Saturday, March 14, 2009

A downturn in British moral values?

Watch out: the recession could turn you into a fat fascist wife-beater with anger-control issues. Allegedly.

Remember when the recession was supposed to be a good thing? Not long ago, the great and the good were sending Mac-written missives from their unrepossessed homes about how the economic downturn would help us - the little people - to rediscover `long-forgotten, old-fashioned values', like thriftiness, rationing, community spirit, hunger. Well, now the G&G have gone and changed their minds. It turns out the recession will not bring out the best in people, but the very, very worst, threatening to turn us into fascist wife-beaters with vastly expanding waistlines and a whole host of mental health problems.

First the recession will make us fat. You would think, in a time of economic downturn, that any start-up, business expansion or other form of job creation would be warmly welcomed. In fact, the news that Domino's Pizza has boosted its profits by 25 per cent over the past year, and now plans to open 50 stores and create hundreds of new jobs in the coming year, was treated as an Hieronymus Bosch-style warning of a hellish future of fat-limbed, jobless people eating themselves into an early grave. The recession is `ruining our health', declared one newspaper headline. A food writer said it is `utterly, utterly depressing' that people are `slobbing out on the sofa at home, not with a bowl of hearty, homemade soup, but with a whopping great bucket of fried chicken or a calorie-laden pizza'.

Food critic Jay Rayner dry-heaved upon hearing that KFC plans to open 300 new outlets and create 9,000 new jobs in the next 12 months. The recession has further exposed the `deeply chronic divide', he said, `between those who give a toss about what they eat and those who, frankly, do not, and who see lectures about what they have for dinner as little more than that: a hectoring irrelevance for lives lived at the bottom of the economic heap'. Hmm, I wonder why people might see `food advice' as a `hectoring lecture' from poshos? Expanding on who it is that `doesn't give a toss about what they eat', one medical expert used that deliciously Dickensian phrase `the poor' to describe those people who `cannot cook' and who in a recession `are increasingly likely to eat poorly nutritious fast food'.

The celebrity chef and government adviser, Jamie Oliver, who with his use of the term `white trash' has been far more honest about who these `slobs' are who eat buckets of chickens that are a `killer combination of cheap protein, even cheaper carbs and tongue-coating fats', told the House of Commons Health Select Committee (yes, he was invited) that the recession will make our `obesity epidemic' even worse.

This discussion of recession-induced lardiness, especially amongst The Poor and white trash who according to Oliver suffer from the `new poverty' of not knowing how to cook, perfectly sums up what fuels the obesity panic today: not hard scientific evidence that the uneducated hordes are waddling towards early death with a family-sized bucket of boneless chicken under each arm, but a voyeuristic, vicarious obsession with slipping standards of health and morality amongst the lower orders. Obesity is a metaphor for the old sins of gluttony and sloth, and celebrity chefs are the new priests who want to save The Poor from their own worst (eating) habits. The less well-off are seen as a peculiar, unknowable blob, who might be pushed further down the road to hydrogenated hell by the uncertainty of the recession.

Once you have been made more rotund by the economic downturn, you will be the perfect size and shape for the next expected impact of job losses and money worries: fascism. The G&G are positively (one might even say pornographically) convinced that the recession will make neo-Nazis of us all. Well, not all of us; just those who `don't give a toss about what they eat' or about foreigners. One UK government minister, Jim Murphy, has warned of `credit crunch racism'. Trevor Phillips of the Equality and Human Rights Commission says Britain could become more racist as the recession bites, giving rise to `an angry, embittered permanent underclass looking for targets on whom to vent its rage'.

The Labour left is gripped by fascist fantasies. Some old-style Labourites warn that this global downturn, likes its 1930s cousin, could facilitate `a rise in fascism'. Only they don't mean the emergence of an elite jackboot movement such as that which emerged in one of the most powerful countries in Europe in the 1930s (which would be an ahistorical prediction anyway); they mean that `racist workers' and the `permanent underclass' might start attacking anyone who looks or smells foreign in an attempt jealously to guard their own jobs and dole money. Commenting on the recent wildcat strikes - slogan: `British jobs for British workers' - Tribune magazine whined about how New Labour's promises to protect British jobs sound like a `dog whistle to working-class Labour supporters toying with the idea of voting for the British National Party'.

Here, too, it is not any evidence of a recession-linked upsurge in Johnny Foreigner hatred that fuels the fascist predictions, but rather an elite view of the little people as volatile, unpredictable, given to outbursts of irrationality. At a time when the old politics of left and right is a thing of the past, and the workers v bosses divide looks like a distant memory, the working classes and The Poor are seen as unreadable, and as easily swayed by what one Labour commentator describes as the `leeches of the far right'. It is the aloofness and disconnection of commentators and quango heads that generates fascism fears.

This is clear from Tribune's use of the `dog whistle' metaphor: the working classes are seen as automatons, the human equivalent of attack dogs, who speak in their own shrill, high-pitched lingo that is not readily audible to the more sensible, leeches-immune Labour commentariat who sit above them.

And once you are fat and a fascist, what is the next logical step? Wife-beating, of course. Last week's news was rife with predictions that the `recession will prompt a rise in domestic violence' and that women will be `worst hit' (literally) by the economic downturn. The UK attorney general, Lady Scotland, warned that `domestic violence will rise with increased financial worries'. What has triggered this fear of male-on-female violence in downturn-whacked Britain? The arrival of hundreds of badly beaten wives of newly unemployed men at police stations across the UK? No. It springs from a government report, titled Real Help Now for Women, which casually and unscientifically predicts that during the recession `women may face threats from violent or abusive partners'.

The Metropolitan Police says there had been a `slight increase' in domestic violence over the past year, but there was no evidence yet that it was linked to `stress in terms of lost jobs'. Yet that didn't stop the government from focusing its `real help' for women during the recession, not on creating jobs for them or on ensuring that they can remain active, productive citizens despite the downturn, but on protecting them from their own allegedly violent families. The wife-beating panic is fuelled by elite porno-fears about what takes place Behind Closed Doors, and a view of the family as a dangerous place rather than a sanctuary, a means of pooling resources and pulling through during tough economic times.

What all of these recession predictions have in common is a view of the public as an amorphous mass that will be pushed, prodded, twisted and reshaped - for the worse - by the economic downturn. Any view of us as resourceful, tough individuals, who together with our friends, families and social networks can get through the economic downturn in one piece, has given way to fears that we will become dog-like haters of foreigners and women with chicken-blocked arteries to boot. Even worse, the relentless focus on managing the masses' foul and violent reaction to the recession - by giving more food lectures, censoring those `dog whistles' tempting us to become fascists, encouraging women to be suspicious of their husbands, or offering free therapy to counter the `epidemic of anxiety' - lets off the hook those who are largely responsible for this mess in the first place: the authorities. Unable to manage the economic fallout, far less have an honest debate about what needs to be done to improve productivity and living standards, the powers-that-be focus on micro-managing wayward individuals instead.


'We've left children to rot, now they are animals': Michael Caine speaks out after returning to his roots to make new movie

Sir Michael Caine has spoken of his horror at returning to the 'sink estates' in the area he once called home. The Oscar-winning actor said children in Elephant & Castle, South London, were being 'left to rot' and growing into 'animals'.

Sir Michael is no stranger to the tough streets of the capital, as he grew up in the same area when 'spivs' prowled with razor blades sewn into the brims of their hats. But on returning to film a low-budget thriller about gang culture, he was shocked by what he found. Much of his time shooting Harry Brown was spent around an area called the Heygate Estate, a 1960s social housing scheme that is to be demolished. And none too soon, according to Sir Michael.

The actor, who grew up Maurice Joseph Micklewhite - the son of a Billingsgate fish market porter and a charwoman - said such 'rotten places' should never have been built. Sir Michael, 75, moved to Camberwell from Rotherhithe in the 1940s, when he was 12. He lived in a prefabricated house which had electric lights and an inside bathroom. 'That terrible place for me was a step up,' he said. 'But when I see how children live now, compared with the flats there now it was like a middle-class dwelling.'

'[The film] is about sink estates and the violence on them,' he told the Evening Standard. 'This is a dark portrait but unfortunately it is very true and we're all responsible for it. We left the children to rot. We left these children and they grew into animals.' He added: 'The families have let the children down, the educators have let the children down. 'We've put them in rotten places like the Heygate Estate... which fortunately is being pulled down. It should never have been built.'

Last night, Kim Humphreys, Conservative councillor for Southwark, said Sir Michael seemed to be confusing reality and fiction. 'I understand he is making a gang movie, but if he went around the estate, given the amount of security he would find it one of the safest, cleanest and friendliest estates in South-East London.' He admitted the estate was 'past its sell-by date', and said that was why residents were being rehoused.


Black History Month: racial equality not black and white

Does Black History Month in America does more harm than good ?

For one month only: classroom walls in America are covered with posters of famous black figures. But Morgan Freeman doesn't approve: 'I don't want a Black History Month,' he says. 'African history is American history'

February brought two things to classrooms in the United States: Valentine's Day and Black History Month (BHM). The walls of schools around the country were suddenly covered with love hearts and pictures of famous African Americans, which will quietly disappear again next week.

Last year, our first in the US, BHM took me by surprise. At six, Athena, my daughter, was blissfully unaware that skin colour had any more significance than green eyes or red hair. I loved this innate sense that humans were just humans, and hoped to keep it that way for as long as possible. For her, Venus Williams was just a tennis player.

Every February, I discovered, first and second grade pupils are asked to choose their favourite famous black person and create a poster about his or her life and achievements, to present to the class. Athena, still inhabiting a parallel universe of Lion King and unicorns, didn't have a favourite celebrity of any hue. She hadn't even registered the terms "black" and "white" till the previous month on Martin Luther King Day. After that, she literally painted him black on a computer colouring activity, causing all his features to disappear. We had a lot of ground to cover. To help, a list of suggestions came home, from Oprah Winfrey to Louis Farrakhan.

The more I thought about it, the more misgivings I began to have. I recalled how, as a postgraduate journalism student, I had written an article about successful black people in the media. Trevor McDonald agreed to be interviewed but Moira Stewart turned me down - she didn't like being seen as a "black" newscaster. I realised how patronising I had been. Now I was asking my daughter to do the same thing! The thought of her standing before the class with her famous-black-person poster made me cringe. It seemed a crass introduction to sensitive, complex issues. I tentatively canvassed the views of a few other parents, hoping they wouldn't think I was a closet racist. One defended BHM passionately. Without it, racial intolerance would creep in at a very early age, he argued. Others had misgivings, but their kids had started doing it at the age of four or five. "We've been doing this for so many years here that no one really questions its relevance for the littlest ones," said one.

Another emailed: "As someone who grew up in the American South and always had Black History Month as a fixture in our schools (because if we didn't there would be no person of colour ever considered), I have gotten used to the idea. I agree we should be able to integrate historical figures and writers into the main lessons and not have to single them out. But the books haven't advanced that far yet."

BHM was obviously a non-negotiable, "carved-in-stone orthodoxy", as one friend described it. It was a reflection of the long way the US has to go in making reparation for its past sins, many of them shockingly recent. It began as Negro History Week in 1926, created by African-American historian Carter G Woodson at a time when lynchings were common and thousands of black people were denied the vote. It became a monthly fixture in 1976. The UK has one too - in October - but I suspect not many primary school children know that.

Realising I couldn't single-handedly orchestrate a cultural revolution, I nevertheless emailed Athena's teacher. Was singling out one race for a month of scrutiny the best way to promote tolerance and equality? Surely instead it implied otherness. Wasn't this just what Barack Obama was trying to escape from - being regarded as a black candidate, rather than just a candidate?

She immediately called me in for a talk, expressed her sympathy but suggested that her hands were tied. This was the way it was. So Athena did her poster about Venus Williams while I quietly mourned the passing of her racial blindness.

This year we have an African-American president and a black school principal: what more positive role models could our children hope for? Yet, on cue, the posters appeared again - Louis Armstrong, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King. But this time I bit my tongue. After all, there is something wonderful about this wealth of inspiring individuals adorning the walls and I'm delighted that Athena has had the chance to learn about some of them. Her poster features Harriet Tubman, who led slaves to freedom on the underground railroad. Yet I still can't help agreeing with the actor Morgan Freeman, who in 2005 said that black history should not be relegated to a month. "I don't want a Black History Month," he said. "Black history is American history."

Now that Obama is a household name, surely the idea of separating black history will seem increasingly redundant. The American electorate has shown it is ready for change. Until then, as the satirical paper The Onion puts it, next month it's back to "the traditional observation of White History Year".


Palestinian/Jewish dialogue unwelcome in Australian Arab organization

by Philip Mendes

The recent Senate Inquiry into allegations of academic bias highlighted the intense ideological divisions within universities and schools of learning. As confirmed by the Inquiry, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides one of the most volatile and polarised sources of such division. My personal experience as a long-standing participant in this debate suggests that even the most moderate academic supporters of Israel cannot find common ground with pro-Palestinian academics for respectful debate and dialogue.

For 15 years from 1987 till early 2002, I was active in the left-wing Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS). The AJDS position on the Middle East was very straightforward: a two-state solution based on the State of Israel existing roughly within the 1967 borders, and the corresponding creation of a state of Palestine within the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A key AJDS strategy was to establish links and dialogue with members of the local Palestinian and Arab communities.

Central to this strategy was a concern to show the rest of the Jewish community that Jews willing to recognise Palestinian rights and aspirations would receive positive feedback from local Palestinians and Arabs. A further implicit motivation was that successful Jewish-Arab dialogue in Australia based on mutual recognition and compromise could perhaps be seen as a model for successful peace negotiations within Israel/Palestine. This strategy included participation in the Australasian Middle East Studies Association (AMESA), an academic association consisting of both academics teaching in Middle East Studies - some of whom were Arabs and others who were Anglo-Saxon - and members of the local Palestinian and Arab communities.

Throughout the period of AMESA's existence (from about 1981 onwards), AJDS representatives had regularly been invited to speak at AMESA conferences, and welcomed within AMESA circles. My own involvement in AMESA had perhaps been less significant, but had included presentations to two AMESA conferences, contributions to the Deakin University (and AMESA-linked) Journal of Arabic, Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies, and contributions to the AMESA Newsletter. In addition, I had submitted in November 1997 at the request of a leading AMESA figure a witness statement to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission supporting a case by the Australian Arabic Council against the Herald & Weekly Times and Australia/Israel Publications (AIP).

Briefly, the matter involved some allegedly racist anti-Arab statements made by a visiting AIP-sponsored speaker David Pryce-Jones which had been published by the Herald Sun. The matter was subsequently settled out of court, and the Australian Arabic Council thanked the author in writing for "your very honest and powerful witness statement, and all your support throughout the two year case".

Not only this, but two prominent AMESA and Arab community intellectuals, Ray Jureidini and Christine Asmar, had approached me to draft a joint opinion piece on Jewish-Palestinian community relations in Australia. The article was intended to pinpoint the negatives of existing relations, and the future potential for improving relations. Plans were even made for the publication of a joint monograph on Palestinian and Jewish experiences of otherness and racism in Australia.

In late 1998, I was invited by the President of AMESA, Christine Asmar, to contribute an article to the AMESA Newsletter exploring how AMESA might improve its relations with the Jewish community. The submitted piece made the following points: that there was at best token representation of Jews in AMESA, that there did appear to be an in-built structural bias against Jewish representation within AMESA, but that nevertheless there were different views within the Jewish community about AMESA including some interest in identifying common ground.

In order to facilitate constructive engagement, I suggested the following: that AMESA adopt for its 1999 Conference the theme of "Jewish/Arab dialogue and friendship historically and today"; that AMESA invite the Executive Council of Australian Jewry to nominate two representatives to participate in the Conference Planning Committee; that AMESA invite the Israeli Ambassador and the Palestinian Ambassador to co-open proceedings, that AMESA consider inviting a mainstream Israeli writer or academic as a keynote speaker; and that AMESA invite the editor of the Australian Jewish News and a commensurate Arab community newspaper to speak at a joint session on Australian media presentations of Jews and Arabs, and possibilities for joint action against racist coverage.

To my surprise, AMESA chose to publish six responses to my article in the same issue without either my prior knowledge or permission. Three of the responses were broadly positive. However, the other three responses - from Ray Jureidini, John Docker, and Ned Curthoys - were vociferously critical. Their common concern seemed to be that my proposals would transform AMESA from a pro-Palestinian organisation into potentially a pro-Israel organisation. Docker, an anti-Zionist Jew, was the main concern. He argued without any evidence that my intention was to "intimidate, threaten and marginalise Jewish intellectuals" who did not conform to the Jewish community consensus. He claimed that my proposals would lead to the "surveillance and control of" AMESA by Zionists who had also suppressed "debate and discussion" in the media. Similarly, Ned Curthoys argued that my proposal was "grotesque", and reflected a "totalitarian vision for society".

Both Docker and Curthoys knew that I had argued for over 15 years both within and outside the Jewish community for the legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations, for the creation of an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel, and for a free and tolerant Jewish debate around these issues. I was the last person who could reasonably be accused of wanting to censor anyone.

But worse was to come. I wrote a relatively short, careful and arguably measured response to the six responses, pointing out the negative and positives, and trying to focus again on the desired objective of achieving better relations between AMESA and the Jewish community.

Initially, Christine Asmar indicated that she would have to cut my letter to one page to which I reluctantly agreed. She also indicated at the same time that our proposed joint paper on Palestinian-Jewish relations would not go ahead. One month later I was informed by a new editor that she had cut and rewritten (without consultation) my letter to 150 words. I subsequently wrote a protest letter to the AMESA President, but to no avail. The organisation had closed ranks, and I was purged. My experience of Jewish-Arab dialogue was over.



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 readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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