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Photography update

11 October, 2019 - 19:52
The Water Gardens, Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

Since I’ve not had much time to write this week, here are some pictures I took on recent trips to gardens in southern England (all National Trust properties):

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire: a vast estate with numerous different gardens including the water gardens (pictured), riverside walks and vast acres of woodland. This is at least a day trip and possibly two.

Nymans, West Sussex: a garden I first visited in April (just before Ramadan) and revisited last week to see what it would look like in the autumn.

Claremont, Surrey: A garden very near me that was partly designed by ‘Capability’ Brown. Features an amphitheatre and a big ornamental lake.

Osterley Park, west London: a big estate with a part-Tudor, part-18th century red-brick manor house where the lady volunteers dress in period costume on certain days. These pictures were taken in the house and the gardens.

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What was a ‘Bantustan’?

7 October, 2019 - 18:42
A map of South Africa and Namibia showing the locations of the former Black 'homeland' statelets known as Bantustans.Map of the ‘Bantustans’ or Black ‘homelands’ in the 1980s. All these areas have been re-incorporated into South Africa and Namibia since the end of Apartheid. Source: Wikipedia.

Last week it was revealed that the Australian politician Alexander Downer, who had been foreign secretary and high commissioner to the UK, had made a speech to an audience in Europe which advocated that refugees not be allowed to settle permanently in Australia (or, presumably, any other host country) and accused those who settled in Australia of living “a kind of Bantustan-style life totally separate from the rest of the mainstream of Australia (sic)” and setting up “separate ghettoes”. The conference was hosted in Hungary and was also addressed by Victor Orban (somewhat euphemistically described as “ultra-conservative”), former Czech leader Vaclav Havel and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, i.e. a who’s who of European bigots and reactionaries who have achieved power. The use of the term ‘Bantustan’ as if it were a synonym of ‘ghetto’ shows appalling ignorance.

‘Bantustans’ were the statelets set up by the Apartheid regime in South Africa where Black people were expected to live: they were deemed to be citizens of these statelets, not of South Africa itself, and many people were forcibly relocated from their homes in other parts of South Africa to these statelets, much as many other non-whites were forcibly relocated to slums from old districts of cities like Cape Town. They were nominally independent, but were recognised by no country other than South Africa. The ostensible idea was that this was “self-government” for native people, but in fact the regimes were often dictatorships and in some cases allies of the Apartheid regime. The statelets were invariably either tiny (e.g. Ciskei, QwaQwa, KwaNdebele), discontiguous (e.g. Boputhatswana, KwaZulu) or both (e.g. KaNgwane) and very often wholly surrounded by South Africa. The closest modern parallel is the Palestinian territories which, despite having self-government, are surrounded by Israel or Israeli-occupied territory and so their economies are dependent on the whims of Israel and its military.

Even ‘ghettoes’ did not originally mean areas with a large population of one ethnic minority or other: they were enclosed areas of cities in Europe where Jews had to live; they could not live in the rest of the city and usually had to be back in them after dark. These areas were protected and had a certain amount of self-government, but were also overcrowded and could not expand and the chiefs of the ghettoes were expected to serve the kings and tsars with such things as furnishing them with young conscripts for the army. While they did allow Jews to run their own affairs to a certain extent and maintain their own customs, they were also a product of a Europe which was intolerant of difference; Jews could be Jews as long as they remained out of sight and out of mind, behind walls.

Neither of these terms should be used to simply mean any area where anyone can enter or leave, and anyone can live or work, but which has a high concentration of members of a particular minority (or, as is often the case in so-called ghettoes in the UK, several) and of shops and restaurants catering to that minority. This is often accompanied by myths of “no-go areas”, circulated by liars and ignoramuses to similarly-minded followers on slanted websites. Just because people feel safe living there, and would not elsewhere because of racism, does not make it a ghetto, let alone a ‘Bantustan’. Just because people maintain their religion, don’t start drinking and will not eat meat unless it is slaughtered a certain way does not mean they expect to “change the culture” or to set up a state within a state; they just expect tolerance.

And as for his expectation that refugees will “peacefully go home” after their persecution has abated, history shows that this rarely happens. People get new lives in their new home, they get married, they have children who never knew their old home and may not even speak the language. Britain took in some Jewish refugees in the lead-up to the Second World War and many of them are still here and their ancestors never considered themselves to be the nationality their parents or grandparents had at birth, though some are now trying to claim it in response to Brexit. Much the same is true of the many Spanish people who came to the UK to escape from Franco’s repression, and the Polish who settled in the UK in the early to mid 20th century. When people move, they tend to stay moved unless whatever caused their movement is dealt with quickly.

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Romanticising the bad old days

6 October, 2019 - 22:59
A 1950s cigarette advert featuring a white man smoking a cigarette, wearing a white coat with a dark tie, with the slogan "According to a recent nationwide survey, More Doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette".Cigarette ads of the time claimed they were healthy (this was American, but similarly misleading adverts were found here too.)

The other day I saw a meme which consisted of a list of what British food was like in the 1950s, presumably when the author was young, and it claimed that much of the food we eat now had either not been invented, had a completely different use or the word used for it meant something completely different. Pasta had not been invented, Curry was a surname, pizza was “something to do with a leaning tower”, prunes were medicinal, Indian restaurants were only found in India, sugar was thought of as “white gold” and cubes were posh, and muesli was readily available and called cattle feed. The last thing on the list is “the one thing we never had on our tables: our elbows”. This is clearly an attempt to romanticise the 50s as a time when things were simpler and people had better manners than they have today. However, these things aren’t true, and most of this list is not either.

To begin with: in the 50s, Britain was already changing and people had already started to move here from what was still mostly the Empire (the Indian part was already independent, but Britain still had its African and Caribbean colonies). We already had large Jewish, Irish and Italian populations. Pasta had, of course, been invented; it just wasn’t popular in the UK, other than, presumably, in the Italian community. Rationing, which had been imposed during the War, persisted through the Attlee years and was only abolished by the Tory government in the early 1950s, so the national diet was still somewhat restricted and the supply of things like fat was still very controlled and nobody wasted anything; my mother remembers her mother scraping every last bit of butter off the packet; sugar was only starting to become available again, hence its “white gold” reputation, and the negative effects of too much of it were not really considered (smoking was, of course, not thought harmful either, and both tobacco and alcohol were marketed as being healthy when they in fact were not). “Oil was for lubricating; fat was for cooking” the list says, as if we cook our food in the same oil we put in our car (though these days, we are starting to put cooking fat in our cars).

These days, we have a choice of ingredients and a choice of cuisines both to cook at home and to dine out on. Part of this is because we have a large population which came from the former colonies, and from Europe, and brought their cuisines with them, for their benefit rather than ours. They were not the first people to bring new foods with them, of course; such things as potatoes, peppers and tomatoes, things we could not think of living without today, were brought from the Americas by the Spanish colonists and spread throughout the world — we associate many Indian foods with hot chillis, but these vegetables are not native to India. And as wartime and post-war austerity faded from people’s memories and the country diversified and opened up, people found they liked the variety, and why wouldn’t they? People generally like variety, they like colour, they like things to be tasty and not bland. True, there’s an environmental impact to bringing exotic fruits like bananas and oranges to this country all year round, and we produce plenty of good fruit here, but this list doesn’t mention the environment; it just looks back to when “we never had any of this and we were strong” etc.

Britain was not a utopia in the 1950s. True, there was full employment because of the post-war settlement and if you were middle-class or ‘solidly’ working class, you would have had quite a comfortable life by the standards of that time. But if you were a woman, you were expected to stop work after you married (hence the home-cooked food and absence of ‘convenience’ foods); if you were Black, you could be discriminated against and had no redress; if you were disabled, you might well have spent decades in an institution and at best faced a world that made no effort to accommodate you; if you were mentally ill, you could also be locked up for years and suffer experimental treatments that might leave you brain-damaged. Why would anyone romanticise this era on the basis of what the average person did not have access to, what was bad about that time? Ultimately the message seems to be that Britain was better when it was a whiter and more homogeneous country and that the variety we enjoy now is the product of immigration and of the ‘softening-up’ of the population. Before you share a meme like this, please remember that it is essentially a racist message.

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Riots don’t start; people start them

4 October, 2019 - 23:41
Picture of Tulsi Gabbard, a woman of South Asian appearance with light brown skin and shoulder-length black hair, wearing a fitted white jacket over a black skirt or pair of trousers, standing in front of a small sign saying "Tulsi 2020" with an American flag hanging from a pole next to her.Tulsi Gabbard

There is a video going round on Twitter of the American senator Tulsi Gabbard responding to a question about the Indian prime minister’s role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, in which hundreds or possibly thousands of people were killed in three days of violence instigated by Hindu nationalists in response to a fire on a train in which 59 people were killed. The woman observed that she had served as “one of the major rehabilitations (sic) of Modi’s perception here [in the US]”, then proceeded to say that Modi had been accused of complicity in the 2002 violence. Gabbard responded by asking “do you know what instigated those riots?”, which the woman did not appear to know the answer to. The Indian section of Yahoo News has an account of the incident illustrated by a few tweets supportive of Gabbard and Modi and in some cases insulting to the questioner.

As anyone who remembers the violence (which was 17 years ago, which means a young adult who was not there will not) will also remember, the pogrom followed the train fire which at the time was blamed on Muslim vendors at Godhra train station (an official story was that it was done under orders from Pakistan, which has been described as baseless) who had been subject to abuse and harassment from the temple pilgrims on the train (the temple in question being the one in Ayodhya, on the site of a mosque which was torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992), but more recent inquiries suggest that it was started by someone on the train by accident. However, many Hindus still seem to believe that it was started by Muslims in revenge for the destruction of the mosque, and when I mention Modi’s responsibility for the pogrom, I have had Hindus in my mentions telling me that the violence was in response to the train fire, as if this justifies it. Today, when I told one of them that the riots took place all over Gujarat rather than being targeted at the supposed train attackers, I was told that the victims of the train fire came from all over Gujarat. Now we have an American senator repeating the same line of argument when a member of the public draws attention to Modi’s record.

A few facts about the pogrom should be stated here. One is that there is significant evidence of the violence being premeditated and well-planned: for example, businesses were attacked whose names were suggestive of Hindu ownership when the actual owners were Muslim. So, at best the planners did their research and at worst, they were assisted by people in the government who knew who owned which properties. Another is the extreme savagery and brutality of it: some 250 women and girls were gang-raped and then burned to death; in other cases, pregnant women had their babies cut out of them, families were electrocuted inside houses the attackers had flooded, children were speared and then held up. Local media have described the violence as “state terrorism”, citing politicians’ utterances (including Modi’s) which stoked tensions in the aftermath of the Godhra fire, and the fact that in many incidents, police looked on and did nothing (including where the station was next door to a site being attacked) or even joined in; the state took no action to prevent a strike called by Hindu nationalists after the fire, which was illegal and such strikes had commonly been associated with communal violence in the past.

Using this logic, we could blame almost any atrocity or any act of terrorism on something done by people with some connection to the victims and thereby justify it. Yet, we do not do this; in fact, we protest loudly when someone tries to in regard to terrorism, even when the perpetrators are oppressed people. Hindus in Gujarat were not oppressed, at least not by Muslims; yes, many live in poverty, but they are the majority and their aspirations to dominance are supported by the state, even when the Congress party are in charge, let alone when Hindu nationalists are. This was not a people spontaneously reacting to an atrocity committed against them; it was not an intifada. It was a planned atrocity by a majority population seeking to put an ‘uppity’ minority in its place, and the same movement, now in charge of the Indian federal government, permits a regime like that of the old American South in which Muslims can be lynched for imagined offences against cows. These riots did not just start; people started them. Anyone who cannot see this has no place in any respectable political party or any party which purports to stand for social justice, let alone running as a presidential candidate.

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Ignorance and poverty, not religion, lie behind abuse

28 September, 2019 - 18:32
Picture of a pink painted building with what looks like a metal double door guarded by two policemen. The name of the school, "Daru Imam Ahmad bun Hambal" with an Arabic inscription, is displayed above the door.Daru Imam Ahmad Bun Hambal (sic), the school at the centre of this scandal

Yesterday the Mail Online website published a story about a “Qur’an school” in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, from which 300 boys and men were rescued last week having been held in chains in squalid conditions (the article is based on this Reuters piece which has more background). The school was named after Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, ironically as he was subject to torture himself for refusing to accept innovated beliefs the Abbasid rulers were trying to impose on the people at the time. The inmates had been sent to the school by their parents from other countries besides Nigeria, including Mali and Burkina Faso and alleged that as well as being chained up and whipped, they had been subject to sexual abuse by their captors, who claimed that only those who had attempted to run away were chained. A western Muslim scholar posted a link to a Reddit discussion of the story which had a few digs at Islam itself or religion in general, and someone else commented on the same thread that “Muslims lack a sense of justice”. This is unfair, and inaccurate.

Institutions like this exist in a lot of African countries. In 2015, a British TV presenter called Sophie Morgan made a documentary about the treatment of disabled children in Ghana, which she had heard was possibly the worst place in the world to be disabled (see earlier entry). What she found was that in many rural areas there were “prayer camps” run by cranks operating under the guise of religion (Islam and Christianity as well as local religions) keeping inmates chained to the furniture and “fetish priests” feeding disabled children poisoned alcohol and then chucking them in rivers. Parents would sometimes shun proper rehabilitation facilities, some of them run by western charities, in favour of these prayer camps because they had been taught to believe that prayer would cure their relatives. Politicians were aware of the problem, but blamed it on people not following the law rather than the government not enforcing it.

In many of the countries of the world, the mentally ill are treated abominably, locked up and chained up rather than treated, often because their illness is blamed on spirit possession rather than physical illness or trauma. In Africa and Asia the use of physical restraints such as chains is often widespread and unconcealed; in many western countries with their sophisticated, scientific mental healthcare system, drugs are the restraint of choice and the environment is prettier and makes more use of technology such as surveillance cameras and electronic locks (though it often does not allow patients to use their own mobile phones or anything with Internet access), but it is just as much a prison as those makeshift camps in Nigeria or anywhere else, and reports of cruelty and abuse, of soulless regimes, of needless blanket restrictions on people’s activities and what possessions they can have with them, make headlines every week or so. In the US there is a well-documented network of private “boot camps” which hold children with parental consent but against their will and without access to any legal redress, supposedly because they were “out of control”, and anyone tempted to condemn “barbaric Muslims” for similar places in (as has been reported) Somalia should take this into account.

In many countries in Africa and Asia, education and healthcare are not free and are often beyond the reach of people who are not very rich unless they can access charitable schools or clinics, which leaves ignorance and superstitious beliefs unchallenged and the field open to abusive cranks and witch-doctor types to exploit vulnerable and desperate people. Many of the countries are burdened with debt, or their wealth is held in foreign banks. Yes, corruption is often a problem, even in ostensibly democratic countries like Ghana and Nigeria. These are not the product of religion; these are political and social problems. Bigots will, of course, take one look at a story about abuse at any Muslim school and go to their preferred forum and spout nonsense, but Muslims who have no links to the country where this happened, who have no influence there, have no reason to apologise for every abuse that goes on everywhere in the name of Islam.

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On Labour’s private school dissolution policy

22 September, 2019 - 22:23
Eton College, Berkshire

This evening, the Labour party’s national conference passed a motion to make the party committed to the dissolution of Britain’s private schools. The three-clause motion commits the party to include in its next general election manifesto a commitment to “integrate all private schools into the state sector”, which includes removing their charitable status, requiring that universities admit no more private school pupils than their proportion in the general population, and to redistribute “endowments, investments and properties held by private schools … democratically and fairly across the country’s educational institutions”. It is this third clause which is likely to provoke the most controversy.

When some Labour front-benchers (e.g. Clare Short) broached the idea of abolishing private schools’ charitable status in the 90s when Tony Blair was party leader, the idea provoked outrage from the Tory press and was quickly slapped down by Blair. This goes a lot further, and it reflects the emboldening of the anti-private school lobby that has resulted from two charming but incompetent Old Etonian prime ministers and years of scandals involving abuse at British boarding schools, including some very prestigious ones (though not Eton). The notion that boarding school, particularly at primary school age, robs people of the ability to empathise by separating them from parental love and family ties at an early age has grown more and more popular, as has the awareness that much of our media, in particular, has become saturated with private school products as has popular culture; while there have always been pop stars who attended private schools (the early members of Genesis, for example, were Charterhouse boys), the numbers seem to have increased in the last 20 years or so.

Removing the charitable status of schools which overwhelmingly educate the children of the rich for a hefty fee might strike many as a good thing; however, there must be some accounting for what services these schools provide. Many schools provide full or partial scholarships or bursaries, but even ‘full’ bursaries often only cover fees, not on-costs such as uniforms. Some of these schools require pupils to have equipment that families in poverty often cannot afford, such as computer tablets; some also remind the scholarship child of their status as a recipient of charity. The appalling story of the young girl who obtained a bursary to “The Grammar School At Leeds” a few years ago and left after just a year because she was “made to feel unwelcome”, with her mother having acquired debts to pay for the uniform and special bus pass, is a good example of the kind of ‘charity’ which gives the concept a bad name. Cold charity, delivered with a razor blade in the hand.

I have heard it suggested that the policy would contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically protocol 1, article 2 which states: “The State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”. The problem is that, while many private schools do provide for religious education not provided in the state system, many are based in churches such as the Anglican and Catholic churches already well-represented by state schools; they just provide an elitist education for children whose parents can afford it. Many religious private schools have accepted integration into the state school system, particularly through the grant-maintained system favoured by the Thatcher/Major Conservative governments (subsequently abolished), such as some Muslim and Greek Orthodox schools. Similarly, some private schools offer alternative modes of education such as Steiner schools, but many do not: many are simply grammar schools. The state already interferes in private religious school provision by trying to force them to provide sexual and relationship education which contravenes their religious teaching; abolishing private schools would mostly affect the education of the rich.

As for ‘redistributing’ the endowments of private schools, this is simply theft. Besides being simply immoral, it will send a clear message that any private asset belonging to an individual or organisation that the state finds disagreeable can simply be seized when they feel like it. It is clearly tempting to many people on the Left but it will not fly with the electorate. It is a very different proposition from nationalising a business that has received enormous amounts of state aid which has enriched its owners while delivering poor service, or which is on the verge of bankruptcy and this bankruptcy would cause widespread hardship or unrest. It is far better to legislate that assets such as land held by charities be used for charitable purposes, not merely to better the interests of wealthy fee-payers and their children — a good example being that sports facilities and the like be available for use by local schools a certain proportion of the time.

While reducing the influence of the privately-educated in British society is not a bad thing in itself, Labour in office should be dedicated to making sure state schools are funded properly, at ending the flight of teachers from the profession, at stabilising the curriculum and ending fragmentation, and at ending the undemocratic academy regime and recovering those schools which were converted against the wishes of the community (since these were public assets to begin with, not legitimate private ones such as bequests). The state should also assist home-educating families, especially where a child was unable to attend mainstream school because of disability. I support the idea of private schools having to justify their charitable status to retain it, and boarding before secondary age (and possibly even before about age 13 or 14) being banned. However, we cannot simply go down the route of seizing private assets where there was no criminality involved in obtaining them. It’s theft, it’s tyranny; it’s Henry VIII meets Stalin, and it will leave Labour in the wilderness.

Image source: Julian Osley, from Geograph. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

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The Stallman affair and what it means for Open Source

21 September, 2019 - 12:31
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Last week the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard M Stallman, who was also a visiting professor at MIT (right), resigned from both of those roles after remarks he had made on an MIT email list about one of the people implicated in the Epstein affair were made public, first on Medium and then through the Vice news site. The remarks were to the effect that the 17-year-old that this individual may have had sex with (at one of Epstein’s ‘retreats’ in the Virgin Islands) may have appeared willing, and that her being technically under the age of consent does not make it rape. Some of his comments were arguably true; there is a tendency to refer to any breach of age-of-consent laws as rape, regardless of whether the age in that particular state or country is above average (e.g. 18 rather than 16), whether the law even calls it “statutory rape”, whether force was used or whether the ‘victim’ was in fact quite willing, whether the two participants were close in age or indeed whether the ‘perpetrator’ was also under the age of consent, and if these comments were the only issue, I would regard his firing from his positions as an injustice. However, in the wake of this revelation, a whole lot of Stallman’s past writings about such things as paedophilia and people with Down’s syndrome (i.e. that they should be aborted) but also about his long history of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour with women at MIT and the conferences he attends came to light which I am sure many people in tech but outside MIT, or the US tech scene, were unaware of. It also led to calls to shut the Free Software Foundation he founded down and to abandon the whole concept of Free Software or Open Source and to stop using software such as Linux. These calls are misguided, in my opinion.

I’ve been on the fringes of the tech community for some time as a one-time Linux user and occasional application developer. I’ve attended a few Linux events here in the UK and read interviews with Stallman as well as other pioneering but controversial figures such as Eric Raymond (who has also come under criticism this past week for a past blog entry in which he stated, correctly, that sexual activity with someone in their teens was not paedophilia and that the distinction matters). Stallman is well-known as a divisive figure in the tech community. He originated the idea of “free software”, which meant software which was free to redistribute and modify. Later on, a younger group of developers coined the term “open source”, which in terms of the licences under which the software is distributed is identical but is based on a different philosophy: that openness means more scrutiny, which means better software. Stallman despised this concept and, although he could not change the fact that this became dominant in the tech scene, insisted that his organisations did not use the term “open source” or that community’s coinages except when criticising them. The upshot is that we hear phrases like “FOSS” (free and open source software) used in community publications as authors and editors seek to dance around Stallman’s and his fans’ preoccupations and resentments and minimise emails from the electronic equivalent of the “green ink brigade”.

One of the articles about Stallman’s fall from grace claimed that he regarded his life’s work as a failure: his operating system, which he called GNU (GNU’s Not Unix, a reference to the system it was meant to replace), has never been completed although large parts of it are used in Linux-based operating systems daily. (He insists on calling these systems GNU/Linux, another of the stipulations he makes to anyone who works with him or uses the FSF’s facilities.) It is more true to say that he achieved something other than what he set out to, a little bit like Upton Sinclair who said that his book, The Jungle, about conditions in the Chicago meat industry was aimed at the nation’s heart, but hit it in the stomach instead; it was intended to prompt a movement for workers’ rights and conditions, but instead resulted in improvements in food hygiene and safety. Stallman’s ideas were about the right to share code, the right to know how the computer you own and the software that runs on it works, and to change it if you like, or if necessary, but the majority of computer users now, even if not in the 1970s or early 80s, have neither the time nor the inclination to do any of this or to learn how; they just want to get things done. The “right to share code” is not an ideal that would inspire many young people to join a campaign when there are human rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights and the environment to consider. Stallman has never accepted this, but the fact that his work has made software development much more accessible to many people (and certainly cheaper) and has made it a lot easier to develop better programs is hardly a failure.

However, as many of us found out last week, his attitude and behaviour, and that of a number of others in the industry, actively put women off entering. Women at MIT had strategies to deter advances from him, often based on exploiting his eccentric dislikes (e.g. of plants, water, and rival software to his) while women visiting were advised to avoid the floor where he worked if possible. He was on a number of conferences’ “do not invite” lists partly for this reason (and, no doubt, partly because of his divisiveness). He was known to shower rarely and to have other disgusting personal habits which he did not hide; he preferred to stay with hosts rather than in hotels when attending conferences, and imposed on them to a ridiculous extent, issuing a rider which was pages long. A number of people who worked with him tried to make him see that the way he treated people, especially women, was inappropriate, but to no avail. It might anger or upset some people to see people on Twitter demand that the whole edifice be torn down, that the FSF be closed, that the open-source or Free Software concepts be abandoned, but one can hardly blame them if they had been kept out of a career in something they had previously enjoyed because the industry and academia tolerated obvious sexual harassment just because the perpetrator was a major innovator. However, this does not mean we should tear it down.

As for abandoning Linux or anything else licensed under the FSF’s General Public Licence: to do this is to cut off your nose to spite your face. Neither Stallman nor the FSF benefits at all materially from you using a piece of software licensed that way; nobody pays royalties on the use of the licence. The FSF and GNU project are more than just Stallman; he contributed to some of the software but not all, and some aspects of the system have nothing to do with GNU, including the Linux kernel, the X-Window system and KDE desktop. Get hold of any Linux distribution (e.g. Ubuntu) or any other open-source package (e.g. LibreOffice) and you can install it on as many PCs as you like. The alternative is software developed on a closed basis that you may pay hundreds of pounds for, which you then may use only one copy of, and which comes out of a company whose internal culture you know nothing about; it may have a sexual harassment problem at least as bad as anything Stallman has been involved with, or a bullying problem, or it may pay its cleaners a pittance and employ them on zero-hours contracts.

One of the first and loudest voices advocating for Stallman’s dismissal and discredit works for Salesforce, a company accused of facilitating sex trafficking through one of its clients (a website called Backpage, closed by US federal officials in 2018); the lawsuit from women victims of this practice was dismissed yesterday on a technicality though the plaintiffs are appealing. I saw a tweet yesterday that read, “If someone would have told me in the 2000s that Bill Gates would be the hero and Richard Stallman would be the villain…..”, but Bill Gates’s foundation has announced that it is giving a humanitarian award (for sanitation improvements) to Narendra Modi, the Hindu chauvinist Indian prime minister, whose terms as both Gujarat state governor and prime minister have been marked by Hindu nationalist violence against religious minorities: a pogrom in Gujarat, lynchings of Muslims by “cow protection” vigilantes in the north-west, state atrocities in Kashmir, an ongoing campaign to expel Muslims from Assam. Gates’s association with this man makes Stallman’s defence of his friend look mild by comparison and he made his money peddling sub-standard, buggy closed software in the 90s and 2000s (his operating system had no major update for seven years); he helped water the swamp that Stallman operated in.

What does this mean for open source? My prediction is that the whole concept of “free software” will come to be seen as a dinosaur and that the circumlocutions the community uses to avoid offending Stallman and his dwindling group of supporters will be abandoned: we will see no more uses of “GNU/Linux” or “Free/Open Source Software”. It’s true that Stallman is not the only guilty party and there have been controversies about sexist behaviour and underrepresentation of women in other open-source projects, and some Linux events such as expos and conferences have been notable by a laddish culture which does not respond positively to criticism. People who object are often told to toughen up and not be so sensitive, even by women (as I saw in Linux Format after a previous sexism scandal). However, most of this behaviour has been verbal rather than physical. Open source has demonstrable advantages: it not only opens up important software to scrutiny of its source code, allowing the elimination of both bugs and backdoors, but also offers opportunity for developers to better their skills in their own time, to make improvements which, if accepted, become matters of public record, unlike in a closed software company, and just because some people find a community or project unwelcoming does not mean it should be closed down if it is doing good. To destroy all this because of the behaviour of a small number of unpleasant individuals would do everyone a disservice even if not everyone knows it.

Image source: Nick Allen. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 licence.

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Hamza Yusuf was not famous just for being White

17 September, 2019 - 22:07
Black and white picture of Hamza Yusuf, a middle-aged White man wearing a white turban on his head, with a white shirt with no tie, and a dark-coloured jacket over it. He is standing against a wall decorated with small tiles.Hamza Yusuf

In the aftermath of the Hamza Yusuf Syria controversy (see previous entry), a Medium post by Umar Lee, once a fixture on the Muslim blogging scene of the 2000s, has been circulated on social media with many claiming that it is a work of great insight or some such thing. The post has some useful observations on the state of the Muslim community in the USA and in particular the white convert element, but in regard to Hamza Yusuf it reflects the hostility towards him that we saw in his previous writings, including a piece ten years ago (on his old Muslim blog, most of it since deleted) on so-called Rand Institute Muslims of which he called Hamza Yusuf the most prominent. Lee claims in his article that Hamza Yusuf’s fame and status comes from his skin colour, which I dispute.

He claims:

Hamza Yusuf is in the position he’s in because he’s white and he is far from alone. In city after city there are white Muslims on the boards of mosques, occupying key roles within local CAIR chapters, and generally overrepresented in leadership roles. In nearly all of these instances there are better qualified Muslims of color to occupy these positions who’ve been passed over. While many people point to the (South Asian in particular) inferiority -complex in my estimation this overrepresentation is due to other factors. The first being that white Muslims, particularly those that haven’t changed their names, make for good PR props (particularly in the post-911 era where Muslims are obsessed with “reframing the narrative”). The second factor is that white Muslims also make for good props in the machiavellian schemes of Ikhwani political organizations and protests.

Hamza Yusuf converted in 1977 at a time when there were few white converts in America. I have met some from that era for sure including those handful that were in the Dar al Islam: but there’s no doubt a young Mark Hanson was a novelty. What followed was a well-funded and orchestrated rise by various benefactors who wanted to see his white face as the face of Islam in America.

I’m 42 years old, and converted to Islam in 1998, so I caught the tail end of the pre-9/11 era. Any Muslim who is a young adult now would have been born around the time I took the shahada; they would have no memory of the time before 9/11 and would have been around 10 years old or even younger when Barack Obama was elected. Hamza Yusuf being white helped, but it was not the only or even most significant reason why he was widely respected, why people would travel hundreds of miles to attend a conference headlined by him at a big convention centre, and why tapes of his speeches sold very well in Islamic shops in every English-speaking country. Indeed, there were other American preachers at this time, including some African-American ones, who were also very popular on the same circuit and whose tapes sold through the same shops, such as Abdullah Hakim Quick, Muhammad Sharif and Zaid Shakir. As I recall, people of every ethnicity listened to all the speakers; people gained inspiration from stories about Muslim achievements, personalities, reform movements etc everywhere, including Africa. People in the West were introduced to some of the major scholars in the Muslim world through encounters with these western scholars, which was part of their intention.

What made Hamza Yusuf popular, including in countries where being white was nothing like the asset in the Muslim community that it was in the USA, was the quality of his output. He offered a vigorous critique of the modern western media and educational systems and extolled the virtues of the classical Islamic education which was where all the major Islamic scholars learned what they knew, and attacked the modernist response which was to blame Islamic education for the conquest of the Muslim world. He also published books, including translations of classical texts which were of good quality and beautifully presented. Some might find his fondness for connection-drawing to be too close to conspiracy theory for comfort, but he did foster an interest in and a love of knowledge in Islam. In the UK, many young people were looking for an alternative to the very divided religious culture which had come over from South Asia which was heavily based on the Urdu language which many young people did not speak (especially if their parents did not do so either) as well as to the aggressive “Salafi da’wah” which dominated many university Islamic societies at that time. Contrary to Umar Lee’s claim that “it’s unreasonable to believe a converted Catholic from Michigan could advise Punjabi families better than a fellow Punjabi”, many Punjabis here (as well as other South Asians) looked to scholars like him for guidance in preference to scholars of their own background. What has come to be known as the neo-traditional movement filled those gaps. A lot of the intellectual heavy lifting in refuting the claims of the ‘salafis’ was done by Nuh Ha Mim Keller and Abdul-Hakim Murad, but Hamza Yusuf made the world of Islamic knowledge look exciting to many young people back then.

That does not mean he, or any of the others mentioned, is above criticism today, but many of those who criticised him for his remarks about Syria last week, or about other issues arising out of the Arab Spring, are people who would have been in those coach parties back in the 90s and early 2000s and did not go to just see any “white shaikh”, they went to see someone who inspired them and made the deen and religious knowledge accessible. He was not a nobody who was elevated to a prominence he did not deserve because of his colour, even if such people existed in the US Muslim scene (they certainly did not here); he was a scholar who earned his position through his teachings and his service to the community.

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How does any society build civil society?

12 September, 2019 - 22:32
Picture of Hamza Yusuf, a white man with a short, greying beard wearing a white shirt with a grey jacket over it and a red felt cap, with his right index finger raised. He is sitting on a beige sofa with cushions. Against the blue background is written "Samsun, Turkey".Hamza Yusuf

In 2016 the American imam, Hamza Yusuf, gave a lecture in Turkey which was a commentary on certain hadith including the famous hadith of intention (that actions are judged according to intention) in which he made some scathing remarks about the Syrian uprising and claiming that Syrians were now fleeing across the ocean in boats, begging non-Muslims to let them into their countries. He quotes a hadith that says “whoever humiliates a sultan, Allah will humiliate them” and then claimed that some Iraqis had regretted the overthrow of Saddam Hussain and had come to appreciate the wisdom of their being in those positions:

Because we’re not ready. We don’t have civil society. We can’t even wait in line for buses. And this is not because Muslims are inferior to non-Muslims; it’s just circumstances. We’ve been moribund for a long time, we’ve lost a lot of wisdoms that we had; we have terrible treatment of our women, we don’t raise our children properly, we have horrible school systems, we have widespread corruption; these are all the realities of the Muslim world … So how do we change this situation? It’s all there (in the book of hadith he is teaching from), but no; this is just quietism, this is what the Sufis say, just worry about yourself, don’t worry about anybody else.

The whole lecture can be found on YouTube here; the three-minute clip this quote features in starts from about 49:25.

This passage echoes the talking points of people who have supported the repressive regimes of the Muslim world throughout recent history, but also people who have been sceptical about any number of peoples who have been occupied or oppressed over time to rule themselves and run things like farms, industries, the education system and so on. It was thought, for example, that Poles would be unable to run the industries of Silesia which had been largely controlled by Germans until the Second World War (Poland received part of the region after World War I, and the whole of it after WW2), but they proved capable. A number of years ago, an American Arab Republican running an outfit called the “Free Muslims” (which still exists) claimed that the Muslims could not be trusted with democracy because they would invariably vote for Islamists; former president Mubarak of Egypt was reported as claiming his country was not ready for a full democracy yet. Many countries have, in fact, made transitions from dictatorship to democracy, in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, some very successfully, some less so.

It’s true that many Muslim countries lack civil society (which refers to public engagement with politics and public issues in the form of an open media, trade unions, chambers of commerce, pressure groups and so on). The reason is that the governments do not allow it. You cannot build civil society in a police state which demands to control everything. You may have the appearance of democracy, a media which criticises minor decisions or which covers things going on in other countries in great detail, and trade unions but the media is censored and the unions are under party control; it is impossible to organise independently and anyone who tries to faces arbitrary imprisonment under ‘emergency’ laws which have been kept in place for decades. These things can only happen when there is freedom and where people do not fear the consequences of talking about things that affect everyone, where walls don’t have ears and there aren’t spies and party thugs everywhere. These things have happened in other countries after the fall of dictatorships and they can happen in Arab countries as well. There is nothing inevitable about any of this; Arabs are quite literate, and many educated ones have relatives living in the free world so they know how these things work.

Much the same can be said of the situation of women’s rights: it’s difficult to build a movement for women’s rights in a country where nobody has any rights and where you cannot speak freely without fear. In this he is also appealing to stereotypes, as the Arab world is not alone in being a place where women are being oppressed; the truth is that this is going on everywhere to one degree or another. In his own country, it is next to impossible to get justice following rape unless the attacker is someone who is stigmatised on racial or class grounds, or both; misogyny is displayed openly by men aspiring to high office, without it injuring their prospects, while male politicians influenced by male religious leaders interfere with pregnant women’s medical treatment and threaten laws that would criminalise them in the event of a miscarriage (these types of laws already exist in parts of Latin America, with the result that many innocent women have been imprisoned).

Likewise, the education system is a product of the dictatorships, and while it is not geared to producing independent minds and in some places is heavily militarised, it produces doctors, engineers and other skilled professionals who are in demand the world over. Education systems in western countries are often pretty bad, particularly if you are poor, from an ethnic minority, or both.

I’m not going to go into criticisms of his remarks about the Syrian uprising, or engage in speculation about why it has so far not succeeded, except to say that it is actually not over and the Assad regime still does not have control over the whole country. There are territories outside his control and the ‘tide’ can still be turned. But to say that a dictatorship should not be overthrown precisely because of societal ills which are largely a product of that dictatorship is not the soundest of reasonings. These things have been overcome before and there is no reason why, in most countries where there has been oppression over a long period, they cannot be again.

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Stonehenge by-pass is vital

8 September, 2019 - 18:35
Stonehenge

As a truck driver I have regularly had to use the A303 which goes past Stonehenge, the prehistoric stone-circle monument in Wiltshire. In today’s Observer there is a piece by Tom Holland which claims that the proposed tunnel to bypass the monument would be a “grotesque act of vandalism”, a “desecration”, a “disaster … of such calamitous proportions that, should it ever come to term, future generations will rub their eyes in wonder that a Conservative government – a Conservative government – could ever have let it occur”. He claims that it has “become clear, from the evidence of government officials themselves, that the £2bn the Stonehenge tunnel will cost … is a monstrous waste of money” and that it will shave only 4.8 seconds per mile off an “average 100 mile journey”. I find all these claims somewhat dubious.

First, the inflated cost of the scheme comes from accommodating the need to preserve the stones and to improve the environment around them both for visitors and in general. A cheaper option would be simply to build an extra two-lane carriageway next to the A303, though this would not suffice as a bypass to Winterbourne Stoke or for relieving congestion at the A360 junction. The supposed need to keep the westbound view from the stones such that any new road would not mar the view of sunset or sunrise on the solstice days comes from a tiny minority, yet it has resulted in major media coverage and been presented as an obstacle to the scheme going ahead, requiring yet another redesign (with yet further inflated costs) or a complete scrapping of the scheme. A tunnel would mean ordinary visitors could enjoy the stones in greater peace and quiet than they can now, without the constant roar of traffic; Holland complains that this would reduce the monument to “the equivalent of an otherwise extinct creature in a zoo”, a complaint that does not seem to bother visitors to the Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey, where a main road that was choked with traffic because of the limitations of the landscape was removed to a tunnel that opened in 2011; visitors can now enjoy the park on both sides of the former A3.

Second, there are costs to both ordinary people and business for there to be a major bottleneck on an important thoroughfare such as the A303. The delays can in fact be much longer than a few seconds; the combination of the stones, the A360 junction and the village of Winterbourne Stoke, combined with any accident, can result in half-hour or longer delays. For truck drivers, who are timed and whose driving time is restricted by the law, this can sometimes mean the difference between getting back to base in time or having to spend the night in the cab, or having to call off deliveries; such delays result in fatigue and thus increase the accident risk further down the line. There are environmental costs to having large numbers of slow-moving or idling vehicles in a small area; diverting this traffic would result in cleaner air for those who stop to enjoy the stones.

There aren’t viable alternative routes for many journeys undertaken using that stretch of the A303. Travellers from London to Devon and Cornwall can use the M4 and M5, but this is a much longer journey and involves travelling through the Bristol urban area where there is often major congestion. This option is not available to people who started their journeys outside London, for example in the Aldershot area which is where the companies I worked for were based. There are numerous local and regional journeys that require the use of the A303; the old Andover to Warminster road (the A344) was diverted via the A303 many years ago and part of it removed to both speed up the A303 and improve the visitors’ experience. Truck drivers passing through Salisbury, including those from Southampton pulling the taller containers, face a low bridge on the A36 which requires a diversion via the A360. Some locals suggest that the A303 itself be rerouted via Salisbury; this would require an upgrade to the entire A30 from Micheldever, which despite appearing straight on the map is hilly, and then a tunnel to avoid despoiling the landscape around Old Sarum, north of Salisbury. Too much has been invested in the A303, which also serves Andover and Amesbury which both have major industries and distribution centres, to simply reroute it for the sake of Stonehenge.

Stonehenge has little cultural significance for many people. Until the early 20th century, there were contemporary buildings in the area around the stones, which were cleared away as a result of a public campaign in the late 1920s. Despite many decades of study, the significance of them to those who built them remain a mystery and a matter of speculation; the neopaganism which uses the stones in its ritual is a modern invention. It’s ridiculous to inflate the costs of a vital public works project to accommodate a religion of modern invention that has a tiny number of followers; this would not be considered if the obstacles were houses, shops, even churches, and many might feel that the landscapes around Salisbury are of greater beauty and value than the bareness of Stonehenge which dates back only to the late 1920s. Stonehenge will not be ruined but improved by this tunnel; it will be a win for almost everyone who either stops or passes through the area. It should not be delayed by silly romanticism and sentimentality.

Image source: Simon Kisner, from Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence.

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Time to put a stop to the 20mph zone fad

24 August, 2019 - 23:26
Speed limit sign, Belfast.

Over the past few years, a number of boroughs in London have imposed 20mph speed limits across most or all of the roads under their control (which in London is all except motorways and “red routes”, which are controlled by the Department for Transport and Transport for London respectively). The first were in inner London but the trend has been spreading out to the suburbs in the last few years. Ken Livingstone was a big fan of the idea but he was voted out in 2008, and normal speed limits (usually 30mph) remain on most of the roads controlled by the mayor’s office. The latest to introduce borough-wide 20mph limits is Richmond, which is the neighbouring borough to mine (Kingston). These roads include main roads (A- and B-roads) as well as minor roads, and the limits have no connection to road conditions or the presence of schools or large concentrations of shops although a few specific corridors have been exempted pending further research or consultation.

To begin with, I must say that I am not opposed to 20mph zones in residential streets or in limited zones as was the case with the zones originally. Some boroughs have expanded them more sensibly, such as Croydon which has imposed 20mph limits on all minor roads in the north of the borough and kept the limit at 30mph on A- and B-roads. Other boroughs, such as Lewisham, Lambeth and Camden, have imposed them on all borough roads. The ostensible reason for doing this is road safety (though for reasons I will come to, the wisdom of 20mph limits on such roads is questionable), but there was no great safety imperative on some of the roads concerned; they were main roads, in some cases dual carriageways, and a better way to ensure road safety would have been more pedestrian crossings or to enforce the existing limits. I am also in favour of reducing car speed limits on main roads with national speed limits to 50mph on single carriageways and 60mph on dual carriageways with two lanes, to bring them into line with HGV speed limits (which were increased in 2015) and to eliminate dangerous overtakes.

The urban area speed limit in this country is 30mph. It always has been; it’s generally accepted, partly thanks to a long-running public safety campaign to educate people that the limit is there for a reason. Grumbles about speed cameras have become rather more muted since they were painted bright yellow and their locations are featured on navigation units, though there are still a few that smack of money-making rather than safety. The presence of street lighting automatically indicates that the limit is 30mph unless there are signs that state otherwise, which is why 20mph zones are advertised with repeater signs. This is not the USA where different states have different speed limits and other laws; local authorities set speed limits but this is within guidelines. We now have a situation where speed limits change on main roads not because of a change in the road conditions but because of crossing an arbitrary boundary and because of the whims of local politicians. Quite simply, we have gone from “it’s 30 for a reason” to “because we say so”.

In the case of Richmond, although the zone excludes a few major roads, notably most of the A308 from Kingston Bridge to the Surrey boundary, it also includes a number of A-roads which are good, wide roads which do not have houses fronting them, such as sections of the A311 and A312 near Hampton. The A307 from Kew to Richmond is of better quality than the A205 which is part of the South Circular Road which retains a 30mph limit and has always been the major route from the A316 to the M4 because it avoids a low bridge on the South Circular. It is also part of the only road from Kingston to the M4 other than the more circuitous route via the M25. The A312 and A313 (through Teddington) are the only reasonable routes from Kingston to Feltham (a major industrial area), used by buses in the absence of a rail link; the B358 is the main road from Kingston to parts of Hounslow, Heston and Southall and part of it (Sixth Cross Road north of Teddington) until fairly recently had a 40mph limit and is a wide road and is in part dual carriageway. Apart from Queen’s Road in Teddington, the conditions in no way justify a 20mph limit and the council has never seen fit to introduce speed cameras in any of these places which suggests that they do not have high accident rates. The 20mph limit will include Thames Street, the part of the A308 through Hampton village; the council imposed a 20mph limit on that stretch for a while a few years ago and then lifted it. What is the sense in re-imposing a limit that was tried, and failed?

Richmond council claims that the policy brings the borough into line with neighbouring councils which have imposed 20mph limits. In fact, they have not. My borough, Kingston, has 20mph zones on a small number of roads around town centres and in selected residential areas; the main borough roads such as the A2043 to Worcester Park, the A308 to Roehampton, the A307 towards Richmond and most of the A240 to Tolworth have 30mph limits (part of the Kingston one-way system — sometimes called the Kingston Racetrack — now has a 20mph limit, namely the bit that has several pedestrian crossings in a short stretch which also has several blind bends). Wandsworth’s borough-wide 20mph limit, like Croydon’s, excludes A- and B-roads. Merton has imposed a 20mph limit in much of the east of the borough but not the west (e.g. Raynes Park), although this may be planned for the future. Hounslow’s 20mph limit policy is, again, for residential roads and areas around town centres only (even the A315 through Bedfont still has a 30mph limit). All this is a long way from a blanket 20mph limit.

However, the biggest problem with them is that they are generally ignored and flouted almost universally. People do slow down, but rarely to 20mph or less unless there is a police car or speed camera nearby. This is, I suspect, why the schemes attract little protest; people know that they can get away with breaking them and generally do. This is the reason why they do not offer the significant road safety improvements the local politicians claim they do; in fact, they may give a false sense of security to many pedestrians. In the cross-party letter from local politicians to residents, it is claimed that “according to Public Health Wales, a 20mph limit which reduces average speeds from 31mph to 19mph reduces harmful gasses by 32 per cent”, but if average speeds are actually reduced to about 25mph, emissions will not be reduced by that much. If there were widespread fines and points being given out, there would be a public debate, which there so far has not been, and there would be complaints. Ken Livingstone lost the 2008 mayoral election in large part because of the unpopular western extension to the Congestion Charge, which a consultation had found was unpopular but he brushed it aside, saying it was not a referendum.

Finally, in my opinion London boroughs should not have the final say in setting main road speed limits. They are too small and too parochial. It is not only local residents that use them but residents of neighbouring boroughs who need to travel to or through the borough concerned. They were built to link towns, as the names of some of them (e.g. Uxbridge Road in Hampton) suggest. Outside London, the responsibility for these roads lies with counties, whose councils have to balance the needs of everyone in the area rather than just the immediate neighbourhood, and even the new unitary authorities are often the size of a small county, with both urban and rural parts, rather than of a London borough. Richmond is also an odd shape, extending a long way east to west on both sides of the river (its two parts were not even in the same county before the 1960s), and it does not make much sense for residents of Barnes to get a say in speed limits in Hampton but people in Kingston, which is much nearer, being excluded. As we have no proper council for Greater London and the boroughs are the highest democratic local authority, they need to be reminded that main roads are not just for their residents but are public highways.

This fad for whole areas with 20mph limits regardless of road conditions in whole boroughs must be stopped. We live in a United Kingdom, not a federation which means there should be one law for everyone rather than the laws changing with every municipal boundary. A well-enforced 30mph limit is better for road safety than a generally ignored 20mph one, and road safety can be improved by other means, including pedestrian crossings, traffic calming and the blocking-off of rat-runs. It undermines years of efforts to persuade people that 30mph speed limits are there for a reason. It is not in response to public demand but is a project by local politicians (hence the cross-party support for the Richmond scheme); it may be intended to drive traffic off their roads onto those controlled by other authorities, i.e. central government or the mayor. We must get back to the principle that the speed limit on main roads in urban areas is 30mph and that speed limits vary according to road conditions, not arbitrary boundaries.

Image source: Albert Bridge, via Geograph Ireland. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

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Yes, we need our hands-free phones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equality feels like oppression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How the myth of ‘Eurabia’ went mainstream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brexit and how ignorance has become a ‘virtue’

12 August, 2019 - 21:04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What kind of violence is this again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reality check for BBC’s Brexit reality check

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yes, it can be done (borders and Brexit)

2 August, 2019 - 16:11

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s not self-doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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