Tuesday 26 October 2010

It's been a while...

Good lord, a whole month - that's the longest I've gone for three years without updating this blog. It got to the stage where the guilt was festering away like a delicious and quite important sandwich that you know you lost somewhere around the house a few weeks ago and now can't find. So I thought I'd do a placeholder post to explain just what the fuck I've been doing with myself.

As some of you will have noticed, I now blog and write a column for the New Statesman, and this would be the point to update your blog-reading aggregators or other such internet robots. I no longer work for the Morning Star; instead I'm a freelance journalist, which means I'm terribly poor but can stay up reading as late as I like. I'm nonetheless incredibly busy, but this blog will update periodically with cross-posts from New Statesman and any posts that are too long, too strange or too sweary for the national press .

This arrangement will continue until such time as I say something really truly awful and am inevitably and summarily fired, at which point it's all go on Penny Red again, so don't delete this blog just yet!

In other news, in case anyone's wondering: I found a place to live, not a hugely nice place, but a place nonetheless, with walls and a ceiling and bizzarre arty lesbian housemates and enough space to recover from the emotional maelstrom of the summer. This currently puts me in a far better position than most of London, given that the Tories have just imposed a Final Solution on the urban poor.

It feels a little hypocritical to be so incensed with rage about what's happening to this country, the ruthless neoliberal revenge agenda being enacted on the lives and bodies of the vulnerable and the socially invisible, when I've had such a lucky escape this summer. I could have become more unwell and lost my job and my income. I could have remained homeless. I could have had to fall back on a welfare system that's about to be snatched away almost entirely. None of that happened, and it happened to a large number of people I know. I will never get over just how lucky I am; sometimes I feel my privilege sitting on my chest like a Fuseli painting, but that's a fucking poor excuse for lying down and exempting oneself from the struggle.

So I'm going to keep writing and keep on trying to anatomise the reasons behind this assault on human decency. I'm going to link into more activist groups and more local and global campaigns and try to understand how strategies of resistance might be imagined, dreamed of and realised. Because it's the only way we're ever going to stop the right. I'm going to carry on writing; I hope some of you will carry on reading.

Love, solidarity and squalor bombs. xx

Saturday 25 September 2010

Lessons from the Pope Protest

Now the Pope has gone home, the left needs to rediscover the courage of its convictions.

The atmosphere amongst the liberal left in the aftermath of the Pope's state visit to Britain calls to mind the uncomfortable eye-avoidance that takes place after someone suddenly turns the lights on at an orgy. Yes, we had a lot of fun, and we probably got rather carried away, but we're not overly keen to discuss it the next morning and we might well hesitate before leaping into any more messy entanglements with gay rights, feminism and anti-state activism.

The protest itself was a joyful chorus of self-congratulatory liberal paralysis. As bagfuls of naughty blown-up condoms floated up into an azure Piccadilly sky, central London thundered with the sound of twenty thousand broadly centre-left Britons failing to make up their minds about why they were there. Some of the printed-out slogans bemoaned the extra public expense of lugging the Popemobile around the country; some complained about homophobia, others about the oppression of women, but never too impolitely. There was, in fact, a horrific delicacy about this collective mumble, as if to make any real, overarching complaint about regressive state and religious indoctrination would be, well, a little tasteless.
'It's fantastic that there's a protest," said queer theorist James Butler, who I met in the crowd, "but it's telling that the only thing being chanted with any enthusiasm is 'Pope Go Home!' That sentiment seems less about creating real change than registering a formal objection while retaining the status quo."

Well, the Pope has now gone home, as he was always planning to. Hurrah. Well done us. Unfortunately, homophobia, misogyny, bigotry, intolerance and abuse have not gone home with the Pope.

The impulse towards egalitarianism and collective rationality that nominally brought twenty thousand liberals to Piccadilly last week should not now be permitted to disperse like incense in an empty church. It's vital that the left remembers that for many of us, there was more to this demonstration than the chance to stand around central London wearing pink paper mitres and making unhelpful jokes about men in dresses.
Even more dispiriting than the silly-hat brigade was the peevish fixation, by way of speeches, slogans and placards, on the cost of the Papal visit. Even Peter Tatchell and the Secular Society chose to focus attention on the twelve million pound bill to the state, in this new age of austerity, seemingly in order to rally the disparate strands of popular anti-papism into one miserly chorus of public annoyance.

This type of shoddy reasoning panders entirely to the clunky conservative line on the necessity of public sector cuts, and implies that, in this instance, liberal Britain would have been entirely happy to host the anointed head of an organisation which has covered up institutional child-rape, opposed women's rights and promoted homophobia across the globe if only it hadn't been so jolly expensive....[read the rest at New Statesman]

Sunday 12 September 2010

Zionism, chauvinism and rape culture

For months, feminists have been trying to untangle the complex knot of racism, imperialism and misogyny that is the Sabbar Kashur case, in which an Arab man was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for 'rape by deception' by a Jerusalem district court after he supposedly tricked a Jewish woman into having sex with him by posing as a fellow Jew. That an Israeli court could convict on such a charge - and that an Israeli woman could file such a claim in the first place - caused international outcry, seeming to illustrate a poisonous culture of prejudice against those of Arab descent. Compared to such a clear-cut case of racism, how could the disdainful treatment of one rape claimant by the press be of any significance whatsoever? Fresh details emerged this week, however, that seemed to throw an entirely new light on the case.
Extracts from the unsealed testimony of the woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, reveal that she initially alleged that Kushur had forced himself upon her, leaving her naked and bleeding in a doorway, but the charge was changed to one of rape by deception following a plea bargain after the woman's sexual history was revealed. The victim, it is claimed, had alleged rape on several other occasions after being subjected to a lifetime of violent sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her father. She had worked as a prostitute, had fled to a women's shelter, and was so traumatised and bewildered that the prosecution were worried about putting her on the stand to face-cross examination about her past.
This changes much about the story – but nothing about its racist ramifications. Even if the victim herself could be conclusively shown to have told the entire truth about her experiences, this would not for a second change the fact that the verdict given by the Jerusalem district court was scored with ugly cultural assertions about race, religion and fear of miscegenation.
The judge in the case declared that the sex was consensual, but that the woman never would have agreed to it had she known that Kushur wasn't Jewish. He added that the state of Israel had a duty to protect victims from "smooth-tongued criminals" who sought to defile "the sanctity of their bodies and souls". It speaks volumes about the relationship between racism, sexism and imperialism in Israel that a district court was quite prepared to convict on the basis that an Arab had defiled a Jewish woman's bodily 'sanctity' simply by putting his penis inside her, but unprepared to countenance the notion that a woman who had been abused by men throughout her life might have been telling the truth when she claimed to have been brutalised yet again.
...(read the rest at New Statesman)

Friday 3 September 2010

William Hague's duty to the party.

"Well, if you're not gay, why haven't you got that nice girl pregnant yet?" It's the sort of question one expects only from atrocious, senile grandparents and the British press in silly season.

Beset by trollish gossip about his relationship with his former aide Christopher Myers, the Foreign Secretary has felt obliged to make an extremely intimate public announcement about the state of his wife's uterus to satisfy the snarling attack-dogs of the sweltering summer media hiatus. Poor William Hague. Poor Chris Myers. And poor Ffion Hague, whose multiple miscarriages have now been offered to the world as evidence of her husband's integrity and virility.

If there is one lesson we've learned in the past week, amid the breathless coverage of David and Samantha Cameron's new arrival, it's that the reproductive organs of Tory wives are extremely important and deeply indicative of their husbands' capacity to exercise power responsibly and well. After all, if a man doesn't know and control what's going on in his lady's pants, how can he be expected to run a government department?

The link between Mrs Hague's repeated, tragic loss of pregnancy and Mr Hague's heterosexuality is not necessarily straightforward, but it's the closest one can come in a public forum to "I've definitely been sleeping with my wife".

Hague seems to have accepted the rather Orwellian narrative that regular, productive heterosexual intercourse within the confines of marriage is a man's duty to the Tory party, and the press has goaded him into an explicit statement that he's been doing his duty. Will that be enough uncomfortable personal revelation to satisfy the ravenous media machine?

Unfortunately, it's probably exactly what we wanted. The British press seems to nurse an interminable fascination with what Conservatives do in bed together, and the party is clearly anxious to avoid another series of sex scandals like those that beset the Back to Basics years. Only by diverting the media's attention with a highly personal story which nevertheless emphasises that the New Tories are moral, married, faithful and fertile -- not the kinky Conservatives of John Major's premiership -- could Hague and his handlers have hoped to defuse this scandal.

Would it matter if William Hague was a closeted homosexual or bisexual? Yes, it would, simply because it would raise serious questions about the hypocrisy of his previous defence of Section 28. In the light of his extremely revealing statement, however, and in the light of the rumours having originated from that paragon of mature, well-researched online commentary, Guido "Terribly Dangerous" Fawkes, I'd venture to suggest that Hague's claim never to have had a relationship with another man is probably grounded. Yet all this juicy chatter misses the point entirely.

Even if Hague is straighter than a die, it doesn't make his ugly defence of homophobic policies and policymakers one jot more justified. Furthermore, whatever the Foreign Secretary's sexual proclivities, Ffion Hague's miscarriages have no bearing on his ability to do his job responsibly -- the Hagues could be as fertile and faithful as a pair of Catholic rabbits and William Hague would still be a grim prospect in the Foreign Office. And -- most importantly -- no woman's uterus is public property. Not even if they've had the poor taste to marry a Tory minister.

Saturday 28 August 2010

Girls, exams and employment: a race to the bottom

Young women are doing disproportionately well in this recession. Girls have outperformed boys at GCSE and A-level for the tenth consecutive year, and along with the cursory smattering of articles bemoaning the educational fate of our nation’s masculine promise, it has also emerged that women are overtaking men in the treacherous world of entry-level employment. Whilst 11.2% of young women are not in work or training, amongst young men that figure is half as high again, at 17.2%. Why aren't feminists excited by this news? Shouldn't we be chalking up the fact that young women are hoarding top grades and precious low-wage vacancies as a major victory for 21st-century women's liberation?

Not so fast. Another equally well-evidenced trend over the past ten years has been the dizzying rise in mental health problems and low self-esteem amongst young women and girls. Women in the developed world are, it is estimated, over twice as likely to suffer depression and chronic anxiety as men; 80% of young self-harmers and 90% of teenagers with eating disorders are female. A recent study of Scottish 15-year-olds showed that whilst 19% of girls experienced common mental disorders in 1987, that incidence had increased to 44% by 2006, compared to just 21% for boys. These trends do not occur in isolation: they are linked.

It is not far fetched to surmise that it is precisely the alienation and distress that young women feel that make them ideal students and workers in today's ruthlessly profit-oriented economy, especially in the lower tiers of the labour market, where servility and identikit quiescence are paramount. In her book 'Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,' Courtney E Martin describes this alienation:

"girls and young women across the world harbor black holes at the center of our beings. We have called this insatiable hunger by many names -- ambition, drive, pride -- but in truth it is a fundamental distrust that we deserve to be on this earth in the shape we are in."

Girls are trained from an early age to understand ourselves as social and physical commodities, as objects for others’ consumption who can adapt and should submit to whatever the current labour market wants from us. We expect to have to work hard for little or no reward, to be pleasant and self-effacing at all times. If we encounter failure - whether in the face of frantically standardised educational 'assessment objectives' or a job market so drained of opportunities that only the most abject and malleable wage-slaves need apply - women and girls tend to assume that it is we who are at fault, rather than the system itself.

Our response, as Will Hutton wrote in the Observer last month, is to "fearfully redouble [our] efforts, to avoid failure." Insecure and keen to please, young women will accept lower wages, longer hours and little to no job security. No wonder it is women who seem to represent the best business investment in this brave new post-crash world - the future of human labour in a labour market that hates humans. No wonder it is young women, not men, whom business owners and agencies are keen to employ. No wonder it is pretty young women who appear on the front covers of every paper in exam season, grinning and jumping on cue... (read the rest at New Statesman).

Monday 23 August 2010

The West must not use women's rights to justify war

Despite an international outcry, Iran seems determined to have Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, stoned to death for adultery. Her plight has become a test case for the global community's response to Iran's barbaric, institutional misogyny. Tehran has responded by thumbing its nose at the rest of the world, forcing Ashtiani to confess her "crimes" on television. In Britain, our outrage is unanimous, and rightly so.

It seems curiously inconsistent, then, that, just a few weeks ago, the Home Office was quite prepared to deport another Iranian woman, Kiana Firouz, to certain execution in her native country for sexual unorthodoxy. Firouz made the film Cul-de-Sac to raise awareness of the oppression of lesbians in Iran, outing herself very publicly and embarrassing the state in the process: both crimes punishable by death in Iran. Nonetheless, it took a co-ordinated campaign by LGBT activists and solidarity networks in the UK to shame the Home Office into granting Firouz leave to remain.

Bita Ghaedi, another Iranian woman facing execution for breaking her marriage vows, also escaped to Britain -- where she was sent to a holding cell and repeatedly threatened with deportation. Ghaedi has been on several hunger strikes to protest at her treatment, but she still lives in fear of being sent back to Iran. Had the unfortunate Ms Ashtiani been smuggled to the UK, it is fair to assume that she, too, would currently be detained in Yarl's Wood, subjected to the indignity of pleading for her life to a government whose professed solidarity with Iranian women has not yet overcome its prejudice against immigrants to extend support to the hundreds of women who arrive on these shores fleeing violence every year -- all of whom, unlike Ms Ashtiani, we could actually do something materially to help.

State violence against women has long been used to justify military interventionism. The government of Iran is rather unusual in taking it upon itself to employ the executioners, but plenty of states with whom the US and UK have no military disputes currently allow men who feel their women have besmirched their family honour to carry out the killings themselves on the understanding that punishment will be minimal or non-existent.

Article 340 of the Penal Code of Jordan states: "He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds or injures one of them is exempted from any penalty." Similar laws were struck down only very recently in Syria, Morocco and Brazil; in Pakistan, incidences of women and girls being slain by their families for sexual transgressions (including having the gall to be raped) are routinely ignored by police and prosecutors.

Moreover, across the world, 68,000 women are effectively condemned to agonising death each year -- 5 per cent of them in developed countries -- for the crime of wanting sexual and reproductive self-determination in states with sanctions against abortion. There has, as yet, been no systemic global outcry at their plight. And in at least one European country, the defence of "provocation to murder" -- the so-called "cuckold's defence" -- was enshrined in law until just two years ago, allowing husbands to plead for a reduced sentence if the wife they had killed was unfaithful. The country in question was Great Britain. Were the US or UK to launch a systemic offensive against every country brutalising its female citizens because of their sex at the level of policy and culture, it'd be World War Three on Tuesday -- and we would have to start by bombing our own cities.

In this context, it could well be construed that there is another, more sinister agenda at play beyond concern for women's rights. Yesterday, Iran told the west to butt out of its right to murder Sakineh Ashtiani, making it clear that this case is now less about the well-being of one woman than about moral and militaristic positioning between hostile states. There is clear precedent for this callous, ideological long game.

This month, Time magazine published a cover photograph of a young woman, Aisha, whose nose and ears had been cut off by her father-in-law. The cover ran with the unambiguous title, "What happens if we leave Afghanistan". However, as the Afghan women's rights activist Malalai Joya told France24, Aisha was attacked under western occupation and such atrocities have arguably increased since the 2002 invasion.

"Eighteen-year-old Aisha is just an example -- cutting ears, noses and toes, torturing and even slaughtering is a norm in Afghanistan," said Joya. "Afghan women are squashed between three enemies: the Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops. Once again, it is moulding the oppression of women into a propaganda tool to gain support and staining their hands with ever-deepening treason against Afghan women."

In March, WikiLeaks published a CIA briefing that outlined a strategy to counter growing opposition in Europe to participation in the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. It recommended using a narrative about the oppression of women in the country that highlighted the Taliban's misogynist violence while ignoring that of the pro-occupation warlords and the occupation armies. A similar story is now being disseminated about the plight of women in Iran and poor Ms Ashtiani has become a tokenistic figure in that absolving narrative.

Instead of the solidarity they deserve -- solidarity that might first be extended by treating asylum seekers with something less than contempt -- Iranian women are being co-opted into a Nato narrative whose trajectory seems to point inexorably towards invasion. That the state of Iran hates and fears women is not up for debate and if even one person can be saved from fascistic, fundamentalist woman-haters, an international campaign is more than justified. However, if, as seems likely, Iran executes Sakineh Ashtiani anyway, it would be beyond distasteful for Nato governments to cannibalise her corpse as part of the moral groundwork for further bloodshed.

Monday 16 August 2010

Peterloo: 191 years ago today

Today is the anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, when pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters in Manchester were brutally murdered by mercenaries and cavalrymen in the service of the British government. The aftermath of the day led to an acceleration in the progress of suffrage in Britain (and more directly, to the formation of the Guardian newspaper).

Brits: there's a reason why they stuck to Henry the Eighth and the Empire in school. They want us to be proud, but not about this sort of thing. We need to remember that there's another history of Britain, a history of poverty and disenfranchisement and the struggle for workers' rights and women's rights, the struggle against slavery at home and abroad.

Remember, remember the sixteenth of August.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Undercover with the young conservatives...

Yup, I haven't even managed to cross-post this week, because I became homeless *again* and had to scrabble for a place to live whilst finishing deadlines, and a dog ate my homework. But you should all read this, because I suffered for this one, godsdamnit. I had to pretend I was a racist for an evening. It was terrifying. Enjoy, with trepidation.


The teenager in the posh frock delivers her advice with the authority of weary experience. "Since this is your first Conservative Future event, I thought I ought to say -watch out for the men here," she whispers, as her friends disappear to the bar. "Most of them can't be trusted." We're at the Young Britons' Foundation summer party, incorporating the leadership hustings of Conservative Future, where I've come to observe the young right in full victory rut.

Descending three flights of stairs to the private function room at the Mahiki club in central London is a little like stepping into a sewer where the cultural overspill of the 1980s has been draining for twenty years. The room is stuffed with pasty young men in suits and ties drinking nasty orange cocktails and gossiping about Ken Clarke; the smattering of women present are wearing expensive polyester and listening prettily to what the boys have to say.

It's like a scene from one of those time-travelling detective shows, down to the droning muzak, the atmosphere of grim introspection, and the suspicion that everyone here is acting a role. The young people lounged around the bar seem to be rehearsing a set of social stereotypes that feel too clichéd to be real, mouthing empty lines of propaganda - "Thatcher did what needed to be done!" -with only a rudimentary understanding of their implications.

The Young Britons' Foundation is a finishing school for the centre-right which claims to be non-partisan and offers classes in dealing with the media, but the organisers have somehow allowed at least one journalist to infiltrate an evening they're hosting for the youth wing of the Conservative party. Eighty percent of the people here are men, and they have a lot to say about how the bloody Lib Dems are spoiling everything, and they say it over the heads of the women present.

"Yah, I really don't know what it is about Tory guys," continues Posh Frock. "They're worse than normal. I think it's because there are just so many men in the party, and it makes them...you know..." she fumbles in her bag, pulls out a pink gauze purse full of enough prescription medication to restock Boots, and pops some painkillers. "It just makes them arrogant, I suppose."

Is she some sort of feminist, then? "No! God, no!" she squeals. "No, definitely not, it's nothing like that. It's just - be careful. That's all I'm saying."
A hush falls; the hustings have begun. The three candidates for the Conservative Future leadership are all boisterous white men in their mid-twenties, all tall, all a little jowly, distinguishable by the colour of their shirts and the fact that one of them is wearing hipster spectacles. Their pitches are a unanimous declaration of strategic befuddlement.

"Now that we're in power, we've got to show the left that we can win the ideological arguments, because - because we're right!" declares Hipster Spectacles, but he doesn't sound convinced. His platitudes about "progressive politics" elicit disapproving tuts from the back row, who seem to be conducting a rehearsal for their future in the Commons. "Progressive, what does that mean?" mutters James from Kensington. "Everything seems to be progressive these days. It's the buzz-word."

"Yeah, like the Big Society," enjoins prematurely-balding Ollie, who works in the House of Lords and is slurping a Mai Tai from a tumbler shaped like a tribal woman's skull (my drink is in half a pineapple; it's all terribly ethnic). "Nobody knows what the Big Society means! It doesn't mean anything!"

"It means cutting about a hundred billion a year from public services," says his friend, adding hastily, "I mean, like, obviously that's a good thing."
"We need to make sure our party follows our principles and not those of the Liberal Democrats!" shouts another candidate. "It's the bloody Lib Dems who're the problem, they're getting in the way of everything!" During the bellow of assent that follows, one of my new friends brushes a hand surreptitiously and quite deliberately against my knee, like someone trying to be seductive in the seventeenth century. With a flash of awful clarity, I realise that these are precisely the young men my grandmother warned me about, that they are the heirs apparent to Britain's political system, and that not one of them has paused to consider if they deserve it. [read the second half at New Statesman...]


This piece was inspired by Dan Hancox's excellent report from the CF Christmas party in December.

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.

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 canapés 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