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Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

The State of the Unions

In Opinion on July 15, 2015 at 4:06 PM

Power-crazed organisations coercing government to enact policy against the will of the people and subverting democracy – so runs the popular left-wing critique of big corporations in the corrupt neoliberal world. There’s truth to it in places, but it’s major failing of many that they feel to see some of the same issues with unions.

Of course unions have played a vital role in securing hard-fought rights for workers – and have been on the right side of history many times (also arguably on the wrong side at times). This doesn’t mean they should be above criticism. They’re certainly not above throwing some pretty bold criticisms about themselves. Last month, Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis, describing planned Conservative changes to strike legislation, said: “These spiteful prosposals will deny millions of ordinary workers a voice at work.” And Mick Whelan, the General Secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef, went even further by claiming the plans “smack of Germany in the 1930s” when trade unionists were “rounded up, imprisoned and executed”.

This is hyperbole worthy of a fringe UKIP politician. The strike laws merely require unions to attain a 50% turnout in ballots for industrial action; 40% support for industrial action from all eligible voters in key public sectors; that members must opt in to paying unions’ ‘political levy’ paid to political parties; and allow employers to find temporary staff for strikes.

Far from ‘imprisonment’ or ‘execution’, these rules serve to empower individual union members against activist minorities or the power wielded by union bosses. They are – or should be – a matter of simple democracy, not left v right party politics. Contrary to all the scaremongering, unions and industrial action would still be legal; it’s just the mandate for them would be made higher, so, for example, the majority of the London bus network could not go down at the behest of just a sixth of London bus drivers. (The recent tube strikes, including the one today (August 6) and yesterday, voted on by three different unions, would still be legal under the new rules. Aslef for example saw a 81% vote in favour from a 97% turnout. The RMT’s vote would probably be legal because it was voted for by 92% of an unknown turnout.)

It all illustrates a hypocritical, arrogant strain of left-wing opinion which loudly champions liberalism and democracy, then cries bloody murder when these return results, or governments, they don’t like, typically dismissing Tory voters as brainwashed by the neo-liberal media. (There’s some equivalent but opposite opinion from the right it must be said.) Even this dismissive trope does not work for union votes as the vote merely concerns workers’ own livelihoods. So, if working conditions really are unfair, who better to judge that than the majority of those workers?

Union bosses’ professions to ‘representing their members’ are, at best, dubious when strikes are held which around three quarters of union members did not actually vote for. Of course such strikes are voted by the (usually clear) majority of those who voted, but they betray a presumptuousness that those who did not vote feel similarly. Writing in the Huffington Post, Paul Embery, London’s Regional Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, writes: “[…] it is perfectly reasonable, when extrapolating results of ballots for industrial action, to conclude that the votes cast are an accurate representation of the views of those balloted as a whole.”

It is not reasonable at all. I’d go so as far as to say it shows a contempt for democratic process. There is a qualitative difference between voting and not voting. If people don’t vote in a strike ballot, there is no strike. Striking is bold action against the status quo (or future status quo) therefore it should require clear majority approval. It stands to reason, then, that low turnouts should be treated as a sign of, at best, members’ indifference to a strike and, at worst, lack of support. Strikes are a vital democratic right, but they should not be taken lightly; support from those who deign to offer it should not be assumed.

All of it renders ridiculous the claim from Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, that the government’s measures read “like something straight out of a George Orwell novel”. Ms O’Grady (and many others) would really do well to actually fucking read some Orwell, whose writing typically critiqued the evils of too much power in the hands of too few, not individuals’ right to make political choices.

None of this is even to mention all the others affected by strikes who do not get a say in them – the general public. After all, prospective strikers have a vested interest in industrial action. Not to say they are self-serving bastards – the vast majority I know and hear who have taken strike action have thought long and hard about the decision and merely want what they consider fair remuneration for their hard work. Nor am I arguing for one minute that workers from other professions should get an equal say in every public sector strike; that would create a kind of modern-day servitude to the taxpayer. But the facts remain that prospective public sector strikers stand to benefit from strikes at the expense of the (sometimes massive) inconvenience for millions of others who could not vote for them. So it behoves unions to have good support for the disruption.

This fundamentally differs from elections and referendums – the moderate or low turnouts from which are a typical comeback from unabashed union supporters when defending strikes’ (supposed) legitimacy – which everyone gets a vote in. If people do not vote in these and are unhappy with the result, then they only have themselves to blame.

Rather than always resorting to cheap jibes about ‘nasty Tories’, the left should take a long, hard look at the state of the unions.

In Defence of the BBC

In Opinion on April 12, 2015 at 4:15 PM

I sometimes cast my mind forward to a not-too-distant future in which the BBC is no more, or at least drastically cut, following criticisms of the cost, ‘bias’ and it ‘not being a suitable broadcaster for our multimedia age’. I reckon there would be national mourning; paroxysms of nostalgia similar to the reactions of Ceefax ending and HMV closing (though the music retailer, to my pleasant surprise, continues to stay open). Call it misty-eyed sentimentalism if you will, but I think there’s something in this.

The reaction itself proves there’s still an affection for such things, even if there are more straightforwardly rational alternatives – the internet to Ceefax, Amazon and iTunes to HMV and arguably Neflix and Youtube et al to the BBC. But humans are not robots. In an age with so many different things competing for our attention on screens, there’s a good case for television that brings people together. People still remember where they were and who they were with for landmark televisual events like when England won the World Cup, Live Aid and Who Shot Jr/Phil Mitchell.

Of course, this would not be totally destroyed if the BBC went. But I think there’s a risk, in creating better choice for people, of losing that shared cultural conversation, even creating a more ‘atomised’ society, which many – on the left and right – complain about. Ask yourself, does your nan share your love of Breaking Bad? Probably not. But would you be able to bond over your love for it if it was on BBC? Maybe. (Game of Thrones is probably a bit unlikely, but who knows…) And I bet there’d be a lot more arguments between couples if there wasn’t the default option of ‘whatever shit’s on TV’. If you choose to watch some obscure documentary on Netflix or a documentary on quantum physics on BBC4, you stick your neck out that your partner/friends/flatmates watching will enjoy it. Put on BBC and it’s a no lose – if it’s good, you’ve got good taste; if not, it’s just that it was on anyway and you can talk over it or change channel. Anyway, as Barry Schwartz has shown, too much choice can actually lead to less happiness over the choice, as people fixate over the other possibilities and consider if the grass would be greener – like how you can forever browse Netflix looking for something better. I’m not arguing for a cultural North Korea, but surely there’s a happy medium between this and each member of the family in the living room watching different screens.

…All of which is why I get annoyed at the constant barrage at criticism constantly directed at the BBC. The most recent example was the reaction to Culture, Media and Sport select committee findings, which found the broadcaster should be “braver”, stop trying to do something for everyone and that the licence fee should be scrapped and replaced with a ‘broadcasting levy’ on all homes. This produced a frothing reaction from the right wing press, claiming any mandatory fees should be scrapped. It’s a strangely paradoxical reaction from papers that take such pride in instilling the shared customs of a ‘traditional British’ way of life. I suppose they would counter that the BBC no longer promotes ‘British’ values, but then surely it would make sense to call for specific reforms, not a complete overhaul, and make criticism more measured and constructive than this, from the Mail: “Chaotic… buck-passing… empire-building… monstrously bureaucratic… anti-competitive… recklessly wasteful of public money… refusing to admit mistakes as it lurches from crisis to crisis…” (Because, of course, The Mail is not ’empire-building’…)

But it’s not just attacked from the right. ‘BBC too right wing’ gets 2.68 million Google hits. ‘BBC too left wing’ gets 2.05 million. It’s far from an exact science – for starters, maybe this acid test is inherently skewed towards the young because it’s on the internet, and this might mean the study is skewed towards left denouncing right. Regardless, I merely wish to prove how much controversy it causes on both sides (in addition to people who obviously have nothing better to do in their lives than complain to Ofcom because someone said ‘bastard’ once before the watershed or showed a bit too much cleavage).

But ‘neutrality’ is such a hard, if not impossible, thing to achieve, as the debate itself over the BBC’s bias proves. People often complain about papers’ bias even though, as private entities not paid for by the taxpayer, there’s no particular need for papers to be impartial. (That’s even if they are determined by mere political considerations, rather than more sinister commercial ones, as Peter Oborne revealed about his former employer The Daily Telegraph in his resignation letter, in regard to the paper’s limited coverage of the tax scandal at HSBC, one of its biggest advertising clients.)

If the main criticism of the BBC were the whole principle of it – that it’s not (really) chosen, not ‘free media’ – then I’d understand, if not agree. No one wants to live in a cultural North Korea and, ridiculous as the comparison is in extent, the BBC is a state broadcaster. And I concede that the BBC does run at a distinct commercial advantage to other media outlets because of its funding means it has a far better knowledge of its short and long-term budget than many of its rivals, in turn meaning it can plan better than rivals.

However, I think this has its advantages. It’s a common criticism of journalism, and one made brilliantly by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, that cost-cutting and naked profit-chasing, which is the BBC is somewhat protected against, is corrupting the once reputable practice. And it allows the BBC to make ambitious, groundbreaking, but very expensive work like Planet Earth and Life; having cameramen, for example, wait in the middle of fucking Arctic nowhere for four weeks waiting for a mother polar bear and its cubs.

And it’s not just that by any means. Us Brits have probably become inured to the BBC, but it’s worth pointing out how much the world fucking loves it (or conversely, how shit TV can be abroad). As revealed by The Guardian in February, the international sales arm of the BBC now claims the corporation is the largest producer of television outside Hollywood, and this year it has 2,800 hours of shows to sell. Also, it’s estimated that British TV exports for 2013-14 were valued at £1.28bn.

Thing is, the structure of the BBC doesn’t seem to be the common complaint – based on the special pleading and bleating from all corners, it seems a lot people want a universal service, but one tailored just for them and their common sense views. People of all political persuasions naturally locate the elusive ‘centre-ground’ closer to them than it probably is, hence the shitstorm of the ‘BBC is too [insert chosen bete noire here – right/left/imperial/multicultural/’warmist’/climate denier etc etc].

The reason this annoys me so much is that this atmosphere can serve as a straitjacket to good journalism and broadcasting. Naturally some news and topics are more likely to lead to a particular political stance, but news, or more pretentiously truth, should be sought wherever it is, not on what people happen to think. As such I’m not claiming the Beeb is perfectly impartial (though pretty good), but how could it be?! It’s surprising to me as it is how the Beeb still produces hard-hitting news, like the HSBC tax avoidance exposé.

And it seems it was ever thus. I recently stumbled across an archive piece in the New Statesman from E.L.Forster defending the BBC in 1931 against similar complaints of bias on various sides. He wrote: “Perhaps we grumbled too often. If we did, Nemesis has descended, bringing all the powers of darkness in her train. For the easy days are over, brightness falls from the air, and the conflict has begun. The BBC, because of its success and growing importance, is being constantly attacked, in the pulpit, in Parliament, in the Press, and the attack is on new and dangerous lines. The aim is suppression. When suppression has been achieved, control may be attempted, but suppression is the immediate objective. The cry is not for fuller programmes but for feebler.”

It’s always hard to argue for the status quo in the face of various angry complaints, and easier to think the grass is greener. But I think those enjoy the BBC need to stick up for it amid the loud noises from all sides, attempting to strangle this great British institution, with politicking and death by a thousand cuts, into boring, timid submission.

Are they really all the same?!

In Opinion on February 19, 2015 at 12:25 AM

It’s almost a given that on any particular week on Question Time there will be at least one bright-eyed sixth former, spouting platitudes such as politicians are all the same. ‘OK, so the youth are disillusioned, so what?’ I hear you say. Plus ça change. There’s no doubt some truth in that, but I don’t think they/we (I’m 26 – I don’t know if I still qualify as ‘youth’) used to be so deified, especially when they offer such inanity. Now you can rely on the Question Time crowd to applaud such thought and Russell Brand has 9.14 million Facebook followers, a bestselling book called ‘Revolution’ and is treated as a serious political figure.

Such young people should not automatically be lauded. They are idiots. A lot of the time at least. Certainly, those who sympathise with or support the contradictory politics offered by movements like Anonymous. They complain that governments are “unconstitutional”, “oppressing” us by “infringing our civil liberties”, meaning “LIBERTY NO LONGER EXISTS”. Yet they also “PROTEST AGAINST AUSTERITY”. So they simultaneously despise the state but are furious that it is being taken away from them. That makes them either masochists or morons. Personally, they only serve to remind that it’s far easier to oppose something than to have made it in the first place.

Am I alone, at least among non-Daily Mail readers, in thinking the vapidness of many young people is about as much to blame as deficiencies in the political system for the fact just 24% of under-25s declare an interest in politics (according to a Hansard report). I don’t actually think this is necessarily a bad thing; people can live a perfectly moral and decent life just doing well by friends and family and watching the X-Factor or playing football. In fact, doing such arguably indicates a measure of contentment with one’s life and leisure time which allows this, and which is notably absent in less democratic countries riven by some hellish mix of corruption, civil war, crumbling infrastructure and disease. Frankly, the world, in many respects, could do with giving less of a shit – if this was the case there wouldn’t be nearly as much homophobia, slut-shaming or body hang-ups, for instance.

Granted, it’s arguable how much difference there is between the two/three main parties, the Conservatives, Labour and, to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems (I think there are fairly significant differences). But even if you believe there is little between them, these are far from the only viable parties to support, especially at the moment as traditional voting patterns collapse and fringe, or once-fringe, parties come to the fore. To the left of these parties, you have the Greens; who believe in just giving people money (the citizens’ income); a zero growth, sustainable economy; decriminalising weed and legalising membership of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. (They actually share many views with Russell Brand, so I find it bizarre why he and like-minded people don’t vote for them.) And to what I will call the ‘right’ – with some caution because the definition, and indeed the party, is far from precise – is UKIP, a party whose only defining characteristics would seem to scepticism of immigration, hatred of the EU and angry righteousness.

Some of these ideas might make sense (though I’m sceptical), but truly there are some really quite radical ideas and characters on both sides, and neither have had significant power as yet, undermining the cliché that they are all the same. And there’s now a good chance that one such party could have a significant effect one way or another in the election – forming a coalition government or gaining more seats – or, as Armando Iannucci says, further on in the linked Question Time, this is the most open election in about 30 years. The Green Party have embraced crowdfunding to help them stand in 75% of constituencies (a 50% increase from the last election) and fringe parties like the National Health Action Party are standing in some places. Indeed, the changing dynamics are already having an effect as parties seek to stop voters, and MPs, moving elsewhere, notably to UKIP.

The times we live are painted by many – Russell Brand types on one side, Daily Telegraph readers (comments section) on the other and David Icke http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCwAcJ78a8A&t=17m0s types on 17 different sides simultaneously – as some kind of Orwellian hell-hole people are condemned to live in, with an array of “manipulative” bete noires arraigned against them; The BBC, ‘eco warriors’, the ‘human rights judicial dictatorship’ and bankers/the “elite”/”the 1%”, to name but a few. But these are not the times we live in. Never has there been more information channels and never have they been easier to access (arguably too easy, as reputable newspapers across the world struggle to survive in a digital era). And, unsurprisingly, never have they been more accessed. Indeed, not just accessed – never have they been made more, by any old Tom, Dick or Harry, as testified by the fact we now have words which basically didn’t exist a decade or two ago (or at least not in the same context); tweeting, googling, Facebooking, Instagramming, blogging, vlogging and so forth. (If those verbs which I capitalised should be, they might not be ten years from now.)

Not only is there wide array of political parties and organisations, it’s never been easy to find out about them and push their message. So I don’t buy people espousing this one-sided rose-tinted idea of the dispossessed youth, wronged by the system and valiantly speaking truth to power with coruscating political analysis. Far more, I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s line: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The perks of working nights

In Opinion on February 6, 2014 at 12:35 PM

Yes, I am of those weirdos who work nights. It’s an odd life, and, fittingly, we’re an odd bunch. Indeed, a recent Giles Coren column in The Times read: “Whether you’re a lottery winner or miserable night-shift worker, riches don’t mend unhappy marriages.” So we’re the polar opposite of people living the dream – even the willfully unemployed have a better social standing. As I work in PR/admin, I haven’t even got the saving grace of working for any real societal good either, like nurses, firemen or even cabbies (just think how much more sick there would be on the streets on Friday and Saturday night if the act didn’t cost £50 a pop).

And to add to that, working nights has been linked to, variously, altered levels of melatonin, poor diet, decreased safety at work, social isolation, cardiovascular problems, restlessness, tiredness (obviously), decreased attention span, disruption of the metabolic process, and higher chances of heart attack, stroke and (twice as likely) breast cancer. It even has a name. The International Classification of Sleep Disorders not only exists but has clubbed the aforementioned issues together under the moniker ‘shift-work sleep disorder’ (SWSD). We’re basically modern-day lepers.

I jest – partly. For I get every other week completely off, which acts as a nice compensation, and my job is alright and by no means as bad if I fuck up due to tiredness as, say, a midwife working nights (respect to them and firefigthers, police officers etc who work nights btw).

But given the reputation of nights – and the fact night work is on the rise (blame George Osborne, unscrupulous employers, globalisation, modern culture or other as you will), a rise likely accelerated with the forthcoming 24-hour tube – I thought I’d give some personal plus points of working nights, and present an Attenborough-esque glance into my – our – weird world.

(N.B. So the following makes sense – I work every other Monday up to and including Sunday, 10:15pm to 6:15am, or a bit later, and when working I sleep soon after I get back, usually 7:30 to 9am.)

I can do shit in the day

All those little tasks that go on in hours when normal people are working – like going to the dentist, picking up your repaired phone, having to be in to let the electrician/plumber/young ‘gardener’ in – you can schedule them basically anytime Monday to Friday 9 to 5, knowing you’ll be free (albeit possibly having to get up ‘early’ then go back to bed). A couple of my colleagues even manage nights with their families. Not the most exciting benefit, granted, but practical.

No alarm!

Consider for a moment that agony, the exquisite pain upon hearing your alarm, that scourge of modern society, on a Monday morning. And just think, I never, ever, have to experience that in my current job. Nor indeed on any day of the week (unless for some daytime engagement or tactical nap). I have experienced this – at school, where I did a paperround, and in working life – and I know the pain. So I still consider a major novelty being able to get up and 1pm on a Wednesday, working or not, and, depending how I feel, either mess around in bed checking emails, Facebook and whatever rubbish the interweb has thrown up that day, or look at the time and think aaahh, fuck that, I’m going back to sleep.

…And in summer it’s actually quite nice to do this

There aren’t many things that feel right about working nights, but casually getting up, via a series of (allowed) snoozes, with the sun streaming through the window, is one of them. I usually get up naturally earlier too, which means I can enjoy the best of the day – go for a run, sunbathe, see some sights – while everyone else is toiling away on a computer in an office before cramming into a sweltering tube train. One doesn’t have to feel guilty about watching the Ashes or Wimbledon either. Granted, the winter, when once or twice I have pretty much slept through all of the day’s daylight, is not so nice. But I remember after playing tennis with a mate at university, him getting sentimental for student life a few weeks before finishing, saying “when else will we be able to play tennis at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, unless we are very successful or very unsuccessful?” The strange untruth of it sometimes comes to mind when I’m sipping a beer on a sunny summer weekday afternoon in my club’s beer garden having just played a couple of sets. And let me tell you, it feels good.

‘Ha, I’m going home to sleep!’

It’s very petty, but I do enjoy the schadenfreude of leaving work to see all the early City workers just off the Drain, at Bank, trudging up the walkway to fuck around with derivatives or whatever it is they do. All while I can think of catching some precious zzzzzzzs. Yes, in that time they will be earning far more $$$$$$s than me, but for what I do, I could be paid worse.

…Or booze

My work’s Friday 5 o’clock drinks are Monday 6:30….am. Fortunately, there is provision for this – the Market Porter, by Borough Market, where me and colleagues sometimes go, along with workers from our rival company occasionally. There’s something so wrong yet so right about a pint at such time. And there’s a small but fascinating array of species in the pub at at 7 o’clock on Monday – us probably among them. You really should try it (seriously, don’t). Once we met a chef who had lost all his mates on a work xmas do, and thought, at about 6am, ah, Borough Market will be open and they do amazing sausages. So he popped in for a pint, very pleased with his sausages, before wending his inebriated way back to Orpington, or some other suburban mediocrity. If you make a morning of it, it’s also quite amusing to see the looks from all the City workers as they, presumably, try to work out what fresh hell allowed their hard-earned tax money to fund such Jeremy Kyle-types to get pissed on a Monday morning.

Kebabs

And last but certainly not least, as compensation for not being out if I’m working on a Friday or Saturday, the guilty pleasure of the work kebab (occasional, I hasten to add), which manages to taste like one of the greatest and worst things in life simultaneously.

Originally published on Planet Ivy

Politicians DO listen to us…too much

In Opinion on February 6, 2014 at 12:25 PM

Politicians just don’t listen to us these days – so goes probably the common, and personally most inane, refrain in current UK politics. But is there actually much truth to it? I don’t think so. In fact, I think quite the opposite is true, and that that’s slightly dangerous as people can be idiots – as Mark Corrigan says, “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can’t trust people, Jeremy!” (I like Coldplay too.)

Certainly in many respects, we have a political culture relentlessly focused on the ‘common man’ (speaking figuratively, not in gender terms). Twitter is used as a soundboard for political ideas. A few hundred complaints about a TV show to Ofcom from lily-livered Guardian readers and/or boring old Daily Mail-reading farts are taken seriously as ‘outrage’. TV news will often go to the person in the street, even if the story is really about nationwide or global economic changes average Joes, to be frank, do not know much about (I’d pretty much include myself in this). And newspapers very often report polls on what we think, to the extent Survation, YougGov and Ipsos MORI are almost the Holy Trinity of politics (this trend sometimes creates an echo chamber of rubbish, like when the Daily Express reports that its readers oppose immigration. People who constantly read that they are being ripped off and robbed off their identity by ‘alien parasites and fraudsters’ don’t like immigration – no shit!).

And then there’s the focus group, the idea which started in the corporate world but has become almost the holy grail of modern policymaking. Bill Clinton called members of focus groups the most powerful people in America. All the main UK parties have tech wizards in their teams to scrutinise every minute detail of demographic polling, and then feed this back to politicians so they can decide, say, if ‘striver’, ‘strong middle-class’ or ‘hard-working Britons’ is the best way to build support for their policies. The Thick of It is the best satire of this culture I’ve ever seen, exposing the huge disconnect between politicians’ stage-managed public and private personas. (The show is of course ostensibly fiction, but could well be what actually goes on behind the cameras. Indeed, many policies shown actually prefigure ones later announced by the real-life government, and, according to The Independent, Armando Iannucci’s team have been approached by real-life politicians looking for their political insights.) I should say none of this applies to UKIP, which is basically its main appeal.

As for the effects of all this, just look at politicians pronouncements, politicians routinely talk about their constituents they have spoken to and meld their lives into heartwarming stories to back up their policies (the link is an Owen Jones rant, but the left do this about as much as the right). Of course these will be selective, but I’d like to assume that politicians are not such complete shits that they regularly make such stories up.

And in the run up to next year’s election, with polling currently finely split between Labour and Conservatives, politicians are jumping over themselves to appeal to that mythical political haven, ‘the centre ground’. Indeed, to the extent they’re kind of stealing each other’s policies and become somewhat hard to define. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, after initially railing against austerity economically (and socially) but then finding trust in Conservatives running the economy was outpacing that of Labour, agreed to match the Coalition’s government’s “day to day spending totals” if elected. (Yet on Sunday, he told the Andrew Marr Show the last Labour government’s public spending was not to blame for the financial crisis and George Osborne choked off a recovery. Beats me.)

Also, after general support for the Coalition’s welfare changes, shadow welfare secretary Rachel Reeves has claimed Labour would be “tougher than the Tories” on benefits. Which is confusing for anyone who has listened to the party’s persistent criticism’s of the perceived harshness of Iain Duncan Smith’s policies. And, as polls show toughening views on immigration, Ed Miliband issued a significant mea culpa for Labour’s previously liberal policy on immigration.

But the Tories do it a lot too, for better or for worse. After calls of excessively high energy bills, notably due to green levies, David Cameron recently rolled them back. (Granted, traditionally the Tories have not always been supportive of higher taxation and combating global warming, but David Cameron did plan to be the “greenest government ever” – what appears in hindsight a superficial populist pledge). And in response to many people and Ed Miliband’s regular calls of a “cost of living crisis”, George Osborne has gone against the Tory tendency to leave business alone by calling for an above-inflation rise in the minimum wage to around £7.

Yet despite all this populism, hardly anyone actually likes or trusts politicians any more. For official evidence, look at official voter turnout rates; for anecdotal evidence, just look in any newspaper, pub or social media site.

Maybe we actually want to be led not followed. As resident right-wing crank Janet Daley says in The Telegraph, focus groups “are a denial of what politics is all about. They are an insidious reversal of the political process, turning leaders into followers.” These, and to a lesser extent polls, also pose inherent problems for policymaking, such as how questions are phrased, how one influential person can skew opinion and that they will inevitably, such is human nature, result in desire for more public spending yet lower taxes. On the other hand, Twitter lends itself to glib soundbites of opinion, often expressed by attention-seeking idiots – see, most recently, the reaction to Benefits Street. The most realistic way of canvassing opinion might be to go to the pub – but then who wants to have a pint with a politician (except Farage and Boris)?!

Maybe we don’t want to be listened to, or at least not if that same right extends to those we deem ‘fools’ or ‘fruitcakes’ – which in a democracy it does. This means, paradoxically, if we listened to everyone we have to both have raise and lower taxes; ban fossil fuels immediately and ignore climate change; and banish and burnish benefit claimants. Arguably, we already pay too much attention to people – stopping or delaying long-term energy and transport projects for any Tom, Dick and Harry annoyed about a bit more noise in their town or a few dozen frogs getting displaced. For it is human nature to be somewhat Nimbyish and short-termist, but these are not very useful qualities for running a country. The NHS, the welfare state, a national rail system were not very popular when first proposed, but are now (generally) regarded as essential. And, recently, the Olympics faced huge scepticism and controversy before turning out to be almost faultless success. Politics often requires a ‘fuck it, let’s do it approach’.

As the great (/mental) Kanye Wests puts it, “see there’s leaders, and there’s followers. But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.”

Well done, the internet

In Opinion on February 6, 2014 at 11:17 AM

The internet – just a vessel for misogyny, narcissism, nutty conspiracy theorists, hate and porn. That’s what people say, isn’t it? But I don’t think so. Being 25, I suppose I belong to the ‘internet generation’. At the beginning, when we and the internet, notably social media, were in our formative years, this view kind of held true. But now I see far more links to charities, intelligent videos on reforming society one way or another, amazing (if arguably self-indulgent) photos from around the world and such like. And also men and women in various states of undress of course, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.

And, contrary to the idea of social media as an introspective, image-obsessed and bitter pit of vacuousness and lolcats, I find, in my circles at least, there is a nice sense of sharing in one’s achievements. Statuses talking about basically good things in life like passing one’s driving test, getting a job, graduating, running a marathon, getting married, having a kid etc are typically told with understandable pride but without straying into arrogance or gloating. And they typically receive a lot of likes and positive comments. As simple as a ‘like’ is, I appreciate when someone, whether I actually still talk to them or not, effectively says ‘well done, that’s a good thing you’ve done’.

So basically, using the internet for what the amazing tool it is – something that can spread knowledge and stories from the smallest corner of the far side of the world in just a click of a button. Which is precisely what happened recently, when experienced skydiver Ben Cornick found his parachute was broken mid-dive over Fiji. Miracously, he managed to survive, after slowing his fall and hitting a van at over 45mph. Needless to say, he was not in a good way, though, and needed £20,000 upfront to pay to fly him for an emergency leg-saving operation in New Zealand, not having the correct travel insurance. However, after friends and family created a Facebook page, donations poured in, and the total of around £30,000 got Ben to New Zealand for the life-saving medical work..

Here are a few of the most heartwarming stories to have come from the good ol’ interweb…

A homeless man in Kansas City, Billy Ray Harris, returned an engagement ring which a woman had dropped into his cup. The husband of the woman set up an online donation, which, after being shared on various news and social media, raised a staggering $180,000. Not only was Mr Harris able to buy himself a new house and car, he was reunited with family members he had not seen in 16 years, who had seen his selfless deed make headlines across not just his community but much of the rest of the country and world too.

Aged just six, a ‘wee’ (his words) Scottish boy called Jack Henderson, “the little boy with the big art”, came up with an idea so lovely and creative that it would probably melt even Voldemort or Murdoch’s heart. Regularly visiting his brother Noah in hospital with a serious lung problem, he decided, entirely of his own volition, to start Jack Draws Anything, a site where people request a drawing and Jack draws it, in return for a donation to the Sick Kids Foundation. He also came up with all the words, branding, colours, them tune and chose chose the charity. At the time he hit the news, in the summer of 2011, he was working his way through over 500 requests from over 115 countries. And recently, he earned £13,000 for drawing golf stars, bringing the total Jack has raised to £64,677 – quite possibly the most a kid of less than ten has ever earnt.

…However, kids aren’t always as nice. After American 7th graders’ persistent and brutal bullying of school bus monitor Karen Huff Klein, some directed at her son who committed suicide, went viral – and Klein declined to press charges against the students, partly due to death threats the students received – CNN anchor Anderson Cooper revealed that Southwest Airlines offered to pay for a trip for Klein and nine people of her choosing to Disneyland for three nights. And Max Sidorov, a victim of bullying as a child, started a campaign on fundraising site Indiegogo with the aim of raising $5,000 for a vacation for Klein. Over 32,000 people from 84 countries came together to raise a mammoth $650,000, $100,000 of which she has put towards founding the Karen Klein Anti-Bullying Foundation, which promotes its message of kindness at concerts and through books, and more of which she has used to help friends and family.

The spirit of Cool Runnings, the loosely fictionalised tale of a plucky foursome of Jamaican bobsledders at the Winter Olympics, obviously still lives strong. Fans have raised over $25,000, largely in alternative internet currency Dogecoin, to fund the current Jamaican two-man bobsleigh team’s trip to next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, after driver Winston Watts, at the ripe old age of 46, having come out of retirement in 2010, revealed how much it meant to him but that he could not spend any more than the £100,000 he claims to have ploughed into his dream. It was revealed just yesterday the pair had qualified and therefore become entitled to all local expenses through the games’ Organising Committee and, in separate but linked news, that the Jamaican Olympic Association had agreed to significant funding. So out of the financial woods to some extent, though Watts still claims they are hoping for help. Hopefully more will want to feel the rhythm, feel the ride and get on up because, on Sunday the 16th of February, in Putin’s hardly diversity-loving Russia, it will be bobsleigh time…

Okay, I know this is a controversial choice, as the whole #Kony2012 thing ended up hugely discredited in many quarters; both politically – with the revelations of the charity’s huge use of self-promotion and the accusations of ‘white saviour complex’/ bad politics and history – and personally, with Invisible Children founder Jason Russell soon after being found masturbating in public after a meltdown. (I view Russell’s behaviour a bit more sympathetically than that tabloid description suggests, but my point was that this was a popular view). But to its credit the campaign did, as Russell reflected a year on, raise a lot of awareness through the discussion provoked by what an undeniably ‘effective’, ‘clever’ campaign. (I don’t consider myself a complete idiot, but I was fairly sold on it when I was first watched it – sentiments I know are shared by others.) It proved campaigning with a strident (if trite) moral message and Kanye West music will garner far, far more interest than complex, detailed reports from the UN or humanitarian agencies. Say what you like about Kony, but it’s getting more coverage than what a senior UN official describes as “butchery” and the “seeds of genocide” in the Central African Republic currently, where an estimated 1 million displaced have been displaced recently and a predicted 1,000 were killed in December in just two days’ of violence.

…On to some happier news. As the reaction to Tom Daley’s recent coming out statement proved, the internet is now pretty good at not being nasty gay people. Of course, the internet is not the thing which actually has the attitudes, but a lot of those with less progressive views simply will be too old to know how to use a computer, let alone Facebook or Twitter (not to say all old people are bigots or all youngsters are socially progressive, but there is a definite trend on attitudes to homosexuality generational differences. Also, while offhand comments such as ‘that’s gay’ are still prominent in schools (whether you find that serious or not), and gay bullying is still alarmingly prevalent in schools, it’s heartening to know that gay bullying has, according to Stonewall, dropped 65% since 2007. I don’t think this trend and recent high-profile, social media-shared coming-outs such as Daley’s, Frank Ocean’s and Robbie Rogers’ (an unotherwise unremarkable footballer, but the fact he is a footballer is something) are merely coincidence.

But the internet isn’t just full of self-righteous Guardian readers. There’s been quite a few recent trends beating fusty old bigotry in perhaps the best way possible – laughing at it. Satirising it to show how stupid it is. Most recently, and perhaps most brilliantly, in the case of the satirical UkipWeather Twitter account, which has a lot of fun with the idea that homosexuality affects the weather, in light of Ukip councillor for Henley-on-Thames David Silvester’s claims that the UK’s introduction of gay marriage caused the floods over the Christmas period. For example: “A period of calm as a group of women go shopping for shoes. However, storm clouds will form when one of them suggests going to Millets.” And: “Amber flood alert issued for Tewkesbury after a man won £50 on a scratchcard and said ‘oh my god!’ 3 times in quick succession.”. Another trend very worthy of mention is the alternative EDL – English Disco Lovers. This attacks xenophobia and borderline racism through the power of disco. As they say, they are for “fewer xenophobes and more strobes”.

Inside the mad world of Leo McKinstry

In Opinion on December 12, 2013 at 7:20 PM

I always think the Daily Express gets an easy ride, given the common contempt for the The Daily Mail, or the “Hate Mail”, “Daily Fail” or, my favourite, “Daily Wail”. For the Daily Express is, believe it or not, a lot more crazy than the Mail. I know this because my job is basically researching from the papers. I’d know it just from the headlines and pictures, but I do read it occasionally and must admit I get some sort of perverse enjoyment out of it. Reading the opinion pages is often akin to voyeuristically looking into the mind of a madman (it is nearly always a man writing on the ‘hard stuff’ like immigration, crime, and immigration).

I think it mostly escapes the opprobrium that meets the Mail because it’s just such a risible newspaper – or ‘newspaper’. Maybe their front page involves jumped-up cures to every ailment under the sun and supposedly catastrophic weather so often that people just think it’s just harmless guff for old farts. (The day after Mandela died, and George Osborne announced his Autumn statement, they still led on the weather).

And in a sense it is harmless. I very much doubt any Daily Express reader has any real power in the world – corporate or political – almost by definition (ie to have such a standing you would almost certainly need to at least have a modicum of intelligence, which one would hope one would use to not buy the Daily Express). But on the other hand, the paper sells nearly as many copies as The Guardian, The Independent and i combined (although these tend to appeal to younger people who will read them more online, and can do so for free). If it was just some grizzled hacks ranting into the wind, that would be fine. But the number of such readers, and the stubbornness of their views, is arguably causing focus group-loving politicians to tack to the Right, in a manner many consider dangerous (myself partly). A recent poll shows that Britons think recent immigrants make up some 31% of the population. They actually make up 13% (around 15% accounting for illegal immigrants). And around 87% of people are white. One way or another this is seriously going to affect race relations and policy, and I don’t think it’s too much of a jump to suggest the Daily Express and its ilk are largely responsible.

It’s like the school bully’s side kick, chipping in with a snidey but unthreatening, unfunny remark after the bully has done his bullying. (I think it’s actually testament to the success and influence of the Mail that the Left feels such a huge need to attack it. The Leni Riefenstahl films of journalism you could say – evil, but effective.) You can see the Express’ insecurity in the way it proudly emblazons, in a big red circle in its top corner, ’10p’, and then ‘cheaper than the Daily Mail’ in small print.

I read one particularly odious piece of bile in this Monday’s paper, from regular columnist Leo McKinstry, a bloated old bag of bigotry and self-righteousness, who makes Richard Littlejohn look positively urbane and who insists he isn’t racist despite basically every week writing an opinion piece painting immigrants as tax-dodging scroungers, killers (wannabe or actual) or both and more.

I completely accept that immigration – in terms of the policy set by the state at least – is an issue, and it’s one I’ve got mixed opinions on. I have little more respect for,on the other side of the spectrum, the insufferable, leftier-than-thou Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. But at least her hugely pro-immigration stance, if naive, derives from a sense of basic decency. (And I respect The Independent in general and think most of its readers are balanced, sane individuals.) But this piece, like McKinstry’s usual, was just such fucking detritus that I felt the need to point out it’s pure unreason. I’m sure, as you’ve made the good choice to read Planet Ivy, I’m preaching to the choir, of people not madly and pathologically opposed to immigration. But, guessing you’re not regular Express readers, hopefully the following will be an entertaining or enlightening insight into the workings of a madman….

One thing you can give him – he doesn’t beat around the bush. Heading the piece “We can’t trust our politicians to act over immigration”, he starts:

“Across the land there is rightly a profound sense of injustice at how we have to support a growing army of foreigners who have never contributed a penny to our country.”

The idea of hardening views on immigration is true, somewhat at least. UKIP has gained much more support in recent years and two of their core (only?) messages are much less immigration and EU exit. (Funny how Leo is much more supportive of immigrants, though, when they are good at running and throwing stuff and winning us gold medals). Ed Miliband would not for nothing have issued a mea culpa on Labour’s previous liberal attitude on immigration. And this shift in opinion may be because it is believed immigrants “have never contributed a penny to our country”, given the one-sided scaremongering the Express et al trade in. But it is not because there is much truth to the statement. Most studies find immigrants’ net fiscal contribution to the UK in the positive. Which makes sense really; if one takes up residence in another country it suggests they are healthy, mobile and ambitious – all desirable qualities in the job market.

Leo then says politicians are engaging in tough rhetoric on immigration, but “no genuine action”. What about toughening up the student visa system and even closing some higher education institutions in the belief they were bogus? What about the ‘go home or face arrest’ vans? The planned crackdown on ‘health tourism’? All of which have been largely condemned. And while it is true net migration is significant and up recently, immigration into the UK has fallen dramatically under the Coalition.

It gets worse:

“Brimming with self righteous vanity about their supposed tolerance they have turned our country into a soft touch, where free loading, even criminal foreigners are treated by the state with far more respect than decent, hard working Britons. Thanks to ruinous policies our justice system is now used as a battering ram against our civilisation, while our benefits system is a magnet for alien parasites and fraudsters.”

Firstly, ‘alien parasites and fraudsters’ – wow. That’s a lot of hate. At least I suppose you can’t technically be deemed ‘racist’ if you believe those your invective is aimed at are, in fact, a different species. Actually, according to 2012 figures, around 17% of UK nationals claim benefits compared to 7% of immigrants. But hey, let’s not let that get in the way of a good rant. One of the few times he admits (a few) immigrants do jobs, he damns them for that too, presenting a rather tricky catch-22.

He then details the case of “Somalian rapist” Mustafa Abdullahi, sentenced to ten years for a sex attack, who served half that term. There was, almost inevitably, an “only” inserted in there, but it may well have been legally appropriate. He “could not be deported” due to fears for his safety in Somalia (it’s not exactly rainbows and cuddles there, I gather) and his human right to a family life – his mother living in the UK. And he notes a similar case when a woman who committed benefit and identity fraud was not deported due to her four kids.

But then McKinstry pulls out his trump card – the old, blind and (inevitably) devout Christian lady. Jane Phillips was robbed of £50 when giving a quid to a Romanian Big Issue vendor, who admittedly does sound like a nasty piece of work. (And indeed looks it – a mugshot is included online. Then again, does anyone look good in a mugshot?). He has, apparently, a conviction for mobile phone theft and has been barred from several shops for antisocial conduct, and should not be allowed to sell the magazine as he “lives in a £250,000 house with his family”.

So, we learn from this article, a grand total of three UK immigrants have committed crimes (out of a total of around 8.3 million). GET RID OF THEM ALL!!!

Dawkins controversy

In Opinion on August 13, 2013 at 6:14 PM

I know the Richard Dawkins controversy has now, arguably, been blogged about to death, but the rubbish that comes his way from even respected and well-paid thinkers refuses to abate and still confounds common sense – most egregiously, I find, from lefties (although I often think the ‘right’ are ironically more left on this issue). N.B. I realised after writing this Dawkins has recently addressed criticisms similarly but I’m still publishing this because it addresses many general issues I have with the hyper-sensitivity from Islam – and perhaps importantly, towards it (at least Muslims get offended and defensive over something they actually believe in).

For example, Owen Jones, who launched a Twitter diatribe in the wake of Dawkins comments, and a subsequent Independent article, in which he performed a strange contortionist act of simultaneously claiming to be a secular atheist in favour of critiquing religion and calling Dawkins’ stating of fact ‘bigoted’ – an act which would seem logically impossible (because it is, to all but the wettest ‘liberal’ apologists). As a slight aside, I always find it darkly comic how defensive some passionate advocates of gay rights, often strong leftists, are of Islam. I saw one bloke, who presumably feels similarly, tweeted Jones, who is gay, a video of gay teenage men getting executed in Iran, which highlights the absurdity of this confluence of ‘left/liberal’ Westerners (I parenthesise with reason) and censorious Muslims. (I recognise by no means all Muslims are, and by definition the many Muslims who haven’t seen or given a shit about Dawkins’ comment won’t have come to my attention, but several have, and it’s hard to deny Islam has previous in this area.)

The telling fact about this (confected) controversy is that, at least as far as I have seen, no one has really disputed the brunt of what Dawkins said. The immediate reason for this is that it is, well, true (and neither have I seen anyone dispute his implication – which I share – that the Nobel Prize is a worthy benchmark of achievement). Yet we could have seen impassioned defences of Islam’s/Muslims’ gifts to literature, language, art, mathematics and – historically at least, as Dawkins himself admits – its advance of science. Or we could have had arguments for how ‘narrow’ and ‘unsatisfying’ a scientific worldview is compared to that offered by Islam (and/or religion in general). I’m not convinced by the latter, but it can be argued.

But all there was was obfuscation, irrelevance and false analogy, leading to suggestions – some overt, some covert – that Dawkins shouldn’t have even tweeted it, as if there’s a list of banned facts no-one is allowed to quote from in socio-political debate. Among the bluster and bunkum I saw was the following attempts at refuting Dawkins, which I’ll address with as much attention as they merit, sometimes not much…

He’s arrogant and rude – To some people yes, and it may explain why little fuss was made when Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it. But it’s an ad hominem argument. Even if one thinks this, it in no way makes him wrong.

The comment was irresponsible – What responsibility does anyone have to be responsible?! Besides he was only tweeting it. People can choose not even to listen, let alone agree with the implication Islam is not a positive force in the world. After all, Dawkins is a secularist, which doesn’t mean making everyone atheist but advocating societies in which religion is personal choice, not imposed by the machinery of state and/or church. As such, he clearly wasn’t advocating a moral imperative for everyone to agree with, like some Muslims. And as for the idea he didn’t make a balanced inference from fact, god knows how many political commentators would be out of a job if this wasn’t allowed, not least Leftier-than-thou Owen Jones.

He’s singling out Islam – Only if the ‘liberal’ thought police, in connection with the chosen minority du jour, insist people must be balanced (fair is not necessarily the same) to everyone within individual tweets – which, in 140 characters, is pretty hard, even for an Oxford professor. Even if this criticism was valid – which it’s not –  it’s not even applicable to Dawkins, who’s spent years, probably more time, campaigning against Christianity, and addresses many logical points against Abrahamic religions as a whole, as they have somewhat similar origins, and to a lesser extent religious belief in general.

I know ‘Muslim’ isn’t technically a ‘race’ but his implication is obvious – Leading on from the above, this piece of rubbish suggests Dawkins is hiding behind ‘Islam’ to actually denigrate races – Pakistanis, people from the Middle East and such – some even suggesting it has connotations for UK immigration policy. It is of course true the areas with high prevalence of Islam are the Middle East and Africa, but it doesn’t change the fact that Islam is a religion, involving a choice (at least in theory), meaning people have a choice to continue believing it or renounce it, unlike with race, sex and – probably – sexuality. In fact, sadly, believing Islam isn’t a very free choice in several Islamic countries, where there is popular support, and even state sanction, for apostasy or encouraging others to leave Islam. So in practice, Islam does largely align along racial lines, but surely there’s some dark irony in left-liberals using this as a stick with which to beat ‘Islamophobes’ (a pretty meaningless tag, personally).

He knows better than to use cheap soundbites – Maybe he does usually, but surely he’s best to decide what is beneath him and not. He chose to tweet it and defend himself, so surely the best person to speak for him is him, not commentators imposing their own views on him. He has written books, speeches, lectures and had debates on how religion stifles the advancement of knowledge. Why should he be constrained to these ‘sensible’ forums. God knows journalists aren’t.

He’s got a really narrow version of history; Islam has done great things for knowledge in the past – He mentions this. And for fuck’s sake we live in the present. It’s impossible not to.

He’s being mischievous and deliberately provocative… – So was Rosa Parks. Was that wrong?!

…especially by saying it on Eid – So what? If, like Dawkins (and me, and all non-Muslims), you don’t believe in the central goal of Ramadan (service and obedience to Allah), the logical consequence is that it is a pointless exercise – as food is, you know, good for humans. Sure it’s impressive, but logically only in the same way someone hopping around on one leg during daylight hours is impressive.

The fact was technically true but he could replace Islam in the fact with many groups and thus imply they are intellectually inferior, like footballers or women – True, but this doesn’t really address the issue; just shifts the buck. For example, it is true of footballers, but they don’t make nearly the same professions to ultimate truth as Islam does. And as for women, well that just demonstrates exactly the influence beliefs and societal structures can have on groups. Take Islam in theory and practice. The first pillar of Islam, the shahada, roughly translates as “I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger.” And, in practice, Islam is invoked in, among other things, calling for death for those responsible for apostasy, novels and cartoons and, earlier this year with Malala Yousafzai, advocating education for girls. Is it really such a stretch to suggest all this retards the advancement of knowledge? I don’t think so.

I think many people, including me, see Muslims, friends or strangers, fitting in well to British society despite difficult issues and far-right groups opposing multi-culturalism on reactionary grounds. So there’s a predisposition to defend Muslims, which in itself is probably a good thing. But having a few nice Muslim friends in Britain is pretty irrelevant to big questions about freedom of expression and global Islam in theory and practice, and the extremes people take the defence to can prove paradoxical. When you’re perpetually defending various groups, it becomes increasingly hard to actually stand for anything. (Interestingly Christianity isn’t defended very often. Take Mormonism; how many liberals jumped to the defence of Romney’s much-mocked Mormonism?! And, as Sam Harris notes, can you imagine Trey Parker and Matt Stone making The Book Of Islam with no controversy and near universal acclaim?!). As journalist Nick Cohen notes, ”liberal muliticulturalism contains the seeds of its own negation. It can either be liberal or multicultural but it can’t be both.”

Joel Durston

Keep the state out of our love lives

In Opinion on February 26, 2013 at 9:28 PM

Onanists beware! The Icelandic government is trying to push through legislation that will make porn illegal – and in doing so, I imagine, create an awful dilemma for that great bastion of morality, the Daily Mail (the Mary Whitehouse in it disapproving of the porn, but its strident anti-nanny state stance scornful of the government inference). As the Observer reports, a nationwide consultation has found broad support for the measure from lawyers and police operating in the area of sexual violence and health and education professionals, according to the country’s interior minister Ögmundur Jónasson.

She also said: “We are a progressive liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti-violence. This is about children and gender equality, not about limiting free speech.” To be sure, this is a well-meaning stance, but not an altogether consistent one. The stated motives behind are admirable, but, contrary to Jónasson’s claims, it is undeniably also restricting freedom (granted, not necessarily freedom of speech – not much of that in porn – but it’s a distinction without a difference). It’s the classic problem for liberalism – how far is one tolerant of ‘intolerance’. Nick Cohen summed up an equivalent problem – that of the problem of Bangladeshi integration into British society – brilliantly when he said liberal multiculturalism “contains the seeds of its own negation. It can either be liberal or multicultural but it can’t be both.” It seems the Western world faces a similarly paradoxical choice over porn – either ‘progressive’ through ‘illiberal’ means (censorship) or ‘anti-progressive’ through ‘liberal’ means (freedom of expression).

It’s a strange problem because in many similar cases of freedom of expression the cause is unarguably noble – not necessarily the case when the freedom fighters are, essentially, fighting for their right to jack off with ease. It’s certainly a significant step, not least for a country which prides itself on its liberal sensitivities. But those in favour of censorship – for, despite some claims, that’s what it is – do have some strong arguments on their side, including evidence suggesting correlations between porn and porn addiction and rises in violence and gender inequality. And the move does seem to have wide support in Iceland. But the measures do somewhat suggest that porn is some outside malevolent force, imparting evil on unwitting citizens. This is, of course, rubbish. People make a free choice to watch porn, and it can actually support healthy sexual relationships, by cordoning off more extreme aspects of sex into the realms of (sort of) unreality, just like violence in computer games. And the internet didn’t invent porn – think of all the stories of curious pre-teens raiding their dad’s cupboards and finding stashes in the woods. So, chances are, just like pirated movies and illegal sport streaming, those who want to look at horny MILFs that much will always find a way, such is the labyrinth nature of the internet.

What’s far more disturbing – if unlikely to be implemented – is the Observer‘s accompanyingeditorial, which advocates the teaching of relationships in schools. It argues “it is travesty that the mechanics of sex are a compulsory part of the school curriculum, while an understanding of relationships, a vital part of emotional and physical wellbeing, is not”. Superficially at least, it’s well-intended. But when examined it just dissolves into a heap of left-wing nanny-state rubbish, which should only serve to make us grateful that the state generally stays the hell away from our private lives – something that should be expected but looks positively praiseworthy compared to the authoritarian nature of many governments and religions (often one and the same thing of course).

The truth is relationships and sex are (literally) f***ing minefields. Any attempt for the state to intrude further into non-criminal in this would inevitably draw widespread criticism from those of all political persuasions. Just look at how Michael Gove’s proposed changes to the history curriculum are being praised by the right and condemned by the left. Personally, it’s to the great credit of UK education that it gets attacked by both the right and the left, but – having previously been a teacher (albeit a substandard trainee) – having to negotiate various political pitfalls just add to an already onerous workload.

So, any kind of ‘relationship education’ would either be somewhat radical and incur the wrath of parents, protective and angry (quite reasonably too), over the state telling their kids how to live their lives; or, more probably, it would be meaningless, cover-all-bases mush. For instance, what would teachers be supposed to say about the practices of arranged marriages and stay-at-home women, both prevalent in many Asian communities? It also puts teachers in very tricky water with personal relationships with pupils (if individual kids even give a damn what their teachers think, that is).

The reason kids are taught about the mechanics of sex and not relationships is that the former is governed by universal fact; the latter is most certainly not. What works for one, will definitively not for another. Much better, surely, for people to learn about this in the outside world, from experience, rather than textbooks or intentionally sterile words from teachers.

Ashley Cole: legend?

In Opinion, Sport on February 7, 2013 at 1:48 PM

*From a debate article with a fellow TAY writer.

No

The eternal dilemma posed to anyone pretentious enough to have studied a module called ‘Ideas in the Arts’ at university: Can Leni Riefenstahl’s films be considered good art? (Leni Riefenstahl was – almost universally considered – a talented and innovative film director, but who has divided opinion for making Nazi propaganda). I am not quite sure how I answered the question – a broad yes I think – but it has, strangely, sprung to the mind with Ashley Cole winning his 100th cap. As he is undoubtedly a great exponent of his craft – one of the few solid, even spectacular, England performers of the last decade – but also a bit of a dick. Or at the very least – for he comes across not unreasonably in interviews – he has…let’s say, made several ill-judged professional and moral decisions (if there is even such a distinction in modern football). Certainly in the mind of many, there’s no smoke without fire.

The combination of fast cars and faster girls with tabloids and Twitter can be a poisoned chalice, especially for young footballers. But England fans do forgive controversial moments – look at the adoration of messrs Rooney and, especially, Beckham. Even at 29, Cole was disqualified from driving for doing 104mph in a 50, and at 30 shot an intern with an air rifle. And at 31, he told the whole Twittersphere what a ‘#BUNCHOFT***S’ (nice of him to censor ‘twats’) the ‘#fa’ were for their handling of a quasi-judicial case on alleged racism.

I’m by no means one of the baying, moralising soldiers-should-get-footballers’-wages brigade. I don’t expect players to know give loads of charity, have a compost heap or have read the classics – that’s not their job. So I don’t give much of a shit about him cheating on Cheryl (if anything, gives me more of a shot, if only approximately 0.0000000001% more).

But it helps if you’re not a prick. There’s always people in jobs one doesn’t like, while still recognising their talent. This arguably applies even more to an industry built on entertainment, with posters on kids’ bedroom walls. It just so happens I’m a customer in Cole’s profession, albeit indirectly. So, while it would be somewhat hypocritical – and stupid – to deny his obvious quality and commitment, I think that fact affords me a little moan over football’s water cooler – the blogosphere.

Arguably, to do otherwise – to suggest players’ personality is totally irrelevant –reduces footballers to little more than talented drones; mere collections of stats like their fantasy footy avatars (I actually have Cole in my team this season; very good he’s been too). I think football’s richer than that, though I prefer to exalt the positive – the hunger, the humour, the humanity.

So, whatever his ability, speaking Cole’s name in the same breath as the other, unarguable legends in the 100-cap bracket  – Shilton (125), Beckham (115), Moore (108), Charlton (106), Billy Wright (105) and Gerrard (101) – rings just a little hollow. And that’s only partly because Cole’s position is that height of glamour – left back (in the changing room).

So, that’s why last night I was praising Cole’s achievement, unenthusiastically.

Joel Durston