Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Censorship, students and unfashionable opinions

Congratulations, Cardiff University Women's Society, on your tremendous victory. Germaine Greer has decided not to speak at your campus on the topic of "Women and Power in the 20th Century". She has decided that, at the age of 76, she cannot be arsed with the inevitable hassle. She cannot be blamed for feeling as if her safety won't be guaranteed, that people won't throw things at her.

Well done, Cardiff University Women's Society, for successfully silencing a woman, for making her fear for her personal safety. I hope you are proud of yourselves.

I get it. You are upset with Germaine Greer's views on trans women. Her views on trans women are not ones that I share - indeed, I do not agree with her on everything and I doubt she would expect me to do so - but to react to her unfashionable views by silencing her or making her fear for her safety is ridiculous. Trans women face issues of personal safety that are unimaginable to many of us. Mental health issues are a major problem, suicide rates are unacceptable, bullying and harassment and violence are sadly commonplace, and the voices and experiences of trans women are often silenced and shut out.

But silencing one woman will not make things better for anyone.

This current craze for no-platforming is the kind of intellectually mild censorship that should have no place on a university campus, a place where your ideas are supposed to be challenged, where there should be no one dominant viewpoint, and a place where debates should take place between people of differing opinions.

As one of the leading figures in feminism of the 20th Century, I'd be very interested in what she has to say on the topic of "Women and Power in the 20th Century". Her perspectives, as someone who was part of the story as well as a commentator on the story, would have, most likely, been fascinating.

But now nobody at Cardiff University will get to hear her perspectives on this important period of feminist history.

It is a period of history that still has implications to this day - there are still debates going on around the world about the issues that angered women last century and people like Germaine Greer helped bring women's issues into the mainstream. It is because of Germaine Greer and her contemporaries that people started to realise that women's issues are not minority issues.

You may not agree with her views on trans women but it is hard to argue that she did not pave the way for women - and the views of women who disagree with her - to be heard. Have you even bothered to read The Female Eunuch and to understand it in its historic context so you can appreciate why Germaine Greer is important in 2015? Are you so arrogant, so fixated on one of her opinions, that you cannot appreciate the importance in learning from history and from someone who was part of that history?

Trans issues did not play a massive role in the 20th Century women's movement. Indeed, mainstream second wave feminism has been frequently criticised for being too middle class, too white, too heterosexual, and certainly trans-exclusionary. But here are a few constructive ideas for the members of Cardiff University Women's Society - why didn't it occur to you to attend Greer's lecture and ask her challenging questions about where trans women were during the changes that took place in the 20th Century? Or you could peacefully picket the lecture (while we still have the right to peacefully protest in this country...), or hold your own event with powerful trans women as speakers. Or just don't attend the lecture and get on with your life. "Freedom of speech" is not the same as "compulsory to listen".

Imagine if you attended the lecture and started a constructive conversation with Germaine Greer about trans issues. Universities can be amazing places where students achieve amazing things - science students have made breakthroughs that astounded their professors, humanities students have come up with world-changing philosophies, and Cardiff University students could have played a pivotal role in opening up dialogue on trans issues between the generations. But that won't happen now because the intellectually lazy route of censorship was the more comfortable ride.

Photo by Circe Denyer

Monday, 26 October 2015

Report on rape, expect idiocy at leisure...

The take-home message of my last couple of days is probably: Don't bother trying to reason with rape apologists and people who don't understand the basics of the British justice system because you will only end up beating your head against the nearest brick wall.

But that is exactly what I foolishly did and, wow, have I come across some of the finest minds operating in Britain today.

On the Evening Standard Facebook page, a link to a this story about a reported rape in my local area was posted last night. The headline, "Woman, 34, 'raped in south-west London park as she walked home alone" was like catnip for victim-blamers.

People demanded to know what the hell she was doing walking home by herself at 2am. It didn't seem to occur to these dullards that the buses had stopped running by then, it's not always easy to hail a taxi in that part of the neighbourhood at 2am, the night buses were still a walk in the dark away and possibly not even heading near her home, or that, quite simply, it was not a long walk and the Merton Police Twitter account likes to remind us all the time how safe the borough is.

Also, none of these variables and possibilities bloody matter because she had every right to walk home without getting raped. I've walked by myself in that area at night without expecting to be raped.

And there were the inevitable comparisons of rape to crimes against property. According to yet another academic giant, men (What? All of them?) take their Rolexes off when they walk through a rough neighbourhood. By this logic, if a man is mugged for his Rolex, that is exactly the same as the monstrous violation of one's body that is rape. I'm not sure if the men making these statements realise that men can be raped too but that notion might make their tiny heads explode.

Others added some racism to the victim-blaming, demanding to know why there was no description of the alleged attacker in the article. This obviously meant that she was attacked by an immigrant, probably an illegal one, according to the cavalcade of fools.

Or maybe it meant that she was attacked in the dark and was too busy trying to fend off her attacker in the dark to pause and observe him for distinguishing features.

There was no race-based description, according to one genius, because some people are "protected" by the police. Yeah. Except a quick peek at the news section of the Metropolitan Police website shows that if there is a description based on skin colour or nationality available, this will be publicised in the alerts about people wanted for questioning. If there is a clear photo of a suspect, which makes the person's ethnicity pretty obvious, the Met will publish that too.

Then someone called Emily Burton (and my apologies in advance to all the perfectly pleasant women out there called Emily Burton...) felt the need to send me a message on Facebook in response to my attempts to reason with a mob who were either angry with a woman for walking home alone or angry that the police were "obviously" hiding something.

Here is her delightful and sisterly message to me:

HEY LISTEN UP YOU DRIED UP OLD CUNT everyone is fucked off with your RETARDED OPINIONS , bet you've never had a shag in your life !!! never mind the fact you are the ultimate billy no mates , now go back to your bible you stupid bitch and FUCK THE HELL OFF !!! Georgia Lewis BRAIN DEAD CUNT

BTW if you don't know what the definition of a brain dead cunt is LOOK IN A MIRROR

The message went into my "Others" folder. If she didn't alert me to the fact she'd sent me a message on the Evening Standard's Facebook page, I probably wouldn't have seen it for months. I publicly thanked her for the message and told her that I hope she is never raped because I wouldn't wish rape on anyone, and because that would be a terrible way to learn why victim-blaming is an awful thing to do.

It would appear that she then thought better of announcing to the world that she sends unsolicited and abusive messages to people she has never met, because her comments disappeared and she now seems to have vamoosed from Facebook altogether.

And then the Wimbledon Guardian, my local newspaper, reported on the story this morning and posted it on their Facebook page. Lo and behold, more idiots!

This time, two people objected to the reporter's use of the word "alleged". One bloke called Dave asked why "alleged" and whether this is "something women do for attention". And a woman called Emma said: "Surely 'allegedly' should be used when finger pointing a suspect, not for what the victim has said. I'm sure the police can determine if rape occurred or not. Allegedly wasn't the right choice of word."

Er, yes, Emma and Dave, in a responsible news report "allegedly" is the right word. Until someone is arrested and unless that person is then found guilty of rape, the victim's report to the police is still an allegation.

I pointed this out to Dave whose stellar response was "If that's your opinion, mine's different."

Christ on a cracker, Dave, no. It's not my opinion. It is how the British justice system works to ensure a fair trial. The principle of innocent until proven guilty is a pretty important one. According to Dave, who adorably attempted feminism, this might put women off reporting rape.

No. The principle of the presumption of innocence should not ever put off a woman - or a man, for that matter, from reporting rape. You know what does put women off reporting rapes though? The victim-blaming crap that puts her on trial in the kangaroo court of online comments for having the temerity to walk home alone with the apparently outrageous expectation that nobody will rape her.

A rapist is responsible for rape. That is all.

Photo by jks Lola

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Cut the crap on Chinese and Saudi human rights!

Come on, David Cameron. Come on. If you're going to kowtow to China and Saudi Arabia, at least have the honesty to admit that it has sod-all to do with human rights and everything to do with money.

This really has been the week of unedifying spectacles in Britain. The state dinner to honour Xi Jinping served bottles of wine worth £1,450 each - that's one month's rent on a one-bedroom flat in Clapham or a figure not too far above the drop in annual household income that will be experienced by an estimated 20% of British households if the House of Lords can't fend off the planned changes to tax credits. There was the Duchess of Cambridge looking demurely bored, resplendent and obsequious in the red of the Chinese flag. The blokes looked either dapper or awkward in white tie. It was all rather obscene.

Then there was the press conference that wasn't really a press conference. Not if Britain is trying to be a democracy with a free press anyway. Cameron kicked things off by announcing there would only be two questions. Two! One from a British journalist and one from a Chinese journalist. Sorry, Dave, that does not a press conference maketh. But I'm sure you know that. But God forbid we do anything to offend Xi with anything resembling a media holding governments to account. That's not how they do things in China.

And it sure as hell shouldn't be the way things are done here.

Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC political editor, crammed a lot into her one question (she had no choice, really...), calling out the Cameron and Xi on the steel industry job losses, the lavishness of the state visit and China's human rights in one fell swoop. And both men gave glib politician's answers that promised nothing and said nothing worthwhile or courageous.

Xi can slyly grin his way through a monologue about human rights being important to China and how changes are happening all he likes because he knows he will not get voted out of office any time soon, nobody will hold him to account to make any changes and he leaves the UK safe in the knowledge the moneymaking deals are safe.

Britain and China have been trading for a while now. Historically, we've done business with China since the Ming Dynasty and more recently, we've lapped up the deals as China became open to making money (largely for state-owned companies and with very little of the new wealth trickling down to the cheap labour force...). China is now a massive market for luxury goods and has the world's highest number of women billionaires at 49. Way to go, Red China!

But despite all these yummy deals, human rights have not improved in China. Exact statistics are almost impossible to obtain but it is estimated that China alone executes more people than the rest of the world combined - at least 607 executions took place in China last year and 778 in 2013. There is no free press and journalists are arrested with alarming frequency - just last month, Wang Xiaolu was arrested for "spreading false information" when he reported on the stock market crash. The one-child policy leads to forced abortions and forced insertion of IUDs. Freedom of religion is restricted. Chinese democracy is nothing but a fairly terrible Guns N' Roses album.

Limiting a press conference to two questions, both from government media outlets, is just the sort of thing one would expect from China. And yet that happened here in Britain this week.

Let us not pretend that China is anywhere near being a freedom-loving democracy. But, more than that, let us quit pretending that doing business with them will stop the human rights abuses any time soon. By "us", in particular, I mean you, David Cameron.

And the same goes for Saudi Arabia. It is probably the worst place on the planet to be a woman. And it is pretty damn horrific if you're an atheist, a Christian, a Hindu, gay, bisexual, transgender, unmarried and sexually active, a republican, a Wiccan, or you are at all interested in a free press, freedom of assembly or universal suffrage.

This didn't stop Cameron giving the same apologist answers for human rights abuses in China when he was asked by Channel 4's Jon Snow about his part in the ridiculous election of Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council. As well as stammering around the issue of whether he'd personally intervene to try and save the life of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the teenager sentenced to be beheaded and crucified for encouraging pro-democracy protests, he again peddled the lie that all these trade deals we do with Saudi help improve human rights.

Nothing much is improving in Saudi Arabia when it comes to human rights. Saudi has executed at least 175 people in the past year, including 102 in the first six months of 2015 alone. Nearly half of these people were foreign nationals and the mentally disabled and those accused of crimes committed while under the age of 18 are not safe from the sword or firing squad either.

It took the lobbying by Jeremy Corbyn and the ensuing mass outrage at the sentencing of British expat, Karl Andree, to 350 lashes for being caught with home-made wine in his car for David Cameron to do anything constructive. He cancelled a training contract with Saudi prisons worth £6 million to the UK and now, it seems, Karl Andree may be spared the lashes.

Obviously, this is great news for the Andree family and anyone who is appalled at such a violent punishment for a victimless crime but it was also a case of affordable principles.

In the big scheme of things, a £6 million pound contract to train staff who work in one of the world's most repugnant justice systems is small potatoes.

David Cameron was never going to risk the lucrative arms trade with Saudi Arabia to spare a British citizen from being lashed. The UK-Saudi arms relationship goes back a long way. Between 1992 and 1994, 75% of the UK's total arms sales were to Saudi Arabia. In 2013, Saudi was the world's biggest buyer of British arms, spending £1.6b. Since March this year, the government granted 37 export licences for military goods to Saudi Arabia. We will never know how many of these weapons will end up in the hands of IS but it would be naive to suggest that does not happen.

If David Cameron just admitted that the deals with China and Saudi Arabia were all about the money and really won't have any impact on improving human rights in either country, at least I'd appreciate his honesty. Right now, there's nothing honest about pretending these trade deals will help the people of either country and everything about a supposed democracy where a two-question press conference is allowed by the Prime Minister stinks.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Charity and the cult of the personality

Today, #kidscompany and Boris Johnson were trending at the same time on Twitter. It was quite the coincidence because both stories that led to the social media noise illustrated precisely why the cult of the personality continues to make idiots of us all. We may look back with the privileged superiority of 20/20 vision in hindsight at how people fell under the spell of Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin but we are not necessarily any smarter in 2015.

Boris Johnson was in the news because he rugby-tackled a 10-year-old boy. Everyone reported this with the usual "Oh,  isn't Boris hilarious!" tone. It's another Boris distraction from his appalling record as Mayor of London and his ineffectiveness as an MP. He does this on purpose, because he knows it's what people will talk about instead of anything serious.

But falling for the cult of the personality isn't limited to the BoJo fan club. The #kidscompany Twitter trend centred on the terrible story that is the collapse of the Kids Company charity. Kids Company was founded in 1996 by British-Iranian psychotherapist, Camila Batmanghelidjh.

Batmanghelidjh was lauded across the political spectrum. Celebrities, such as the members of Coldplay and JK Rowling, donated generously to the charity that started as a youth drop-in centre in London's Camberwell neighbourhood and grew until it had therapy centres, alternative education facilities and a presence in 40 schools in London and Bristol, as well as a performing arts programme in Liverpool.

And, crucially, David Cameron hailed her as a heroine, as part of his "Big Society" concept. Remember that? That thing in which we are all meant to be in together? That one.

Kids Company received £30m of taxpayers' money. Three million of this was meant to be spent on restructuring an organisation that had grown perhaps too fast with ego and ambition overtaking reality. Instead, it was mostly spent on overdue staff wages and, if we're lucky, the government might be able to recoup £1.8m. When a government has to prop up a charity that is attempting to provide vital social services, we have a serious problem.

When Camila Batmanghelidjh became a public figure, she was very quickly known for her brightly coloured caftans and turbans. She was charismatic, she was passionate, she was patronisingly described as "larger than life", which we all know is code for "overweight but makes up for it with personality".

And it seems that her dizzying presence blinded people to a lot of things. There is an ongoing police investigation into sexual assault. Today, we had the unedifying spectacle of the Commons committee hearing into the inner workings of Kids Company. The committee heard that despite claiming to care for 36,000 clients, there were only records for 1,699 people. There were questions about handing out cash to vulnerable minors and whether that really is the best way to deal with the complex issues that go along with social and economic disadvantage. After this day of testimony, it would appear that Kids Company was poorly run with no real strategy for solving social and economic problems at their root causes or for how the charity should expand.

Just because Kids Company is a charity, that should not make it immune from scrutiny. If anything should be scrutinised, it's charities because people who donate have the right to know how their money will be used. It is a huge responsibility.

The elephant in the room is that the government saw fit to give £30m of our money to one charity without a whole lot in the way of due diligence. The very notion that £30m of public money can be thrown at a charity to try and solve complex problems in three different cities is ridiculous.

While tweeters waste bandwidth giggling at Batmangelidjh's weight and outfits and at Boris tackling a child, not enough people are talking about how few answers the government has for elevating people out of poverty.

Photography by George Hodan

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Grim times for peaceful protest

See that photo above? I am pretty sure I have very little in common politically with the people in the photo but I support their right to peacefully protest in Washington DC. In a free society, they have every right to express their views without inflicting violence on others or having violence inflicted upon them.

This is how peaceful protest should work. Peaceful protest does not necessarily mean quiet, demure protest. Hell, it does not necessarily mean protesting fully clothed either, Pussy Riot and Slutwalk being two cases in point.

But it has become abundantly clear that the right to peaceful protest is misunderstood.

The protest at the Conservative party conference was, objectively, by any reasonable person's measure, a peaceful one. It was estimated that at least 60,000 people marched in Manchester - with four arrests made, that means that, at worst, 0.00666666666% of all the people who protested were arrested. But the tiny and unconstructive minority ensured that anything but the nation-changing issues raised by the protestors got airplay in the next day's papers.

The newspapers have the right to run whatever the hell they want on their front pages. That is how a free press works. But sadly, a few buffoons gave the press a leave pass to run stories that were not related to any of the motivations behind the protest?

Journalists were spat it, which is obviously completely revolting. I understand the frustrations with the media that might lead to spitting but that does not make spitting on someone trying to do their job in any way acceptable. Pitifully though, when I tweeted that I "understand the frustrations", I was jumped on by a Tory apologist hate mob who accused me of condoning spitting. Which I did not do. Never mind that I am the person who dry-retches if I overhear someone spitting across the other side of the road. Apparently, understanding why people are frustrated with the media made me the patron saint of expectoration.

Someone threw an egg at a young Conservative who was trying to get a rise out of the crowd by brandishing a photo of Margaret Thatcher, even though he was probably still in nappies - or possibly not yet conceived - when Thatcher was ousted in 1990. The "egg-throwing yobs" became front page news rather than the issues that are a legacy of Thatcher's Britain.

And some people used their freedom of speech to yell "Tory scum!" at Boris Johnson as he entered the Conservative Party Conference. He punned his way into the headlines by claiming he was warmly welcomed with cries of "Tories, come!". Oh, the hilarity. And, thus, the fact that Boris Johnson only had the cojones to criticise the impact of his party's welfare cuts on Londoners after he voted for the bill that includes the welfare cuts, went unnoticed.

Then there was the sickening, dreadful report of street sexual harassment and a rape threat made to a woman attending the Conservative Party conference. This story was broken with minimal detail by Guido Fawkes. It is not known whether the accused was affiliated to any groups at the protest or whether he was just some random dickhead who decided to join in and allegedly behave like a sexist douchebag. I can only say "allegedly" because it is unclear if the incident was reported to the police. After all, police officers were not in short supply at the protest. Or was the woman concerned happy to just let Guido Fawkes use the story to further his political agenda and equally as happy to let a man who thinks sexual harassment and rape threats are OK to walk freely around Manchester?

And look at that, I've just spent four paragraphs of this blog post doing exactly what the establishment wants. I've talked about the minute minority rather than the real concerns of the 59,994 or more people who managed to march on the Conservative Party conference last Sunday without being arrested.

And just this weekend in Ankara, the Turkish capital, more than 100 people were killed in a bomb blast at a peace rally. Many are holding the government responsible, either directly or indirectly, and, at the time of writing, nobody has claimed responsibility.

Anybody, regardless of their politics, should be horrified at this infringement on the right to peaceful protest in Turkey. But, if you are also part of the brigade that judged the entire march on the Conservative party on the actions of a few, if you seriously think Boris Johnson's beloved water cannon should be used for events like this, I have to ask you: Why do you hate freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and democracy so much?

Democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box. It is a continuous process that includes the right to protest. It is not about people who didn't vote Conservative being "sore losers" unless your political thinking has not evolved past that of a six-year-old. Peaceful protest is one way to challenge the government, hold them to account, and suggest alternatives.

It does not matter if the protest comes from the left, the right or the middle. The right to do so peacefully must be upheld if we are serious about living in a democracy. Whether it is the 250,000 who marched against TTIP in Berlin this week or a handful of Britain First types brandishing inarticulate signs and yelling inarticulate slogans about immigration, it is a right we should all cherish.

One day, you might be the one being silenced because you were angry enough to protest but more people were angry enough at protests in general to stand by and let water cannon - or worse - take over.

Photography by Peter Griffin

Nadiya Hussain and the half-baked ideas

"Happily married mother of three deservedly wins baking contest" was never going to fly as a Great British Bake-Off headline. It is naive to think that Nadiya Hussain's hijab, religion or skin colour were going to go unnoticed as she went from strength to strength with a peacock cake, baked nuns, bubblegum frosting, and her final showstopper, a lemon drizzle wedding cake draped in a sari of Union Jack colours. Intentional or not, Nadiya expertly trolled the Daily Mail and the hordes who populate the online comments section with ill-informed blather.

If you held you nose and dived in under the online story that announced Nadiya's win, you'd find people who declared the whole baking contest to be a politically correct and convenient fix, an EU conspiracy, a Jeremy Corbyn conspiracy, and a vehicle for Nadiya to become a celebrity, because apparently she is also a desperate and grasping fame whore.

This was hot on the heels of a ridiculous piece by Amanda Platell claiming that 19-year-old Flora, a young white woman, might not have been eliminated if only she'd baked a chocolate mosque.

But "Nineteen-year-old baker is not quite as good as older, more experienced bakers" does not a good headline make.

Then the Daily Mail got some stick for not putting Nadiya on the front page on the morning after the nation found out that she'd won Great British Bake-Off. In previous years, the white-faced winner was on the front page, but not Nadiya, born in Luton, of Bangladeshi heritage and unashamedly wearing a flour-stained hijab.

And it turned out that some of their readers quite liked Nadiya and were genuinely happy that she won.

What better way then, for the Mail to try and adjust the balance than to commission Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a Ugandan-born, British Muslim journalist, to write a piece saying that Nadiya is the best thing for British race relations in a long time.

This is the same tactic the Mail used when, after weeks of scaremongering about the refugee crisis in Europe, it became clear that people were genuinely horrified by the images of Aylan Kurdi's dead body on a Turkish beach and briefly ran some sensitive, measured coverage on the story. And then it was back to business as usual. The people again become a "swarm".

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's piece was ridiculed for the following quote: "Today her adopted hometown of Leeds is bursting with pride. It was ten years ago this July - the same year Nadiya and Abdal wed - that four bombers attacked London; three of them were raised in or near Leeds."

In the context of the article, Alibhai-Brown goes on to say that Nadiya is not viewed as the unwanted foreigner (well, yes, she was born in Luton...), that she is an example of how integration happens through "natural respect, shared interests and a sense of ease". This is very true but it is still sad that three utterly repugnant bombers that have nothing to do with Nadiya should to be mentioned at all.

Sometimes a baking contest really is just a baking contest.

The broader context is how Alibhai-Brown's column fits into the the Daily Mail as a whole. Online, there was a link on the same page as her column to a stupid piece about the loveliness of Nadiya's husband's skin. If anyone thinks Alibhai-Brown's column is the start of a brave new world for the Mail's coverage of anything related to race or religion, they are naive in the extreme.

I don't begrudge Alibhai-Brown for writing her piece for the Mail. If most writers are honest, especially liberal ones, they'd happily take the opportunity to write an opinion piece for the Mail, to attempt to be a Trojan horse in the midst of some frequently awful content. I'd let the Mail run this or anything else from my blog if they paid me. I'd write something fresh for them if they paid me too.

But none of this makes the Mail immune from criticism about its past or present content. In a free press in a country with freedom of expression, the Mail can print what it likes but that does not mean nobody should call them out either.

And in the midst of all the noise, one person has been forgotten despite her lovely face being everywhere. The one person is Nadiya herself. She might not want to be hoisted onto a pedestal as the poster girl for integration, especially given she has lived her whole life in Luton and Leeds. She might just want to go back to baking amazing cakes. And if that is the case, we should let her do that in peace and quit trying to politicise her.

Image by Karen Arnold