Abstract: Autobiography or confessional? The title is not plagiarised from the literary offering by a certain Mr. Tim Griggs, but that of a short story that has been languishing in my archives for over ten years, an ironic comment on the requirement in modern Western society for a female to be attached and the difficulties in attaining this state of “bliss”.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Britblog Roundup 191

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:27 am

Welcome to the unrepentant unbelievers edition of the Britblog Roundup – be warned that for the delicate soul of tender disposition the stench of a whited sepulchre, the whiff of eternal damnation might prove distressing, but it’s a risk I am willing to take…

Religion

Unity of Ministry of Truth in Picking Fleas comprehensively and brilliantly demolishes the essay by Dr Graham Tomlin, Dean of St Mellitus College, London, penned in an effort to refute The God Delusion.  Although Unity systematically works his way through the text, we shall focus on one example, more than adequate to reveal how the Dean is punching above his weight.  Unity clarifies: "Dawkins’ argument vis-a-vis morality is not that Christianity fails to supply a tidy list of do’s and don’ts but that our evolved moral sense is not dependent on Christianity, or any other religion.  The question he addresses is that of whether we can be moral without the need for the belief that a big old sky fairy is looking over our shoulders every waking second of the day – he thinks we can and so have many other eminent philosophers, not least amongst whom were Hume and Kant.

As such, the point about the seeming ubiquity of certain moral principles, particularly the universality of the ‘Golden Rule’, is that this is evidence that the foundations of the ethic of reciprocity are to be found in our evolution as a species and not in the maundering of the priestly caste of any individual religion or even religion, collectively.  Within social animals, of which we are but one of many, reciprocation and reciprocal altruism confers certain survival advantages over and above pure self-interest – natural selection favour those who cooperate – within certain limits – to ensure the survival of their genes to future generations, which makes the Golden Rule no more than an intellectual codification of an evolutionary principle and its ubiquity across human societies nothing more than a function of the fact that we all belong to the same species and, if you go back far enough, share common origins and ancestors".

Unity surmises that the loud bleating amongst the flock of the faithful may have more to it than a simple defence of their good shepherd: "Ultimately, what has got some religionists so rattled about Dawkins and the so-called ‘New Atheists’ is not that they challenge the the existence of god – that is ultimately an intellectual debate – but that he and others are implicitly, and in some cases, explicitly, challenging the privileged position and status of religion as an institution and socio-political entity.

It’s not god, or the belief in god that Tomlin and others are trying to protect when they’re attacking Dawkins, it’s their hallowed place on the secular public teat on which religion has been suckling and has grown fat for centuries.

What Dawkins is threatening here is the automatic seats in the UK’s House of Lords given to the Church of England, the state funding for faith schools and the mandatory requirement placed on all state schools, even secular ones, to provide acts of ‘broadly Christian’ worship and religious education.  It’s the undue and undeserved claim to deference that religion demands under the guide of ‘respect’ and the legislative cop-outs they demand in order to defend their presumed ‘right’ to discriminate and promulgate bigotry and homophobia".

As a former born-again fundamentalist (now fully recovered), the root of my opposition to the monotheistic religions is that they mandate the wholesale subordination and denial of full humanity to women as the "inferior" in the male/female binary.  To me, religion is all about keeping things the way they are and women in their place.  The first step towards emancipation is to debunk the priesthood’s claim to authority and status.  Without the backing of a god they have no foundation for their power, no justification for interfering in people’s lives, prescribing conduct and spreading guilt and misery (not that I have much time for their secular equivalent, psychotherapists, either – the aim of both professions is to help their charges come to terms with the source of their unhappiness rather than changing social attitudes or combating injustice, brainwashing them into reconciling themselves to their lot).

Tomlin’s piece ends with a rhetorical flourish: "God is searching for us and is there to be found but only by those who risk everything to do so.  Those who do find him find love, adventure and satisfaction beyond what they imagined possible".

Nonsense!  For women, submitting to the will of god means servitude without appeal or respite, erosion of confidence, surrender of autonomy and placing oneself completely at the mercy of a man who enjoys the right to unquestioning obedience, a retreat to enforced domesticity.  Baking flapjacks for the prayer group meeting with more than just buns of sugar and dough in the oven (because, after all, it was so ordained that our chief value should be as incubators as opposed to intellects)…always with a cheerful smile for complaint would be sinful, a blasphemous rejection of god’s divine plan and boundless wisdom.

Lest you dismiss my words as an isolated voice crying in the wilderness, I commend A.C. Grayling’s meditation in The Guardian on how Tradition and religion forge shackles of oppression for women: "I leave to you the task of totting up the other ways in which piety makes war on women in different parts and traditions of Islam, and not even very extreme Islam at that, ranging from honour killings to female circumcision and vaginal infibulation.

Indeed I leave to you the not very congenial task of totting up the ways in which more enthusiastic forms of religion in general, not just Islam but Roman Catholicism, puritanical forms of Protestantism, and orthodox Judaism, have treated women: all the way from closeting them, covering them up, and silencing them, to sewing up their vaginas: it is a ghastly litany of oppression, all the less excusable because discrimination against women which began in these ways persists in our society in modified forms: the fact that a woman earns about 70% of what an equally qualified and experienced mad does is a residue in our own society of the attitude which in today’s sharia law states that a woman is worth half a man".

Cath Elliott, likewise in The Guardian, concurs that selling your soul to an allegedly benign deity is a bad deal for women in I’m not praying: (…) the term ‘Christian feminist’ is an oxymoron; it’s a glaring contradiction in terms on a par with ‘compassionate conservative’ and ‘pro-life anti-abortionist’.

Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women’s freedom and equality, but it’s certainly not alone in this.  Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression.  It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.

Since men first conceived of the notion of a single omnipotent creator, that divine being has taken the form of a man: no matter what name he answers to, be it Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, or just plain God, what’s not in doubt is that he’s a he.  His teachings and his various holy books reinforce the message that this life exists for men, while the best women can hope for is some kind of reward in the next one; as long as we do as we’re told of course, without questioning our lords and masters, and as long as we manage to remain pure of heart and mind while we prostrate ourselves at their feet".

This may be slightly inaccurate, in the sense that whereas it rings true for monotheistic religions, there are others, which worship goddesses.  However, even the polytheistic faiths position male gods as supreme, with their consorts and spouses employing their feminine wiles to subvert the authority of their masters.

Elliott continues: "In any society where religion dominates it is women who pay the price: we can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether or not any particular religion sanctions so-called honour crimes for example, but what’s unarguable is that men’s interpretation of religion, and the patriarchal values that religion instils, has led to the murders of countless women.  Similarly, it’s in the name of religion that girls are denied an education; in the name of religion that more than half a million women die every year because they cannot access safe abortions; in the name of religion that Aids continues its unrelenting progress across Africa, and in the name of religion that women throughout the world remain subjugated, impoverished and denied individual agency".

The effects of religion are almost entirely pernicious: it dulls our revolutionary fervour, conning us into putting up with things no matter how intolerable.  One objection might be to recount how religion can have positive social effects by inspiring charity and self-sacrifice: the soup kitchens and other good works.  This compassion is proffered in exchange for spiritual Brownie points to escape being roasted on a spit.  Good deeds put you in God’s good books and keep you out of hell: the motives behind them are purely selfish, in other words.  I grant that this does not detract from the immediately beneficial impact on the needy, but the recipients have to swallow the gospel along with their doorsteps of bread.

Looking back over my own experience to account for the attraction to religion, as a teenage swot, I was a pariah, an outcast, desperate to fit in.  Religion offers a balm to ease the pain of the sheer wretchedness of existence, especially for those near the bottom of the pile.  It can function as a frustration-abatement/containment mechanism.  Often our capacity for self-reflection can torment us, appear as a curse and we seek the temporary numbing relief of alcohol, drugs, or the opiate of the people.  The real miracle is the tenacity of religion, which may be attributed to our inherent futility, the transitoriness of our individual being, which may be too unpalatable, unbearable for us to confront.  Religion is our comfort blanket as we shiver in the coldness of the infinite indifference of the cosmos.  And it offers the ultimate revenge fantasy: those who prosper now will burn in hell.  Similarly, whilst there is no justice in the here and now, there might be in the hereafter.

Religion permeates and simultaneously corrupts perceptions in a subtle cognitive warp as explored and catalogued by Pierre Bourdieu during his fieldwork in Kabylia: "We find in fact in the political sphere the same division of labour which entrusts religion – public, official, solemn, and collective – to the men, and magic – secret, clandestine, and private – to the women.  In this competition the men have the whole official institution on their side, starting with the mythico-ritual representations and representations of kinship which, by reducing the opposition between the official and the private to the opposition between the outside and the inside, hence the male and the female, establish a systematic hierarchisation, condemning women’s interventions to a shameful, secret, or, at best, unofficial existence.  Even when women do wield the real power, as is often the case in matrimonial matters, they can exercise it fully only on condition that they leave the appearance of power, that is, its official manifestation, to the men; to have any power at all, women must make do with the unofficial power of the eminence grise, a dominated power which is opposed to official power in that it can operate only by proxy, under the cover of an official authority, as well as to the subversive refusal of the rule-breaker, in that it still serves the authority it uses" (Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p41).

Returning to Unity by way of conclusion: "That’s what atheism is – growing up and becoming a fully autonomous, independent human being capable of making their own moral choices and their own decisions about what is right and what is wrong without recourse to fairy tales, bogeymen or sky fairies".

The Heresiarch of Heresy Corner in Not-so-sparkling Jewel surveys the response to Sherry Jones’ bodice-ripper sanitised of vivid descriptions of sexual encounters (paradoxical though that may sound upon first hearing) effort based on the life of Aisha, The Jewel of Medina: "Having read the opening chapter when it appeared online in August I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece: simultaneously turgid and flowery, it suggested that Jones’ ambition greatly exceeded her ability as a writer.  It was her intention, she told Asra Nomani of the Wall Street Journal, ‘to honour Aisha and all the wives of Mohammed by giving voice to them, remarkable women whose crucial roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored – silenced – by historians’.  An aim either worth or cringe-makingly ingratiating, according to taste, but one that ought to have rung alarm bells for anyone who cares about fiction.  Novels written with a purely didactic intent are rarely very good".

An excerpt courtesy of The Times should suffice to illustrate its literary merits or lack thereof: "The author avoids graphic sex scenes between the two.  But A’isha says: ‘This was the beginning of something new, something terrible.  Soon I would by lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me.  he would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it?  It’s always painful the first time’.  After consummating her marriage to the Prophet, she says: ‘The pain of consummation soon melted away.  Muhammad was so gentle.  I hardly felt the scorpion’s sting.  To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life’".

These passages prompted Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her review, The Fire-Bombed Book, to write: "Ms Jones does not condemn Mohammed for having sex with Aisha at the age of nine.  The sex scene is not described graphically and its conclusion for Aisha is described by Ms Jones as something Aisha always wanted.  All the behaviour considered immoral and misogynistic in the modern day Western attitudes that offends Muslims are repeated in the novel and affirmed.  Rather than being a challenge to Islam, The Jewel of Medina is a pro-Islamic, pro-Mohammed novel and could easily serve as propaganda material for any Muslim organisation promoting the idea that Muslim women must not only accept the position that Islam ascribes to them but should also view that inferior position as a gift from God.

From my perspective, Ms Jones’ novel does not come close toward helping Muslim women imagine that there is a reality beyond subjugation.  The main lesson for a Muslim woman to take from Aisha the heroine of The Jewel is that it is best to spire to becoming the head of the concubines, or the hatun, and in that dubious position to remind herself that her job is to support Muhammad’s decisions, not to doubt them.  Obedience as a lesson is not something Muslim girls need to read about in novels; it is a concept they have to live with every day.

Where Ms Jones succeeds – and, it seems, unwittingly – is to show the problem Islam perpetually has with fiction.  It is not enough to be positive about the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), i.e. to stick to the Islamic account of events surrounding the prophet’s life.  It is not enough to express oneself in the same tone of deference that Muslims do when talking or writing about their religion.

What it confirms is that Muslims believe that Muslims and infidels both must place Islam’s main characters out of bounds for fiction, for literature in general, and for cinema, except as a means of dawa or to spread the faith".

The Heresiarch endorses her criticisms: "A novel about Aisha need not be inflammatory; but a novel about Aisha that was any good would almost by definition be highly controversial.  It would have to tackle the question head-on: not because Aisha’s extreme youth is definitively established (though it is likely) but because it is a matter that continues to have the most serious ramifications for children today.  Across the Muslim world, from Afghanistan to Morocco, even in Britain, underage and sometimes prepubescent girls are married, usually without their consent (if consent were even possible); and often these marriages are then consummated".

He expresses his regret at a missed opportunity: "Premature marriage takes a heavy toll in terms of female sexual health, psychological damage and limited life-chances.  Yet there’s another story to be told, too: one that takes into account that early marriage was a feature of many societies throughout much of human history, Christian as well as Muslim and neither.  Even in Western Europe, where people have always tended to marry relatively late, aristocratic brides were not uncommonly in their early teens.  These women were not all suffering victims; as widows, still relatively young and vigorous, they might be powerful and rich.  Aisha herself, by all accounts, was such a widow.

The story of Aisha sits at the intersection of two sacred modern taboos: the Western construction of pedophilia as a supercrime, and the almost equally totemic belief in multicultural respect.  A novel that took her life as material for a truly fearless examination of these issues would probably outrage everybody.  It would be dangerous.  It would be great.  But it wouldn’t be anything like The Jewel of Medina". 

Abortion

"There was no one cause, says Aunt Lydia.  She stands at the front of the room, in her khaki dress, a pointer in her hand.  Pulled down in front of the blackboard, where once there would have been a map, is a graph, showing the birth rate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down.

Of course, some women believed there would be no future, they thought the world would explode.  That was the excuse they used, says Aunt Lydia.  They said there was no sense in breeding.  Aunt Lydia’s nostrils narrow: such wickedness.  They were lazy women, she says.  They were sluts"

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (London, Vintage, 1996, p123)

We begin with Unity once again, this time at Liberal Conspiracy in Sins of Omission: "The major problem facing the anti-abortion lobby is that, for all their efforts to poison the public debate in support of their prohibitionist agenda, public support for the principle that women have the right to access safe, legal abortions services remains rock solid at around 65-70% in any reputable poll.  If nothing else, the British public understand that the alternative to legal abortion is not no abortions but a return to unsafe backstreet abortions with their attendant horrors.

The ‘moral’ argument for prohibition has been lost and lost decisively and it’s because of that, that anti-abortionists have turned, instead, to a stream of extremely specious and sophistic arguments about the supposed ‘rights’ of the foetus and to the wholesale misrepresentation and bastardisation of medical and scientific knowledge about pregnancy, foetal development and abortion".

Religion steps into the fray to intercede for unborn innocents, conveniently overlooking in their froth of far from righteous indignation the toll that would be extracted from women.  This is religion at its ugliest and most sanctimonious.  In their deluded romanticism about saving "babies", its practitioners would reverse the progress of the last 50 years at a stroke…The latest line of attack on women’s control of their own bodies adopted by Christian Action Research and Education (CARE, an inappropriate acronym if ever there was one), an organisation apparently adept at infiltrating the corridors of power by furnishing MPs with interns, has been to draw a spurious comparison between the campaign of those who oppose abortion with those who fought to emancipate slaves.

Unity lays bare both the historical inaccuracy and brazen dishonesty of such claims: "Drawing spurious parallels to the abolition of slavery is not only a deeply offensive tactic to adopt, but also a desperate attempt by CARE to clothe its position in a false and wholly synthetic brand of moral rectitude in the hope of deflecting attention away from the moral choice that otherwise underpins public support for legal abortion – the clear understanding that the real alternative to legal abortion is not no abortions but a return to unsafe backstreet abortions with all their attendant horrors.

That said, if we are to cast this debate in the language of human and civil rights then, in addition to reflecting on the fact that women were treated in law as something less than fully human for far longer than even those men who were born or taken into slavery prior to successes of the abolitionists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the fundamental question one has to address is whether or not you believe that women are independent, autonomous, sentient human beings who possess the full capacity to make and exercise moral and ethical choices over their own lives".

The 22nd October is the next crucial date in the battle over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

Harpymarx reminds us of what is at stake in Liberalise abortion rights: support a woman’s right to choose: "I ended up chatting to an Irish woman who was a member of Alliance for Choice.

She was over here, as part of a 40-woman team to support the amendment to extend abortion rights to the north of Ireland.  Forty being politically symbolic as 40 women each week leave the north to obtain an abortion elsewhere.

And that costs between £600 to £2,000.  Access to abortion is very much a class issue and if you can’t get the money then a woman is pushed into a desperate situation that includes backstreet abortions.  Women also end up buying RU486 aka the abortion pill over the web, taking pot luck as they don’t know what they are buying.  desperate circumstances bring desperate measures".

Alliance for Choice publish personal testimonies, in which religious scruples feature as a recurrent theme, as Ms. C’s story shows: "When I was aged 25 and my daughter Caroline was almost eight, I went for a pregnancy test at the LIFE offices.  My distress at the positive test was so great, the counsellor took some time to calm me down.  I explained that Caroline has severe autism and challenging behaviour.  Another child would mean that Caroline would end up in care and I wasn’t having that.

The counsellor said that maybe God was sending me this child ‘to make up for Caroline.  This insult to my darling daughter summed up the ‘pro-life’ attitude for me.  getting respite care for a few days to allow me to go to England was very difficult, although all my friends rallied round with money, so that part wasn’t too bad.

Five years on, Caroline is still at home with me and her behaviour is greatly improved.  If I had continued with that pregnancy, I have no doubt that she would be in care and much, much worse in her behaviour and abilities".

Then there is Ms. A: "It was 1993 and my youngest child was 8 years old when I found myself pregnant again.  My marriage had broken up a few years before and my husband had left me to raise our five children alone with no support, financial or emotional.  I had returned to education as a mature student and I was in the final year of my degree.

All the struggling to keep up with home and University was about to pay off.  I was just months away from my final exams.  When I told the man I was seeing that I was pregnant, he just didn’t want to know.  he had children of his own from a previous relationship and wouldn’t be around to help, no matter what I decided to do.

Even though I was raised a Catholic and I didn’t agree with abortion, when I was faced with these circumstances, I felt I had no other choice.  It took five weeks from when I decided to have a termination to raise the money to travel over.  I borrowed some money from friends, lying to some and trusting others with my secret.  I had to use the phone-bill money as well, so we got cut off just before I left for London.  Northern Ireland is part of the UK, so I don’t understand why I couldn’t have the abortion there".

How humiliating for these women to be forced to resort to deceit, to beg for the fare across to England for a procedure, which ought to be self-evident.  It sickens me to the core.  These women are doing their utmost to haul themselves out of welfare dependency, hardly the feckless, fickle little tarts of myth.  If they had succumbed to pressure and carried the foetus to term, they would clearly have been condemning themselves and their offspring to poverty and misery.  Not one of them took the decision lightly.

Penny Red in Stand up for women in Northern Ireland! reports on a Parliament rally convened to support Diane Abbott’s amendment to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.   She quotes Goretti Horgan, of Alliance for Choice: "’The poverty of some women in NI also impacts on the numbers of late abortions in Britain,’ said Ms Horgan.  ‘The time it takes some women to find enough money to have an abortion means that women from here are three times more likely than British women to have abortions after 20 weeks.  However, thousands of others are forced to continue pregnancies they find intolerable.  This includes women pregnant as a result of rape and sexual abuse,’ says the Alliance for Choice spokesperson.

‘If you’re afraid of falling into some colonialist mindset by overriding Stormont, please, forget it – we need our human rights,’ said Dr Audrey Simpson of the Northern Irish Family Planning Association, reminding those present that when the Bill was last on the table in May, Northern Irish MPs had ‘no qualms’ in voting to cut the time limit from 24 to 12 weeks for English, Welsh and Scottish women".

The campaigners underline the urgency of the issue: "It’s also the last chance Northern Irish women will have to fight for their rights to legal abortion for a very long time: soon, criminal law will be devolved to Stormont, after which ‘we won’t see positive change for generations,’ said Annie Campbell" (also from Alliance for Choice.

Kate Smurthwaite of Cruella Blog in British Women (and Men) – Your Help Needed Now also picks up on the theme of deprivation: "Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland unless the mother’s life is at risk.  There is no exception made for rape or incest victims.  6217 women who gave addresses in Ireland had an abortion in Britain last year, others travel to Holland or Belgium and some have been known to order abortion-inducing medicines online, which is dangerous both because not all websites selling such things are safe and also because women convicted of causing an abortion in Northern Ireland can face long prison terms.  Since 1967 five women are known to have died as a result of backstreet abortions in Northern Ireland.  This means of course that the system effectively just penalises those women without the financial means to go overseas for their termination".

She then deals with some of the protests against supporting liberalisation, the first of which, unsurprisingly, is religiously induced inhibition: "I can’t support abortion because of my religion.  The nearest the bible comes to mentioning abortion is in Isaiah where it says if two men are fighting and a woman is hit causing her to miscarry the man who hit the woman must pay a fine to the woman’s husband.  I’m not sure that’s the law we need but it would actually be better than the one we’ve got.  Anyway the bible says you shouldn’t blaspheme, eat shellfish or share a bed with your husband during your period.  Should we pass these as laws and enforce them with lengthy prison sentences?  Do we want a country where people of non-Christian faiths and of no religion are forced to practice fundamentalist Christianity by law?  Even when they are pregnant following incestuous rape?  Really?"

She then moves on to another popular cop-out: "The HFE Bill isn’t the right place to amend abortion law.  The 1967 abortion law is significantly out of date.  Not only with the exception made for Northern Ireland but also the requirement in the rest of the UK for two doctors’ signatures (you don’t even need two doctors’ signatures for triple heart bypass surgery), that nurses can’t prescribe abortion pills (though they can prescribe many much more complicated drug treatments and if the law was changed in this area many women would have much less distance to travel to access abortion services) and the law which says that medical abortion cannot be completed at home (women have to take the pills in a clinic and either wait there around four hours until the induced miscarriage starts or risk heading home knowing bleeding could start at any time".

To avoid creating the (mistaken) impression that I am only giving room to commentators from outside Northern Ireland (I would be the last to indulge in such unwarranted discrimination, however, I am almost completely dependent on nominations – what the weekly host is not informed of they are not necessarily aware of), I turn to an update by Brian Walker of Slugger O’Toole, Abortion reform latest, where the comments are enlightening, Goretti Horgan’s in particular: "It’s true that the government do not support extension of the Abortion Act to NI; however, it’s been Labour Party policy going back to the 1980s and in opposition they all voted to extend.  Now there is a large pro-choice majority in the House of Commons and it could pass even with all the Labour frontbenchers voting against (or more likely abstaining).  Anyone who saw Hazel Blears’ discomfiture when asked about her voting intentions on Hearts and Minds can see the problem facing many Labour MPs, especially women like Blears, Harman, Hewitt etc. who made their names as women’s rights activists and are now being asked to say they believe a woman’s right to choose is a fundamental right for women in Scotland, England and Wales but not NI.  Some will abstain and that may lose us the vote, but it is a free vote and many will vote with their consciences despite what Gordon Brown is saying to them. The key will be hearing from women and men here who explain the extent to which the political parties do NOT represent us on this issue.  At least 800,000 women from here have had abortions in Britain.  Surveys suggest that each involves up to 5 other people in making the decision.  Do the maths, that’s a lot of people in a region that has only 1.7 million people".

Politics

Chris Dillow, of Stumbling and Mumbling in Politics for the immature, ponders the implications Ruth Kelly’s decision not to stand at the next elections, what she has in common with Sarah Palin and on how politics is no longer the pinnacle of aspiration, but a mere springboard to an even more lucrative career: "Until around the 1980s-90s, people commonly worked in law, industry or business and only began political life at around the age that Ruth is ending hers.  Whereas politics was once the culmination of one’s career, Ruth’s move suggests it is the start of one.

This reversal betokens a big change in what are regarded as political skills.  There was a time when it was thought that politics required the sort of characteristics that only come to most of us with maturity: judgement and cool-headedness.

Today, though, these skills matter less.  Instead, what matters is simply who one is.  Which is where Sarah Palin comes in.  It’s increasingly obvious that she has no obvious ability.  Instead, she was picked to be vice-presidential candidate simply for who she is (or appears to be) – because it was thought that she would appeal to the right demographic.

Politicians are selected in the same way that manufactured pop bands are – for their media-friendliness, and ability to recite others’ words, more than any great skill they have".

I wonder how Anne Widdecombe fits in here?  As the eccentric and waspish spinster aunt type?

Chris links to an article by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, Mad Dog Palin, an excerpt of which I cannot resist reproducing here: "’She totally reminds me of my cousin!’ the delegate screeched.  ‘She’s a real woman!  The real thing!’

I stared at her open-mouthed.  In that moment, the rank cynicism of the whole sorry deal was laid bare.  here’s the thing about Americans.  You can send their kids off by the thousands to get their balls blown off in foreign lands for no reason at all, saddle them with billions in debt year after congressional year while they spend their winters cheerfully watching game shows and football, pull the rug out from under their mortgages, and leave them living off their credit cards and their Wal-Mart salaries while you move their jobs to China and Bangalore.

And none of it matters, so long as you remember a few months before Election Day to offer them a two-bit caricature culled from some cutting-room floor episode of Roseanne as part of your presidential ticket.  And if she’s a good enough likeness of a loudmouthed Middle American archetype, as Sarah Palin is, John Q. Public will drop his giant-size bag of Doritos in gratitude, wipe the Sizzlin’ Picante dust from his lips and rush to the booth to vote for her.  Not because it makes sense, or because it has a chance of improving his life or anyone else’s, but simply because it appeals to the low-humming narcissism that substitutes for his personality, because the image on TV reminds him of the mean, brainless slob he sees in the mirror every morning.

Sarah Palin is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the modern United States.  As a representative of our political system, she’s a new low in reptilian villainy, the ultimate cynical masterwork of puppeteers like Karl Rove.  But more than that, she is a horrifying symbol of how little we ask in return for the total surrender of our political power.  Not only is Sarah Palin a fraud, she’s the tawdriest, most half-assed fraud imaginable, 20 floors below the lowest common denominator, a character too dumb even for daytime TV – and this country is going to eat her up, cheering her every step of the way.  All because most Americans no longer have the energy to do anything but lie back and allow ourselves to be jacked off by the calculating thieves who run this grasping consumer paradise we call a nation".

Harpymarx of the eponymous blog sounds the alarm over Lone parents: further attacks by new Labour: "More sanctions, more conditionality, more misery and more poverty from NL [New Labour].  And as I wrote before that if NL was at all serious about supporting lone parents then universal free childcare would be at the top of the agenda along with decent jobs and training.  It’s not.  Instead it is about coercion and penalties".

Simon Duncan and Rosalind Edwards in Lone Mothers, Paid Work and Gendered Moral Rationalities (Houndmills, Palgrave-Macmillan, 1999) summarise how the Left and Right have converged on a punitive approach to single mothers in the context of "a British and North American debate that has become polarised between Fabian social policy and conservative new right views of lone motherhood.  Despite their political differences, both tend to see lone mothers as a socially homogenous, categorical group, and both see the national state as the dominant social actor.  Arguably, the current ‘New Deal’ for lone parents in Britain, as proposed by the newly ascendant ‘New Labour’, is using fashionable communitarian ideas as a vehicle to draw on both.  Both sets of views assume a particular notion of personal motivation, based on a neo-classical concept of individual economic rationality.  In turn, this assumption supports a socially simplistic stimulus-response model of the relationship between human behaviour and social policy.  It is assumed that if the national social policy stimulus is changed, lone mothers will respond by changing their behaviour in an appropriate and uniform way.  Thus mainstream social policy analysts propose welfare reform to alleviate the personal constraints on economically rational behaviour.  Changes to the tax and benefits systems should ensure that lone mothers are better off in paid work than they are living on benefits, and publicly funded day care provision should be increased to remove a fundamental block to lone mothers’ uptake of paid work.  The conservative new right also proposes changes in policy, seeking to remove the social threat they see in lone motherhood by removing state support to lone mothers.  A reduction of benefits to lone mothers, for example, will force them into paid work, or dissuade them from divorcing or separating, or even from having children in the first place.  In this way both views lead to a form of social engineering.  Through this debate lone motherhood also has taken a political significance far wider than the policy issues directly raised, particularly in Britain and the USA.  It has become a symbol, and a means of political mobilisation, for rival discourses about the nature of the family and the welfare state.  However, if the underlying assumptions of these views are incorrect – that personal motivation is a matter of economic self-interest and that national states are the only important actor – then these policies are unlikely to have the desired effects.  At best it will be a case of social engineering forcing people, unwillingly and hence inefficiently, into someone else’s categorical box" (pp1-2).

To ascend to and remain in power, New Labour have been forced to perform a balancing act between pleasing their natural constituency and the imperative to woo and appease the middle-classes: "While the New Labour leadership does not demonise lone motherhood, and ‘is not against those who do marry’, it remains convinced that marriage is the ideal state and that living with two biological parents is the best for children.  It is also the best way of dealing with the contradiction between the supposed parenting deficit and the ascribed duty of all adults below pensionable age to take on paid work.  For the two parent family allows specialisation by breadwinning fathers and domestic mothers where the latter, implicitly, are excused from the moral duty to have paid work (…) this policy of neo-classical marriage trading models does little to address gender divisions of labour.  Lone motherhood, in contrast, epitomises the contradiction between paid work and parenting, while the complexities of step-parenting and all the other ‘new family forms’ just complicate matters.  In addition, unemployed lone mothers (like the disabled) continue to eat up a large part of the social security budget as well as reducing potential tax income.  Harriet Harman (1996), at time of writing both Minister for Social Security and, somewhat paradoxically it seems, Minister for Women, has quoted figures of £10,000 per lone mother per annum.  This is a particularly potent threat where New Labour now claims to be the natural, low tax party of ‘middle England’.  Parenting by both biological parents is therefore the best and most efficient family form in linking social morality, social cohesion and economic efficiency" (Duncan and Edwards, pp 285-6).

Whilst on the subject of social meddling, the Heresiarch in Smoking out Smokers explores his ambivalence at new proposals to clamp down on puffing on the evil weed, in connection with a new report Beyond Smoking Kills, more specifically, to quote the press release from Ash aimed at deterring young people from picking up the habit and placing even tighter restrictions on marketing.  For example: "New research from the University of Nottingham, also published in the report, shows that tobacco branding and packaging sends misleading ’smoke signals’ to young people.  Although it has been illegal for manufacturers to use trademarks, text or any sign to suggest that one tobacco product is less harmful than another since 2003, this research shows that products bearing the word ’smooth’ or using lighter coloured branding mislead young people into thinking that these products are less harmful to their health.

The research also reveals that young people are between 3 and 4 times less likely to pick a plain pack as a branded one if they were trying smoking for the first time, supporting calls for plain packaging and countering industry claims that plain packs would be more attractive to young people".

The strategic choice of adjectives with soothing connotations allay fears of the reality of the hacking cough.  Young people are in denial about the dangers of smoking, clutching at straws and the wily manufacturers are all too aware of this propensity.  As for the packs themselves, plain equates with austere, which goes against the grain of the aspiration to exclusivity and luxury.  Teenagers are well-trained fledgling consumers and it is hardly surprising that they might wish to turn their backs on packaging redolent of supermarket brands that "only" the poor buy because they cannot afford to choose any "better".  So far, so innocuous.  I sympathise with the smokers who buy "light" brands, intimately familiar with the psychology of my own particular destructive passion, cakes, chocolate, basically almost any variety of fatty foods.  I don’t want to be constantly chided that they are bad for me.  Besides, until calamity actually strikes, it is not worth worrying about.  The more I am nagged , the more likely I am to comfort myself for all the dire afflictions awaiting me by gobbling a few more squares of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, to hell with the transfats.  The knowledge in itself cannot suffice to dissuade, cannot really compete with the intense physical craving, with the pleasure.  In a poignant and melancholy evocation of enslavement to the habit, Clive James, in Smoking, my lost love, recalls: "I tried nicotine patches and kept sticking them on until they joined up at the edges.  I looked like the flesh-pink version of the jade warrior.  There is a book out now which teaches that every cigarette you have from your second cigarette onwards does nothing for you except raise your nicotine level up to what it was.  Possibly so, but in my case it also satisfied a deep longing, the memory of which lingers like lost love.

Reflect on the frivolity of your desires all you wish, but you will never conquer them unless you first admit their urgency".

In an article in The Guardian, tellingly entitled For once, freedom is not the issue, member of the executive board that drew up the report, Peter Kellner, discusses one of the more radical intrusions put forward: "One of our most striking findings is that as many as 77% of the public would support a ban on smoking in cars carrying children under 18.  Only 11% oppose this.  For the great majority of people, the health of children outweighs the freedom of adults to do what they want in their own private space.  Even among smokers, supporters of a ban outnumber opponents by almost two-to-one (48% support, 27% oppose).

As a young journalist in the 1970s I recall covering the fierce debate over whether the wearing of seatbelts should be compulsory.  The ‘freedom’ lobby lost that battle and, more recently, we have had restrictions on the use of mobile phones by drivers.  Now we find overwhelming support for further curbs on what we can do in our cars – only this time the cause, children’s health, has nothing to do with road safety".

What is a car but a home on wheels, an enclosed private space on public roads?  The boundary between public and private will have been breached if the government is permitted to regulate what we do in our vehicles.

As a result of my Mother’s smoking, I suffered from severe bronchitis as a child, terrified to surrender to sleep as I wheezed, the effort of each breath leaving me completely exhausted, sweating and shivering with cold at same time.  In the end my Mother succumbed to emphysema and heart condition well before her time.  Throughout my childhood, the price of delighting in adult company was to be suffocated in a foul fug.  My brother smokes and I don’t.  I was distancing myself from my Mother, perhaps, instinctively rejecting every aspect of her in order to escape her fate.  My exposure to tobacco smoke, far from enticing me into adopting the smoking habit, disgusted me.   Whereas my brother left school without any qualifications, I have post-doctoral academic research and teaching experience.  My brother belongs to the so-called underclass, whilst I am in a reasonably well-paid job.  We had the same parents and the same upbringing (although, as a boy, he was allowed greater freedoms), but our respective trajectories could hardly be more divergent.  Again, I am fairly certain that gender looms large here: I longed to escape and there was only one route available, namely education.  Gaining financial independence was the key to fulfillment.  I mention all this not to boast, but because our example tends to corroborate research results, as noted by John Henley in The Guardian in All puffed out?: "According to Professor Martin Jarvis, a psychologist at University College London and a leading specialist in the field of smoking and health inequality, this is not a question solely of income: every indicator of a lower socio-economic status is likely, independent of each of the others, to predict a higher rate of smoking.  If your educational level is below the average, you are more likely to smoke.  If you live in rented or overcrowded accommodation, you are more likely to smoke.  Ditto if you do not have access to a car, are unemployed, or on state income benefit".

There can be no doubt that smoking is becoming stigmatised through association with low income groups in a moralising climate where looking after yourself becomes a badge of class status.

Handing over to the Heresiarch: "As the proportion of smokers in the population drops, so the antipathy they arouse in non-smokers rises.  They are becoming an unpopular minority; and while restrictions on smoking have thus far concentrated on removing the intrusive impact of the smoker on the non-smoker, as smoking retreats ever further from the public sphere its remaining practitioners may expect to be the subject of more, not less, disapproval.

Here I should admit to feeling somewhat conflicted when it comes to bans on smoking.  I do not smoke, and I never have, bar the odd after-dinner cigar in my student days (is that still allowed?)  And, from a selfish point of view, I welcome the ban on smoking in public places.  A world without smoking is a far nicer place: it smells nicer, it looks cleaner, and it is undoubtedly healthier.  Smoking is not a ‘pure’ issue of health, because it is demonstrably anti-social.  It is extremely unpleasant (whether or not passive smoking is as dangerous as made out) to be a non-smoker in a smoke-filled environment.  Smoke, as the song says, gets in your eyes.  It also gets in your nostrils, in your hair, in your clothes, on your skin, down your throat.  To be free of it is a blessed relief.

My only personal regret, in fact, is that the ban doesn’t go far enough.  the prohibition of indoor smoking merely shifts the problem out of doors.  On a hot, still summer’s day the stale smell of smoke hangs around in parks and on street corners.  Cigarette ends litter the pavement far more than they ever used to.  True, I miss the colourful and imaginative adverts for tobacco; by and large, however, the total elimination of smoking would make my life even better.

On the other hand everything in me revolts against the self-righteous preachiness of the anti-tobacco lobby, their patronising and totalitarian bossiness, their air of paternalistic concern.  And I want to defend the right of people to kill themselves after their own fashion if that is what they so desire.  Most of all, though, I object to the fetishisation of health, the extent to which personal health is surreptitiously equated to personal morality.  As health becomes a secular religion, with doctors and state nannies its priests, smokers are cast as sinners – who must be reformed, re-educated, taught the error of their ways".

New Labour is convinced that "character, as well as behaviour, can be altered by state intervention from above" (Duncan and Edwards, p286), so the party’s appetite for finger-wagging is insatiable.  What we are witnessing at the moment is the politicisation of health.  What it is really all about is funding the NHS: it is so much easier to badger and bully the public than to risk incurring their wrath at an election by introducing a compulsory health insurance scheme along continental lines.  Thus the government dons a mask of false concern, as prevention is cheaper than cure.  We fatties will be the next in line.  Perhaps we can look forward to being deported to fat camps (as if denial of surgery on the NHS were not penalty enough).  We will be sentenced to a diet of rice crackers or Ryvita until those stubborn and unsightly spare tyres melt away.  The nightmare scenario of nurses with tape measures accosting passers-by has already materialised in Scotland, as if in a culture so obsessed with weight and slenderness anyone with a bit of padding could be unaware of the health risks (ignoring for a moment the pressure brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar diet industry).  It isn’t because we don’t know or are too stupid to know, as argued above.

The founding father of the Roundup Tim Worstall in a Spectator piece, Liberal and Liberals, echoes the slippery slope sentiments: "As to a smoking in a car with children in it?  It is necessary to show that harm is actually done before even an attempt can be made to justify it.  (I can already see where they’ll go next.  If you can’t smoke in your car with the kids then why can you do so in your house?)  That’s actually really something of a problem.  For when the UN did the Mother of All Studies on the effects of passive smoking a decade back they found only one statistically valid finding about child exposure to second hand smoke.  That it protected them in later life from lung cancer".

His fears are justified.  Not so long ago Professor Neil McKeganey, head of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University, cheerfully advocated breaching the sanctity of one’s own four walls with the same argument advanced by ASH, urging that CCTV cameras be installed in the homes of drug addicts: "’What price should we put on our privacy?’ said Mr McKeganey.  ‘The question is whether we are prepared to say the principle of the privacy of family life is more important than that of child protection.  If we accept that privacy is the most important principle then there will be many more tragic cases.

‘I am aware that this will be controversial but believe the debate needs to be had.  We have become used to the proliferation of CCTV cameras within public spaces.  We have also become used to the idea that those cameras are an effective tool in crime prevention.  What we have not considered though is their possible use in private spaces’".

ARCH (Action on Rights for Children) blog is rightly up in arms at the latest in a series of Database debacles, this time by the Ministry of Defence’s main IT contractor, entailing the loss of a portable hard drive containing the names, addresses, passport numbers, dates of birth and driving licence details of those serving in the army, navy and RAF.  In a nutshell, such bungling beggars belief.  As if this were not bad enough, the authors are incensed about: "(…) the 600,000 potential recruits that particularly worry us.  Presumably a fair number of those are still in their teens and won’t discover for a while yet whether this latest data debacle has made them sitting ducks for identity fraud.

For several years now, the US media has been reporting the increasing use by fraudsters of children’s identities.  The Federal Trade Commission points out that they are ‘perfect targets’ because they have clean credit histories, and are unlikely to know what has happened until they open a bank account or apply for credit".

Inevitably, the storms battering the world economy were bound to blow their way through the Roundup.  Bill Jones of Skipper Blog in a concise and eminently readable Credit-Crunch for Dummies-style Who is to Blame for the Crisis? handily identifies the culprits so that we know who to blindfold and shove in front of the firing squads come the revolution: "(…) bankers became transfixed by the ridiculous sums they could make if they acquired sufficient business for their firms.  Close scrutiny and caution – once the hallmarks of bankers – gave way to a desperate desire to acquire that parking space beneath the skyscraper HQ in Wall St or Canary Wharf, for the new Ferrari.  The super-rich thought nothing about spending £100m on new yachts or even private submarines to swank their way around the world’s pleasure spots during vacations or a hugely early retirement, funded by all those bonuses, companies bought and sold".

Or, ahem, on mature reflection, perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty after all: However, there is a problemette here.  There is another group of people responsible and this is a huge one: all those people who exploited cheap money by loading up with chronic debt, which they now find they cannot sustain by further borrowing.  we are all complicit, to a degree, in what has happened and, I’d guess, will have to return to a much more sobre and cautious way of spending from here on.  If you need a mortgage, you might even have to spend an awkward hour or so in the bank manager’s office, as my generation had to back in the 1960s and 70s".

Lynne Featherstone of Lynne’s Parliament and Haringey Diary (winner of the Best Blog, People’s Choice, accolade at the Gender Balance Blog Awards) laments lack of transparency pertaining to the fate of £37 million in Haringey’s Icelandic Money: "I am concerned that no information as to the details of what is included in the investments is being allowed to me or Robert Gorrie (Liberal Democrat Council Group leader).  All the Chief Exec will say is that the problem is ‘manageable’ and that the Local Government Association is acting for all involved councils".

Adrian McEwen of McFilter wonders whether something he spotted in Liverpool might not just have captured the prevailing mood to perfection in A Sign for the Times?

The perfect antidote to all the doom, gloom and despair surrounding the evil effects of the spectacular economic nosedive, is furnished by Justin McKeating of Chicken Yoghurt in the highly amusing Time for some real intervention in the markets, in which he proposes some truly radical measures to gently encourage the stock markets to rally: "If the FTSE share index is not up by 200 points at 1pm, he [the Prime Minister] will promise, five upmarket cars will be chosen at random from underground car parks in the City and fed into the mobile car crushers.  At the same time, the artillery teams will reduce five randomly chosen houses in the broker belt to rubble".

Blogging

Matt Wardman of The Wardman Wire draws attention to a snippet of radio of more than passing interest to bloggers, which might otherwise have been consigned to the archives unnoticed in Tom Harris MP Exit Interview: Spending More Time with his Blog.  In it the former Rail Minister alludes to his most notorious post (which, by one of those odd coincidences that make our lives more intriguing, I dealt with in Britblog Roundup 175) and touches upon the dilemma of the extent of self-censorship (which he euphemistically refers to as "discipline") the ministerial role brings with it, whether departing from the stricture of regurgitating bland pap might earn an MP a reputation as a maverick and jeopardise their subsequent advancement: "Interviewer: But there is a wider point about all this, isn’t there?  How much can a politician say?  Here you are, writing your opinions on every subject under the sun in your blog.  Is that almost a self-destructive act now for a politician?

Harris: It possibly is, and I’ll be disappointed if that turns out to be the case.  I mean, I think we need to look again at the way we communicate with the public.  I don’t think the public are remotely impressed, in fact I would say the opposite is the case, by ministers who sound as if all they are doing is reciting a Labour Party briefing paper,  That has no resonance with anyone at all.  You know people want to be reassured that the politicians are normal people, with normal doubts and normal thought processes.  If by writing about my love of karaoke, or my doubts about whether or not I should buy my teenage son Grand Theft Auto IV, if writing about that sort of thing has somehow blotted my copybook with Number 10 – and I’m not saying that that has actually happened – but if that were to happen now or in the future I think that’s a very, very sad day for politics".

Yes, given the sheer vacuousness and self-serving, semi-articulate nature of most of the bilge churned out by politicians masquerading as bloggers, which in my view is entirely parasitical on the medium, I would be forced to agree with Mr Harris’ conclusion.

By way of an aside, at his blog, transport aficionado Christian Wolmar greets the choice of Harris’ successor with resounding approval in Adonis knows his trains: "His two passions are schools and railways, and this is his dream job (…) it is good news that there is someone in the post with a big brain and an ability to think outside the box".

Indeed, it is reassuring to think that an office holder might actually have a genuine interest in their portfolio, enthusiasm an added bonus, as opposed to grabbing whatever happens to be up for grabs to advance their career.

It is gratifying to have some good news for a change, rather than reciting a dreary litany of bullying and censorship attempts…Slugger O’Toole, whose Mick Fealty is the latest addition to the stable of Britblog Roundup hosts, has made blogging history by organising a ceremony (sponsored amongst others by Channel Four, how heartening to see evidence, beyond BBC Radio Five Live’s excellent Pods and Blogs broadcast, that the relationship between the mainstream media and the blogosphere does not by definition have to be poisonous, antagonistic and characterised exclusively by mutual recriminations and sneering-matches, but that collaboration bringing benefits to both sides is possible with a little goodwill) accompanying the inaugural Slugger Awards (the full list of laureates including links here), Promoting a conversational politics in Northern Ireland.

Another positive aspect of the Awards is that they prove political bloggers are not just snarling Rottweilers ready at a second’s notice to rip the throats out of their targets, but are magnanimous enough to give credit where it is due.  Grannymar, who did a superb job photographing the event, usefully explains the significance of the blog for those readers who might not be familiar with it in I was out last night: "Slugger O’Toole has been following Northern Ireland politics since June 2002.  It is the oldest political blog in and about Northern Ireland and is read by Journalists, Political professionals and bloggers with 23,000 unique visitors every month.  Founded by Mick Fealty, it now has a team of regular bloggers contributing to the site.  Slugger O’Toole is a place where the Blogosphere and the main Stream media merge".

Alan in Belfast of the eponymous blog, in The Slugger Awards – for the wee guy and the big names, likewise puts the awards into their wider context: "Northern Ireland’s been a den of online political conversation, debate and bad-tempered argument for a long time.  It’s out of that foundation of dial-up message boards that Slugger was born all those years ago.  It’s produced a space where people already engaged by political goings-on at a local or national level can voice their opinions against the melee of other informed individuals – including those with vastly different views.

Getting the politically informed to talk to each other is a good first step in Northern Ireland, a land where you’re taught from an early age not to talk to strangers about politics or religion.  Sometimes feels that as a consequence of that human advice, God blesses us with unusually notable weather to give us something to chat about!

But Slugger’s become an online watering hole where the less informed and less engaged can hazard an opinion too.  A place where you’ll not get cut down too quickly, and where it’s possible to have an opinion without having to swear allegiance to a particular party.  With a range of contributors, there’s a spectrum of commentary, and plenty of the post authors pitch in below the line in the stream of consciousness comments too".

For a fuller flavour of the atmosphere, Davy Sims of The Original Sims kindly chips in with a podcast.

Many congratulations to everyone at Slugger O’Toole on the flawless execution of a truly excellent initiative!

Miscellaneous

Gwen of High on Rebellion in If we’re all working class, then really none of us are working class, provides a lucid analysis of an elusive and contentious concept.  For an idea that is so difficult to pin down in a watertight definition, we are all quite content to judge a person’s class instantly, using indicators such as body shape and dress before they even open their mouths.  Class, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  Culture may well be an equally elusive concept, but no definition can lay claim to credibility without it (in Formations of Class and Gender, London, Sage, 1997, for example, Beverley Skeggs concentrates on one particular cultural asset: "Respectability is one of the most ubiquitous signifiers of class.  It informs how we speak, who we speak to, how we classify others, what we study and how we know who we are (or are not).  Respectability is usually the concern of those who are not seen to have it.  Respectability would not be of concern here, if the working classes (Black and White) had not consistently been classified as dangerous, polluting, threatening, revolutionary, pathological and without respect.  It would not be something to desire, to prove and to achieve, if it had not been seen to be a property of ‘others’, those who were valued and legitimated", p1).  Ever more subtle gradations of occupation inform the official system for determining social class for the purposes of the census, but non-academic examinations always include an inventory of outward indicators, which will date with dizzying rapidity (I recommend Jilly Cooper’s hilarious Class, London, Mandarin, 1997, with such one-liners as "The wages of synthetic fibres is social death", p52).  This is quite deliberate, as it prevents those without the time, money or cultural resources from keeping up.  This is not mere whimsy, but the enforcement of distance, the  retrenchment of privilege.

Gwen ventures her own insights: "For me, class is about a combination of things – the amount of money a person earns, the amount of money their parents earn(ed), the amount of options they have at a given time, the choices they are able to make, and envision making and generally the lifestyle they are able to lead.  I know that a lot of this is pretty intangible and nebulous, but so is the concept of class".

She then enumerates glaring defects of the classical Marxist approach to class: "So, by my definition your average university lecturer is at least middle-class.  They earn a higher-than-average wage, they’re very well educated and have options as a result of this, and most of the lecturers I know own their own house and their own car and lead comfortable lives.  They may have debt from acquiring their PhD, but they will be able to pay it off without it seriously infringing on their lifestyle.  This is obviously not universal – a single parent, for example, at a low-paying university may not have a middle-class standard of living.  But on average, a university lecturer is middle-class.

However, the radical left in the UK tends to use the orthodox Marxist definition of class, which measure your class by your relationship to the means of production.  So lecturers are working class because they don’t own/run the university.  When my Dad was working as a salesman he was working-class but when my parents ran their own business, we were petit bourgeoisie, even though we actually had more money and more financial stability when my dad was working for someone else.  The people with whom I was talking tried to explain this as an issue of solidarity – there is no solidarity among the petit bourgeoisie.  But, actually, my parents continued to be decent people who treated their employees well when they ran their own business, whereas some of the other salespeople at the company for which my Dad worked were completely unethical and had no issues with exploiting anyone they could.  And it’s not just my parents – my experience of working for small businesses has been positive, whereas my line managers when I worked for a call centre (theoretically, my fellow workers) were very happy horribly exploiting me.

I don’t think the traditional Marxist definition is very useful today, because it erases the genuine economic privilege held by a lot of people who don’t own the means of production.  There is no comparison between lecturers and call-centre workers.  Solidarity is not going to spontaneously appear between those two groups.  Furthermore, it’s not clear that those two groups HAVE much in common.  Is a middle-class lecturer going to vote to increase her taxes to provide cheap housing for a call-centre worker?  We know for a fact that a lot of them don’t".

Accent and dialect present a particular challenge to even the most highly skilled and highly trained linguists.  In a certain institution, new recruit interpreters who had emerged from their universities a little too cocky and overly eager to show off their technical bravado to their senior colleagues were required to undergo the ordeal of the Wee Hughie M initiation test.  A wonderful character with the rich tones of the damp and fertile soil of his homeland, he would furrow the brows of the neophytes with talk of "Sweet a Donny" (suite á donner), leaving the whippersnappers suitably humbled after their salto mortale left them splattered in the sawdust of the ring (there is no safety net in interpreting). Wee Hughie’s most notorious speech concerned the working conditions of tattie howkers in Plenary.  Cue queues of desperate Greeks and Portuguese outside the English booth.  These reminiscences bring me on to Misssy M of The Misssy M Missives‘ delightful account of a Scottish rite of passage in Out in the Fields: "For those of you not aware of country ways (arrr!) and perhaps from non-potato growing regions of the planet (where do you get your chips?), the idea of a holiday in honour of the potato might seem a little strange.  And if that were the truth, then yes, it would be a little strange.  Kind of like Hawaii having a week off to celebrate the pineapple, or Germany having a local holiday in honour of the cabbage.  But the Tattie Holidays are the opposite of what you might think.  Yes, they are holidays from school, but they are holidays in which the children were traditionally released from the classroom in order to bring in the potato harvest".

Swiss Toni of Swiss Toni’s Place expresses his admiration for members of the teaching profession in could that someone be mack the knife? in which he relates an episode in the local primary school where he assist pupils with their reading once a week: "As you’d expect, the kids were teasing each other when they mis-read or stumbled over a word.  It wasn’t nasty at all and was done in good humour by all of them – it was just gentle ribbing.  I was slightly taken aback, though, when the little boy suddenly blurted out: ‘You’d better watch it.  I’ve got a knife and I’m not afraid to use it’.  he didn’t have a knife, of course.  He was six years old and it was said in exactly the same jokey tone as all of the other mild insults they had been hurling at each other all morning.  I don’t think he even knew what he was saying, and I doubt he knew what it meant.  Even so, the fact that he had clearly picked this phrase up from somewhere suddenly made all that recent press coverage about knife crime in schools feel very real".

In a revealing anecdote about how many of us are so numbed by routine that we cease to interact with our surroundings, Susanne Lamido of Suzblog discusses London’s 24 hour bus strike: "Couldn’t believe my eyes when at the local 390 bus stop people in suits were standing there like lemons waiting for a bus obviously to get them to work".  The cause of her amazement becomes clear when you glance at the accompanying photograph of the poster at the stop, which could only have been more conspicuous if it had been in neon.  In spite of being bombarded constantly with information there would appear to be certain rituals (catching the bus) so taken for granted that they become a reflex.

Philip Wilkinson of the magpie’s shining hoard that is English Buildings mourns for an innocence that has evaporated and a world that has vanished in The Map That Came to Life: "On one of our recent visits to a local secondhand bookshop, my wife came across a copy of The Map That Came to Life, a book she read avidly when she was a child.  Written by H.J. Deverson and illustrated by Ronald Lampitt, The Map That Came to Life was first published in 1948, and was much reprinted.  It describes how two children (and a dog) go on a walk across the English countryside with an Ordnance Survey map to guide them.  Much of what they find on the way is marked on the map, whose symbols for roads, railways, telephone boxes, tumuli, and so on and on, turn to reality along the way.  The reader, meanwhile, learns how to read a map, and how maps have much to teach us about the world around us.

In some ways the world of The Map That Came to Life does not exist today.  These two children set off on a walk across unfamiliar country with only their map for guidance.  They talk to strangers – who give them fascinating nuggets of local information rather than luring them into dark corners.  Their dog spends most of its time off its lead, rivers and lakes hold no terrors for them, and, of course, this being 1948, they are not much troubled by traffic".

Jonathan Calder of Liberal England was also inspired by The Map That Came to Life to embark upon a highly enjoyable meandering from the textbook, through the Ladybird series and a contemplation of radical nostalgia to the difference between the conservative temperament and the Conservative Party.

Next week’s Roundup will be hosted by cabalamat at Amused Cynicism.  For everything you ever wanted to know about the Britblog Roundup, but were too steeped in your reticent acculturation to ask, please consult the Britblog Roundup Central website.

As ever, all nominations should be sent to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com

7 Footnotes

  1. Well, yes, thanks for hosting the Roundup. I am grateful to those who do. It’s usually a very interesting read and something I look forward to every week.

    However, I would be even more grateful if you could resist the urge to excessive commentary. Much as I appreciate your views, I really want to read the submissions and I found I was having to wade through your prose to do so.

    Short and pithy introduction – that’s the ticket.

    Comment by Wasp_Box — Monday, 13 October 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  2. Feedback is always appreciated Wasp_Box.
    However, I am cursed with the desire to take the task seriously and with the thoroughness of the academic. I have spent every waking moment of the last four and a half days working on the Roundup, trawling the net for submissions to complement the nominations (I usually put forward a good twenty or so every week behind the scenes, as others in the team no doubt would corroborate), as I do on every occasion when it is my turn to host. I like to engage with the texts and show them the respect they deserve. I can only do this by making a considerable personal investment.
    My approach might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is quite easy to ignore the commentary, as the links themselves are helpfully underlined.
    There has to be room for a variety of styles and the one I happen to employ in the Roundup is very much in keeping with the rest of my output.
    All I can suggest, therefore, is either give it a miss when my slot comes up on the rota or follow my suggestion above and skip merrily from link to link.

    Comment by site admin — Monday, 13 October 2008 @ 8:12 pm

  3. Well now, despite what you write, you obviously didn’t appreciate my feedback and I’m sorry you didn’t. I did thank you (and I meant it) but I stick to my original point. The idea, it seems to me, is that the roundup is just that – a roundup. It is not the place for you to expound your views at great length.

    Your arguments about academic respect are, frankly, silly. Be honest, you just like the attention.

    Anyway, I won’t be giving it a miss when your turn comes up (a little petulant don’t you think?); I will, however, stick to the links.

    Hugs W_B

    PS: I’ve just noticed that someone has left a glowing report about your roundup as a comment on Tim W’s link. First comment there that I have ever seen – one of your chums perchance?

    Comment by Wasp_Box — Thursday, 16 October 2008 @ 9:59 pm

  4. Wasp_Box, I always allow comments, positive or negative here.
    Everyone who writes a blog likes the attention by definition.
    If I host the Roundup (and this is actually the 10th occasion on which I have done so since Tim Worstall decided that he didn’t have the time any more to do it justice and issued a call for volunteers to take it over), I like to, as I pointed out, engage with the texts. That is my chief source of satisfaction in exchange for the considerable amount of work involved. If you do not feel my stance is valid it is your perfect right to express this and I have not censored you. By the same token it is my perfect right as host on my own blog to decide how to go about it, ignoring or rejecting opinions as I see fit.
    The “nobody forces you to read it” argument is not, I freely admit, original, but very frequently cited in defence of blogs.
    However, to dismiss me as “silly” and “petulant” reveals rather more about you than it does about me. It has the air of sexist cliché about it.
    Each host takes a unique approach to the exercise. Mine may be rather unconventional, but there is no single valid template for hosting a roundup beyond the basic stipulation that it must include links to a set of source submissions, a precondition, which I do not breach (for the full editorial policy statement, consult the Britblog Central site at http://britblogroundup.blogspot.com/). In general terms my blog is not intended for those with short attention spans, but requires a little effort. No doubt this is why it will never serve as a vehicle for a book deal ;) I never was one for pandering to populist cravings.
    Thank you for drawing my attention to a kinder comment at Tim’s blog. I do not know who the Abbot of Crowland is, but if you really believe that the praise (for which I am grateful) was anything other than pure coincidence I am afraid that once again reveals more about you – really, as if I would go to such lengths. You somewhat overestimate your importance to me. Just as there is no one appropriate model for writing a roundup, so some readers might actually enjoy or appreciate my slightly different way of going about it. It does not have to be some conspiracy on the part of my “chums” (actually, if you delve a little deeper into Mr Worstall’s archives, you will see that the good Abbot’s reaction was not the first to a roundup hosted by me, and the first reaction – to edition 150 was hostile).
    I am sure your hugs are not sincere, merely patronising, like your “advice” on how to produce a roundup. Hence I feel equally justified in spurning such unwanted advances.

    Comment by Chameleon — Thursday, 16 October 2008 @ 11:23 pm

  5. “It has the air of sexist cliché about it.”

    Since I have no idea if you are male or female (I’m guessing female after that comment) I think the sexist slur is just the usual disingenuous nonsense. I would have thought an “academic” could do better.

    My initial comments were not meant to be an attack on you personally but I think you have taken them as such. Frankly, I think you are ridiculous and I’ll leave it at that.

    Comment by Wasp_Box — Friday, 17 October 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  6. One simply glance at the Profile Page could have clarified the issue of my gender. A single click would appear to be demanding too much effort.
    Interesting (and revealing) that you assume that only women are offended by and therefore wish to combat sexism.
    As for me “doing better”, perhaps it has something to do with the calibre of what I am expected to respond to, but ultimately you are once again according yourself greater significance than you actually possess. Such a reaction presupposes that I wish to dignify your feeble jibes with a serious reply.

    Comment by site admin — Friday, 17 October 2008 @ 7:09 pm

  7. A very fulsome roundup indeed – many thanks for the link, and my thanks also to whoever passed on the nomination. I’m honoured, etc.

    (and for what it’s worth, I think that it’s nice that you’ve paid close attention to all the links mentioned. I never crave sheer volume of readers, but it’s always gratifying when someone really makes the effort)

    ST

    Comment by SwissToni — Saturday, 18 October 2008 @ 12:58 am

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