Monday, December 10, 2007

Drowning in risk aversion

Children are being turned away from swimming pools in Scotland because bureaucrats think they know better than parents how to keep kids safe

James had been taking his children swimming for a while when one day he was stopped at the entrance of the Gorbals Leisure Centre in Glasgow. ‘I’m sorry, could I ask how old your children are?’ the attendant asked. It turned out that, like many council swimming pools across Scotland, the Gorbals Centre had introduced a new policy: each child aged four and under must be accompanied by an adult. This meant that for parents like James, who took turns with his wife to take their four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter swimming, the pool is out of bounds. The new rule was ‘in the interest of the safety of your children’, the attendant informed him.

Lizzie, who helps run a lone parents group in North Lanarkshire, similarly found to her disbelief and anger that when she and seven other parents turned up at their local swimming pool with nine children (that’s a ratio of eight adults to nine children), they too were turned away. A colleague who lives in Edinburgh with her husband and three small children, all aged under four, has found that they cannot go swimming as a family – due to the one-to-one ratio required at her local pool for under fours. So her husband is forced to do a shuttle run – taking one child at a time, while she stays at home waiting to hand over child number two, and so on.

In effect, this means that single parents who have more than one young child, busy parents like James who try and take their children swimming by themselves, or indeed parents of more than two children under the age of eight, can forget about going swimming in many of the pools in Scotland. This both discriminates against single parents and restricts many other parents and children from using council services. It also treats parents with contempt; the policy insinuates that they are irresponsible and are putting their children at risk, and it overrides parents’ say in their own children’s safety.

As James argues: ‘If I think it’s okay to take my kids swimming, that is surely my choice. I would never put my children at risk. I was so annoyed when this happened that I demanded to know if the pool manager loves my children more than I do! Because the suggestion is that I am putting my children in danger and in a sense my kids need to be protected from my negligence! It’s patronising and stupid.’

These safety first policies have been developed by the Institute of Sport and Leisure Management (ISRM) and incorporated into a growing number of council leisure services. The general suggested ratio is one adult to two children under four – but in many of the new all-purpose leisure pools that include areas with flumes, a stricter one-to-one ratio has been adopted. Interestingly, in comparison, private gyms with swimming pools appear to have no such policies and rely on the common sense of their members and staff.

Safety must clearly be a concern for those running these services, but, in fact, the new bureaucratic ratios being followed today have little to do with genuine safety issues. The statistics on the number of deaths in swimming pools is not that clear. However, figures in the parliamentary record Hansard show around two deaths of children under 17 each year for the last 10 years. How many of these fatalities were young children who were swimming with their parents is unclear.

However, surely children who are taken swimming by their parents are the least likely to be at risk of drowning – especially those under four years old. They will be supervised pretty much all the time, from the moment they enter the pool to the time parents are drying them, wiping their nose and helping pull their pants up. These children, many of them toddlers who can barely walk, will probably be the safest people in the pool, with their armbands, rubber rings and constant adult supervision. And yet they are being turned away in their droves from half-empty pools with yawning lifeguards because our safety obsessed society has adopted a rubber stamp that says correct ratio on it.

The fact that parents and children are being turned away from the newly built leisure centres in their communities is a cause for concern in and of itself. But child safety appears to swamp all other considerations and turn those providing these services into insurance clerks rather than providers of public services. Only a few weeks ago, Tom Mullarkey, the chief executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) argued that overzealous bureaucrats were undermining legitimate health and safety concerns due to a loss of common sense. His idea that Britain should be made as ‘safe as necessary, not as safe as possible’ should be heeded by Scottish councils. Instead, as Helene Guldberg notes elsewhere on spiked, a risk-averse attitude not only prevents parents from using facilities but deprives children of valuable experiences, too (see A playground tumble can do you good).

Today, in contrast to Mullarkey’s comments, council leisure centres are adopting a ‘safe as possible’ approach. Parents are patronised and treated robotically, as if they represent a threat to their own children; staff become box-ticking ratio bureaucrats rather than people who take genuine responsibility for thinking about how to run a swimming pool in the interest of the public.

The question of child safety in swimming pools and of how many children an adult takes swimming should be something that is negotiated by experienced professionals and parents themselves. Only by preventing the over-bureaucratised approach to child safety can we encourage a more sensible and public-spirited approach and get more children swimming


Resisting the smear of a "tainted legacy"

A nation with no pride in its past will feel little confidence in its future. If citizens look upon the origins of their society with guilt and confusion, they'll find scant reason to identify with its fate or to repair its shortcomings. The current notion that America's undeniable power and privilege rest upon shameful foundations poisons our public discourse, embitters the national mood, and paralyzes all efforts for constructive change. We worry over anti-Americanism abroad, but echo its primary charges here at home. While all objective indications identify the residents of the United States as among the most fortunate human beings on the planet, much of the public refuses to acknowledge our blessings because, according the widespread acceptance of politically correct America-bashing lies, we don't deserve them.

Those who embrace the idea that the USA came into being through vicious genocide against native populations, built its economy through the unique oppression of African slaves, facilitated corporate exploitation of immigrant masses, and damaged countless other nations with its imperialist policies, will naturally assume that we're paying the price for these crimes and abuses - viewing an allegedly dark present as the inevitable product of a purportedly dark past. Negative assumptions about our guilty forebears allow contemporary Americans to wallow in self-pity without accepting blame of any sort for our much-discussed sorry state. In a typical aside, New York Times book reviewer William Grimes laments that American "success.came at a price..for the descendents of the colonists, who have inherited a tainted legacy."

This `tainted legacy,' this endlessly analyzed burden of embarrassment and apology, has brought a bittersweet or even decidedly sour flavor to great national celebrations that formerly featured joy and jingoism. For Thanksgiving, 2007, the Seattle City Schools sent out a letter signed by the district's "Director of Equity, Race & Learning Support" and addressed to all faculty and staff warning that for many students, Turkey Day represented "a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land..As currently celebrated in this country, `Thanksgiving' is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal.."

Columbus Day provokes similar controversy on a yearly basis, with angry demonstrations against the unwelcome encroachments of white interlopers in the pristine New World paradise they polluted with their disease-ridden, gold-hungry presence. Our previous observance of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln has given way to the anodyne and insipid "Presidents Day," in which we're supposed to commemorate all inhabitants of the White House - the incompetent as well as the inspiring, the scoundrels along with the secular saints. We've added a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., but while sanctifying the memory of a great and courageous advocate of brotherhood we inevitably use the occasion to recall, yet again, our ugly history of racism. That same history now factors into the Fourth of July, with pointed reminders that some of the most prominent figures in the struggle for Independence (Jefferson, Washington, Patrick Henry) owned slaves. Meanwhile, when it comes to the sparklers, cherry bombs, and other fireworks that comprise the festival's most hallowed tradition, many (if not most) of today's celebrants secure such ordnance at Indian reservations - another ironic connection with the most painful elements of the nation's past.

Even Memorial Day and Veterans Day have lost some of their flag-waving, patriotic fervor and taken on a distinctly mournful, even skeptical edge. We now make a point of recalling dubious as well as heroic wars, and taking note of those members of the military who sacrificed and served in our most controversial recent conflicts. The Vietnam Memorial in the nation's capital has not only become an improbably popular tourist attraction, but now serves as a major focus for both national holidays honoring the armed forces -an association that takes the mood a great distance from the parades, picnics, brass bands and flapping banners of prior generations.

In fact, the Vietnam experience and the associated dislocations of the `60's and `70's helped to dissolve the patriotic consensus that had endured for two centuries, and promoted poisonous lies about the national character. The United States waged deeply controversial wars long before the conflict in South East Asia, but in all previous cases a sweeping, one-sided victory (as in the War with Mexico) or at least a concluding, climactic battle that gave the illusion of overall triumph (as the Battle of New Orleans provided a stirring coda for the otherwise frustrating War of 1812), allowed divisions to evaporate and wounds to heal. Losing a war, however, does nothing to solve the punishing disputes surrounding it and to some extent the brutal Communist conquest of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos insured that the arguments about the war would resound through succeeding generations. U.S. failure gave credibility, if not confirmation, to those anti-war protestors who had decried our "imperialist" foreign policy, and chose to identify their nation as "Amerika" - the Germanic spelling meant to echo the Nazis, while the inserted "k" recalled our homegrown "KKK." Once you've associated your native soil with genocidal fascists and white supremacist thugs, it's tough to return to singing the praises of the land of the free and the home of the brave - even after ultimate victory in the Cold War, a new period of American hegemony, and the evanescent surge of unity and defensive pride following the terror attacks of 9/11.

By that time the tribalism of the `60's had become a more or less permanent feature of our national life with identity politics and jostling interest groups taking the place of any homogenizing notion of Americanism. African-Americans, feminists, Latinos, gays, Asians, the disabled, hippies, Native Americans - each aggrieved segment of society demanded justice and redress, competing for recognition as the most victimized and gypped. The competitive victimhood encouraged even privileged people to affiliate with some marginalized cohort or synthetically assembled "community," and to shun any assimilation into the bland American middle.

With all the suffering subgroups clamoring so colorfully for recognition and sympathy, the once respected mainstream looked suddenly, simultaneously, guilty and boring. "Black is Beautiful" and "Never Trust Anyone Over Thirty" became trendy slogans, while any suggestions that "White is Beautiful" or demands to "Respect Your Elders" drew only derision and hostility. The old national motto, "E Pluribus Unum" - out of many, one - sounded intolerant, disrespectful of difference and diversity, as the ideal of a melting pot gave way to a "gorgeous multicultural mosaic." The concept of an overarching, unifying, non-ironic definition of American identity looked less and less plausible.

In 1904, Broadway giant George M. Cohan proudly and tunefully identified himself as -

"..a Yankee Doodle Dandy
A Yankee Doodle do or die.
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
Born on the Fourth of July."

Eighty years later, Ron Kovic appropriated the phrase "Born on the Fourth of July" for the bestselling memoir and movie about his shattering experience as a paralyzed, abused, deeply disillusioned Vietnam vet. With the Oliver Stone film's release in 1989, everyone who encountered the title received it with a snicker or smirk, understanding Cohan's high-stepping glorification of flag and homeland as an embarrassing relic of insular and ignorant nationalism.

In a strange sense, this same isolation and exceptionalism fed the most fashionable of the anti-American lies: the public remained so unsophisticated about all the other palpably imperfect nations of the world that the USA's shortcomings and failures looked singular, unprecedented. Histories of mass murder, backwardness and barbarity hardly diminish the fierce pride of other nationalities. Oscar winning director Ang Lee recently noted the overwhelming importance of unquestioning patriotism to all those who claim Chinese identity: "Chinese patriotism is not supposed to be negotiable. To us that's a black-and-white thing. You sacrifice yourself - how can you let China down?" Politicians and pundits in the People's Republic hardly agonize about thousands of years of conquest and colonialism over "lesser" peoples at the edges of the Middle Kingdom.

Similarly, European states with vastly more destructive and savage histories than the United States feel no need for apologies, hand-wringing or wrenching self-criticism. Guy Sorman, author of 20 books on French politics and public affairs, commented in the Wall Street Journal (December 4, 2007) about the themes in government schools in France: "The very content of education is discriminatory. The history of colonization is taught as if it were a glorious feature of French history. In Senegal, on his first official visit to Africa, Mr. Sarkozy regretted the violence of colonization but insisted on the good intentions of the French colonizers, out there to bring civilization to the `African man' who had `not entered history.'"

Compared to other world powers, America deserves guilt less but struggles with it more. Our French cousins celebrate Bastille Day with abandon, joy and unapologetic pride, despite the ugly stains on the Tricolor. For Mexicans and for Mexican immigrants in the United States, Cinco de Mayo doesn't provide an occasion for brooding meditation on the pain and disappointment and injustice that's always characterized our turbulent neighbor to the south. Ironically, the one national holiday observed in America with the most unalloyed elation and pugnacious pleasure is St. Patrick's Day, which seldom, even in the most boozy stupor, gives rise to remorse over the failings and foibles of the children of Eire.

Some might explain this American penchant for harsh self-criticism as a product of our higher ideals and more lofty aspirations. Through most of its long, tortured history, no one ever really expected Russia to serve as a "light to the nations" or a "shining city on a hill." The United States, on the other hand, has long expected to remake the world in our image, and often succeeded in that endeavor. The fact that we have attempted more shouldn't obscure the fact that we've also achieved more, and stumbled less other nations with significant roles in world affairs. In baseball, even the most fearsome (and well-paid) power hitters will strike out occasionally, or hit into double plays. It's inevitable to feel special frustration when All Stars fail to deliver, but these high expectations shouldn't focus attention on failures alone, and obscure all the home-runs and solid hits delivered the rest of the time. The soaring ambitions of the United States didn't lead to humanity- crushing disasters, but instead helped to inspire more success for more people - Americans as well as others-than logic or experience would have deemed possible.

Acceptance of the bitter lies about America undermines the ongoing aspiration that alone can power the United States in its continued role as the mighty engine of human betterment. Without shared gratitude for the innumerable advantages that hard work and history provided to the present generation, we will suffer the insecurity, unease and self-hate associated with undeserved good fortune.

An American Indian academic and musician named David A. Yeagley (an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation) tells a sobering story about one of his students at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City. A "tall and pretty" girl with amber hair and brown eyes, she spoke out in a class discussion about patriotism. "Look, Dr. Yeagley," she declared, "I don't see anything about my culture to be proud of. It's all nothing. My race is just nothing." "Look at your culture," she continued. "Look at American Indian tradition. Now I think that's really great. You have something to be proud of. My culture is nothing."

Concerning this unforgettable interchange, Professor Yeagley observed: "The Cheyenne people have a saying: A nation is never conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. "Who had conquered Rachel's people? What had led her to disrespect them? Why did she behave like a woman of a defeated tribe? "They say that a warrior is measured by the strength of his enemies. As an Indian, I am proud of the fact that it took the mightiest nation on earth to defeat me. "But I don't feel so proud when I listen to Rachel. It gives me no solace to see the white man self-destruct. If Rachel's people are `nothing,' what does that say about mine?"

And what does it say about each of us if we see ourselves as heirs to "nothing" - to only a tainted legacy and a heritage of shame? To accept and recycle prevalent slanders about our country shows neither courage nor sophistication, while promoting impotence, self-pity and paralysis. An accurate appreciation of the past remains altogether indispensable to the survival of communal connection, individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


Christmas is cool, says British equality boss

BRITAIN’S equality chief has attacked “politically correct” critics of traditional Christmas festivities for undermining diversity in society. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has condemned attempts to “brush Christmas under the carpet” for fear of offending other religions.

Citing cases such as schools scrapping nativity plays, he says that being oversensitive to minority views can lead to pointless embarrassment. “[This can] lead us down ludicrous paths; paths populated with winter festivals instead of Christmas celebrations; anodyne messages of ‘seasons greetings’ and pointless embarrassment over biblical nativity scenes.” Phillips’ critique will be seen as significant because he heads the quango set up by the government to protect the interests of the minorities whom the “PC” lobby claim are being marginalised at Christmas.

In a speech tomorrow he will warn that measures to downplay Christmas to avoid offence are more likely to “put the ‘silly’ into the silly season, much to the delight of tabloid hacks . . . looking for yet another example of political correctness gone mad”. In a reference to Muslim, Hindu and Jewish festivals, he adds: “The logic is baffling: to welcome Eid and Diwali and Hanukkah in celebration of our glorious diversity, whilst brushing Christmas under the carpet as an embarrassing episode in our mono-cultural past.” Phillips will say that it is unclear who is being offended by Christmas. “Let’s stop being daft . . . it’s fine to celebrate Christmas,” he states.

His remarks, due to be made at a conference in London on racial equality, add to the debate about the role of Christmas in multi-ethnic Britain. Last month a report from Labour’s favourite think tank said Britain should continue to celebrate Christmas only if similar recognition was given to major religious festivals from other faiths. “Public organisations should mark other religious festivals too,” the Institute for Public Policy Research said. It also said, however, that “it would be very hard to expunge [Christmas] from our national life”.

Examples of the erosion of the traditional Christmas festival are becoming increasingly easy to find. Last year Tower Hamlets council in east London banned decorations at JobCentres. Cards wish “holiday greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas”. One school even banned Mary being called the Virgin Mary. A commission spokesman said: “[Phillips] is saying it’s all very silly - people are worried about offending other religions when those religions are happy about a Christian Christmas.”


Australia: Muslim Turk beauty defies critics

THE Muslim teenager who generated a wave of controversy by entering last year's Miss Teen Australia beauty contest has made this year's finals. Then aged 16, Melbourne schoolgirl Ayten Ahmet was condemned by Muslim leaders when she entered last year's competition, with Melbourne cleric Sheik Mohammed Omran branding participation by Muslim girls as "a slur on Islam".

However, this year reactions had been more low key for Ayten, who was one of 12 Miss Teen Australia finalists at the Gold Coast's WhiteWater World yesterday. "It hasn't really been a big deal this year," she said. "At the time last year I said it (religion) wasn't really relevant to me entering the competition."

Being the centre of a raging debate on Muslim values was difficult for the teenager, but it did not dissuade her from entering again. "My family has been very supportive," she said. "It was made into a big issue by some people last year but I didn't see it as anything wrong."

Former Gold Coast Islamic Society president Naseem Abdul said Ayten was free to make her own decisions about entering modelling or beauty competitions. "It is her life," he said. "She is an individual, she can decide for herself if she wants to do that sort of thing, it doesn't affect or offend me in any way."

The winner of this year's pageant was due to be crowned last night.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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