God Help America

 

Just got back from a short lecture tour in the US. I was there last in 2010 when I spoke at a diversity and inclusion symposium organised by the pharma company, Novartis, in Newark. I met journalists in New York and visited friends in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Oh my. How different it is now. Gone is that ebullience, the darned ‘have-a-nice-day’ chirpiness. Instead, in conservative and liberal states, across age, race and class, Americans seemed to be confused or miserable or rattled or livid or ashamed, most of all, fearful. The ground is shifting beneath their feet.

In the Mining Exchange, a charming, old hotel in Colorado Springs ( where Donald Trump stayed in August and got stuck in an elevator for 45 minutes) some guests were staunch Republicans who would not be voting for their nominee. A businesswoman from Denver simply said: ‘Donald Trump offends me as a woman, a Christian and an educated  voter. I feel like a stranger in my country. I am scared.’ This was before the release of the tape last Friday which showed Trump laughingly tell TV host Billy Bush ( nephew of George W Bush) how he felt free to touch women and even grab their genitals. That tape resulted in a massive loss of support for the billionaire outrider, including from some Republican senators and congress representatives. Rudy Giuliani, carries on believing in Trump the saviour,  but, by the time I flew back on Wednesday, the previously suave  ex-mayor of New York was sounding like a Millenarian hillbilly.

Now come a new batch of allegations of gross, sexist incidents involving the man who would be President of the most powerful nuclear armed nation on earth. The New York Times carried the stories of two women who claimed Trump had groped them foully.  One of them, Jessica Leeds, 74, described how, when she was in her forties, she sat next to Trump in the first class cabin of a plane to New York. He lifted the armrest and fondled her breasts, tried to get under her skirt: ‘ He was like an octopus. His hands were everywhere’. Other media outlets report various invasive Trump behaviours with Miss US contestants and a journalist, Natasha Stoynoff who, in 2005, went to interview Trump and his wife. Most disturbing is a 1992, TV Christmas show in which the Republican nominee says about a ten year old girl: ‘ I’m going to be dating her in ten years’.

Polls suggest this repulsive man cannot now win. But remember polls can be very wrong. He has vowed to incarcerate Hillary Clinton if he becomes President and to avenge himself on his detractors. Even if he loses, he will claim the vote was rigged and continue to agitate. This is banana republic politics and it goes down well with his ill informed, easily aroused, discontent, faithful followers. This campaign has marked the end of America as was. Its great myths have been turned to great lies.

Young people I met at the University of Colorado, in homes and public spaces, seemed buffeted by the current tornados of change in their nation. As Jezebel (real name Isabelle) , a young art student told me: ‘When my great grandfather moved here from Scotland, this country was the future. Now it’s the past. He got rich making metal pipes. The American dream. Now there are no dreams. Nightmares, yes. No jobs. No jobs. No jobs. People know they are fucked and still  blame the politicians or Hispanics or whoever. Or go shoot some kids in a school’. True, many manufacturing jobs have gone to nations where labour costs are unforgivably low, but objectively, Obama did turn round the ailing economy he inherited. Then, 750, 000 jobs were being lost every months. In 2014, America created more jobs than in the previous decade. But nowadays, perceptions are more powerful than facts and figures.

The only upbeat young people I met were techies who inhabit an alternative reality.   And some who cling on to idealism and hope a more stable nation will be rebuilt after these storms. I can’t see that happening for a long time if ever. When millions of men and women despise most elected leaders, resent the diverse citizenry, distrust facts, expertise and historical truths, are drawn to outrageous conspiracies and boorish, racist, sexist individuals,  they permanently disable the functional political order.

In this week’s Time Magazine journalists, Charlotte Alter and Michael Scherer have penned an incisive assessment of the current state of the nation. They quote people who really believe Obama is a Muslim double agent, that Hillary Clinton has arranged several murders, that immigrants are stealing cash from ‘real Americans, that global warming is a hoax, that white people don’t riot, that police, teachers, judges, fact checkers, scientists and economists are all shysters. Democracy is losing the battle against extreme cynicism. This election has both arisen out of and deepened national pessimism. God help America.

International Business Times 13/10/15

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/i-just-returned-america-trumps-campaign-has-marked-end-optimism-1586223

Lay Off the Millennials

 

Millennials are fair game these days. Their crime was to be born after 1994. Around 13.8 million of them, not all the same of course, are depicted as monolithic and a sinister threat to so- called British values and cultural security. These citizens  are freely scorned, mocked, debased and feared by baby boomers and fortysomethings. The woebegone generation can’t bear it that stripling upstarts are rebelling against established ways and systems, that they are so damned smart with new technology, that they are remaking political activism, that they abjure set commandments and anointed leaders, that so many of them have joined the Labour party and are rooting for Jeremy Corbyn and socialism, the credo that flash Tony Blair and his cronies thought they had seen off forever. It is embarrassing to witness my contemporaries turning so bitter and curmudgeonly.

Recently, on Sky News paper reviews,  I have been on with Sebastian Payne, the alarmingly young and astute digital comment editor at the Financial Times.  On other channels too, I have been paired   with youthful, opinionated  commentators. Apparently these matches work- a cougar media mistress with fresh, savvy youngsters. I learn much from these adversaries and they treat me with respect. One of them, a young woman, asked me in the greenroom why Millennials are treated with such contempt by oldies: ‘ I mean if we talked about you all like that, there would be an uproar. So why don’t you defend our rights like you do black rights and female rights?’ Fair question. I do that today, in this column.

Ok, so  I too can get irritated with this cohort. They moan endlessly about how their parents had it too good and believe that they are entitled to own their own homes and get all those abundant opportunities that ( they think) were available until the end of the last century. True, buying is now an option only for those born into wealthier families. And student loans are a burden when you are starting out. According to the Resolution Foundation, the money earned by those in their twenties is significantly lower than was previously earned by this age group. But most middle class children in the last twenty years have had more commodities and wider experiences than kids born in say, the sixties, seventies or eighties. They travel, buy, have choices we never did. Parenting got better too, corporal punishment was banished, schools became sensitive to psychological well being, sex education has helped reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, kids have started getting back into sports and so on. Whole new areas of the post-industrial economy are opening up. Renting is not the end of the world. Across Europe, most people live in rented accommodation.

But Millennials are not fools, treacherous, lazy, cosseted, narcissistic, perpetual adolescents,  or, the current insult, ‘snowflakes’, meaning naive,  fragile and pathetic. It’s a hateful term in all senses of the word. The right wing papers are full of  judgemental commentaries by reactionaries who believe they hold the torches of truth and righteousness for eternity. Middle aged authors are taking up truncheons to fight contemporary cultural challenges and creating a whole new, obscurantist genre. I edited  I find That Offensive, by the polemicist Claire Fox, in which she confronts politically correct university students who need ‘safe spaces’ and want to bring down statues of known racists. Fox knows I disagree with almost all the points she makes. These young people were raised to understand the wrongs of history, to be sensitive to the hurt caused by words and exclusion. So now grumpy baby bombers bully those who promote and protect those values?  Do they not remember their own political and social rebellions? There is a balance that must be kept between freedom and responsibility, but that balance will be decided on by the young not by older people who think they know it all.

At Middlesex University, where I’m a part time professor, I talk to NUS reps and others about freedom of expression, history, censorship  and open debates. I tell them intimidation is unacceptable and open debate an invaluable right. But I also listen when they tell me that they want to challenge and change sexist and racist discourse, to fight against injustice and inequality.  They use new technology for ethical purposes, environmental causes, smart business ideas and to create a more benign and tolerant nation. If I were in my twenties or thirties, I would be with these idealists all the way.

But I am old, as are the new reactionaries. The future is not ours to shape. The Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran put this beautifully: [your children] ‘ You may give them your love but not your thoughts, You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the House of Tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.’

International Business Times 27/9/2015

 

 

New Year New Fight

 

New Year resolutions are playful diversions in those grey, hollow days  period after the Christmas splurge. You make promises you will never keep because they really don’t matter. Or because the pledges are made in jest, just for a laugh. This time, however, millions of Brits will not  be so trite and jokey. For those of us who are liberals, lefties, cosmopolitans, internationalists and egalitarians, 2016 was one of the most depressing and disquieting  years ever. We were thrashed, and did nothing. We were too damned polite, too respectful, too decent. We yielded to our scornful opponents. We even acceded to and recycled  their insults and insidious indictments.

Reactionaries took over over much of the world, including GB, one of the world’s most enduring and mature democracies. Nigel Farage became GB’s true messiah,  aided and abetted by the BBC, populist radio stations and tabloids. But it was the millionaire backer Arron Banks, who enabled  the leader of a fringe party to become the defining force in British politics. Probity, checks and balances, the safeguards to protect our electoral system were all demolished by the brash , crass and insanely ambitious.

Between 2014 and 2016, democracy – often flawed and always fragile –  was manipulated, exploited, then seized by strong, narcissistic males. Farage, Boris and Trump, Modi, Erdogan, Putin, the neo-imperialists who control internet companies and social networks and vast global corporations now own the world’s money and votes, humanity itself. They direct the way people think, have power over what people know, command individual and group behaviours. This week in India, claims were made by some hyperactive trolls that the ruling party encouraged them to harass and intimidate public figures who voted for the opposition- including some stars of Bollywood.  (As a remainer and vocal opponent of Ukip, I too am hounded for my views. Sometimes you just want to give up. That would be giving into the bastards.)

The mentally enslaved remain either oblivious to their enslavement or have no will nor desire to fight against the takeover of their lives and souls. In part this is because the new masters of the universe have effectively incited the masses to go after softer targets:  elected representatives, spry urbanites, migrants, females, minorities and equality activists .

Those thus ostracised seemed to lose the will to resist the calumnies. Conscientious and virtuous men and women have lost their voices and meekly accept the heavy burdens of guilt heaped upon them. Since Brexit and the Trump victory, diligent journalists, public intellectuals,  MPs and Peers – perhaps terrified of being branded ‘elitist’ or ‘enemies of the people’- have been flagellating themselves over their failure to ‘understand’  inchoately furious voters. Oh how many times do we have to apologise for the ‘metropolitan elite’, the ‘Westminster bubble’, ‘the forgotten people’ and other such tropes?

Even seriously good thinkers are falling into this trap. Listen, Liberal by the distinguished American columnist Thomas Frank, for example,  castigates the Democrats and voters from the professional class for their ‘righteousness’ and more still for ‘losing interest in working people’. It is indisputable that in this century of globalisation, the poorest have been left to rot in the US and UK and the emerging economies too. But hey, Obama created more jobs than Clinton, Bush Snr or Bush Jnr. And even those who grew to despise Tony Blair because of the Iraq war, must admit that his social policies truly lifted many of the most disadvantaged.  Since the coalition government, there has been a slide back and once again, the poor and helpless are maligned as ‘shirkers’ and left destitute. So why are centrists and those on the left attacked by their own as well as their ideological opponents? Such unseemly self-flagellation and  submissiveness  further validates those millions who now believe it is morally right to be bigoted and savagely intolerant.

We must find fortitude, passion and moral courage. This is no time for humility and niceness. Remember tens of millions of people do not back megalomaniac  rulers and big businesses. We must robustly uphold good values, a good society, never let bigotry walk by, carry on defending the EU, be proud of educational achievements  and expertise, not be scared off by social media thugs, stand up for migrants and refugees, for diversity and London, the heart, the super-engine of this dynamic nation. As the bold columnist Matthew D’Ancona writes: ‘ ….soft liberalism doesn’t cut it any more. Time to try the hard variety’. Previous generations had to confront Nazism, two world wars, Apartheid, racial discrimination in the US and UK, Vietnam. In these pre-Fascist times, It falls upon us to take on the new hard right. Onward comrades. In 2017 either we fight back or the enlightened world dies. It’s that serious.

Edited Version 29/12/16

 

 

 

Anonymity For Alleged Abusers?

 

Put yourself in the classy shoes of Sir Cliff Richard. Imagine how he felt on the 14th of August when the South Yorkshire Police ( SYP) raided his house while the BBC had a helicopter hovering above, filming the operation. The star had been accused of sexual abuse by four men and was being investigated. The assaults allegedly took place between 1958 and 1983. After twenty two months, he was told no charges would be brought. It didn’t have to be done in that way. Guarded Auntie had lost all sense, turned into a lurid, invasive tabloid outlet and SYP too should have behaved with some discretion. So I get it, the distress felt by the veteran pop star. And the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, who spent twelve anxious months on bail before being told he would face no charges. Both men went to the House of Lords on Monday to lobby for a change in the current law. They want those accused of sexual abuse to be guaranteed anonymity until and unless they are charged. LibDem  peer Lord Paddick, previously deputy assistant Met commissioner backs this change. It all sounds so reasonable.

But here’s the rub: if these famous and or powerful chaps get what they want, it will become unbelievably harder for the police and courts to nail abusers. As lawyer Richard Scorer, a specialist in this area, says: ‘We have seen countless times how perpetrators isolate their victims, make them feel no one will believe them’.  Releasing names of alleged perpetrators gives courage to other victims. They then come forward. In May 2012, I received a letter from a nameless woman who claimed she had been groomed and raped by the entertainer Stuart Hall. He handed her a school prize, offered to mentor her, then repeatedly raped her over a long time. I took the anguished letter to the police and they began looking into the allegation. When news broke of this, other women came forward. Without similar, accumulated testimonies Hall’s lawyers would have got him off.  He denied it all of course, said the accusations were ‘pernicious, callous, cruel and pernicious’. He was convicted and sent to prison, still arrogant and unrepentant. When I finally got to talk to the woman who wrote to me, she described her years of silent suffering when she blamed herself. She hadn’t even told her husband about what happened to her. Knowing he did it to others helped her get over that guilt.

Cliff Richard, national treasure,  has suffered humiliation, trauma and depression. Victims feel all that and worse. Repression, inhibition, shame and pain lead to self destructive and destructive behaviours. Many are irreversibly damaged.

False allegations are rare. False allegations against the rich and famous rarer still, although their fury and sense of injustice thereafter is boundless. Even when there is a serious case to answer, in cases where a celeb stands accused, juries tend to doubt the accusers. A prosecution barrister described to me, the courtroom dynamics he has witnessed. The conversation was off the record : ‘Those elected to be on juries do often believe celebs are targeted by low life. They can be very sceptical particularly when the victims are female or from working class backgrounds. They mistrust lawyers too. So to get a conviction is hard. Victims accusing high profile men have a credibility problem not of their making. This is why so few of them dare’.

We should be far more concerned about the countless men and women who never dared to tell, who will never find closure nor heal. According to the NSPCC, ninety percent of children raped or molested know the perpetrator and around 3000 children needed protection from sexual abuse in 2014. Unknown are the numbers of those who do not come forward. These people matter more than celebs who were wrongly accused and never tried.

The law must not be changed. Anonymity will lead to fewer prosecutions because the case will depend on one person’s complaint. Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris ( all contemptuous of their victims) would have had their comeuppance if their identities had been protected. Sir Cliff has come through the dark days. He should now think of them who never leave the darkness and step back from  this vindictive campaign.

Edited Version I newspaper 19/10/16

 

 

Hating the Powerless

 

Damien Green, the Works and Pensions Secretary has a kindly manner, unlike his predecessor, Ian Duncan Smith, who acted like a slightly demented, paranoid colonel. But, as we know, appearances can deceive. Personable Mr Green has just announced yet another ‘revolution’ to modernise the disability benefits system. IDS pushed policies that were ‘fair to the taxpayer’ and intolerably unfair to lone parents, the long term unemployed, the disabled. 2,650 men and women who were declared fit for work, died between 2011 and 2014. Tales of woe abound. Linda Wooten, 49, who had serious heart disease was informed she had to get a job as she lay dying. A father whose son was murdered, was judged not to have mental health problems because his anxiety was based on something real and not fearful fantasies. (https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/9741/neil-mcleod-i-spent-20-years-working-welfare-rights-toby-young-its-time-you-listen)

Such claimants will now get ‘personalised’ pathways to employment. ( All those jobs waiting to be filled by the willing sick and impaired!) Oh and their Employment Support Allowance (ESA) will be cut from £105-15 a week to £73-10. The Disability Rights website lists fifteen benefits which are to capped. It’s hideously complicated. Nothing like a kick in the groin to set the juices of aspiration flowing. The powerful never have to pass such gruelling tests. They can waste eye watering amounts of public money, break rules and set new rules. The most brazen climb on the backs of the unfortunate to get fame, status and glittering careers.

Let’s take as our example, Dame Louise Casey, DBE, CB, previously Tsarina for preventing extremism, anti-social behaviour and whatever, then Director General of Troubled Families, now the Boudicca of integration.  This brusque and pushy woman was much admired by Blair, then Cameron. Her tough approach often failed to deliver; those she was meant to uplift stayed ground down. 1.2 billion pounds was spent on her troubled families plan. An official recent report found it had had little impact. None of that has ever prevented her rise and rise to informal power. Mrs May’s government will, no doubt, find Casey very useful for their forthcoming cold-blooded economies.

The PM has indicated that those the bottom of society will lose more cash if the economy plummets. At the party conference, she promised to make society ‘fairer for families’. It was political blether. She, who once warned her party was seen as ‘nasty’ is today pushing the cruellest of policies in an increasingly nasty nation which has no place for the the working and workless classes or the dispossessed. 48% of Britons think there should be more benefit cuts. Many believe most people who seek state help are lazy liars. Some are, but so are some MPs, lawyers, police officers, humans of all backgrounds. The Chartered Institute of Housing warns that new measures will negatively affect over 300,000 children. A local food bank I take stuff to, desperately needs toothpaste and nappies. While there I saw a little waif picking up a tissue from the ground to wipe her runny nose. Charities are alarmed, teachers too as more  and more pupils turn up hungry and bedraggled. But, hey, think of the billions that will be plucked back from the ‘feckless’ and voiceless. Mahatma Gandhi believed poverty was the worst kind of violence. How then, shall we describe state planned poverty?

I, Daniel Blake, by the globally admired director Ken Loach is on general release. It’s won prizes, had great reviews. It should awaken the indifferent and inert.  Loach’s Cathy Come Home about a homeless couple, had a huge impact in 1966. Some right wingers are seriously displeased. Damien Green, who has not seen the movie, accuses Loach of being ‘monstrously unfair; obdurate Toby Young,  son of acclaimed social reformer Michael Young, was scornful. There were no laughs, he moaned, the characters were not the roughnecks we saw on Benefits St, it reflected Victorian Britain. Too right.

In 1851, Henry Mayhew wrote in his book on the indigent of London; ‘The condition of a class of people whose misery, ignorance and vice, amidst all the immense wealth and great knowledge of the ‘first city in the world’ is …a national disgrace to us’. We are back there. Only attitudes have so hardened, that few would feel that sense of national disgrace.

 

Edited Version I newspaper 2/11/16

 

 

The Enemies Within Feminism

 

Aftershocks are still being felt around the world since the USA election. The result heralds the death of dreams, struggles, aspirations and ideals. Civil rights, social justice, economic equity  and fairness have been vanquished by reactionaries of all shades. Liberals are nonplussed, desolate and lost. They ask themselves why so many Hispanics, African Americans and even Muslims voted for an iniquitous Republican leader  who demonised and threatened Hispanics, African Americans and Muslims. We feminists are also distressed and confused. Trump openly disrespected and scorned females, their bodies and minds; he was accused by credible women of groping them; he promised to take away their reproductive rights. And yet, and yet, 53% of white female voters chose him over Hilary Clinton. Without them Trump would not have won. What were they thinking? What do we now think of such women, the enemies within?

Their perfidy seems boundless. On Monday, a West Virginia country worker Pamela Ramsey Taylor was sacked from her job after she wrote these celebratory words on Facebook: ‘It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I am tired of seeing a Ape (sic) in heels’.  That bad, real bad post, got a response from Beverly Whaling, the mayor of some small town called Clay. ‘Just Made my day Pam’, wrote Ms Whaling, under Taylor’s horrible post. These two are not exceptions. Over the past many months we have seen too many feral, antifeminist US females. Some of them made Trump sound relatively sane and civil.

We have them here too, women who seem to despise other women. Some of them are the most powerful females in the land. Theresa May is rolling out policies from various departments that are having a punitive effect on vulnerable women. The new tranche of benefit ‘reforms’ will deprive lone mums of essential cash. We are told these will encourage them to go look for jobs. But how? Childcare is prohibitively expensive. Families can help, but they too are under severe pressure. Margaret Thatcher was just as indifferent to powerless, voiceless women. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary,  is another one of those women who wants to prove she can be harder than any man. I blasphemously find myself looking back wistfully at that nice John Major, sincere Gordon Brown and the most egalitarian Home Secretary we have ever had, Roy Jenkins who got sex and race equality laws through parliament.

Throughout history, female advancement has been opposed by misguided, stubborn or traditional females. In the early decades of the 20th Century, when indomitable suffragettes fought tenaciously and bravely to get votes for women, they were resolutely opposed by the Anti-women’s Suffragette League. The novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward ( 1850-1921), for example, was convinced that ‘ …the emancipation process has now reached the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women’. Today, as more women get into top jobs, more of them tyrannize females underlings. A Canadian research study found that female workers suffered from more emotional and physical problems under female supervisors than male supervisors. The American Management Association reported that in another study, 95% of women felt undermined by other women (www.forbes.com/…/management-issues-workplace-forbes-woman-views-worst-bosses…)

 

Some such put upon workers have gone to Industrial tribunal courts. A few won their cases and huge compensations. In 2006, for example, Helen Green of Deutsche Bank was awarded £800,000 after proving that four female colleagues had bullied her depleted her confidence. In too many girl’s schools, female heads create a cutthroat culture. Some girls break down and never recover.

So tell me sisters, was it all for this? Or has feminism lost its way and purpose?

These uncomfortable questions are mostly avoided by today’s most active feminists. They prefer to blame everything on men, or find spurious excuses for oppressive women or glorify femaleness as  divine and flawless.  These comforting myths cannot sustain us any longer. We did not walk the long, tiring road just to get the right to behave even worse than men. Or to become inside agents for sexists and misogynists.

Trump’s babes and post Brexit female political leaders have shaken up everything. Feminism needs to get tough, self critical and truthful if it to survive this turbulent, regressive new age.

Edited Version I newspaper 17/11/16

Hardline Muslim Sisters

 

Brexit, Trump’s victory and populism pose an existential threat to westernised Muslims. These are  testing, volatile times. Blameless believers are caught between unbending Islam and an extremist political right. We will have to get smarter and more strategic.

Islam was once diverse, flexible, wise, essentially kind and unthreatening. In 1887, William Quilliam, a convert, opened the first Islamic prayer house in Liverpool. Hundreds, including Lord Stanley of Alderley Edge, converted to the faith. Queen Victoria was delighted when a traditional mosque was built in  Woking in 1888. Regent’s Park mosque is constructed on crown land which Churchill presented to Muslims, thousands of whom had fought with the allies in both world wars. It was never easy, but early Muslim settlers fought hard to belong, to keep their faith without aggressively pushing it.

Those were the soft old days, before Saudi Arabia and other rich, conservative Arab nations spread their fanatical doctrines. London, the worlds’ most dynamic and mixed city,  is the centre of British Salafism and Wahabism. Successive governments have been totally relaxed about this religious takeover. Remember, all the 9/11 attackers were linked to Saudi Arabia, Britain’s good friend. Focus on many years has been on terrorism, less on the ideological base, the punishing, puritan form of Islam which denigrates non-Muslims, Muslims who are seen as deviants, and  females. Bewilderingly, millions of women are drawn to this hard core credo. Veils are the visible symbols of obscurantism and segregation.

Like many Muslims worldwide, I get caught up in a vortex of ire and incredulity when I see fully niqabed ( veiled) British Muslim women or little girls whose hair and bodies are already covered up. In Shepherd’s Bush market you can buy stretchy hijabs ( head coverings)  for six month olds. Sometimes I ask the ladies why they live as tribes within a nation or where it says in the Qur’an that female children are dangerously carnal. Most refuse to engage. A few do, and say things like: ‘ We must train the girls to be good Muslims’ or ‘You non-hijabis will not go to paradise’. Well, frankly, paradise would be joyless  if only hooded, self-righteous sisters are permitted through the gate.

In 2014, I wrote a book Refusing the Veil ( Biteback), in which I described early feminists in Egypt and Iran and my own family who threw off the wretched shrouds. After publication, I had some of the worst hate mail I have ever had from Salafi women. When I appeared on a Channel4 programme on the niqab, angry, noisy bats cornered me and physically pushed me around. You cannot question them, because they are, like cult members, unquestioning.

In Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, females are forced to cover up completely; in Iran, they cannot go out without a headscarf. Savage punishments are meted out to those who accidentally or purposely reveal a bit of flesh or lock of hair.  Meanwhile ultra-purist females in free countries follow these oppressive dress codes. Why? This is the burning question.

A new study, The Making of a Salafi Woman, by Anabel Inge, a white academic, tries to find some answers. This is an under-researched subject and so any credible information is very welcome. Inge clearly gained the trust of these usually reticent and wary women. Many are troubled and find solace in rules and certainties. One young interviewee, raised by her relatives, said: ‘ Instead of asking my mum or dad I didn’t have, I turned to God from a young age’. For Warda, bad GCSE results felt like punishment from Allah. She had been a ‘bad Muslim’, so she sought religious purification. Some interviewees hold odious views. All of them accept male dominance, express religious supremacy  and relinquish pleasures- including birthdays, music and dancing. Inge claims none of them are coerced, but I know there is both soft and brutal coercion pushing the thoughtless ardency.

The new world order will push more Muslims towards Salafism or Wahabism, which will whip up more hatred and right wing nationalism. An all- out culture war looms. This, as Obama told his daughters, is no time to take up a foetal position and hide.  Good liberals and progressive Muslims must wake up and together confront the emerging forces of darkness.

Edited version I newspaper 26/11/16

Social Care

 

My mood darkens every December. Another birthday rolls along too, too fast, bones ache a bit more, the skin feels as thin and fragile as a butterfly’s wing. Mortality shuffles closer, brings quiet terror. But for me, far worse , is fear of infirmity and dependence, a long wait for the end, of being lonely and incontinent in some institution, of becoming a burden on society and my family.

Too many people in the west are now living too long – an unintended consequence of cumulative improvements in medicine and diets. NHS hospital services are under severe pressure as increasing numbers of very old and helpless people are kept on wards because local authorities cannot provide adequate social care. The NHS gets national funding while social care comes out of council budgets which have had budgets slashed mercilessly by first, the coalition government now the Tories. The LibDems, to their eternal shame, backed George Osborne’s maniacal drive to cut, cut, cut, welfare costs. That led to the present crisis, though admittedly the problem has been neglected or sidelined by all our political parties for a very long time.

Governments set up sober committees and commission weighty reports, but recommendations are quietly shelved. Till the next time. Just as individuals dread thinking about getting old, ministers dread producing policies to deal with the burgeoning ageing population. The powerful do not follow expert advice, and have chosen the path of least resistance. Their inaction and hesitancy comes out of political expediency and feebleness.

Here is what I think would help transform social care. First, taxes for all those except the low paid must be raised substantially. In Sweden, for example, where workers and bosses pay very high taxes, the elderly are exceptionally well looked after. Recently 4.3 billion Swedish krona to further improve provision. Our nationals are encouraged to think taxes are iniquitous or state theft while Scandinavians believe  paying taxes is a duty for socially responsible citizens. In almost all international surveys Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland come top when it comes to the well being of the young and old. GB needs to get less vain and learn from these nations on how to create good societies.

Next, politicians should stop being defensive about migrant workers and tell the public that social care provision depends on them. In her last few years, my mother was washed and sometimes fed in her own flat by Nigerian, Lebanese and  Rumanian care workers. I looked after her, but needed supplementary help which the council was happy to provide. She was lucky. Those days are gone. Councils can no longer pay for these services. Furthermore, care homes are closing as immigration rules harden. A childhood friend who runs a number of these homes told me that she is thinking of pulling out of the sector because excellent Filipino and Indian nurses are denied visas. The anti-immigrant hysteria which is leading to draconian new regulations will leave the most vulnerable without assistance. Has Mrs May told her people that fact? Have Gove or Boris or Fox or  any of the hard Brixiters? No. They do not attend to such inconvenient truths.

Thirdly, those of us who own our homes can no longer expect to keep those assets intact when we grow old and need physical assistance. We will have to remortgage, downsize or sell up. The poorest in our country must get free and good care. The middle classes must make more of a contribution towards the costs. Of course they will hate the very thought and their friends in the media will kick up a storm, without offering solutions. The huffy, self righteous, entitled middle classes, of whom I am one, must now adapt to new realities.

We should also allow old people of sound minds to choose to die with dignity. I hope, when my time comes, I can see myself off. Parliamentarians have too long dithered over this fundamental human right.

Finally, tax the rich properly and give big tax breaks or cash to the many Britons who are looking after frail old relatives. They provide an essential service and yet remain in the shadows, unacknowledged and unrewarded.

Our MPs and ministers need to adopt radical ideas and bold interventions before the crisis in social care turns into a catastrophe. Will they step up? Or are they too scared to dare?

Edited Version I newspaper 15/12/16

 

 

 

 

White, Middle Class and Mine

 

The hoo-hah continues. Talented Mr Jon Holmes,  a comedian loved by many, who appeared on the Now Show on BBC Radio 4 for eighteen years, was politely informed by a female producer: ‘ I’m afraid, for the next series, we’re not inviting you back. We are recasting it, with more women and diversity’ . He was aggrieved. Outraged even. Understandably. I think Holmes is very funny. So too countless other women and diverse folk. The seat he sat on probably had the shape of his bum imprinted on it after so long. He will be missed. Some tabloids now claim, Shock! Horror! that other Caucasian male presenters have privately told the jilted Mr Holmes that they too have been shoved aside for second rate individuals who happen to have the x chromosome or dark pigmentation. I feel their pain. But can they feel the pain of ace women and people of colour who have never been regularly gifted choice gigs and jobs by broadcasters? Eighteen years is a long time not to notice white privilege. To give him credit, Holmes does concede that it is important to represent Britain’s multicultural society. Apparently, important to say that, but to cry foul it when it starts to happen. Cos dammit, that means he has to step aside for a while. There will be plenty of other offers I’m sure. I hope.

If such difficult decisions are not made, pray how will change happen? There can be only three reasons why women, who make up more than half the population, and people of colour- now into the third generation- are still not breaking through the triple glazed glass ceiling. One: they abjure big success, prefer to stay safe and lowly. Two: they are not good enough and never can be. Three: they are kept down and out by the boss class, still predominantly white and male. Call me paranoid, but I am inclined to believe the last explanation. The powerful and influential don’t consciously plot systemic exclusion in secret turrets, but most of them trust and feel comfortable with their own types. Their assumptions and decisions naturally exclude those who are different. Involuntary, unrecognised bias are almost more pernicious than overt sexism or BNP chants.

In 2007, in a radical move, the sparkling, witty Sandi Toksvig was given the chance to chair the News Quiz on Radio4. Until then, producers had only ever picked slick and droll white men. Toksvig left in 2015 ( interestingly to co-found the Women’s Equality Party) and they have reverted to the ‘norm’. Miles Jupp, her replacement, is brilliant, just like Holmes is. But why they didn’t  give the spot to another sharp and funny woman? Someone, say, like the Scottish comedian Susan Calman or smart Samira Ahmed or quirky Sue Perkins? Just when you think there is a breakthrough, traditional forces come in, like angry waves, and wash away the hopeful signs. This happens in politics, the media, business and all the professions.

And all the time, peeved men ( and sadly some successful women too)  moan about ‘unfairness’, the lowering of standards and tokenism. Or they claim that Britain is now truly meritocratic and that equality campaigners are indulging in special pleading. The rise and rise of Theresa May will be used by these deniers. The Canadian feminist Charlotte Whitton  ( 1896-1975) wrote: ‘Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought to be half as good.’ For black and Asian women the burden of proof is even harder and for our men the odds are stacked so high it’s a wonder any of them make their mark.

For over thirty years, the BBC and other channels too have been bleating on and on about diversity and inclusion. They have hired special tsars, spent money on conferences and training, talked the talk.  I remember being paid a tidy sum to do some of this training. A few exotic individuals and dauntless women were admitted to the club but, as Lenny Henry tirelessly points out,  the culture remained stubbornly resistant. Remember how the irascible John Humphreys asked Mishal Hussein if she got the job on News at Ten because she was good looking?  Some of those who managed to get in, left, because they were ghettoised or humiliated, or barely tolerated.

In the last five years, some sectors are getting serious about diversifying their workforce. The advertising industry has transformed itself. High tech firms have no gender or race hangups. Some media outlets are becoming more diverse and inclusive, partly because Ofcom is now  pushing hard for that to happen. In this new landscape, Jon Holmes et al will not be guaranteed jobs for life. But they will still survive and thrive. So please guys, let’s see less self pity and more munificence. You’ve had it really good. Give someone else a turn.

Edited Version I newspaper 5/10/16

IVF and Feminism

 

Sometimes, a few well articulated words can make you question your own settled, sometimes congealed views.  It happened to me on Thursday morning, while I was listening dozily to  the Today Programme on BBC Radio4. One report was on IVF. Apparently,  in some areas of England, health care trusts had surreptitiously withdrawn this service because of budgetary pressures. The National  Institute for Health and Care Excellence ( Nice) backs these treatments and has extended the age limit for women entitled to get three free IVF cycles. Yet now, if you live in some parts of England, you have to go private, go abroad, or remain childless. Claire Thomas, a young mum interviewed on the programme, was refused IVF because her husband already had two children from a previous marriage. They had to spend over four thousand pounds, go to the Czech Republic to have the baby they craved. Until this broadcast, I, a mother of two, was either turned off by  IVF sob stories or simply not that bothered.  But Claire’s lucid testimony shook up my complacency, compelled me to look into the subject . Call it an epiphany.

According to Sarah Norcross, co-chair of the Fertility Fairness campaign group, the number of people getting NHS infertility treatment is at its lowest since 2004. Some area clinical commission groups are withdrawing access because, says, Norcross, it is a soft option. I think she is right. It’s easier than, say, denying drugs to cancer patients or closing down facilities for premature babies. These matters are as much about emotion as cost and priorities. Many Britons believe IVF is a luxury, a lifestyle choice for those who must have it all. I used to think that too. I wrote, as if I knew it all, that having kids was not a right but a privilege, that couples should adopt or adapt to their circumstances.

Claire described how isolated she felt, the depression she fell into. How would I have coped if I had been unable to have children naturally? It would have been unbearable.  Yet over the years, I became cruelly indifferent to women and men who longed to be parents and had to seek medical interventions to get there. Maybe some of this was the influence of earlier manifestations of feminism. In the late seventies, feminist theorists were highly critical of marriage, penetrative sex, female procreation and the duties of motherhood. I wore loose dungarees to hide my pregnancy from the radical sisters in my feminist group, then discreetly left. Those were the bad old days.

Feminism is worthless if it only engages with politics, power, inequality and economic parity. Biological needs and human desires  must be part of the struggle too. Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon successfully challenge the way childless women used to be stereotyped  in our society- pitiable and not quite female. However, women desperate to have kids who then opt for medical interventions can still be seen as pathetic and spoilt even. Few know or care about the arduous processes, the toll on the body, the disappointments when the treatments fail.  Campaigners try their best, but this cause still does not stir most Britons. It should. Women now have to work and so wait longer than their mums did to start families. As you get older, it becomes harder to conceive or carry a baby.

Childbearing is a fundamental human right. I would go further: spending on IVF makes more sense than spending good money on drugs for people who only have months to live or indeed keeping the very old and sick ticking over, waiting for death. Decision makers in the NHS have to make tough judgements. But they must act fairly too. Cutting free IVF provision means those on modest incomes can never have the child they yearn for. They can in Scotland. Whatever happened to universal healthcare based on need and not ability to pay?

Edited Version I newspaper 23/9/2016