Saturday, January 29, 2011

Makes you proud to be British...

The last twenty-four hours have been a rare feast for Scottish sport, with Andy Murray reaching his third Grand Slam final, and John and Sinead Kerr winning a bronze medal in the ice dance competition at the European Figure Skating Championships. It's probably fair to say that the latter achievement is somewhat less well-known, in spite of the fact that it's only the second medal Great Britain have won in the championships since Torvill and Dean's fleeting return to competition in 1994. It's more than a little bemusing that millions love skating so much that they would never dream of missing ex-soap stars and cricketers "walking on ice" live on TV every Sunday night, but it would never occur to them to actually take an interest in the talent on display in a major championship.

Also rather galling (as I've observed before) is the uncanny habit Scottish success stories have of occurring in sports where we compete under the GB banner. At least the TV tennis commentators seem to have noticed Andy Murray is Scottish - the Eurosport figure skating commentators, by contrast, must have called the Kerrs "the Brits" about a thousand times last night, which particularly jarred when the host Swiss broadcaster repeatedly zoomed in on the large saltire in the front row. Even just one passing reference to their Scottishness would have been nice. Shouldn't criticise too much, though - at least Chris Howarth and Nicky Slater are always brimming with enthusiasm and positivity, whereas Robin Cousins' commentary for the BBC never fails to remind me of a trip to the headmaster's office.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Gender politics : time to 'seek truth from facts'?

Indy left an interesting comment on my post about gender politics the other day -

"I don't actually agree with you there. There are certain types of employment that attract different genders. The majority of care workers are women, the vast majority of NHS staff are women, the vast majority of nursery staff and primary teachers are women. The vast majority of bankers are men.

So there is a gender aspect to the situation we are in because the UK Government's cuts will hit women working delivering health or social care services much harder than they will affect the bankers - although bankers have far more responsibility for creating the financial situation which has led to the cuts in the first place.

To add insult to injury we are repeatedly told that the cuts are necessary because we have all been "living beyond our means" - as though the country is teetering on bankruptcy because we have too many nurses or care assistants or nursery teachers. I think we all know that is the most arrant nonsense.

At the end of the day the UK Government has made its choices because it values the work of bankers more than it values the work of nurses or care workers or teachers. Are you so sure that this is not because the bankers are overwhelmingly men and the nurses, care workers and teachers are overwhelmingly women

What I find most striking here is that Indy starts by saying he/she disagrees with me, but nothing from that point on actually directly takes issue with what I said, which was about discriminatory thinking on the part of policy-makers in relation to domestic violence and prostitution, and also about whether generically blaming "men" for the financial crisis was sexist. It seems to me that the implicit suggestion is that by identifying areas of discrimination and prejudice against men, I am by definition denying that there is still discrimination and prejudice against women. It should surely be obvious that simply doesn't follow, and as it happens it categorically isn't true. I wouldn't disagree for a moment that women are being disproportionately affected by the Westmister cuts. I've no idea whether sexism is a driving force behind the coalition's actions, but the notion certainly doesn't strike me as being inherently implausible.

So what is going on here? Why do so many on the left refuse to accept that it's perfectly possible to simultaneously acknowledge the existence of discrimination on the basis of gender against both men and women? I pointed out in my earlier post that Scottish Labour's attitude to gender politics is rooted in Marxism, and that's not a bad place to look for the explanation. A hundred years ago, both gender and class inequality was a one-way street - it was almost always women and an easily-defined working class who found themselves on the wrong end. Faced with a world of such clear-cut contrasts, it was easy for reformers to come up with equally clear-cut narratives to explain the underlying problem - the exploitation of one class by another, and the exploitation of women by men. An "original sin" analysis, you might almost say. The consequential logic is obvious - to claim that other groups (eg. men) suffer from inequality is one way of denying that original sin, and thus to perpetuate the root cause of the oppression. That's the prism through which much of the left continues to view gender politics today.

But the world has moved on, and the pattern of inequality and injustice is now much more complex, both in relation to gender and class. Original sin no longer makes sense as a comprehensive explanation - which also means that, contrary to appearances at the time, it never fully made sense. The analysis contained flaws from the start. Deng Xiaoping recognised that in the late 1970s when he moved the Chinese Communist Party away from the rigid dogma of class struggle that was holding his country's development back. The guiding principle from then on was to "seek truth from facts". Now, strange though it may seem to advise our politicians to take a leaf out of a dictator's book, I'd have to say that's an excellent motto to apply to gender politics in this country. The business of the left should be to combat injustice and inequality without fear or favour wherever the facts suggest it exists - not to distort those facts to fit a redundant narrative of blame it has (understandably) become emotionally wedded to as a result of decades of struggle to advance women's rights. That means, for instance, championing the cause of all victims of domestic violence on an equal basis, and not solely the ones who fit the "original sin" template, ie. women beaten by men.

A few more examples off the top of my head of the double-standards this ideology leads to -

1) I recall seeing an article in the Scotsman two or three years back, about how the medical profession was expected on the basis of statistical projections to become heavily dominated by women in the years to come. Someone was quoted as saying that, instead of seeing this as a "problem" that had to be addressed, we should instead be embracing the advantages brought about by the "feminisation" of medicine. Now, can anyone keep a straight face when arguing that we should stop seeing the male domination of the political class as a problem, and instead celebrate the wonderful "masculinity" of the House of Commons?

2) Probably the most fundamental gender inequality of the lot is that women live several years longer than men. Some of that differential is biologically unavoidable, but by no means all of it. If the situation was reversed and men lived longer, it seems highly probable that it would be a policy priority to reduce the longevity gap by identifying and addressing the underlying causes. There would certainly be no suggestion from the left that women only have themselves to blame for dying younger. But, as it is, what is the reaction to men's plight? More often than not, a patronising and disinterested observation that they don't look after their health as well as women. To call that "pathetic" doesn't even begin to do it justice. Actually, we might look back to point 1 for part of the explanation for why men are less careful about their health - the feminisation of doctor's surgeries. Similarly, the feminisation of education must surely be a factor in boys falling behind in so many subjects - but, again, ideology doesn't permit us to view that as in any sense a "problem". It's always boys' fault for not adapting to the preferred methods of their teachers, and never the other way round.

3) Jim White wrote an excellent piece on Yahoo the other day, pointing out the supreme irony in Richard Keys' claim that football had "gone mad" for introducing a female assistant referee to the top flight of the sport, when it was he who held the risible belief that the sole fact of Sian Massey's gender rendered her incapable of understanding and correctly implementing the offside rule. Yet the adherents to the "original sin" analysis of gender relations can see nothing risible about insisting that the sole fact of their gender somehow makes women incapable of committing violence against a partner, or indeed freely entering into a transaction that commercialises the sexual act.

Incidentally, I should say in closing that I've got no particular axe to grind here - I'm not personally aware of ever having been the victim of gender discrimination. It may well happen one day, but it hasn't yet. And, to put it mildly, I'm not particularly a hyper-masculine sort of chap (I even like Jane Austen in small doses) so in some ways the feminisation of society has suited me well enough. But for others it's a very different story.

Welsh Labour leader wants perpetual Labour rule in Wales - who'd have thunk it?

Well, I've seen some cynical political manoeuvres, but this one takes the biscuit. Welsh Labour leader and First Minister Carwyn Jones has declared his support for a Yes vote in the forthcoming AV referendum, and has also innocently suggested that AV would be a rather good electoral system for the Welsh Assembly. Which is just about the only way a Labour politician could possibly hope to call for the scrapping of proportional representation and its replacement with a permanent artificial Labour majority without looking breathtakingly power-crazed. Mr Jones poses what he describes as an "important" question (presumably while struggling manfully to stifle his guffaws) -

"if this change is good enough to elect Members of the House of Commons, then surely it’s good enough to elect Members of the Welsh Assembly too?"

On the million-to-one chance that was a serious question, I'll spell out the bleedin' obvious for Carwyn - the bulk of Yes supporters categorically do not think AV is "good enough" to elect MPs. If they were offered a system like the one which elects the Welsh Assembly, they'd bite your hand off. In the meantime, they're simply making a rational choice for the better of the two rubbish majoritarian systems on offer in this referendum.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Twelve hours to save Portugal from itself

In the past, it's been quite rare for countries to allow non-residents to vote in their Eurovision pre-selections. I think the only time I managed to vote in a selection other than the UK's was Greece a couple of years ago, which was a slightly interminable experience, because I had to sit through a mammoth show waiting for the very narrow voting window. Ireland allowed votes from the UK last year (presumably to encourage participation from Northern Ireland) but a similar problem applied and I gave up in despair! So I'm delighted to say Portugal have made it really easy this year, and are holding an online-only preliminary vote to decide the twelve songs that will go through to the final of Festival da Canção 2011. The poll seems to close at noon today, the 27th (although it might be midnight - the Google translation is a bit ambiguous).

But...a mystery. I defy anyone to listen to the snippets of those songs and not conclude that Carla Moreno's dance track Sobrevivo is the best choice by some distance. So why on earth is it trailing so badly behind the cringeworthy A luta é alegria? Perhaps the only thing that can be said in favour of the latter song is that it's vaguely reminiscent of the quirky O meu coração não tem cor, the song that took Portugal to its best ever placing in the contest in 1996 (a mere 6th). But it doesn't have anything like the same charm, and in any case 1996 might as well be a million years ago in Eurovision terms.

In spite of the title of this post, there's no way of actually preventing the offending song from going through at this stage - with twelve qualifiers, it's bound to make it. So instead of fretting over the "top of the table clash", I decided I might as well use my vote more effectively by looking at the two songs that are effectively battling it out to secure the twelfth and last place in the final. Irritatingly, I found I liked them both more or less equally (which can't be said for several further up the leaderboard). But as Margaret Beckett once sarcastically told Neil Kinnock, "you have to have to choose all the time". So I've plumped for Esta Noite Vamos Curtir by Pop Pins. May God forgive me.

A cut out and keep guide to navigating through the voting process in Portuguese :

1. You have three votes.

2. You can cast all three votes for the same song, or spread them around.

3. After clicking on the song you want to vote for, click on 'Vote Nesta Música'.

4. Enter your email address and the verification code provided.

5. Click the activation link you are sent by email.

6. Do NOT vote for A luta é alegria. Please. I'm begging you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

If gender equality isn't an issue for the left, what is?

It goes without saying that the Tory MP Dominic Raab was a thoroughbred idiot for making his 'Kevin Baker-esque' remark that feminists are "onbnoxious bigots", and deserves everything that's coming to him as a result. Which is a pity, in one sense, because there's a fairly obvious grain of truth in the broader point he was making, if only he could have expressed himself in a slightly less abusive manner. Specifically, he suggested that Harriet Harman's claim that men were to blame for the financial crisis was sexist. Well, the simplest way to judge if double-standards are at play is usually to take the polar opposite of a statement and try it on for size. If a bank with an overwhelmingly female management team had made a catastrophic blunder, would it be deemed reasonable to blame that on the shortcomings of women in general? Plainly not, and rightly so.

'Reverse sexism' is absolutely endemic in our society, and its manifestations are so familiar we don't even register them most of the time. I used to watch Australian soap operas when I was a teenager (I'm glad to say I've long since kicked the habit) and it suddenly dawned on me one day that the characters who did something stupid or selfish were almost always male - and of course it was invariably the women who showed them the error of their ways and got them to apologise. Generally, the only female characters who were ever permitted to go slightly astray were teenagers - the message seemed to be that grown-up women are 'mature' in every sense and are thus blameless, whereas many men never attain that state and are thus blameworthy. That's a recurring theme in advertising as well.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it certainly does when the underlying assumptions start influencing government decisions and legislation. I've discussed in the past the pernicious effect of Scottish Labour's insistence (and sadly other parties are not immune to this) that domestic violence is almost exclusively something that men do to women, in spite of the plentiful evidence that it's also something that women do to men, men do to men, and women do to women. Thousands of victims effectively become 'the enemy', because if their stories are heard and taken seriously in sufficient numbers (ie. if they no longer seem like aberrations or 'outliers'), it jeapordises the precious official fiction. And when you're already in a vulnerable position, being the enemy of policy-makers as well is not a comfortable place to be.

Perhaps the most extreme example of the very concrete gender discrimination this distorted thinking can ultimately lead to is the Swedish law on prostitution, which criminalises men who pay for sex, but regards women who sell sex - even when they are acting completely independently - as the victims of 'male violence'. I've no idea how that law nominally treats the inconvenient examples of women who pay men or other women for sex, or indeed men who pay men, but the guiding thinking is clear enough - the former "can't happen", while the latter is "marginal". Once again, allowing the full range of experiences to be heard on an equal basis would imperil the ludicrously simplistic narrative of blame.

Whether prostitution should in principle be legal or not is a matter for debate. But if it is to be a criminal act, and two adults consensually agree to commit it, it's surely self-evident that it's grossly discriminatory to regard just one of those adults as wholly responsible for the decision, and the other as the equivalent of a helpless child - purely on the basis of the gender of each. The ideology that underpins the law is actually rooted in Marxism - the notion that women can't be responsible for a seemingly free choice (because their thinking is distorted by male oppression) is a classic example of 'false consciousness'. Which makes it doubly ironic that the politicians who are most keen on applying the Swedish logic in Scotland are to be found, again, in the Labour ranks. In pretty much every other respect The People's Party abandoned socialism (not to mention social democracy) years ago, but it remains quaintly wedded to full-blooded Marxism when it comes to gender politics.

What's truly depressing is that vigorous opposition to this irrational and unjust ideology is generally only associated with certain sections of the right, particularly the radical libertarian right. If equality - true equality - between the genders isn't to be considered a natural concern for the left, I really don't know what is.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On a Nótt like this...

I just had a little frisson of excitement (OK, I'm easily pleased) when I spotted on Esctoday that Jóhanna Guðrún Jónsdóttir - singer of my all-time favourite Eurovision entry - participated in the semi-final stage of the Icelandic national selection last night. That rang a bell from somewhere - I must have read the news of her return a while back but forgot all about it. Anyway, having had a quick listen to the new song Nótt, while it inevitably doesn't scale the heights of Is It True?, it's probably the best of the handful of prospective entries I've got round to checking out so far this year. Refreshingly, it's sung in Icelandic, although reading between the lines of Jóhanna's interview, there's probably a less-than-even chance it'll stay that way if it makes it through to Eurovision.

It's also worth bearing in mind that Iceland have foolishly discarded some real gems in their national selections in the past (not least in 2006), but this one is over the first hurdle at least.