Friday, 29 April 2016

Ken Livingstone, Labour, and Anti-Semitism

1. Ken Livingstone is a massive dickhead. It's high time he acted like a member of the Labour Party, not the Ken Livingstone Party. I and many thousands of activists, including plenty on the left, are fed up with his frequent foot-in-mouth moments that damage his own reputation, that of Labour's new leadership, and the standing of the party as a whole.

2. But Ken is not an anti-semite. Without wanting to predetermine the Shami Chakrabarti inquiry (not that an occasional blogger from the backwoods can), I am virtually certain her investigation shall reach the same conclusion. Ignore the people who fell over themselves on Twitter yesterday calling for his head and focus on the facts. Here are the transcripts of everything said over the last couple of days. It would be a stretch to describe any of those comments as racist towards Jews.

3. That isn't to say Ken isn't bloody stupid. Leaping to a Nazi analogy as soon as issues around Jews, Israel, and Zionism are raised is just so crass and offensive. Yes, it is a matter of historical record that there were links between leading Nazi figures and the Zionist movement in the 1930s. Yes, as Zygmunt Bauman establishes in his seminal Modernity and the Holocaust, the murder factories of the Third Reich were an outcome the Nazis evolved toward as the most expeditious "final solution" to the "Jewish Question". But there is a time and a place for discussions of these kinds, and I would suggest in the middle of a highly-charged political row about anti-semitism isn't one of them.

4. It's worth noting at this point that anti-semitism in the Labour Party is vanishingly rare. Considering the efforts journos and opponents of the leadership have gone to to find Jeremy supporters sharing dodgy memes and saying deeply unpleasant things, all they've turned up is a swivel-eyed Trot entryist and a couple of no marks from places even more obscure than my beloved Stoke-on-Trent. In other words, what we might call fringe people on the fringes of the movement. The idea that anti-semitism is endemic to our party is bullshit.

5. There is an issue when it comes to some of the hard left. As with the case of Malia Bouattia, there are activists who use sloppy language and clumsy tropes when talking about Israel and its lobby operations overseas. This can be and is construed as anti-semitic, is sometimes interpreted as dog-whistling, and is exploited by cheerleaders for Israeli policies. Matters aren't helped when the same sections of the left indulge Islamists who have no such compunction about framing their opposition to Israel in racist terms. The left is still capable of being its own worst enemy.

6. And the enemies of Corbyn are exploiting this row. John Mann's public rant at Ken Livingstone for the lunch time bulletins yesterday screamed contrivance. Mann knows very well that Ken is neither a Nazi apologist, nor that anything said advocates any of their crimes. But it ratcheted up the volume, feeding a confected mythology that everywhere you look in the Labour Party, on every committee and underneath each pile of leaflets is an anti-semite hiding. This is being whipped up and exploited by those who wish to see Jeremy turfed out of the leadership, and they will use any means to do so, no matter how damaging it is to the party and its immediate electoral prospects. That doesn't let Ken off, nor those bits of the left whose rhetoric sales close to the wind, nor those actual anti-semites who got kicked out. It is quite possible for the left to shoot itself while presenting a big red bulls eye to its enemies.

7. The sad truth is that while anti-semitism isn't a really existing problem for the Labour Party, it has become more so for society at large. Attacks on Jewish people in London last year increased by 60%, with a 200% jump in Tower Hamlets alone. However, nationally there was a 22% fall from the 2014 peak of incidents (924 vs the preceding 1,179). This is set against a resurgent anxiety among British Jews. What people whipping up this hysteria for factional advantage have got to ask is how do they think portraying the Labour Party as a hot bed of anti-semitism will play to Jewish communities that have supported Labour in the past, but feel anxious, increasingly marginalised, and under threat in British society? Thankful the community has insincere windbags like Mann sticking up for them? Or more alienated from our party and perhaps a touch more fearful in general?

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Theresa May's Leadership Bid

As the EU referendum battle gets nasty and Tory tears lumps out of Tory, spare a thought for the chancellor and the London mayor. At times these last six months, both men have had reason to believe their careers are sloping upwards. Number 10 has conceivably been in reach, but their grip on political gravity has loosened and its possible their rise will be accompanied by a death plunge. And now, threatening to hasten their fall has appeared Theresa May, the one oft-overlooked as Osborne and Johnson tussle for the prize.

Her intervention yesterday in the EU debate was pretty disgusting. Far from lecturing her party on its nastiness, May scraped up the foul-smelling discards of her "celebrated" 2002 conference speech and tried transmuting them into political gold. And, unfortunately - talking about it with @catherinebuca last night - it could just work. She trotted out the basic argument that leaving the EU would weaken the British economy, which is Remain's strongest suit. Sticking with the economic theme, she passed directly over into the crudest economism and said the European Convention on Human Rights "adds nothing to our prosperity." If that's the case, then why should we bother with the courts and, indeed, liberal democracy itself? Not that logic has ever been the bottom line to Tory politics - it's always about position-taking to defend and extend the interests of entrenched privilege. Yet reiterating the pledge to scrap human rights legislation and withdraw from the ECHR (where Britain will join the company of Belarus) is her wink to the Tory grassroots, that the EU stuff is cold pragmatism arrived at on the basis of facts when she really is one with them when it comes to dismantling workers' protections, and bashing immigrants. If the left have virtue signalling, the right have the malevolent wink. And if that wasn't enough, she raised the spectre of millions of Albanians and Turks descending upon the Jerusalem we've built in these fair islands. The only way to head them off is to take leadership in Europe to stop new member states from being afforded the right to free movement.

Immigrant-bashing and dog-whistling. Repugnant politics, but from the standpoint of succeeding Dave quite smart politics. As a known Eurosceptic, she has advanced a credible position for staying in that eschews any whiff of EU-enthusiasm. And she's got away with the usual idiocy about immigration without appearing overtly racist or xenophobic. Contrast this with Osborne, who has well and truly sunk his chances which, as a Labour Friend of George, I'm very sorry to see. And with Johnson, whose faux bonhomie has slipped (again) with a widely-condemned attack on Barack Obama, and who - as his fellow MPs know - only jumped into the leave camp for entirely opportunist reasons might have scuppered his bid. In contrast with the useless and the loud-mouthed, May cuts an austere, serious figure who knows what the thinning grassroots thinks, and appears competent in her brief.

When the time comes and the Tory MPs put their shortlist of two to the membership, don't be surprised if May is one of them.

Monday, 25 April 2016

What BHS says about British Capitalism

On global capitalism in Lenin's day, the Bolshevik leader had this to say: "Imperialism is an immense accumulation of money capital in a few countries ... hence the extraordinary growth of a class, or rather, of a stratum of rentiers, i.e., people who live by “clipping coupons”, who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness ..." If only the money men of 21st century Britain remained excrescences on the economy, of directing their stooges to invest capital and growing fat off the labour and talent of others. At the risk of being wistful, this ideal-typical view of your average capitalist is long buried and have gone beyond mere uselessness. Drunk on their parasitism, they are oblivious to how their appetites are not just imperiling the health of the enterprises they gorge upon, but threaten to kill them outright.

The latest example is the collapse of British Home Stores, a venerable department store that has graced the high street for 88 years. Not that I ever went there, which I suppose is a microcosm of the predicament it finds itself in. Lately, not enough of anyone have come through its doors to buy outfits and lampshades. Yet the Darwinist cut and thrust of the retail market can only shoulder so much of the blame. The reason why BHS is looking down a barrel, and its 11,000-strong workforce face uncertain futures is in large measure down to its erstwhile proprietor, the fly-by-knight Sir Philip Green. Acquiring the struggling BHS for £200m in 2000, Green and his family shook the firm down for a billion quid. All the profits, all the wage squeezes, every saving that could be wrung from the business passed through head office en route to Tina Green's capacious purse in Monaco. And when there was nothing left, Green offloaded BHS on his tax-dodging wife's behalf for a quid. The new owners, a ragtag-and-bobtail outfit going by the name of Retail Acquisitions, failed to raise the cash BHS needed to start turning itself around.

It goes without saying that Green's behaviour was grubby and disgusting, and he could face action from the pensions' watchdog amid suggestions that the firm dodged its obligations (this would be on top of the pensions holidays many large firms took in the late 90s/early 00s, all with a nod from Gordon Brown). Seemingly aware he could be on the hook for something, Green has offered to stump up £80m toward the BHS pension fund's half-a-billion deficit. I hope the sop is rejected and he gets rinsed.

As you can see, Green went well beyond the "coupon clipping". His ownership and running of the brand suggests little if any interest in preserving the business for the long-term, of increasing products, introducing new lines, investing in new technology, and battling it out for market share. You know, the things Max Weber told us capitalists are supposed to do. If BHS was in difficulty 16 years ago, self-evidently a business that has a billion pounds sloshing around is a business that was not a basket case. Instead of treating BHS like a bile bear with the tap left on full for the Green durée, the monies could have been used to add value by expanding its range, aggressively marketing itself, and venturing properly into online retail. Instead, Sir Phil was to his host a tax-dodging, celeb-stalking, yacht-bothering tapeworm.

Ah, but he's a one-off, a bad apple, yes? In the interests of fairness, BHS's problems can't all be laid at his door. The so-called death of the high street is the result of policies pursued over the last six years. The cost of living crisis (remember that?) was always more than a soundbite for millions of people. As meagre wage rises/freezes have bitten, people don't have as much cash to splash, hence middlebrow stores like BHS were always going to face what the experts call a "challenging retail environment". The second is the brash new competitor, Amazon, have got away with ripping off the Treasury. Without as much of a tax liability, they have built an infrastructure on the back of exhausting, low-paid work, which has given them an unfair competitive advantage. Having got caught dithering over steel, the Tories are not about to invite more scrutiny of their complicity in this situation. Which probably helps explain why Anna Soubry's been very quick to discuss the issue in the House and dampen speculation about redundancies.

There's a winder point. Green is the "cultural dominant" of what a capitalist looks like in 21st century Britain, the sort valorised, flattered, and admired by the City and its helpers. The pursuit of profit, of realising returns on investment, comes not from building things but of tearing them down. As David Harvey points out, global capital from the 1980s on snapped up sold off state infrastructure and coined it from the introduction of markets into public services. New markets were conquered, but these were provided by governments as they let capital swoop in and profit from institutions under their stewardship. Capitalism ate the infrastructure that sustained it. As Britain is the epicentre of global finance, we find here these necrotising social relationships have achieved their fullest expression: an economy whose GDP is dependent not on production, but the selling of houses between buy-to-let landlords, a state bent on selling off what's left of the public domain to politically suitable bidders (one doesn't have to be the highest, as the Garden Bridge fiasco demonstrates), and a financial industry that sucks in Britain's best brains to design fiendishly complex but socially useless "products", "packages", "vehicles", and "instruments". Funny how the intangible has annexed the language of the concrete. In sum, the owners of capital have become dysfunctional and decadent from the standpoint of British capitalism itself.

Green is not a one-off. He's archetypal.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Explaining the Election of Malia Bouattia

What to make of the election of Malia Bouattia to the presidency of the National Union of Students? Well, the political establishment are pretty clear about the opinions every right-thinking person should have. "Malia Bouattia's election as NUS president proves deeply divisive", says The Graun. "Disaffiliation threat could leave NUS facing a financial blackhole", The HuffPo writes. And eager to stir things up, the increasingly tabloid Telegraph reckons Malia's election "sends a dark message to Jewish students". Sounds serious.

In my younger days, I was often of the view that if radicals succeeded in pissing off the centre left establishment, then it couldn't be so bad. Specifically in the case of the NUS, I do recall a sliver of hysteria greeting the election of Kat Fletcher to the NUS president's post in 2004. A position, in case we've forgotten, that has long been regarded the private property of wannabe Labour MPs in what passes for the students' movement. Well, the sky didn't fall in, Kat went on to become a Jez aide/handler, and after 2006 control returned to a succession of colourless and uninteresting mediocrities. And yes Wes, I include you in that number.

Malia is a different kettle of fish, so we are told. She has apparently denounced Birmingham University as a Zionist outpost, has claimed the media are under Zionist lock down, and she opposed a motion at a previous NUS gathering condemning ISIS. Small wonder the keepers of political hygiene are reaching for the disinfectant. Yet, when you look at matters more closely things are a little more complicated. On the matter of condemning ISIS, as this report from the AWL points out (no friend of Malia, incidentally), it appears the axis of her position hinged upon opposing the proposed bombing of targets in Syria. Because the motion contained a condemnation of ISIS it could be, and has been used to make it look like she's soft on them. This is an old trick governments pull all the time in the Commons. Tie something nice to the passage of controversial legislation, and you can pretend your opponents are opposed to free money, fluffy kittens, or whatever.

The Zionist stuff, I'd wager, is more a matter of sloppy language than anti-semitic intent. Coming on top of the panic gripping sections of the media after a few dodgy but marginal "anti-Zionists" were caught spouting racist views, there is undoubtedly a concerted effort to tar as many on the left and in Momentum with this brush as possible. As I and plenty of others have argued before, some sections of the left who identify strongly with anti-imperialist views don't help themselves when they court expressions that can easily be elided with the idiocies and conspiracies pedalled by the racist right. They open themselves to accusations of dog-whistling, for starters. It's worth noting that Malia denies any suggestion of racism, arguing, "It seems I have been misrepresented. I am extremely uncomfortable with insinuations of anti-Semitism ... I want to be clear that for me to take issue with Zionist politics is not me taking issue with being Jewish." She has also pledged to meet her critics face to face to talk through the issues they have with her. I'm inclined to take this on face value. If there was evidence of more than a couple of clumsy quotes in her record, then it would be time to think differently.

In the present febrile atmosphere, you can understand why this is getting a lot of attention. But again, there's a sense history is repeating itself. Recall how prominent members of the PLP got shirty and made lots of noise after Jeremy's election, in their indignation they didn't think about why they lost. And they still haven't given it any thought. Ditto with the NUS. As our AWL friends suggest, there has been a move to the left over a period of years within the organisation. It's not indicative of a groundswell of combative militant students seeking to transform their union into a fighting organisation, or of concerted entryism on the part of one or more micro revolutionary outfits - and in this sense it is the mirror image of the movement that put Jeremy atop the Labour Party.

How then to explain this victory? As readers may or may not know, the NUS elects on the basis of a conference delegate vote, who are in turn elected by local unions when the annual sab elections come up. And among this layer, there has certainly been some radicalisation. But the key dynamic isn't the awful policies of a government hell bent on making British HE the most expensive in the world (though these are important). I would, instead, suggest the occasional press attacks on this milieu has deepened their antipathy to establishment-friendly politics. You remember the opinion pieces and comment about student activists refusing to share platforms with, and their protests against people they deem to be transphobic, such as Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer, and the resulting howls of outrage as the media pack descended upon these frightful upstarts. There is a sense among this milieu that they're under attack, and the commentariat's obsession with PC students is being interpreted as an attempt to weaken student unions ahead of their resistance to the next round government assault. The question from their point of view is who best to face up to this challenge - a steady-as-she-goes grey blur as per the outgoing president, or someone running on a programme of resistance who's already received (and brushed off) hostile media scrutiny?

Thursday, 21 April 2016

A Tribute to Prince

Growing up in the 1980s, there were huge pop megastars. There was Madonna, Michael Jackson, and there was Prince. Madge and Jacko were total tabloid favourites. Madonna for her colourful private life and ceaseless assaults on hypocritical sexual conventions. Michael for his eccentric behaviour which, as we know, later took a darker turn. And there was Prince, whose aloof and controlled persona who managed the trick of object-of-media-fascination but without having his life splashed across the front pages. Of the three, he arguably preferred to let the music do the talking, and the image rode to popular consciousness off the back of their power.

Like Bowie, I wasn't what you'd describe as a fan. But like the aforementioned, Prince was always in the background, a celebrity deity who'd remind you of his existence on occasion, and soundtrack the odd YouTube or Spotify splurge. This is why his premature passing will be a wrench for a lot of people, regardless of whether music plays a big part in their lives or not. 

What a terrible shame.

Prince - 1999 (1982)

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Do Violent Games Cause Misogyny?

See Breitbart, the noxious US import that has kept James Delingpole's career on life support? You can? Okay. Now imagine taking the Breitbart concept: unhinged right-wingery, stupidity, and dishonesty, and sticking it in the food processor. Get a face, say Louise Mensch, to front it up. And then people said product with content too dumb and churnalists too lazy for Breitbart. The end result is the political comment equivalent of what my cat has just visited upon her litter tray.

Heatstreet is Murdoch's latest go at being "relevant" to the tech-hungry, celeb-bothering, video-gamin' 20-somethings heavily into rabidly right-wing politics. Uncle Rupers might be happy to have Vice on the balance sheet as long as the cash keeps flowing, but he'd much prefer a successful brand that can do the business hawking repellent views similar to his own. Still, I'd managed to ignore this doomed venture until my Twitter feed tossed up this: No, Grand Theft Auto Doesn’t Make You Sexist. Video games and sociology, right up my street.

In a scholarly paper, 'Acting Like a Tough Guy: Violent-Sexist Video Games, Identification With Game Characters, Masculine Beliefs, & Empathy for Female Violence Victims' (read it here), the authors say "We hypothesized that playing violent-sexist video games would increase endorsement of masculine beliefs, especially among participants who highly identify with dominant and aggressive male game characters. We also hypothesized that the endorsement of masculine beliefs would reduce empathy toward female violence victims ... We found that participants' gender and their identification with the violent male video game character moderated the effects of the exposure to sexist-violent video games on masculine beliefs. Our results supported the prediction that playing violent-sexist video games increases masculine beliefs, which occurred for male (but not female) participants who were highly identified with the game character. Masculine beliefs, in turn, negatively predicted empathic feelings for female violence victims. Overall, our study shows who is most affected by the exposure to sexist-violent video games, and why the effects occur." They go on to argue in the paper itself that lack of empathy is the most significant predictor of violence against women, and so games that depress empathy could well be problematic. More specifically, broken down into variables there were statistically significant relationships between reported "masculine beliefs" and level of violence, and more specifically between those values and identification with a masculine player-character in what the research team classify as 'violent-sexist' games.

Now, remember, correlation isn't causation. At best it indicates that a relationship *in all likelihood* exists, but it doesn't necessarily point to the direction of these relationships. Was it the case that the young men reported a more sympathetic attitude toward masculine values after playing the likes of Grand Theft Auto because these views were already in place, or that they had been "caused" by the game they had just played. In all likelihood, as the authors claim, the former is more likely to be the case. At best the sorts of tropes on show in GTA would merely confirm and reinforce pre-existing dispositions. Nevertheless, there are some problems, not least being that the observed correlation only involved the 22 who played GTA (out of a total sample of 154 Italian high school students who played a variety of games). Because the group is so small it's not wise to draw any sort of conclusion beyond "more study needed".

None of this makes it into the dimly-lit consciousness of our HeatStreet writer. Instead of addressing, or even polemicising against the results, he writes "Is Grand Theft Auto sexist? Is killing a woman in a video game somehow inherently worse than killing a man? Well, maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but if women are tough enough to be president, fight in war and kick my ass ... they’re probably tough enough to be included in video game carnage, just like the men." This is not so much as missing the point as doing a very deliberate body swerve to avoid it. Where women feature as video game adversaries, historically speaking there is a tendency to represent them as overly-sexualised. In 1990s beat 'em ups, like the otherwise wonderful Streets of Rage 2, women typically appear in fetish wear as you smack them in the mouth. When things moved into three dimensions, Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame led the way in svelte bodies and generous hips and boobs, and so did the baddies. And today there is not much variation in female body types available. How often do you spot overweight or small-breasted women in a game?

This isn't to suggest portrayals of women in games cause sexism. They don't, they reflect, feed back, and naturalise already existing views and assumptions - an effect that's quite subtle but nevertheless real. If there was no effect whatsoever, then why would a mainstream game centered around Nazi battlefield exploits, such as my Call of Duty: Heroes of the SS thought experiment, be hugely controversial? Might it have something to do with normalising and rendering banal a regime long-associated with truly foul crimes? 

In the real world, it is rarely a matter of something causing something or not, it's a matter of degree. If it applies to the in-your-face, it's also the case with the commonplace.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

McDonald's and Labour "Snobbishness"

What kind of company should be allowed to have a corporate stand at Labour Party conference? Should all-comers be taken provided they stump up the readies, or as a minimum are they expected to subscribe to a set of standards around employment relations, trade union recognition, and ethical practices (whatever they are)? I ask because a row is being stoked by the usual moaners about Labour's decision to refuse a stand (worth £30,000) at this year's conference in Liverpool.

In a typically dishonest article, The Sun says McDonald's have been "banned", and Wes Streeting is called upon to denounce the "snobby attitude towards fast-food restaurants and people who work or eat at them." It's worth stating at this point there is no suggestion whatsoever that the "banning" took place because NEC members disapprove of fast food. That has been made up by The Sun, and it is disappointing - to put it euphemistically - for Wes and others to join one of our movement's fiercest enemies in dumping on our party.

In my years on the left, I've occasionally encountered snobbish attitudes towards McDonald's, albeit indirectly. One of my erstwhile Socialist Party comrades told me he had to argue down a SWP proposal at his local trades council to boycott and picket several city centre branches. Likewise, cast your minds back to the anti-capitalist protests of the early noughties. If there was a McDonald's along the route, it could expect to have its windows smashed. In both cases, it was lifestyle leftyism of the most cretinous kind, of appearing super-radical and being seen to offer no quarter to a prominent manifestation of global capitalism. I suppose having scant regard for the (low paid) people who work there, and the families for whom a Maccy's is a cheap way of eating out is another sign of revolutionary grit.

Most people with a scant interest in politics know there is an element of lifestylism to Jez's politics, including a good section of the new party members. In the absence of an explanation why the NEC decided to not grant McDonald's a stall The Sun's view is superficially plausible. However, as he piled in surely Wes could not help but be reminded that many of his PLP friends on the "trendy" right of the party are more likely to indulge a quinoa smoothie than a McDonald's milkshake.

There are many good reasons why a business like McDonald's shouldn't have a space at Labour Party conference. Refusal to offer permanent full-time jobs is one of those, even though it is moving away from zero hour contracts. Not recognising a trade union is another. And that's before we start talking about its toxic environmental record. Note to moaning Labour MPs who think it's madness to turn £30k down: it's hypocritical and politically stupid to take money from businesses whose practices are at odds with the values and objectives of the movement of which you're part. And for those PLP members who find walking and breathing at the same time difficult, it's quite possible to have this position without being "snobbish".

Of course, there might be a more mundane explanation. Labour Party conference this year is set to be the biggest we've seen for many a year as thousands of new members visit for the first time. More visitors = a larger audience strolling around the exhibition centre, and the more the party can ask exhibitors to cough up. It's not beyond the realms of that McDonald's were unwilling to pay more than £30k. Not everything is a nefarious conspiracy.

As this was a NEC decision the details will be out in a forthcoming report.

Privacy and the Public Eye

Two stories involving press intrusion into the lives of the rich and the powerful. Is this ever justified?

Let's have a look at the first story. Well, as much as our friends at the injunction-happy Carter Ruck will let us. As reported everywhere else in the world except England and Wales, a celeb has been caught with their pants down in a threesome behind their spouse's back (apparently) and there are added claims of extra-marital jollies in a £500-a-night hotel. In other words the kind of story that is the gutter press's stock-in-trade, and one bound to linger in the collective memory for as long as it takes the next scandal to come along.

Then we have the tale of John Whittingdale, the government's so-called Minister of Fun and leading figure in Vote Leave. Whittingdale, as everyone knows thanks to this week's disclosures, was previously in a relationship with a sex worker. The question therefore arises whether we, as punters who read the output of our wonderful British press, have a right to know about the comings (ahem) and goings in celebrity and politicians' bedrooms.

The unsatisfactory answer is it depends. As someone who grew up in the golden age of Tory sex scandals in the 1990s, in hindsight no one really needed to know about David Mellor's affair, or the unfortunate circumstances attending the premature passing of Stephen Milligan MP. Everyone has the right to a private life, regardless of the peccadilloes and moral hypocrisies that inhabit it. In my view, what is private is fair game for scrutiny if a clear public interest beyond prurience and gossip can be demonstrated. Being in the public eye should not make you fair game. For our "anonymous" celebrity and their family no such public interest justification exists. Whittingdale, however, is a different matter.

You could argue that his relationship is nobody else's business, and that argument would be correct. Not that that prevented hacks from three different papers from prying into his affairs. Yet for all three of them to then sit on the story? Hmmm. For three papers to sit on a story they had invested time and resource in investigating, especially when two of the titles ordinarily dress up tittle tattle as news is a touch suss, shall we say. Were the papers uncharacteristically reticent because they feared Whittingdale would implement Leveson's recommendations if they stung him, or were the stories saved up as leverage to hold over the minister? That in itself becomes a matter of public interest trumping Whittingdale's right to privacy. The disclosure is a necessary casualty of the public interest.

And then there's today's splash in the Mail on Sunday about another of Whittingdale's relationships. Hardly scandalous, but claims that Stephanie Hudson - a woman on the fringes of celebrity Z-listdom - was privy to confidential cabinet papers is also a matter of public interest. As such, The Mail were right to publish. Whittingdale has a serious case to answer, and the longer his stays schtum the more it will add to Dave's growing encumbrance of woe.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Markus Schulz feat Ana Diaz - Nothing Without Me

Pity the poor souls I'll find huddled in the classroom 9am tomorrow morning. Not only do they have to listen to me drone on for three hours about a select topic (Week 11: Sexual Harassment), I am cruel enough to subject them to my music taste. Each week I pick out a video and in a quick exercise they're invited to tease out the plot, specify how gender and sexuality is performed, and note anything else of interest. This was going to be tomorrow's choice but, meh, while it's a great song (my number four of 2012) the vid is a touch depthless. I'll park it here anyway.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

A Sociology of Sexist Trolling

Women with a public platform get more shit than their male counterparts. And now what's long been known through anecdote and, in some cases, unpleasant direct experience now has some numbers behind it. In a study of the 70m comments made on its site since 2006, The Graun has found that of the ten most abused writers, eight are women and the remaining two men are black. This is despite women and BME writers being underrepresented overall. Meanwhile, no prizes for guessing that the ten least trolled scribblers were all men.

How to explain this? The first reflex is to blame it all on a few sad sacks. Undoubtedly there is something lacking and maladjusted about someone who specifically targets women for having the temerity to share an opinion on a popular comment platform. However, that is also a deeply unsatisfying explanation. According to friend-of-the-blog Emile Durkheim, when a phenomenon crops up regularly in certain settings then there is an underlying cause or set of causes that are fundamentally, irreducibly social. Basement dwellers if it's one or two people, but something else if this is getting repeated across comment sites more or less everywhere, and traversing different nations and different languages. If there are a lot of individuals abusing women online, then that is a social fact, as Durkers would put it, and therefore a social problem.

The question is where to start coming to grips with this. In her Cybersexism, Laurie Penny suggests that one of the drivers is the opening of computer mediated public space that had previously been coded as male. That isn't to say women haven't always been using the internet, but the nerd culture that staked out the digital frontier was predominantly masculine, even if it was positioned as the domain of the so-called beta males who found the real world a touch too tough. Similarly the gamer cultures growing up online after 2000 were overtly, outrageously masculine (and definitely, definitely super straight as well). Therefore for a layer of men who identify with these cultures and are invested in them, the increasing public presence of women as something other than porn fodder threatens to, well, spoil their manly-manly safe spaces. Flick through YouTube and see the hysterical male in action because women and some men (who happen to not fall into the straight/white defaults of these cultures) have dared to critique sexism, racism, and other things in video games. It's as if the digital parasol allowing them to "safely" perform masculinity while sheltered from the too-powerful rays of hegemonic maleness proper is being taken away by, eeew, women and being told they cannot use it any more.

This has been well-documented, not least by Laurie herself and forms the basis of the backlash to the so-called GamerGate controversy, which has seen women in the video game industry repeatedly harassed, doxed, and threatened. Historically, sexual harassment and violence has policed demarcated social spaces between the genders, and this is all the old crap updated with proxy servers and iCloud hacking. This, however, doesn't stand alone. There are deeper structures at work feeding into the anxieties of these cultures. A few years ago, this blog noted how
we also have a more level playing field when it comes to jobs. This isn't to say there are no gender divisions at work - it would be stupid to pretend men and women aren't treated differently. But increasingly, especially at entry level, workplaces are increasingly mixed and young men and young women have to compete for the same jobs. And yet hegemonic masculinity - that complex of ideologies, values and expectations inculcated by socialisation and reinforced through family, friendship and media networks - hasn't caught up. A real man has a well paid job, has disposable income enough to buy all the mod cons and fashions, might *have* (in the property sense) a woman, or, at the very least, has women hanging off his arm, and, of course, has the time and inclination to play or watch sports, and/or indulge in masculine-coded pursuits like video gaming, drinking, gadgetry, or fishing. Women are too well aware of the mismatch between how society expects them to dress, look and behave, and their individual lives. But now that mismatch is being felt more by men too.
In 2016 this is pretty much the new normal. Girls generally outperform boys at school, do better in post-16 education, and more young women will be enrolling at university this September than young men. There are still disparities here. Despite the gender gap in education, women will tend to gravitate toward subjects that are "soft" and lead to what you might call gender normative career outcomes. The overall dearth of graduate jobs also means young men are increasingly competing for these roles too. At the other end, seeing as the government has, newspeak-style, abolished youth unemployment by banning benefits for the under 18s and encouraging apprenticeships in unskilled work, here too there is strong competition as gendered demarcations of work are blurring (unevenly, it has to be said) across different sectors. Yet masculine norms inculcated through the family, reinforced in the everyday, and transmitted by all kinds of broadcast media have yet to catch up with the lived reality of many millions of men. Social consciousness has the tendency to lag behind social experience, so it will come in time but whether that manifests and fuels this new misogyny of which The Graun findings are part or undoes it remains to be seen.

There is one glaring problem with this explanation. This is the lot of young people, of young men. Yet chances are our Graun trolls are a touch older than those scrapping over entry level jobs. Attacking women who write about politics is not likely to be the preserve of your average 23 year old GamerGater. So what's going on here then, why would men over a certain age choose to single out Graun writers (or, for that matter, women commentators in general) when they're not subject to the same pressures as younger men are? Here, the case is slightly different. The dissolution of the kinds of masculinities inculcated as natural (and permitted) for the post-war generation is just as real, but is felt differently. If you would allow me another indulgence from another old post:
... before primary industry and manufacturing went into a tailspin, you knew exactly where you stood. The rich man was in his castle. The poor man at his (factory) gate. Tearing this world away was tantamount to emasculation for a generation of men, and now feeds into a wider alienation from British culture. The vast majority of jobs available to the sons of these men lack obvious markers of masculinity. Office work, retail, call centres, caring - the economic dominance of service industries are simultaneously read as symptoms of the feminisation of working life and national decline. And with this has come the butchering of the armed forces, 'elf and safety' culture, political correctness, women doing "men's jobs" and, horror of horrors, gay marriage.
These are unforeseen consequences of breaking up the solidarities that underpinned the post-war consensus and propped up the parties that oversaw it. All of this is premised on atomisation. There was and always will be such a thing as society, but Thatcher tried her damnedest to boil it down to individuals and their families. Her successful attacks on the labour movement and the much-reduced ability of the working class to reproduce itself semi-independently of the state has thrown matters into a flux that are still to settle. With a weakening of solidarities and the throwing of many families (and individuals) onto their own resources, combined with the disappearance of many masculine-coded jobs there is a coterie of middle-to-old aged men who are deeply resentful that what was theirs by right has gone, and its replacement is a society and set of official values they're disengaged and feel alienated from. Naturally, like most forms of reaction it kicks against what is regarded as the most visible symptoms of a social problem. Immigrants of all kinds, BME communities, minority sexualities, and, of course, women. For a subset of this strata a sense of power, control, superiority and, yes, manliness is recuperated every time they traduce an articulate woman beneath an article. And doing it again and again, one can build up camaraderie with others who do the same, recapturing a simulacra of male solidarity and potency raging against the feminised machine.

Processes like these are underway in all of the advanced countries. The specifics may change, but at root is the collapse of social democratic compromises, the erosion of working class culture (and with it a certain kind of male authority and gendered performance), and consequent restructuring that has conditioned and reconfigured gender relations. None of this excuses men, young or not-so-young from the responsibility of their creepy, unacceptable behaviour. They still make the conscious choice to anonymously abuse, after all. But it puts those decisions in a context, and hopefully this post has demonstrated some of the ways in which class conditions masculinity and the ranty, entitled outbursts attending its dissolution.