Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Gay jokes and carry-on commentating...

Before the left gets too precious about David Davis' reported comments on the 'brokeback coalition', we should give our sluggish short-term memories something of a workout. Erudite and edifying though schoolyard slurs of this kind may be, they are neither new nor exclusive to the right.
Remember Harriet Harman's cheeky suggestion, in her first speech as leader of the opposition, that “while the happy couple are enjoying the thrill of the rose garden, the in-laws are saying that they are just not right for each other”? Remember all those headlines about ‘a very civil partnership’ and ‘a man-date to govern’? Playground gay jokes have been employed across the political spectrum to cast aspersions on the new government from day one.
It’s a troubling trend, and not just because of the obvious problems with equating male homosexuality, even in jest, with something the press and politicians find unnatural, suspicious and uncomfortable. The conceit is dazzling in its banality, substituting genuine political analysis for sniggering dick-jokes: it’s carry-on commentating, and it manages to belittle all parties involved whilst failing to enlighten us one iota about the reasons for the fractures already emerging in the new government.
The discomfort underlying all the ‘Eton fag’ and ‘brokeback partnership’ catcalls is multiferous, but it’s hard not to get the impression that a coalition government is somehow not daddy enough for us: that political partnerships and electoral reform are somehow not manly enough for the tough, thrusting, winner-takes-all tradition of British politics. And as any thirteen-year-old boy can tell you, anything with the slightest hint of hetero-abnormality is gay, and gay is, like, completely rubbish. Obviously.
There is substantial historical precedent for homosexual inference as a form of satire: from Tacitus to the Earl of Rochester the suggestion has implied decadence, depravity and dodgy politics. In 1791, at the height of the French revolution, an anonymous French writer circulated the scandalous "Memoirs of Antonina: Displying the Private intrigues and Uncommon Passions...of Great Persons," a burlesque intended to mock the court of Louis XVI by implying that Marie Antoinette was an Indigo-Girls-listening, sandal-wearing, alfalfa-sprout-eating lesbian, or 'tribade' in the language of the day. 'Antonina' was genuinely subversive in a way that contemporary ‘brokeback coalition’ jokes are not, because at the time popular derision of the monarchy was a serious and dangerous undertaking. Nonetheless, it has always been easier to chuckle about the gays than to actually engage with the shortfalls of any particular government.
There is much to criticise about this coalition, not least the fact that ultimately, it’s the vulnerable, the difficult and the poor whom our new leaders are busy screwing, not each other. In this context, knob jokes are both offensive and unhelpful – although the particular notion of a ‘brokeback coalition’ is more apt that David Davis or John Redwood might realise.
The film ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is not, as has been intimated, the simple tale of a cosy gay relationship, but the story of a love affair between two men from deeply conservative backgrounds, plagued by insecurity and doubt and frightened of retribution from their communities. The movie ends in violence, disappointment and betrayal. Many members of the press and political class seem to be fostering a hope that this government will end the same way – but for those of us who happen to prefer gay sex to slashing the welfare state, the prospect of another four years of schoolyard homophobia is a grim one.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

No police officers to be charged in conjunction with Ian Tomlinson.

Whilst we're on the subject of Britishness, here's something we can all feel proud of: cops without guns. The fact that we don't yet live in a police state whereby officers of the law can shoot first and ask questions later, where innocent people can be killed at random for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because that would be awful, wouldn't it. That would change the entire nature of the contract between state and citizen. Nobody would want that.

By the way, it has just been announced that the police officer responsible for the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests last year will not face any criminal charges. The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, announced this morning that the officer, who was caught on video attacking the 47-year-old father of nine with a baton and shoving him to the ground, will not face criminal charges because of conflicts in the postmortem reports.

You know, those postmortem reports, the first of which seemed to confirm that Tomlinson had died of a heart attack, as per the initial police account, an allegation that was undermined by the second report, conducted on behalf of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which found that Tomlinson died from internal bleeding. Tomlinson's family wanted a charge of manslaughter brought against the officer in question, but the CPS are adamant that there is not sufficient evidence to conclusively prove "a causal link between the assault on Mr Tomlinson and his death. On that issue, there is disagreement between the medical experts."

Hypothetically speaking, one might imagine that a disagreement between medical experts would be easy to engineer on any issue given a compliant coroner or two- even if there were video, CCTV and post-mortem evidence suggesting that, contrary to police reports, a certain innocent bystander was knocked violently to the ground and prevented from receiving proper medical assistance as he collapsed and died of his injuries. Hypothetically speaking, one might imagine that it'd be simple to get your tame experts to disagree about absolutely anything, especially if that disagreement were likely to impede embarrassing and uncomfortable further enquiry of the sort that might challenge the gradual erosion of innocent citizens' right to feel safe when the police are on the streets.

The announcement comes precisely five years to the day after the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes at Stockwell tube station on 22 July 2005. Again, nobody was charged in connection with the death of the innocent Brazilian. The Tomlinson and De Menezes families are currently gathered outside Scotland Yard - a building with more CCTV cameras than the whole of Finland - in protest, alongside concerned members of the public. Last night, I spoke to some of the protesters as they were preparing for their demonstration; even before the announcement had been made, the organisers were firmly convinced that the CPS would "find some technicality or other to make sure that no charges are brought."

No police officer has ever been charged in connection with the death of a civilian in Britain or Ireland, and even in the digital age, where the public as well as the state can use technology to hold wrongdoers to account, there's clearly no reason to interrupt that pattern. The message is clear: video evidence is the prerogative of the state alone. The police watch us, and our attempts to watch them back are fundamentally suspect, especially when we happen to catch them doing something a bit naughty, like, just by way of example, pummelling an innocent newspaper salesman to death. Let's not rock the boat, eh?

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Caster Semenya's pink t-shirt.

I've never given much time to the sartorial semiotics of sporting fashion, but one tight, hot pink tshirt has me fascinated. The tshirt in question, emblazoned with the Nike logo, was worn by Caster Semenya on Thursday night as she ran her first race after being cleared to compete with other women by the IAAF. Semenya, 19, also wore a fetching pastel pink running sweater and sported a longer, more feminine haircut. The fashion statement couldn't have been clearer: I'm a proper girl, a girly girl, a girl who likes pink and labels and bunnies and butterflies. Now, please let me do what I was born to do.

With rumours rife that the teenager is biologically intersex and has had surgical intervention and her hormones adjusted to allow her to compete, Caster Semenya must now face the global gender police once more as commentators cluster like flies to give their verdict on her return to athletics. Semenya has spent the past 11 months in limbo, after speculation over her 'masculine' appearance at the World Championships in Berlin led to the her being withdrawn from professional athletics whilst her gender was determined and the world watched and gossiped. The Guardian reports that Semenya had to undergo a series of grotesque tests that sounded "more like abuse than science":

"She was allegedly made to undergo a two-hour examination of her sex organs, hitched in stirrups as doctors took photographs. Afterwards she sent distraught messages to friends and family. Her coach Michael Seme later said that it had been a wonder she did not "drink poison" and end it all."

Semenya also had to endure a makeover and cover shoot for You magazine, a part of South Africa's attempt to prove that speculations over the young athlete's gender were sexist and racist - by kitting her out in Western beauty drag and plastering pictures of her body all over the front cover. Now she's been declared fit to run, it's clearly crucial that she tone down her boyish looks, so here she is in her pretty pink getup, hoping to placate a global media which has no time whatsoever for women who don't look how women are supposed to look. This week, Senator David Vitter attacked left-wing talkshow host Rachel Maddow for "not looking like a woman" on a radio station in the US, and when he was made to apologise, all Vitter could find to say was that the Maddow "did not deserve" what he clearly felt to be an atrocious insult.

More than any other cultural arena, though, the world of sports is about simple binaries, about winners and losers, about arbitrary rules on and off the pitch. That's part of its appeal, and always has been. Caster Semenya threw those arbitrary rules into disarray by being big, brown, butch and flat-chested, and in an atmosphere of competition that demands that people fit into rigid boxes, it was deemed necessary that she be dragged physically and psychologically back into line in the most brutal, public and humiliating way imaginable. The fact that Semenya is faster and stronger than nearly any other teenager on the planet, the fact that she clocked up the quickest 800m of 2009, was considered less important than the central question of what in particular she had between her legs ...read the rest at New Statesman.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Just an idea, Vince...

This morning, Vince Cable signposted his plans for a change in university funding, whereby graduates might find themselves repaying the cost of their degrees in the form of a tax based on earnings, as opposed to the current student loans system, which discriminates in favour of those who go on to more profitable careers. Cable said that he would ask former BP boss Lord Browne, who is leading an independent review into university fees and funding, to examine “the feasibility of variable graduate contributions."
This is a bold and progressive idea. But why not be a little more bold and a little more progressive, and apply the graduate tax to all graduates, not just current and prospective students? If tax can be applied retroactively, why not levy a fee from all working-age graduates, including those aged thirty and over who have used the benefits of free higher education to carve out high-paying careers for themselves?
Cable has a track record for sound ideas about higher education, including his observation that too many graduates are now going into jobs that were previously the province of non-graduates. This has implications for his cited figure of £100,000 as the average difference between the earnings of graduates and comparable non-graduates net of tax. The graduate earnings premium peaked in the 1980s; today, a university degree is a mandatory requirement for most lower- and middle-management jobs, rather than an optional educational extra to boost one's earnings.
Cable previously told the BBC that “if you're a school teacher or a youth worker you pay the same amount as if you were a surgeon or a highly-paid commercial lawyer…I think most people would think that's unfair.” Surely it’s rather less fair to expect those over thirty to pay nothing at all? Surely it's not beyond the pale to ask those who enjoyed British higher education at its most lucrative and inclusive to give something back?
If Britain is to remain a world leader in research, innovation and education, our higher education system needs more money, and fast. But why should the burden of financing the necessary cash injection be placed solely upon today’s young graduates, who have rather less chance of going on to high-paying careers than those who left university in the 1970s and 1980s? The money that could be raised by taxing graduates across the board might well be enough to reduce the cost of university for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as solving the problem of higher education funding more fairly.
If a variable graduate tax were truly based on earnings, there would be no reason for graduates of any age to pay more than they could reasonably manage.Parents of current students might even find themselves paying less overall, if their graduate tax liability offset the costs of contributing to higher tuition and maintenance fees for their children.
NUS president Aaron Porter has said that whilst the NUS welcomes the graduate tax proposal, any changes to funding should be genuinely fair and progressive to win students' support. The core injustice of tuition fees has always been the fact that they imposed a burden of debt on the young that radically rewrote the script for young adulthood in this country, and whilst there are indeed more young graduates now than there were twenty years ago, most are currently labouring under a double load of unavoidable personal debt and high unemployment.
Meanwhile, Vince Cable, George Osborne and David Willetts, along with nearly every policymaker currently responsible for higher education funding, were financed through their degrees by a generous grants system, left university in credit, and entered a booming job market. A universal graduate tax would be a fair way of sharing out the proceeds of that extraordinary generational luck once and for all.
If the deficit must be paid for, it is not unreasonable to expect it to be paid for on the basis of equal sacrifice. If the principle of retroactive taxing is being considered at the highest levels of government, it is not far-fetched to suggest that the rich be taxed as well as the poor, the old as well as the young, on the basis of the services that they have enjoyed from the state.
I’d stop short at suggesting that Cable back-date the graduate tax to 1970, of course – that would leave older people with degrees owing, ooh, tens of thousands, almost as much as an average humanities graduate in 2010. And nobody would stand for that.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Deference and defeatism vs. youth revolution.

When I closed the final pages of Francis Beckett's new book, ‘What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?’, I found myself shaking with indignation. The book, which lays out an incisive case for how my parents generation “squandered the good times” and betrayed the courage of the Attlee settlement, is flawed and uneven in many ways, but it makes at least one important observation. “The sixties generation,” says Beckett, “reinstalled the deference it rejected.” In other words, our mums and dads were free to get angry with adults, dabble in revolutionary politics and demand respect and attention, but heaven help Generation Y if we fail to comply with the grown-ups’ view of the world.

When I look at the defeated deference with which my generation treats its elders, I want to take young people by their collective shoulders and shake them. The young are in the process of being screwed over in a variety of cold and creative ways by an age group who are richer, freer and more powerful than any generation this country has seen or is likely to see again, and yet we have so far failed to come up with any sort of collective response to indignities that the baby boomers simply would not have stood for when they were young.

It’s conceivable that our parents love us, in their own special way, but that hasn't stopped them from mortgaging our futures and selling off all the privileges that they took for granted - the jobs, the safe places to live, the affordable housing, the free education and the security of a generous and supportive welfare state. The fact that our parents had all of these things allowed them to produce a sustained cultural rebellion that was, in many ways, genuinely socially transformative. The fact that we have none of them makes us timid, compliant and tragically quick to accept compromise.

I find myself dying a little inside, for example, whenever I hear a bright young liberal telling me that they're supporting Ed Miliband for Labour leader. I have nothing against Ed Miliband, but that's just the problem: the most decisive thing I've heard said about Ed Miliband by the next generation of the British left is that they've nothing against him. When I ask them why, they generally look awkward, mumble something about progressive ideas, and then say: he's a nice guy, and he’s quite good on the environment, he’s a good compromise for Labour supporters from across the spectrum, and hey, he wasn’t around to vote in favour of the Iraq war.

And then they do that awful little smile, that hard, tight little smile forced up at the corners with those wide, willing eyes, the smile of submission and desperation, the expression I've seen on young people's faces so many times since the credit crisis crunched down on our futures, the expression I've worn myself at countless job interviews, and they say: 'and at least he's not as bad as any of the others.'

When our parents were young, Beckett reminds us, some of them not only dared to imagine alternatives to militarism but demonstrated to demand a politics that reflected their ideals rather than those of the overculture. By contrast, I was there when this video, which features prominently on Miliband junior’s campaign website, was being shot. Wait for the final three seconds: the young volunteer does the smile, and then delivers the line ‘go, Ed’ as mournfully as if he were speaking at a memorial service for a spirit of generational rebellion that crumpled at some point in the mid 1990s and inoffensively, quietly died.

Why does my generation seem so spineless? Fear is the reason, rather than lack of fervor. We all know what’s going on, but we blanch at asking for the rights and respect our parents enjoyed because we’ve all seen what happened to those of our classmates and university friends who didn’t play the game, smile on cue, pass the exams every year and give the grown-ups what they wanted. For the baby boomers, as Beckett astutely observes, the risks of rebellion were far lower than they are for us: rejecting your parents’ rules is far easier when you can rely on full employment, a supportive welfare state, free higher education and a culture that respects and nurtures young talent to catch you when you fall through the net.

Both of my parents are working-class kids who quit school during their A-levels, and both are now wealthy, property-owning professionals, as are many of their friends who spent the 1970s doing drugs, playing music and rearranging the world to suit their ideals. How many of today’s impoverished drop-outs will be able to say the same in forty years?

“We were young in a kinder society,” Beckett pronounces of his generation. “If we really meant any of the things we said in the sixties, about peace, about education, about freedom, we would have created a better world for our children to grow up in.” Today’s young people decline to openly reject our parents, because most of us have no other option, but we know perfectly well that we’ve been had. Whether or not we continue to bite off our resentment behind forced smiles is up to us.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Mancession? Get real.

This week, the press seems unable to decide whether the recession is going to be good for men and bad for women, or good for women and bad for men. The latter scenario has even acquired its own cloying portmanteau – the ‘mancession’ – as journalists attempt to eke column inches out of the wobbly implication of a financial gender war. The possibility that something more systemic and pernicious is going on simply hasn’t crossed the consciences of headline writers, who understand the value of simplifying every social equation to a playground scrap between the girls and the boys.

Arguments on both sides of this weary discussion are bloating the pages of every major liberal media outlet. Should we worry about men, as suggested by Will Hutton in the Guardian and Alice Miles in New Statesman, or should we worry about women, as per Deborah Orr in the Guardian and Samira Shackle in New Statesman? The answer, of course, is that we should worry about the poor, whatever their genital arrangement.

It’s not that gender doesn’t matter in this recession. On the contrary; it matters a great deal. As a society, we have been torturously slow in coming to terms with the real, permanent effects that the cultural changes of the past fifty years have had on our economic organisation. At the annual Marxism conference at the Institute of Education last weekend, Feminist academic Dr Nina Power observed that the ‘feminization’ of the British workforce has allowed employers to hold down wages in real terms so that a single salary is no longer enough to support a family, leading to “a race to the bottom in which everyone loses.” The change in the organisation of families as economic units, the shift in patterns of employment away from traditionally ‘male’ heavy industry towards jobs in the service sector, the concentration of women in low-paid, part-time and insecure work – these are all factors which will have a bearing upon how this country weathers the economic storms ahead. They are factors that require a far more subtle response than ‘who’s winning – men or women?’

Meanwhile, right-wing opportunists like Iain Duncan Smith and David Willetts seem to view the economic downturn as a perfect excuse to shrink the state until it’s small enough to fit into people’s bedrooms, with clunkily recalcitrant social engineering projects such as the government’s attack on single mothers. Gender matters in this recession. What doesn’t matter is trying to figure out which gender is ‘winning’ and which is ‘losing’.

Let’s be witheringly clear: there’s only one group of people who will remain secure and comfortable at everyone else’s expense over the next few years, and that’s the rich. As the Coalition sets out to prise away vital support from those who need it most, as new graduates haemmorage into the dole queue and Tory peers anticipate that housing benefit cuts will create "casualties", the richest people in the country have just seen their collective wealth rise by 30% in the tax year to April 2010. The profits raked in by Britain’s richest 1000 people over the past twelve months total £77billion – almost as much as the £83bn of public spending that George Osborne has promised to cut, endangering the homes and jobs of millions. Whilst the liberal press ties itself in knots over whether women or men will do worse out of the crisis, the wealthy – including the financiers whose toxic speculations caused the crash– are largely exempt from the narrow public conversation about social justice.

As the recession closes its jaws on Britain, both sexes are losing out, in different ways and for different reasons. We all live together, and we all have a stake in protecting each other from further economic hardship, and in these circumstances playing on latent public mistrust of the opposite sex is breathtakingly unhelpful. The 'mancession' debate is entirely lacking in the sense of political totality that is desperately needed if the left is to build a coherent resistance to these cuts.

I expect, in ten years or so, after a double-dip recession has brutalised this country even further, after the lost generation has been lost for good and the welfare state has been throttled into redundancy, someone in an office somewhere will be able to sit down with a calculator and work out once and for all who had it worse: men or women. But social justice is far more than a giant balance sheet with men on one side and women on the other, and this time the pundits have it dangerously wrong. This is not a gender war. This is class war.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Internships auctioned at Oxford university.

On the bus this morning, a young father was distributing pocket money to his three small children. The eldest was kicking the back of my chair in bone-jarringly rhythmic anticipation of being taken to town for a day's shopping, but when he received his small handout, the kicking stopped.

'I'm not going to spend my three pounds, dad," announced the boy, "I'm going to save it, and then I’m going to save all my pocket money, and then I can go to university and get a good job."

This may, of course, have been the sort of cunning ploy to wheedle extra cash out of your parents that anyone who was ever a smartarse seven-year-old will recognise. It speaks volumes about the state of social equality, though, that whilst this primary school pupil from inner London was contemplating forfeiting an entire childhood's worth of treats to afford a chance at higher education and fulfilling work, wealthy Oxford graduates were taking up prestigious internships which they had purchased at a lavish charity auction held at the university last month.

Students who attended the opulent Red Couture Ball, entry tickets for which were priced at up to £300, were able to bid thousands of pounds for coveted professional placements with law firms and fashion designers. A mini-pupillage with barrister Neil Kitchener QC was under the hammer, alongside designer gowns, hotel breaks and other goodies only available to the extremely well-off. Sam Frieman, co-organiser of the auction, told The Cherwell that "you can only come to the auction if you have paid for a ticket. In response to the criticism that a lot of people could be priced out, I would say, 'that's life'."

Internships like these are now prerequisites for many jobs, and most interns work extremely hard to obtain and finance work placements. "As someone from a low-income, East Midlands background, this auction is another reminder that I'm at a disadvantage because I can't afford an internship,” said recent Oxford graduate Kate Gresswell, 21. Relative inequality within the Oxbridge system is hardly the pressing issue of our day, but if even Oxford graduates are finding that money matters more than merit in the job market, something has gone terribly wrong in our social calculations.

The internship system is already expensive enough to exclude all but the richest and most fortunate young people from popular jobs. I could pretend, for example, that it's my winning smile and blatant genius which have enabled me to find work as a journalist - but a year's unpaid interning, during which I survived on a small inheritance from a dead relative, had just as much to do with it. Any graduate or school-leaver without the means to support themselves in London whilst working for free can currently forget about a career in journalism, politics, the arts, finance, the legal profession or any of a number of other sectors whose business models are now based around a lower tier of unpaid labour.

After the relative levelling of university, class reasserts itself with whiplash force as graduates from low-income backgrounds find the doors of opportunity slammed in their faces. Last week, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development called for employers to be legally obliged to pay interns a minimum wage of £2.50 an hour, but such a step is unlikely to be taken by the Coalition, which has already made it breathtakingly clear that preventing young people from falling through the cracks in our society is not likely to be a priority any time soon.

With seventy applicants for every new vacancy, with over a million young people unemployed and with millions more languishing in insecure, temporary and poorly-paid work, the job market is now open only to those who can afford to buy their way in. The Telegraph reports that across the country hundreds of placements are being sold or brokered, often at similar auctions for the wealthy, where the fact that proceeds go to charity gives the new nobility yet another reason to be smug about affording the life chances that previous generations enjoyed for free.

For the few of us who are wealthy enough to finance ourselves through work placements, only a firm push is needed to force open the doors of opportunity. Without a coordinated effort to reverse this regressive trend, the years to come will be littered with wasted potential and filled with disappointments for young people with nothing to bring to the table but talent, creativity and ambition.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Thoughts on Britain's Next Top Model

The new series of Britain's Next Top Model, which airs tomorrow after months of breathless publicity, is set to be the most screechingly obnoxious cycle yet of this long-running, extraordinarily popular global pageant of beauty fascism. The show, a high-fashion reality knockout which pits pretty young women against one another to compete for representation via a series of invasive and demeaning 'challenges', is a repulsive montage of contemporary culture's hateful attitude towards young people in general and young women in particular.

At the end of every episode, a weeping, underweight teenager is marched down the catwalk of shame and sent home to contemplate their deficiencies on the dole, after being informed that they do not 'have what it takes'. Public criticism of the series has focused on its supposed promotion of eating disorders, but Next Top Model is problematic for a whole host of reasons.

Last year, the UK version of the show faced press excoriation for allowing an anorexic contestant, Jade, through to the final round. Like every reiteration of the so-called "size-zero controversy" - which has now been thoroughly incorporated into the mythology of the fashion industry - this story simply cried out to be illustrated with ogle-worthy shots of stick-thin, half-naked teenagers. The show's promoters have clearly learned the value of such sensationalism, allowing new judge Julien MacDonald to confide in Wales On Sunday last week that the notion of the industry giving space to models larger than a size eight is "a joke."

Sick, cultish obsession with the bodies of emaciated girls is only part of what makes Britain's Next Top Model so obnoxious and so fascinating. This is not, at heart, a show about beauty, or even about fashion: it is a programme about social mobility. The reason that America's Next Top Model and its twenty local variants have been so wildly successful is that they formalise the rules of late capitalist femininity as experienced by young women in the West: life may be hard and jobs may be few, but if you are beautiful enough, if you are thin and pretty and perky and prepared to submit to any conceivable humiliation, you too might have a chance of ‘making it’.

The show takes ordinary teenagers, for a version of ‘ordinary’ whose baseline is remarkable slenderness and regularity of feature, plucks them out of regional obscurity and makes them fight like cats for a chance of a better future. These girls will do literally anything for that chance. They will strip naked, they will cry and wail on camera, they will clumsily betray one another and, of course, they will scream. The orchestrated screaming is an essential part of the Next Top Model experience, although the British contestants have yet to muster the enthusiasm of the American hopefuls, who dutifully erupt into hysterical shrieks whenever anything happens on the show at all.

The fairytale these girls are chasing was dreamed up in the neoliberal haze of the 1990s, when supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell overtook actresses as the iconic female role-models of the age, courted by rockstars and showered with money and attention merely for showing up and looking a certain way. This sustaining mythology no longer has any basis in reality. In today's world of faceless, interchangeable, airbrushed femininity, the modelling industry is glutted with identikit beauties who earn very little and exist to be chewed up and tossed away for younger, less traumatised models - but the dream persists. Indeed, the new host of Britain’s Next Top Model is 90s supermodel Elle MacPherson, known in her day as ‘the body’, who quite literally embodies this cruel fantasy, precisely resembling a woman who has been pickled in a tank of flattery for twenty years.

The show is soaked in the language of corporate self-fashioning, with endless motivational sermons from the judges and hosts about 'working it' 'believing in yourself' and 'being on top'. The atmosphere of naked desperation differs from that of talent contests like The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, which are all about showcasing the weird and wonderful: Britain's Next Top Model, by contrast, is about the art of ambitious self-effacement. For all the show’s platitudes about personality, individuality and the importance of ‘standing out’, the girls who do best are always the most blankly identikit, the meek, spiritless women who excel at taking orders and ‘representing the brand’. This quite possibly makes Next Top Model the ultimate capitalist psychodrama.

The servile posturing of Top Model hopefuls is nothing, however, compared to the submission required of young women in modelling when the cameras stop rolling. In 2007, Anand Jon Alexander, a top fashion photographer, was jailed for 59 years for several counts of rape and assault of young models. According to industry insiders, sexual and physical intimidation is standard practice in the world that the young contestants of Britain's Next Top Model compete to access. In 2009, former model Sara Ziff's gonzo documentary Picture Me courageously exposed the epidemic of misogynist bullying and sexual assault in the fashion industry, with teenage girls routinely required to sexually submit to male agents, photographers and designers, who hold every shred of power and cover for each other's indiscretions, if they wish to remain in work.

Britain’s Next Top Model is a rags-to-riches fairytale updated for the 21st century. Like all fairytales, it has a moral: if you're a girl, your success in life depends on your ability to brutalise your body into a stereotype of faceless corporate femininity, your capacity to coldly compete with other women for physical attention, and your willingness to tamely submit to industrial exploitation and sexual abuse. This is what the dream of modelling means for young women today, and it's this contemporary parable about the rewards of self-discipline and submission that makes young women want to starve themselves. The cruel misogynist realism of Britain's Next Top Model is a cultural car-crash in slow motion - and this, of course, is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Let's use Your Freedom to chuck out the Digital Economy Act

Nick Clegg is angling for some much-needed goodwill from the left with his announcement this morning that the public will be able to nominate 'unecessary laws' that they want to see repealed. The Deputy Prime Minister is crowdsourcing people's ideas for the repeal or reform of legislation in three key areas:

* Laws that have eroded civil liberties.

* Regulations that stifle the way charities and businesses work.

* Laws that are not required and which are likely to see law-abiding citizens criminalised.

The Your Freedom website allows the public to suggest changes to invasive laws and 'rate' those which they would like the government to consider for repeal or reform in the upcoming Freedom Bill, which will be unveiled in the autumn.

Depending on which suggestions make it into the Bill, this may well herald a whole new way of forming policy, as well as allowing Clegg to put on a solemn voice and inform us that "Today is the launch of Your Freedom," rather like a civil servant auditioning for the role of deranged desert prophet. The Your Freedom initiative isn't precisely direct digital democracy - the government has no obligation to consider any of the suggestions, which, according to the Telegraph, will be 'sifted' before any assessment is made - but it's a start.

There's really only one way for civil liberties campaigners to respond to such an unprecedented display of faith in digital politics: with a lobby to reform the antediluvian Digital Economy Act, removing the sections of the bill which threaten internet users with summary disconnection for engaging in free filesharing. This morning, a group of Open Rights Group Supporters and opponents of the Digital Economy Bill, led by Katie Sutton, convenor of the Stop Disconnection Demonstration in March, put together the following statement:

The Digital Economy Act (DEA) is an insult to British citizens, and the government should consider its repeal in the upcoming freedom bill as a matter of urgency. The DEA was rushed through at the tail-end of the last Parliament in an undemocratic manner, allowing the owners of copyrighted content such as music and film (rights holders) to demand that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) cut someone's Internet connection if they suspect that they have downloaded copyrighted content.
Rights holders only need to prove that the wrongdoing occurred using the Internet connection they wish to be cut, not that the persons affected are guilty. This leaves account holders responsible for the actions of anyone using their connection, whether legitimately or by piggybacking without permission.
In this digital age, an internet connection is essential for simple tasks like banking, paying bills and jobhunting, and as a result, taking away a connection used by several people as punishment for the actions of an individual who may not even be known to them is fundamentally wrong.
Simply put, the Act imposes disproportionate, collective punishment, does not follow the principle of innocent until proven guilty and contravenes the Magna Carta, which in 1215 stated that, as a basic human right, no person may be punished without a fair trial.
The Digital Economy Act is a massive insult to our civil liberties and should be repealed in its entirety, subjectto the less objectionable clauses being redrafted and discussed democratically in the Houses of Parliament to pave the way for a proper digital economy which does not punish innocent people.

If the Liberal Democrats are looking for 'bad laws', they should look no further than the Digital Economy Act, which was forced through during the wash-up despite huge opposition from a digital grassroots movement of internet users, civil rights protestors and allies within Westminster. The Act could be construed in any of the three available categories, as a threat to civil liberties (in 2009, EU amendment 138/46 declared that access to the internet is a fundamental human right), as a threat to businesses and charities (many sections of the music, film and other UK creative industries depend on filesharing to support their business model and disseminate ideas) and as an unecessary law that threatens to criminalise the seven million law-abiding British internet users who are currently regular filesharers.

It's only a pity that the Liberal Democrats, who voiced their opposition to the Digital Economy Bill in March, couldn't be bothered to turn up to vote against this regressive, draconian law in significant numbers during the parliamentary wash-up. Still, better late than never: for those of us who care about digital rights, the patronisingly-titled Your Freedom site is a brilliant opportunity to make our voices heard.

What you can do: rate and comment on any or all of the following suggestions, uploaded to the Your Freedom website by concerned citizens, to repeal aspects of the Digital Economy Act. It's telling that within hours of the site going live, a number of suggestions to reform the Act have already been put forward, alongside some sillier ideas for what the government should throw out ('The EU In General' is my favourite so far). I've selected what seem to be the most comprehensive and well-supported proposals, referring to specific clauses of the Act that need to be repealed. All of them deserve your rating and comments:

1.[link coming soon] - an official proposal put together by the Open Rights Group in consultation with human rights lawyers and digital freedom activists. If you only vote for one idea, make it this one.

Save Britain's Digital Economy By Repealing The Digital Economy Act

3. Repeal the Digital Economy Act 2010

You'll need to login or register at the Your Freedom website, but the process takes a few seconds and does not require you to give out sensitive information. New Statesman is not officially backing this campaign, but I certainly am, and if you believe that access to the internet is a fundamental right, you should be, too.