Monday, 28 June 2010

The Tories' war on independent women.

If the Conservative party is looking for a theme song that really sums up its message for the next election, it could do worse than Beyonce Knowles' pop smash 'Single Ladies: Put a Ring On It.’ The Tories have already made it clear that a return to marriage as the fundamental framework of socio-economic control is the aspirational core of the party’s ideology, and Tuesday’s emergency budget sent an uncompromising message to women who have the temerity to divorce or to remain unmarried: single ladies will pay heavy penalties, especially if they have children.

As well as excising the health in pregnancy grant and other rare, precious tokens of state support for mothers, the new budget expressly delineates welfare penalties and work sanctions for single parents, nine out of ten of whom are women. Single mothers will now be required to find a job in today’s shrivelled labour market as soon as their children are of school age, but as employers are under no obligation to pay a living wage that incorporates enough money to cover childcare, work itself will be no guarantee of a decent standard of living.

The changes to housing benefit - justified with solemn anecdotes about chav families living in castles that sounded a little like the chancellor had muddled his notes with a copy of the Daily Mail - will also imperil lone parent families, who are three times as likely to live in rented accommodation as families with two resident parents. The charity Shelter has warned that the cuts will "push many households over the edge, triggering a spiral of debt, eviction and homelessness."

The Tories may have sidelined their plans to recognise marriage in the tax system, but the cuts announced in the new budget are far more disastrous for women’s rights than the crass symbolism of tax breaks for married couples, making it significantly more difficult for women to contemplate raising children without a man, any man, to offer the support that the new government takes moral exception at providing.

Lisa Ansell, a single mother from London , explained that the new budget may destroy her chances of building a stable home for herself and her three-year-old daughter. “I have worked all my life, and done everything right, but the VAT hike and housing benefit cuts man I'm sitting here with a calculator wondering how I'm supposed to survive,” she said.

“This attack on single mothers is directly in line with Conservative rhetoric about encouraging marriage. If the only way for a poor woman to get out of poverty is a man, that has serious consequences for people like me and my daughter.”

Like many lone parents , Ansell was relying on a job in the public sector to support her family but after a freeze on recruitment in preparation for the cuts announced last week, the work she had lined up has disappeared. “I am an intelligent woman and a good mother, but on budget day, I woke up to find that I am society's garbage, ” she said. “If the new government feels that any woman who has a child with a man should be left in poverty if she separates from him, with a new sexual relationship her only route out, then it should just say so.”

David Willetts MP, who is to sit on a new taskforce for children and families, articulates the Conservative attitude to women and the state with icy clarity in his recent book The Pinch. Lamenting the rise in divorce and praising marriage as a solution to poverty, Willetts complains that "a welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is being slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men.” A Green Paper on “the Family” released in January by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice suggested that lone parenthood is responsible for “fracturing British society,” and that governments should send a clear signal that “families matter”.

Unfortunately for millions of parents, partners and children in Britain, only certain families truly matter to the Conservative party. The entire premise of the Tory marital fetish is that ‘families’ are not just any old riff-raff who love one other and are committed to each other’s wellbeing: the proper form of the family in Conservative Britain is a rigid economic arrangement involving two married, cohabiting parents, preferably owning property and drawing as little state support as possible. Only 37% of the population enjoy this sort of ‘traditional’ arrangement, but Tory social policy has rarely taken the reality of working people’s lives into account when imposing its dictats.

One does not need to be a socialist feminist to understand that the history of women’s liberation has always been about economics. Indeed, after suffrage was achieved, the key victories of the women’s movement in the 1970s involved the fight to allow women and children to be financially independent of men should the need arise.

The hypocrisy of the Tory family fetish, which rewards married, middle-class women for staying at home with their children whilst demonising poor, single women for doing the same, should remind the British left that even the most fundamental of progressive reforms can be reversed unless progressives remain vigilant. Contemporary Conservative policy on ‘The Family’ encodes a cold, reactionary moral agenda in the rhetoric of “allowing people real choice over their lives”, but this budget threatens women's hard-won freedom to make important choices for themselves and their families: the choice to leave an unsuitable or violent partner without facing financial ruin; the choice to remain unmarried; the choice to live a dignified life independent of men, whether or not we have children. These choices are fundamental to women's rights. They are not optional extras that can be trimmed from the budget whenever the nation feels the piece; they are core provisions for female security in an unjust patriarchal world, and they are priceless.

This budget is not merely a repulsive moral assault on single mothers: it is a direct threat to all women who believe that our futures should not depend on the ability to catch and keep a man. The Coalition has claimed that the cuts annonced on Tuesday are 'unavoidable', but the new budget looks anything but reactive: it looks, amongst other things, like a concerted attack on women's hard-won freedoms, an attack based, in Harriet Harman's words, on ideology rather than economics.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Aw, you guys...

I've now received over fifty emails full of rage and hope and ideas. The internet is wonderful, you're all wonderful, and you're a constant source of energy and inspiration. Thank you.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Public service announcement: another rare personal post.

ETA Saturday morning: I've edited out some of the melodrama but decided to keep this on the net, because it doesn't do to be ashamed of one's mental health. This is not cross-posted at New Statesman, for the obvious reason that it's much more personal than anything I normally put out here. I hope you'll take it in the spirit in which it is meant.

***

Six weeks ago, three things happened in short succession: I broke up with my beloved partner of three years, my entire friendship group left London at once, and, relatedly, I became homeless. Slap in the middle of that upheaval, I have somehow acquired a blog at New Statesman; I've been living out of a suitcase whilst commuting to my other job at Morning Star, and I've been trying to finish my small book, the deadlines for which and several other projects are oh, just whooshing into view. Unfortunately, all I really want to do at this precise moment in time is find secure accommodation, curl up in a bed of my own and eat ice cream in the dark until I feel better. It's hardly bloody Basra. In the grand scheme of things, I'm still rather a lucky person, really. But it's getting harder to stay in touch with why I write and campaign in the first place. It's getting harder to stay angry. And that frightens me.

Writing, which at the moment I have to do at the rate of about 3,000 words per day, currently feels like dragging a large, wet rope out of my forehead, inch by torturous inch. My mental health has taken a turn for the worse. I'm struggling to care. I'm struggling to stay angry. That terrifies me more than anything.

There aren't many things that scare me. The centre-right have taken back my country and imposed dazzlingly punitive cuts to welfare and public services. Across the pond, the American right are winning the fight for ideological control of the world's only superpower. The planet is boiling; the rivers are drying up; the human race may very well be about to tear itself apart. None of that scares me one bit. Give me energy, a cause and a place to stand and I'll shout out against oppression until I'm old and broken and they cart me away. Put me in a room with my own depression and suddenly I'm small and scared enough that I'd rather accept despair than fight bigoty and injustice. That is scary. Compared to depression, Torygeddon and impending global climapocalypse are not at all frightening.

That's what clinical depression does, you see. It takes away your anger, piece by piece, along with every other drive and interest and emotion that ever mattered to you. It wraps you in a dry, stifling blanket of heavy despair and leaves you to shuffle about your daily business, swaddled against the joys of life, the frustrations, the pain. When terrible things happen - like a coalition government closing down your country piece by piece, slamming the door on the young, the poor, the sick, immigrants, women - you cease to really believe that anything can be done. You clam up, clamp down, try to conserve your energy for the monumental task of peeling yourself out of bed, washing your face, rolling a fag, things that were effortless yesterday but now feel like a bucket of iced panic is draining into your stomach when you contemplate them.

Fortunately, I've beaten this before, when the stakes were much higher, when I was younger and madder and battling an eating disorder too. I'm older and meaner now, and I know what to do. I might not be okay for a little while yet, but I'll be okay eventually. For now, I have to keep on battling these currents with all my tiny might.

So here's what you can do to help me. If you have time and energy in your own life, because clearly getting through the day is hard enough without some whiny feminist brat on the internet asking for your input, here's what you can do: send me your ideas. Send me your anger and truth, for the little space in time when I can't access my own.

Send me your rage, your issues, things that make you mad, things that make you want to run into the street and start a revolution. Send me tips, statistics, moments of hope and inspiration. Send me feminist news, socialist ideas, problematic pop culture, stories of suffering and resistance. If you're holding an event or a protest, tell me about it. Email me even just a few lines, to the usual address - laurie.penny@gmail.com. It doesn't matter what's making you angry or whether you think I'll agree or be interested - I want to hear it. I will read anything and everything I receive (I always do!) and respond when I have the spoons. Send me your anger and understand that if the internet is made for anything, it's made for times like this. Because god knows, we're not alone in this big bad hyperspace world, however much it feels like it sometimes

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Labour's fingerprints are all over this budget.

Panto season came early this year. Watching Gideon George Osborne take the floor on Tuesday to announce the execution of the welfare state was a bit like being in the audience at a raucous Christmas show, with booing and howling on cue from the Labour benches as the Chancellor tore successive chunks out of sickness benefit, housing benefit, lone parent support and the dole before setting out plans for a wildly regressive VAT hike, a freeze on public sector pay and a hefty tax break for businesses.
The sheer brazenness of it all felt farcical, almost unreal. You half expected Osborne to burst into a musical number about how fun it is to be the baddie, announce the closure of all orphanages and vanish from the Commons in a puff of green smoke. The response from Labour and the liberal press has been equally pantomimic. After all, when a new cabinet of whose members 80% are personally millionaires pulverises welfare and housing with a fistful of broken sums before declaring that 'we're all in this together', what can you really say except 'oh no, we're not’?
By far the most astute summary came from activist and comedian Mark Thomas, who tweeted: "that wasn't so much a budget as class war committed with a calculator." The controlled ferocity of the emergency budget was almost kinky, presuming you have a fetish for being kicked repeatedly in the soul by a man with a stack of papers and a glass of mineral water. Labour and the liberal press have condemned the proposals – but the fiery indignation of Harriet Harman and Alistair Darling rings hollow when one considers that the groundwork for many of the proposed welfare cuts was already in place before Labour lost the election.
Uncomfortable as it may be for the left to recall, some of the most regressive changes in this budget - from forcing lone parents with school-age children into work, to sanctions for the mentally ill and long-term jobless, to elimination tests for sickness benefits - were Labour policies just a few short months ago. As the liberal press laments the proposed rationing of disability living allowance, it seems to have forgotten that Labour has already cleaned up on every other benefit offered to the infirm.
In 2009, the Labour Representation Committee accused the government of ripping off Tory welfare reform proposals wholesale. They were right: Labour’s green paper on benefit reform and the then shadow cabinet’s proposals to downsize and privatise the welfare state were functionally identical. In January, John Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford explained in an essay for New Statesman how Labour had ‘lost its way’ on welfare, abandoning the long-term jobless and undermining state support for the most vulnerable, with tragic consequences.
Earlier this year, the BBC exposed the brutality of the new Employment and Support Allowance tests, which are designed to deny sick people benefit by any means necessary and which have required patients dying of cancer to prove their incapacity by walking until they fall over. Despite the absurdity of imposing punitive ‘incentives to work’ in a climate where there is simply no work to be had, outliers like John McDonnell who have spoken out against welfare reform were condemned as cranks, and during the general election campaign not one Labour member made the strong case for social justice and a protective welfare state that so many of us ached to hear.
Osborne’s emergency budget is class war and nothing else, unashamedly shoring up the private sector whilst stripping vital support from those who already have nothing. The bitter truth, however, is that Osborne would not have been able to get away with this had New Labour not already laid the ideological foundation for the destruction of welfare in Britain.
For those of us who have lived at the sharp edge of Labour’s welfare reforms, for those of us who lost homes, friends and partners to poverty and unemployment, for those of us who have organised, campaigned and fought to push stories about the savagery of benefit sanctions into the press, the centre-left’s sudden attack of conscience is colossally insulting. For the young, the sick and the poor, the energy of Labour’s outrage over welfare reform has come far too late.
The Guardian’s Jackie Ashley commented that these cuts represent “the absolute triumph” of the Tories’ “softening-up process” - but that process occurred under Labour. At some point over the past decade, it became acceptable to stereotype families and communities as ‘scroungers', to scapegoat lone parents and the long-term jobless, and to imply that the long-term sick are merely malingering. Somehow, it became admissible to speak of poverty and hopelessness as ‘incentives to work’. Somehow, it became conscionable for the left to refer to welfare provision as ‘a drain on the state’ rather than a central, vital function of the state.
For the millions of us who have relied on meagre welfare support to survive the first dip of this recession, it was New Labour who held us down whilst we waited for the inevitable punches from the right. And in one way, news of the Coalition's outright assault on the life chances and dignity of the poor hurts a little less, because we saw it coming. Being smacked in the face is less painful than being stabbed in the back.
In the weeks and months to come, Labour might just begin remember that it is not the party of business, the party of corporate Britain, but the party of Nye Bevan, Clement Atlee and Barbara Castle, the party of working people and the poor, the party of the NHS, of university grants, of chartists and levellers and diggers and dreamers, of trade unions and of the welfare state. Over the coming years of pain, Labour will serve the ordinary people of Britain best if it remembers its core values. For some of us, however, it may already be too late.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

We are the fifth estate [cross-post from New Statesman]

Apologies for being scant in cross-posting and monitoring comments - I'm currently trying to work three jobs whilst living out of a suitcase and healing a broken heart, and it's all got a bit melodramatic. I'll be blogging about the budget tonight, once I can work out something more coherent to write than 'fuck', 800 times over. Anyone else feel like they've been kicked in the soul? Yeah, me too.

****

Remember hard copy? Your kids might not. This week it emerged that newspaper sales are plummeting in Britain, with only 33% of the population now claiming to be regular readers of analogue news. As more and more of us cherry-pick our media online, drawing little distinction between the mainstream press and the popular blogosphere, industry insiders are beginning to panic, predicting the violent death of quality commentary and investigative journalism at the multiferous hands of the internet.

On several baffling occasions in recent months, I have found myself at snooty media events where hosts introduce me and my colleagues as gingerly as ‘bloggers’, rather as if we were the grinning emissaries of a rogue state, ambassadors from a territory of violent cultural change which the authorities might soon see fit to brutally suppress but which, for now, must be appeased with canap├ęs and party invitations. Cosy members of the established commentariat eye bloggers suspiciously, as if beneath our funny clothes and unruly hair we might actually be strapped with information bombs ready to explode their cultural paradigms and destroy their livelihoods.

This sort of prejudice is deeply anodyne. Bloggers aren't out to take away the jobs of highly-paid columnists: we're more ambitious than that. We're out for a complete revolution in the way media and politics are done. Whilst the media establishment guards its borders with paranoid rigour, snobbishly distinguishing between 'bloggers' and 'journalists', people from the internet have already infiltrated the mainstream. Many influential writers now work across both camps, such as author, blogger and digital activist Cory Doctorow, who observed that the blogosphere need not threaten paid comment journalism:

“Commercially speaking, newspapers can make enough money from advertising to pay reasonable rates for opinion,” said Doctorow. “I know of at least one that does, and that's my site, BoingBoing, which reaches millions of readers every month. By operating efficiently, we can more than match the fees paid by the New York Times, for example, which always pays peanuts for op-eds because the glory of being published in the NYT is meant to be its own reward.

"After you take away the adverts, the personals, the filler and the pieces hacked together from press releases, the average paper contains about fifteen column inches of decent investigative journalism and commentary,” said Doctorow. “And the internet is more than capable of financing fifteen column inches a day.”

What the blogosphere threatens is not the survival of comment journalism itself: it threatens the monopoly of the media elite, holding the self-important fourth estate to a higher standard than bourgeois columnists and editors find comfortable. We are, in effect, a fifth estate, scrutinising the mainstream media and challenging its assumptions.

Last month, when Danny Dyer appeared to advise a reader of Zoo magazine to cut his girlfriend's face, the feminist arm of the fifth estate responded angrily, prompted a retraction and apology from Zoo and successfully organised a donation drive to raised more money for women’s refuge charities than the discredited Dyer’s violently misogynist film Pimp made in its first week of release. That’s the type of power that scares the wits out of the dinosaurs in analogue media.

Every day, the British blogosphere becomes less amateurish and more relevant. This weekend the popular forum Liberal Conspiracy will host Blog Nation, an event bringing together bloggers, journalists and politicians on the left to determine how the internet can build progressive campaigns to fight public sector cuts. “We have a strong community that can do activism and provide niche information that escapes mainstream newspapers,” said Liberal Conspiracy editor Sunny Hundal. “We want to use the net to get the left to think more about strategy and action - and get people to work together, better!”

The long-term effect of the internet on human cultural production may not be ascertained in my lifetime. Certainly the baby boomers who currently control most major news outlets will not live to see what change may come. "Where we end up in five years isn't where we are today," said Doctorow. " We're not headed towards a period of technological stability where we'll know what our media will look like, we're headed for more technological change.”

Doctorow is right to suggest that we are living through what Marx and Engels might term a “permanent technological revolution”. This weekend, in an incisive essay in The Guardian, John Naughton observed that being a consumer of media and journalism during the radical transformation of today's communications environment is a little

"like being a resident of St Petersburg in 1917, in the months before Lenin and the Bolsheviks finally seized power. It's clear that momentous events are afoot; there are all kinds of conflicting rumours and theories, but nobody knows how things will pan out. Since we don't have the benefit of hindsight, we don't really know where it's taking us.”

One thing, however, is certain: journalism is changing forever. The notion of political commentary as a few-to-many exercise, produced by highly-paid elites and policed by big business, has been shattered beyond repair. The internet is a many-to-many medium, and those who write and comment here are not media insiders, nor are we the mob. We are something altogether new.

We are the fifth estate, and we are forging a path through the miasma of technological change towards more a honest, democratic model of commentary - alongside a lot of porn and some pictures of amusing cats. The media revolution is ongoing. Whatever comes next, the bloggers' battle-cry must be the permanent technological revolution.



Cory Doctorow's new novel about gaming and digital organisation, For The Win, is published by Harper Voyager. You can register here for this Saturday's Blog Nation

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Are you a mother or a lover?

In a poll assessing 'what takes priority in your life?', the Daily Mail offers its female readers only two priorities: their husband or their children.

One would have thought they'd at least have included 'self loathing' as a third option for those of us who have the temerity to be unmarried, childless, gay, focused on our careers, or simply uninterested in dedicating the greater part of our lives to caring for others.

Fascinatingly, the poll runs next to two articles that investigate precisely how much time single, childless women over thirty-eight should devote to guilt, plastic surgery and questioning every professional decision they've ever made. Clearly, women with neither husband nor children are of little interest to the Mail unless they're prepared to be effusively upset about it. The prefered pose is one of elegant self-loathing, of well-preserved women in expensive dresses admitting that despite all the good things life and liberation may have brought them, their lives are empty and pitiable.

Unsubtle though its message may be, this poll represents rather succinctly what life is really like for many women today. We are discouraged from imagining futures that do not involve servicing the needs of others. We are offered an illusion of choice, formatted in garish baby-pink, between a small range of options that actually serve to exclude any possibility of another kind of life. And this, dears, is why feminism is still important.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Youth politics and revolution

I gave this speech yesterday at the youth panel at the Compass conference, 'A New Hope'. After writing this in a fit of pique at the notion of youth politics being co-opted into the conference-going, sandwich-eating mode of adult politics, I got very nervous about actually saying the words out loud, and was sitting next to John Harris of the Guardian as chair, whose columns I adore, which didn't help. Thank you to those who attended and tweeted nice things whilst the event was going on!

***

Not every generation gets the politics it deserves. When baby boomer journalists and politicians talk about engaging with youth politics, what they generally mean is engaging with a caucus of energetic, compliant under-25s who are willing to give their time for free to causes led by grown ups.

Now more than ever, the young people of Britain need to believe ourselves more than acolytes to the staid, boring liberalism of previous generations. We need to begin to formulate an agenda of our own.

There can be no question that the conditions are right for a youth movement. The young people of Britain are suffering brutal, insulting socio-economic oppression. There are over a million young people of working age not in education, employment or training, which is a polite way of saying "up shit creek without a giro".

Politicians jostle for the most punishing position on welfare reform as millions of us languish on state benefits incomparably less generous than those our parents were able to claim in their summer holidays. Where the baby boomers enjoyed unparalleled social mobility, many of us are finding that the opposite is the case, as we are shut out of the housing market and required to scrabble, sweat and indebt ourselves for a dwindling number of degrees barely worth the paper they're written on, with the grim promise of spending the rest of our lives paying for an economic crisis not of our making in a world that's increasingly on fire.

Just weeks ago, as news came in that the top 10 per cent of earners were getting richer, 21-year-old jobseeker Vicki Harrison took her own life after receiving her 200th rejection slip. Whether a youth movement is appropriate is no longer the question. The question is, why we are not already filling the streets in protest? Where is our anger? Where is our sense of outrage?

There are protest movements, of course. It would be surprising if anyone reading this blog had not been involved, at some point over the past six months, in a demonstration, an online petition or a donation drive. We do not lack energy, or the desire for change, and if there's one thing that's true of my generation it is our willingness to work extremely hard even when the possibility of reward is abstract and abstruse.

What we are missing is a sense of political totality. From environmental activism to the recent protests over the closure of Middlesex University's philosophy department, our protest movements are atomised and fragmented, and too often we focus on fighting for or against individual reforms.

We need to have the courage to see all of our personal battlegrounds - for jobs, housing, education, welfare, digital rights, the environment - as part of a sustained and coherent movement, not just for reform, but for revolution.

For people my age, growing up after the end of the cold war, we have no coherent sense of the possibility of alternatives to neoliberal politics. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek observed that for young people today, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

For us, revolution is a retro concept whose proper use is to sell albums, t-shirts and tickets to hipster discos, rather than a serious political argument.

Many of us openly or privately believe that change can only happen gradually, incrementally, that we can only respond to neoliberal reforms as and when they occur. Youth politics in Britain today is tragically atomised and lacks ideological direction. We urgently need to entertain the notion that another politics is possible, a type of politics that organises collectively to demand the systemic change we crave.

Revolutionary politics involve risk. Revolutionary politics do not involve waiting patiently for adults to make the changes. They do not come from interning at a think tank or opening letters for an MP, and I say this as someone who has done both. Revolutionary politics are different from work experience, and they are unlikely to look good on our CVs.

The young British left has already waited too long and too politely for politicians, political parties and business owners from previous generations to give space to our agenda. We have canvassed for them, distributed their leaflets, worked on their websites, updated their twitter feeds, hashtagged their leadership campaigns, done their photocopying and made their tea, pining all the while for political transcendence. No more; I say no more.

A radical youth movement requires direct action, it will require risk taking, and it will require central, independent organisation. It will not require us to join the communist party or wear a silly hat, but it will require us to risk upsetting, in no particular order, our parents, our future employers, the party machine, and quite possibly the police.

The lost generation has wasted too much time waiting to be found. Through no fault of our own, our generation carries a huge burden of social and financial debt, but we have already wasted too much time counting up what we owe. It's time to start asking instead what the baby boomer generation owes us, and how we can take it back.

No more asking nicely. It's time to get organised, and it's time to get angry.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Why I hate the world cup.

Much as I hate to disagree with Gary Younge, I can't get on board with his utopian vision of the upcoming FIFA world cup evoking a "collective sense of latent English identity...infused with positive energy." I despise the world cup. I will not be supporting England, nor any other team. I refuse to get excited about some wealthy misogynist jocks tossing a ball around in the name of patriotism and product endorsement.
Mistrust of team sport as a fulcrum of social organisation comes naturally to me. I'm a proud, card-carrying member of the sensitive, wheezy, malcoordinated phalanx of the population for whom the word 'football' still evokes painful memories of organised sadism and unspecified locker-room peril. I'm a humourless, paranoid liberal feminist pansy who would prefer to spend the summer sitting in dark rooms, contemplating the future of the British left and smoking myself into an early grave.
The fact remains, however, that there are more pressing things to worry about over the soccer season than the state of Frank Lampard's admittedly shapely calves. This country is in crisis. Young people are in crisis, poor people are in crisis, unemployment stands at 2.5 million, the Labour movement is still leaderless and directionless, and there's a brutal train of Tory public service cuts coming over the hill. In short, the left has more important things to do than draw up worthy charts determining which FIFA team is worth supporting on the basis of global development indicators.
The British left has an uneasy relationship with international sport. Liberal alarm bells can't help but be set ringing when a bunch of overpaid PE teachers get together to orchestrate a month of corporate-sponsored quasi-xenophobia; however, as soon as world cup fever rolls around, members of the otherwise uninterested bourgeois left feel obliged to muster at least a sniffle of enthusiasm, sensing that not to do so is somehow elitist.
This is a misplaced notion: football is no longer the people’s sport. Just look at the brutal contempt that the police reserve for fans, or count the number of working-class Britons who can afford to attend home matches, much less the festivities in South Africa.
Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that the world cup is only and always about men. Younge is right to celebrate the fact that race is no longer an impediment to his young niece and nephew’s vision of football as a world ‘in which that they have a reasonable chance of succeeding’ – but unfirtunately, his niece can forget about it. [read the rest at New Statesman]

Friday, 4 June 2010

There's nothing edgy about violence against women.

Popular culture fosters the delusion that violence against women is edgy art rather than daily reality. This week, as the bodies of murder victims in Bradford and Brighton are picked over by the courts, cinemas, magazines and catwalks are teeming with glossy images of the rape, battery and dismemberment of pretty young ladies who appear artfully complicit in their abuse.

Michael Winterbottom's new two-hour murder-porn epic, The Killer Inside Me, hits cinemas next week, and advance reviews have already carried gushing descriptions of its graphic denoument, in which Casey Affleck's sheriff Lou Ford (pictured above) beats his lover to death with his bare fists, whispering how sorry he is over the sound of crunching facial bones. How terribly edgy.

Apologists for this type of thoughtless sexualised violence have described The Killer Inside Me as iconoclastic and challenging.

The photographer Tyler Shields responded with similar righteous indignation to criticisms of his latest series of stills, which feature a bestockinged Lindsay Lohan covered in blood and flashing bedroom eyes at the muzzle of a gun. Shields and Lohan defended the shots as art, but they look suspiciously like bland, mass-market, coffee-table misogyny of the type you can buy at Urban Outfitters for a fiver.

Art can shock in all sorts of valuable ways, sometimes by reflecting real life and sometimes by conjuring uncomfortable fantasy. But art that tries to get a reaction by dressing everyday misogynist brutality in a lacy thong and sexy lighting has lost its utility as social commentary.

The whole discourse is a lazy fallback, a stand-in for authentic subversion when creatives can't be bothered to do anything new.

After even the screechy million-dollar engineered catfight America's Next Top Model has featured a high-profile fashion shoot of young girls posing as murder victims, representations of violence against women can no longer be considered iconoclastic. They are consummately mainstream.

The relentlessness of these images normalises sexual violence, fashioning kinky little set pieces out of the abuse of women on an industrial scale.

Also in cinemas this week is Robert Cavanah's Pimp, a juddering fairground ride of beatings and buggery whose sharp-suited, snarling hero deals out disciplinary rapes and executions with a flick of a prop-box cane. The protagonist is played without a shred of irony by Danny Dyer, in whose name a column appeared in last month's Zoo blithely advising a reader to cut his ex-girlfriend's face "so no one will want her".

Meanwhile, yesterday's Telegraph carried the following headlines: "Woman and son murdered in Derbyshire village"; "Remains of second prostitute found"; "Spanish imam's 'prostitute jihad' ". The paper couldn't even find space to mention the ongoing trial of the man accused of killing Andrea Waddell, who was found strangled and burned in her Brighton flat last year. [read the rest at New Statesman]

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Michael Gove and the Imperialists

The Tories want our children to be proud of Britain's imperial past. When right-wing colonial historian Niall Ferguson told the Hay Festival last weekend that he would like to revise the school history curriculum to include "the rise of western domination of the world" as the "big story" of the last 500 years, Education Secretary Michael Gove leapt to his feet to praise Ferguson's "exciting" ideas - and offer him the job.

Ferguson is a poster-boy for big stories about big empire, his books and broadcasting weaving Boys' Own-style tales about the British charging into the jungle and jolly well sorting out the natives. The Independent's Johann Hari, in his capacity as young bloodhound of the liberal left, sniffed out Ferguson's suspicious narrative of European cultural supremacy in a series of articles in 2006, calling him "a court historian for the imperial American hard right," as Harvard-based Ferguson believes that the success of the British Empire should be considered a model for US foreign policy.

This is exactly the sort of history that British conservatives think their children should be learning. "I am a great fan of Ferguson, and he is absolutely right," Michael Gove told the Guardian. The new Education Secretary has declared his intention to set out a 'traditionalist' curriculum 'celebrating' Britain's achievements. Andrew Roberts, another historian set to advise on the new curriculum, has dined with South African white supremacists, defended the Amritsar massacre and suggested that the Boers murdered in British concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity. It looks like this 'celebratory' curriculum might turn out to be a bunting-and-bigotry party, heavy on the jelly and propaganda.

What should shock about these appointments is not just the suspect opinions of Roberts and Ferguson, but the fact that the Tories have fundamentally misunderstood the entire purpose of history. History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance rather than simply 'celebrating' it. "Studying the empire is important, because it is an international story, but we have to look at it from the perspective of those who were colonised as well as from the British perspective," said historian and political biographer Dr Anthony Seldon, who is also Master of Wellington College. "We live in an interconnected word, and to one has to balance learning about british history with learning about other cultures."

The ways in which schools and governments structure and promote stories about a country's past, the crimes they conceal and the truths they twist, have a lasting effect on young minds. It is not for nothing that the most fearsome dictators of the twentieth century, from Hitler to Chairman Mao, altered their school history curricula as a matter of national urgency. Even now, the school board of the state of Texas is re-writing the history syllabus to sanitise slavery and sideline major figures such as Thomas Jefferson, who called for separation of Church and State. That the Tories, too, wish to return us to a 'traditionalist' model of history teaching should thoroughly disabuse the Left of the notion that the Conservative party has no ideological agenda.[read the rest at New Statesman]