Sunday, August 13, 2006

Hummer humbug

Global warming poses a new threat to childhood fun

Political correctness again threatens the innocence of childhood. The latest stupidity, eagerly seized on by The Sydney Morning Herald, is a US campaign against that mainstay of evil multinational exploitation, McDonalds. The crime? Giving away plastic models of "monstrous" gas-guzzling Hummer four-wheel-drives with every Happy Meal. Some just don't get it, laments the SMH. What about global warming? Don't they know there's an oil shock? Goodness me, these things only get 4.7km to the litre. To make matters worse, with enough visits to American restaurants, children can collect eight Hummers in various colours, including two versions of the H1, which costs $125 to fill at the pump. The real ones, not the toys.

Brendan Bell, of the environmental lobby group Sierra Club, says the Hummer's engine has not been redesigned since the 1950s. What the next generation needs, he says, is better technology to cut the dependence on oil and curb global warming. In their cars, yes. Not in their toys. Plastic toy bicycles and tofu burgers - now that would solve the energy crisis. Taken to its logical conclusion, such thinking spells the end for Thomas the Tank Engine, that old-technology polluter. Thomas and his rickety friends are clearly not the models for the environmental naysayers. And what about toy space rockets? How much fuel do they use? Better to give a toy wind farm and a stuffed parrot, perhaps. Compounding McDonald's offence, in the eyes of the New York Times and SMH, is that the toys are sexist, to boot. Girls are not offered a Hummer but given a Polly Pocket fashion doll. Childhood is just not that simple. It's why parents who draw the line at toy guns usually end up getting shot with a stick. Evidence of tomorrow's mass murderer? No.

The anti-Hummer campaign is simply the other extreme to the religious angst over Harry Potter and his passion for witchcraft, no matter that he's been the best thing for childhood literacy in years. It's time to lighten up. The prospect of handing over hard-earned cash at the petrol bowser is all anyone needs to make an informed choice on a motor vehicle, no matter what their childhood fantasies. The fear the world will speed faster to its end because "McDonald's made me do it" with their plastic Hummers is too absurd for words.


Not-so-positive discrimination

The UK government’s plan to monitor the number of black and Asian people employed by private companies is an affront to meritocracy, universalism and genuine equality.

The UK government is considering denying multimillion-pound contracts to companies that fail to employ enough black and Asian workers, it emerged this week. The Department of Work and Pensions confirmed that three pilot schemes have been approved which will see companies questioned on their workforce diversity before the government decides on the winning bid.

As in race-torn America in the Sixties and Seventies, the idea of ‘affirmative action’ – or positive discrimination – is being put forward as social policy. At a time when culture always appears to be the solution to New Labour’s bugbear, ‘social exclusion’, it’s rather surprising to see economic issues being raised at all. It is all the more surprising when there aren’t any campaigns from ethnic minorities demanding preferential treatment for jobs in Britain.

The idea to monitor companies seeking big government contracts was first proposed by an organisation called the Ethnic Minority Advisory Group (Emag). As an indication of how unrepresentative these ‘governmental advisers’ appear to be, Emag was only launched last month. Already their recommendations for ‘affirmative measures’ – to bring black and minority ethnic employment rates in line with the national population rate - have been backed all the way by powerful sections of the state and government, such as Jobcentre Plus, the Identity and Passport Agency and the Department for Education and Skills.

Under these plans, firms could be asked to provide figures showing the numbers of black and Asian employees on their payroll. This would then be compared with the proportion of people living in a surrounding area. But how feasible are such initiatives? The idea of job quotas based on physical appearance, rather than on skills and experience, goes against how the labour market operates. For example, is it possible to ensure that ‘correct’ percentages of ethnic minorities in a company correlates with allocation of job roles? Would particular sectors that have higher percentages of black and Asian employees, such as the London Underground or the postal service, be replacing them with, say, Chinese or Polish workers? Will Premiership football teams be forced to sign Asian footballers in order to fit in with the national rate of employment elsewhere?

There is no doubt that some companies in the UK discriminate against job applicants on racial grounds. But it’s also true to say that PR-savvy companies, such as, say, the Halifax building society, will promote their ‘multicultural’ workforce as a selling point, a signifier that a staid company isn’t quite as conservative or behind-the-times as you thought. Besides, when there are clear cases of racial or sexual discrimination, there is already existing legislation in place to deal with it. So apart from introducing even more bureaucratic red tape for private companies, what will these proposals actually achieve?

First of all, the ‘affirmative action’ proposals are less about tackling racial discrimination per se than they are a mechanism to bring the private sector within government control. This doesn’t mean a return to state-owned or state-run industries as such; rather the interference will attempt to bring public sector etiquette and codes of conduct into the private sector. As pointed out previously on spiked, the atomised character of British society compels the political class to use bureaucratic mechanisms to compensate for the weakening of social ties and social institutions. In the past, the existence of active trade unions provided mediating links between Whitehall and the world of work. Now, at a time when even union officials don’t have much connection with workplaces, the political class feels its sense of isolation even more acutely – especially in relation to the private sector.

In this context, official ‘anti-racism’ and ‘diversity’ quotas provide the political justification for strong-armed points of connection at every level in British society. As racism is now the equivalent of original sin, no individual, no institution and certainly no private company can afford to be tarred with the racist brush. In an insightful episode of The Office, employees who wanted to put David Brent on the back foot implied he was racist due to the lack of black and Asian faces at Wernham Hogg. In the real world, it seems the government wants to do the same with private companies. So while hardboiled businesspeople may publicly baulk at the government’s race quotas, the pressures to conform will undoubtedly give way.

Even without the contemporary use of ‘affirmative action’, such measures have always been bad news – particularly for racial minorities. During anti-racist struggles in Britain in the Seventies and Eighties, it was equality rather than ‘special treatment’ that campaigners fought for. To accept notions of ‘positive discrimination’ was to accept that blacks and Asians didn’t really have the aptitude to hold down skilled jobs and thus needed the patronage of white do-gooders. In America, no matter how many black lawyers and doctors could be recruited, such policies only reinforced ideas of innate superiority and inferiority through the backdoor. The American comedian Larry David played on this duality in Curb Your Enthusiasm, when he jested that he didn’t trust a black doctor’s opinion because of ‘the whole affirmative action thing’. David was making a joke, but the serious point was that affirmative action enforces rather than overcomes notions of unequal racial abilities.

In today’s climate, though, it’s a different matter. While there is no longer an old racial hierarchy to maintain, the promotion of affirmative action will inevitably exacerbate all kinds of tensions and divisions in British society. It will arouse suspicions that black and Asian workers are only employed to ‘keep the quotas up’, while any such mutterings will be used by officials as examples of ‘racism in Britain’s workforce’, and thus used to justify even more diversity-training days. So while affirmative action creates new divisions and nurtures new grievances, it also invites officialdom to act as benign referees between the potentially warring factions.

Affirmative action is problematic on a bigger scale, too. It systematically attacks a key tenet of modernity: universalism. Whereas in tradition-based societies individuals were judged on particularistic criteria, such as family background and family networks, the expansion of a social division of labour meant that only a universal standard could effectively allocate employment roles and positions. For the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, such a meritocratic system was a sign of modernity’s historically progressive character. Of course, the maintenance of class privilege and racial discrimination called into question such claims of equality and meritocracy. Nevertheless the solution was always to argue for consistent universal treatment - for equality, not difference.

Forcing private contractors to monitor ethnic quotas will be an affront to meritocracy, universalism and, above all, genuine equality. Far from affirmative action being one of those ‘well-meaning but misguided’ attempts at racial integration, in this instance it will not only fuel tensions and foster divisions, but also legitimise even more official control of workplaces every inch of the way.



San Francisco's exotic dancers descended on City Hall on Friday to protest new regulations being considered by the city's Entertainment Commission that could ban private booths and rooms in adult clubs.

At a standing-room only, occasionally tense hearing, dancers took to the podium to tell the commission's Legislative Committee how the proposed legislation could hurt their livelihood and make working conditions worse for performers. "It's my opportunity to be in a safe place," said Karina Stewart, a dancer at Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre. "A private room allows me to share a personal moment with another human being. It is special to me that I can be a beautiful diversion to these people."

Another dancer, who identified herself as Dylan, said she enjoyed safe working conditions at the city's Hustler Club and warned commissioners that closing down private rooms in the clubs would drive women to perform at unsafe locations. "Please do not move this legislation forward," she said. "If you take away our private rooms, you are taking our money away. You will be forcing women to do dances in private homes and hotel rooms. More women will be on the street, and more women will be sexually abused."

A 19-year-old dancer named Sophie said she had not felt unsafe working for four months in the industry in San Francisco. "Through dancing, I've been able to pay my own tuition and my own rent," she said. "I feel like it has opened more opportunities for me."

The legislation being opposed by dancers was drafted by the city's Commission on the Status of Women after it received reports from some dancers of illicit sex in some clubs and of some club owners illegally demanding that performers pay stage fees to work in the clubs. Among the provisions of the 35-page ordinance are a requirement that the city's 18 strip clubs obtain operating permits through the Entertainment Commission and remove private rooms and booths no later than six months after the law takes effect. "We view this issue as a human-rights issue," said Emily Murase, director of the Commission on the Status of Women, a watchdog group that promotes the equality of women in San Francisco. "Our intent is not to shut down clubs. We want to make them safe. We recognize this is a legitimate form of employment that is lucrative and flexible for women."

Appearing at the hearing with the dancers, was former District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who was representing his client, the Mitchell Brothers Theater. "What they're trying to do is create another bureaucracy here, a huge one, to become overseers of the adult entertainment businesses," Hallinan said. The committee took no action on the legislation Friday, planning to resume consideration at meeting on Aug. 18. If it is approved by the Entertainment Commission, the legislation still would have to be taken up by the Board of Supervisors before it could become law.


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