Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Subs of the Day and Islamophobia

In Britain we have a great tradition of racism and xenophobia which many of us are keen to keep alive and well to this day. A subtle, or not so subtle, way that this manifests in the twenty-first century is through objecting to certain aspects of people's religious beliefs, as opposed to something as old-school and obvious as the colour of their skin.

Particularly when it comes to Islam, white people are particularly keen of a certain word: barbaric. The use of the death penalty in any Islamic country is "barbaric", in China and North Korea it's because they have totalitarian regimes, and the fact that it's maintained in the law and practice of 40 countries including the USA and Japan is largely ignored. Islam is framed as uniquely sexist, uniquely opposed to the rights of gay people, uniquely intolerant, aggressive and savage.

Some of this sentiment comes from people who regard the UK as a 'Christian country'. Some of it comes from people with a more secular or atheist view. They see modern Christianity as a suitably watered-down form of religion, but when it comes to Islam, they see a threat. This is fuelled by a hostile media, happy to print stories about "Muslim grooming gangs", or suggest that councils are spending money on "Muslim only toilets". Objecting to a religion becomes more palatable than objecting to a race. We convince ourselves that we don't dislike these people for the colour of their skin, and we don't hate them just because of their religion, but we do actually disagree with this one specific thing in their religion, so they should probably change that if they want to integrate properly into society.

Thus, halal meat. For meat to be halal the animal is hung upside down and its throat cut. "In the name of God" is said. It doesn't even have to be killed by a Muslim. Kosher meat slaughtered by a Jew is also halal, and an animal killed in the same way by a Christian (as long as it isn't one forbidden by Islamic law) would also be halal.

There is some controversy about how humane a method this is. Some activists argue that an animal killed in this way could take up to two minutes to die, and thus will experience pain. But how much pain is an acceptable amount for an animal to experience when it is slaughtered? And how pain-free are secular methods of slaughter? Reactionaries describe halal slaughter as "barbaric", yet I'm yet to meet one who knows the first thing about how slaughter is carried out on an industrial scale in a secular abattoir. If you're still under any illusions, just Google the phrase "secret filming of animal abuse in slaughterhouses".

Any person who eats meat is complicit in some form of animal suffering. Even if you eat a diet of only organic free-range meat, you have no idea how much pain the animal on your plate went through when it was killed. And if you're happy to eat battery-farmed animals then what makes you think that the final two minutes an animal is alive is what should count when deciding how ethical your dinner is? Unless you rear your own livestock from scratch and slaughter it yourself, you are in no place to judge. Apart from if you're a vegan, in which case we're all as bad bad each other.

Recently it transpired that some Subway restaurants now only serve halal meat. This is not new: some branches have been halal since 2007. The beef, chicken and turkey on offer are all halal, and they don't serve any pork products in the establishment.

This isn't about enforcing religious laws on all their customers but simply that for an establishment to advertise as halal they need to be able to ensure that all their products will definitely be halal.  To avoid the risk of a careless staff member using a knife that's touched a bit of pork when they're making a supposedly halal sandwich, the easiest option is just not to sell any pork products in the branch.

Subway, as a giant American chain, can presumably care about one thing over everything else: profit. The UK's first Subway opened in 1996, and there are now 1423, of which less than 200 are halal. By opening halal stores, it means they can welcome the custom (and money) of Muslim customers who observe a halal diet. Of course this means they miss out on the custom of those who refuse to a sandwich unless it contains bacon, but it's a simple economic decision.

If you have a sincere moral objection to halal meat, then I can only assume you feel the same way about the more troubling aspects of the meat industry in general. If you're still unconvinced, Google for "Kentucky Fried Cruelty" and watch a video of some chickens being boiled alive.

If you feel uneasy about the lack of pork in your sandwich, then you need to ask yourself why. None of the franchises have changed overnight - all the halal ones were opened as halal. And this isn't even a much-loved traditional English chain - they only opened their 50th store in 2001. Have you ever had a kebab? Probably halal. Some branches of Nando's and KFC are halal as well.

Welcome to capitalism. These companies are responding to consumer demand - they decide what they want to sell and you decide whether or not you want to buy it. If you're really bothered by all this then I doubt Subway cares. They probably factored in "reactionary idiots" as part of a cost-benefit analysis when they first launched halal franchises.So feel free to boycott Subway if you must: there are plenty of other sandwich places to choose from.

But be aware that if you're doing this it's probably because you're a stupid racist. Oh and by the way, all fish counts as halal so you'll need to boycott that too.

Friday, 28 February 2014

On why you can shove that flag up your arse for all I care

It was just over four years ago that I was first applying to Oxford University and believe it or not I didn't believe that it was a deeply homophobic place where I could expect to regularly experience harassment and discrimination by virtue of my sexual orientation. This is despite the fact that just a few years ago barely any Oxford Colleges decided to fly a rainbow flag for a few days in February.

Of course this has now all changed. Colleges all over Oxford have hoisted the rainbow banner up the flagpole, and the ones that have refused are being lobbied by well-meaning students or hit by waves of protest. Brasenose College said they wouldn't fly the flag, so the students bought a total of fifty flags and scattered them across the college in various locations. The same happened at Exeter College last year, where there was a "massive campaign" to get the flag flying. Eventually the students won, although their plans to fly the flag this year were nearly scuppered when nobody could find which cupboard the flag had been put in. Luckily, just in the nick of time, someone was able to lend one.

And what a difference it has made. Now for a few days in February we cannot go about our business without being confronted by the hideous technicolour of 1970s San Franciscan design several times a day. The narrative being spun is that the flag is symbolic of each college's commitment to accepting people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, that it shows Oxford is welcoming, that it "sends a message", and in one particularly garbled interview I watched on the website of a student newspaper, that Oxford colleges flying the flag is particularly important this year because of the Winter Olympics in Russia.

Of course Oxford is not alone in this. Earlier in the month Google unveiled a rainbow-coloured logo on their homepage, which was hailed as their "most political yet", and The Guardian's website had the letter g filled in with a rainbow as well. Various people on the internet put a rainbow in place of their usual photo across various social media platforms.

Why do I find this all such a waste of time?

Activism about how to decorate a flagpole has usurped any other form of organising. Having every single college in Oxford is now a top priority for the university's LGBTQ society, various college reps, and seemingly the wider community. And of course for straight people it is is important to be seen to love the gays nowadays, so they are all strongly in favour.

Actions speak louder than rainbow flags.

Pretty much all the various parts of Oxford University go above and beyond the basic legal framework of rights set out in the 2010 Equality Act, they have various systems in place to ensure that LGBTQ people are not discriminated against and there are student representatives, welfare staff and hotlines you can speak to if you are having any problems or think you are being treated unfairly. Because I can't think of a better methaphor right now, let's think of this as a cake.

Beyond that, the icing on the cake might be how fully integrated you can be in the wider student body, how free you feel you can be to express yourself regardless of your sexuality or gender and to know that this will not make you some sort of weirdo outcast who never gets invited to parties.

Now I can only speak from my own experience, but if I had to make a guess I would say that for most of the students at Oxford the cake is pretty well iced, and maybe even has a layer of jam in the middle. 

The idea that we need a rainbow flag to demonstrate this seems utterly illogical. And were Oxford to be a place that was actually virulently homophobic, it would achieve nothing. Were someone to waltz in to my old secondary school and demand that they hang a rainbow flag up it would be the equivalent of saying 'sod the cake, but here's some food colouring'.

I don't mean to sound like I think LGBTQ-related discrimination at Oxford never happens and that there's no room for progress, because of course there is. But maybe if there are concrete ways in which we could be improving people's lives we should be focusing on those instead of worrying about a rainbow flag,

Students at Oxford (myself included) are among the most privileged people in the country. If not by birth, just by virtue of being at Oxford. And let's not kid ourselves that birth has nothing to do with it when more than half of the annual intake were privately educated and despite Oxford's "commitment to access" and spending millions of pounds every year the percentage of students from state schools has wobbled along in the mid-forties for more than twenty years. And even with the same A-level results, private school kids are 8% more likely to receive an offer.

On the one hand it's great if in this atmosphere of elitism and snobbery that we don't also discriminate by sexual orientation, but what about the ways we do?

There's evidence to suggest the interview process at Oxford is institutionally racist and favours applicants from certain ethnic backgrounds over others. And your options are also pretty limited if you have a disability - many (if not most) Oxford colleges are unable to provide accommodation that's accessible to wheelchair users. I think we can all agree that racism and ableism are both bad, but I'm loath to suggest that the solution to these problems is collective organising about hanging a flag up once a year.

Two years ago in an anonymous online survey an Oxford student compared the rainbow flag to a swastika. Aside from how offensive this obviously is if we think of the rainbow flag in its original political context then there is a parallel:  the swastika on symbolises Nazism, whereas the rainbow flag symbolised liberation and pride marches in the face of oppression.

But an Oxford college's decision to display the flag nowadays packs as much meaning as if they chose to fly a flag which symbolises their commitment to not employing children as chimneysweeps.

The rainbow flag can mean whatever you want it to. It doesn't have a specific meaning. It is meaningless.

It is pointless, it is futile, and most of all, it is really really really ugly. 

It is a brash hideous mess of colours. There is a reason why when you get dressed in the morning you do not wear as many clashing shades as possible. There is a reason why most countries' flags do not contain more than three colours. Maybe if it was just pink or something I wouldn't care as much, but it's such an embarrassment to be associated with.

The thought that straight people might think this aesthetic atrocity is something I identify with is enough to make me almost wish I was straight. It is an abomination. I suppose a hundred years ago homosexuality was illegal and I might have lived my life in fear of going to prison, but at least I wouldn't have to look at that awful fucking flag.

Monday, 24 February 2014

On A Fallen Ceiling

My housemate woke up to discover a massive chunk of her ceiling had fallen in, filling the room with white dust and setting off the fire alarm. While the room is being repaired she's been moved to another room in the house.

Her room faces onto the road and has a big bay window, which the curtains have been removed from. This means every time I come into the house I'm greeted by the view of the work happening in her room like a continually-updated art installation which reminds me of this piece by Tracey Emin:

It’s Not the Way I want to Die (2005)

This huge work recreates the roller-coaster at Margate's 'Dreamland' fairground. The fairground was a central part of Emin's youth: it was exciting, seedy and sexually charged. 

In an interview with The Observer Emin, 42, recounted "When I was 16 I used to let boys finger me on that roller-coaster. It was a rickety old wooden antique, and it took ages to to reach the top. I could always reach orgasm on the downhill sections."

"Once I tried wanking a boy off on it, but cos we were going seventy miles an hour or something it was too cold for him to stay hard. And he was so shit-scared of heights he almost threw up. I sucked him off under the pier after though."

Friday, 27 December 2013

Julie Bindel and the War on Drugs

Julie Bindel was spreading Christmas cheer earlier this week, writing a scathing critique of affluent people who take cocaine at dinner parties. In an article titled 'Nigella, the chattering classes and the malign glamorising of cocaine' she writes:

They show apparent indifference to the human misery that cocaine spreads, both in Britain and abroad. Through their eagerness for a quick ‘high’, they are colluding in exploitation, cruelty, even death. 
What sticks in the craw with so many of these people is their hypocrisy. Most of them hold progressive opinions on human rights, gay rights and immigration, but they are effectively condoning oppression of the most brutal kind. 
Thanks to their self-indulgence, the big drug barons get richer, while the poor junkies on council estates lose all vestige of self-respect as they destroy their lives.

This pretty much sums up her entire argument. The drugs trade cause misery for lots of people, so for high-flying rich people who only buy free-range eggs to partake in them shows that they don't actually care all that much about the people whose lives are affected.

Of course she has a point - cocaine is about as far from an ethically-sourced product as you can possibly get, so if you're the sort of person who insists on only buying fairtrade coffee then snorts a loads of lines after then you might want to re-examine whether you can truly consider yourself a "progressive" "liberal" or similar.

The problem with this analysis is how it sets up a completely false equivalence. If you have a choice between an expensive 'ethical product' and a less ethical one, and you have enough money, you may as well buy the more expensive one. This applies to all sorts of products, like coffee or chocolate, or meat. But if you want to do cocaine, you can't buy an ethical version. Your only option is cocaine supplied via criminal gangs.

Ethically speaking you may as well go to Starbucks and ask for a latte made with orphans' tears.

Julie's solution to this is that nobody should take cocaine. She doesn't consider to what extent the negative social consequences of drugs is due to their illegality. In Julie's world, we should all just say no. If people just stopped taking drugs, then everything would be all right.

Another problem with this argument is the way Julie seeks to pit wealthy occasional cocaine users against "poor junkies on council estates", as if these are the only categories of people who take drugs. In a bizarre twist of logic, poor people only become addicted to heroin because rich people snort coke at parties. Poor people are susceptible to addiction, whereas rich people only dabble occasionally, just like Nigella.

Occasional cocaine user Daniella Westbrook

So how can we stop people taking drugs? With the War on Drugs, perhaps?

Politicians like to talk grandly of ‘the war on drugs’, but that is just so much empty rhetoric. There has been no ‘war’, barely even a skirmish.

Of course! There's been too much leniency! Tougher sentences, more money spent on arresting drug users, more stop and searches perhaps? Who cares if drug policing in the UK has time and time again been shown to be institutionally racist?

Julie goes on to say:

Money that could be spent on raising living standards, providing decent education and building a civic infrastructure instead has to be diverted into fighting a savage war against criminals bent on making a fortune from supplying drugs to the London coke brigade. It is the same story in Africa, where drugs wars are rife.

So there's "no war, barely even a skirmish" on drugs, but in the very same article, there is "a savage war", that wastes loads of money every year. I'm slightly confused by your argument here, Julie.

But wait a minute - isn't this article saying naughty people should stop taking drugs and then people would stop having their lives ruined by making the drugs? Why of course - this is the exact same "end demand" idea that sex work abolitionists are so fond of as a means to abolish prostitution. Here are two articles discussing the failure of "end demand" in sex work, but let's think for a moment what might happen if posh people did stop taking cocaine, thus reducing demand.

A rudimentary understanding of economics suggests this might lead to a drop in prices - will this mean soon those council estate junkies can move onto cocaine instead? How very glamorous.

Perhaps instead, people who take drugs don't think it's right that the state interferes with whatever chemical compounds they put in their bodies. Addiction is a real phenomenon and can ruin lives, but then why are alcohol and tobacco legal when there are far less dangerous drugs out there that aren't?

Found this on wikipedia innit

Nothing I have to say here is particularly new, but how about instead of lecturing people on the ethics of drug-taking we try to find solutions. How can we make drugs more ethical? If progressive liberals with Amnesty International memberships could buy ethically sourced, legal cocaine, would they continue to buy it off criminals?

The political Left is meant to be opposed to exploitation, abuse, brutality and violence, but these are the very qualities that the drugs trade breeds.

It is no exaggeration to say that cocaine supply is a form of hyper-capitalism, devoid of any humanity.

I agree. But prohibition doesn't work. People are still taking drugs. It's time to consider a more realistic drug policy than the laughable failure of 'Just Say No'.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Today's Immigration News

LGBTQ activist Irina Putilova is in fast-track detention at Yarl's Wood, facing imminent removal to Russia where she will almost definitely be sent to prison. In Russia, Irina was harassed, followed, and attacked by state officials, the police and far right groups because of her political activism and identity.

Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre has been the subject of several allegations of sexual assault by Serco staff. Sirah Jeng, an eyewitness, was almost deported last moth before she could give a statement to police. Three staff members have already been sacked - two for engaging in sexual activity with a detainee and one for failing to take action when the woman in question reported it. Another female detainee in a women-only wing has been admitted to hospital twice for complications related to pregnancy

In other news, Isa Muazu is still in the medical wing at Harmondsworth immigration detention centre in west London, where he is on hunger strike and has been since September. He is unable to stand up or see. He has been quoted as saying he would rather die than return to Nigeria, where he faces torture and death at the hands of the militant Islamic group Boko Haram. Last month Theresa May chartered a jet to send Muazu back to Nigeria, despite the fact he was declared unfit to fly by UK doctors. The mission was halted only when Nigerian authorities refused to allow the plane to land.

But on a more cheerful note, Trenton Oldfield, the London School of Economics graduate who interrupted the Oxford-Cambridge boat race will not be sent back to Australia. In court he explained that he was "vulnerable" and "emotional" after caring for his father in law who was dying of cancer, and this is what inspired him to disrupt the boat race, which he saw as symbolic of "elitism".

He went on to point out that "70% of the cabinet are Oxbridge graduates" and compared his attention-seeking stunt to the sports boycotts of South Africa in the 1980s.

God save the Queen.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

"Rape Porn": Why You Should Care

I should start by admitting that I don't pay for porn. I know - less people actually paying for porn pushes down wages for the people both in front of and behind the cameras, and isn't actually very ethical when you think about it. But this is how most people accessing online porn behave nowadays, in much the same way that sales of music singles are in decline and hey - anyone remember the last time they bought an actual newspaper?

The rise and rise of various 'tube' sites - RedTube, XTube, LubeTube, or the bizarrely named 'XHamster' - means that people aren't carefully sourcing the porn they watch based on the studios, directors or performers whose work they admire. instead they're making a choice based on that week's most watched, top rated or the most recent uploads. And often these videos aren't uploaded with their original titles, but rather a rough description of whatever happens in each scene. Often with questionable grammar. A quick look at today's front page on one site offers the following:

"Acrobatic sex big tits cum in mouth"
"Hot brunette gets sensual fuck"
"xxx outdoors orgy"
"From massage to a three-way"
"Big dick for lucky ladies"
"juicy nymph copulated hard in wow movie"
"Russian incest 1, brother rape sister"

It's immediately clear that the last one might qualify as "rape porn". The clue being in the title.

The video starts with a man in a bed and a woman sat on a chair reading a magazine. I don't know what they're saying as it's in Russian, but it goes on to show a simulated rape scene. It's unpleasant throughout, but the acting is in no way convincing.

The video has over a thousand views and a 99% positive rating.

I found it horrible to watch, and I didn't watch the whole thing. But in much the same way I found a particular scene from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover quite a traumatic experience. (The scene I'm referring to is one in which a character is force-fed the pages of a book by pushing them down his throat with a wooden spoon.) Both scenes were clearly performed by actors, but knowing this doesn't change the visceral reactions we can feel when confronted with certain images.

Recently the government announced that possession of "rape porn" will become a criminal offence and those found guilty could face up to three years in jail. The definition of "possession" will be redefined to mean that at some point you watched something in your web browser. Even if you only watched it for a second. Or if you clicked it by mistake.

So here's why even if you think rape porn is awful and wrong you should think twice about supporting such a move: there is loads of poorly labelled porn out there. The idea of watching a simulated rape scene is not actually something that appeals to me, but this doesn't mean that over the years whilst looking at porn I haven't found myself clicking on the odd simulated rape scene.

I'm also not turned on by watersports or fisting, but I've still managed to accidentally click on a few videos with these in. (Potential idea for a new site - NoWaterSportsOrFistingAllowedTube.)

Enthusiastic consent should be an important thing when it comes to your actual sex life, but trying to apply the same standards to a scene where actors are playing characters doesn't make sense. To use an example from something I did actually choose to watch - what about this Ancient Egypt themed scene, in which the pharaoh chooses a new slave to be his concubine. Is it irrelevant that the concubines look pretty happy with this arrangement? If they're just slaves how can this be a free choice entered into willingly?

But all of this seems a bit meaningless when you consider the fact that the actual location they're filming in is probably a studio in California and the year, judging from the quality of the film, is probably some point in the 1980s. Or 70s.

And what defines whether or not something is porn? I've never watched an episode of Game of Thrones but this hasn't stopped me hearing people discuss all of the supposedly graphic rape scenes it features. Or what if you've got a book of Greek myths and legends? Or some Shakespeare? What this move will do is invite the state back into your bedroom. Or wherever it is you keep your computer.

And the state is already trying hard enough to police what porn people are accessing. Take this story from earlier this month:

A man whose life was ruined when he was charged with child sex offences after looking at legal gay pornography in a hotel room has accused the police and Crown Prosecution Service of a “homophobic witch-hunt” after his case was finally thrown out. The defendant endured a “two-year nightmare” after being arrested in front of his family, charged with 10 offences almost a year later and repeatedly bailed, before every charge was dropped. If convicted he would have faced jail and been forced to sign the sex offenders’ register. His father died while he was awaiting trial.
The CPS, which spent tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money pursuing the case, offered no evidence in court – in effect conceding there was no case to answer. His lawyers say they gave the CPS conclusive documentary evidence three months ago that all models featured in the pornography were of legal age.

And this wasn't the first time either. As his lawyer, Myles Jackman, wrote:
Having also represented Michael Peacock in his “obscenity” trial and Simon Walsh in his “porn” trial, it is with extreme regret that I have begun to form the view that the Crown Prosecution Service suffers from institutional homophobia.
Bearing in mind that the CPS is already accusing people of being paedophiles when they decide that the adult porn performers they're watching 'look too young', what is this government planning next?

It would be overly simplistic to blame their attitude on social conservatism, but there are authoritarian voices on the left pushing for censorship as well. It's a "feminist issue", it's about "equality".

But this of course completely drowns out the voices of women who themselves watch porn. As the academic (Dr) Jude Roberts writes:
Porn exploring women’s desires and sexual fantasies is taking precedence like never before. This includes fantasies of non-consent. The majority of studies of women’s sexual fantasies places the number of women who acknowledge having fantasies involving non-consensual sex at somewhere between 30 and 50%. Given the difficulties of speaking about sexual desire at all in our society, even more pronounced for women, and the particularly taboo nature of this fantasy it’s reasonable to assume that these percentages are on the low side, but even if they weren't, that 30% of women have this fantasy makes it something worth discussing.
Fantasies of sexual non-consent are crucially fantasies. This means that when we’re talking about porn that caters to these fantasies we are not talking about images of genuine non-consent. Images of genuine non-consent aren’t porn any more than sexual images of children are porn. In both these cases the images are evidence of violent crime and ought to be treated as such. In contrast, enjoying the illusion of a loss of control, usually at the hands of another extremely attractive and desired person or persons and being ‘forced’ to endure multiple orgasms and other sexual delights is about as far from genuine non-consent as you can get.
(By the way, this is from quite a long article that discusses a few things in depth and I'd highly recommend reading it all.)

To wrap up, there's no evidence that banning rape porn will have any affect on the number of sexual assaults. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are happy to pursue ordinary people for looking at relatively innocent porn. Some people find rape porn a turn-on. Some people like watching gratuitous violence in films. It takes a peculiar type of doublethink to hold the view that watching certain types of porn will make you more likely to go out and rape, whilst not also thinking that certain types of film will encourage you to shove a book down someone's throat.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Me vs The Polling Organisation

 Lucky me got myself a sweet sweet Amazon voucher for whoring out my opinions about the financial services industry. Me and filling out online polls go back a long way, as I used to fill out Yougov polls on a regular basis. What they don't tell you when you join Yougov is quite how many years it will take you to actually get enough points to get your £50 cheque in the post. In my case: about four years.

Towards the end I would just skip through surveys as fast as I possibly could, clicking at random like a crazed gunman. However for this latest survey I thought I should be honest. I owed it to them.

Well, we're off to a great start here.

When someone says 'Goldman Sachs', what's the first thing you think of? Ah, of course. Integrity.

Now that you mention it, we really mustn't forget the outstanding contribution from Barclays to our overall economic progress. Maybe not so much these last few years, but on the whole? A fine contribution.

In 2010 the top 95 staff in Goldman Sach's London offices earnt an average of $6.2m. Think how much time you'd want to spend doing your own ironing if your salary was $6.2m. Probably not very much, so just think of all the jobs being created! My only criticism is that none of these firms are paying $6.2m to ALL of their employees - if they did then just think about how many jobs would be created in the ironing sector. In fact there would be so many jobs in ironing that maybe the senior ones could hire new recruits to do their ironing for them. Now wouldn't that contribute to the well-being of society.

Ironing jobs for all.

Trisha: much as I love you, your days are numbered.

As always, my opinion is very important.