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Yes, you do owe them an explanation (Muslims, race, politics and adab)

Indigo Jo Blogs - 23 January, 2019 - 23:38
A woman facing left in the picture, with her hand facing the camera, as if to say "talk to the hand". She has a wide silver ring on her finger.

Sister Noor from the blog Fig & Olive recently did a post about the issue of ‘adab’ or good manners as it relates to activism, and whether people are responsible for their own behaviour despite being oppressed. Noor has recently done a podcast about the issue of Muslims in activism and “woke culture” which you can find on SoundCloud (you can also subscribe to the podcast, called In the Days of Noor, through Apple’s podcast app); it features an interview with the imam Dawud Walid, who works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a well-known Muslim civil rights and anti-defamation campaign group. I commented that there was a tendency to assume that when an ‘oppressed’ person is talking to an ‘oppressor’, there is an ideology that dictates that they do not owe it to that person to show them any politeness or courtesy, and that if they demand it they are guilty of “tone policing”. This ideology does not differentiate between actual victims of oppression and members of generally oppressed groups, nor between actual oppressors and people who share common characteristics with them or who are not the victims of the discrimination at hand, and this doctrine is commonly used as an excuse for bad behaviour and has crept into Muslim circles.

In age where a lot of people, including Muslims, are connected through social media who rarely if ever meet in real life, some of us rather too easily use the block button to cut off contact with people who cause us minor annoyances, who disagree with us, or who criticise a group we belong to. Indeed social media makes it too easy to do this and for the most trivial of reasons. This is not always related to race or gender but often is. In the last year or so I’ve had two friendships cut off and been blocked by two others — all Muslims — for disagreeing with their views on matters to do with race or politics. Most recently, someone I had known for years (on and off since the early 2000s) blocked me without explanation; I suspect, in reaction to my last post about the attitudes of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters on social media. The earlier incident, although again there was no explanation, was probably because of my criticism of some Muslim race activists here. Similar things happened ten years ago (when a lot of friendships formed during the mid-2000s Muslim blogging era were breaking down for various reasons) with people I had known for years but stopped talking to me because of things I had said that they misinterpreted, and I was told “it’s nothing personal” and “I don’t owe you an explanation”. Sorry, but it is, and this is Islam and you do. Shunning someone — specifically refusing to return their salaam or otherwise communicate with them — without good reason (such as the communication being threats or harassment) is forbidden in Islam.

There are a number of beliefs which are in vogue in social activist circles to do with manners that have no place in Islam or in Muslim discourse. These include the idea, already mentioned, that members of an “oppressed class” do not owe an ‘oppressor’ courtesy or politeness; it is rather oppression itself to expect it. Another is that “the oppressed” are less responsible for their actions than “the oppressors” because they have less power; their behaviour, if it is offensive or harmful, is commonly put down to conditioning or things like “internalised misogyny”. Besides there being no basis in Islam for either of these doctrines, the second in particular is harmful to Muslims: it is what enables western feminists to justify bans on the hijab by claiming that nobody would wear it of their own accord but only because “their brothers force them” or “they are brainwashed/conditioned”. There are numerous Qur’anic ayaat and ahadith about the importance of good etiquette and behaviour and while there is praise for showing honour in the face of an arrogant person, there is no exemption for situations where there is a disagreement with a member of a more powerful class or tribe (these existed at the time of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) who has caused you petty annoyance and appeared presumptuous but not caused you any actual harm. Using foul speech in disagreements is noted in a hadith as a characteristic of a hypocrite.

We must not adopt ideological beliefs just because they are in fashion elsewhere. When confronted with such a belief, when we are told we must do this or not do that, or must accept this, or must or must not use this language or that, we must ask not only “why?” but also “is this from Allah and His Messenger, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam?”. If it tells you that you can show open disrespect to someone you were taught to respect (such as, for example, lecturing someone twice your age about a matter of opinion or a theory that not everyone accepts, in the manner of students during the Chinese Cultural Revolution), it is a trick of the Devil and an appeal to the ego.

As a Muslim community we must understand that we are under grave threat right now. We are going to need each other and we need to have each other’s backs. This does not mean we should not criticise racist attitudes among Muslims or organisations (such as schools) which tolerate them, but it does mean that we should not be expecting people who are not directly responsible to tolerate abuse and we should be aware of people who try to make a name for themselves by sowing or exaggerating racial divides. Likewise with Brexit: we know there are Muslims on both sides of the debate, Muslims who support Jeremy Corbyn and those who are critical of him, but there’s no reason to just junk a long-standing friendship because your friend was critical of Corbyn supporters. We need to keep ourselves calm and rational and not throw our toys out of the pram, so to speak, in response to a perceived insult that was not even aimed at us personally.

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The Corbynites and the ‘Spinsites’

Indigo Jo Blogs - 22 January, 2019 - 23:48
A mobile front page from The Canary, with the headline "Jeremy Hunt tries to look good on Yemen. But it totally backfires."An example of a spin article on the Canary: there is no evidence that Hunt’s effort “backfired”. The article just contains criticism of it.

Earlier today I had a conversation with a friend on Twitter who said that some people believe everything the Tory press spews out about the Labour party and its leadership. Both of us have similar views on Corbyn and Brexit, i.e. that Brexit is a bad thing and that Corbyn isn’t effective enough in opposing it. I observed that a lot of my left-wing friends on Twitter are just as addicted to and credulous to material on pro-Corbyn ‘spinsites’ such as Skwawkbox and The Canary as others are to the Tory press. I have known some of them since the early period of the Coalition austerity period when the grassroots or ‘netroots’ opposition came together to fight “the cuts”, as we called them, particularly to the disability benefit system, but a lot of them seem to have lost their sense of reason since. Quite simply, anything anyone says that is unflattering to Jeremy Corbyn must be a product of Tory propaganda or brainwashing.

Generally speaking I don’t follow links to those two sites anymore. Most of the content is basically pro-Corbyn spin. The links very often claim that a very dramatic revelation has happened or that Corbyn or an ally has ‘destroyed’ the government or a particular Tory policy. However, all that the story says is that someone has criticised it in Parliament. Very often the content is just an opinion or a particular interpretation of something that has been said, not a revelation at all. It reminds me of the times when Norman Lamont and later Ann Widdecombe, both cabinet ministers under John Major in the 1990s, made speeches that were much ballyhooed in the press as being enormously significant and revelatory, but when we heard them, they were just moans. This has become par for the course with links from pro-Corbyn Twitter accounts, usually with “#GTTO” (Get the Tories Out) in the tweeter’s name.

Corbynites often tell us that their messiah was not a lukewarm Remainer before the referendum and in fact campaigned enthusiastically, despite having been opposed to the EEC/EU since before he was an MP. Yet some of them boast on social media that in fact Labour respects the result of the referendum and is opposed to a second referendum. This was the boast made by “Damian from Brighton” earlier today who explained “the party has put forward an amendment to force the Tories to take no deal off the table because no deal could trigger a deep recession”. I responded that they could kiss the youth vote goodbye then as their strategy was obviously to go after the core vote up north. He responded:

I reminded him that they would have to win an election first. He reminded me of how Labour increased its share of the vote in 2017 (as usual, forgetting that they lost), signed off “thanks for your interest in the party”, and then blocked me. However, as a token of his commitment to rationality and objectivity, he posted this poll:

 "Damian from Brighton @damian_from, Jan 20. Which Brexit option do you prefer?" with the options "Labour Brexit", "Theresa May's Brexit" and "No deal". Next to the Vote button it reads: 3,934 votes, 5 days left.

You may have noticed which option is missing.

I don’t follow this guy. But one of the Corbynites I follow (and have been following since probably before Corbyn was elected, and certainly before Brexit became a big issue) retweeted him into my timeline which is how I saw this. However, Damian sounds a lot like a Tory with his boasting about “respecting the referendum result”; the referendum was 2½ years ago, and if there is no objection to another general election on the same grounds, there should be no objection to a further referendum now that facts are known that were not known in June 2016. General elections are legally now supposed to happen only once every five years; if Brexit goes ahead this March, with or (as now looks increasingly likely) without a deal, reversing it if necessary will take a lot longer than five years as there will be opposition to us rejoining quickly.

And there is a reason why some of us believe Brexit should not happen, regardless of the (narrow) victory in the 2016 referendum for leaving, which is that it will plunge the country into economic isolation which will be a disaster for the businesses that employ the majority of people; it will also narrow the horizons of Britain’s young people who will lose the right travel freely in Europe; it will hugely impact families in which either spouse is from another EU country, and it will make it extremely difficult to build new ones, as they will all be subject to the same onerous rules as have affected non-EU spouses since Theresa May’s days as home secretary. A depressed economy occasioned by no deal or a bad deal will make it a lot easier for today’s micro-factions and hooligan mini-armies of the Far Right to recruit new members, as I have previously explained. The complaints of Leave voters in traditional Labour constituencies can be addressed in other ways than leaving the European Union.

The Labour Party’s current appearance of success depends on its large membership and on attracting the votes of young people, particularly students. This vote will be dissipated if Labour contests a general election on a platform of “respecting the referendum”. History shows that Labour cannot win elections by appealing only to its core vote, and more than 48% of the electorate in any case should not be treated as an unrepresentative, out-of-touch elite — that’s a greater share of the popular vote than Thatcher or Blair ever got.

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“My parents say I’m ugly…”

Indigo Jo Blogs - 19 January, 2019 - 17:57
Picture of Annalisa Barbieri, a middle-aged white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a black V-neck top and a necklace with red beads on it.Annalisa Barbieri

There is a letter in the weekend section of today’s Guardian from a teenage girl to an advice columnist called Annalisa Barbieri, who answers a question each week about difficulties with family relations. This girl, who is 14 and does not live in the UK (she mentions this only in a comment below the line on the website) is being told by her parents that she is ugly and fat, that she makes their lives miserable and that they wish they had never had her. Her mother shows her pictures of actresses and tells her daughter that she should look like them. The columnist takes a supportive tone, telling her that just because her parents say it, it doesn’t make it true, that her parents must be unhappy about themselves and adolescence is a tough time and things will get better. This is a really inadequate response.

Barbieri does a fairly good job on educating the young girl about the issues surrounding body image and the developing adolescent brain; she tells her that when she was a similar age, she used to compare herself to models in pictures she cut out of magazines and was unaware of ‘Photoshopping’. However, it is not good enough to educate the girl; the parents need to be educated as well, not only about issues such as ‘Photoshopping’ and the enormous amount of professional help and the unhealthy diets and surgeries that some models and actresses use to achieve a ‘perfect’ figure but also that it’s completely unacceptable to talk to your child in this manner, especially over a prolonged period. In fact, it’s abuse, and the abuse might not stop at harsh words; it often does not. The girl should be being encouraged to talk to someone outside the family, such as a teacher, social worker or perhaps another relative that could make it clear to the parents that they cannot continue with this behaviour.

Letters to this column are usually abridged in the published version, so perhaps the writer told Barbieri that going to social services, or their equivalent, is not an option, perhaps because they would over-react or because there really are none to speak of. However, big-sisterly advice on fashion and reassurance that “it gets better” only goes so far when a child is being subjected to emotional abuse by the people who should love and care for her. She needs help, or the situation could get a lot worse before it gets better, if it ever does.

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Prayer mats on the caravan trail?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 18 January, 2019 - 23:03
A rectangular prayer mat in purple and turquoise, with an image of vases with branches coming out of them and of an ornament hanging from an arch at the far end. There are purple tassels at each end.

So says the most powerful man in the world, the self-styled Very Stable Genius, the president of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump.

The fact is this: Muslims do not go round leaving prayer mats in the desert. If we were travelling and we were carrying a prayer mat, we would be using it to pray on and we would need to use it again within a few hours, given that we are supposed to pray five times a day. Therefore it makes no sense to just leave it unless, say, it got unrecoverably dirty for some reason. And if you find one, it might be from an American citizen or resident, because there actually are several million Muslims already living in the United States, or maybe even one living in Mexico (you do get Mexican Muslims) who may or may not have been on his or her way to the USA.

On top of this, even if Muslims were making their way to the USA via Mexico (which is unlikely given that it’s a very big detour to get to the US via Mexico from the Middle East), they might just be, you know, looking for a better life, the same as everyone else making that trip, rather than coming to blow something up. With Americans massacring Americans every couple of weeks, they really should not be worrying that there is the odd Muslim coming across the Rio Grande.

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Lauren Cooper (Janis Revell)

Indigo Jo Blogs - 17 January, 2019 - 23:38
Janis Revell, a young white woman with long dark hair wearing a plaid shirt with a long necklace of pearls hanging from her neck, smiling as an older woman (her mother, Audrey Revell) spells something into her hand.

This morning it crossed my mind to Google the name of Janis Revell, a young lady who was deafblind who died an agonising death in a British hospital in 1999. As a teenager she had appeared on TV in 1984 after composing a musical tribute to princes William and Harry; at the time she had been blind for more than 10 years and was in the process of losing her hearing, so composing was increasingly difficult as she could not hear most of what she was playing. As an adult she wrote poetry and song lyrics and kept a website which detailed how she lived with her multiple impairments and her struggles with the Department of Social Security, as was (now DWP). Her mother, Audrey Revell, wrote a book about her life and how she died; published in October 2006, it is called Take My Hand and is still in print. Her death was, her mother believes, the result of a reaction to psychiatric medication she was given for depression in her last year or so; however, a coroner recorded a verdict of natural causes and the NHS ombudsman found against them also.

Reading Audrey Revell’s interview from 2006, I am struck by the similarities with the case of Oliver McGowan, a young man with mild learning difficulties and autism who also died in an NHS hospital as a result of a reaction to a psychiatric drug he was prescribed called olanzapine. Both Oliver and his mother had warned the doctors not to give it to him as he had had an adverse reaction in the past; they gave it to him anyway, and it caused a reaction called Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome (NMS) in which his temperature spiked and his brain swelled up such that it started coming out of the base of his skull. He had been taken to the hospital in October 2016 after suffering a seizure; while at the hospital, he became agitated because police officers stood around him and demanded answers to questions rather than one person talking to him at a time calmly. The coroner decided that the drug had been prescribed properly and the parents said they were very disappointed with the verdict, that the doctors had been arrogant and the coroner overly protective of them.

One of the drug involved in Lauren Cooper’s case was carbamazepine, sold as tegretol (among other brand names). She had first been prescribed this in 1983 when she was about 18 and it was thought to be a “wonder drug” for the treatment of epilepsy, which she did not have, but as she described, “my neurologist in Nottingham gave me the drug experimentally to see if it would benefit my symptoms of acute neuritis and involuntary muscle spasms in my arms”. It resulted in an acute deterioration in her hearing and also her sense of touch, such that she could no longer read Braille, and when her mother stopped her taking it, she suffered horrific withdrawal symptoms. Later on, she had a breakdown after the birth of her daughter, Holly, and was admitted to a psychiatric unit where her condition continued to deteriorate; staff there persisted in assuming that her symptoms stemmed from an attachment disorder and did not allow MRI scans when her parents, and Lauren herself, demanded them. She was left on the floor on the assumption that if her ‘behaviours’ were not indulged, she would snap out of them. Her condition continued to deteriorate, she was admitted to the intensive care unit of the hospital where she subsequently died.

Her writings were published on her website; the original site has since expired, but archived copies exist on the Wayback Machine. There is a set of videos on YouTube showing her interviews following the tribute to William and Harry. Ironically, one of her poems later attacked their mother for refusing to touch her hand when the two met in hospital. I wonder if Diana knew who she was or remembered the tribute.

It goes to show that the attitudes that may have brought about Lauren’s death, or at least made her final months an undignified misery, have not changed much in nearly 20 years. Today people talk of how a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or other psychological disorder commonly obscures physical symptoms and results in medical and other professionals treating someone as less believable or as a mere nuisance rather than a genuinely ill person. It seems that women are more prone to this kind of treatment than men, but where race or disability such as autism is a factor, men are prone to lethally neglectful treatment, to “death by indifference”; another notorious recent case is that of Kane Gorny, who died in St George’s hospital in south London when he was refused water, despite his notes clearly stating that his condition required it. As in so many other cases, nobody was prosecuted over it. It is rare for anyone to be held to account, to suffer severe consequences in their career or to lose their liberty, for the death of a disabled person in hospital, whether they are adult or child, male or female.

(If you were wondering why Lauren Cooper had two names, the answer is that Janis Lorraine Revell was her birth name. After losing her hearing, she changed her name to Lauren Jan because she could only hear the hissing sound of the final consonant in Janis. Cooper was her married surname.)

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About that Gillette ad …

Indigo Jo Blogs - 16 January, 2019 - 22:35

So, yesterday the razor manufacturer Gillette published an advertisement contrasting examples of harmful expressions of masculinity, such as fighting and sexual harassment, accompanied by fatalistic or enabling attitudes such as “boys will be boys” (and an entire line of men standing behind barbecues saying this in unison, no less) and a scene of a woman holding her son while a group of boys tear through their kitchen (strangely ignoring them), with more positive examples such as men intervening to stop said fights and protect boys from bullies and women from harassment. The ad attracted a fair amount of anger on social media with Piers Morgan, the former newspaper editor, now US talk show host, claiming that he had always bought Gillette’s products not because they were better than the competitors, which he says they are not, but because their advertising makes you “feel good about being male”, “make you aspire to be a winner and successful achiever, [and] also encourage you to be a good father, son, husband and friend”, but opines that the company has “cut its own throat” with these adverts: “there’s only one thing Gillette really wants to achieve with this new campaign, and that’s to emasculate the very men it has spent 30 years persuading to be masculine”. The BBC claimed that there was a boycott afoot, but used as its ‘source’ an individual on Twitter with, at the time, just 18 followers (the account has since been deleted).

The petty and exaggerated complaints from so-called Men’s Rights Activists aside, my problem with this campaign is that it makes the promotion of harmful ideas about masculinity solely men’s fault, and the only person shown protecting a boy from bullying in the first part of the film is a woman, presumably his mother. The truth is that women have a role in upholding these norms which is rarely discussed because of a prevailing ideology that states that women are victims, not agents, and they do not always protect their children when they are being bullied or threatened at school or anywhere else; quite often they tell them that what they are experiencing is just the way of the world or their fault for one reason or another (too weak, too mouthy, holding themselves the wrong way or giving out the wrong signals, for example). Many women like what they see as masculine men and do not care for ‘wimps’ (and do not their sons to be ‘wimps’ or “mummy’s boys” either); for all the feminists who rail against “male violence”, many women do not mind a bit of it as long as the victim is a man (or boy) who has annoyed them. I’ve encountered this personally, but a well-known incident was that of Kevin Tripp, who was killed by a man whose girlfriend called him after a dispute with another man over a place in a supermarket queue.

The idea that “boys will be boys” is related to the ‘science’ that dictates that girls’ and boys’ behaviours develop fundamentally differently from before birth, and women have been heavily involved in promoting this. Many of the popular books that promote this are written or co-written by women: Why Men Don’t Iron: The Fascinating and Unalterable Differences Between Men and Women by Anne and Bill Moir, Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Don’t Read Maps by Allan and Barbara Pease, The Female Brain and The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine. While it’s true that women have also written books refuting some of the pseudo-science behind this (notably Cordelia Fine), women also freely share this on social media. The mid-market tabloids which promote this kind of “common sense” conservative thinking, although edited by men, are written in, bought and read much by women. This pseudo-science dictates that girls’ and boys’ behaviour are dictated by their sex, their chromosomes, their hormones; they said that foolish feminists had tried to turn boys into something a bit more like girls in the 1970s by taking away their toy guns and failed miserably. It is not only stereotypes about boys and men which are considered to be ‘scientific’ facts; I have had women, one of them a police officer, tell me that they cannot read maps because they are female, as if the idea of learning to do so did not occur to them.

Of course, adults should intervene when a child is being bullied and of course, men should challenge their friends when they harass women, and I appreciate that there is only so much a mother or other woman in a boy’s life (aunt, older sister, female teacher or other professional) to reinforce ideas about positive manhood and masculinity. But in my observation, there are a lot of women who subscribe to and reinforce the bad ideas about masculinity and false, pseudo-scientific notions about men’s and women’s natures and very many women who will excuse or even encourage violence by men and boys. This advert does not address that; it places all the blame and responsibility on men, not all of whom are in a position to force men to change or “hold them accountable”.

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Review: Garmin Dezl 580

Indigo Jo Blogs - 13 January, 2019 - 21:17
A picture of a Garmin Dezl 580 satellite navigation (GPS) unit, showing an map of an American city with a list of two truck stops and a pizzeria on the right.Garmin Dezl 580

Last year I bought, and then returned, Garmin’s latest ‘flagship’ truck sat-nav, the Dezl 780. The reason I returned it was that a major feature which I used on a daily basis, the ability to make and receive calls using voice only, had been removed. I had used its predecessor, the Dezl 770, since 2015 and had been generally satisfied with it but other devices had enhanced the phone features, by allowing you to read messages from the unit, and this was looking a bit long in the tooth. The 780 had this feature (called “smart notifications”) as well as the ability to use the voice to search for postcodes, but the lack of voice dialling was, to my mind, a bizarre omission. After making enquiries to Garmin who told me the feature had been removed by design, I sent the unit back to Amazon and got a refund, and continued using the 770. However, as before I got the 770 I had been using a Dezl 560 for a couple of years, last October I decided to buy the 5in model, the Dezl 580 which I knew from seeing videos of it in operation did still have voice dialling. I have been generally satisfied with the performance of the unit.

As I have been using a 7in unit for three years, I feared that the smaller unit would be too small to use in an articulated lorry cab, where I had been using a free-standing friction mount which would stand on the tray that most truck cabs have. It is also possible to mount it to the windscreen, to a mounting plate which is fitted to some cabs, or to the ventilator (though I do not have a vent mount for the sat-nav; I use one for my phone and had one for the 560, although it broke). The 5in unit comes with both a suction mount for the windscreen as well as a screw-down mount; you can also get a sticky mount if you are going to be using a cab on a regular basis. Generally I have found that the size is in fact adequate and that the voice features make up for not always having the device within arm’s reach. While I do sometimes use the postcode voice search, this is not very reliable as any noise causes it not to be able to interpret what I said and the result is a long menu. However, as with the 770 and 780, it is very easy to add an exact location as a favourite and searching for this by voice is fairly reliable.

There are a few disadvantages to the smaller size. I find that the audio is not as loud as it could be, especially when using the phone (it does affect the audio directions but, of course, being a sat-nav it provides visual directions too). When offering routes it offers at most two routes while the 7in versions offered three; this could be achieved on this unit by allowing the user to scroll up the right-hand menu column. The maps on the screen are often less clear than on the 7in and I find that traffic is not as reliable as on the previous model. I generally check the traffic on Google Maps before I set out because it sometimes does not detect major problems that are being reported on the traffic news. It has the same problem as the 770 of getting the locations of long-term roadworks wrong; the roadworks on the A5 at Towcester recently, for example, were shown as closing the roundabout with the A43 (and therefore the A43 itself), resulting in that not being used in routes, but in fact the roundabout and road were unaffected and the closure began about half a mile south.

Another new feature in the 580 and 780 is updates through wifi. I prefer to use the Garmin Express app on my computer, however, as map updates are gigabytes large and can take some time; if the battery is not fully charged, it could run down during that time, though software updates are always small enough to do over wifi. It’s a useful feature for people who don’t have access to a proper computer but only a tablet or phone, but make sure you keep the unit plugged into the mains while doing a map update. There are a lot of features on this I do not use, such as the integration with FourSquare. There are some downright annoyances, such as the driving timer which is enabled as standard; British trucks, unlike most in the USA where drivers still use logbooks, have tachographs which time you and display the time on a screen, making this unnecessary and inaccurate (it often tells me I am due for a break after I have had one) and informing me of services, toilets and so on up ahead. If you want to get texts on the unit, you will need to install the “Smartphone Link” app on your phone (iPhone or Android) and it will insist on reading the messages to you if you are moving rather than letting you read them, which makes sense. You can set it to show you texts, WhatsApp messages and even emails; I’d recommend not including the last if you get a lot of spam or mailing list mail or you will be getting notifications all the time.

All in all I’m quite satisfied with this unit; it does most of what I want and was affordable by the standards of these devices (currently £323 on Amazon). I’d have been willing to pay the extra for a 7in unit because the screen size is an advantage, but Garmin needs to offer a 7in version of this and consign the features it added to the 780 to a fleet model, as TomTom does with its telematics devices. As for why I’ve not switched to TomTom, the review of their current flagship (see link in my first paragraph) explains it. If they sort out their user interface problems I might just consider it.

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Remainers, the “elite” and Corbyn

Indigo Jo Blogs - 12 January, 2019 - 23:40
 Leave Means Leave". On the right-hand side the text reads "Stop the Brexit betrayal".

I’m a remainer. So why do I feel more and more sympathy for leave voters? by Joseph Harker (the Guardian)

This piece, published today on the Guardian’s website (probably for the Observer tomorrow), reiterates a series of Brexiteer stereotypes about remainers (despite the author being one): that they are a “metropolitan elite”, that their concerns are centred on London and the surrounding area, that they have “little or no interest in northern and working-class people” and are particularly contemptuous of northerners who voted to leave, calling them “stupid northerners”, over-emphasising the risk to the economy despite these people being worst affected by the Thatcher economic reforms and never having recovered from the 2008 crash. He also accuses Remainers of failing to understand Corbyn’s strategy over Brexit; that he ran in the 2017 election on a “soft Brexit” platform and, against predictions, gained 3.5 million extra Labour voters. He fails to take two things into account: one, that that election was nearly two years ago and two, that he lost.

Harker says that he has increasing sympathy with Leave voters:

Not to the Boris Johnsons and Jacob Rees-Moggs, of course, nor to the middle-class little-Englanders across the Tory shires – nor either to the thuggish nationalist bigots of the far right: but to the millions of ordinary working-class voters who saw leaving the EU as a way to improve their lives and finally have their voices heard.

The thing is that the Brexit vote was a coalition of these different groups; some of whom had legitimate economic grievances and some of which are, at best, middle-class Little Englanders. If people have legitimate economic grievances (which are about things which coincided with Britain’s membership of the EEC, as was, but are not caused by that), it stands to reason that these may be addressed through such things as investment in infrastructure which has been neglected in the north for decades. This is why polls last year suggested that the areas where the Leave vote had hardened were in provincial Tory seats, not in ex-industrial Labour seats. It may also be why in the recent rallies for the group “Leave Means Leave”, most of the attendees were middle-aged and middle-class, even in places like Bolton where you might have expected a substantial working-class turnout. Despite the often-referenced diversity of the Leave vote, 43 of the 44 prominent supporters featured on LML’s website are white men; 25 of the 26 MPs it claims as supporters are either Tories or DUP (a suspended Labour MP is the other).

As for the 2017 election:

They forget that in the general election of 2017, less than two years after becoming leader, he gained 3.5 million extra Labour votes (and 1.5 million more than David Cameron had for his majority government in 2015). Corbyn did this backing a soft Brexit. And he did this when there was a clear remain option on the ballot paper – in the form of the Lib Dems, whose vote bombed. Much as the Labour membership is clearly pro-EU, Corbyn’s stance helped Labour in large parts of the country beyond the south-east – it held on to all three seats in Hull, a city that voted 68% leave. He correctly judged that, above all, people wanted to be listened to, and for the misery of austerity to end.

But that was nearly two years ago. A ‘soft Brexit’ is no longer on the table: it depends on our joining EFTA (which we were in prior to joining the EEC) so as to remain in the European Economic Area. This would mean a minimal increase in autonomy but that we remain subject to all EU regulations but without representation in the bodies that set them. Furthermore, the Norwegian government has indicated that they are opposed to our joining EFTA. The Liberal Democrats did not make much headway (though they increased their share of seats) for many reasons besides a voter rejection of Brexit: they were still tainted by association with the former coalition; their leader, Mark Farron, came under hostile scrutiny as soon as the election was called for his views on homosexuality. They were a third party which in many areas had never held seats and people did not vote for them because they did not believe they would because parties do not go from 10% to 40% in two years; in many seats they were challenged by an anti-Brexit Tory or Labour candidate or, in Wales and Scotland, a nationalist.

And when we talk about Corbyn’s popularity in 2017, we need to remember that he and Labour lost. Yes, the Tories lost their majority and Labour increased their vote share by nearly 10%, securing 40% of the vote, but they still won fewer votes than the Tories who, although they lost seats, increased their share of the vote by 5.5% and dramatically increased their base in Scotland. Labour did not win back any of the seats which had seemed secure in Scotland when Labour were last in office but were lost to the SNP under Ed Miliband’s leadership. But even though they did not suffer the dramatic defeat that some were predicting and won a few seats unexpectedly (e.g. Canterbury), they still lost.

Labour will not win another election by concentrating on its core vote; this has always been a losing strategy. If it tries to appeal to them by running on a pro-Brexit ticket, it will lose the youth vote everywhere else, including the student vote that accounts for its victories in places like Canterbury, and the likely victors will be the Tories because many of those people will just not vote because they do not see anyone to vote for. Labour built its vote back up from the late 1980s and won the 1997 election by developing its appeal to voters outside its usual base; it had the luxury of being able to count on those voters, but now that UKIP and the BNP have been gutted with UKIP having produced no politicians of any repute and its only big name having left the party, the danger to the Labour vote in these areas has receded somewhat. This does not mean they should assume the working class has nowhere to go, like Peter Mandelson notoriously did, but Labour should not appeal to that one sentiment because it is not universally shared even in those places and will cost them votes elsewhere.

Labour Centrists often infuriate with their harking back to 1997, harping on the virtues of power and forgetting that 1997 was 22 years ago and that first time voters were not born then and that people turning 30 were eight years old and will have only sketchy memories of it. I agree that Labour’s policies in office laid the grounds for today’s crisis and that in the two years since, those things have not been addressed. However, it is now January 2019; we are two months and two weeks from the cut-off date. Sadly we do not have the time to address them now. If the May deal is not approved (and there is every suggestion that it will not be) and a snap general election is called, the new government will not have time to conduct meaningful negotiations with the remaining EU states in the few weeks between taking office and the cut-off date. There can be no re-run of 2017 or 1997; Labour cannot dismiss anti-Brexit voters with stereotypes of an elite or a “Beltway mentality”. They had better hope that the Prime Minister does what her repeated talk of a “threat to Brexit” suggests she will, and withdraw Article 50 unilaterally. This will buy them some more time to work out an appeal to both of the sets of voters they need to win an election. But that time will not last forever.

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Foreigners, foreigners and more foreigners

Indigo Jo Blogs - 11 January, 2019 - 22:25
David Lammy on Brexit:
‘be angry at the chancers who sold you a lie’

One of my biggest complaints about Remainers is that, when discussing the issue of the end of free movement between Britain and the EU, instead of emphasising the benefits to Britain and British people both of free movement for ourselves and of the contribution European workers make, they try to deflect the discussion by contrasting European immigration with immigration from elsewhere. The most prominent example was Tony Blair who, in a speech in February 2007, contrasted beneficial immigration from the EU from immigration where “different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue”. He opined that this was the sort of immigration people really care about (because this is what certain members of the chattering classes agitated about in the early 2000s). So, imagine my disappointment when none other than David Lammy appealed to the same sentiment in the Commons in a video published by Channel 4 yesterday, informing anyone who voted for Brexit to stem immigration that it would do the opposite:

Most MPs must now recognise it in private but do not say it in public. Brexit is a con, a trick, a swindle, a fraud, a deception that will hurt most of those people it promised to help, a dangerous fantasy that will make every problem it claimed to solve worse. A campaign won on false promises and lies. Vote Leave and Leave.EU both broke the law. Russian interference is beyond reasonable doubt and by now, every single campaign promise made in 2016 has become unstuck. Brexit will not enrich our NHS; it will impoverish it. Our trade deal with Donald Trump will see the US corporations privatise and dismantle the NHS one bed at a time. And even those promises on immigration, which has so greatly enriched our country, are a lie. After Brexit, immigration will go up, not down. When we enter into negotiations with countries like India and China, they will ask for three things: visas, visas and more visas, and they will get them because we will be weak.

It’s depressing, to say the least, to see a progressive Labour MP appeal to people who think their jobs are all going to (white) eastern Europeans and/or don’t want them here by telling them that their country is going to be flooded with dark-skinned Indians and Chinese instead. It has become notoriously difficult to get a British visa in recent years with people applying to come here to speak at conferences, attend weddings, receive vital medical treatment or play at festivals being refused for utterly spurious reasons, as well as those fleeing persecution. This pre-dates the Cameron/May “hostile environment” but certainly got worse during that period. These things too impoverish our country and are causing conference organisers to consider venues in more welcoming societies. Demands for a more liberal visa regime might be one of the consequences of Brexit but they have strong justifications and should not be used for coded appeals to racism, especially at a time when some people really do see the effect, or even the intention, of allowing unrestricted European immigration as keeping people like them out.

Image source: Chris McAndrew - Gallery: https://beta.parliament.uk/media/UJk7Zwtg, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 3.0) licence.

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Let’s not be intimidated by Brexiteer thugs

Indigo Jo Blogs - 8 January, 2019 - 16:15

A graphic with the slogan "There are only two genders", with 'female' attached to a white woman and 'male' to a Black woman who is very recognisably female.Yesterday we saw a group of thugs in yellow vests, clearly acting in imitation of the fuel protesters in France, intimidate the political writer Owen Jones, the journalist Dawn Foster (who wrote about the incident here) and the anti-Brexit Tory MP Anna Soubry in public. Clips on Twitter and YouTube show gangs of men chanting things like “two liars on Sky News” and “Soubry is a Nazi” as she tried to give an interview outside somewhere near Parliament Square, one of them tell a Black policeman that he is not British and another call a Black man who tried to follow Soubry ‘Lammy’, assuming he was the Labour MP David Lammy (who later tweeted “I wonder what it is that confused them”). Their leader is one James Goddard, who is an EDL sympathiser although he claims he has never been a member (although you may not need to be a member as such to join their demonstrations and shout their slogans), and has shared images that are obviously racist, such as the one in the graphic attached to this article, tweeted from his account on 3rd November last year (significant as the EDL has always denied being racist). We have had people suggest that this intimidation is only a taste of what is to come if there is another referendum or the Brexiteers’ demands are otherwise not met. This is not an assumption we should fall into.

Just to be clear, the “yellow vest” demonstrations in the UK have been tiny as every video of them demonstrates, including the one in Parliament Square yesterday. It has been claimed that they wear “high-vis” vests because they are normally a “low-vis” people ignored by the political classes. Nonsense. There would be no way of recreating the French protests, partly because the same discontent over fuel prices (particularly away from the cities in places where there is poor public transport) does not exist here, where fuel prices remain low compared to most of last year and partly because the majority of people do not have one here; in France each passenger in any car has to have a vest available in case of, say, a motorway breakdown. I have seen people referred to the group responsible for the harassment as a ‘mob’; there are not enough of them to justify that word. ‘Gang’ is more appropriate. So while it is highly likely that this group would attempt to step up its violence in the event of Brexit being stalled, it could be easily contained because there would be few recruits if most people still had jobs and did not have time to go running round the streets causing trouble. If, on the other hand, the economy sinks after a no-deal or bad-deal Brexit and lots of people are out of work, these thugs will have an easier job recruiting, particularly in the wake of something like a terrorist attack, because there will be more people with free time on their hands looking for someone to blame.

There are people exaggerating the situation and others rather disgracefully making excuses for the violence yesterday; some of them are on the Left and comparing the abuse to disparaging words said about Jeremy Corbyn or some of his front bench (e.g. Soubry calling John McDonnell a “nasty piece of work”, which really does not compare with physically intimidating people in the street and making threats of violence) and some claiming that their anti-Brexit stance makes violence against them inevitable or to be expected — notably Tim Montgomerie, founder of Conservative Home, and Brendan O’Neill. If we really were under the thumb of some sort of autocratic EU superstate and people were actually suffering rather than being mildly irritated by periodic stories about rules on the shape of cucumbers, perhaps these sentiments would have some justification, but these are a small group of racist thugs who threaten people who disagree with them and let us not forget that an MP was murdered while walking in a public place only two years ago by a far-right gunman. It only would have taken one of yesterday’s goons to have packed a knife and either Soubry or Foster could have been killed.

Equally ridiculously, yesterday Emily Thornberry accused the People’s Vote campaign of thinking “that their purpose is to slap the Labour Party around” and that “instead of spending their time trying to change people’s minds, they spend their time smacking the Labour Party around the head”. Nobody has been slapping anyone around in the Labour party and nobody is advocating violence of any sort; people are in a panic because the country gets closer to the deadline day by day and the Labour leadership is showing no real leadership on the matter, leaving many to suspect that their real aim is to allow a hard Brexit to happen so as to reap the result of the chaos that might ensue (as an acquaintance in the autism advocacy scene mentioned earlier today, “when a trade union goes on strike, members vote to strike but they also vote on whether or not to accept the final deal. You’d hope [the Labour party] would understand that principle”). There is simply sustained criticism and a few harsh words, that is all. It’s a bit distasteful to use this kind of language (or to amplify it on Twitter) while people are actually being threatened with violence by gangs of young men on the streets of London. Let’s not pretend that there is a “febrile atmosphere” as Matthew Goodwin did earlier today. There is a small group of thugs trying to cause trouble. That is all. We would be committing a huge folly by giving in to their intimidation.

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Do we need “a debate on mental health”?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 7 January, 2019 - 20:50

TA picture of Stephanie Bincliffe, a young, very overweight white woman wearing a green T-shirt and a pair of shorts, sitting against a wall decorated in many colours with some cuddly toys sitting on the floor next to her.his is a claim I have seen being made in the media on a fairly regular basis. Usually it’s about general mental health issues, and often includes a strong element of blame towards those who are unwell, along such lines as “men keep killing themselves because they won’t talk about their feelings!”. In my opinion we do not really need a debate about mental health generally. We need a debate about mental health care, mental health funding and mental health law. And we need change, because the system is failing and people are dying.

There are too many people ending up in the mental health inpatient system when they do not need to be, or would not have needed to be if they had received support earlier, when they or their family (in the case of children) first asked for help. There are people trapped in completely unsuitable units. There are whole units who are taking patients that are completely unsuitable, or not making sure they are suitable and understand their needs. There are private units which take public money to provide completely inadequate care and do not hire sufficient staff to keep people safe and make sure the experience is therapeutic and not traumatic. And worst, there are laws which allow people to be forcibly detained in places which make no attempt to address their needs and which do not force clinicians or their staff to learn how to address those needs.

Part of the problem, as already amply discussed here and elsewhere, is that the social care system has been starved of funds and this means that local authorities do not want to have a pay for day-to-day care for someone with autism and a learning disability; they would prefer that the NHS pays and this means they remain in hospital. When people do get released, all too often their care breaks down after a few months for reasons of money or poor training, meaning they are returned to hospital which is often miles away. There have even been cases of a local authority vetoing a care package for an autistic person who would have been returned home to their area because they needed “specialised” care, which resulted in the person remaining in hospital.

However, it is not only at local authority level that there are problems with funding. The NHS has come to rely on private hospital chains to provide mental health care; many local NHS hospitals have been closed because it is more “cost-effective” to sell the building than refurbish it. In every town you see boarded-up NHS buildings. Of course, the old out-of-town Victorian asylums were outdated needed to be closed, but the closures have continued apace long after they were mostly closed. In Hull, a good adolescent inpatient unit was closed because NHS England demanded that five-day inpatient units had to convert to seven-day care or close. The result was that there was no inpatient care for adolescents in Hull, resulting in their having to travel out of area to places like Manchester. In some rural areas there is no adolescent inpatient care and there never has been — with the same result, with patients from Cornwall being transported all the way to Kent and Essex, more than 200 miles away. The upshot has been that people are denied important family time and home leave: one patient spent Christmas with family for the first time since 2013 last year.

Cases of people being denied normal human dignity in the name of ‘protection’ abound; often this is exacerbated by failure to recruit enough staff. Only this past week a lady told me that her autistic daughter had had a meltdown in a private unit (70-something miles from home), to which she had been admitted informally last year (with the promise that it would only be for four weeks; five months later, she was sectioned and they are looking to transfer her elsewhere) and she was told that it “came out of nowhere”. In fact the reason was that she was unable to have a bath because she was not allowed to bathe alone because of self-harm risks but there was only a male staff member to supervise her. (On another recent occasion, over Christmas, she had to wait two hours for the bathroom to be unlocked in the morning so she could use the toilet; this is not an isolated case.) Women and girls are particularly at risk from such displays of disregard to their dignity; cases of girls not being allowed sanitary protection while in anti-rip clothing (again, to prevent self-harm) have been recorded in at least two units that I am aware of (see previous entry for the less obvious reasons why this is harmful).

As you may have guessed, I am talking principally about autistic people here. Two particular groups are particularly badly served: one being adolescents, particularly girls, with mental health problems stemming from the pressures of school and undiagnosed autism (the presentation formerly known as Asperger’s syndrome) and the other being people of both sexes with a learning disability who suffer a crisis, often prompted by the certainties of school coming to an end and having to adjust to the changes that come with that. Neither the mainstream nor the learning disability mental health system are equipped to deal with the challenges of autism, despite nearly nine years of high-profile campaigning since about 2009: the Steven Neary case, the Winterbourne View scandal, the deaths of Connor Sparrowhawk, Stephanie Bincliffe and others. Stories abound of staff simply displaying no understanding, of low-level staff such as healthcare assistants or other patients knowing more about it and understanding it better than consultants or senior nurses.

Some of the changes that are badly needed are:

We need separate units for autistic people, but all mental health nurses and psychiatrists need comprehensive education on autism, both in conjunction with learning disability and otherwise, as part of their training. They need to be able to recognise “challenging behaviour” as communication so that they can minimise the situations that lead to it and respond appropriately rather than punitively or with aggressive and violent restraint. The need for specialist autistic units arises, particularly for adolescents, because autistic girls in particular tend to copy behaviours of other girls and if they see others injuring themselves, they are liable to adopt the methods they see them using. It happens often.

There should be no blanket policies banning such things as mobile phones and internet access. This is often justified on grounds of patient and staff confidentiality. Adult acute wards have relaxed this policy over recent years but it still remains on many adolescent wards and in secure units which hold both sectioned and forensic patients. While there is sometimes good reason to separate someone from their online ‘life’ for the sake of their own mental health (e.g. to stop them communicating with people who would bully them or accessing “pro-ana” and other harmful websites), it should never be a blanket policy. As an anonymous parent said on Twitter today, “no child should be left with nothing but self-harm to pass the time”. Units should not be allowed to hold both section 3 and forensic patients so that the lives of sectioned patients is not unduly constrained.

All private providers of mental health care, if they are to start or continue being contracted by the NHS, need to account for how they spend money. They need to be able to guarantee that they can provide adequate permanent staff at all times including at weekends and during holiday seasons, where there are multiple public holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and staff must be impressed upon that they will have to work at these times because just as their personal care needs do not stop that day, neither does any disabled person’s or hospital patient’s. This applies to both companies and individual units: if they cannot recruit sufficient staff to work in a particular location, the unit does not open. If staffing problems continue for an extended period, the unit closes. No unit can be dependent on agency staff who are not regular enough to be trained to deal with a patient’s specific needs; no patient should face days of lock-up or be expected to tolerate ‘visits’ through a hatch because only agency staff are available.

The sectioning rules need to be tightened up so that it is more difficult to detain a patient after they have admitted themselves voluntarily. There must be a period after a doctor has decided to section whereby the approved mental health professional (AHMP) can familiarise themselves with the particular patient’s needs. This would mean there is no jump to section 3; an automatic three-day hold should become the norm. No patient should be allowed to be transferred without their consent in a certain period after being sectioned; this is to safeguard against someone being sectioned on a pretext to allow transfer. There must be an automatic tribunal with the patient or their family allowed to contest the reason for them being sectioned to identify, for example, if the incidents that led to it were prompted by the conditions of the unit or the behaviour of the staff or other patients rather than an actual deterioration in their mental health. And while an appeal is ongoing, a section should not be renewable and no transfers should take place without consent.

So, I fear that any public ‘debate’ about mental health would distract from the very real problems affecting people who need mental health care, inpatient care in particular, in this country. We have become too dependent on a small number of foreign-owned, profit-making companies and a smaller number of charities who seem to charge a lot of money but provide appalling care resulting in people often getting worse, learning new ways to harm themselves and emerging with fresh traumas that were not there when they went in. We need not only corporate and professional culture to change but also laws, so that disabled people are protected from neglect and abuse.

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No injustice

Indigo Jo Blogs - 5 January, 2019 - 22:10

Picture of a village sign showing a church and a man pushing a loaded barrow across grass in front of it; the sign stands on a pole amid a flowerbed surrounded by benches and a roadsign facing the other way. There is a parade of shops across the road which stretches from a corner behind the sign, including a florist with flowers displayed outside at the shop on the corner.In 2011 Sally Challen was jailed for life for murdering her husband, Richard Challen, at his home (and formerly their marital home) in Claygate, Surrey (which is down the road from where I live). She killed him by attacking him with a hammer from behind; she then drove to a nearby multi-storey car park intending to jump from the roof but when she found it closed, drove to Beachy Head in Sussex, a notorious suicide spot, but was talked down and then arrested. She is now appealing her conviction with the help of the same group of lawyers and feminist campaigners that have tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to get a number of other women out of jail having killed abusive or violent husbands from the early 1990s. Yet the description of the murder does not fit the pattern of the sort of killing which would merit a defence of diminished responsibility or provocation, even cumulative provocation. It sounds like a straightforward premeditated murder.

There is no doubt that Richard Challen was abusive to Sally and that the abuse was characterised by “coercive control”, i.e. unreasonably dictating what a partner (usually a wife or girlfriend) might wear, whom the might talk to, etc., and persistently checking on them or spying on them. Their sons say that he used prostitutes, imposed rules on her such that she have no friends of her own or talk to others in his presence, and criticised her constantly about her weight and appearance. After Sally Challen left her husband in November 2009, her sons tried to persuade her not to have anything more to do with their father but she returned, armed with a hammer, the following August, supposedly to try to patch things up. Richard planned to try to get her to agree to some conditions, such as reducing her rights to their home, that she not interrupt him or talk to other people when they were in restaurants. As the home was empty, he sent her to a nearby shop to get food; on return, suspecting an ulterior motive, she picked up his phone and dialled the last number on his phone, which was answered by a woman. She then cooked food for him, and as he sat with his back to her to eat it, she attacked him several times with the hammer, killing him.

Two important things to notice here: one is that she was living apart from her husband, and was not forced to go back to the house, and the other is that she took a hammer, which may have meant she anticipated violence from him or maybe that she intended to use it herself. Going equipped with an implement such as a hammer in public with no intention to use it other than as a weapon is a crime in itself. In previous cases involving abused wives, the woman killed the husband after a provocation that seemed trivial in itself (e.g. casually informing her that he had another woman, as with Emma Humphreys) but not so in the context of years of abuse, or was still in the relationship and still feared violence or was actively traumatised when she carried out the killing; in others, the killing took place during an argument in which the husband threatened the wife (e.g. that of Donna Tinker in 2000). None of these things were the case here. She had been away from him for several months, could have stayed away, was under no threat, and attacked him from behind without provocation. She was angry with him, but there is such a thing as a proportional reaction and learning of someone’s infidelity stopped being a defence for murder in 2008 after campaigns from the same feminists who want to see Sally Challen released. They called it the “nagging and shagging defence”.

It’s good that the law was changed to reflect the realities of living with a persistently violent partner and the psychological effects of it, but the victim having been abusive is not a defence on its own. Whether or not Richard Challen was a nice guy, his wife had no right to kill him and, in the absence of a strong evidence of mental illness, premeditation still makes a killing a murder (though of course, those rules can be bent too, as in the Tania Clarence triple murder case). Basically, “he was scum” never was, and is not, a defence for murder and it should not become one.

Image source: Motmit, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.

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Where in Europe is the best place to be Muslim?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 3 January, 2019 - 14:50

Recently a graphic has been doing the rounds on Muslim Twitter: a map compiled by the Pew Research Foundation, showing the results of a poll conducted throughout Europe asking people various questions about their tolerance and acceptance of people of other cultures and religions. This particular map showed the results of the question of whether the respondents would be willing to accept Muslims as members of their families. The results vary widely, with very high (above 80%) figures in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, between 60% and 80% in much of western Europe, dipping to around 50% across most of central Europe, to less than 40% in most of eastern Europe. What has been remarked on is that the figure for the UK is only 53% which is the lowest in western Europe except for Italy (43%) and this has had some Muslims commenting that it is mistaken to regard the UK as more tolerant than elsewhere in Europe. A summary with a link to the full report (PDF) can be found here.

There are a number of answers to these claims. One is that, as with almost any opinion poll, the number of people asked is tiny and any techniques used to ensure an even or representative sample further result in tiny samples from populations which are themselves huge. The same was true, for example, of a poll of Muslims that led to an entire documentary a couple of years ago, What British Muslims Really Think, presented by Trevor MacDonald: only 1,081 people were asked, 405 of them in London and only 56 in the East Midlands which includes several large Muslim populations. If they had done, say, two large surveys in two cities (say, London and Leicester), it would have been greatly more representative. In this case, just under 56,000 adults were surveyed in 34 countries; that is the population of one medium-sized town, which if you divide it by 34 means an average of 1,647 people interviewed per country (of course, the survey sizes would have differed from country to country depending on size).

As for what the result means, I suspect that people’s view of what is or is not a Muslim may influence the outcome of this survey. In the UK, religious Muslims are very visible and Muslim immigration tended to be from countries where religious freedom for Muslims has not been suppressed in either the colonial or post-colonial eras. People in British India still wore the shalwar-kameez and the sari at the end of the colonial era and they still do, while traditional forms of dress in much of the Middle East outside the Gulf region have given way to western forms of dress. Traditional approaches to Islam and independently-run religious schools are still the norm in India and Pakistan while in much of North Africa, religious teaching has been co-opted by the governments and in some places the practice of Islam has been monitored and even suppressed for extended periods. Hence, in Britain, Islam is associated with beards, hijabs and praying five times a day while in Europe it could be seen more as an ethnic identity, which is why a British person might think having a Muslim family member might be more difficult than a French person would. If you specified a practising Muslim to a French respondent, the answer might be different.

The biggest problem with the statistic, though, is that it is not just attitudes that make one country a better place for Muslims to live than another; it is laws and politics. Much of Europe has the Far Right receiving a double-figure percentage of the vote at general elections on a regular basis; Britain does not. Much of Europe has laws which make parts of the normal practice of Islam in daily life illegal and Britain does not. Some have banned foreign support for mosques and even threatened to regulate translations of the Qur’an. France has laws banning girls from wearing the mandatory headscarf in schools; several German states ban it for teachers; there have been numerous cases of women in headscarves being prevented from entering public buildings or commercial ones such as banks. Several countries ban halal slaughter (without stunning); some countries have started banning circumcision while others use handshakes as a way of filtering out people who are “too Muslim” to be “one of theirs”. This is not to say that there is no discrimination; many a Muslim job applicant has found that a prospect melted away when they told an interviewer that they could not shake hands with their female prospective manager; hostile newspaper headlines have been a regular occurrence and violent Islamophobia has been a mounting problem for years, both individual attacks (particularly on women) and organised violence. But the law, currently, is on our side even if racism, immigration restrictions and intrusion by the Prevent scheme is making Muslims’ lives increasingly difficult.

So, it does not matter much whether people would or would not accept a member of your religion in their family; the feeling may well be mutual. I know for a fact that many Muslims here would not accept a Muslim from another ethnic background into their family. School is not family; work is not family; a country is not family. What Muslims want is to be able to work, get an education, to be able to live their lives free of restrictions and harassment and for their own families to be left intact.

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What is, and what isn’t, a pyramid scheme?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 2 January, 2019 - 17:45

Black and white picture of Charles Ponzi, a white man dressed in a suit and tie with a wide-rimmed hat, holding a walking stick in his hands.So, the other day I responded to a tweet by the author of Existential Comics which read:

A pyramid scheme is a scam where the people at the top get the money from the work done by the people at the bottom. Whereas a regular business is where…uh, well you see the shareholders, they create jobs. They spurn grown, so they should get the money from…the work done by…

This implies that there is no real difference between a pyramid scheme and a regular business, but it clearly misrepresents what a pyramid scheme actually is. When I replied saying what it actually is — a scam in which early entrants are paid off with money from new entrants, giving the impression of a “return on their investment” when in fact it had not been invested — a load of people responded asking the difference between that and a bank, or a failing business.

A pyramid scheme is called that because the number of participants expands dramatically in each ‘generation’, meaning a diagram of it resembles a pyramid. It’s true that many actual businesses have structures in which a few people get lots of money and the people at the bottom get much less, which can resemble a pyramid, but that is not what makes a pyramid scheme or Ponzi scheme (named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian con-artist of the 1920s), what it is. A pyramid scheme does not provide any service or produce anything; while maintaining the impression of an ‘investment’ scheme, it simply pays off early ‘investors’ with any new money it receives from new ‘investors’ (victims). It plays on either their ignorance of the facts — their believing the money is being invested and that the returns are profits or interest, as in the notorious Madoff pyramid scheme, or their ignorance of economics or of how business works, as with the mail-based schemes such as were being advertised on the Usenet forums in the mid-90s. Eventually they will stop attracting people to the scheme, payments will dry up and the last group of entrants will lose their money. (A Ponzi scheme is a pyramid scheme with someone administering the direction of the money ‘upwards’ and who takes a cut.)

Someone asked what the difference is with a bank. Well, a bank sells financial services for money: finance such as loans and mortgages for interest, financial services for a fee. Whatever the moral arguments, they are not a pyramid scheme because the borrower is expected to pay interest on a loan he received; the flow of money is not only upward and there is no deception involved. Someone else asked what about companies which are unable to sell all of the shares they had put on the market; the answer is that this is either a failing business or the shares are over-valued. The fact that things stop selling is not what makes it a pyramid scheme — there could be reasons for that such as that the product is redundant or there is competition from a better product or service.

I’m no economist, but it’s important to know the difference between a real business and a fraudulent fake investment scam and to counter anyone who says there is no real difference because scams flourish in ignorance. Bernie Madoff’s victims knew what a pyramid scheme was and had no reason to believe they were dealing with one, but the Albanian pyramid scheme crisis of the late 90s, which resulted in serious civil unrest, happened because people had been cut off from the rest of the world by a communist dictatorship since the 1940s and were attracted by the promise of easy money. A similar type of scheme called multi-level marketing (MLM) is popular among impoverished Asian youth in parts of England; while this scheme does involve some selling of a product, the biggest rewards of the scheme are for recruiting new members, which carries the promise of a high-flown title. A community with a tradition of entrepreneurship will not allow its young people to fall into this sort of trap.

This sort of thing should be taught in schools everywhere. Whether it is slotted into maths or into personal and relationship education or citizenship or whatever, it is important for preparing young people for the adult world in which they will face these sorts of choices. To be ignorant of these things could make them more than just an irritant on Twitter; it could leave them substantially out of pocket or on the wrong side of the law.

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London is not above the UK’s problems

Indigo Jo Blogs - 1 January, 2019 - 16:15

The London Eye, a ferris wheel, lit up in blue with yellow lights round the outside (as on the European flag). Traces of other fireworks can be seen around it. The lights are reflected in the River Thames at the bottom.So, last night London had it’s traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks at the South Bank and it featured the London Eye lit up in a way that vaguely resembled the European Flag (which actually pre-dates the EU by about 40 years), blue with lights on all the pods, and the mayor, Sadiq Khan, tweeted:

Tonight’s spectacular #LondonNYE fireworks showed that whatever the outcome of Brexit - #LondonIsOpen - to business, to talent, to ideas, to creativity - and why London really is the greatest city in the world.

To everyone in London and across the globe: #HappyNewYear.

This rather suggests that he thinks that, despite the Brexit vote and its consequences hanging over us in the year to come, London is above it all and will survive the coming chaos intact. It will not, and it is not immune from or free of responsibility for the situation the country finds itself in.

London has a notoriously over-inflated housing market. The Daily Mirror, in that hit job on Kate Osamor last week, claimed that her very average looking terraced council house in Tottenham was worth £750,000. My grandparents’ very similar house in East Dulwich (not far from Peckham) sold for something like £650,000 a few years ago. When I was growing up in the late 1980s, very big houses — mini-mansions — with four or five bedrooms on a very desirable private estate outside Purley, near Croydon, changed hands for half that. We thought the houses being advertised in the local paper, out in leafy East Grinstead and Lingfield, for £80,000 were expensive. As prices go up, so do rents, the result being that people in London cannot get a house unless they are very rich, meaning councils are using rental properties outside London (e.g. Slough), because landlords there are attracted by increased rents from London councils, meaning that people in those places cannot get housed anywhere near home, job and family either (or are remaining homeless). People from London are buying houses in Birmingham to commute daily to London, resulting in people in Birmingham having to move further out as well.

There is a host of reasons for this: London properties being used as ‘investments’ rather than homes, people coming from overseas for jobs in London’s finance and IT sectors, the usual wealthy double-income families (the “double income, no kids yet” set as well as the “two healthy incomes, can afford a nanny” types). In addition, London gets much greater investment in public transport than anywhere else, allowing it to be a showcase for public transport and accessibility while provincial areas (cities and small towns) are stuck with hand-me down buses and “Pacer” trains and may well be for a good few years yet. Look at the money being spent on driving an east-west rail line through London to get people from the Berkshire commuterlands and Heathrow Airport to and from the City while the electrification of the line from Manchester east to Yorkshire has been downgraded again. In northern cities, it is said that you can tell which trains are coming from or going to London without looking at the destination boards — they’re always the shiny new long ones. It is no surprise that people in the north resent London and may not be impressed by its claims to be a “world city”.

Of course, the Brexiteers complaining (like Julia Hartley-Brewer, the right-wing LBC presenter) will complain about any apparent show of opposition to Brexit, even in a city where most of the vote was to remain. The most vehement Brexiteers in politics and the media are concerned with power, and do not mind if other people are impoverished so that they can attain it. But let’s not pretend that London is independent of Brexit or the problems that led to it. Yes, we’re a multicultural city; we’re not the only one. Yes, we have world-class universities; so do other British cities. Yes, we voted to stay in the EU and we have strong links to Europe at most levels of our society; the same can be said of other major cities. But our showpiece status is paid for by everyone in British society, and not everyone gets the benefit. Besides the minority of small-minded provincials, there are a lot of people in England whose minds could — and must — be changed about Brexit and wrapping ourselves in a blue flag and congratulating ourselves about things that aren’t entirely our achievement is not the way to do it.

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Best TV Programme This Xmas? The Royal Institution Xmas Lectures

Inayat's Corner - 30 December, 2018 - 21:07

What was the best TV programme shown over the Xmas period? Not the BBC’s adaptation of The ABC Murders with Poirot played by John Malkovich. Nor Bandersnatch – the gimmicky Black Mirror ‘interactive’ episode that was really a humourless rip-off of – the much more entertaining – The Truman Show. No, the best programme on TV this Xmas was the three part Royal Institution Christmas Lectures shown on BBC4.

Presented by the anatomist Professor Alice Roberts – who some years back also presented the wonderful series Origins of Us – this year’s lectures were on the theme “Who Am I?” The series discussed our kinship with all other living things including plants and animals in a very entertaining and informative way designed to appeal to a younger audience. If like me you are not a science graduate – (I did Computer Science, but it was not really science. Computer Engineering would have been much more accurate, but our head of department told us that many more students enrol if they called it Computer Science.) – then the annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures serve very well as a kind of Dummies Guide to Science.

If you have ever wondered why babies wrap their hands tightly around your finger, or why some people can wiggle their ears or why some people are left-handed or why human embryos have tails in the earliest stages of their development, Alice Roberts offered some ingenious explanations based on our latest knowledge.

You can still watch the series on BBC iPlayer for the next 25 days – after that I assume they will be available on the website of the Royal Institution where you can watch the lectures from previous years.

Kate Osamor and her council house

Indigo Jo Blogs - 29 December, 2018 - 20:55

Portrait of Kate Osamor, a Black woman wearing a necklace consisting of 3 solid metal bands, with a top consisting of yellow shapes on a black background.Recently the Labour MP for Edmonton, Kate Osamor, has come under criticism for still occupying a council property despite having a job that pays her a £77,000 annual salary. This is the same MP who sent a Times reporter packing when he turned up at her door to demand answers as to why she continued employing her son, who had been caught with drugs with “intent to supply” (meaning, in this case, share them with his friends) at a pop festival, as a parliamentary aide and then called the police to report him for stalking; she subsequently resigned from the shadow cabinet. Osamor has been in the role since 2015; she won re-election in 2017 with 71.5% of the vote locally, having gained 61.4% in 2015, so this is a fairly safe seat (it had been Tory from 1983 to 1997, but that was before boundary changes). She is clearly quite a popular figure as the previous incumbent, Andy Love, had seen his majority reduced at successive elections since gaining the seat in 1997 and gained only slightly following the 2010 boundary changes.

At the time she gained the house, she was a single mother, but since then has both been a student and held positions at The Big Issue and two NHS services. An MP’s salary is, in today’s climate, not the most secure job (and such people as mortgage brokers might not define it as such) but it is not poverty, and much of the criticism stems from the fact that social housing is scarce and that people who need it are being forced out of the borough, or out of London altogether. Her defenders say that social housing was meant to be mixed, not just for poor people, and that the same people on the Left criticising Kate Osamor did not criticise Bob Crow, the late RMT union leader, for doing the same for much longer and that many of them are influenced by racism.

Two good articles have been written by this. One is by Dawn Foster and the other is by Ava Vidal who has been the most vocal in pushing the racism angle. I have not much to add other than to say that if more MPs lived in council accommodation, much as with state schools (which the very rich, including some MPs, avoid assiduously), they would be better maintained and the run-downs and sell-offs that have been a constant theme of public housing policy (as seen in the Heygate estate in south-east London, which has been sold off to a major developer and most of the new dwellings are private and expensive) would not happen nearly as frequently.

I’m not convinced that all the people who criticised Kate Osamor who did not criticise Bob Crow are racist. To begin with, you cannot come to this sort of conclusion based on two incidents more than a year apart. Bob Crow is dead and Kate Osamor is not. Maybe the Bob Crow controversy did not come up on their feed so they were not motivated to respond at all. Do all the people being accused of racism now have a history of racism, or of disproportionately targeting Black politicians or other well-known people for criticism? That is a better indication that someone is racist than their criticising a single individual who happens to be Black. That said, the Daily Mirror piece which broke this ‘news’ was appalling; much of the content was about her son (Osamor was not involved in the drug offence), complete with a sullen-faced police mugshot, the irrelevant detail of the estimated value of the house, which is a fairly small terraced house in an inflated market which in any case, for her renting it and not buying it, is still a council house and will still be if and when she is finished with it. It also contains a picture of the house, which although the address is not given, the general area is and anyone could find out the address by asking a few questions of a local, at a time not long after an MP was shot dead by a racist and when women generally fear stalkers and predatory men and do not want them knowing where they live.

My hunch is that the story is part of a press vendetta against Osamor for her reaction to the Times journalist doorstepping her. Despite the Mirror being part of a rival company to the Times, which is part of the Murdoch empire, journalists shuffle between papers and sometimes write for both at the same time (see Jan Moir, who worked for both the Daily Mail and the Guardian) and the same people will edit both right-wing and left-wing newspapers at different times in their career, as did Piers Morgan. To some of us, the Times will never be forgiven for running the bogus “Muslim foster care” story last year and will always be a bastion of bigotry and purveyor of inflammatory stories about minorities they dislike, some of it downright fake, as long as the present team is in charge, but to other journalists they are fellow writers “just doing their job” and that doorstepping an MP is part of that, and something they should expect.

I can understand why some people think someone on an MP’s salary should not be occupying a council house. There are people who need them more. There are teachers, nurses and other key workers who cannot get a house near their area of work because rents and house prices are staggeringly high — the best part of a million pounds for a terraced house in inner London, all because of “good schools” or transport links to the centre of town. I know someone in that part of London who has been searching in vain for a suitable flat to rent for a year and a half (this house would not be suitable as this is a wheelchair user). However, life is not fair, and rather than resenting someone who was fortunate, we should be campaigning for more good social housing so that others can have the same thing.

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Muslims and Midnight Mass (and Donald Trump and Santa)

Indigo Jo Blogs - 27 December, 2018 - 21:05

A Christmas tree in the Emirates Palace hotel, Abu DhabiI’ve done two previous blog entries (at least) here about Muslims and Christmas — specifically, about Muslims participating in Christmas, being encouraged to do so (often by other Muslims) in the name of ‘integration’ or being accused of trying to prevent others celebrating (you can find them here and here). This year I came across something that has apparently been going on for ten years or more but of which I was previously unaware, which is a mosque (a Shi’a mosque in London) “teaming up” with a local Christian church and some of the congregation attending Midnight Mass, which is a long-standing Christian tradition. Needless to say, hearing this made a lot of Muslims angry and there was an ill-tempered ‘debate’ between one of the participants (who is well-known as a writer on British Muslim issues and who works for the Muslim Council of Britain) and a well-known ‘salafi’ blogger and social-media personality.

My stance is that no Muslim should be participating in Christmas more than they absolutely cannot get out of (e.g. unmarried converts with family who will make it difficult to avoid, people who are required to attend social functions at work, teachers whose schools are holding a Christmas event of some sort for the children, nurses whose patients are missing their Christmas and want to mark it somehow). When it comes to being expected to take part in rituals of any sort, we say no. This is because Christians, with the exception of one or two small denominations, believe that Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) is not simply the Messiah and a prophet but the “begotten not made” son of God and every Christian church service acknowledges this, as anyone who was brought up in it will know. We recited the credo every Sunday morning so we know what their stance is (you can read different versions of it here). Generally as Muslims we are not supposed to “hang around” places where people sin; we are not supposed to sit with people who are drinking alcohol (which is also part of the Christian Mass for adults, by the way) and we are not allowed to witness usurious contracts. Why would we sit with people when they recite a statement of aqida that contains open shirk (polytheism) when this is the worst sin in the whole of Islamic law?

This does not mean that Muslims cannot maintain good relations with their Christian or Jewish neighbours, help the homeless together or campaign on shared moral issues or for religious rights such as non-stun slaughtering. However, we just do not see other religious groups attending the worship of other religions — it seems to be only Muslims who are being prevailed on to do that. One person who defended the practice on Twitter said:

Muslims need allies. They need allies to practice their faith freely. They also need allies to protect all faiths in a world which is increasingly becoming antagonistic to faith, especially Islam. Celebrating the joy of Christians is not a religious act, it’s a sociopolitical act

But there are acceptable ways of building alliances and there are ways that are unacceptable in the Shari’ah. We are not allowed to commit acts of shirk even to save our lives. There are circumstances in which the haraam becomes halal and they are always circumstances of extreme necessity or mortal danger, such as it becoming permissible to eat animals that are normally banned, such as pigs, dogs and cats, when we are starving. That does not mean when there is no other meat; it means no other food. (In practice, there is a long list of permitted animals that we do not normally eat that come before the three mentioned — Reliance of the Traveller mentions foxes and badgers, for example — though perhaps they are less easy to come by.) We can take refuge in a church if there is a storm or if there is a gun battle going on in the street. Merely maintaining good relations is not a good reason when there are many other ways of achieving this. We do not have to explain why in a way that offends anyone; we must just say “our religion does not allow us to do this”. If they are sincere, they will understand. If they are not, we will not impress them anyway. Most times when people of different religions are at conflict, there are other reasons such as race, a past invasion or some other grievance. The Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were not at war with each other for 30 years because of transubstantiation; it was because one group, who dominated the state, denied the other their rights for several decades and the oppressed finally struck back.

Finally, Christmas right now would not be Christmas — indeed, no occasion would be complete — without an expression of cluelessness, heartlessness or both by Donald Trump, and this time it came in the form of his telling a child that his age (seven) was a ‘marginal’ one for still believing in Santa Claus. I still did believe in him at that age, and I had to be told the truth the year after when I did not sleep much of the night because I was nervous about not being asleep when ‘Santa’ came and, therefore, would not receive any of the presents (and neither would my sister, who was 6). I do not really understand why parents tell their children that most of the presents they buy them, and often the biggest and most exciting ones, come from someone other than themselves. Maybe because the child could not direct any disappointment at an unwanted present at them, or because they do not want to burden the child with any debt of gratitude. It’s amazing that parents can go that many years without a child at school, possibly one whose parents are too poor to sustain the myth, telling their children that there is no Santa.

Of course, it’s not Donald Trump’s place to put a 7-year-old right on Santa not being real. But it’s something parents should consider when encouraging their children to believe this nonsense. At most, have ‘Santa’ bring a few small presents and tell them the truth about the rest. Because there comes a point where a harmless fairytale just becomes a pointless lie, and it’s certainly no longer fun if it causes tears.

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Yes, Brexit does have to come first

Indigo Jo Blogs - 25 December, 2018 - 18:26

A black-and-white picture of a checkpoint on the main Belfast-Dublin road some time during the Troubles. Cars and trucks are queueing, there is a raised barrier and soldiers or police are standing at a driver's window apparently inspecting a document. There are concrete blocks at regular intervals on both sides of the road. A distance sign gives the road number A1 and distances to Dundalk and Dublin.The past few weeks, I have noticed that there are two bitterly opposed camps when it comes to the importance of Brexit or other issues, particularly as regards the Labour party. One side seeks a second referendum and attacks the Labour leadership viciously for not pushing for it (and the interview with Jeremy Corbyn in the Guardian over the weekend very much helps to entrench their position); another says that a second referendum or reversing Brexit will not reverse Tory austerity and what we really need is a general election and a Labour government. The latter often tend to be not only Labour members but Corbyn devotees who will often hear no wrong about their leader. Declarations of having left the Labour party or being unable to vote Labour have been legion; in England the leavers often refuse to say who they intend to vote for but often imply that they would be worse than the Tories (such issues as anti-Semitism and transgender rights also influence such decisions), while in Scotland they are often in favour of the Scottish National Party and another independence referendum (or “indyref2” as they often call it, and annoyingly not just in Twitter hashtags).

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Corbyn refused to throw his weight behind the campaign to secure a second referendum or to reject Brexit; he claimed that if his party won a snap general election in the new year (which is unlikely to happen before the cut-off date of 29th March), he would continue his policy of pursuing a “better deal” by negotiation with the EU’s leaders, which they have already made clear is not on the table when Theresa May tried the same this month:

But asked if he could imagine a referendum emerging as a solution if it becomes clear that parliament is deadlocked – as the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, mooted this week – he said: “I think we should vote down this deal; we should then go back to the EU with a discussion about a customs union.”

As to what stance Labour would take if a referendum were held, Corbyn said, “it would be a matter for the party to decide what the policy would be; but my proposal at this moment is that we go forward, trying to get a customs union with the EU, in which we would be able to be proper trading partners.”

My issue with this is that Labour needs to secure the support of Remainers to stand any chance of winning any general election because polls show that the areas where Leave support has hardened are in Tory-voting areas, not Labour heartlands. Labour has never won elections simply by clinging to old industrial heartlands, anyway; it needs to secure large parts of the suburban and student vote and will not do this if they are offering the most reactionary Tory policies leavened with a bit of Marxist rhetoric. By adopting a “respect the referendum” position at a time when Britain is heading for a cliff-edge Brexit with only a deal that nobody accepts on the table, Corbyn will lose the election because of apathy and vote-splitting: the progressive vote being split with the Lib Dems and Greens in areas Labour could win if the vote were united. The same was true in many Lib Dem seats in 2015 — long-term Lib Dem voters voted Green or Labour — and most of those have not been recovered. The upshot would be another four to five years of hard-right Tory government and international isolation; the NHS would, as has been widely reported, not be able to import commonly-used drugs without considerably expense, though as with previous economic depressions, the very well-off would not be badly affected. The rest of us would be.

Left-wing Labour activists have been reporting that they are having difficulties persuading regular campaigners to commit to them in the event of a general election in which the leadership supports Brexit. Clive Lewis, a Corbyn supporter and MP for a Norwich constituency, has said that a “solid comrade” had said this and “she’s not the first … and it’s becoming a genuine concern”. To this, former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway tweeted that Lewis was a “slippery two-faced intruiging [sic] scheming plotting coup-enabling deeply deeply untrustworthy shit”, a vulgar but typical example of the Labour left and hard left shooting the messenger rather than accepting bad news. A Labour MP for east Brighton (the bit not represented by the sole Green MP, Caroline Lewis, but also with a strong student vote) has said that his constituency would be lost if they supported Brexit.

Of course, I accept the need to get rid of the Tories but the Corbyn diehards need to understand that their position is not that of the Labour membership and will not help. Most young people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership because they saw him as a progressive figure who will fight for real social change will not be impressed by him if he is weak on Brexit. Most people who voted for Brexit will take fright if told that they will not be able to go on holiday in Europe without queueing for a visa. Most people who voted for Brexit for “sovereignty” will not be so keen if it means their job, or that of many of their friends, being lost because companies choose not to do business here, or close factories to move to Poland. Most people know, or have known, at least one type 1 diabetic who will not be able to get insulin if supplies from Europe are cut; the NHS will, at the very least, cease to be anything like the world-class institution it is, when it comes to treating common physical illnesses, now.

Of course we want to see an end to and a reversal of Tory austerity cuts but sleepwalking off the Brexit cliff will not allow us to do any of that. The most ‘socialist’ result of this would be a World War II-style austerity in which everyone is temporarily equalised in poverty, but the most likely result is that it would be entrenched for generations. There are three months to stop the most disastrous decision in British politics for decades and a Labour party not committed to stopping that will not be in a position to do so, as it will not be in power even if there is an election. Labour activists must not listen to people who are so devoted to Corbyn that they will follow him in what is right and what is wrong. They must save their party, and their country. Right now, this must come first.

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Book Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Inayat's Corner - 24 December, 2018 - 17:21

Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, comes with an impressive recommendation from no less a figure than the principal founder of Microsoft and noted philanthropist, Bill Gates, who describes it as “my new favourite book of all time.” For my part, my spirits were lifted when I saw a familiar quotation right at the beginning of the book from the physicist David Deutsch: “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.” Deutsch happens to be the author of one of my all-time favourite books, The Beginning of Infinity.

The quotation from Deutsch is certainly very apt as it underlines a major theme of this book whose full title is “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”.  At a time when populists and demagogues appear to be on the rise, Pinker’s re-affirmation of the values of the Enlightenment and his insistence on spelling out in detail via no less than seventy-five graphs how the human condition has improved in recent centuries is very welcome and for believers – and I include myself in this category – contain a number of passages that will prove very challenging.

Pinker gets into his stride right away and draws our attention to the facts about how major progress has been made due to science in the areas of life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality and reducing deaths due to disease. Pinker estimates that 177 million lives were saved due to the discovery of the benefits resulting from the chlorination of water alone. He notes how smallpox killed 300 million people in the 20th century and then asks us to now look at a dictionary definition of the disease:

Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola Minor. (p64)

Look at that again. “Smallpox was.” The last case was diagnosed in Somalia in 1977 after the World Health Organisation set itself the task in 1959 of eradicating the disease. It was a tremendous achievement and it was due to an increase in our knowledge about vaccinations. There has also been major progress made in the fight against measles, diphtheria and whooping cough with vaccines having been discovered for each of them.

Deutsch’s quote suggests that there should be many more victories in the future against disease if we continue on the path of reason and science. Pinker agrees and stresses that “It is knowledge that is key.” (p67)

For Muslims, this may serve as a reminder of the Qur’anic prayer “My Lord – increase me in knowledge” (Qur’an 20:114).

Yet, for Pinker, religion is not the answer. He makes the, by now, familiar humanist case that religion has served more to hinder than facilitate progress and asks why we now need religion at all? Did the God of the Bible not command “the Israelites to commit mass rape and genocide, and prescribed the death penalty for blasphemy, idolatry, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath, while finding nothing particularly wrong with slavery, rape, torture, mutilation and genocide.” (p429)

By contrast, Pinker refers to the progress made when we think about maximising human happiness and freedom. He contrasts the religious penalty for idolatry with the words of Thomas Jefferson.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (p417)

The choice is a clear one. Which form of government, religious or secular, will grant more freedom to human beings and prevent more discrimination? When we look at some of the most self-professedly religious states in the world today, whether it is Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan or the Vatican city, Pinker’s argument does seem to have considerable force.

So, if we go along with the argument that reason and science and increasing our store of knowledge are all key to making progress then one has to ask, as Pinker does, “How to build a society that cultivates rational thoughts?” (p27). Pinker argues that a secular and rationalistic approach to education is the key to growth (p234)

“…education exposes people in young adulthood to other races and cultures in a way that makes it harder to demonize them. Most interesting of all is the likelihood that education, when it does what it is supposed to, instils a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdote, and emotional demagoguery.” (p339)

Pinker insists that allowing vigorous open argumentation and reasoned critiques (which interestingly the Muslim societies mentioned a couple of paragraphs above notably do not seem particularly keen on) will lead to good ideas prevailing and bad ones being rejected.

“…as people are forced to justify the way they treat other people, rather than dominating them out of instinctive, religious, or historical inertia, any justification for prejudicial treatment will crumble under scrutiny. Racial segregation, male-only suffrage, and the criminalisation of homosexuality are literally indefensible: people tried to defend them in their times, and they lost the argument.” (p221)

Will we see this progress in the Muslim world? Pinker is optimistic.

“…in every part of the world, people have become more liberal. A lot more liberal: young Muslims in the Middle East, the world’s most conservative culture, have values today that are comparable to those of young people in Western Europe, the world’s most liberal culture, in the early 1960s.” (p228)

Since Pinker’s book was published at the beginning of 2018, this year has seen Muslim organisations protesting in Tunisia – a country with a relatively free press and more liberal attitudes compared with much of the rest of the Arab world – against laws that would grant women equal inheritance rights with men. Maybe it is just birth pangs – because the growth of enlightenment values in much of the Muslim world is very much needed.

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