easily be portrayed, politically, as a large handout to an individual (even if wrongly). People might assume (certainly wrongly in a lot of cases) that a corporate body such as a care home (or a whole chain of them) might spend the money more responsibly and these bodies are better able to lobby politicians than disabled individuals and their families. There is also pressure from councils to double down on conditions for employed carers, by using zero-hours contracts instead of regular employment.

Many of the things Professor Mansell advocated in that speech — services being person-centred, treating the family as experts rather than as an annoyance or obstruction — are not things money can buy on its own, and the signs of a badly-run home such as staff talking to each other rather than with the residents and not knowing what to do unless they are told, can be found in places which charge high fees as well as those which charge less. However, to maintain a culture of person-centredness and empowerment, especially in this day and age when those things are not yet the norm, it is necessary to have the resources to pay staff so that there will not be a high turnover of staff as people find better-paid jobs elsewhere or leave a region because of unaffordable costs of living.

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The Wadsworth affair and the “anti-Semitic trope” gambit

27 April, 2018 - 22:31

Picture of Marc Wadsworth, a middle aged, portly Black man with a receding hairline, wearing a red jumper with a black jacket over it, holding a microphone. The forehead of a white woman in the audience can be seen at the bottom.So, today a Labour and Momentum activist (and film-maker and co-founder of the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence) named Marc Wadsworth was expelled from the party by the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) for “bringing the party into disrepute and embarrassing the leader” by making an accusation to the Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, that she was “working hand-in-hand with the media” to discredit the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, at a launch event for the Chakrabarti report into anti-Semitism in the Labour party in 2016. Wadsworth, who was represented by Harriet Wistrich (best known for her work on domestic violence) has said he is looking into ways he could challenge the ruling but also said that Corbyn had told him after the event that he could have used “kinder language” but has also said he is not embarrassed by Wadsworth. The Derby North MP, Chris Williamson, condemned the ruling, saying it “flies in the face of the evidence presented and offends against the principles of natural justice”, suggesting that it was the result of predetermination; an unnamed former Labour staffer wrote to the party’s general secretary accusing Williamson of “[bringing] the Party into disrepute by questioning and undermining the impartiality of the NEC and the NCC”.

The comments made to Ruth Smeeth were deemed anti-Semitic because they supposedly echo an “anti-Semitic trope”, that Jews “control the media”. This particular type of accusation, rather than the use of explicit anti-Semitic slurs, expressions of hatred or threats of violence, have formed the bulk of claims of anti-Semitism within the Labour party. Other such ‘tropes’ include the claim that Jews control the financial system or the entertainment industry or that they rule the world from behind the scenes as some sort of conspiracy. The problem is that some of the accusations relate to suggestions that fall far short of any of these tropes by people who do not believe those things and indeed would regard all of them as ridiculous. There is a big difference between saying that the west supports Israel because of the influence of a “Jewish lobby” and saying that Jews control the west; if they had such control, they would need no lobby after all. For anyone wondering why the West supports Israel with, in the case of the USA, billions of dollars of aid (including military technology and firepower) a year despite its rhetoric of human rights and democracy and the denial of these things to the native Palestinians, it’s a quite natural conclusion to come to.

Similarly, there is a wide gulf between saying that Jews have strong connections to the media — the major broadcast and print media — and saying that they control it. In the UK, none of the major newspaper proprietors is Jewish, but a fair number of Jewish columnists get print space in most of the broadsheets every week, and this goes for the left- and right-leaning papers. To say that they are, in general, a prosperous community is not to say that they are “all rich” or that they own all the banks (they do not). And I have even seen it demanded that we not call Israeli soldiers and settlers who kill Palestinian children “bloodthirsty”, as this echoes the “blood libel”, that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood in matzos at Passover — a myth that originated in England with a child found dead and mutilated in the then Jewish quarter of Lincoln, probably the result of a sex attack, but which has been repeated in Arabic propaganda films lately. This term is very commonly used of people who kill for no reason or seem to take delight in doing so; the blood libel is probably the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, especially when the dead are not even Christian anyway.

We often see it demanded that non-Jews not ‘presume’ to say what is anti-Semitic and what is not. However, even if we leave this up to Jews, the question remains of which Jews, since the Jewish organisations that are usually most ready to make such accusations are also wont to claim that dissenting voices are not Jewish enough; the former are generally ‘eligible’ Jews who are synagogue-goers or who would be welcomed into one, rather than people merely of Jewish origin, not all of whom are religious at all. The problem here is that the most convinced anti-Semites do not make any such distinction; racialised anti-Semitism emerged only when Jews started to become integrated into European societies and some greatly modified or abandoned their religion — that ‘integration’ is precisely part of the conspiracy. The same is true of Muslims: there is a Muslim definition of a Muslim which excludes such groups as the Qadianis (Ahmadiyya) and Isma’ilis, but racists do not usually care for this distinction, especially if their objection is to non-white people or ‘foreigners’ rather than Muslims as such. The people most likely to make accusations of anti-Semitism based on tenuous connections to “anti-Semitic tropes” seem to be the first type; the second are less likely to be noticeably Jewish, but also have little or no connection to Israel, and so are less likely to use “anti-Semitism” to attack anti-Zionism.

We cannot trust people who defend an oppressive régime and who would use accusations of racism to defend it, to ‘define’ what is a manifestation of that prejudice and what it not. If it really is to be “left to Jews” then it must be people of Jewish origin in general and not merely those in the ‘mainstream’ (modern-Orthodox, Zionist) Jewish community. It does appear that the effect of such demands is that people have to watch what they say in the presence of white people, and white middle-class people in particular, lest the person turns out to be Jewish and their comment can be interpreted as an “anti-Semitic trope”. After all, it is generally accepted that white people cannot be victims of racism as such, because racism involves power and not just prejudice, but whites can hide behind their Jewish minority and eagerly echo claims of anti-Semitism whenever an uppity member of a minority (or an outsider to the posh media clique) needs to be silenced. If that’s not what is intended, then one might consider the doctrine that the intent is irrelevant and it’s the impact (including on a third party) that counts — a fairly well-recognised doctrine among anti-racism activists and one that is very convenient to and much utilised by people making false accusations, including of anti-Semitism.

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Times forced to admit: we printed garbage

25 April, 2018 - 08:00

A front page from the Times newspaper, with the headline "Ban on junk food deals as obesity drive unites MPs" and a smaller story headlined "Judge slams advisers to parents of Alfie Evans". A one-paragraph story about the IPSO judgement on the Muslim foster care story is at the bottom right of the page.Last year, the Times carried a story that a young girl of Christian background had not been allowed to eat pork under her Muslim foster carers’ roof, on their front page. They also claimed that the mother of the family wore a ‘burka’ and did not let her wear a cross on a chain, and that the girl cried when she had to return to the foster home and begged not to have to go there. Yesterday, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) upheld a complaint by Tower Hamlets borough council against the Times on the grounds that it broke clause 1 (accuracy) of its code, and a reference is made on the front page (see the red rectangle in the attached image). (See earlier entries: [1], [2], [3].)

Ipso have not mentioned the ruling either on its website or its Twitter feed; the ruling is published in full in the Times today. According to the Press Gazette, the story provoked 178 complaints to Ipso. Within a couple of days of the story being printed, a family court judgement was published which revealed that a number of the ‘facts’ in the Times’ original story were false, including that the girl was a Christian (her family were in fact non-practising Muslims), that the foster family did not speak English (they did), that the girl’s mother objected to the placement (she did not); there were so many inaccuracies and distortions. It is a good thing that Ipso, an industry-owned regulator that is as notorious as the PCC before it for being soft on newspapers that print inflammatory stories, has found this story beyond the pale.

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Has the “Human Rights movement” failed?

24 April, 2018 - 16:36

A front cover of the Amnesty International magazine Wire. The word WIRE is printed in black capital letters at top left, underneath which it reads "For people passionate about human rights. January/February 2014, Volume 44, issue 001". The name Amnesty International and their logo of a candle with a piece of barbed wire round it appears on the right on the yellow strip. Below is a picture of a Hindu woman wearing a pink, yellow and turcquoise headscarf with a gold nose ring, a red dot above her nose and a red vertical line above that. Next to her, in yellow capital letters on a black background, it reads "My body, my rights".How the Human Rights movement failed (from the New York Times)

In this article, Yale law and history professor Samuel Moyn argues that the backsliding of various countries such as the Philippines and Hungary, whose leaders show explicit contempt for human rights and their defenders, shows that the movement for and idea of human rights is in crisis and the major watchdogs have failed to learn from the mistakes of the past:

But from the biggest watchdogs to monitors at the United Nations, the human rights movement, like the rest of the global elite, seems to be drawing the wrong lessons from its difficulties.

Advocates have doubled down on old strategies without reckoning that their attempts to name and shame can do more to stoke anger than to change behavior. Above all, they have ignored how the grievances of newly mobilized majorities have to be addressed if there is to be an opening for better treatment of vulnerable minorities.

Moyn argues that in the late 20th century when activists took up the cause of human rights when much of the world was under dictatorship, they forgot about “social citizenship”:

The signature group of that era, Amnesty International, focused narrowly on imprisonment and torture; similarly, Human Rights Watch rejected advocating economic and social rights.

[…]

In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, both human rights and pro-market policies reached the apogee of their prestige. In Eastern Europe, human rights activists concentrated on ousting old elites and supporting basic liberal principles even as state assets were sold off to oligarchs and inequality exploded. In Latin America, the movement focused on putting former despots behind bars. But a neoliberal program that had arisen under the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet swept the continent along with democracy, while the human rights movement did not learn enough of a new interest in distributional fairness to keep inequality from spiking.

In other words, the narrow focus on campaigning against torture and the imprisonment of people for the mere expression of political or religious beliefs meant that the movement could not survive and maintain credibility when activists’ focus turns towards tackling the inequality and poverty caused by neoliberal politics which were favoured both by many of the dictatorships (especially in South America) and the democracies from which human rights campaigns were run: it begins to look like the two are in cahoots, allowing newly risen demagogues such as Duterte and Orban to be seen explicitly disregarding them.

I was never a member of Amnesty International, but I was briefly involved when I was at school (early 90s) as a relative, a friend and a teacher were members so I read various books, reports and magazines they produced and took part in some of their letter-writing campaigns. The focus on political prisoners was deliberate: the whole point was that we did not discriminate between different types of political regime or their approaches to economics. In the period from the 60s to the early 90s, much of the world outside Western Europe, North America and Australasia was under a dictatorship of some sort: one-party states in Africa and parts of south-east Asia, Communism in Eastern Europe and much of Asia, absolute monarchies in parts of the Middle East and fascist dictatorships in other parts, military dictatorships in South America and white minority rule in Southern Africa. Amnesty’s policy allowed us to put political differences aside to campaign against unjust imprisonment and torture in all of these places, with varying results; the fact that many of the regimes were western clients meant that we could (independently of Amnesty, of course) pressure our governments to stop supporting them or make foreign aid dependent on human rights pressure.

In my opinion, Amnesty has broadened its remit too much and in the wrong direction, towards campaigning for every pet cause of white liberals in its base countries — often things that not everyone can get behind. There were solid reasons for adopting a policy of opposition to the death penalty, because (particularly in the USA, the sole western country that still used it by the 1990s) it was frequently observed to be applied in a racist or capricious fashion or for political motives, but it still caused some discontent when people were asked to write letters in support of, say, a rapist and murderer facing the death penalty in Guatemala. The fact that it focussed on political prisoners, torture and the death penalty in the 1990s meant people of any religious belief could be involved and that schools, including Catholic schools, encouraged children to participate. That was the whole point. Now that it also advocates the legalisation of abortion and sex work, both of which attract large-scale religious opposition and the second of which is opposed by many non-religious people as harmful to women, the pool of potential participants is narrowed somewhat. Their campaign for wider reproductive rights (see this magazine whose cover is at the top of this entry), while not restricted to abortion, is far beyond anything we could have anticipated being asked to campaign for, or contribute to, until very recently; it was just not what Amnesty International was set up to campaign for. There never was any prohibition on people who were active members of Amnesty campaigning on these two issues, much as you could be a Thatcherite or a socialist in the 1980s and still participate, but many people will not want their membership fees going towards campaigning for the legalisation or decriminalisation of the sex trade.

It could be said that the Amnesty approach has become less fashionable because many westerners are more concerned about anti-imperialism than about the human rights records of some of the regimes abroad they consider to be “anti-imperialist”, often quite wrongly (Assad of Syria is not a western client but a client of the just as imperialist Russia and also Iran, which uses it to bolster its influence in the region). Association of the west with human rights undermines it when the west itself indulges in violent racism and blames the victims (the US in particular) and explicitly supports a racist ‘democratic’ regime in the Middle East, as well as its usual autocratic clients; the tendency of the west to close its mind, to turn in, often in ways that explicitly discriminate against minorities (e.g. Muslims) in their countries makes any talk of human rights look a lot like hypocrisy. All this enables dictatorships to use the “also defence” — to claim that their abuses are mirrored in the western countries whose activists (and celebrities) criticise them. Finally, the outward focus on human rights abuses everywhere but at home enables people to ignore abuses on their doorstep — physical abuse was rampant at the school I was at, ‘rights’ was a dirty word that was used contemptuously, and the teacher who introduced us to Amnesty was one of the abusers.

But that doesn’t mean the idea of human rights is a failure. Amnesty managed to operate in a variety of regimes for many years and its campaigns resulted in the freeing of many, many political prisoners; it indirectly mobilised support in rich countries for democratic reforms abroad and the maintenance of civil liberties at home when they were not always popular; the fact that, for example, it noted that trade and student unions were being targeted by dictatorships because they campaigned against impoverishment meant that these institutions gained sympathy. It did not have the answer to everything, but it has a lot of achievements it can be proud of and of those who have turned to fighting inequality now that the shackles of dictatorship have been thrown off, many are people Amnesty told us about in the 1980s or at least are associated with those people. It’s not about economic or social justice as such, but it helped those of us who fight for those things.

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The Lib Dems’ despicable bargain

21 April, 2018 - 22:38

 "Victory for Mail's six-year campaign as Ministers force reluctant supermarkets to impose 5p charge". Above the clipping is the slogan "Banish the bags" and the Daily Mail's name in its usual masthead font.I sometimes regret the fact that I still live in a fairly affluent part of outer London which has been, for most of the past generation, a Lib Dem stronghold, particularly when I see people elsewhere get enthusiastic about the Corbyn project and realise that I won’t have a chance to vote for him, because there aren’t enough Labour voters round here to do more than split the anti-Tory vote. Generally speaking, Edward Davey was a good and responsive constituency MP for decades, only to throw away years of building up people’s trust to throw in his lot with David Cameron’s Tories in 2010. He lost his seat (to a Tory) in 2015, only to win it back in 2017. This past week, during the “plastic straws” debate, a former Lib Dem strategist (now director of Demos) named Polly Mackenzie boasted of how they had managed to get David Cameron to agree to their “5p tax on carrier bags” idea while in government: Cameron wanted their support to tighten up the rules for benefit claimants, and got it (though the rule change found to be illegal and never went ahead; whether the Lib Dems knew that would happen or not, I don’t know). The full thread on Twitter starts here and ends here. Incidentally, the Daily Mail had been campaigning for a ban on plastic bags since 2008.

Polly Mackenzie claims that the plastic bag ban was “popular and impactful in equal measure” despite having been watered down with exemptions by the Tories. I’m not sure how popular it is, although people have not resisted it despite plenty of opportunity as there is not always someone watching when you take that bag, especially at a self-service checkout, although some retailers have simply taken the old thin bags away and replacing them with stronger ones that can be reused more than once. I certainly did not just use the bags once; I would use them for shopping more than once and then use them to dispose of food waste or other personal waste, for which I now have to use bin bags which, of course, cost money — the whole thing has been a money-spinner for the supermarkets who do not have to produce bags for free anymore. As with the plastic straws, the biggest issue with plastic bags was not plastic ending up in the ocean and killing fish (that plastic comes from down drains, such as fibres from synthetic clothing when washed, microbeads from some body wash products and traces of non-stick pan coatings); the bags were ending up in landfill, but often they were ending up there full of rubbish, as the bin bags that replace them now will, and other waste bags can still cause environmental damage on land or at sea when not disposed of properly.

Plastic straws, the latest thing the government wants to ban for the sake of environmental brownie points, are often vital for disabled people to be able to enjoy a drink without help; the alternatives do not work as well (paper straws disintegrate and do not bend, reusable straws are not always easy to clean, especially of drinks such as fruit juices that contain sediment, and so on). There are a whole host of reasons why people need straws and as with any physical impairment, they are not always obvious — one Twitter friend wrote of having Reynaud’s syndrome and being unable to pick up a cold glass, while others lack the physical co-ordination to be able to do so without risking dropping it, and so on. It would be hugely burdensome on them to have to prove their disability to obtain a simple drinking aid, much as when using the “blue badge” parking spaces they are legally entitled to use, and so on.

It fits the coalition era pattern of the Lib Dems securing a few concessions from the Tories (mostly on things that appeal to middle-class voters), such as a referendum on the alternative vote (which nobody wanted and was heavily defeated), while capitulating on austerity measures that largely did not personally affect their voter base even though they might have felt strongly about them (hence their not voting for the Tories) but which caused widespread poverty, hardship and stress to families in poverty and people and families dealing with disability and long-term illness as well as the “hostile environment” immigration policy that is now resulting in people being expelled from the country, or threatened with expulsion and prevented from working, receiving healthcare and so on, when in fact they are citizens or are here perfectly legally. Labour (with a few exceptions, most of them now in Corbyn’s camp) also waved that bill through, reflecting their usual fear of appearing “soft on immigration” in the right-wing commercial media.

Which should really be a salutary warning to anyone thinking of voting for them because they find Jeremy Corbyn unpalatable (especially over anti-Semitism which, as explained previously, is vastly outweighed by more overt racism on the other side); if offered a bone by the Tories they will take it, and will go along with the most extreme Tory policies for the sake of the trappings of power; and if the Tories force through Brexit and destroy the Human Rights Act, there will be no concessions for the Lib Dems to wring out of the Tories anyway. If you’re even thinking of doing this, make sure the candidate has a record of dissenting on coalition policies or has not been around that long, because otherwise you are voting for an unprincipled politician who will accept any bone from the Tories if that’s how the pieces fall at the next election — and the longer the Tories remain in power, the fewer concessions the Lib Dems will be able wring out of them anyway.

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Animal rights are no excuse for racism

19 April, 2018 - 15:57

 a large piece of chicken surrounded by fried onions and with a mushroom sauce on top, on a black plate on top of a wooden plate; behind it is a portion of potato chips in a metal mesh container with a long handle, on a plate with a small portion of salad. A glass of water to the left with a bottle of water behind the plate with the chips on. Behind the glass of water is a container with three pairs of knives and forks wrapped in a red paper tissue.The other day the 80’s pop star Morrissey, best known for being the frontman for the Smiths, gave an interview in which he backed the far-right party called For Britain, set up by a former UKIP member called Anne Marie Waters, and condemned halal (and kosher) slaughter, calling it ‘evil’ and ‘cruel’ and claiming that “if you use the term ‘humane slaughter’ then you might as well talk in terms of ‘humane rape’”, also claiming that “halal slaughter requires certification that can only be given by supporters of ISIS”. He also poked fun at various politicians, claiming that “even Tesco wouldn’t employ Diane Abbott” and that Sadiq Khan “tells us about neighbourhood policin’” and on that basis “cannot talk properly”. I made a point of going to one of my favourite HMC halal restaurants in Tooting and having their chicken steak (their red-meat steaks are rather too expensive for me at the moment) but it exposes a familiar problem in our society: people who think racism is acceptable in the name of animal rights or animal welfare.

Personally, I make a point of getting my meat from HMC-affiliated butchers and eating at similarly certified restaurants. The reason is less to do with stunning and more to do with the fact that other certifiers have been rather lax and that there are widespread reports that mechanical slaughtering (e.g. with an electric rotary blade) is used (when it has to be the slaughterer that does it with a knife in his or her hand) and that the blessing is in fact played over a loudspeaker rather than recited by a human being. The HMC monitors the supply chain from the abbatoir to the butcher’s or restaurant, not just the abbatoir. I would accept meat that had been stunned (electrically, not with a captive bolt) if all the other conditions were met. This is how meat was obtained for centuries before industrialised farming and slaughtering became a thing in the 19th century; Islam requires that animals not be slaughtered and knives not be sharpened in front of other animals, things that weren’t standard in western abbatoirs until quite recently (consider the cattle chutes invented by Temple Grandin, intended so that cattle were not stressed by seeing other animals slaughtered).

Over the years, I’ve come across many examples of racism prompted by examples of animal cruelty in other parts of the world. The usual excuse is the eating of dog meat, which goes on in parts of the Far East — China, Korea, Vietnam and a few other places. Morrissey himself has previously indulged in this kind of racism against Chinese people, calling them a “sub-species” on account of reports he had read of cruelty in Chinese circuses and zoos. Most recently I saw a Facebook post telling people to cancel their holidays in Indonesia because there was a community on one island that ate dog. Anyone who knows a thing or two about Indonesia will know that the majority of Indonesians are Muslims who do not eat dogs and that most holidaymakers to the country go to Bali, which was not the place mentioned in the post. China, like Indonesia, is a big country with many cultures and languages spoken and there are places where dogs are eaten and places where they are not, so we cannot make generalisations and call the Chinese cruel because we hear of this happening in one or two places.

Another favourite excuse for racism is the perception that the community or ethnic group one dislikes oppresses women; however, animal rights activists are generally no great friends of women either, however many women are willing to debase themselves for the cause. The group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are notorious for stunts in which women walk semi-naked, or are caged “like animals”, and advertisements in which women have fur coats ripped off them or are compared to the “dumb animals” whose fur they wear. Never mind the fact that in some very cold countries, fur is the ideal material to wear to keep oneself safe from the extreme cold. A couple of years ago I saw a video in which a woman was shown running from a hunt pack whose dogs overpowered her and tore her apart, aimed at maintaining pressure to keep the ban on fox hunting. Clearly, the comparison was between a human being (a woman was chosen supposedly because she was a mother and a vixen could have cubs when killed by a fox hunt) and an animal of a type known to menace livestock from chickens to sheep. Foxes are vermin, human beings are not. What part of that do these fools not get?

Among the wealthy, a more sophisticated kind of racist animal activism exists: the multi-million pound campaigns for ‘conservation’ of so-called charismatic megafauna in impoverished countries in Africa, often at the expense of local people who are not allowed to farm or herd in whole tracts of their own countries so that westerners can admire the magnificent elephants, wildebeest, lions and so on, and may not shoot animals which menace them or their livestock. In the West, we regard the taming of the natural landscape as a mark of civilisation and we kill animals that get in the way, which is why we no longer have leopards in Europe or wolves and wildcats in Britain, but we expect African people to suffer so that rich whites can admire animals we would never allow to run loose in our own backyard.

There is a logical reason why non-stun slaughtering is allowed in countries with large enough religious minorities to demand it: they want to eat meat, there are farmers in this country who produce meat and want to sell meat, and it makes sense for it to be made available the way people want it, because they will otherwise source meat from out of the country or resort to other, not necessarily sustainable, sources of food (e.g. fish). There are so many examples of cruelty in western farming, not only to animals but also to the people living around the farms who, in some cases, are expected to live with the stench of pig manure in the air for much of the year (the farmers call it the “smell of money”), and as Animal Aid noted in a 2016 report on stunning, there is actually cruelty in the stunning process and the stunning devices are used to goad animals, not just to stun them before slaughter, so banning non-stun slaughter would not make farming in Britain, the USA or anywhere else a cruelty-free industry.

I’m glad Morrissey’s interview has provoked a backlash from fans and others; a much-retweeted response from one Beth McColl said that Morrissey had “erased his whole legacy of making music that people LOVED” and now sounded like a “topless granddad who ruined yet another barbecue by being racist”, and a range of bags with the slogan “Shut up, Morrissey” printed on them has gone for another production run. Personally, I always found his music dreary, tuneless and boring. But I would really like people to be less ready to make unpleasant generalisations about cultures they do not know much about based on reports of animal cruelty, because they do not usually reflect the whole culture and very often they are no worse than how farm animals are treated here.

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Who really loses out here?

16 April, 2018 - 22:03

A sign with letters in black on glass, fixed by metal bolts to the wall behind. There are arrows pointing left with the room number 716, underneath which it says "Male washroom" with a man symbol and a circle with a wheelchair with a line through it. Next to the right arrow are the room numbers 714 and 722 and underneath that is "Universal washroom with hoist and adult change table", with signs representing men, women, wheelchairs and the hoist.This is a sign which, allegedly, appeared on a college hall of residence in Toronto, Canada. It points left to a non-accessible bathroom for men, and right for an accessible one with a hoist and an adult changing table, for everyone else including all women and any men who want to use it. Feminists of a certain sect have been sharing this image with the suggestion that it requires women to share a toilet with men, and when I pointed out to one of them yesterday that it really (very seriously) inconveniences many disabled people, she accused me of glossing over the implications to women’s safety of having to share a bathroom with men. In fact, such toilets are always single cubicles, so this will not happen.

What might happen is serious enough. This is the type of toilet known in the UK as a Changing Place, which campaigners have been trying to get fitted to as many places such as shopping centres, airports and other public buildings as possible because without it, a severely disabled person who is too big to just lift out of their wheelchair when they need the toilet (or a change of incontinence pad) and cannot make the transfer themselves would otherwise not be able to remain away from their home for very long. Generally speaking, disabled people do not like people using disabled toilets if they do not need them, as having to wait for a toilet can have unpleasant consequences — anything from wet clothes and wheelchair seat to a urinary tract infection, and for some people (e.g. those with high-level spinal cord injuries) a life-threatening blood pressure disorder called autonomic dysreflexia (a common cause of which is a blocked catheter, causing the bladder to overfill).

If a specialised Changing Places type toilet is present, it really should not be the toilet used by 50% or more of the population on campus because this will lead to wear and tear; it should be reserved for those who actually need it. One presumes that not every residence on this campus has a specialised toilet and that any students with the need for a hoist will be in this dormitory or perhaps one or two others, so it is highly likely that it will be needed. In any recently-built hall of residence, it is ludicrous and unconscionable that all female students are expected to use a single cubicle and that all disabled students are expected to use the same one. If the male toilet is not a single cubicle but a communal one with multiple cubicles and urinals, that is also highly discriminatory against the women but let’s not lose sight of whose safety is under threat here.

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Does it matter where the term ‘Islamophobia’ comes from?

15 April, 2018 - 21:41

Picture of Julie Bindel, a middle-aged white woman with short, greying brown hair, wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a grey suit jacket with a name badge pinned to it and a low-cut top underneath, sitting typing on an Apple laptop.Why are so many left-wing progressives silent about Islam’s totalitarian tendencies? by Julie Bindel (free registration required)

This article is on Unherd, a right-leaning opinion site edited by Tim Montgomerie (founder of ConservativeHome), and filed in a section called “Flyover Country”. Julie Bindel proclaims herself to be a “lifelong feminist, and firmly on the political left”. The notion of “flyover country” comes from the American Right, who spent years proclaiming on talk radio and blogs, etc., that (white) provincials were being ignored by the chattering classes who were overwhelmingly located on the two coasts. The fact that the Electoral College delivered the presidency to two extreme right-wing, incompetent Republican candidates (in 2000 and 2016) precisely by privileging their votes over votes cast in populous coastal states such as New York and California never seems to occur to them. They just repeat the “republic not a democracy!” mantra.

The blog’s name is UnHerd — a pun on “unheard”, obviously, when their opinions are regularly ‘heard’ on talk radio, on BBC panel shows, in magazines like Standpoint (where Bindel has been publishing for years, alongside the rather more blunt bigot Douglas Murray) and major newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Times. So, her claim to be “firmly on the political Left” rings rather hollow, as she has no problem rubbing shoulders with members of the extreme political Right and echoing their persecution fantasies.

She claims:

I am appalled at so-called progressives that capitulate to Islamist men, and make an exception for Islam as a religion – when being (rightly) critical of Judaism and Catholicism.

How often do we hear mainstream feminists criticise Judaism? Apart from the specific policy of allowing men to refuse their wives a divorce in orthodox Judaism, I’ve never heard a serious critique of Judaism itself coming from the political Left in recent years. The issue of orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next to women on aeroplanes is confined to Israel, specifically the El Al airline, and has been ruled unlawful even there; it did not receive much media coverage anywhere else. As for Catholicism, criticism of that is mostly confined to the particular issue of abortion and laws which privilege the rights of an unborn child over its mother, to the point of endangering the lives of both in many cases, and to the culture of abuse that exists in many of its institutions and the church’s reaction to it. The latter is not even about Catholicism itself though, but about the men who run the church.

What is behind this hypocrisy? From where I am standing it is simple: the fear of being labelled ‘Islamophobic’.

As Anna Pak, an Iranian exile to France, and staunch secularist feminist explains, the Islamophobic term originated from 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. “Women went to the streets and marched to be free of the veil,” she says. “Khomeini and the Islamists obliged them to wear the veil, and that’s when they started calling these women Islamophobic.”

I find that an extremely dubious claim. Iranians speak Persian (some speak other languages, such as Kurdish or Azeri); Islamophobia is a Greek-based English term. The term commonly used in Iran was Gharb-Zadigi, meaning west-drunk; intoxicated by ideas they found in the west, or preoccupied by the notion that the west was best. I can’t find any other trace of this Anna Pak, but anyone who knows a little bit of Iranian history will know that the previous régime had forced people to stop wearing the Islamically-based dress which had been customary up until the Pahlavi dynasty took power in the early 20th century. The women principally targeted were members of the same urban elite which had forced other Iranians to dress their way when they were in power. Among the other exiles were Marxists, who had hoped to capitalise on the revolution for their own purposes but were outmanoevred by the far more numerous Islamists. They are some of the most prominent exiles now lecturing to secularist audiences in London.

I first heard the term Islamophobia in the late 90s, when it was being used to mean bigotry being directed at Muslims. I presume it was derived from the term “homophobia” which had come into popular use at that time.

These cultural relativists have given their support to sharia courts, the wearing of the full-face veil, arranged marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and gender segregation in public places. What’s more, many do it in the name of women’s emancipation. Supporting traditional Islam flies in the face of the feminist quest for liberation from patriarchal structures.

I have actually never heard any feminist express approval of FGM. The closest anyone has come is Germaine Greer, who said that the ceremony itself, barring the actual FGM, could be very beautiful. Some have opposed excessive scrutiny of minority communities on the pretext that girls are at risk of FGM when in fact they might not be, and some have (particularly recently) questioned claims about the prevalence of FGM among minority communities here, for very good reasons. There are no “Sharia courts” in this country; there are some arbitration tribunals, the participation in which is voluntary. As for segregation, TERFs have held women-only events on multiple occasions in London and elsewhere, and one should remember that the ‘controversy’ in London occurred when a group of men invaded a section of seating that was reserved for women.

As far as the “full-face veil” is concerned: to begin with, almost nobody wears a full-face veil — usually they wear a veil that leaves the eyes exposed and is easy to flip up or remove when it’s not needed. Second, it’s not about approving of it, it’s about allowing women who wear it to walk in the streets unmolested, or to enter public buildings such as colleges. As with the headscarf, the issue is about the right of women whose religion dictates that they wear these items to access public services and education and to feel safe; your opinion on what it represents is irrelevant as it may not represent the same thing to them. It is also a fact that the number of women wearing the face-veil declined in the late 2000s as a result of hostile press coverage, and resulting public hostility, that made the women feel unsafe. It was not Muslim men responsible for this.

“They think they are being oh-so anti-racist,” says Sabrina, who I met in Paris at a meeting recently of ex-Muslim women who were launching a campaign against political Islamism, “but their often mindless capitulation to misogynistic ideology has a detrimental effect on Muslim women.” These white do-gooders, she says, give a “shot in the arm” to the worst religious patriarchs.

Again, an appeal to an anonymous nobody that Julie has met. We have to take Julie’s word for it that ‘Sabrina’ exists, of course. But French ‘feminists’ have agitated against the hijab, leading to a right-wing government banning it in schools so as to force an uppity minority to behave and look like the white majority. That is a fairly good definition of racist policy, much as in many British and American schools, Black hairstyles are more aggressively policed than White ones. “Neutrality” is conflated with everyone behaving like the dominant group.

What’s more, it would appear that the support given by (mainly white) leftists towards certain so-called ‘traditions’ within Islamic culture include in particular, aspects that specifically affect women and girls. In the same way that self identified ‘pro-feminist’ men feel able to put their support behind lap dancing, prostitution, and slut-walking, by arguing it is ‘empowering’ and a ‘positive choice’, they are not reticent in handing out insults to feminists – like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown – who critique the wearing of the niqab.

The “Slut Walk” was a movement which happened as a reaction to a comment by a Canadian senior police officer who told women not to “dress like sluts” if they did not want to be victimised. It was a protest against victim blaming which lasted only a few months. It was more than just “pro-feminist men” who disagree with Bindel’s position on the sex industry; many women campaign for sex work to be legalised as they believe it would make it safer for the women involved, so that (for example) they could work together in the same house rather than being alone with a potentially abusive client. Even if you disagree with their views on this, Bindel’s claim misrepresents the situation (much as with the debate over transgenderism; it is common for anti-trans feminists to misrepresent the supporters of trans women as mostly men or as misguided young women, when in fact many women of all ages are represented).

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is widely distrusted by the Muslim community, because she represents herself to the non-Muslim media by calling herself a Muslim when in fact, by origin, she is a member of a small sect which diverged from Islam several centuries ago and today its practices bear little resemblance to Islam’s. It is a sect with an infallible leader, a concept Islam shuns and always has done. She relies on the fact that her non-Muslim audience (and media friends) do not know the difference between her and the average Muslim. Furthermore, no woman who actually wears hijab, let alone niqaab, gets a fifth of the media exposure for their opinions that she does.

Growing numbers of women that grew up under Muslim laws are resisting religious tyranny. Maryam Namazie, an Iranian feminist, and founder of One Law for All, a secularist organisation that campaigns against parallel legal systems, believes that it is now seen as “perfectly acceptable” for feminists and other progressives, including secularists, to defend sharia courts or gender segregation as a “right to religion”.

Maryam Namazie is an Iranian communist exile. The majority of Muslims in this country have no link to Iran at all. What growing numbers of Muslims, male and female, have been doing for the past twenty years is to campaign for themselves to be able to go about their business without discrimination based on their religious practices, including their dress, and to an end to unwarranted, hostile media coverage that translates into discrimination and violence against them. Namazie has never been involved in any of this.

I was the first journalist to write about the phenomenon of ‘grooming gangs’ that target and sexually exploit young women in towns and cities across England, but it was far from easy to get such stories published in the supposedly liberal press. My first piece on this, which focussed on gangs of men of Pakistani Muslim origin, targeting and pimping girls in Lancashire, was published by The Sunday Times Magazine just over a decade ago.

When, the following year I published my investigation into the disappearance of Blackpool schoolgirl Charlene Downes, my name was added to the website, Islamaphobia Watch, accused of demonising Muslims. My crime? Pointing out that police officers refusing to investigate these crimes were taking a ‘hands off’ approach for fear of having to police a ‘race riot’. I was told by a number of men, and some feminists, that by exposing the grooming gang phenomenon I was, in the words of one ‘anti-racist feminist’ that I was playing into the hands of the BNP (British National Party). I was truly staggered – it would appear that I was being told not to wash dirty linen in public, and to hell with the rape and abuse of teenage girls.

A search for Bindel’s name on the (now defunct, but kept up in archive form) Islamophobia Watch site gets six hits — the top one is from 2010, for an article in which she criticised Green MP Caroline Lucas for supporting the Pro-Hijab group, set up to oppose bans on the hijab in Europe. The actual entry on the site she is referring to is this one, which simply notes that the BNP and BNP-supporting bloggers were approvingly quoting an article she had written for the Sunday Times, and links her Guardian article about Charlene Downes (which does not mention the Asian grooming issue at all) at the bottom.

Bindel makes much of the claim that the police and media did not pursue the Asian grooming gangs until they had been active for many years out of fear of being called racist. In fact, they (and many of the social workers who were supposed to protect the girls) regarded the girls themselves as wayward and the sexual acts they were the victims of as consensual, regardless of what the law says about the matter. The BNP did make a meal out of it as well and media coverage in recent years has over-emphasised the question of generalised Muslim responsibility for the behaviour of a small minority. But it wasn’t why the activity was allowed to persist.

The quibbling over the term ‘Islamophobia’ or where it originates or what it really means is a staple of the racist right; objections like “it’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamo-realism” have been commonly seen on the far-right blogosphere going back at least to 2001. People will object that Islam is not like racism (Islamophobia Watch used to define the term as “anti-Muslim racism”) because Muslims are not a race and that a religion did not deserve the same protection from ‘criticism’. However, there are indeed criticisms of Islam that do not veer into hate or threaten actual Muslims, but much of what passes for “criticism of Islam” is actually excuses for intolerance towards Islam itself and Muslims, as well as normal Muslim customs such as hijab that of themselves cause no harm. In short, such quibbles about the term ‘Islamophobia’ are aimed at legitimising the thing itself. No, it’s not fear, it’s hate or at least hostility. That’s no defence.

In her final paragraph she proclaims “disrespect for religion, including Islam, should be at the heart of feminism”. But many of the women who are fighting to preserve their right to an education, to work, to walk the streets without fear of racist attack from men, do not do so from a perspective of disrespect for their religion and should not expect that any ‘ally’ from the majority community should show it such disrespect either. There’s a reason Julie Bindel cannot get this kind of thing published in a mainstream “Left” journal anymore: because it contributes to racism, and if you feel the need to complain that you cannot say this or that for fear of being called a racist, your opinion probably is racist.

Image source: Saeima - Starptautiska konference “Drošības kompass - efektīvi risinājumi cilvēktirdzniecības novēršanai”, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA 2.0) licence: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58907832.

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About those free rides …

14 April, 2018 - 21:54

A still from a Labour election video, showing the statement "The next Labour government will provide free bus travel to under 25s in England" with a bus stop that reads "U25 bus stop"Some friends of mine have been sharing a Labour election video on Facebook. The 15-second video claims that the next Labour government will make bus travel free for under-25s in England before telling people, “Get on board and vote Labour on Thursday 3 May”. This is a misleading advert, for a number of reasons, because it makes promises that Labour cannot deliver in the forthcoming election and may not still be part of their policy by the time of the next general election.

First: a local council cannot deliver something as radical as free bus travel for as many people as all under-25s. That is something that would cost a lot of money, and requires intervention from central government. Their powers are circumscribed, and they can in any case only influence fares on bus services which they run or subsidise. This is not the case for many services, especially outside major cities, which are run by private companies and others are run by a neighbouring local authority (e.g. Transport for London sponsored bus services in Surrey, such as the K3 and 405).

Second, you will not be voting for a government on the 3rd of May this year. You are voting for a council in your county, borough or district (a full list of which councils have elections can be found here). A Labour council cannot deliver a Labour government. The results of these elections may have an influence on the following general election, such as prompting policy or even leadership changes in one or other party, perhaps including Labour. But who you vote for next month will only affect the people on your county or borough council, which has specific functions. It cannot make laws but must disburse a budget for specific things such as education, social work, social care, waste disposal and recycling, road maintenance and so on. So, your vote on 3rd May cannot deliver the policy in the video.

A graphic showing a turcquoise coloured single-decker bus with the number U25 in the driver's window, approaching the "U25 bus stop" shown in the above stillThird, the Labour leadership will be asked, if this policy is still in its manifesto come the next election, how they intend to pay for this. When a large cohort of young adults are going to be relieved of having to pay for bus fares, it will cost a lot of money which will have to come from somewhere because running a bus service costs money for fuel, wages, maintenance and so on. The money will have to come either from a tax rise or from cutting something else which no doubt the party will say is unimportant but others may well disagree. They may say something about cutting bureaucracy or dead wood somewhere; this means they will sack a whole lot of people or abolish a service that some people might value, or put pressure on council workers or civil servants to do more in the same time and for the same money. There is only so far you can take this policy: it causes stress, and causes people to leave the profession which causes the service to break down. If you have a relative who is a teacher or nurse, you will be aware that they are doing a lot of paperwork and may be working from home after their school hours finish; this is because the government has imposed more and more of this on them over the years.

If you live in the city, you may not be aware that outside the city bus services are sparse. Many areas have very limited bus services and often they run along main routes but do not branch off into the back lanes, meaning if you live in a village you might not have a bus service at all. In the city, bus services often run every five or ten minutes, or more; in rural areas, they often run every half-hour or less, or there are a few every day, and none in the evening. In many rural areas, old “cast-off” buses that were displaced from London and other major cities when new accessible buses were introduced in the early 2000s are still in use. People who live in these places will not appreciate being asked to pay for free bus rides for people in areas far better served by public transport than they have been for years. Perhaps Labour will promise to restore bus services at public expense, but this will also need to be paid for and in areas surrounding cities where many wealthy commuters with multiple cars live, a lot of people will not feel the need for vastly improved bus services. They may remember the “old buses” from the 1980s and before and say “we don’t want them back”, even though this may not be the intention.

This promise is a kind of policy Labour had before Blair called “tax and spend”. This means what it says: tax people’s earnings and spend it on services. The problem is that many people do not want to pay for services they do not receive, and will never receive. Sometimes this objection is selfish, but people do not want to look at their payslips and find that a large section has been taken away by the government to benefit someone else. Sometimes they have good reason. On one occasion, the then Greater London Council tried to use everyone’s rates (the local council tax of the time) to pay for reduced fares on the London Underground but were challenged in court by the London Borough of Bromley, which is in south-east London and is miles from the nearest Tube station at its nearest point. The borough won. If you are a first-time voter you will not remember these things; they happened in the 1980s but there are lots of people who remember them. For better or worse, the government then got people used to paying much less tax than they had before and they will not want to go back.

A still from the Labour "free bus rides" election video, which reads "Get on board and vote Labour on Thursday 3rd May" with the Labour party red rose symbol and a square with an X in it underneath.Labour are wrong to tell people to vote in a council election on the basis of a policy only a Labour government can deliver. It is of course important to vote, but you must know what your council can do and what each party’s policies are locally. The next general election will be some time in the next four years and that is the only election that can deliver a Labour government, or any other, and give Labour the power to deliver the sorts of radical changes they are talking about. You will not get free bus rides for under-25s with a Labour council this year.

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On DIY SOS and accessibility

14 April, 2018 - 17:35

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, a 50-year-old white man with a beard and moustache and shoulder-length hair, wearing an open-necked white shirt with a green suit jacket over it, holding a hat decorated with white skulls under his left arm, standing next to Nick Knowles, a middle-aged, clean-shaven white man wearing a purple polo-neck T-shirt with a white hard hat on his head; a red-brick house can be seen in the background with workmen with flourescent jackets and hard hats can be seen behind the the two men.The other day I watched a repeat of an episode of the BBC series DIY SOS: The Big Build. It’s where the BBC get some architects, designers and local builders and other workers and they all pitch in to drastically modify someone’s house for the benefit of a disabled person. Last week it was a young lady with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Antonia Payne-Cheney, who had been trapped in hospital for four years because her family home was unsuitable for her wheelchair. (You may remember that the same series also helped another young woman with the same condition and in a similar situation, Chloe Print-Lambert, a couple of years ago.) In both cases, they built a large downstairs extension with an accessible bedroom and bathroom for the disabled person, with a ceiling track hoist to get them between, and into the living room which is shared with other family members; they also hire designers (or they work for free, I’m not sure) who design furnishings and wallpapers and modify existing furniture to personalise it for them. In the episode that was on last week, that included a zebra-themed wallpaper for Antonia; the zebra is a symbol associated with EDS.

What’s the problem? In many of their big builds, the bedrooms of the non-disabled members of the family remain upstairs and inaccessible to the wheelchair user. Worse, in some episodes the presenter talks with the non-disabled family members about how the new arrangements give them a space where they can be themselves — it’s almost as if the inaccessibility of “their space” to their disabled relative is a good thing, a feature, not an unavoidable necessity (if that is even what it is). Of course, it’s a good thing that a disabled person can escape from hospital and live more independently with their family, but how is it that a huge project spearheaded by a major broadcaster always leaves this out, when it is actually possible to obtain lifts that would enable a wheelchair user to get upstairs so their whole home is accessible? When the disabled person is not the child but the parent, this would be vital, as you cannot have a section of the house, let alone the children’s bedrooms, accessible to a child but not a parent.

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Keeping Corbyn out is not enough

10 April, 2018 - 18:26

A cartoon of what looks like a red-faced adult sitting in a pram and throwing a mobile phone, laptop, camera and other electronic devices out of it. The signature "Adams" is in the top right-hand cornerYesterday I came across a blog post by Nora Mulready, one of the most sanctimonious anti-Corbyn agitators among the centre-Left, welcoming the announcement of a “new party” in last Sunday’s Observer — which, as you might discover if you read the whole article rather than just the headline, hasn’t been founded yet. The same article was tweeted out by John Rentoul, a columnist for the Independent and biographer of Tony Blair, with a quote which really sums up the attitudes of many of the supporters of this “new party”:

In response, I asked Rentoul, Mulready and a third person (who retweeted it, which is how I found out) if they knew anyone using food banks, or who had been a victim of lying by benefits assessors, or whose disabled children had no school to go to or who had had to wait months or years for vital surgery. One person said she was in that position herself but could not bring herself to vote Labour under Corbyn but “obviously … won’t vote Conservative either”. Mulready responded:

So that’s all right then. You won’t vote Tory, presumably because there’s a safe third option in your constituency (Lib Dem probably, or maybe a Labour MP who is anti-Corbyn), but will carry on publicly throwing your toys out of the pram so that enough people know that the Labour party is divided within itself and vote for anyone but — which usually, in many swing constituencies, means the Tories. They will then proclaim that it’s Corbyn’s fault if the Tories win the next election — exactly what Blair’s allies said about dissenters who failed to vote for him in 2005 or 2010, so it is always the Left’s fault and never anyone else’s. They complain about anti-Semitism or weakness towards Russia, yet along with their policy of harassing elderly Black people to leave the country after being here for 50 years or more, the Tories still keep Boris Johnson in high office despite a long history of racism and, only this week, endorsing the racist Hungarian president who has made barely-concealed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories part of his platform for years:

I get the impression that the majority of people agitating against Corbyn are those who can personally afford a few more years of Tory rule: it’s no secret that the British media is dominated by people from private schools or at least grammar schools (never forget this boast by Nick Cohen on Twitter); only this week Sarah Montague, formerly of Radio 4’s Today programme, was said to be “incandescent with rage” at discovering that her £133,000 annual salary was the only Today presenter’s salary that was not above £150K per year (the highest was John Humphrys, which was between £600K and £649K, though another female presenter’s was above £200K), so their unjustly discriminated against are considerably better off than most of us. Most of them are not poor or disabled; most of them are not Black; none of them are Muslims, the major target of right-wing hate and suspicion, and Mulready herself has posted distinctly Islamophobic articles on her blog, for example calling for “the Left” not to use images of women in hijab to represent Muslim women — effectively, calling on them to be made invisible, for Labour to disassociate itself from them. Effectively this is the so-called decent Left — the pro-war, anti-Muslim soft left — of the mid-2000s raising its head again. Mulready calls anti-Semitism “the prejudice that led to the most terrible period of inhumanity and mass murder” but any prejudice can lead to mass murder, whether by the machete, the gun or the gas chamber. Examples of right-wing Islamophobia in this country recently far outweigh anything found in the Labour party in terms of their viciousness, their tendency to violence, even their reliance on tropes of conspiracy and takeover.

Dividing the Labour party so that the Tories win is not a price worth paying to keep Jeremy Corbyn out. It will not achieve any progressive objective, even what should be at the top of their agenda, namely staving off Brexit. Any party which could divide both the Labour and Tory votes to cream off Brexit opponents could stand a chance if it did not stand against other pro-EU candidates at the next election, but will power-hungry Labour right-wingers take a stand on this issue or will they put their ambitions first even if they defect to this new party? A new party without a strong anti-Brexit stand is pointless and stands no chance of doing anything except keeping the Tories in power. They can blame Corbyn for that if they like, but the Corbyn-supporting membership will blame them, and the divisions in the Labour party will not heal any time soon.

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Centrists must learn that it’s not 1997 anymore

8 April, 2018 - 19:18

 Jeremy Corbyn on the election that will define our futures.According to a report in today’s Observer (effectively the Guardian on Sunday), a group of “entrepreneurs, philanthropists and donors” have been developing plans for a new centrist party for about a year. The foundation, Project One Movement for the UK, which has attracted former Labour and Tory donors and has plans to run candidates in the next election, due in 2022 (unless something happens before then, which is thought likely), was set up by Simon Franks, founder of LoveFilm, and its policies are supposed to appeal to a “liberal, centre-left audience”:

Potential policy proposals include asking the rich to pay a fairer share of tax, better funding for the NHS and improved social mobility. However, it also backs centre-right ideas on wealth creation and entrepreneurship, and is keen to explore tighter immigration controls. A source said some Brexit supporters are involved.

The article compares the “new party” with both Emmanuel Macron, who won the French presidential election on a centrist ticket last year, and the former SDP, founded as a breakaway party by former Labour cabinet ministers but which, even in an alliance with the Liberal Party, won only 23 seats. Needless to say, Macron did not have to contend with the same electoral system the SDP did; the French presidential election uses run-offs so that a candidate needs an actual majority to win. In this country, any new party runs the risk of dividing a sympathetic vote as they cannot force existing parties out of the race and the established parties will not withdraw. Labour, in particular, will usually not withdraw from constituencies in general elections for this reason and they will need to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats if they are not to split anti-Brexit votes; if they field a candidate against Edward Davey in this area, for example, they will lose, and it is likely that a Conservative will win.

The biggest contributor to any such breakaway party is likely to be ‘centrist’ Labour MPs disenchanted with the current direction of the party under Jeremy Corbyn. Their list of complaints are very familiar: acquiescence to Brexit, weak leadership over Brexit, tolerance of anti-Semitism among his supporters, weakness towards Russia, past associations with various people that would put off older voters, policies that did not win elections in the 1980s and will not now. In my opinion a lot of these centrist Labour MPs have contempt for the party’s left and its supporters and believe that they have a divine right to run the party because it was they who delivered the 1997 and 2001 election victories. Many of them believe that it was a disastrous mistake to both open up the membership and give it more power, and to nominate Corbyn in 2015. They forget how mediocre and uninspiring the other choices for that year’s leadership election were.

They also forget that 1997 was 21 years ago and that the strategy that victory was based on would not work now: it was a strategy of appealing to middle-class voters in the suburbs and Shires rather than the “core vote” which was assumed to be “in the bag”. This strategy was taught in politics classes in the 1990s; any party which expects to win power must appeal to the so-called C2s or lower-middle class, particularly in the Midlands, as classes above that (A, B and C1) will overwhelmingly vote Tory and classes below (D and E) will overwhelmingly vote Labour. This, the story goes, is how both Thatcher and Blair won overwhelming majorities. However, the 2008 economic crash and the 2016 Brexit referendum result make this strategy not one worth repeating in the 2010s or 2020s, especially for a new rival to the Labour party. Labour voters from the provincial white working class and ethnic minorities who voted for Brexit will not vote for any “no Brexit, business as usual” centrist party, even if the candidate is a former Labour cabinet minister who has jumped ship. They will need radical new policies which will answer the grievances which led to the Brexit vote. Opposing Brexit is a viable policy — 48% is the kind of figure that wins elections in this country when its opponents are divided, after all — but in this case it will not win on its own because it faces two major blocs which generally support Brexit.

And as John McDonnell, the arch-Corbynite MP for Hayes and Harlington in west London, tweeted this morning:

While not a member of the Labour Party myself, I am very much supportive of their links to the trade unions and of that important financial connection. Without it, the party would have to appeal for donations from the wealthy, as does the US Democratic Party, which would oblige it to adjust its policies to support them. We see the effects where the same monied interests bankroll both Republican and Democratic candidates and some policies barely change (on Israel, for example) regardless of who is in the White House or even in Congress. The Labour Party is funded by large-scale public subscription which can be opted out of but still enables them a certain amount of independence from the demands of wealthy donors whose personal interests are often diametrically opposed to social justice. It would be a tragedy to see British politics reduced to a battle between two parties bankrolled by the same wealthy men.

And one more thing: like a lot of people who aren’t ‘centrists’ or old Blairites nor full-on Corbynites, I’ve found the attitudes of some of the latter just as frustrating as some of the former, in particular the attitude that Corbyn can do no wrong and that everything is a conspiracy against him. I’ve heard them accused of being obsessive about such things as the “Russian hat affair” and preoccupied by media bias, and there’s no dispute that they have a preference for partisan ‘news’ sites (e.g. the Canary) with a loose connection to fact. However, Labour supporters have always been aware of media bias; it was a major reason for why Labour leaders from Kinnock onwards sought to distance themselves from the politics of the 1980s and any vaguely radical policy (e.g. withdrawing charitable status from private schools, a policy suggested in the mid-90s and quickly withdrawn after condemnation from the Tory press). What is different now is that there is a Labour leadership which is not offering soft Toryism with a change of decor (and policies that a future Tory government can easily reverse, as seen in the 2010-15 Parliament) but real, radical policies and hope for change which, say, Ed Miliband did not and none of the other 2015 leadership candidates did. They did not even defend Blair’s own legacy.

When the people attacking Corbyn are a mixture of old New Labourites who favour a clapped-out strategy and Tories who want Labour to fail anyway, it is no surprise that many of them plug their ears when they read familiar criticisms of their leader. Even in the event that Corbyn’s position becomes untenable, his replacement will not be one of them; they will have to learn to live with the membership and its candidate and any new rival will have to answer the needs of those let down by the Blair strategy and who voted to leave the EU. Contempt will not win either group an election.

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Review: The Silent Child

4 April, 2018 - 17:06

A still from The Silent Child showing Libby and Joanne, a woman and girl, silhoutted under a tree, signing to each other.The Silent Child is a 20-minute film which won an Oscar at the recent Academy Awards (for the best Live Action Short Film) which focuses on a four-year-old deaf girl named Libby who comes from a hearing family and who has not developed enough speech as she approaches school. The family brings in a ‘help’ named Joanne, who we are told in the descriptions is a social worker but appears to be simply a tutor, to try to improve her communication skills and she immediately begins teaching Libby sign language, of which she learns the basics quickly and begins to enjoy talking, playing and going to the park with Joanne. However, the mother gets cold feet and decides that it would be best for Libby to concentrate on developing her speech and cuts off her contact with Joanne. In the final scene, Libby is seen standing alone in the playground while other children play; Joanne stands across the fence and they sign “I love you” to each other. It finishes with some statistics about deaf children from hearing families and how many do not have any support when they go to school. The film can be seen here for the next few weeks and has mandatory subtitles.

The film was rather reminiscent of the TV series The A Word, about a young boy with autism. That series was set around a middle-class, rural English family and the same was true of this film. There was not as much time here, obviously, for family drama (I gave up on The A Word because it became more of a family drama than a drama about autism) but they got some in and it was key to the mother’s attitude: Libby’s dad wasn’t her dad, as Joanne found out by talking to an old lady she met by chance, and her real dad’s dad was deaf. The mother’s objection to sign language wasn’t rooted in the old debate about sign language making it possible for deaf people to communicate with each other but nobody else; she was more concerned about how much trouble it would be to fit learning sign language among all their other extra-curriculars; she also appeared resentful that her daughter was being taught something she didn’t know (at one point arguing with her husband about this woman coming in and telling such-and-such to her daughter) and would have to make an effort to learn. She shut Joanne’s objections down by telling her “you must understand, I have been a mother for a long time”.

A still from the film A Silent Child, showing Joanne, a white woman with brown hair wearing a cream-coloured blouse with various symbols dotted over it, a short brown skirt and thick, dark tights, looking at Libby, a four-year-old white girl with blond hair wearing a dark grey dress with little black diamonds dotted over it, pointing towards the camera and telling her "Your mum's here" (which is subtitled at the bottom of the screen).The film’s central point was that deaf children needed support if they are not going to be isolated, and that if they communicate best using sign language, this should be facilitated, but the “Mum doesn’t always know best” message will strike a big chord with a lot of disabled people and I’m sure it will anger a lot of parents (although I have seen some eagerly recommending it). The sight of Libby being offered a chance to communicate with someone who understood her and then having it snatched away was very sad to see and will bring tears to a lot of people’s eyes, I suspect. Interestingly it makes no issue of government funding cuts as a reason why children are not getting the support they need, and as the reason in this case was the mother’s attitude, it might have helped to make this point in the words on-screen at the end. But it’s an important film, well-scripted and shot and it deserved that Oscar.

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Why Egyptian TV covers American police violence

2 April, 2018 - 21:29

Earlier today I saw a tweet by Shaun King, an American race activist, about Egyptian media coverage and popular interest in American police shootings and resulting protests:

I’m quite shocked, actually, that a fairly well-educated and apparently politically astute American would fail to understand the reasons why the media in Egypt would take an interest in police violence in the USA. Egypt is a dictatorship whose president Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi (who you may remember seized power in a coup five years ago, ousting the president who was elected after popular protests unseated the previous dictator, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak) was holding a sham election, has eliminated much of the competition and has since won more than 97% of the vote, compared to just under 3% of the only ‘opponent’ (whose party has previously endorsed Sisi). If the media are heavily focussing on injustices in another country, particularly a country generally regarded (rightly or wrongly) as a beacon of democratic values, it is to distract the people from the injustices going on in their own country: the fact that their elected president is in prison and thought to be dying, the fact that there is a secret police and a system of ‘emergency’ laws under which people can be locked up indefinitely on a pretext because the regime considers them a threat, the fact that religion is suppressed and that men cannot even grow beards without being harassed by the police, and so on.

The media in a dictatorship often does this: concentrate on bad things happening in other countries, particularly those the régime has designated an enemy but at least a country on which it’s not on particularly friendly terms and from which criticism has come in the past. I once read, for example, that Syrian state media gave the conflict in Northern Ireland particularly detailed coverage; anything to give the impression that the outside world is a dangerous place and that the status quo offers security — as a certain South American dictator would say, and have displayed widely throughout the country, paz, trabajo e bienestar (peace, work and well-being).

A group of demonstrators in Egypt holding up yellow signs showing hands with four fingers raised, a reference to the Rabaa Massacre of 14th August 2013. Another demonstrator is holding a picture of president Morsi.As for popular interest in injustices abroad, this is also a sign that the people cannot protest against what is happening in their own country for fear of being shot dead, sexually assaulted or rounded up and jailed, as happened to Egyptians in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and in the demonstrations after the coup against President Morsi. It is a regime-approved distraction. (Every so often we see protests “against terrorism” in an Arab country where street demonstrations are usually prohibited, and this is trumpeted by western media and bloggers; this is actually stage-managed by the government as the terrorists they are demonstrating against are also against the government.)

The r&eacutegime in Egypt is not a great advertisement for racial harmony either. In 2005, the police raided a Sudanese refugee camp in the wealthy Mohandiseen district in east Cairo, killing 20 and injuring 50 while evicting the 2,000 refugees who had chosen that location because it was near to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. More recently, 15 Sudanese were killed in crossfire between Egyptian ‘security’ forces and Bedouin smugglers in the Sinai as the migrants attempted to reach Israel — a new favoured destination since the 2005 Mohandiseen massacre. You’d expect a Black American race activist to take account of these things — the name Sudan means land of Black people, after all.

Of course, Egypt isn’t the only country where American racist shootings are known of and discussed; the situation is sometimes reported on in the media here in the UK and anyone can follow the relevant accounts on Twitter. But the fact that Egyptians may be hyper-aware of these things isn’t really a wake-up call to Americans that “the whole world is watching”. It’s just the particular thing the unfree media uses to distract people from the poverty and oppression of their own country.

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How (not) to argue with Brexiteers

1 April, 2018 - 23:36

A picture of Nigel Farage, a white man in a black suit jacket with a white shirt and dark grey, pink and light purple striped tie, against the blue and pink backdrop of the BBC's weekly Question Time panel show.Last Friday Nick Cohen posted a series of tweets about what he described as the tendency of Labour Remainers to “snuggle down in the soft warm bed of conspiracy theory” in explaining why the Leave vote won the 2016 referendum; he accuses Andrew Adonis and Alastair Campbell of attributing it to BBC bias rather than “examining his [Adonis’s] own faults, and acknowledging where he went wrong”. Cohen concluded “Despite stiff competition, the Brexit vote is the stupidest thing Britain has done in my lifetime. But it won’t be reversed unless my side argues with leave voters respectfully.”

He’s right in that we cannot reverse the vote by arguing with leave voters and calling them dumb bigots. But not for the reasons he thinks.

Since June 2016, the people have not been in charge of what happens as a result of the referendum vote. Even in the 2017 general election, there was no major party that campaigned on a platform of staying in the EU although a few individual MPs did. The agenda of what Brexit will even mean has galloped far away from what most people imagined in June 2016, with the media having given the impression that an arrangement similar to Norway’s was the most likely outcome, even though it would mean us having to implement EU directives without having a seat at the table where they were formulated. It was only after the vote that politicians decided that the motive for the vote to leave was immigration and that freedom of movement between the UK and the EU had to end.

With the Pound having lost a significant about of value against the US Dollar and Euro shortly after the vote, and there being much uncertainty about Britain’s strength on the international stage in light of the aggression by Russia and about the viability of British business after the loss of tariff-free access to European markets, it might be expected that some people who voted to leave might have changed their minds and there is evidence that some have, particularly in light of revelations about Leave campaign overspending and the involvement of Cambridge Analytica. People are starting to realise they had been duped.

But the people no longer have any say in what form Brexit takes, if any. It is entirely in the government’s gift to decide if there will even be another referendum, and currently they are insisting there will not be one; with both parties knowing that significant parts of their base voted Out and the Tory parliamentary party in particular having fallen to the anti-EU tendency in the years since they were voted out of office in 1997 and Jeremy Corbyn beholden to people who cling to a “workers’ Brexit” fantasy (and possibly entertaining such delusions himself), neither party will admit that leaving the EU right now would bring only disaster. They both repeat the mantra that “the people have spoken” and do not want to take the risk of allowing them to speak again. And calling politicians hidebound fools is not the same as calling voters the same thing, to their faces or otherwise.

And yes, New Labour policies (and electoral strategy) did contribute to Brexit, and there is no possibility of re-running the 1997 campaign, something the remnants of New Labour seem unable to grasp now. It’s one reason why Tony Blair and other figures from that period are not really the best suited to lead any fightback against Brexit.

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Why are service stations a rip-off?

30 March, 2018 - 20:09

An overhead view of the Cobham service area on the M25 motorway. A junction has been built to allow traffic from both sides of the motorway to access the services.Today the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, called for an investigation into what he called “exploitative” fuel prices at motorway service stations, which are typically 20p per litre above prices elsewhere (and the gap between service stations and supermarkets is even bigger). This has been the case for years; most products available at motorway service stations (and stations run by the same companies off motorways) are priced considerably higher than they are elsewhere, except for a few categories of items which are fixed, such as newspapers. Service station operators blame the ‘complexities’ of motorway trading, such as the need for 24-hour staffing. I am surprised, though, that this needs any investigation as the causes of overpricing at service stations are obvious.

To begin with, many motorways have very few services; the older ones like the M1, M4 and M5 have more while newer ones such as the M20 and M25 have far fewer and also long stretches without any. Non-motorway major roads are much better served; on a dual carriageway trunk road, you will pass a large filling station which has toilets, basic food and papers on sale and a few parking spaces with much greater frequency than on a motorway. Prices at these are often higher than at small filling stations but considerably lower than on motorways, and increasingly they do offer 24-hour service though, for truckers, they do not always have a high enough canopy to accommodate a large trailer (the European standard is 4m high, or 13ft 2in, but British trailers can be as high as 5m and are frequently 14 or 15ft high). The difference is that there is competition and stations are bought and built by operators as an investment.

Motorway service stations aren’t like that; they are designed to be one-stop shops for all travellers’ needs with a hotel (usually a Travelodge or similar), a filling station and a building containing a newsagent, various food outlets, toilets, showers and a few other small shops such as a small ‘gaming’ arcade and a mobile phone accessories shop. Increasingly they also have a drive-through café operated by Costa or Starbucks. They are, by intention, few and far between. The M40 has four over an 89-mile distance; when it first opened it had none, and neither did the M20, M26 and M25 that linked it to the Channel ports at Folkestone and Dover. The M25 still has no services on its western side (i.e. in between the A3 and M1), probably because land prices are much higher there than further out, but this is still the busiest stretch which links all the major roads heading south-west, west or north-west. A few years ago one was built at Cobham, just east of the A3 junction, but the place it was most needed was probably between the M4 and M40 junctions. While there is nothing to stop drivers who know of the existence of off-motorway services from diverting to use them (and some sat-navs will show them to the driver), they are almost never signposted, and advertising to motorway drivers is prohibited, supposedly to avoid distraction (though other dual carriageways, where speed limits are the same and the quality of the road often poorer in terms of gradients, curves, the length of slip roads etc, are not covered by this law).

The free parking (for up to two hours) should not be used as an excuse to overcharge. Service stations are a social necessity: driving long distances, especially on tedious and unchanging roads, makes people tired, and people need food and toilet facilities. This is partly a consequence of the ‘closed’ motorway model and this needs to be compensated for rather than used as a means to make extra money. While I am not saying the food should be free, it should be ensured that prices are not higher than they are elsewhere. Concessionary traders should not be paying higher rents than for a shopping-centre or high-street pitch, and operators should not be paying rents that would give rise to the need for excessively high pitch rents that lead to overcharging. The stations could not be built without government intervention as they need slip roads off the motorways and sometimes whole junctions (e.g. Cobham); the government should be intervening to make sure prices are reasonable, and certainly not intervening to drive prices up.

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When racists rage against racism

28 March, 2018 - 21:51

A Facebook post showing a mural, the centrepiece of which is an image of a number of old, grey-beareded, stiff-collared men playing a Monopoly game where the board rests on the naked bodies of men. Above the image of the mural it says "It's happening again! Get the full story on davidicke.com where I defend against the false accusations and gross misinterpretations of my mural by self-interested British politicians and the mainstream media. #FreedomforHumaniy".The controversy that started last week when someone dug up a five-year-old Facebook comment by Jeremy Corbyn on a picture of an anti-Semitic mural by an obscure London artist has not gone away. What is surprising is that he is still leader. The number of MPs who have spoken out is small; they have not threatened to defect to any other party or resign as of the next general election, or made a challenge to Corbyn’s leadership. There are a lot of supporters who have criticised his stance and called on him to take a stronger stand, but others who remain convinced that he can do no wrong and that this is all a conspiracy to undermine his leadership and others who believe it is quite consistent with his previous behaviour, that he may not be an anti-Semite as such but he does not mind rubbing shoulders with people who are. I have a couple of theories as to why the response to this has been so limited compared to even previous rows about the same issue.

First: the Labour MPs who are taking the strongest stance know they are in the minority within the party. They have tried to remove him once; their candidate lost by a large margin as Corbyn’s supporters are (or at least were) the majority of ordinary party members. There are no other strong parties for them to defect to; the Liberal Democrats are hugely weakened from the 2010-15 coalition and the subsequent devastating result in 2015 which was only slightly reversed in 2017 and not all of them represent constituencies where the Lib Dems were ever strong. The Tories, as already discussed, are far more tainted by racism than Jeremy Corbyn. There is no place for a Scottish or Welsh nationalist MP in a north London constituency and the Greens have yet to win a constituency beyond Brighton. There is simply nowhere for them to go.

Second, there have simply been too many “wolf cries” about anti-Semitism and there is fatigue to it; now that a genuine case has been unearthed, albeit from years ago, very many people are unwilling to listen. The previous cases involved hostility to Jewish individuals (e.g. the MP Ruth Smeeth) that was assumed to be anti-Semitic for whatever reason, or someone suggesting that Israel has no right to exist — again, years before they became an MP — because the difference between a ‘reasonable’, ‘moderate’ supporter of Palestinian rights and an “anti-Semite” is that the latter will suggest a solution to the Palestinian situation that does not (a) acknowledge that it’s all the Arabs’ fault and (b) leave Israel dominant. The anti-Semitism in the mural in this case would only have struck an educated person as such, and the artist’s explanation makes it clearer that this is what it was (in that the elderly stiff-collared figures were Rothschilds and the like) — there were no Stars of David or any other overt Jewish symbols, so it’s possible that at first glance it didn’t appear anti-Semitic.

Speaking as a Muslim, I would find it easier to condemn minor incidents of anti-Semitism if mainstream politicians would condemn and isolate those guilty of far more severe incidents of Islamophobia — notably, that of Boris Johnson who remains foreign secretary despite countless casual and premeditated incidents of Islamophobia and other racism over the years. It appears that this prejudice is considered a more serious and shameful matter than any other expression of prejudice at a time when Muslims have faced a long-running vilification campaign in both tabloid and (former) broadsheet newspapers and frequent undercover investigations to find out if prominent Muslims have opinions white people might not like, which do not have to be racist or in favour of terrorism; Channel 4’s Dispatches earlier this week ‘exposed’ Cardiff-based Muslim activist Sahar al-Faifi for suggesting that the government might have taken their eye off a particular terrorist for political gain. Muslims are being targeted with ‘investigations’ on prime-time TV calculated to foment suspicion, with front-page attacks on our culture and on individuals, and by organised gangs of football hooligans and by individuals ‘provoked’ by what they read in the papers and see on TV. There’s a Twitter thread going round with a ‘test’ of whether someone is an anti-Semite, and one of the criteria is that they will not condemn anti-Semitism without qualifying it with a comparison to the suffering of any other group; but it has to be looked at in the context of other prejudices. Anti-Semitism is not unique, it is not greatly unlike other forms of racism and neither have been its consequences. The mural Corbyn is being condemned for approving of uses stereotypes of a Jewish élite; much of the material targeted at Muslims refers to ordinary Muslims, not a few wealthy financiers.

Some of the most racist individuals in this country’s media and politics, and those who are at least tolerant of other prejudices, are among the first to identify and condemn anti-Semitism. Why is this? It’s clearly not because they’re against racism in general, except when it uses obvious nasty words (which gives the game away; best keep to euphemisms). It’s not even because of “where it leads” (i.e. the Holocaust); there have been two other genocides since (Bosnia and Rwanda) and the rhetoric used to justify both (e.g., blaming ordinary people today for historical grievances, comparing people to vermin and so on) was very similar to that of the Holocaust. It’s because they regard a prosperous, mostly white minority whose religious mainstream is closely linked to the Establishment both here and in the USA as less deserving of hostility than a more visible and obviously ‘different’ minority. This is not anti-racism. It is racism itself.

Finally, I have a suspicion that some expressions of anti-Semitism come from a desire to provoke and outrage polite opinion rather than out of a belief in what is being said. The Daily Mail, in their front page yesterday, proclaimed that British Jews had been “goaded beyond endurance by the rise of anti-Semitism in Labour”. There is a certain satisfaction in goading someone who is self-righteous, hypocritical or both and baiting a racist with the one form of racism he can’t stomach falls into that category. Of course, tu quoque or accusing your critic of being a hypocrite is not really a defence; someone else being racist does not make being a racist acceptable. But all the same, demands to condemn one particular form of racism ring hollow when they come from racists.

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