Tuesday, August 01, 2006


They no longer hope for preferment. They are not required to bite their tongue or grovel. And since the person putting this blog up is a retired man aged 63, it must be true!

Britain, we are endlessly reminded, has an ageing population. More of us are reaching old age and living longer when we get there. This "greying of the nation" has provoked much gloomy, not to say doomy, talk. Older people are seen as a burden, placing huge demands on crushed carers and on public services to which they no longer contribute taxes.

The gerontophobes fail to see that most older people spend the greater part of their enormously extended old age in excellent health -- partly because they are getting better medical care. We are not, however, facing limitless demand for their care: the average spending on health and social services for the very old has fallen because they are in better health. What is more, old age is at least as much in the eye of the beholder as it is a matter of years and it is the law, custom, or prejudice, not infirmity, that limits the productivity of many older people.

It is time now to move the discussion on; for elders may have a rather more important job to do than simply avoiding being a drain on the public purse. John Grimley Evans, Emeritus Professor of Geratology at University of Oxford, has argued that, far from being "a social incubus, the new caste of older people freed from the tangling nets of employment and patronage could be the grey guardians of all our freedoms". As the nets of employment and patronage become more densely woven, we need these grey guardians more than ever.

The assaults on our freedoms over the past decade in particular have come from many directions. They go beyond the legislation that, in the name of fighting terror, has turned public buildings into fortresses and placed us all under surveillance from DNA registers, CCTV cameras and databases. More insidious has been the ensnaring of those who might once have defended freedoms in a liana of bureaucracy, ever-closer regulation and patronage that depends on being on-message. The terror of being found politically incorrect, off-message, or simply unfashionable, now makes self-censorship so natural that it is hardly noticed.

Traditionally, the challenge to the power of the authorities and "the tyranny of the majority" in democracies has come from professionals, from academics and intellectuals, from the media, and from the young. These countervailing forces have all been seriously weakened.

The great sociologist Emile Durkheim saw the authority of the professions as central to limiting the untrammelled power of the State. It is doubtful whether, disempowered by successive governments, they can any longer do this. Doctors, for example, are increasingly shift workers directed by puppet managers who are in turn manipulated from Whitehall. Their advancement is increasingly closely linked to keeping their mouths shut, working with rather than questioning increasingly frantic " reforms" and meeting targets however damaging the consequences for patient care.

Teachers are equally broken-spirited and we look in vain to academics for a coherent critique of the threats to our freedom. After a very dark period in which humanist intellectuals took pride in denying that there was such a thing as truth, in spreading indiscriminate paranoia and in publishing work that used opacity to simulate profundity, they have now moved on. Unfortunately, the discipline of the Research Assessment Exercise, embraced by universities in which the shots are called by managers rather than teachers, has ensured that academics in humanities departments concentrate on overproducing "high impact" publications that are read by very few -- not even their closest colleagues.

With some honourable exceptions, the media, by giving equal prominence to the serious and the trivial, and often lacking proportion and perspective, have weakened greatly their ability to document and challenge the erosion of personal freedoms by an increasingly corrupt, intrusive and centralised State. A misplaced egalitarianism, that gives equal hearing to the well-informed and to the angry ignorant, along with a hostility to professionals and experts -- usually called "so-called experts" -- also serves the purposes of power-hungry governments.

As for youth -- well of course we can look to them for a clear-eyed excoriation of the status quo. Unfortunately, this is often evidence-free and experience-free. Besides, the dissidence of the young is mixed up with other things: rebellions against parents, attracting partners and sorting out who and what one is.

Where, then, are we to look for the guardians of freedom? This is where the growing cadre of healthy elderly people may be increasingly important. They no longer hope for promotion or preferment. They are not required to bite their tongue or grovel. They have no targets to deliver on, no need to devote themselves to the futile productivity of academe, no asinine mission statements to write or respond to. They are at liberty to think and to say what they like. They can therefore shout out what those who have families to feed and careers to promote -- and so must remain on-message at all costs -- would not dare mutter in their sleep.

Because they have nothing to lose by speaking the truth; because they may be better able to bear the stigma that results when one casts timidity and calculation to the winds, they are (to use the jargon) a "precious resource" that we can ill afford to overlook.

Elderly mavericks, by the way, should not be expected to squander themselves on the kind of futile, unthreatening rebellious gestures such as "wearing the colour purple" that Jenny Joseph envisaged in her over-anthologised poem.

This is not an argument for a cognitive gerontocracy but a call for this new and growing generation of rentiers to take up the battle to defend the freedoms they have enjoyed but which, if present trends are unopposed, their grandchildren may not.


Scouts will fight for use of building

The mayor says the local council must change its policy on gays, pay market rent, or vacate. Sounds like it is a bluff, though. The council may lose federal funds over it

The Boy Scouts of America will fight to stay in the city-owned building they have occupied since 1928, saying the City of Philadelphia has no right to force them to change their policy barring gay members. "The scouts intend to stand up for their constitutional rights," said Robert Bork Jr., a spokesman for the national organization, which has a youth membership of about 2.9 million. "The policy [against gays] is not going anywhere," Bork added.

Late last week, Mayor Street called for the local Cradle of Liberty Council to denounce the national policy, pay fair-market-value rent, or vacate the stately building it occupies at 22d and Winter Streets, near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Yesterday, the Fairmount Park Commission - which owns the property - voted to back the city's decision.

While the national organization indicated it would challenge the decision, the local council said it was still weighing its legal options. The Cradle of Liberty Council serves 87,000 members in Philadelphia, Montgomery and Delaware Counties and is the third-largest in the country. The council met with City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. and other city officials in 2005 and agreed to adopt an antidiscrimination policy in compliance with the City Charter, according to a letter Diaz wrote to the council at the time. Jeff Jubelirer, a Cradle of Liberty Council spokesman, said he thought the two sides had an agreement. The council posted a nondiscrimination policy on its Web site but did not mention gays. "As the most diverse youth serving organization in our service area, we are committed to this mission and we oppose any form of unlawful discrimination," the statement reads.

The problem with the statement, Diaz said yesterday, is that it is not clear. He said unlawful discrimination was open to interpretation. The Supreme Court had ruled that the scouts could lawfully discriminate. On Thursday, Diaz wrote another letter to the Cradle of Liberty Council. This one outlined the city's demands: change the policy, pay rent, or get out. "What has happened between June 2005 and July 2006 to change what was an agreement?" Jubelirer asked. "They blindsided us." ....

Wolfson said he believed there were scout leaders who wanted to go against the policy but felt they had no choice. "I'm certainly willing to believe that the leaders in Philadelphia may not want to discriminate," he said. "But they have no authority to stop discriminating."

That point was reaffirmed by Bork, the scouts' national spokesman. "Every scout council follows national policies," he said. Bork said Philadelphia rents space to more than 75 community organizations with $1 leases, including 14 other youth organizations and several religious groups. Bork said the city does not try to tell those organizations to change their policies.

Street spokesman Joe Grace said last night that he was unable to confirm the figures. The city is in jeopardy of losing federal funding if it evicts the Boy Scouts, Bork said. The federal Support Our Scouts Act of 2005 allows the Department of Housing and Urban Development to deny funds to any state or local government that discriminates against or denies Boy Scouts access to facilities equal to those provided to other groups. The city received more than $62 million in HUD funds last year. "The city has put these funds at risk," Bork said, "as a result of its discriminatory action against Boy Scouts."

More here

Australian kids and parents resisting food fascism

Students are getting pizzas and Big Macs delivered to their schools after turning up their noses at healthy new canteen food. Some schools are offering students raffle prizes to get them to eat nutritious lunches, and other canteens are in danger of closing. Some parents are also defying the move to rid canteens of junk food by dropping off "treats" to their children.

Schools across the state have been introducing healthier menus after concerns over childhood obesity. Salads, sushi, sandwiches and fruit are replacing pies, chips, hot dogs and doughnuts. The State Government has announced it will ban soft drink from schools and is also looking at restricting the sale of lollies and chips. But parents, teachers and unions say there have been some challenges in the transition from junk food to more wholesome alternatives. Parents Victoria executive officer Gail McHardy said she knew of some "entrepreneurial" students who were ordering pizzas and having them delivered outside the school gate. "Students themselves have buying power," she said. Ms McHardy said many had part-time jobs and disposable income.

Ms McHardy said that while most parents did the right thing, some working parents dropped off food to get around canteen menus. "Some parents believe a delivered hot lunch to school from the local McDonald's or KFC is OK, too," she said. Ms McHardy said it was up to parents, students and schools to work together to get kids eating healthy canteen food.

Australian Education Union state branch president Mary Bluett said many canteens were struggling financially with the change. She said the "double whammy" of healthier food's higher production costs and some children's reluctance to buy it was having an impact. "Some are doubtful their canteens will survive," she said, "because kids will bring food from home rather than buy it from the canteen." Ms Bluett said many schools relied on canteen revenue to pay for activities and amenities. She called on the State Government to subsidise healthy eating. "It would be good if the Government would be prepared to cover the gap for a short period of time," she said.

Victorian Principals Association president Fred Ackerman said some transitional support would help schools introduce healthy food. But a spokesman for Education Minister Lynne Kosky said the Bracks Government already supported initiatives to encourage healthy eating habits in schools.

Box Forest Secondary College in Glenroy is one school that offers students prizes in a raffle as a way of tempting them to eat healthy food. Canteen manager Sheryle Hind said students got a raffle ticket every time they bought a nutritious item from the menu and their names went into the draw to win a donated DVD player. She said the initiative was going well.


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