Monday, 2 September 2013

Nothing to do with all our strength

I'm not sure that the vote in the Commons went the wrong way. But it didn't go the right way. And I don't know how it could have.

So much of the discussion has revolved around comparisons to previous conflicts. Labour were quick to say how much they regret Iraq and were keen not to repeat the mistake, but this isn't very similar. Surely it's more like Libya; long-distance, targeted strikes, designed to help rebels who we've finally come out in support of. Are we looking nervously at new developments in Egypt, and deciding that maybe this sudden outpouring of "freedom" wasn't such a good idea after all? Individual MPs may protest their reasons for voting one way or another, but many outlets have been quick to highlight that this wouldn't be a "popular" war. In the face of what is being presented as a moral choice, is it our national war-weariness which is the most powerful motivator?

What is most upsetting though is that this whole discussion is only happening now. For months and months and endless months a government has been at war with a section of its people, and bystanders have died and their homes have been destroyed, and well over a million people have fled their home to go...nowhere. A country which was a safe haven for refugees from the Iraq war now wreaks devastation upon itself, and we only feel compelled to even discuss acting because the method of death-dealing has changed?! "But kill them gently!" we bleat, while we act as a platform for the international arms trade, and defend our insistence on selling arms to the conflict zone by arguing that we need to make it a fair fight. Have we learned nothing about the price of conflict? Even as fresh warnings from Sri Lanka ring in our ears? A repeat vote on military intervention has been ruled out; what about other forms of intervention? The government is clearly happy to contribute financially to the conflict, can we please send something to the humanitarian relief?

There has been hand-wringing about our "role in the world". The USA does not seem fazed by our lack of involvement, turning instead to the erstwhile cheese-eating surrender monkeys for support (if, in fact, they need any at all). Maybe now we can get over the idea that we are a "great power" in the world; is it too late to form closer alliances with other neighbours? To build new bridges in light of our new-found irrelevance?

Or perhaps we can take on a greater responsibility; do more for the world than just making explosions when one side of a muddy conflict turn a darker shade of grey, having sat on our hands for so long. Because our utter inability to do anything effective at this stage, whatever the result of last week's vote, is the greatest tragedy. Not a tragedy for us, but for the entire nation of Syria.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Dear British Press

Here are some things which you keep telling us about the EDL (no, not that EDL).

What you say: Tommy Robinson has changed his name.
What you think it means: Tommy Robinson is a sneaky and devious character, who can't be trusted.
What it actually means: Tommy Robinson has adopted a pseudonym for his activities with the EDL (no, not that EDL). People are allowed to do this; it is after all his name that we're talking about. You don't mention Sting's birth name every time you run an article about him. Or the Queen's.

What you say: Tommy Robinson has been found guilty of crimes.
What you think it means: Tommy Robinson is a Criminal, and the EDL (no, not that EDL) are all thugs.
What it actually means: Tommy Robinson has committed crimes. A small difference perhaps, but constantly defining people who have committed crimes by them gives very little incentive or opportunity for reform.

What you say: The EDL (no, not that EDL) are bad at spelling.
What you think it means: These people are stupid and uneducated. Laugh at them!
What it actually means: Either the (presumably) English education system doesn't teach everyone good spelling by the time they can or do leave it, or not everyone thinks spelling is as important as people who write for a living do. Either way, using this to sneer at (predominantly) white, working-class men isn't going to help the fight to prevent the far right from hijacking this demographic's sense of identity.

What you say: The EDL (no, not that EDL) are like the Nazis.
What you think it means: They are evil, like the Nazis.
What it actually means: You haven't heard of Godwin's law, and don't know anything about the Nazis. The Nazis were always a politically-orientated group, with clear goals and targets and a charismatic leadership. The EDL (no, not that EDL) are not.

Now can we please get on with demolishing their ideology, instead of repeating the same clumsy attempts at character assassination? It shouldn't take long.


Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

When I was in America a couple of years ago, I took with me a short book on American  history (A History of the United States by Philip Jenkins]; I figured that actually being there would be a good excuse to break me in to a subject I knew next to nothing about. I was explaining this to an American at a party, when he completely cut me off.

"Whatever book you're reading, throw it out and get a copy of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. It's just amazing."

Well, it's taken me two and a half years, but I eventually took his advice. And it was really good advice.

Through a dense 600+ pages, Zinn overturns the conventional narrative of American history, and tells the stories of the people who found themselves on the wrong side of the powers that were, and consequently of the history that they wrote. He opens by challenging Columbus' legacy as a great man, using the explorer's own words;

[The Arawaks] brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things...they willingly traded everything they owned. They would make fine servants....With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
Zinn goes on to spend the rest of the chapter examining the first trans-Atlantic slave trade (as European ships sailed empty to Hispaniola and were packed full of islanders to take back), and the initial callous brutality meted out by these and other early pioneers.

This approach to history, that of giving the often voiceless pride of place rather than relegating them to a footnote1, is carried through the book up to the early 1990s, but it wasn't this which struck me most strongly, or which prompted me to keep it overdue from the library so that I could write this blog post (I've already renewed the book twice). Instead, I kept feeling that the situations Zinn described were remarkably mirrored by those going on today.

As an example, political protest is (inevitably, given the author's chosen perspective) a recurring theme of the book. In 1780, the Founding Fathers denounced a series of protests led by a group known as the Regulators (who argued that the revolution hadn't changed anything for ordinary people) for using tactics which they themselves had used during the Civil War, just as the new Egyptian regime has been undermined by popular protest in Tahrir Square, the birthplace of that country's Arab Spring. After a protest in 1837 turned violent, the media denounced the protesters (now labelled rioters) and everything they stood for, just as elements of the press in Britain cover the slightest disturbance at a modern rally and nothing else about it. Political opposition to a coming war became almost impossible the moment it started in 1846, and citizens on both sides were urged to put aside all other grievances for the national good during the Civil War. There was even a (initially) left-wing politician called Tom Watson, just as there is now.

Social movements don't seem to have changed too much either. In the mid-nineteenth century, women were urged by conservative religious leaders not to wear more practical clothes in order to preserve their feminine mystique;
Woman, robed and folded in her long dress, is beautiful. She walks gracefully....If she attempts to run, the charm is gone....Take off the robes, and put on pants, and show the limbs, and grace and mystery are all gone.
Attempts by the oppressors to help the oppressed were ham-fisted back in the 1830s too, as Zinn reports that southern black leaders "had to struggle constantly with the unconscious racism of white abolitionists". He also of course relates the ever-present problems of those facing intersecting prejudices, as well as disagreements within movements which in some ways were all striving for the same things, and in other ways really weren't. And of course there's apathy, or the perception of it; Alice Rossi's quotation below could come from a 1992 newspaper column, or indeed a 2012 opinion piece from someone who isn't reading the right blogs.
There is no overt anti-feminism in our society...not because sex equality has been achieved, but because there is practically no feminist spark left among American women.
It in fact dates from 1964, three years before a new rash of women's lib groups spread across the States.

What I found most distressing, though, was the appearance of instantly recognisable themes in war and conflict. It turns out that the most eloquent argument of the futility of renewing Trident amidst a massive removal of state support for the most vulnerable was made by Martin Luther King in 1968;
We are spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development...when the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.
At the other end of Zinn's timeline, impoverished white settlers were repeatedly encouraged by the authorities to settle on land occupied by native tribes, leading to friction and conflict. This was used as a pretext to send in the military to "defend" the American citizens, while boundaries were "renegotiated" with the people who had lived there for centuries, and treaties were signed promising the sanctity of the new boundaries in perpetuity. A few years later white settlers were encouraged to farm that land as well, and the cycle started again. Though in fairness to the fledgling USA, I didn't read anything suggesting that they had built a giant wall around tribal areas / through native villages. Later, when the army was supposed to "manage" the forced migration of the remaining native peoples east of the Appalachians into the West, instead they outsourced the job to private contractors, who forgot to provide enough volunteers for the Olympics did everything as cheaply as possible, contributing to a sharp decline in the quality of healthcare provision and huge numbers of deaths2.

It was disheartening to read a long history of battles which are still being fought today, or governments which have not learned from their mistakes (and perhaps do not want to), or the continuity of oppression over a long span of time. Is this the lesson to be learned? Or should I be encouraged, enjoying a new-found solidarity with people throughout history and across a continent, who have fought fights mirrored in today's world and have sometimes triumphed? Still living through the aftershocks of the global banking crisis, a speech beginning, "Wall Street owns the country" and dating from 1890 (yes, 1890) suggests that not much progress has been made (unless you work in finance), but it also points to people who have always rejected the idea that business should be bigger than humans, that "companies are people, my friend" (Mitt Romney), that economics should always be in the driving seat of policy making.

It remains, however, the best book on American history that I have ever read (and I have read slightly more than two). In the last chapter, written in or around 1996, Zinn dares to hope for a popular uprising of the 99% of people who own a less than obscene amount of the country's wealth. In fact, he uses the phrase "the 99%" so repeatedly that I started to look for connections between his work and the Occupy movement (I failed; the man was clearly simply prophetic). Either way, though allegations of bias might be levelled by people who support the great American narrative, it seems that if we do not know Howard Zinn's history, then we are indeed doomed to repeat it.

Also, does anyone know Haringey library's opening hours? I have a fine to pay.

1 Presidents, industrialists, and other establishment figures are also mentioned in this book
2 I of course appreciate that a comparison like this over-states the significance of coalition outsourcing in modern Britain, but it was interesting to see that it is nothing new

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Blue in blue

What's so special about the bluebird?

This track by Sara Bareilles, this song by Christina Perri (less so), this piece by Stanford (so much more so)....

Just askin'.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

It's all about the Gaze

What a difference a context makes; I'm sure that the retailer selling the Big Issue in St. John's Wood, surrounded by expensive cars and clothing boutiques, was no scruffier than any other, but not even in Ascot have I seen someone hawking the Issue who looked so out of place. Either way, last week's cover star Dustin Hoffman certainly caught my attention, with a discussion of his preparation for Tootsie. Being the great Oscar-nominated method actor that he is, naturally he spent some time dressed up as a woman, just, kind of, wondering around. One evening he came home to his wife in tears, devastated to find himself constantly given a quick glance and then ignored by men who didn't find him particularly attractive, and evidently assumed that they wouldn't be interested in the "woman" in front of them for any other reason. He related in the article that his tears were tears of guilt at having been such a man for most of his life, though it's not impossible that the unusual experience of being routinely written off based solely on physical appearance had got to him a little.

[this next bit kind of turned into a bit of a "Male Gaze 101" (sorry), so if you don't want that then skip to the paragraph that begins, "But to the point!"]

Perhaps it's not surprising that it hit Dustin Hoffman so hard; no-one knows really knows what it's like to live as someone from a visibly different demographic until they've done it. There's an argument in feminist theory that many of the ways in which the world is presented, be it in advertising, film, or even my copy of the Big Issue, are shown through the lens of a conventional masculine outlook. For example, the slogan "sex sells" is widely used to explain the presence of overtly sexualised  images of women, which are completely uninteresting (sexually) to straight women, gay men, asexuals, and anyone else who doesn't find the socially conventional beauty model attractive. First outlined in the mid '70s by Laura Mulvey, this "male gaze" has been delightfully subverted recently by a group called The Hawkeye Initiative, whose m.o. is replacing sexualised images of women from the world of comics with pictures of Hawkeye in the same pose, highlighting how ridiculous the compositions are. I may have spent more time than is healthy on that tumblr....

The Avengers, but more fabulous - from Kevin Bolk

Sadly the male gaze is a powerful weapon out here in the real world too, as a way of quickly assessing a woman (or Dustin Hoffman) by her physical appearance. And it's not just men who do it; while I've heard my fair share of conversations between men who have clearly exercised their judgement through their eyes (and undoubtedly done it myself), women do it too. Aimed at strangers on public transport wearing "inappropriate" clothes for someone their shape, or in a professional environment to denigrate an unpopular colleague, the gaze has great power in its all-pervasiveness among both genders in casual conversation. Neither is it exclusively something directed at women, though in my experience that accounts for the overwhelming majority of cases. And it's hard to imagine the producers of the X-files considering not casting David Duchovny's character because the actor wasn't enough of a hunk.

But to the point! I think the male gaze has a counterpart - let's call it the female gaze for now and then explode the gender binary later. The female gaze is by default positive, affirming, a way of bonding with other people. It's when you comment on someone's outfit, the book they're reading, their gift shopping. Ok, so it doesn't have to be a force for good, it can be used to disparage and insult, but crucially it is targeted at something which reflects a decision, something that speaks to who that person has chosen to be, not their genetic quirks. And unlike the male gaze, it leads to discussion instead of division, and can be openly directed at friends. [Or strangers - I once saw a friend in floods of tears briefly pause to admire a stranger's tights; impressive gazing!]

Like the male gaze, it does have a gendered association with it. As a straight man I am often told not to try to join in discussions about the clothes someone is wearing, and have been called an honorary woman (or even "a lesbian in a man's body") when friends have found me not unpleasant to go shopping with. The question is how we could make this "female" gaze more universal, preferably at the expense of the "male" gaze. Maybe superheroes can be portrayed with the labels sticking out of their costumes, so we can admire their choice of fabrics? Or pay for covertly taken photos of celebs listening to Bon Jovi, or reading Jasper Fforde (the scandal!)? I don't know. But I'd like to live in a world where Dustin Hoffman was complimented on his earrings, and where I had first spotted how cheerful the Big Issue seller was keeping rather than judging his poverty.

One quick afterthought - conversations about the burqa's purpose often dwell on how it can alleviate the oppressiveness of the "male" gaze, but doesn't it do the same for the "female" gaze?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Love, Honour, and Dismay

It did not come as a surprise that the Church of England has rejected the government consultation on same-sex marriage. While the Church has always been a wide coalition of opposing viewpoints it is currently dominated centrally by a conservative outlook. And if we're not ready to permit women equality with men then giving any acknowledgement to non-heterosexuals is asking quite a lot. And yet, knowing all of this and thinking myself prepared for it, the Response itself has still given me fresh disappointment. 

In its opening paragraphs the document highlights the importance of, "the possibility of procreation" in marriage, an element which is optional to the marriage service and which places a value on the institution no higher than the fertility and compatibility of a couple's genitals. They go on to wheel out clich├ęd but nonsensical arguments; I have never had it explained to me in what way other people being married changes the nature of marriage for heterosexual couples, nor why the constant and never-ending shifting definition of words is suddenly to create a seismic event.

However, I was most shocked to discover the document defending its stance by arguing that allowing same sex couples to marry, "deliver[s] no obvious legal gains given the rights conferred by civil partnerships". Of all institutions, the Church should be able to acknowledge that the gulf between marriage and the legal trappings that accompany it is as wide as the difference between death and the handling of your estate. A religious marriage is about presenting your relationship to God and to your family and community (whatever shape the latter takes) and asking for their combined blessing and support in sustaining it. A civil ceremony may attempt, sometimes successfully, to capture some of these elements, but it cannot capture all of them, and for members of the Church the legal similarity of the two is completely irrelevant.

It is only since 2002 that the Church of England has officially sanctioned the re-marriage of divorcees (somewhat ironically given the Church's origins). The mechanisms of marriage available to ordinary people has changed a number of times over the centuries, without radically overhauling what that mechanism symbolised to the couple involved (though that has happened too). But all other things aside, for the Church of England to use the standard secular arguments to defend its position is utterly ridiculous. It completely misses the point of marriage, in a way which the Church of all organisations really ought not to. If it is an issue of theology, then say so. If it is an issue of doctrine, then say so. Don't hide behind weak irrelevancies and thinly-veiled prejudice.

The Church of England's website has a page discussing the background to the Church's position on marriage. On it, Rowan Williams says of same-sex marriage, "issues like stigma and marginalisation have to be addressed at the level of culture rather than law". For once, I could not disagree more. The government, community leaders, and yes especially the Church, have a duty to take the lead on such issues and set the tone for culture to follow. It is what we are called to do as Christians, and are in an unusually strong position to do so as an established Church. This Response is cowardly and embarrassing. And wrong.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Justice once was blind, but now it sees.

The US soldier accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan on Sunday has been flown to Kuwait, "based on legal recommendation" from the Pentagon. The excuse is that the US doesn't have the appropriate detention facilities in Afghanistan, and the US military likes to deal with misdemeanours committed by their personnel. They take care of their own, as Bruce Springsteen might say. Meanwhile it's making Cameron and Obama's (Camama?) confidence in the nascent Afghani justice system seem much lower than they would have us believe, as well as smelling of rank hypocrisy. Not only is the prison camp at Guantamo Bay still open, but both countries have previously insisted on people being tried by the people against whom atrocity has been committed, whether that was Saddam Hussein in 2003 or al Megrahi in 2000, whose trial was held under Scots law at a disused US military base in the Netherlands. Apparently it simply wouldn't have been just to try him in a neutral country (as suggested by, among others, Nelson Mandela).

It perhaps isn't surprising that a country with the unaccountability of the USA, and where the chief legal advisor to the government doesn't think that due process necessarily has to involve a court, doesn't feel a need to play by the rules it sets other people. What's the point of policing the world if there aren't any perks to the job? But isn't one of the key things about justice that it's meant to provide a level playing field? That power should not be allowed to play a part in it? Obviously no justice system is going to be completely free of bias (even if that's merely because people with more money can afford better lawyers), but with fairness being so deeply ingrained in our psyche surely such international bullying should be called to account?

And not just international bullying, for nations do not have a monopoly on injustice. A student of Cambridge University has been suspended for 2 and a half years for an entirely peaceful act of protest. The protest was staged against the government's higher education policy by a large group of people who have all freely admitted to being participants, but who are not sharing in the unprecedented and completely disproportionate punishment. And this punishment, which will completely derail the student's study, has been arbitrated by the University internally, without reference to...well, anything, as far as anyone can make out. The University doesn't like protests, but should know to expect them when it invites contentious people to give lectures; when my faculty was closed for 5 days so that the Premier of China, a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world, could give a prestigious lecture, a student took exception and threw a shoe at him. He was tried in a courtroom, and cleared on all charges (allegations that he was only tried due to pressure from the Chinese government were found to be baseless). He did not have to put his life on hold for years as a direct result of protest.

There is a petition to sign, and a protest to go on, and I highly encourage both. This isn't the first time I've moaned about the inner workings of Cambridge University on this blog, and it may not be the last, but this one takes the biscuit. When Mandela was trying to have al Megrahi tried in South Africa, he said that this was because
no one nation should be complainant, prosecutor and judge
and when trying their marine at home the USA might attempt to use this as a figleaf on their hypocrisy. But Cambridge University in this instance is all three. Other people have written eloquently about the absurdity of a university punishing a student for reading contentious poetry, but I hope someone reminds them what they are taking into their own hands. Ruling the roost in your ivory tower is great until the International Anti-Poaching Foundation catches up with you.