Saturday, 28 June 2008

Blog Nation and men in feminist cyberspace....

Fashionably late to the party, this week I went to a massively interesting liberal bloggers' event at the Guardian. It was fantastic to finally meet people I've spent so long sparring with online; that awkward shuffling when a roomful of geeky people who know each other well but haven't actually met and are trying, shyly, to match faces to cyberspace handles felt pleasingly zeitgeist as always. It was the second part of the evening, the panel on women's blogs, feminist blogs and their interaction with the rest of the blogsphere, that really got my hackles raised.

With a room full of big name bloggers from across the country, it's hardly surprising that the debate has already been written up all over the left blogsphere (jeez, but I utterly loathe that term). One particularly striking question, raised by a confused young man in the audience, was: what do you want from us? How are we supposed to respond when you're complaining both that more mainstream blogs ignore your comments and posts and that you're routinely taken advantage of online? How can you ask to be taken more seriously and not want to be pushed around or bullied? Or, as the clit-itchingly unreconstructed Mr Lee Griffin put it:

'I think it's an amazing feat to both be ignored and abused at the same time but even more complicated became the idea that feminists wanted more credit, and to be leaders of feminist issues...but while men were there to support the arguments in a debate where everyone is equal.'

I rarely indulge in the turf wars over topics like this, partly because Pennyred isn't solely a feminist blog but, rather, a plain old leftist blog, highly informed, as all liberal politics should be, by feminism. But the reactions of the men in the audience both at the event and after they'd got home, had their coffee and calmed down enough to type, were astounding. Let me make one thing clear:

In meatspace or in cyberspace, women should not have to choose between being ignored and being abused. Both are problems faced by women in online communities. The hypertextual, interactive nature of the internet, along with the anonymity afforded by avatars and handles, is just one reason that flourishing women's communities have sprung up across cyberspace, groundbreaking grass-roots activism and sisterly solidarity of a species never seen before - but the hostility feminist bloggers meet with outside dedicated feminist communities has to be encountered to be believed.

As a woman writing online, you come to expect a given amount of crass, rude, misogynist abuse in comments; you come to expect a certain amount of pointless lewdness and sexual bullying from posters using the anonymity of the internet as a chance to indulge their more tiresome and vindictive politics. You expect to be called a bitch and a slut, you expect to receive sexual threats and inappropriate propositions when you write about women's issues. I've had it, we've all had it. At the same time, Kate Belgrave and others expressed dismay that some of the key online feminist campaigns in recent months have been attributed to male bloggers, when females have put in much of the leg work. Whilst understanding that male feminists have an important contribution to make, this position is a far cry from table-thumping feminazism. Let me explain:

We need men in the feminist movement. We welcome their presence, and we value their contribution. What irks us is when men come into the movement and immediately expect to lead. We do not need leaders - what we need are allies. What we need are men who will listen to our experiences without presuming to tell us, first, what those experiences are. Anne Onne has a fantastic piece up at TheFWord this month:

'...The problem is, as a privileged group which isn’t used to hostility, it feels as if any criticism is personal. That anything directed at men means that we are criticising all men, no matter how wonderful they are. We are not, and every time you think this is the case, check yourself. Feminists have brothers, fathers, boyfriends and male friends and are sometimes even men. We know perfectly well that not all men are responsible for a problem. But we also know that if men don’t own their role in this, things won’t get better. In order to unravel privilege, you have to admit you have it, and admit that people may have a very real reason to fear people like you. Yes, it sucks that if you walk up to a strange woman in a deserted street, or are stuck in an empty lift with her, she will be nervous. But imagine what it’s like for her. Far worse.'

We need men who want to educate themselves in women's issues (for a crash-course you can do no better than a visit to Feminism101). We need men to support us and afford us the respect that we deserve. And we need men who are prepared to drop their weapons and come off the defensive, who understand that feminism and misandry aren't synonymous, that a rant against patriarchy does not constitute an personal attack on every Y-chromosomed individual out there in cyberspace. We need male feminists who will listen without wanting to lead. To call the feminist movement an unequal one because its women are anxious not to be drowned out is a feat of point-missage second only to the UK's Eurovision record.

And, guys? There will be times when you will get it wrong. You will make mistakes. You, too, are human. Don't mire yourselves in defensiveness for fear of making a mistake. We will make mistakes too, time and time again - we'll call you 'typically male' when we're tired and angry, we will even refer to you, when you've put in the effort to be kind and considerate at home, as 'well trained.' And when we display disgusting dregs of prejudice like this, we expect, respectfully, to be challenged. As we, in turn, will challenge you.

Set down this: the way that men, and male bloggers in particular, feel when trying to participate in the feminist movement is not dissimilar to the way that women feel when trying to participate in life. That cold tug on the solar plexus when you realise you're in a world that wasn't arranged for your benefit, where you didn't make the rules and where your voice might be less important purely because of your genital arrangement? Remember that feeling. Remember that feeling and imagine it applied to the rest of your life. Imagine not being able to shut down the computer and walk away.

After generations of struggle, we are still trying to build a better world, one where gender does not dictate behaviour and assumptions and opportunities. We would like you to share it with us. Online communities are one area where we're laying the foundations, and we would be immensely glad of your support, your energy and your ideas. We don't need your leadership and we don't want your bullying vendettas; all you need to do is bite down and try to understand and own your own privilege. It can be hard to swallow. But it's got to be done.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Monday night riot...

In the Metro today, a cheery little feature about a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her body-image by - shocker! - stripping off for the cameras. On the next page, an advert for this.

I'm bored of this. So sodding bored of this I could cry and kick things. I'm tired of reading endless hashes of this same sick social obsession, fat girls, thin girls, calories, body image, size zero. The eroticisation of the gruelling size-zero lifestyle, life as non-life, the nothing woman as pop idol. Taking a pair of calipers to the female sex and demanding less, less, less.

After so many miserable years of starving and vomiting and weighing and hating myself, I'm angry. Cheated, driven almost to total destruction, years of my youth for an adult world that wanted perfection at the same time as it demanded less.

You want less of me, mister? Let me shove these five extra pounds of human meat in your face. I'll smother you with it. You want less of me? Tough. Because everywhere you turn you're going to see more and more of me, more of us, unstoppable bitches, coming for your jobs and your sexual freedoms and everything stripped from us for so long. Like it or not, you're going to meet us. In the flesh.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Kill Patriarchy 3: Cleaners' strike

Whilst the Tories squeal and bicker over one working woman's pay-packet, let's talk about some practical feminism happening in London right now.

The cleaners of the London underground work through the night to keep the city's vascular system pumping and sanitary. Most of them are women with families. Many of them face abuse and sexual harassment every day from loutish travellers as a part of their work. On top of wiping up our vomit and newspapers and taking crap from our scum, they have to struggle with shockingly low pay, on-the-spot third party sackings, little to no sick pay and a measly 12 days' annual leave. And they've had enough.

RMT, the tube workers' union, will be striking on the 26th-27th July, and again on the 1st-2nd July 2008.
'The tube cleaners are an inspiring example of women fighting for their rights,' said Laura Schwartz, a representative of Feminist Fightback. 'London Transport must stop under-valuing so-called women's work such as cleaning and recognise that it is crucial to the smooth running of the Underground.'

These people are us. These are the people who clean up our muck. They have feelings, and they have families, and they have a level of baseline leverage that the Old Firm trembles to contemplate, and they're sick of being fucked with. This is feminism.

Let's make one thing crystal clear right now: we're not talking about the caring face of service privatisation here. Much of the abuse faced by these workers, most of whom are migrant women, does not just come from commuters. Clara Osagiede, a representative of the tube workers' union RMT, told me that it is extremely common for women to come to her complaining about serious sexual harasment from their male bosses- agency supervisors- but too afraid to make formal complaints. Male bosses take advantage of immigrant workers by threatening to expose them if they don't keep their mouths shut. This is the type of insidious patriarchal fist squeezing the breath out of the vulnerable women of this country every day.

Because, for the benefit of the uninitiated, London isn't all fashion and finance, Kate Moss and cocaine. There are millions of people here living on the poverty line, doing hard, thankless jobs that they hate just to keep themselves and their families together. Most of those people are women. Feminism happens on the ground, it's not traded in bitumen between snarling academics, and it's a central and inextricable part of anti-capitalism.

Eat the rich. Demand decent pay and support those working to do so. We are entering a new strike economy and you, too, are likely to be inconvenienced in your daily habits at some point over the next few months. But not half as inconvenienced as we'll all be if we allow the Old Firm to kick workers' rights and women's rights to the bottom of the agenda.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

'I dreamed I was getting finger fucked by Hilary Clinton...'

'I was in Seattle, and I'd just come back from yet another interview for a job I didn't get, when yet again I'd been told I was a stong candidate, that I was qualified, brilliant at what I do - I am brlliant at what I do - and named runner-up. Not one of those people I was beaten by was a person of colour, and not one of them was female. And that night I dreamed that I was in my hotel room, and in walked Hilary Clinton.

'Don't the Jungians say that you're meant to represent every person who appears in your dream? In walked Hilary Clinton, and she was a maid, too, like Jennifer Lopez in that movie, Maid in Manhattan. And I forced her to finger-fuck me. She wasn't enjoying it - I mean, I was practically raping her. It was like -'

At this point, Commie Girl makes a hand gesture that I can't quite bring myself to describe.

'....Anyway, I woke and thought, 'This is it. I'm always going to be getting fucked, I'll never be in charge, and I'll always get raped.'

The delectable Commie Girl and I are at a party full of wankers and hairdos in Regents' Park, talking about women and power and politics. And branding. And Barack Obama. And love, God, sex, drugs and rock and roll. Commie Girl, aka Rebecca Schoenkopf, is one of the most unique and inspiring journalists I've ever had the privilege to meet. A compilation of her columns has just been released by Verso books, the ostensible occasion for this interview, which passes in a haze of cigarette smoke with reasonable quantities of ranting and tears.

The complete interview will be up soon at Red Pepper. My, aren't I the saucy one.


In other news, I've spent the week Building My CV, Networking and smoking furiously outside somebody else's office (I'll just come out and say it like a hussy: work experience) and have, as such, had no time for any independent thought. You can, however, read my first article in a national newspaper here - a scintillating, up-to-the minute piece of socio-political comment if ever there was one.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Scenes from Turnpike Lane station...

An hour ago, on emerging from the bowels of the Picadilly line as is my wont at half six on a Thursday, I was dismayed to see a wall of armoured police surrounding a pair of electronic weapons-detecting barriers through which the good residents of Wood Green were being made to walk. So I took it upon myself to engage a couple of members of Her Majesty's Constabulary in conversation.

'Why are the scanners up again?'

'It's a deterrent. You know, knife crime. You watch the news, don't you?'

'So what are they for?'

'Well, to see if anyone's carrying a knife.'

'Is it against the law to refuse to go through, then? Say, what would happen if I just walked right round the edge?'

'Well, you're not exactly carrying a knife, are you?!' Sner sner, oi lads look at the sweet little white girl in her cardie trying to be clever.

I tried a different tack. 'So, how do these barriers tell if you're carrying a knife rather than just, say, any old metal?'

'They don't. They're quite neanderthal really. They just flash red when someone's got metal.'

'But hang on. The lights are flashing red for every other person. Why aren't you stopping all those people?'

'Well...' indulgent little police-officer smile turns into get-rid-of-this-member-of-the-public grin 'look, we just use our judgement - say, if someone like your good self set off the buzzers, well,' looks me up and down 'you're clearly not the sort of person to be carrying a knife, are you?'

'So what sort of people would you stop and search, then?'

'Well, you watch the news.'

'Of course I watch the news. What sort of people would you stop?'

'You know, the sort of people who commit crimes. You watch the news.'

'You haven't answered my question.'

'Are you a journalist?'


'My colleagues and I aren't trained for this. Bugger off and call the press office and go through those barriers while you're about it.'

Stunned, I marched through the ancient plastic barriers, the metal buckles on my boots winking.

And the lights flashed red.

And nobody stopped me.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Breaking news: violent rape of civil liberties takes place in Whitehall.

I never thought I would be in the House of Commons on the day Magna Carta was repealed. That's what Tony Benn was heard to spit a few hours ago as the people's party voted in an extension of the detainment time limit to 42 days without trial for under the Terrorism Act. This disgusting pyrrhic victory was passed by a measly nine votes, provided by a sullen and harrassed Democratic Unionists party, who know exactly what terrorism at home means and exactly why laws like this will mean so little. In a Pulitzer-worthy piece, Simon Hoggart reported that:
We saw the great lumbering figure of the old turtle, Ian Paisley, pad down the steps, pause, be nudged by his colleagues, and roll off with them into the "aye" lobby. So we knew that, in Austin Mitchell's words, Gordon Brown had been saved for the nation. But when the gossamer majority was announced, the Tories and Lib Dems erupted in an outburst of rage and hatred, swivelling round on the nine DUP members, waving and shaking their fingers, yelling "Shame!" "Traitors!" and "What were you paid?"

I never thought the government that promised so much in 1997 would sell us with such teeth-gritting ignorance down a river that will probably inevitably carry the Cameron regatta into Downing street in 2010. I never thought I'd see such a victory for spite and oninism in the Commons as the bullying and cajoling of MPs into voting in a law which would not even be necessary had the government listened to its people and its representatives and not gone to rattle sabres in the Gulf in the first place. What idiots. What limp-dicked cowards. And my god, what a debate.

Diane Abbott was bloody fantastic. She had become an MP, she said, her voice rising to angry shrillness, to defend the marginalised, the unpopular and those who were suspected. These were the very people parliament had to stand up for. And in the end, they hung back. They voted in favour of a law that will punish a small minority of already marginalised citizens who, whatever their politics, will almost certainly emerge from jail and interrogation ready to sign up for state-sabotage with the first nutter they meet.

None of those voting in favour of the bill have ever done time in British prisons. None of them know what it means to already feel alienated, emasculated and shunned in a country where your own government thinks you're a dangerous freak who needs to be locked up. They let us down for a stunt that started out as a PR move and ended up as a right royal tantrum from a Premier who doesn't know when to let go. All those hushed rumours about MPs Brown had never met previously met being harangued in person and by phone, stalwart back benchers having their pet causes dangled tantalisingly before them in return for support. The ugly spectacle of a Prime Minister yelling and in tears on the telephone. Brown is throwing all his toys out of the pram.

The fact that his latest little stunt is one blunt, rusty nail in the chest of his government's re-election hopes is patently obvious even to his supporters. So why has he done it? Why fight so viciously for a piece of fantastically uncouth legal repression when the incumbent law, even if it makes it through the Lords, will almost certainly do more harm to Brown and his supporters than good to national security? Why? Panic. Sheer, vicious, bloody-minded panic. Brown has always been a bully, but now he's a frightened bully in a corner. And suddenly he's showing his teeth.

I want to claim then there are no words to describe the let down. Given that I'm about to be a qualified journalist, that's not something I'm allowed to say anymore. Set down, then, a suitable amount of raw rage about this, along with a hefty measure of bewilderment and a chaser of neat despair. I don't know how this has happened, and I don't know why. My ancestors came to this country to escape persecution, poverty and violence, running from bombs and state terrorism and asking for nothing but the chance to work hard and educate their children in peace. Now that longed-for liberty is being sliced up and sold off piece by piece in the name of freedom, for the sake of a thuggish politician's pride and a bit of schmoozing to the tabloids.

Bugger this. I want a better world.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

We Hate The Kids part 2: you’re spoiling the game.

On the cover of every magazine, young women are reminded of what will happen if we lose control. We will become fat and powerless and unloved, grotesque, overconsuming, binging on all the drink and drugs and digestives we can get our sweaty, unladylike paws on. We’ll stumble out of taxis way past our bedtimes, flashing our knickerless crotches at unsuspecting paparazzi and returning home to grind what’s left of modern morals into a fine powder and stuff it up our disintegrating post-feminist nostrils.

If your media world consists of The Hate, News of the World, Grazia and Closer magazine, you could be forgiven for thinking the country was being overrun by baying packs of young women gone wild,’ ‘rebel mums,’ on the lash and the combined pill, vomiting helplessly into the gutters of taste and decency.

And leading the pack, grown monstrous on fame and fags and pap-dashes, Amy Jade Winehouse, the nightmare reanimated corpse of a fifties housewife, all beehive and bad behavior, cackling drug-smoke and beat poetry, brandishing a bottle of vodka and several confused baby mice in her terrible crack-stained fingers.

The spectre of young women’s imagined loss of control as cipher for social degeneration is a long established and tediously familiar one. As early as 1712, the Spectator of April 29 made explicit links between a number of ‘addictive’ substances and their dangerous effects on the adolescent female mind, warning its ‘fair Readers to be in a particular manner careful how they meddle with Romances, Chocolate, Novels and the like Inflamers; which I look upon as very dangerous to be made use of during this Carnival of Nature’.* TheFWord has run a great series of posts this week about the Hate and others’ effusely graphic concern for the mental, physical and moral health of young women stumbling through the streets of London, Glasgow and Birmingham at 4am with the lads. From a recent article:

‘The shocking increase in drunken loutishness by 'ladettes' - up more than 50 per cent across the country overall - is being blamed by police leaders on the Government's controversial 24-hour licensing reforms.

They said the figures were no surprise given the increasingly commonplace scenes of young women staggering helplessly around town centres, or collapsed amid pools of vomit.’

And this is posited as a ball-quivering social ill despite the fact that, as stated in the very same report, drink-related violence has fallen by a third in the UK since 1995. ‘Ladettes’ cause panic with their thoughtless appropriation of the cultural norms of the patriarchy, so all the more reason to frame girlish bad behaviour as a terrifying and preventable ‘loss of control’, drunken or otherwise.

And that loss of control comes back to the body, time and time again. Where the archetypal representation of male juvenile delinquency is the stalking hoodie, the active and malignant bourgeois nightmare, the image of female degeneracy is just that – an image. It’s not how we behave, it’s how we present – the ‘scenes’ we present, the flesh on show, the ‘helpless staggering’.

'Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…' John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Self-control is presented as a physical property in just the same manner. The woman with perfect hair and make-up is in control. The dieting woman is in control. The woman with the gruelling exercise regime is in control, and maintaining that control is a constant struggle, since one violent, consuming fear in 21st century western culture seems to be the notion of western women really kicking loose, dumping that economy-serving physical self-martyrdom which represents successful womanhood for so many young women today. Not buying in. Spoiling the game.

Suddenly we’re not playing nicely anymore. The girls are staggering out of control, the boys seething with murderous intent. This is not, believe it or not, a permissive society, and to think otherwise is to entertain the notion that our parents' generation remained true to its ideals of tolerance and freedom. Britain and America are consumed by notions of shame, decorousness and a warped sexual economy desperate to bring young women, its key future consumer-base, to heel.

But we're spoiling the game. Spewing our non-conformity into the gutters of modern standards, the young women of this country, rich and poor but particularly poor, are rebelling in the traditional manner of any British underclass: we get ratarsed and we get rowdy. And what does that acheive, I hear you ask?

Well, it certainly scares the hell out of you. It's not much, but it's a start. In fact, tonight I might get the girls round for a night of loitering: we'll dye our hair pink like Lily and Amy, drink and get twisted and plan to end up with our skirts hitched under our armpits on a pavement in Shoreditch by midnight. If it frightens you, if it makes you sit up and think about what the hell happened to your dreams of a better world, then make mine a triple and down with standards.

*cited in Ballaster, Ros, ‘Addicted to Love? Women and/as Mass Culture,’ in Beyond the Pleasure Dome, Armstrong, Campbell & Armstrong (Sheffield, 1994).

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Sugar nannies and the state.

Today in institutional misogyny: Tories apologise for nanny being paid from party expenses, disgraced woman MP sent to the parliamentary standards commissioner.

What, precisely, is the problem with a working mother paying another working woman to carry out childcare and admin duties that she doesn't have time for? Does the public worry that people who are 'only nannies' are unlikely to make good secretaries? Does a focus on childcare as a career mean one is unable to read, write, keep files and open post? Was the nanny found delinquently dancing on rooftops with rogue chimney sweeps? Or is the issue simply that childcare isn't seen as an important part of a politician's expenses, particularly if that politician is female? Excuse me whilst I remove my jacket: it's getting rather hot under this glass ceiling.

The Tories' staffing allowance is intended to meet the cost of assistants helping MPs with their parliamentary work, and is not meant to cover expenses incurred running their private lives. Well, here's a newsflash: in an integrated workforce those distinctions simply can't be drawn. Childcare is an essential expense for a great deal of MPs, and for female MPs in particular - as essential as secretaries or office interns. The security of reliable nannying is one of the things that allows women to continue to stand for parliamentary positions in an age where one often cannot rely on partners, extended family or other women to look after your children. I see no reason for arguing that reasonable childcare shouldn't be chalked up to official expenses; I see no reason that Ms Spelman's case shouldn't set a precedent for future arrangement of expenses. You never know, we might just see a few more female MPs in the Commons.

This case is in a totally different ballpark from Giles Chichester's sneaky 400-grand donation to his own company, also exposed this week. It's clear that Tina Haines' work, both in secretarial and childcare terms, was invaluable to Caroline Spelman in her first months as an MP. It's clear, also, that these women had a good working relationship in a difficult time which saw Spelman, who despite lacking pendulous Tory testicles is now party chair, working from home, listing her domestic residence as her constituency office, and bringing up three young children whilst attempting to serve her constituents and her country. Yes, this was an economic arrangement between two women potentially divided by class and income. Yes, I'm running dangerously close to defending a Tory MP's finance arrangements. But if one woman manages to combine a successful political career and motherhood whilst another receives more money and an added whack of parliamentary experience should she ever decide to change careers? Well, I call that sisterhood.

Which is, of course, precisely the Tories' objection to the use of their party funds - along with the fact that publicly acknowledged financial support for any working-class woman in a carer's role would be setting a dangerous precedent for the party. Next thing you know, it'll be tuppence for every penniless bird-feeding lady in London and the dons of Merril Lynch and PriceWaterhouseCoopers flying kites on Hampstead Heath - and then where would we be?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Reefer madness: an interlude.

Shock, horror, disaster! Call the riot boys, summon the G8! Get your placards out! Cannabis causes brain damage!

Well, sort of. Ish. We think. But it's been days since the last teen stabbing and it's a slow news morning, so let's have a moral panic anyway. Cue headlines splashed with the latest drug trials that prove next to nothing about the effects of marijuana on the human brain, as if that were the point.

Let's take an example: alcohol is our nation's biggest drug problem. Now, in tests that have been carried out so far, medium-to-low-level use of cannabis - a few joints a week for a few years, say - has been shown to display no correlation with changes in brain composition and chemistry. Likewise, there has been little evidence to show that a few units of alcohol a week does any permanent damage to one's system.

But the most recent studies on THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, examine people who've been smoking five or more joints per day for upwards of ten years. That, my dears, is one significant fucking habit. It's the equivalent of major, long-term alcoholism. And both addictions, taken to extreme, cause brain damage along with a host of other symptoms. If you're at an equivalent stage of advanced alcoholism, your memory will be dodgy, your sleep patterns shot to hell and your stress levels all over the place, not to mention the fact that you've probably fried your liver and kidneys. Likewise, if you've been smoking five joints a day for ten years all by yourself, you may well have a slightly shrunken amygdala, but your biggest and most immediate problem is probably going to be lung damage.

So let's compare this to another damaging behavior: self-harm. If you carried out equivalent studies on groups of self harmers with a control group, one would probably find that the self-harmers as a whole displayed significantly higher levels of depression and medium- to high-level manic and schizophrenic symptoms than the non-self-harming teenagers. Does this mean that self-harm causes brain damage? Of course not.

Alcohol, self-harm, hard drug use, smoking, unsafe sex, smoking cannabis. All of these activities have been shown to be more prevalent amongst the depressed and emotionally disordered, and particularly amongst the depressed and emotionally disordered young. But they are aggravating symptoms, not the cause of the problem. It's only logical that chemical escapism, offered by these drugs and addictions in their extremes, is a resort likely to be most tempting to those who have most to escape from.

Which is not to say that it's a good idea to spend all of your time stoned. It's a very BAD idea to spend all of your time stoned, especially if you care at all about your lung capacity. But it's no worse for you than, say, mild alcoholism, and there's no reason for it to be criminalised when alcohol isn't. The effect of the continued criminalisation - and, now, of reclassification despite leading doctors' advice - of cannabis is simply to make users more financially and emotionally dependent on illegal drug-dealers, and less likely to seek help when , like young alcoholics, they recognise that their problems have superseded their control.

The trouble with the THC debate is that it tends to be polarised between subjective extremes. On the one hand, there are the hard-liners like Gordon Brown who just hate hippies, stoners and all their ilk; then there are parents understandably blinkered by fear for their children, and conservatives eager to jump on the latest bandwagon condemning the coping mechanisms of any social underclass. (Janine has a brilliant piece today commenting on the continued legality of alcohol at the Henley Regatta).

On the other hand, there are the producers of High Times and their mates, the great semi-washed, stoning masses who may or may not be otherwise useful members of society. Addicts frantic to defend their habit. Endless arguments over late-night spliffs that usually begin with a lazy generalised attack on NewLabour and end when someone starts quoting Bill Hicks. This isn't the whole story either.

The simple fact is that this country has a problem with drugs and drink: period. For Joe average dope fiend and Jill average booze hound, low-level use doesn't often present that much of a problem, particularly if you don't have a Facebook account. But there are heavy users, serious addicts, people who peddle away their lives to the drug, and they do have problems - problems that don't need in-depth psychiatric studies to demonstrate their urgency.

As a nation, we've fostered for several generations a serious weed habit that's growing to form a plausible second option to the nation's favourite hobby: boozing. We're a nation of alcoholics; we've been a nation of alcoholics for centuries. Alcohol is the drug of imperialism. It makes you rowdy, aggressive, navel-gazing, horny and insidious, strips you of humility and moderation, gives you a self-inflated sense of your own importance, psyches you up for a fuck and a fight. Alcohol is something the British have long internalised as a part of their cultural identity. Weed isn't. No stoner that we know of ever colonised Africa; violent stoners laying out gender hierarchies by beating their wives and children is another cultural norm that's yet to be identified. Weed saps away every hypercapitalist drive to improve oneself, to fight and conquer, to produce and to consume on ever more dizzying scales. Joint-in-hand, one is quite happy to spend another evening on the sofa chatting to your mates about the semiotics of 1980s cartoons. Not so the bottle. A drunken British public is something the system has come to accept, despite periodic media panics over the moral health of the nation, usually timed to coincede with periods of relative conservatism and economic slowdown.

We need to have an open and objective national conversation about weed. Marjunana is neither a panacaea nor about to tip us into an immediate cross-generational psychotic break, but it is a national health problem, a problem that needs to be understood and addressed. Increasing criminalisation, victimising the young and the mentally distressed and frantic media scaremongering add nothing useful to the TCH debate. Honest and balanced reportage in non-judgemental conversation with users, healthcare professionals and families alike might just take us one step closer to understanding the real scale of harm that this drug causes. So let's begin it.