Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Dear Government, Please get a reality check.

Is anybody else sick fed up hearing about how if the poor don't play along they will 'lose their benefits'? Today, it is drug addicts who don't get help. Last week, it was the 'work-shy' i.e. those who refuse 'reasonable job opportunities' whatever that means. And before that it was those who don't want to participate in 'work-fare' type programmes. It's the government's new stick- do what we say or lose your benefits.

Well, today I'd like to ask the government- have you ever met a drug addict? Not a middle-class pothead that smokes a bit of weed at the weekend, but a heroin addict from a socially deprived community? Because I have. And, do you want to know when? When they were robbing me. Oh, I don't mean in some scary mugging in a dark alley- although that does happen to lots of people (indeed on the street that I used to live, there was once ten muggings in a week- but let's not go there). No, when I worked in my local co-op and eventually made it up the ladder to supervisor, I regularly had to kick the local drug addicts- or their young children- out of the shop I ran. I knew them by name- we used to chat as we did it. It was ritualistic, an almost everyday occurrence. Because everyday they came in to steal either food, or goods to sell. If we caught them, we called the police- who often never responded- but you have to see them put the goods in their bag or pocket to get that far. On one occasion after we caught someone red-handed, we waited three hours before my shoplifter exerted her legal right not to be restrained by me and left- the police showed up sometime later. But, after being continually being barred from the store, it was more usual for our local drug addicts to idle up an aisle and hope we didn't notice them, and for us to kick them out with a catch-up on the daily gossip, when we did. On one occasion, I even offered to call an ambulance for my most regular shop-lifter after he came in heavily-bleeding to steal bandages.

If you get anything from this story- I want it to be the extent to which this was something that happened EVERYDAY in my store- and it was something that was distressing (there was more than one occasion where we considered looking the other way when small children stole food to eat!), that could be dangerous (like the time a drug addict attacked me), and was just soul destroying for everybody- do you really think I want to throw poor people out of my store when they are just hungry (even if they are spending their benefits on drugs)? And, if you take away benefits not just from drug-addicts- but lots of other poor people as well-, this will just get worse. Because people have to eat- and to be quite frank, I'd rather you paid people their benefits than make the lives of hundreds of shopworkers miserable in having to face the consequences of social deprivation at work, every fucking day.

(And dudes, while we are at it- have you ever been to Dublin? And seen all the homeless people who sleep rough on the streets- do you really want that to be Britain?)

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

‘Mon the Students! In Solidarity.

Today, in London and other parts of the UK, students are holding protestant against the proposed tripling of tuition fees in our universities; the cuts to government funding of universities that effectively mean that university teaching will only be paid for by student fees, and the cuts to bursaries to school children to encourage them to stay in education past the age of 16. First, as an academic, as somebody who spent more time than most as a student, and a member of staff at a UK university, I applaud and celebrate the willingness and enthusiasm of students to stand up for their rights, for the rights of a future generation of students, and for the principle of education for all.

Nick Clegg, as he tries desperately to scramble out of a cowardly volte-face, has said that before we protest, we should listen to his proposal, which “make[s] higher education open to everyone". Even if this is true- and I don’t think it is- it certainly won’t make Britain a fairer or more equal society. The removal of EMA- payments to young people from socio-economically deprived areas aged 16-18- to encourage them to stay in school are paid because historically these young people had to contribute to household incomes as soon as they were old enough to work. In a time of recession, with increasing rates of unemployment, the need for young people to start contributing to households will once more become a pressing issue (not to mention that for some young people this pressure has never went away). Without qualifications, these young people will be directed into low-paid, low-opportunity jobs, reifying existing class inequalities and destroying the potential for upward mobility. They certainly won’t be going to university- because they won’t have the qualifications to do so.

The proposal for tuition fees is that every student will pay fees of £9000pa, but that they will be given loans to do so- so the fact they don’t need cash up front should not act as a discouragement to people from any background. What’s more, it is argued that these fees will also be used to help provide bursaries for those from low-income backgrounds to ensure that these young people don’t get left behind. But, if he thinks that the potential of leaving university with around £50,000 in debt (by the time we add loans to live on) won’t put people off going to university, then he must be living on another planet. That is just a breath-taking amount of debt to be saddled with.

Even if he is right- and students from all backgrounds are willing to take the hit, the long-term social consequences are not being considered. As somebody with only a measly £13,000 in student debt, I only started earning enough to make repayments THIS YEAR- 7 years after my u/grad degree finished. I now get £100 a month deducted from my wage- the best part of which goes towards interest payments- with no signs of when that will stop (ok I could do the math, but it ain't any time soon). It is effectively a graduate tax that I will pay for the best part of my working-life, or until academia becomes significantly better-paid (ROFL). This will be the same for all future generations of students- only the amount of debt they will be trying to pay back will be significantly higher.

So, big deal you say. It’ll just be like paying income tax, or national insurance. Except, that income tax and national insurance are paid for by everyone. Student tax will only paid for by a few- and by that I don’t just mean students- but by a small proportion of students. Students with rich parents will have their fees paid by mum and dad, ensuring that they will not be saddled with debt for the rest of their lives. This means that they will have more money to buy bigger houses, fancier cars, and then of course, a bit more cash if they want to send their kids to private schools. They will also have extra money each month to save towards paying their children’s university fees- ensuring that they too will start life debt free. This will reinforce social boundaries, because better resourced children tend to do better in life- money breeds money.

It will also cause a retraction in the number and types of people going on to graduate degrees. Because without state funding, the fees for Masters and PhDs will have to go up too- and these aren’t covered by student loans- or really any type of loan. So, like now, people will have to find the money to pay for these degrees themselves- but whereas finding £3000 for a Masters (especially part-time) is achievable for many middle-class people, fees of £9000 or £10,000 will price most people out of the market. As a result, only the very richest will continue in education, ensuring that the top and best paid jobs will only go to the rich, and academia will once more be the playground of the social elite (with all the implications for equality and democracy in research models and findings).

What this decision does is entrench class divisions. It removes the social mobility inherent in the idea of education for all- in the claims of this government that they wish to promote ‘equality of opportunity’. Even if- and it’s a big if- paying for university will open up more places at universities (really, has anybody done the maths on this?), it will not make British society fairer or more equal.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Who knew that one government could cause such blog fodder? (This is a rhetorical question).

So, along with just generally making it structurally impossible for the poor to succeed, the Con-Dems have now enshrined it in law (or, more accurately they have taken away the law where it was enshrined). Because, apparently, 'some people' don't think equality is fair- in fact 'equality' alienates 'some people'.

Don't really know where to start with that one really... oh, no wait I do. The only people who think equality is unfair are people who have power, and who feel that their power- their right to exploit and benefit at the expense of others-shouldn't be eroded. Well, this is a fucking democracy- get over it.

To make this even more problematic, Theresa May, the home-secretary, claims that the problem with the idea of equality is that "it has been seen to mean equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity". Er, well, yes, because one is not possible without the other- or at least not as long as we live in a system where people continue to give birth and raise children in nuclear households. You see, your 'opportunities' are determined by your parent's 'outcomes'.

If your parents are poor, then you will not have a fancy private education- taught in a class of 6 or 8, with the opportunity of tutors to support you, practically guaranteeing the grades you need for university; you may have had a poor diet and a lack of access to books, resources, the internet, that prepare wealthier children to succeed in later life. You might have went to schools where resources were over-stretched, teachers were tired and over-worked, and there was no expectation- let alone training or socialisation in- the idea of pursuing a career in further or higher education that would allow you to get one of those fancy middle-class jobs. You probably don't have parents that understand the university system and realise that universities are in fact ranked- and it does make a difference where you go (and I'll be up front in admitting it was pure serendipity that I picked a top uni, cause nobody sure as hell told me there was a difference, perhaps beyond 'avoid the ex-polytech'). When you go to univeristy, you don't have the allowance from the generous parents that stops you from having to work every hour God sends just to get by- and all that means for time available to spend studying. Then when you are an adult, you don't have parents who know or understand those fancy middle-class jobs and can give you career advice, or introduce you to their contacts- making it much harder to know when to take risks, when you are being exploited, what you should be paid. You might not even know a 'professional' (defined as lawyer, clergy, civil servant) to write you a 'personal reference' for your job application (and don't laugh at the ridiculousness of this, cause that happened to my sister- because despite her first class Masters degree, her family background did not provide those contacts). You probably won't know the right language- play the right sports, read the right books, listen to the right music- to mix with those people socially and in places where the networks vital to success are really made. You might not have realised that you should probably change you accent if you're 'from up north' (or even west)-and don't say this doesn't happen, just watch the BBC with their beautifully refined 'regional accents'- let alone talk to Oxbridge grads with their strangely uniform accents regardless of regional upbringing (and their ability to switch back when at home with their families). Don't tell me it makes no difference to your opportunities when you inherit the family business, rather than start it from scratch with no help- and now with no loans from our increasingly tight banks. It certainly can't be easier to take entrepreneurial risks knowing that you have rich family members to bail you out if it all goes wrong, to lend you money at low interest rates and not having to worry about losing your home or feeding your children if you fail.

Do not sit here and tell me that you can have equality of opportunity without equality of outcome- and certainly don't tell me I can have 'fairness' without equality- cause it just doesn't seem very fair to me that some people can buy £43million vases and others have to worry about finding an extra £6 a month to heat their homes.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

This time I think the word I am looking for is ‘immoral’.

In what is becoming a series of acts that might be better labelled ‘how to fuck the poor 101’, the Con-Dems have now announced cuts of £350 million to the legal aid budget in England and Wales, which effectively means that legal aid will only be available to protect life and liberty- will provide criminal aid, but only limited aid for particular types of civil suits. It is thought that this will mean that there will be 500,000 less civil suits every year. Now, the government claim that this won’t hurt anybody because ‘we’ are all too litigious anyway, and ‘we’ will be forced to find other ways to resolve disputes.

Except ‘we’ doesn’t mean everybody, does it? No, it means those who would have to use legal aid to get justice- aka the poor, or even just ‘the not enormously wealthy’. The rich on the other hand are still free to sue each other- and also the poor- with impunity. This is nothing more than the removal of justice from those without money; it is a fundamental infringement on any claim that we are a democratic, equal society. And, in that vein, I don’t think it is too dramatic to call this both disgusting and even immoral. In a week where we are supposed to be celebrating Armistice Day and where – as I heard on the radio- one veteran noted that we are supposed to stop and remember our freedom and liberties, we see our own government taking away those same freedoms and liberties. Because justice is the centrepiece of any claim to being a democratic nation.

Now, I now know that there will be common complaints that we are too litigious and we are wasting money on nonsense suits- but the reality is that England has always been litigious. In 1640, two Westminister Courts alone dealt with 28,000 cases in one year (and remember there are more courts both in London and across the rest of the country), when the population of England was only about 4 million. Forms of legal aid- whether from the Church, the State or from employers and patrons- were available across this period. The ability- and the also the choice to- participate in the legal system was a marker of the public’s recognition of the centrality of the exercise of justice to good governance and increasingly democratic society. Indeed, a lot might be said about the way in which the increased impartiality, independence and legal sophistication of the court system progressed simultaneously to the growth of parliamentary power and civil society. Access to justice through the courts is as central to democracy as access to the vote.

What’s more, it is a bit problematic to claim that either legal aid- or for that matter the court system itself- supports any and all legal claims. Complaints have to meet a threshold of competency to progress- usually a good lawyer will throw you out her or his office before it gets to that stage, or it will get thrown out by a judge before trial. Indeed, most legal aid lawyers are careful about what cases to proceed with- because they know money is limited and that the decisions of what cases they proceed with are open to a high degree of public scrutiny (from Legal Aid administrators, politicians and the public). In other words, there is already a check on what cases proceed through the court system. What this decision by the Con-Dems does is to say that they as politicians now decide what cases are valid and who should receive justice- and in what form it should be received. This is a fundamental infringement on the independence of the justice system and so a direct attack on our liberty.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Why the Tories should read a history book (and then perhaps take a course in ethics).

This week the Con-Dem’s have announced that the long-term unemployed will be forced to work by putting them on 30 hour a week placements. The work under discussion is labelled ‘manual work’ and includes ‘gardening’ and ‘litter-clearing’. Those who do not show up will have their benefits cut.

This decision is, of course, hugely controversial for lots of reasons- but it is a fascinating decision from a party who claims to want small government and limited public services. The Con-Dems are certainly not the first people to come up with this idea- the Americans did during the Depression of the 1930s; the Germans tried it around the same time and again more recently; the French did it after WW2. It still continues in many ‘Third World’ countries today. And, in every single case, the cost of running the programmes so outweighed any benefit to society, or to the unemployed themselves, that they became unsustainable. For good or bad, it is cheaper to let the unemployed sit in their houses on benefit than to make them work for those benefits- that is the historical reality.

And, so the question then arises, why does a government who is trying to massively cut costs- who is making people unemployed left, right and centre- want to plough huge amounts of money into such a programme? Do they seriously think that no one has thought about this before? One might presume it is because they have never read a history book. (Perhaps if they hadn’t so dramatically cut spending to universities, they could have asked an expert for their advice. As it is, we are waiting for our invitation to cut grass for free).

Given the types of work that the unemployed will be directed into that is being spouted by the government, it also raises huge issues about the ethics of such a programme. Why is it ok to make our grass-cutters (paid at minimum wage) unemployed, and then ask them to come back and do the same job for less than minimum wage now that they are on benefits? This is the very definition of exploitation. Today, modern volunteering good practice recommends that volunteers should not do the work of a paid employee for this very reason. Volunteering roles can support those in paid position; they can run projects that would not be feasible without volunteers- but they should not be used as unpaid labour or as a way to save money. This is believed to be exploitative and unethical.

Now it is very unlikely given historical precedent that a scheme that forces the unemployed to work will save anybody money- but, the question should still be asked- how is it morally justifiable to replace paid workers with the forced labour of those working- if not ‘for free’- at least, not on the same terms as paid labour? How can they justify taking away people’s jobs- claiming that they were not necessary or a drain on the economy- if our poorest and most vulnerable are going to be forced to do those same jobs? How will you feel when your job is taken away and then given to somebody else- or worse back to you, for less money and more stigma? And, we might even ask, how is it ethical to ask our unemployed to work in any form for less than minimum wage? The reason benefit is set so low is because we are not asking our unemployed to work. If they are out doing a job that a person in other circumstances would be paid at least minimum wage to do, why are they not entitled to that same reward?

And, if we are going to start paying them an ethical wage for their labour, why are we cutting public service jobs in the first place?

It turns out most days, I am a man...

It news that isn't really news, an English local authority has reverted to calling a Christmas-related food product 'gingerbread men', rather than 'gingerbread person'.
Local Preston MP Mark Hendrick said he was pleased the council had "reverted to common sense". "I thought daft political correctness had gone out of the window but obviously it's still out there," the Labour MP added. "They were clearly men - they were not wearing skirts."

Ah, yes. No skirts; clearly a man then?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Vive la revolution.

So, you may have seen that the Con-Dems have proposed tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year to pay for university education. So obviously I think this is a travesty for social justice and class equality- but this statement by Michael Gove really made me laugh:
'Someone who is working as a postman should not subsidise those who go on to become millionaires.'

So, postmen's taxes shouldn't subsidise students paying for university education- but it's perfectly ok for their physical labour - paid at not much above minimum wage- to subsidise the capitalist system that allows people to become millionaires in the first-place?

Do you want to know another way of making society fairer- higher rates of income tax for top earners and higher rates of corporation tax- because the real question is what entitles a rich few to be millionaires when such wealth is paid for by the labour and the purchasing power of a poor majority?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Scots men save more than women

A new study has shown that Scots men are more likely to have savings than Scots women- 36% compared to 33%. And that when asked why they did not save, 85% of non-saving women said they could not afford it compared with 73% of non-saving men.

What is not mentioned, of course, is that women are more likely to earn less, live in poverty and be the sole support of dependants than men.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Dear Small Government,

I do not care that 170 civil servants get paid more than the prime minister, because I believe that the work of public servants is valuable and its remuneration should reflect that. I believe that if we want to live in a capitalist system and if we want good people to manage public services (which presumably we do if you want to keep the costs down) then you need to pay a price comparable with that in the private sector for such work. I think that the work of public sector employees helps make Britain a safer, fairer, healthier, and better managed country and to talk about their wages as something that should be ‘held down’ or to ask the public to get angry at paying YOUR employees a fair wage is deeply disturbing. It tells your employees that their work does not matter- or perhaps it does, but it should be done out of the goodness of their hearts? Presumably putting up with all the bullshit (and trust me, there is a lot) that comes with working in the public service industry and rarely earning anything comparable to what your skills would make on the open market is worth it for the knowledge that you make Britain a better place?

The manner in which public service employees are being discussed- as if asking for a fair wage is greedy or unreasonable- as if complaining about their increased workloads as their colleagues lose their jobs around them makes them selfish- as if questioning cuts that are unthoughtful, expensive to implement, and potentially hugely damaging to the economy makes them disloyal- effectively creates a hostile work environment. You have and are showing no respect for those people who have worked hard for this country, implying that they should be fortunate to have jobs in the first place and should just shut up and take it.

This is even more hypocritical when the very anger that you hope to rile in the public is based on their low wages that comes from the exploitation of big business, which pays its fat cats huge wages. It is hypocritical to complain about high wages in the public sector when they are driven by high wages in the private sector, which you not only do not restrict, but actively promote. (I mean if you seriously believe that PM is the most important job in the country, surely NOBODY should earn more?) You talk about this as if this is driven by necessity- but this is nothing more than political spin as you pursue a strategy of small state, big business that does everything for a small number of rich elites and nothing for the population whose labour makes that wealth. What is worse you then have the cheek to criticise that labourforce when they complain about the untenable burden that you place upon them to keep a few rich people happy. To quote the TUC general secretary, ‘These are not temporary cuts, but a permanent rollback of public services and the welfare state. Not so much an economic necessity as a political project driven by an ideological clamour for a minimal state [...] Cut services, put jobs in peril and increase inequality, that's the way to make Britain a darker, brutish, more frightening place’.

This is not a country that I want to live in.

Sirs, I am angry.
Feminist Avatar.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Feminist Veggie to the DEATH Wars

Growing your own veg; the new feminist activism. Because if Twisty can do it, so can I.

Okay, it's only a baby- but I went away on a research trip and came back to this- so proud!

Broccolli too- when do I get to harvest them?

Growing tomatoes outside in Scotland- they might never go red, but they ain't dead!

This is almost as satisfying as blaming the patriarchy, but is good for your stress levels.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The value of motherhood

Flicking through my free Tesco magazine, I came across an article that calculated how much it would cost to pay professionals to do the work of a mother. They did this by using a survey of average time spent on various childcare tasks by mothers and then taking the average pay of a professional in that particular occupation and multiplying the two. Childcare tasks included driving children places, nursing, preparing food, cleaning (only for children not the household), cooking, helping with homework, laundry, counselling, PR, party planning and more. And, they calculated that to pay professionals to take on these roles would cost £1,425,105 per child.

This is fascinating for many reasons- first, because economists claim that it is impossible to make this calculation as it would be impossible to value such work in any meaningful way (but clearly what is difficult for economists is straightforward for journalists! ;) ). Second, it is valuing the work at quite a high rate, because if we divide this number by 18 years (and the survey took account of the fact that not all childcare tasks would be required throughout a child's life in its calculation) a mother's work is valued at almost £80,000 a year. If we were then to calculate the value of mother's work to the national economy, it would be a fairly significant chunk. Yet, we don't do this, because well it's only women's work...

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Thinking about Body and Mind in the 21st Century

In the seventeenth century, John Locke suggested that a child’s mind was ‘tabula rasa’- a blank slate, and that children needed to be socialised and educated into their social role. This replaced the early modern model where social position was determined by God, the self was marked by original sin, and that child-rearing was a process of disciplining body and soul to restrain that sin and make a person useful to society. The ‘blank slate’ model of the mind transformed how we thought about self, leading to an emphasis on education as the basis for social order and in the creation of identity. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau commented ‘if the timidity, chasteness and modesty which are proper to [women] are social inventions, it is in society’s interest that women acquire these qualities; they must be cultivated in women.’

So, what determined social position if the mind was an open potential, able to be shaped to be anything at all? Increasingly in the eighteenth century, the body became the determining factor in social position. Sexual difference, race, and physical features became the outward markers that determined the appropriate education that should be given to the mind that the body housed. If it was important that women played a particular social role and so received a particular education, then we could decide who ‘women’ were based on their genitals. In this sense, the mind was shaped to the body- and the mind who didn’t realise it was female just needed more discipline or education.

This theory developed in two, not necessarily compatible ways, in the nineteenth century. First, there was the rise of psychology where people’s whose minds did not behave appropriately to their allocated social role could be studied, and ideally re-educated to match their biological characteristics and social expectation. Therefore, for example, someone who felt that their allocated gender did not match their sense of identity, or who was attracted to someone of the same sex, could be labelled ‘mentally ill’, and retrained. And, if the mind was a blank slate- an open potential, then why not? (This model continues into the present, although increasingly we put limits on when the mind stops being adaptable (age, 2, 3 ,7, 26 never).)

Second, the emphasis on the body as determining factor in shaping identity meant that physical characteristics became increasingly seen to determine a person’s potential. This led to the rise in pseudo-sciences like phrenology, where the shape of a person’s head could be used to determine their personality- or physical profiling, where criminality and deviance could be determined by measuring the body or the distance between the eyes. Far from opening up potential then, the move to the biological began to root social characteristics in the body, limiting the potential of the mind to be educated in particular ways. Women's bodies then could be endangered by too much education, with university education leading to an inability to conceive children.

And, in many ways, the legacy between these two competing ways of thinking about self remain with us today. As feminists, we (mostly) reject biological determinism and argue that gender is about education and the social construction of identity. Yet, this leads to the niggling problem of sexuality- how did you end up gay if you weren’t socialised into it? Was it just bad parenting?! Similarly, those who suffer body dysmorphic disorder- which is currently mainly associated with transgendered people, but includes a variety of people, from those who suffer from anorexia to people who feel a need to correct their body with cosmetic surgery- rightly resist the implication that this is simply a case of poor mental health.

In a 21st century context, the static nature of the mind starts to loom larger in the nurture/ nature debate, and increasingly, instead of ‘fixing’ the mind when we experience problems with our bodily appearance or identity, we shape the body. If we sense that our genitals look wrong, our breasts are too small, our stomach too lumpy, many of us no longer sit through hours of therapy trying to come to accept our bodies, but instead go the gym, on a diet or under the knife. We encourage this approach in our increasing obsession with obesity, body sculpting, and fitness, and also how we think about food. Whereas dieting used to be about training your mind, we now think about hormones, sugar levels, foods that release energy all day and keep you feeling full. We think about ways to satiate the body while remaining healthy. It is no longer the recalcitrant mind, but the recalcitrant body that must be re-educated and kept well. We make significantly more links between mind and body, so that poor mental health, like depression, is about hormones, not (just) emotions.

In a sense then, rather than the mind being a tabula rasa, it is the body (at least as much as the mind) which is the empty canvass in the modern world, waiting to be educated or trained into shape. Yet at the same time, we retain a sense of 'biological determinism', but one that focuses on the centrality of the mind, rather than body, to self. And, what are the implications of these new ways of thinking for modern feminism? What happens to the traditional critique of cosmetic surgery- where ‘big boobs’ were viewed as conformity to patriarchal standards- when cosmetic surgery is also what gives people a sense of unity between mind and body? When we become less sure about adapting the mind (where we would have traditionally suggested retraining women to love their small breasts), and give more emphasis to ‘fixing’ the body to meet mental expectations of self. Where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable bodily adaptations, between poor mental health and the recalcitrant body? Where is the place of disability and race politics in this discussion- where bodily perfection has a dangerous tendency to lean towards conformity to particular forms of beauty and body shape, towards sameness and not diversity? And, what does it mean that technology can allow some people to adapt their bodies, but not others?

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Blogging against Disablism.

Having run out of time to blog against disablism- I recommend this post, which rocks.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

brief interviews with hideous men- some thoughts

So the other night my other half brought me in the 2009 film 'brief interviews with hideous men', told me it was my kind of thing, got bored after 20 minutes and left me to watch the rest. In what is probably going to humiliatingly reveal my complete cultural ignorance, before he brought it home, I had been completely unaware of this film and the book it is based on. [potential spoilers ahead- although I reckon you could watch this film knowing what is going to happen without it being a major issue]

So, the film begins with various men sitting behind a desk, giving narratives about their personal- and frequently sex- lives (have fun identifying the men out of all your favourite US tv shows! Is that Jim from the US Office; Stabler from SVU; dude from Leverage!- what do you mean I watch too much tv?). There is a tape recorder on the desk, but you do not see the interviewer or know the question. As the sequence of interviews continues, the interviewer (the new woman out of law and order: criminal intent) is seen and eventually the interviews are interspersed with sequences of conversations between her and other men in her life. She is a grad-student interviewing men for her studies. You never hear the questions she asks her interviewees and her conversation with other men in her life (ex-boyfriend, other grad-students, her u/grad students, professor) is very much dominated by their speaking; she is limited to brief responses and questions. The very few other women in this film have almost no dialogue- perhaps one sentence throughout.

Yet, this film is all about women. All these men, except perhaps one, are discussing their relationships with women. The women in these narratives are not human; they are objects for sexual gratification; they are wives discussed for their looks, not their minds; they are absent as much as they are present (like the interviewer). The men's narratives are relentlessly shallow, frequently misogynistic- they are truly hideous men. Yet sometimes complex questions are suggested in these narratives- one man describing his past concern that his wife may get ugly as she aged (she didn't) comments on how shallow it sounds, but asks if it could sound otherwise? One (physically beautiful) man in repeated sections that build on each other (and act as a rhetorical attack on the interviewer in their increased aggression) suggests that rape is not the worst thing that could happen to a woman- they can move on, become better because of it- but then ends his narrative by suggesting he was talking about his own rape. In one of the last narratives, the ex-boyfriend who cheated relates how his cheating began with an intention to use a women that he knew he could manipulate easily into bed and leave with no regret (he had no intent to end his primary relationship); but the woman he cheats with relates a narrative of her life and she becomes so fully human to him that he cannot leave her (and so dumps the girlfriend). Yet, in this act (and the narrative structure sets it up this way), he dehumanises the girlfriend he left behind- for one woman to become human another must be dehumanised. And then it is the end with no resolution, just hideous, shallow men and the woman who wants interview them.

Yet, the (this) viewer can't help but question all of these narratives. Yes, they fulfil every stereotype of masculinity presented in the media- they are the 'bad guys' that are popularly represented to haunt feminist narratives. These are how feminists are seen to conceive of men. Yet, the viewer knows that they are not men; they are empty shells as unhuman as they woman they describe. The question that these hideous men raise is not where are the 'good' men- but where are the 'real' men- the 3-dimensional men; those who are good and bad and ugly at the same time. In this sense, this is not a feminist narrative- it undermines the feminist (the interviewer) by suggesting that this is not masculinity- and if it is not masculinity, then what are feminists fighting against? Because if real men are not hideous, then what is feminism all about? In essence, the film both creates a false masculinity and a false construction of what feminism is in order to undermine feminism.

What is perhaps the more complex question, is what is the film's ultimate intent? Is it to undermine feminism- or are you meant to recognise that this is the intent of the narrative, because if you do, it then raises the question, if this is not feminism- what is?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Privacy of the Home.

There is a myth that the home is a ‘private’ space that should be free from state intervention or the intrusions of the ‘public’. The importance of this belief has been brought to light most recently in debates over whether B&B owners should be allowed to refuse service to gay people (or any other people) due to their belief system. Is the home a private space where people should feel free to discriminate or is it a public space open to state control? I want to suggest that this division of public and private is a myth- that the home has never been a wholly private space- and that to frame this debate in a discussion of private homeowner rights acts to remove the rights of gay people and other ‘undesirable’ groups.

Far from being a private space, for the last 500 years in Britain, the home has been intrinsically linked to social control. The early modern household (1500-1750) was conceptualised as the state writ small. The ideal early modern home was headed by its married patriarch who exercised control over his wife, children and servants-both ensuring that they behaved in an orderly way and having to personally answer to higher authorities if his household behaved badly. In a time before an extensive state apparatus and police existed to manage social behaviour, this function fell to the head of household. The household was conceptualised as a miniature state and in fact, the relationship between a monarch and his or her kingdom was understood to mirror that of the household. The home provided a model for the operation of the state.

From an alternative perspective, it is also worth considering that the Royal Court- from which the monarch governed the state- was actually part of the private household of the monarch. Separate buildings for ‘public’ or ‘state’ functions were only beginning to be thought of in this period- and most were related to the operation of trade (like Guildhalls). In practice, elite households in particular could double as ‘public’ buildings with their large halls or courtyards being used to hold markets, public meetings and demonstrations.

Furthermore, the home was not conceptualised as a private space. Indeed, openness to the scrutiny of others was essential to social credit and social reputation. The household that had something to hide was clearly up to no good and should be treated with caution. In a world where cash was limited and access to goods depended on reputation, the transparency of the household was vital to its survival. The awareness of prying eyes was meant to enforce good order- both making sure the head of household kept control of his family and ensuring that he did not abuse his authority. It offered a system of checks and balances to the head of household’s power.

At the same time, the household was a fluid entity with a constant stream of changing servants, visitors, lodgers, travellers needing a bed for the night, belying any sense of a contained family unit. Even lower down the social scale where households were smaller, neighbourliness and patronage systems meant that homes were equally open to public scrutiny and to inspection by social superiors. Poor households could be even more socially diverse with lodgers and travellers common means of income and multiple families could live in the same household to save money. Most households also had an economic function meaning that they were not just homes but places of business with all the public functions that entailed.

In the eighteenth century, the concept of ‘privacy’ (which had started to filter through since the 16th century) became increasingly culturally important seen in the separation of servant and family quarters in wealthy homes; the invention of ‘public’ and ‘private’ rooms in family homes; and the eventual removal of the economic functions of the household off into separate buildings. Yet, it should be noted this was a long process that happened to different households at different rates and the importance of home-working today suggests it was never completed. Even in the Victorian period, where it might be argued that the ‘private’ home was in its heyday, it was recognised that the home had both private and public functions- not surprising in an era where visiting relatives for weeks at a time was fashionable.

For eighteenth-century philosophers on this subject, the key distinction between a public and private space was still not whether it was located in or out of the home- but its function. Therefore, public space was economic space- the workplace, rather than places outside the home. Even the world of politics was not initially thought of as ‘public’, although this idea was to arrive quickly when the concept of public became increasingly associated with power. Public space was where people exercised power; private space was without power.

Despite this complexity of meaning, the changing functions of the household did lead to its increased association with the ‘private’ in the early nineteenth century. Yet, this phenomenon did not happen in a vacuum- it was mirrored by the rise of the ‘state’. As the household became more private and the separation of home and work made it more difficult to monitor the behaviour of individuals through household hierarchy, the state was created to ensure social order. The state expanded with an increasingly large and elaborate civil service, a police force, a more formal court system and, by the twentieth century, state controlled welfare systems. This state apparatus was always interested in the workings of the home and the prying eye of the guid neighbour was replaced by the beady eye of the officious state worker.

And from a feminist perspective, it was vital that the state existed. While the functions of the household and social order had changed, the belief in the right for a patriarch to manage and discipline his household had not. Yet, without the prying eyes of the guid neighbour, who was to act as a check and balance of that power? Many of the initial debates and court cases that defined the rights of the state to interfere in home life were brought by women trying to protect themselves and their children from violent or controlling patriarchs. In a sense then, not only was the rise of the state a response to the changing functions and increased privacy of the household, but the invitation to the state to interfere in the operations of the household was both a demand of feminists and required for good social order.

The home then has never been a private space, exempt from the rules of social behaviour or the requirements of society. It is not and has never been the last stronghold against state interference. On the contrary, its ‘private’ nature is predicated on the existence of the state and the right for the state to interfere in its operation. The two cannot exist separately. In this sense, the privacy of the home is an illusion- if one held dear to us. This is particularly the case when you use your home in public ways- such as when you run a business from your home. Because at that stage (whether you realise it or not), any sense of your home as private is removed and its public functions (always present) are once more made explicit.

To argue then that your private rights to discriminate are founded on the privacy of the household is to misunderstand the place and role of the household and the state in society. The question then becomes whether your right to discriminate is greater than the right of other people not to be discriminated against. While discrimination actively hurts people- and so damages society- you being asked to curtail your discrimination does not hurt you. Given that the protection of its members is the first duty of the state, that the law finds in favour of the right not to be discriminated against is lawful, logical and good for everybody.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Interesting Fact of the Day.

As you may have noticed, I like facts- especially facts that undermine arguments that promote bigotry and discrimination. And, usually I like to save said facts until a topical news story comes up, and then show how people, usually politicians, are talking nonsense. But, I found this one and I thought it was too good not to share (plus it is something that I and probably most of you have long suspected).

There are more British living abroad than foreigners living in the UK.

In fact, 1 in 10 Brits live all or part of the year abroad.

So, next time somebody complains about immigrants taking our jobs, why not ask whether they'd prefer that all the British come home (which surely is only fair?) And for that matter, next time the BNP suggest that all coloured people should be 'repatriated' -do you remember when they used to make those demands- ask them whether we really want our diaspora (you know the Australians, the Americans, New Zealanders, Canadians, South Africans etc etc) to be repatriated too?

Monday, 8 March 2010

Happy International Women's Day!

Happy International Women's Day to everyone.

It seems that everybody is a bit down right now- everyone I know has a story of redundancy and restructing woe and if politicians are taking note, we need a morale boost! Yet, rather than seeing economic downturn as an opportunity to reform a clearly broken system, it is repeatedly being used as an excuse to curtail women's rights and social equality. It seems, whatever party you support, recession is an excuse to be conservative- to claw back money from our poor, to reinforce the structures of the wealthy, to ignore principles of fairness and equality because it seems easier than structural change. Every day is another story of lay-offs and doors closing in the media (and often closer to home!) and yet at the same time, we hear politicians moaning about getting people off unemployment benefit as if the poor just weren't taking the opportunities being offered. Even those people who are using redundancy as an opportunity to retrain are finding doors closed, as the government reduces spending in universites, which has led to a drop in numbers of places, despite unprecedented demand.

To blind us to this situation, the parties seem to have unanimously agreed to make this election about 'family' not economy- clearly because they don't have any economic policies- yet, the family they are selling to us is antiquated model with no relevance to the modern world, and only reflects a very small minority of people's lives. It's as if politicians are trying to pretend the recession didn't happen and if we just ignore the reality of the best part of the population's lives, we can try and sell a story of a non-existent golden age and hope that people are tired enough to buy it.

Well, I am tired- so tired that I find it difficult to celebrate this International Women's Day- but I am not so tired that I am going to buy this bullshit that is being fed to us during the least inspired political campaign in history (and I AM HISTORIAN SO I SHOULD KNOW DAMMIT). So political parties, it's time to get your ass in gear and gives us some real policies. Policies that:

- have social equality for all at their heart

- that see social equality and a sharing of wealth as the key to a nation's stability and prosperity

- that understands and celebrates social difference and does not try to push us into a white, middle-class mould of imagined family life

- that understands that real choice for all is at the heart of modern democracy and understands that choice does not mean conforming to a middle-class vision of normality

- that recognises that we have historically sold women, children, ethnic minorities, the disabled, the gay community, the working-class, and every one who not a white, middle-class man down the river, and we need to change

-that recognises that our wealth is based on the exploitation of the poor in our own country and on the material and labour resources of the rest of the world

-that recognises that we believe in the sharing of wealth, in recycling and looking after our planet, and that we do not want our comfort to be based on the poverty and exploitation of ourselves or other people, the destruction of our natural environment, or short-changing of other cultures


Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Women's History Month

March is women's history month. That is, a month dedicated to the study of women's history and with making people aware that women do have a history, that is is an important history and that women, alongside men, made the world what it is today (something that was remarkably forgotten in traditional histories). I have been involved in a project to celebrate women's history month and we have created a blog with posts every day this month (and hopefully beyond) on a topic of women's history. Please go check it out.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Life Courses

In wake of the ‘OMG’ teenagers have children; oh wait, they’re having less, no, they’re not, yes they are debate, I thought it might be a good point to think about life-courses (or life-cycles as they were known before historians decided a cyclical model was too simplistic). A life-course is the experiences that a person goes through in the course of her or his life. For historians and social scientists generally, life-courses are interesting for studying group behaviour, so we like to compare what age people get married at, or what age they have kids, whether they leave school at 15 or 18 and whether they retire at 60 or not at all. As people in the same society often experience changes in the life-course at a similar age to their contemporaries, we can chart a ‘typical’ life-course experience for particular societies or sub-groups within those societies.

Now, that sounds all very academic, but what’s the point? The argument is that people who behave in the most ‘typical’ fashion are generally the most socially stable, or at least, are unlikely to receive criticism for their behaviour. People who do things at the wrong time or in the wrong order- such as having a child as a teenager, when this is socially unacceptable, or having a child before marriage in a society where this is unusual- are likely to face social consequences that limit their life choices. This is because society is set up to respond to people who follow a particular life-course. If you fail to do this, the support mechanisms offered to other people aren’t there for you. This in turn can affect the ‘non-typical’ ever becoming ‘socially stable’ or achieving the normal goals of their contemporaries, leading to life-long poverty, social ostracism, poor education and/or unemployment. Conversely, sometimes doing something in the wrong order can have unexpected benefits, perhaps bringing new opportunities or forcing people to make unexpected decisions with good pay-offs (perhaps emigration in the past or setting up a successful home business to fit around child-care arrangements). The interesting issue at stake here is not that there is an ideal life-course for everyone in all times and places, but that each society has its own ‘typical’ life-course which it uses as a standard to judge the behaviour of others.

Historically in Britain, people’s experience of the life-course was a lot more diverse than today. The advent of national education, where children start school at five and leave at 16 or 18, then perhaps go to university or some sort of apprenticeship system, before starting work, where they are often forced or at least encouraged to retire at a set age, has made the life-course significantly more regimented that in the past. Previously, parents may have sent their children to school (if at all) anywhere between the ages of 3 and 8, the number of years spent in schooling reflected a combination of social class, the need for childcare and the availability of work for children (the average for the poor was about 2 years in the late 18th century). Only a very few went to university and depending on the century, they may have went at any time between the ages of 14 and 20. If you weren’t very rich, you may have only done a year at university, which would have made you applicable for a number of professional and clerical jobs without breaking the bank. Others went into apprenticeship (usually for five or seven years) or service (ie working as servants in households and farms) until you earned enough to set up on your own.

Depending on the region, the availability of housing and land, and alternative employment opportunities, this meant most people didn’t get married and start having families until their mid to late twenties (a phenomenon that changes dramatically after WW2). But, perhaps more interestingly, is the diversity of ages that people married at. In the 1970s, not only would 95% of women in Britain marry, 80% of them would marry between the ages of 17 and 25, a distribution of only seven years. In contrast, in 1851, the age of marriage was much more widely distributed with a range of 20 years for the central 80% of women. Furthermore, up to a third of women and men wouldn’t marry at all. The typical life-course in the past then was much more varied than today.

So what is the relevance of this for teen pregnancy? The problem with teen parents is not really that teenagers have children, but that having children as a teenager is increasingly socially unacceptable (whereas previously the focus was on marital status, rather than age). In fact, the number of women having children under 20 in Scotland has halved since the 1960s and 70s and similar numbers of babies are born to teen mums today as in the 1940s, without accounting for population increase. So, this is definitely a problem of perception as much as numbers. If we want to deal with the ‘problems’ of teen pregnancy, we also need to deal with the fact that it is our perspective that made it a problem in the first place. It is because these girls and women are failing to be ‘typical’ that is the social problem. And, perhaps a healthier and more inclusive response to this ‘problem’ is not to condemn girls and women who have children at a young age or worry about the pregnancies, but worry about our responses. If girls and young women end up socially ostracised and living in poverty due to having children, then that’s because our society isn’t set up to deal with them- perhaps we should be. Because the real question is why does being ‘typical’ mean that you are right or your choices are more valid?

Sunday, 17 January 2010

And the Victorians are back...

So it turns out family values and 'shoring up the family' are the hot topics for the election, with lots of spouting about how supporting the family and encouraging marriage are good for the economy, good for society and particularly promote 'stability'. At no point, has anybody in these debates shown how marriage is good for the economy. Whether it is good for society is presumably a question of what you think society should look like (although it seems to be used to mean stopping crime and drugs), and while we're at it what on earth does 'stability' mean? As part of this discussion, the Tories have announced tax breaks for married couples- part of their policy to promote marriage- because we all know all those evil cohabitees and singles just live like that because they want to break up with their partners willy-nilly and really are a bit unstable (and clearly tying such people into marriages is the healthy and safe option). It is also not clear whether 'married' couples include civil partners- presumably the existence of gay people is just indicative of the breakdown of society.*

David Cameron has said that this policy says 'if you take responsibility, you will be rewarded- if you don't you won't'. Because, again, people who cohabit or live by themselves are not taking responsibility... how exactly? Does taking responsibility mean being tied into a institution which holds no meaning to you? I thought we called that hypocrisy? Ah perhaps, taking responsibility means if you do choose to split up you are forced to pay for a divorce- well, that may contribute to the economy!

To make matters worse, the response from the other parties has been, err, enlightening. Lib Dem's Nick Clegg's criticism was: "It is immensely unfair. What does is mean for the poor woman who has been left by some philandering husband who goes on to another marriage and gets the tax break and she doesn't?" Yes, because we still live in the nineteenth century, where the 'poor woman' suckered by the 'evil man' should be the terms in which we see family life. This was the exact argument used to bring in divorce legislation in 19th Century Britain as well as to expand the penalties for domestic violence- and while it had a time and (very important) place, do we still want family policy to be determined by protectionism towards women? Protectionism, by definition, implied that women were not equal to men and so needed someone to look after them- and in default of their husbands, it was the state. Now I am sure men leave their wives and remarry, but women also leave their husbands! And, while it may only be a slip of the tongue, I do not want the terms that family life is negotiated to implicitly or explicitly see women as less than equal. Because while society continues to discriminate against women- in the family as in other walks of life- government policy that builds on this presumption continues to reinforce it.**

So what do the facts tell us anyway? Is marriage the solution to society's ill? Well, surprisingly, not really or at least the effect is extremely complex. Some studies suggest that getting married is better for you than cohabiting. Getting married or cohabiting reduces casual drug use and being married/ cohabiting gives a higher rate of success for recovering addicts; the effect is more pronounced if you are married, rather than cohabit, IF YOU ARE A MAN (for women the quality of the relationship is more important). Some studies suggest that you are more likely to see your income rise when you marry, IF YOU ARE A RICH MAN. And, that seems to be the net benefit of marriage over cohabitation. People who cohabit are more likely to earn less and come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and neighbourhoods, than those that marry- but this seems to be an explanation for why people don't marry, rather than the other way round. So, of course, if married people seem 'more stable' (ie more middle class), it is because they are more likely to be middle class.

Now, what is not being said here is that what really makes society unstable is divorce. For children, if you're parents get divorced, it might fuck you up in a myriad of ways (emotional problems, depression, early sexual experiences, suicide, teen drunkenness, more likely to be overweight), but you may be no more likely to take drugs (depending on the study). On the plus side, if you manage to stabilise (read: not become a junkie or emotional wreck) by the time you're in your mid-late twenties, you'll generally be ok, but you have a higher chance of being an alcoholic. If you become a junkie, chances are you'll also be a life-long criminal (but remember your parents getting divorced may not have influenced that!). To make matters more complicated, other studies have shown that parental divorce decreases your chances of childhood delinquency, while being in a single parent household makes no difference to delinquency. The most consistent predictors of crime are, no surprises for guessing, living in poor neighbourhoods, childhood poverty, and poor education. These are ALSO the predictors of divorce, but so are male unemployment, having a first-born female child (if you are a woman), living together before marriage, and being white (ethnically).***

So, if divorce is the problem, why do we care about whether people MARRY, and the reason is that people who cohabit are more likely to split up than people who marry. But, what is not being said is that today most people live together before they get married, and cohabiting people who see themselves marrying their partner have the same probability of splitting up as married people. In essence, because most people cohabit before they marry, those relationships which weren't going to work were weeded out before marriage. So, the only way that promoting marriage through tax breaks will stop divorce is by making miserable people stay together for financial reasons. And guess what- miserable parents create miserable criminal, junkie children- don't you love statistics.

So what should the government do to help make happy relationships (if we don't want to go down the radical line of getting rid of families altogether)? Well, it turns out that couples who earn similar amounts to each other- so have resource equality- and share resources in the household, who have shared interests and contribute equally to household chores have the highest levels of marital satisfaction and the most stable marriages (which is why feminists have lower divorce rates). Furthermore, the higher a level of a woman's education, the better for the stability of marriage. So pay equality between men and women in the workplace is good for marriage. Education is good for marriage. Gender equality is good for marriage. The other big predictor is poverty and coming from poor neighbourhoods, so how about promoting stability through wealth distribution, rather than cutting welfare further and criminalising the poor?

Why not- instead of falling back on Victorian conservatism- we look to creating policies which will actually make a difference?

* I would assume that it would have to or it would fall short of equality legislation (but if we're so happy to call civil partners 'married' as shorthand, what is the fuss about having two different 'marriage' registration systems? Another question for another day.)
** When protective legislation is put in place, it must be done with clear and explicit recognition of what it is and be designed to combat a particular social wrong, with the aim of creating equality.
*** So, from this perspective, immigration can only be a good thing! Should I tell Mr Cameron?

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

If I tweeted...

it would look like this.

28th Dec: think this is a good time to deal with that large pile of paperwork on your desk; spread it liberally around your living room floor; start to sneeze.

New Year: I have the flu, it's cold and I haven't been able to do any laundry since before Christmas as the pipes to my washing machine in an outhouse have frozen; paperwork has been moved into piles but still spread liberally around living room (but Happy New Year).

2nd Jan: I still have the flu and am snowed in (unable to do laundry; paperwork gallore).

3rd Jan: I still have the flu and am snowed in (unable to do laundry; paperwork seems to be growing).

4th Jan: I still have the flu, am snowed in and back and work (unable to do laundry; paperwork definitely growing, feelings of guilt about not taking down the Christmas tree).

5th Jan: The advantage of having the flu during a 'big freeze' is being able to complain about the heat. (Take down Christmas tree, but don't bother hoovering up the green stuff that now trails between your living room and shed).

8th Jan: have the flu, back at work, snowed in and my laptop has kerplunkted on me (here's to extended warranties). Drag out work laptop (provided by employer but significantly inferior to my own laptop), starting process of winding it up, updating anti-virus etc. (laundry does not do itself- who knew? Paperwork is now an art installation, sprinkled with fake green pine needles).

9th Jan: I still have the flu, am snowed in, back at work despite broken laptop, and the bottom of my sofa has collapsed so am sitting on the floor, surrounded by paper and green sprinkles (still unable to do laundry).

10th Jan: Am recovering from flu, and can't replace sofa due to being snowed in; it is also from Ikea, so if I want a replacement, I need to find a van and drive for an hour and a half (presuming I can get through the snow). (Still unable to do laundry, have started nesting in paperwork for warmth).

11th Jan: Generally feeling much perkier, roads now travellable with care, still no inclination to travel for over an hour to replace sofa (still unable to do laundry, no longer notice paperwork, it's a feature).

12th Jan: Feeling much better, but wake up to no water. The water main has burst outside. Still sitting on very broken sofa. Still unable to do laundry (with a very large and growing pile in my bedroom), but now also unable to do dishes and generally clean my house or myself. Perhaps paperwork could be used as coffeetable? Certainly the green sprinkles are an improvement on the original carpet.

12th Jan, pm: My landlord writes to ask a suitable date to 'inspect' my house.