The thing I’ve always enjoyed about Laurie Penny’s writing is the endearingly belligerent, seemingly inextinguishable faith she has in people. So many of her posts and her columns start with the belief that people have limitless potential, and that it only goes unrealised when it’s trampled-on either by an uncharitable state or an unrelenting capitalism. I also like that her socialism isn’t situated at the level of the state doing things for or to the people, but of people doing things for each other. Really, if she wasn’t such a fine writer, she’d make a great motivational speaker.
Yet I feel her latest post is a little grand in its claims about the generation to which both she and I belong. Laurie paints us as a generation packed with potential heroes: “orthodox, driven, a little boring, and with a deep desire to save the precarious world that we are about to inherit.” Whilst we may be godless, we’re far from amoral or degenerate, and you can see from our campaigning against climate change or membership of Conservative Future that we possess an “urgent impulse to stabilise society”.
Whilst I do know people with the attitudes, lifestyles & ways of thinking she describes, I think it’s beyond the talents of any writer to hold these aloft as the dominant characteristics of a generation. In times when there is more difference, diversity and tolerance than ever before, I don’t think it’s possible to identify any uniform, unifying qualities, save the most basic & irrefutable facts.
She’ll surely recognise, too, that these potentially heroic young people, these earnest changemakers of the present and the future, do seem to be mostly middle class. Are the qualities present in a Cambridge-educated climate activist shared by a girl who works at a check-out in Boots? Is her description as apt for an apprentice plasterer as it is for a political careerist like Shane Greer? The problem with pieces like this is that the people who have the privilege of writing them are able to generalise their own limited experiences to those of the demographic as a whole, and I think we’re too complicated for that to succeed.
In fact, I suspect something similar happened with the boomer generation and all its reverential hagiographies. For each social or cultural flashpoint during the 60’s or 70’s, remembered fondly by those who were there & spoken of as Great Moments in Modern History, there were surely more people of that generation who didn’t take part than those who did.
Whilst the civil rights and anti-war movements were marching & raging in the US, I’m sure there were still more young mechanics in Boise, Idaho; more young farmers in rural Kentucky; more young waitresses and barmaids in small town Minnesota. There were more people who either couldn’t relate to these popular and counter-cultural movements, or who had to sacrifice their involvement in order to earn a steady wage. The Woodstocks and Selmas and San Franciscos of the past may have been significant, but not so much that they should obscure what I imagine is a much more rich & varied social history than is often sold to us.
I know plenty of people who possess the qualities Laurie describes, and I’m sure they apply for some in our generation. But by trying to find a uniform, unifying theme, by appearing as though she wishes to speak for all of us and be a character witness on our behalf, she creates an image that fewer of us will feel able to relate to. The great thing about today’s young adults is the breadth of our difference, and the fact that this difference is so ordinary that it’s rarely worth commenting on. After reading Laurie’s piece, I’m starting to think we should start asserting it a lot more.
Since my last New Years Eve song had a chorus of “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me”, I thought I’d go with a something a little more, well, upbeat. Hope you all have (or had) a fine end to the year.
[And yes, I wrote this in the afternoon and scheduled it for now. I'm hardly going to sit behind a computer when there's cider to be supped, am I?!]
It’s now just slightly less terrifying to be sick in America. Can’t imagine that the one Republican who voted for it is going to get many Christmas cards.
Paul Canning brings news about three gay teenagers on death row in Iran.
- Daniel Levy assesses the week from hell in the Middle East peace process.
- Gideon Levy accuses Netanyahu of being afraid & sowing fear.
- Moshe Halbertal, who helped write the Israeli army’s code of ethics, gives the Goldstone report a thorough going over. Like Andrew Sullivan, I thought this paragraph was significant:
Radical groups such as Hamas start their struggle with little support from their population, which tends to be more moderate. They increase their base of support cynically, by murdering Israeli civilians and thereby goading Israel into an overreaction (this is not to deny, of course, that Israel can choose not to overreact) in a way that ends up causing suffering to the Palestinian civilians among whom the militants take shelter. The death and the suffering of the civilian Palestinian population, in the short run, is a part of the Hamas strategy, since it increases the sympathy of the population with the movement’s aims. An Israeli overreaction also leads to the shattering of Israel’s moral legitimacy in its own struggle. In a democratic society with a citizen’s army, any erosion of the ethical foundation of its soldiers and its citizens is of immense political and strategic consequence.
- And, as a bit of light relief, it turns out that the MTV music awards were actually just an elaborate occult ritual. Well, it at least explains the existence of Lady GaGa…
Is she as you imagined her? The slackened jaw; the furrowed brow; the baffled, vacant expression. Does she fit the image you had of the callous, ‘sex-obsessed slob‘ who puffed smoke, glugged booze and watched porn whilst her boyfriend & lodger tortured her son to death?
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. It won’t bring Peter Connelly back, won’t prevent further abuses from happening, won’t stop other helpless little boys & girls from being murdered by the people in their care. All it satisfies is some short-lived curiosity for a face & a name.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t still relevant, important questions to be asked two years after this child’s death. Has Haringey Council improved its provision and oversight of social services so that evidence of abuse is acted upon quickly & decisively? Have other councils assessed their own departments to ensure a similar tragedy couldn’t occur? Are we confident that we’re able to provide enough support for victims of abuse to help them avoid inflicting similar cruelties on their own families?
Another important question, posed here by Sandra Laville, is why the death of Peter Connelly caused such a tremendous expression of anger, but similar deaths by abusive parents have not. Laville highlights the three-year-old Tiffany Wright, who was starved to death by her mother and left in a filthy, beetle-infested bedroom for three days. Then there was the case of Amy Howson, a 16-month-old girl whose father inflicted several limb fractures, gave her a serious head wound and broke her spine in two places. Sure, both of these cases were reported by the local & national media, but they passed by very quietly compared to the weeks of high-profile coverage from Haringey. Since Baby Peter’s death, there have been 30 other cases of children dying from abuse. I bet you can’t name 5 of them.
So how do we explain this inconsistency? Was it because the child was first known only by his initial, and that the shortening of his name seemed to symbolise the neglect & horror visited upon him? Was it because this death happened in London, and it was easier for the media to amass outside Haringey council than it was Sheffield or Doncaster? Was it because we need to believe that such abuses are singular abberations and don’t want to consider that they’re more frequent? Or was it just a quirk of the news cycle and the coverage of his death would’ve been the same as these other tragedies had different events been dominating the news? You’ll notice that there are far more questions here than I’m willing to answer.
Also left outstanding is the direction the country’s social services will take in the coming years. The ferocity of the reaction to the ‘Baby P’ case had both positive & negative aspects. On the positive side, we could see some sensible reporting around the case, and there were serious questions asked by dedicated journalists & public servants which helped improve our understanding of social work in Haringey and beyond. In addition, the case clearly demonstrated failures in management, and the public outcry meant that the pressure for reform and accountability was irresistible.
However, it also mutated into one of the most unpleasant media witch hunts we’ve seen in recent years, with blame being tossed in every direction and these overwhelmingly dedicated, over-worked and under-paid social workers being held personally responsible for failures which were not entirely their own.
After the murder of Victoria Climbie caused a similar outcry back in 2000, the government responded by introducing Every Child Matters – a well-meaning initiative which culminated in the 2004 Children Act and has had some positive effects. However, when this was implemented by the social services, it lead to what some have called an ‘audit culture‘, creating more bureacracy at the expense of actually going out and doing casework. Social workers were complaining about the extent of this bureacracy even before baby Peter met his death, with CommunityCare reporting that a third spent 60% of their working days doing administration. The task for the government faces is figuring out how to free these people from their desks whilst improving management and accountability, and how they do that remains to be seen.
So yes, there’s still much to discuss about the death of this tragic child – many unanswered questions, plenty of unresolved debates. In comparison, finding out the identities of his killers seems pretty small fry.
Yes, another one. I’m off to Cambridge for a friend’s wedding, so this is the most you’ll see for the next couple of days.
Hope you all have a nice weekend.
Staying in L.A. for a moment, and it seems that the hitherto inoffensive Cameron Diaz has become an unwitting target for Brendan O’Neill’s latest instalment of “hahaha, look at this idiot!”
Ms Diaz recently dipped her toes into the debate about global demographics and attributed her childlessness to a concern that there may already be too many
Hollywood Brats people populating the planet.
In his typically charming “I know far more than you, imbecile!” style, O’Neill decries Cameron for signing-up to the fashionable re-emergence of Malthusianism – which, simply put, suggests that population growth will send us all to our starving, skinny deaths.
As it happens, I share O’Neill’s scepticism about these modern-day doomsayers; whilst there are very real sustainability issues facing the planet, I’m not convinced that it’s going to be impossible to feed them all, at least on paper. Sure, there are parts of the world which suffer the most horrendous famines, but that’s more as a result of shortages in individual countries coupled with an inadequate international delivery system to prevent malnutrition. In other words, we could feed everyone; we’re just not doing a very good job of it.
But that’s not to say we can simply dismiss the concerns of these new Malthusians or deny that the dead reverend’s ideas have re-emerged because of very serious questions about the way we live now & in the future.
For example, the planet is currently suffering from a food crisis, and unless co-ordinated international action is taken it could be significantly more acute than what we’ve seen over the past two years. Naturally, the people who will be most vulnerable are those who already have the least. This can’t be waved away as misanthropic over-reaction.
What’s more, we shouldn’t necessarily shudder when people talk about controlling the birth rate, providing you approach it from the perspective of improving a people’s material conditions. Whilst there many religious/cultural reasons for high birth rates, two of the main culprits are poverty & a lack of access to contraception. For as long as birth control remains a privilege for some and a large family is economically necessary, you’ll continue to have a high birth rate, rapid population growth and a greater burden on the Earth’s resources. If people were more free and less poor, I reckon you’d see birth rates stabilising.
So all we need to do is secure women’s right to reproductive freedom and all peoples’ freedom from want. Whilst that’s obviously far easier said than done, it’s ultimately something that me, Ms Diaz and even the cantankerous Brendan O’Neill could all agree on.
There’s much I don’t understand about the porn industry: the poor writing, the implausible plotlines, the baffling belief that a man reaching orgasm near a woman’s face is somehow erotic. But of all these many mysteries, nothing causes quite as much amazement as discovering that the industry is averse to contraception.
It turns out that California is suffering from something of a porn panic after an actress recently tested positive for HIV. People who have worked with the woman are being told to lay off the heavy thrusting for a while and the state’s health & safety folks are busy trying to discover the source & stop it spreading. This might not be the easiest thing to do, however, for it turns out that safe sex isn’t sexy:
After an HIV outbreak in 2004 spread panic through the industry and briefly shut down production at several studios, many producers began making condoms a requirement. But they said both actors and audiences quickly rebelled.
Forgive the pun, but this is just nuts. In catering, if you spend your days handling a lot of meat, you need to maintain hygeine by wearing a clean pair of gloves. Likewise, if you’re handing meat for very different purposes, you’d think it might be smart to make sure your implements are safe.
I can just about understand why the porn-loving public aren’t keen on condoms; ‘dudes’ generally don’t like those little rubber failsafes at the best of times, and I’m sure it’s a real drag watching that implausibly well-groomed grunt-merchant take a minute out of his wild orgy to apply some protection. Pornography is 90% hedonistic fantasy, so I can see why the condom – as a reminder that sex isn’t free from consequences – wouldn’t go down well with the people who watch it.
What I find much harder to understand is why porn actors – whose hygiene is pretty essential to get paid – would prefer not to wear them. Is it because the sans condom market is much more lucrative? Would insisting on safe sex ruin your reputation as an entertainer? Or is their objection similar to the punters – that ‘safety first’ is just a turn-off? I suspect my readership probably doesn’t extend to porn actors, so I might never find out, but it certainly seems that the potential risks of not wearing a condom are far worse for both the individuals and the industry than any limp costs incurred from a disappointed public.
Beyond that, for better or worse (and I’ll leave the angsty rants for another day), a lot of teenage boys receive their sex education from pornography, and when it comes to having that first experience, their main frame of reference is going to be some skin flick they swooned over in their bedrooms. I’m not going to start insisting that all future editions of ‘barely legal’ or whatever start to include instruction manuals, but it’d surely be a public service if these kids saw contraceptives portrayed as a normal part of a healthy sex life. In the end, it wouldn’t just be the sexual health of the actors that you’re improving, but the health of a great many people whose perceptions of intercourse are heavily influenced by what a bunch of oddy-named entertainers get up to without clothing.
In The New Republic, Andrew Exum analyses Obama’s Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy and worries that it doesn’t go far enough:
When the Obama administration announced the results of its review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policies on Friday, reporters quizzing the review’s authors seemed confused. They wondered whether the recommendations announced by the president amounted to an abandonment or endorsement of the kind of population-centric counter-insurgency strategy employed in Iraq in 2007. Were we embracing a more limited counter-terror mission? Or were we committing ourselves more fully to nation-building?
The aims of the strategy are quite modest: to deny transnational terror groups the ability to use physical space to plan and prepare for attacks on the United States in the way that al-Qaeda used Afghanistan in the years before the 9/11 attacks. And the central problem of the post-Cold War era is that these staging grounds are often in ungoverned spaces like the Pashtun belt straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The solution to this problem in those countries is improved governance from Kabul and Islamabad, respectively, which leads us to pursuing lines of operation quite unlike those most normally associated with the art of war–such as improving centralized governance, coordinating economic development, and providing essential services to the peoples of southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The new Obama strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is thus better described as a “counter-haven” strategy then a counter-terrorism strategy. (I must credit a conversation I had with counter-insurgency theorist-practitioner David Kilcullen on Friday for that particular turn of phrase.)
So the plan announced by the Obama administration is actually a renunciation of traditional counter-terror strategies–which have employed special operations raids, drone strikes, and bombing campaigns to deter or reduce the capacity of transnational terror groups. In the administration’s strategy is the admission that solely “kinetic” means–blowing things up and killing people–cannot be relied upon to end the threat from terror groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
NB: I’ll just be dumping links for the rest of this week, and will be away from the internet for all of next week. Normal blogging will resume on around 12th or 13th of March
I know it seems like nothing could be worse than being in a couple of wars, suffering an almighty recession and worrying about the effects of climate change, but you’d be wrong:
In troubled economic times, it’s often hard to convince the government to fund space science. Heck, at least those much-studied fruit flies live on our planet. But there’s one field of research that the public should be happy to support: keeping the Earth from being pummeled by asteroids. And there is no shortage of ideas for how to do this.
Earlier this month, a skyscraper-sized asteroid passed within 50,000 miles of Earth — a galactic hair’s breadth separating the planet from an impact like one that flattened 800 square miles of Siberian tundra in 1908.
Then there’s an asteroid spotted in 2004 and called Apophis. Astronomers originally thought it might hit Earth in 2029. Then they decided that it couldn’t. Finally they moved back the clock to 2036.
The uncertainty is understandable, but not exactly reassuring. And even if Apophis misses, some other rock big enough to put a serious dent in Earth and everything living here will take dead aim for us someday. It’s just a matter of time. Some researchers put the odds of a civilization-wrecker at one in the next 300,000 years, others at 1 in 10 for the next century.
But when our luck finally runs out, humanity will have something even more useful: guns. As described in the scheduled proceedings of the upcoming first International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense conference, engineers have come up with plenty of ways to nudge an Earth-bound asteroid off-course, or failing that, obliterate it from its existence. Here are some of their ideas.
NB: I’ll just be dumping links for the rest of this week, and will be away from the internet for all of next week. Normal blogging will resume on around 12th or 13th of March
If the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were still alive to today, would they be happy with what the U.N. has become? Whilst we can’t ignore or dismiss its enormous humanitarian work and the countless lives saved as a result, what would they have made of UN’s record of defending the very principles which made these good works possible, and which remains the organisation’s one flawless foundation?
After reading the latest news, I suspect their judgement would not be kind. The U.N.’s Human Rights Council has finally approved a long-threatened motion calling on member states to outlaw the ‘defamation’ of religion. The proposal, which only mentions Islam and was backed by some of the planet’s most belligerent human rights abusers, has been widely-scorned as a quite naked attempt to protect religious belief & practices from the scrutiny and criticism which is our right under the Declaration of Human Rights. As Johann Hari wrote a few months ago:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated sixty years ago that “a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief is the highest aspiration of the common people.” It was a Magna Carta for mankind — and loathed by every human rights abuser on earth. Today, the Chinese dictatorship calls it “Western”, Robert Mugabe calls it “colonialist”, and Dick Cheney calls it “outdated.” The countries of the world have chronically failed to meet it — but the document has been held up by the United Nations as the ultimate standard against which to check ourselves. Until now.
The most offensive parts of the resolution can be found in paragraphs 9 and 12, which claim that whilst free speech is universal, the question of ‘how free?’ should be determined by governments:
9. Emphasizes that, as stipulated in international human rights law including articles 19 and 29 of UDHR and 19 and 20 of ICCPR, everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference, and has the right to freedom of expression, the exercise of which carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to limitations as are provided for by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals, and general welfare. [Emphasis mine]
Next, having demanded that free speech be limited by states, it goes on to identify exactly where those limitations should be:
12. Urges all States to provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, and to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs;
At this point, I’ll hand back to Johann:
All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a ‘Prophet’ who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him. I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. This is not because of “prejudice” or “ignorance”, but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.
Now, before we all start getting riled up about our surrender to Jihadism, it’s worth remembering that this resolution is non-binding and certainly doesn’t spell the end for our right to watch Monty Python films. But it is still a dangerous precedent, and one which demonstrates how increasingly difficult it’s become for the U.N. to satisfy its highest human rights ideals when it’s populated by states intent on practicing the opposite.
Other stuff I’ve seen today:
Apparently Britain really needs to kick the booze habit. Britain replies: “yeah, I’ll just get one more round in”.
Over at Refugee Council, there’s a simple, painless request: provide childcare during asylum interviews.
To solve university funding, the NUS proposes a tax on graduates.
Wired’s Danger Room on Russia’s “large scale re-arming.”
At FP, Will Inboden writes about how to get serious on Sudan.
- Aaron Rowe on how to make a solar cell with donuts & tea.
- Brad Plumer asks: can you have a green trade war?
- Via Jim, one Nigerian’s attempt at re-branding his country suffers a slight mishap.
- Myspace is streaming the new Pete Doherty album. Songs include such charming ditties as “A Little Death Around The Eyes”.
- Whilst we’re on the topic of cheery music, Popmatters reconsiders Radiohead’s ’90’s output.
- And lastly, a Russian ice cream maker is either racist or fond of hallucinogenics.
There’s a wee bit more at my link blog (hint: the sidebar to the left).
A few bits & pieces from here & there:
- Jim Cust asks whether 2009 could be the year of Africa’s internet revolution
- Andrew Sullivan has a fantastic short article on torture
- Josh Marshall wonders whether Sir Allen Stanford was also into drugs (cartels, that is)
- Ezra Klein on Blue Dog Democrats & Red Cat Republicans
- Marc Lynch has some more must-read reporting on the Middle East
- At Feministing, Courtney asks ‘What do women in Afghanistan want?‘
- Neil McCormick discusses David Cameron’s love of Morrissey
- The Lib Dems have some audacious proposals for housing the homeless
- Mike McNabb wonders whether our efforts against poverty have gone as far as they can
- The Vatican may have readmitted a society which openly propogates anti-semitism
- And the great Haruki Murakami writes from Israel on peace and… eggs.
It’s a story too mundane to attract much press coverage. This week, an inquest into the suicide of an inmate at Rye Hill Prison ruled that his death could’ve been prevented, and staff had failed in their duty of care. 24 year old Michael Bailey was serving a four year sentence for drugs offences. Bailey entered prison displaying no apparent sign of mental illness, but in the weeks leading up to his death he had started self-harming, experiencing psychotic episodes and mumbling incoherently. After noticing stab marks on his hands and scabs around his neck, Michael’s mother called prison staff to warn that he was a suicide risk. A few days later, he was found dead in a segregation unit, hanging by his shoelaces.
That was March 2005. In the years that’ve followed, this privately-run prison has emerged as one plagued by mismanagement, and beset by violence, drugs and allegations of corruption.
A few months after Bailey’s death, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned that Rye Hill was “an unsafe and unstable environment”. The Inspector found that discipline was so broken that drugs, alcohol and knives were all freely available, and prisoners were able to bully the staff who were meant to be controlling them. Responding to the report, The Prison Reform Trust commented that it was “one of the most damning reports of a prison we have seen” and that Rye Hill “appears to be run not by a private company, but by the prisoners themselves.”
This sense of lawlessness was graphically illustrated in 2007, when Panorama & The Guardian conducted their own undercover investigation. They found that staff – who earned a third less than their counterparts in the state sector – could top-up their wages by acting as drug couriers for inmates. Intimidation of staff was also widespread; one overly-conscientious warden was threatened that “something bad will happen to her” if she didn’t stop enforcing the rules.
The situation got so bad that Anne Owers declared the management was too inept and the only option was for the public sector to intervene. She cited further damning details, claiming that over half the inmates felt unsafe, that there was not enough supervision by experienced staff, and a failure to properly record and punish all violent disturbances. Her recommendation was rejected.
As David Wilson notes, much of what is wrong at Rye Hill can be sourced back to its private operators. Staff are less experienced, less well-paid and have a much higher turnover than in the public sector, and this has contributed to more chaos and crime than at the average state-run prison. On top of this, the contract awarded to the operators GSL contained a system of penalties which impact on how much they’re paid: discovery of weapons carried a 50 point penalty, assault on a member of staff carried 10, and the suicide of an inmate carried just 1. So the penalty for suicide is too small to care about, and the penalty for discovering weapons is so high that they’re better off not searching for them in the first place. The incentives to ensure safety and rehabilitation seem few & far between.
There’s no doubt that there are some bad people staying at HMP Rye Hill; people who have committed terrible crimes and who fully deserve their incarceration. But the fact remains that the majority will one day be released, and if prisons such as this are hardening criminals, incubating crime, and leaving addiction and mental illness untreated, then they are failing to protect people both inside and outside the prison gates. We can and must do better.
I got myself a new job yesterday. To celebrate, I’ve decided to plug that huge gap in the market known as “bloggers who write about politics but occasionally, and for no apparent reason, embed music by blue collar rock bands from Alabama”. These are the Drive-By Truckers:
“The new ration falls below what is considered the survival ration. They will be sending their children to hunt for wild fruits or selling the possessions they haven’t already sold to buy food,” he said. “People will be more vulnerable, they will be more malnourished and they will be more susceptible to disease.”
By the way, 2009 marks the 10th anniversary of the Blair doctrine, in which our beloved ex-Prime Minister announced his brave new foreign policy:
We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other counties if we want to innovate. We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.
Perhaps now that Zimbabweans are forced to ‘live’ on 600 calories a month, it might be a good idea to re-examine whether this doctrine was really worth the paper it was printed on.