Friday, 29 May 2009

Drag your butt to see Sam Raimi's new horror flick

It's been quite a light posting week. It seems my body has been taken over by the soul of someone fabulous and in high demand. I've had things to do, y'all! What an odd sensation. But I did manage last night to see Drag Me to Hell, the Sam Raimi-written and directed horror film that I've been looking forward to for weeks. I'm starved for a good horror flick. They just don't make them like they used to. And if I have to sit through another Hills Have Eyes-style remake foisted upon us by people who don't think you need an imagination to make movies, I'm going to pluck my eyeballs out and eat them with Marmite. (Incidentally, they're also remaking the film that is my standard answer to the question "What is the most disturbing thing you've ever seen?": Last House on the Left. Is it just me or are the horror films people seem most eager to remake those with long, elaborate, almost celebrated scenes featuring the rape and torture of women?)

But Drag Me To Hell feels new, fresh and exciting from the get-go. It's comedy-horror at its finest: even the parts that are clearly meant to be (slightly) camp and hilarious still kinda scare the crap out of you. And Raimi is not afraid of using gore and bodily fluids to up the ew factor, and as a metaphor for the ugliness of evil. He does this masterfully. The spewing forth is not gratuitous; it is integral to the image of just how base Raimi's imagined underworld really is, and of the extent to which it represents the worst, most horrifying alternative reality we might imagine.

Everything in the film is sharp and largely-drawn. The dialogue is crisp, snappy and economical, mirroring Raimi's entire approach to this film: nothing in excess. The backgrounds and props - doors, tables, buildings, natural surroundings - are all expertly used and personified to create the terror and drama of the story. Characters are kept to a necessary core, and the casting is more than credible: Alison Lohman is the wide-eyed innocent and central victim Christine Brown, who is at once vulnerable and hilarious (there's not much ha-ha in the dialogue, but Lohman's face and delivery are made for comedy, and manage to convey the absurdity of a scenario with no need for the spoken word); Justin Long surprised me at first as Brown's doting partner Clay, especially since his mumbling smugness tends to get on my nerves, but then I got it: Clay needed to be funny enough to carry the comedic content, but taken seriously enough that his problem-solving ability and commitment to Christine could drive the drama. So subtle rather than bumbling comedy was necessary. And Long does this well.

The best thing Raimi could have done for this story, and, was not to prolong its brlliant conclusion. So in keeping with that spirit, I'm not going to prolong this assessment either. Go watch this film: it's a wonderful, fresh, neatly-packaged little horror flick that you'll be glad you saw on the big screen.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

What I did on my summer spring vacation bank holiday weekend: Beyoncé and Shontelle at the O2

This past Monday night, fellow Bajan Shontelle opened for Beyoncé at the O2 arena here in London, and through the magic of generosity and association, I went with (her and my mutual good friend) NP to see her perform. But as luck (and getting lost) would have it, we freaking missed her opening act! And I do not use exclamation marks lightly! We took our seats five minutes before Beyoncé came to the stage, and as her fans screamed their glitter off, NP and I looked at each other in a daze mouthing "I can't believe we missed Shontelle."

This may all sound odd to you. But the truth is, I don't count myself among Beyoncé's fans. I think she's talented and a great performer and looks lovely in shiny costumes and all that; and I thought that Destiny's Child 1.0 had the formula for girl group entertainment, and still enjoy their music: they were no En Vogue, but they were not a bad approximation. But you're not going to see me on YouTube in a black leotard and a cyborg glove wukkin' up. My love for Beyoncé does not run that deep. So I sat back and enjoyed the show - except for the cheesy pageant performance of some song that must have had something to do with the ocean because there were rolling waves on the giant screen behind her while she warbled away in a white hoodie dress that was being billowed by a mysterious breeze; Beyoncé is given to a Miss Universe-style cheesiness on her ballad performances that would put Celine Dion to shame - but I haven't much to say about it. The woman can sing, and dance, and has a body comprised of 90% legs pretty much as I expected. And I loved her all-woman backing band, minus the backup singers' feature performance that just had to fulfil the fat, oversexed, Black woman brief in a number where they called themselves The Mamas and described men from the audience they wanted (It was bad. When are people going to stop making fat, black women 'characters' convince everyone that even though they are fat and black, they are hot and have plenty sex? Or stop reducing these 'characters' to big, fat vaginas, because clearly we couldn't possibly see them for who they are as just women who can sing the hair off your head.) But there were few surprises. Listen was great, as was Halo, and the Destiny's Child medley was probably my favourite part. Beyond that, all I was really occupied by was when I might see Shontelle again.

See, I'm anxious to see her live since she signed with Universal Motown, and make my own comparative assessment relative to her Roll and Colours days. Because I'm still waiting for that former Shontelle to emerge, and am hoping she doesn't get too bogged down by the old, familiar, first album rebranding that so many artistes have to rail against to let her own songwriting and vision really speak. It's easy to believe that she's just another Rihanna Ciara Tearra Christina (I didn't even do that on purpose, I swear) hybrid, but she's not; she has a great ear and a wicked pen, and I'm hoping people stick around long enough for her to show it. Because glory knows, although T-shirt and her collaboration track with conspiracy theorist and perfumier Akon are out there doing well, any number of R&B singers could have recorded those. Her album Shontelligence (I know, blerk), though, has some smatterings of what Shontelle's strengths are, like the feisty Focus On Me, which could use some stronger vocals (stronger as in 'rawr!', not stronger as in better, although 'rawr!' would be better), but starts to get it right. I know we've seen nothing yet.

So next time, NP and I are draping ourselves in the Barbados flag and getting comfy in the front row. And Beyoncé fans watch out, because the world knows by now that nobody can scream like a Bajan.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Pillow fight! (Ok, not really)

This is the long, Spring bank holiday weekend and I'm heading off early for an old-fashioned slumber party at my girlfriend's place. I haven't had one of these since I used to run off to my best friend's house on weekends when I knew there was a party my mother wouldn't let me go to. Best friend's mum was (and still is) lovely and a very involved parent, but she wasn't rule-obsessed like my mum, with her "You went to a birthday party 2 weeks ago. Stay home and have some quiet time" and "No sleepovers this weekend. You'll make people feel we don't want you or can't feed you. You live somewhere!" I swear I thought the woman was crazy. (She was, a little.) But most of that was cleverly-disguised wisdom.

Still, missing the parties of the year would never do, and best friend's place was my second home. so I would rush in from school on a Friday and breathlessly yell "(MUMBLE) HOMEWORK (MUMBLE MUMBLE) SWIMMING CLASS (MUMBLE) TOO LATE (COUGH SNORT) GET A RIDE (MUMBLE GROAN) EXAMS SCHOLARSHIP (she liked that one) NEED TO SPEND THE NIGHT!!!" And most of the time, that worked. Of course, at some point I'm sure our mothers talked and mine pretty much had my whole game sussed out. But at the time, I thought myself quite clever.

There's no need for intrigue these days, since my behind is grown. (Shame.) But I'm quite looking forward to a weekend of shopping, movies and copious amounts of goofing off. Unless something remarkable happens that I'm compelled to post about, like they discover a lost, never-before-seen season of Fawlty Towers, I'll be back with my game face on on Tuesday.

¡Cuídense mucho!

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Harry Reid is confused: Gitmo closure fear and trembling

Reading the news around the Obama administration's failure to secure a Senate vote that would approve the necessary funding for the closure of Guantánamo Bay prison, I have to wonder what everyone is so afraid of. I do believe that the President has to take responsibility for two things that may have contributed to this setback: (i) not having outlined a clear plan for removal and relocation of the 240 detainees; and (ii) sending conflicting messages by his decision to restart the military tribunals. Either you believe that this institution cannot function as it stands and needs to be shut down and replaced with a fairer system of justice, or you don't. Carrying on with the controversial military tribunals even as you solicit government for funds to close the site hosting them, frankly, confuses people.

But the fact that both Republicans and Democrats are running scared from the removal of these prisoners to the US strikes me as a bit odd. What do they think is going to happen? It's almost as if they're ascribing to them some kind of magical power that makes them stronger and unstoppable once they set foot on US soil. And I'd argue that it is this kind of attitude that sends the wrong message to current and potential enemies of the US: that even when government and security forces are in control, the terrorists still freak them out.

And the argument that these people may stand trial, be acquitted and then be released to shop at Whole Foods and visit Disneyland is also a little overwrought. First, we're dealing with different potential outcomes here. A majority of detainees, were they to be acquitted, would be transferred to their own countries, or may be able to be removed for trial on their own soil. Those who are granted domicile in some third country - because of risk of torture in their own countries (there are an estimated 60 or so who have been cleared for release and fit this description; and they're the US's problem now because they snatched them up for questioning in the first place, and have a responsibility not to return them to knowingly dangerous human rights conditions) - have the right to be tried and released, and then monitored under heightened surveillance if warranted. Because if they had been tried and acquitted in the current tribunals, where would they have gone anyway? Would they simply have said "You're free!", let them drift out to sea and hope they just hang out in the open water indefinitely? So there are some people who will be set free (well, who technically are already free but still being detained) and whom the US will have to contend with, most probably by having third countries (rather than the U.S itself) domicile them - since for their own good as well as that of the security of the US, having any of them there is not the best idea. Of course there's also the possibility that the US magically discover that said risk of torture for these prisoners should they be returned home does not exist, and cart them off to places like China and Tunisia anyway, which I think is a damn sight more likely than sending them off to live in Yonkers. But we haven't even gotten there yet. They're right now considering whether the prisoners can be transferred to the US, to be held there. In prisons. With guards. With guns. Harry Reid, judging from his press conference, doesn't seem to get that.

REID: I’m saying that the United States Senate, Democrats and Republicans, do not want terrorists to be released in the United States. That’s very clear.

QUESTION: No one’s talking about releasing them. We’re talking about putting them in prison somewhere in the United States.

REID: Can’t put them in prison unless you release them.

QUESTION: Sir, are you going to clarify that a little bit? …

REID: I can’t make it any more clear than the statement I have given to you. We will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States. [...]

QUESTION: But Senator, Senator, it’s not that you’re not being clear when you say you don’t want them released. But could you say — would you be all right with them being transferred to an American prison?

REID: Not in the United States.

I think one thing this panic indicates is that perhaps the supporters of the Guantánamo prison expected an almost 100% conviction rate at the tribunals, but for some bizarre reason, believe that that rate would be considerably lower were the detainees to be tried in more transparent federal court proceedings that require things like evidence. Or they were relying on legal powers of indefinite detention of suspects without bringing charges. (Incidentally, that power was just granted by a judge.) But even then, aren't we meant to believe that most of the people being held, being made to endure some of the conditions we now know existed, are guilty anyway? We're all meant to think that US intelligence and operations were so efficient in identifying and rounding up the guilty parties and securing evidence (even though only 3 of the over 700 ever detained there have been convicted), that the overwhelming majority of the 240 at Guantánamo are in fact terrorists who will eventually be found to be such, and locked away. Here is the bottomline: you need evidence to convict people. Those are their own rules, no one else's. And it's their responsibility to gather that evidence humanely in order to mount their prosecution. If the evidence is sufficient for conviction, great. If not, then that's the system. But I think that the panic they're trying to create by implying that scores of terrorists will be running the streets if Guantánamo closes is alarmist and disingenuous, and needs to be soundly addressed by the President when he shares the details of his plan for closure.

But beyond what we're meant to assume is a very small minority that might be acquitted and released, even more ridiculous is the idea that those convicted pose some kind of inherent threat simply by their physical presence in the US.

"The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing, radicalising others," [Robert] Mueller [FBI Director] said, as well as "the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States".

We know that prisoners are able to maintain networks while in prison; any look at US gang activity will tell us that. But it's not as if these people will be sprinkled among the general population. Prisoners are isolated all the time for a variety of reasons. Assuming a fair judicial process in either location, there is nothing that would obtain at Guantánamo that need not obtain in any other prison facility in the US. Given that there are already 347 convicted terrorists already being successfully held in US prisons (the U.S. has already prosecuted 145 terrorism cases in federal court), and that none of the detainees now at Guantánamo can make things explode with the mere power of suggestion, I don't see what all the squawking is about. Do we really believe that they're going to escape into the night and end up driving the school bus?

I won't deny that there are some real facts here that the President needs to address:

  • 14% of those already released have been re-engaged in terrorist activity. The President believes this was due to a poor system of decision-making on whom to release. We can only wait and see if his measures will prove more successful.
  • Almost a quarter of those currently detained have been cleared of suspicion, not had any charges brought and approved for release. This release is hampered by potential human rights violations in their own countries. Most of these are considered to be at the lowest threat level: essentially, they were out milking the goats and the next thing they knew were being flown off to Cuba.
  • There is some number of those still being held who are most likely guilty of some terrorist activity, but to date cannot be effectively prosecuted. The President is proposing a 'new legal framework' to address these prisoners.
Still, the question before the US government at this time is whether the 240 inmates at Gitmo can be safely removed to the United States pending trial and/or removal to other countries. And the opportunistic fearmongering among some on the Republican side, coupled with the plain confusion among some Democrats, is hampering what should be a no-brainer of a decision: the closure of the embarrassment that is Guantánamo.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Newsclips and quotes

From the Guardian today:
Giving evidence in front of the Commons home affairs select committee, [Sir Paul] Stephenson [Metropolitan police commissioner] said images of officers apparently lashing out at [G20] protesters "were a real concern and should be investigated thoroughly". But he denied the footage showed behaviour that was "incompatible with British policing".

So, yeah it's disturbing, but that's how we roll.

The illegal immigration 'war' as entertainment

Sky1 carries a new, hour-long series called UK Border Force, during which we're invited into the operations of the Border Agency at airports, on the street and during organized raids, presumably in order to understand the scourge represented by illegal immigration. During one segment, a team of uniformed immigration agents descends upon a street corner in order to profile people of colour carry out random stop-and-searches. The head of the team boasts that they're able to identify potential search subjects by their shifty behaviour, and by 'shifty behaviour' he means walking and not being White. Scores of well-dressed, White people pass by looking bemused, as the team confronts darker-skinned men and challenges them to show proof of leave to remain in the UK.

Now, I have to confess, I didn't know this type of operation existed. I've always known of the checks done as part of vehicle registration and insurance stops, but the idea that I might walk down the street and be asked to produce evidence that I have a right to be here sticks pretty high up my craw. In general, I believe in not making a fuss about the reasonable measures it takes to keep us safe from legitimate threats. I pretty much hang out in airport screening points smiling at people while I carry my entire outfit in my arms. But this kind of operation is blatant profiling. Because while you might be able to get away with this kind of targeting at airports or other checkpoints where people are subject to some kind of screening process anyway, to interrupt my everyday activity, to confiscate my time and attention and make me feel threatened while others breeze on past me simply because I have darker skin, well - as Nan Taylor** would say - what a f**king liberty. (**video clip with strong language)

There are certainly undocumented people living in the UK who do not fit the particular brief by which these officers seem to be operating. And even were that not the case, if the policy is meant to be random, it has to be shown to be random; which means that if you need to stop and interview people of other ethnicities in order to give the appearance of fairness and non-discrimination, then that's what you have to do. I would suspect that you get more cooperation from the public in general when they believe they are being fairly treated, and that must advance your ends.

I'm honestly not sure what the point of this programme is anyway. I've always enjoyed similar shows like the Airport-type series that feature travellers and airport staff who find themselves in all kinds of conundrums. Because they are entertaining, yes, but we might also learn from them what types of behaviours get you in and out of jams while travelling. The same might be said of police shows, which are also meant, it's true, to show us what the work of the police force involves. But police shows set up a very clear us/them dichotomy. They involve situations where a crime is being or has been committed, and we're meant to admire the men and women who protect us from this element that would do us harm. And it seems this Border Agency show is meant to do the same thing, except immigration is not synonymous with harm, even though the show sets it up that way. Not every person of colour featured on the show is trying to slip through the borders in order to live off taxpayers. But these shows are in danger of encouraging that perspective, (one might argue that the police shows are in similar danger, but that's another post), especially with continuous references to agents being "on the front lines", as if by merely presenting my passport with my brown, foreign hand I represent a potential threat to citizens of the UK.

(Notice too the words to which they've chosen to give prominence on the website graphic: enforcement, asylum seeker, counterfeit, illegal worker, work permit, student visa. Is this the only business of the Border Agency? And what is the association of work permits and student visas with 'counterfeit', 'illegal worker' or even 'asylum seeker', which in these parts might as well be called 'baby eater'? They all fall neatly under the same column, as if we're meant to think, without qualification, that foreign workers and students are threats to security. Well, perhaps we are.)

I've not decided to write the entire program off. I see glimmers of an effort to be balanced, and there's one woman agent on the show whose manner in dealing with all candidates I've developed some admiration for. But she's one person. And one person does not offset institutionalized injustice if it exists. So I''ve got my eyes and ears trained on this one. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Are women really jonesing for Angelina?

This post is about sex and attraction. It contains some profanity and reference to genitalia. The references are by no means scandalous (ok maybe by some means), but if you're shy about 4-letter words, consider this your warning.

So yesterday morning, via The F-Word Blog, I came across this post by someone called Bitchy Jones (BJ). And I imagine Lynne at The F-Word linked it because she agreed and found it brilliant, as her title "Bitchy Jones is onto something" suggests. But while this BJ person may have a general point, that is, she may be correct in part, I find the overarching message of what she asserts a steaming pile of doodoo. And this post is to explain why.

So she, BJ, is at a party.

The talk is, as it often is, of popular culture. Celebrities we’d like to fuck. We, are seven or eight of us at a table, urbanites, almost exclusively thirtysomething, artsy professionals – basically, if you handed any of us a latte we would drink it – and then one woman, a good friend, says, yeah, but we’d all fuck Angeline Jolie, right?

And she is annoyed by this because:

It is because the highest compliment you can pay a woman is to proclaim that you find her fuckable.

Always and forever and as simple as that.

If you admire a woman and like her, if you find her witty and attractive, if you like the way she thinks, well obviously, you want to fuck her. Because if you were a straight man, that’s where that would lead. But if you’re someone who isn’t sexually attracted to women, you might think you are feeling that too, you might even feel that you are insulting that woman if you don’t want to sleep with her (dishing out the ultimate insult by calling her unfuckable).

Now I get some of what she's saying. First, the notion that we should all want to have sex with Angelina Jolie because her exquisite beauty surpasses personal taste is, in fact, annoying. And tired. And premised on an imposed European standard of beauty that just induces my "Oh give me a big, fat, nougat-filled break" eyeroll response. Angelina Jolie would not be my bag, and don't tell me that I'm in denial. Because as a black, Caribbean woman, surely you can understand that were I attracted to women, a slight, pale, White woman, lovely though she is, might just not be what gets me purring. So I get that part of BJ's meandering diatribe.

I also get the notion that it sometimes slips into our vernacular to - in the way we offer praise - reduce ourselves to what has been determined as women's most important worth. That is to say, we want to convey our thorough admiration for someone, man or woman, and the best we can do is to claim that we love him, or we want to marry her, or we want to have his babies. The commentary in those statements is that the highest praise and prize we can offer is ourselves as lover, wife, mother. Our verbal, intellectual praise or support is not enough. So that it's alright for a man to say as his highest praise "Oh I really support Obama's agenda. He's the best President the United States has seen in my lifetime." But we as women feel forced to say "Obama rocks. Seriously. I want to have his babies." And I get how it might happen. We're being a little facetious; we find it funny; and we don't really examine where it's coming from.

BJ takes it a step further, and suggests that when straight women make this kind of statement about other women, we are not just reducing ourselves to our sexuality and value as objects to be f*cked, but we are reducing those women as well.

[T]his I’d-so-sleep-with-her phenomenon is pretty much just a side shoot from the whole damn dirty deal where women are mainly for fucking and generally supplying sex and men are the choosers and enjoyers of that sex. And also the whole thing that every piece of expression of anything ever should be expressed in the kind of terms and ideas straight men would use, as if that is some kind of default language because straight men will get confused if you don’t because they have never learned anything else, and they’ve never learned anything else because they are the default so they don’t need to.

Well, ok. Except, your example of Angelina is a little weak if this is meant to be your point. Because really, while Angelina is very civic-minded and activist, her main product as actor and public persona has mostly been as a beautiful woman, not as a politician or writer or even, dare I say, as a brilliant actor. So it is, I think, reasonable to say that those women who say they want to sleep with Angelina are not doing as much reducing of her person to the mere sexual as say, those who say they want to sleep with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I don't think this particular Angelina desire is based on the idea that in order to express your admiration for someone's work or ideology, you have to do so in language that men have invented and we have all appropriated. I think that these people probably do feel some kind of physical attraction: perhaps to look like her, if not to f*ck her. (Glory knows they couldn't possibly like her pouting snarling acting.)

And BJ includes a kind of cowardly caveat toward the end which, I think, she should have led with, or at least paid more attention to. And it is this:

I know this post can be read as somewhat, uh, dismissive of ideas of sexual fluidity. I do appreciate that there is a whole Kinsey scale and everything. And that wherever you might think of yourself on that scale it isn’t fixed for life, but I didn’t want to clutter up my beayootifuel writins with endless qualifications about how this might not apply if you are bisexual or some other kind of self identified sexual lucky dipper. But sexual fluidity can be used to wash away women’s own sexual identities. Too much fluidity, too much choice, ends – bizarrely – in homogeny.

The post is dismissive, and condescending, and patronizing and insulting. And even the disclaimer above is not much better. Because the writer is telling women: "wherever you may think yourself on the Kinsey scale, if you're straight, you probably don't relish the notion of licking Angelina's clitoris. You may think you do, but you really don't. I know." And even with a more generous interpretation, the disclaimer is meant for what she imagines are the small minority of self-aware, not-strictly-heterosexual women to whom her analysis does not apply, as against the misguided, staunchly heterosexual masses of us who can't express admiration except on men's terms.

And she is also telling us that we can't distinguish between admiring someone and wanting to sleep with them. Because we get confused, you see. We don't know what our little pink feelings are all about. And I find that anti-feminist. Yep. I done gone and used the A word. So bring it.

Because I am able to distinguish and articulate my admiration of Rihanna's red carpet poise; and Aisha Tyler's hilarity; and Michelle Obama's eloquence; and Cate Blanchett's acting, as completely separate from the fact that I think Maria Bello has a beautiful mouth and Zoe Saldana is gorgeous and Jennifer Connelly is striking. The former I admire and respect for their talent, and can acknowledge that they're beautiful, but there is no level of physical attraction there. The latter I honestly find hot (not that they're not talented as well), and while I might not want to lick their vaginas because vaginas are not my bag, I can acknowledge that were I in their presence, I might pay attention to a little more than what they had to say. Granted, I've probably only stuck my toe out of Category 0 on the Kinsey Scale, but I own that. And my brain, female though it may be, is able to make that distinction. And let's not forget that a large part of physical attraction is tied up in the non-physical. I might be physically attracted to a man not just because he's pleasant to look at, but also perhaps because he's good at what he does, or seems kind, or speaks well. Might that not be what's involved in women - who identify as straight but feel a bit of loin-stirring for some members of their own sex - expressing their desire for other women? The factors of sexual attractiveness are not as black and white; as talent vs. f*ckability as BJ would suggest.

At some point BJ also half-jokingly suggests an either/or situation, as if to say "STFU no way you straight b*tches would sleep with Maggie over Jake [Gyllenhaal]!" Well that's hardly the point, is it? Since I'm straight, my preference for sexual activity is with men. A woman I might (and this is the hypothetical 'I' so please don't flood my Inbox with oh em gees about my sexuality) want to kiss or fondle or look at or masturbate over, depending on who I am. And I don't have to refrain from those feelings because you have determined that I have to be firmly planted at 0. Yes, I saw your "but I don't mean youuuu" disclaimer, and I ain't buying.

So while I do think we could all benefit from checking ourselves if we're given to using language of admiration that reduces both admirer and admiree to our worth as wives, mothers, lovers and nothing else, I also think that we need to be careful not to invalidate people's true feelings and experiences with our angry theories. The women-are-hot, frat-party, lesbian makeout dynamic among young, straight women is tired, yes. But seeking male validation is not always what's behind expressions of women's sexual desire. If you don't want to f*ck Angelina, then don't you f*ck her. But some of those who say they want to actually do. So I see some value in some of what you say, but in general, just stop policing everyone's sexuality. It must be exhausting.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

We're all in IDAHO now

Today is IDAHO: International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, and being from the Caribbean, boy am I glad this day exists as an internationally-recognized occasion around which we can advocate for people to stop the hateful nonsense that is homophobia and transphobia. From the IDAHO UK website:

[IDAHO] was founded by Louis Georges Tin in 2005. Campaigns and Initi[a]tives take place on or around May 17th every year to combat prejudice against LGBT people. May 17th is chosen because it marks the anniversary of the day in 1990 when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental diseases.

IDAHO is needed because: 86 member states of the United Nations still criminalise consensual same sex among adults. Among these 7 have legal provisions with the death penalty as punishment. In addition, there are 6 provinces or territorial units which also punish hom[o]sexuality with imprisonment.

IDAHO day can also be celebratory because all over the world people are fighting against the persecution of LGBT people and are involved in positive initiatives and campaigns which can be celebrated and give hope for the future.


This year the IDAHO theme is "End Transphobia: Respect Gender Identity". Please sign the petition to support this campaign.

In December 2008 a declaration against homophobia and gender identity discrimination was finally heard at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The website also lists IDAHO events in the UK by region, and you can see what else is going on worldwide here.

Amid growing calls in the international activist community to boycott tourism and products that would benefit 'homophobic countries' - on the list of which Jamaica features high - Barbados too has been censured in a recent shadow report "for its criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity and the violation of the rights of lesbian[s], gay[s], bisexual[s] and transgender[ed people] (LGBT)." While I think that the types of boycotts mentioned are often ill-conceived and counter-productive (if you want to change public attitudes towards the LGBT community, maintaining the already poor in poverty is not the way to do it), and based on the absurd notion that for example Jamaica is one homogeneous society thinking and acting as one, I do believe that properly-implemented action by the international community is one of the ways to develop political will among these countries' own governments to effect change from within. Tying development aid or representation on certain international bodies to the proven enforcement of human rights conventions is one place to start, and while it is not the place of the US or any other country to wholly dictate cultural values to another country, it is certainly the place of all of us to expose institutionalized bigotry and hate in countries that claim to promote human freedoms for all.

And positive momentum is already building. Barbados, with a highly-educated young population who acknowledge the value of complete civil freedoms, is fully engaged in a discussion on LGBT rights. While there is a significant, religion-led voice that would seek to withhold these rights - as there is in the US (let us acknowledge that this is not some purely 'third world' scourge as some would represent), there is also a progressive, politically savvy community that is becoming less afraid to support the LGBT struggle for equality. And this community is growing, and becoming more equipped to expose the insularity and fear that are at the root of most of the anti-gay arguments.

So on this IDAHO, I feel hopeful and encouraged to continue to advocate alongside and in support of LGBT individuals, especially in my corner of the world, one of the places it is most needed. I think that with our commitment, truth, justice and - let's face it - plain common sense and decency will win.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Crime, justice and policing: some mongoose updates

Here are some updates on stories we've covered here in the Chronicles in the last few weeks, brought to you by the gloriousness that is Benicio del Toro as he keeps my company on this Friday night in the crappiness that is The Hunted.

Back in February, I commented on the sloppy and purposely inflammatory reporting on the I'Akobi Maloney inquest. Three weeks ago, a verdict returned concerning the young man's death determined 'death by misadventure' as the cause, absolving local police of any wrongdoing.

A verdict of misadventure, as distinct from one of accidental death, indicates some "deliberate but lawful human act which has unexpectedly taken a turn that leads to death".
Interestingly, the coroner found that "Rastafrians [were] being profiled by the police, and [...] that the Royal Barbados Police Force needed to examine this problem". She also found that "Maloney did not commit suicide and that he was not engaged in any homosexual activities". Because clearly, the idea that he may have been gay is as important as whether his death was a result of foul play. The fact is, as ridiculous as this sounds as a finding of a coroner's inquest, it was probably declared in good faith as a way of 'preserving the memory' of the deceased. Such is the state of homophobia in Barbados, that an official inquiry feels compelled to clear victims of accusations of homosexuality.

Maloney's family remains unsatisfied with the verdict, and issued a written statement to that effect.
But the family said they were satisfied that the coroner had cleared I'Akobi's name from being associated with any homosexual activity.
So there's that.

In more news of possible police misconduct, this time here in London, there has been no loss of momentum concerning the Ian Tomlinson G20 protest incident. Since then, we've learnt that members of the Met police may have embedded themselves within the group of penned in G20 protesters in order to incite them to violence. In the meantime, the Tomlinson inquiry gets underway by examining claims that the Met police deliberately misled the public over the events surrounding Tomlinson's death - charges which, if proven, could bring sanctions separate from those associated with the death itself.

Scotland Yard, in reviewing its policing of demonstrations following the G20 protests, is therefore questioning whether "London needs harsher, European-style methods that could include the use of water cannon. " So after a man has died, a woman has been attacked by a police officer and thousands have been left feeling dissatisfied and exploited by police conduct during the protests, we're considering whether we should blast people away with water cannons in future demonstrations. Do you see how that makes perfect sense? Because it does.

More on the Tomlinson case


And finally, following new research suggesting that Britain has the lowest rape conviction rate in Europe, a statistic reported here in discussing police handling of the Worboys and Reid rape cases, a policing standards watchdog has undertaken an initiative consulting rape victims on why they feel that they are being failed by the criminal justice system.

The study’s author, Liz Kelly, an expert on sexual violence who has advised senior police and the Home Office, criticises a “culture of scepticism” among officers and prosecutors and says that too many people are wedded to the stereotype of the rapist as a violent stranger.

The project to ask victims about their own experiences will be conducted next year and is part of a nationwide audit of police forces and Crown Prosecution Service performance. It is a significant departure for HMIC, which has focused previously on policing procedures and performance. In another joint initiative by the Home Office and Association of Chief Police Officers, a group known as the rape support programme will begin touring the country this month advising police forces on how to implement the latest guidance on rape investigations.

Dave Gee, the former detective chief superintendent who heads the programme, said that Britain’s low conviction rates were partly due to poor evidence gathering and “indifferent attitudes” towards rape by police. “Too often, because of the negative mind at the outset, the case is undermined rather than built up,” he said.

I'm encouraged by this step. I'm anxious to see how it will be implemented and utilized, and what kinds of trends it will uncover.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Chris Gayle wants to play a little rounders and then have a lie-down

Anyone want to remind Chris Gayle that he and the side he captains are in the middle of an England Test series tour? Because I think he forgot.

From the moment Chris Gayle descends to the lobby of his London hotel, it appears he does not want to be there. He does not want to be in chilly England, and he does not want to be up early when his preferred habit is to sleep in until 2pm. Then the list continues, and he admits that he does not want to be West Indies captain any more and that he does not particularly care for Test cricket.

Gayle, having arrived just two days prior to the start of the first Test match in which the West Indies were thoroughly trounced, has been fielding quite a bit of criticism over his perceived commitment to his sport and his side. His response? To prove the critics right.

The rest of the article is frankly painful to read, and I feel embarrassed not just for his team, but for Gayle as well, who seems to need a bit of a crash course in media relations. But once the embarrassment wears off, I mostly feel annoyed.

First, what is all this nonsense about Test cricket being phased out in favour of a strictly Twenty20 format? Stop the blasphemy. A Test match demands skills and character that are not tested in a 75-minute innings. It requires more stamina, sustained focus and a different approach to strategy on the pitch. This is why it exists alongside one-day or any other limited overs cricket. It is, in my mind, crucial to the assessment of a national/regional side, and not an old form of the game. It is the game.

It seems to me that amidst the glamour and big payoffs of the IPL, players are realizing that they can play less cricket per tournament and make more money. And in a sport that isn't historically very highly remunerated in comparison to its counterparts at similar levels of play, this is certainly an understandable position to hold. Besides, who doesn't want to play before larger crowds, fuelled by beautiful cheerleaders who - if amateurish and confused-looking - are certainly eager at least? Twenty20 has been credited with birthing new fans of the game, which - for practical (financial) as well as cultural reasons - must be a good thing. I will confess that I tend to be drawn more to matches with calm, stuck-in players in cricket whites with red-ball stains rather than to those with a flurry of colours and errant streamers from poorly-constructed pom-poms. But old farts everywhere felt the same about tennis, and now look at us: Nadal wears mustard manpris and no-one bats an eyelash.

But do we need to choose one or the other? Certainly not. I see no reason why we can't put together a season calendar that reasonably accommodates all forms of the game. I would argue that if we want to preserve Test cricket, we have to reaffirm its prestige. But with the West Indies captain essentially declaring it irrelevant, it doesn't look too good.

My argument with Gayle is that if you have very strong feelings about the suitability of Test cricket to your current career and purposes, as he, in hindsight, claims he does, fine. You know when is an appropriate time to air those concerns? Not the day before the start of your second Test match, after having completely lost the plot at Lords in the first. The Guardian is not your confessor. Write that sh*t in your diary, or wait until you're not taking your squad into a match with morale already low.

And this brings us to the whole mess about him no longer wanting to be captain, which is arguably a far worse statement to make than his take on the fate of Test cricket. Gayle seems sullen, uninspired, unmotivated and whingey. He complains about having to speak, having to travel, having to wake up before noon and having to win. Boy, life as a superstar cricketer sure is hard. I'm sure his wallet is also too small for his millions and his diamond shoes are too tight. It is clear that he was the West Indies' unwilling standard-bearer after Chanderpaul - an equally reluctant leader - and Sarwan relinquished the title. This is fair enough. But you took the job, so now you have to show up. The very hot-potato bouncing around of the captaincy over the last couple years is in itself saddening. It is in part the result of having a young, inexperienced side, but also, I think, of the fact that 'team captain' doesn't mean much anymore.

Gayle does say one true thing, though, of his predecessors:

"In their time they dominated Test cricket," he says. "They don't know what it is like actually to lose and how to deal with it. They don't know how to deal with losing, and then try and get a ­couple of wins under our belt."

Yes, losing is hard. And trying to pull the West Indies up by its bootstraps is not an enviable task at this moment in cricket, especially given what seems like tension between the desire of the WICB to reestablish our legacy as masters of Test cricket, and that of some players to play a quick twenty and get on with it. (There has to be some consensus from within on the preferred direction, and the matches that players are given leave to play must reflect that.) But you know what doesn't help? Moaning about it in the middle of a Test series. I'm all for honesty in interviews when you're back in Jamaica kicking back on the beach, or at the end of a tour even; or how about after an official announcement? But not now. Now it's time to pull on your big boy underoos and play some cricket.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Trafalgar Heroes Parliament Square...wait...what was I saying?

Will somebody tell me what in rainbow tarnation is going on in Barbados? In response to the sustained controversy regarding whether the statue of Lord Nelson should be relocated or remain in Heroes Square, Minister of Community Development and Culture Steve Blackett has taken the genius decision that:

[T]he much-debated Nelson Statute will not be physically moved, but it will be repositioned in the design to be part of The City called The Cage, which will be between Parliament Square "and somewhat closer to what has been recently renamed the Slave Gate".

Pardon? So not only is the statue of the anti-abolitionist going to remain, but now we're naming places in the capital city The Cage and Slave Gate? We should just rename Spry Street The Middle Passage and complete the 21st century oppression experience. I'm a proponent of acknowledging our history of slavery, but there could be no clearer example of how not to do it than this jaw-dropping mess right here.

And in more turned around, inside-out confusion, what was once Trafalgar Square and was renamed Heroes' Square will now be called Parliament Square.

[W]hat will be happening is that Heroes Square would become Heroes Park and it will be a distinct and different location.

"We are looking at an area outside of Bridgetown which I will not reveal at this time but I can say it is a large, well-appointed place.

No. What will be happening is that no one will ever go to or care about Heroes Park, which will no doubt be on the fringes of some gully that's not even on a bus route. Because we don't need to be reminded who our national heroes are, but we do apparently need to be reminded where the Parliament buildings are, even as we pass right by them.

And Blackett also offered this brilliant analogy:

"This is purely because I am not one for tinkering with history but some of the anti-Nelson people have been asking for the removal of Nelson from there.

"But 100 years from now, if we are to set a dangerous precedent like that, the generation of that era might call for the removal of Errol Barrow from Independence Square, Sir Frank Walcott from his place at the front of the National Insurance Building, or any of the other statues that are placed around Barbados," he said.

Really, you're comparing the relevance of a man nicknamed the Father of Independence with that of a white, 19th century British admiral? I suppose a statue is a statue, and Blackett is protecting the rights and sensibilities of all statues across the island. I imagine that's easier than protecting the sensibilities of its actual, live people.

And where is the money coming from for this renaming, relocating extravaganza? The budget address is this coming Monday. I'm going to need a number on this one, Steve. I'm going to need a really convincing justification for how the government, in the midst of a global recession with the accompanying job losses and decline in development aid, can manage to get their feng shui on all over the place.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

You're fat because your chicken breast is bigger than your fist

If you watch The Biggest Loser, you know that it is essentially a weight loss competition where overweight people form teams to see who can lose the most weight collectively. Each week, whoever has lost the least as a percentage of her total body weight is eligible to be sent home. By the end, one person will have been declared the biggest loser, and will receive a $250 000 prize (in the UK it's £10 000. We can't catch a break) amid much fanfare and confetti. Sound potentially problematic? Well no kidding.

The contestants exercise for hours and hours every day on a restricted-calorie diet. So clearly the show is just about entertainment for its viewers, since this lifestyle is not practical for anyone outisde the show who's not a professional athlete, a member of the Armed Forces or from the planet Krypton. (They do have a Biggest Loser Club, though, which is essentially a less psychotic, online diet and exercise support plan geared toward weight loss, and based on the show.) I've watched a couple episodes of the US version, and even though I have several issues with almost everything about the show's premise and execution, I at least found the trainers/team leaders entertaining.

Celebrity ubertrainers (or should that be ubercelebrity trainers? Whatever. They're uber) Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper each take a team through daily workouts and help drive their success. Jillian is your typical, tough taskmaster, who often appears bewildered and victimized when progress does not occur as expected; while Bob is a positive-thinking, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed sort who I'm almost positive is being dosed with happy pills without his knowledge. He seems to think that fat people are just broken thin people. And doggone it if he ain't gonna fix 'em. I'll admit: I've often caught myself liking Bob despite myself and all the things wrong with his apparent philosophy. He's just so earnest.

The UK version is decidedly worse. Because it features all the things wrong with the show - the unrealistic, stress-inducing workout regimen; the weight-loss as competition dynamic; the stripping down of contestants for weigh-ins as if they're livestock at market, and as if to remind us that they are in fact huge and have the rolls to prove it, in case we'd forgotten - but has none of the entertainment factor. Yes, I acknowledge the problem with this statement: why do I want to be entertained by the show if I concede that the entire thing is a mess? I don't. I've only watched it a handful of times in order to be able to make an informed judgement. But I notice that the UK version has not one redeeming factor: the trainers - whose personalities are meant to be at least interesting enough that their interaction with the contestants creates some intrigue - are dull as grass.

One also gets the impression that the UK producers were aiming to recreate a similar match-up to that of the US version: one of the trainers is a tough, non-bullshit-having woman, and the other is a focused (but milder-mannered?) man. Both try too hard. And the result is a big pile of snore.
But today, my second time watching the show, there were some fireworks, and by 'fireworks' I mean extra-loud yelling, dramatic camera shots and plenty food- and fat-shaming. Trainer Angie stops by the house for a surprise lunch inspection. Don't you hate when that happens? She walks in to find Jennifer, the mum in the mother-daughter team above (contestants are paired up in this series), eating chicken breast she had just prepared. Angie then begins to yell at Jennifer, in front of everyone including Jennifer's daughter Sadie, about the fact that there are no carbs or vegetables on the plate, and that she is eating more than a single portion of chicken. She also belittles her for having had steak the night before. While Angie stands there bellowing, pointing at the offending meal, flailing about and otherwise losing her sh*t over this unforgivable food transgression, Jennifer sits there looking morose, embarrassed, and most of all, hungry. Sadie, who is directly next to her, tries to pull it together for the both of them by agreeing to eat some spinach.

The segment is interspersed with video clips of the other contestants remarking that Jennifer knows she's eating too much, and that they've tried to speak to her about it. The implication is that the only thing that will get through to her is a good old verbal flogging delivered by Angie who, I'm sorry, seems to have no idea how to do the tough love thing, if it is even appropriate here.

I suppose none of this should be surprising, given the premise of the show: let's haul some fatties in here and beat them into shape. But I admit that I was alarmed by the abuse this woman was forced to suffer. First, as the slowest loser to date, apparently, Jennifer was trying to accelerate her weight loss by eating low-carb. Ill-advised though this may be, it does indicate a level of effort and an unwillingness to once again be in the spotlight as the weight-loss failure. Do they expect to throw these people into a competition under extreme physical and psychological conditions and have no bad/compulsive habits develop? I'd be more surprised if they didn't all end up with patterns of disordered eating.

Second, the woman is obviously hongray! During the entire dressing down, she sat there staring longingly at her delicious chicken breast that was going cold and was probably now covered in spittle and hate. And it isn't necessarily because she's greedy, as she was forced to mutter. It's because a body her size probably can't subsist on the fist-sized portion measure that Angie was waving in her face. That's not to say that it's impossible to stick to the diet and lose weight. Clearly it's not: almost everyone on the show loses. But they're not all the same person. Not everyone can change their bodies by sheer force of will. Hunger is not a figment of the imagination, and it won't be exorcised by another hour on the treadmill.

Sadie was worried that after the embarrassing talking-to, her mother would tell Angie where to shove her fist(-sized portion) and give up. And I would think that's a very real concern with anyone who's struggling to lose weight. This show already makes no secret of its extreme methods of trying to get all bodies to look and behave the same. Now they've added express public humiliation to the mix. I don't think the contestants are the only 'losers' here.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Hands up who wants to smell like a Konvict!

Akon, who believes that conflict diamonds are a figment of your imagination, is launching two fragrances. Via Jezebel and WWD:

Named after his top-selling album Konvict and his given name Aliaune "Akon" Thiam, the two scents will be produced in partnership with the singer's newly formed company, Konvict Cosmetics Intl.

Hmmm...the scent of the Akon brand: what would it be? What would it be? I say wadded up Kleenex from the floor of a stripclub bathroom and cheap whiskey, with topnotes of sweat and vomit. Perfect for the summer months.
"We are excited and honored to launch both Aliuane and Konvict with Akon," says Jack Aini, chief executive officer of Konvict Cosmetics.
If Jack managed to say that with a straight face, I applaud him. But then, he's CEO of a company named Konvict, so I probably underestimate his embarrassment threshold.

Industry sources expect the two scents to generate about $25 million in first-year retail sales. Aliaune, which is meant to target an older more sophisticated customer will be priced $55 for 3.4 oz. Konvict, meant to speak to a younger consumer, will be available in 3.4 oz. for $35.
Well, you old folks have missed your chance to be Konvicts. That's purely a youthful aspiration.

Stay kclassy, Konvict KCosmetics (Int'l)!

"Too indulgent" mother denied access to her children

Help me. Because I'm having a really difficult time understanding exactly what on earth is going on here. I'm going to have to post most of the article, because it's just paragraph after paragraph of wtf [emphasis mine]:

A COURT has denied the former wife of a rich City financier all access to their three children after she was found to be turning them against him.

In an extraordinary ruling, the woman, who was also judged to be too indulgent a parent, has been legally barred from seeing her children for three years. She was jailed for approaching one of them in the street and telling him she loved him in breach of a court order. She is facing a possible return to jail this summer for posting a video about her plight on the internet.

The woman judge presiding over the case justified banning contact between the mother and her children because they were being placed in “an intolerable situation of conflict of loyalties resulting in them suffering serious emotional harm”.

During supervised visits with her, the children made serious allegations about their father which were later shown to be unfounded. Social workers believed the mother was either prompting them to make the claims or they were saying them just to please her.

A psychiatrist who assessed the case said the mother “loved her children” but had harmed their development by trying to be always “available” to them.

The judge said she had “serious concern about [the mother] infantilising the children, encouraging them to make complaints about the father and encouraging them to want to take an inappropriate part in these proceedings”.

The mother breached an injunction excluding her from her children’s lives by approaching her son in public. She also sent texts to her former husband, including one saying she was sorry. Another said she would do whatever he wanted to get access. She was sentenced to a month in prison.

Custody cases are messy, and it's not unheard of that children, confused, make unfounded allegations against one parent, or even that angry parents seek to influence their children against the other party. But this is the kind of dysfunction that merits court-mandated parenting classes or restricted, supervised visits. Surely it doesn't merit removing all access to the children.

"The woman judge presiding over the case justified banning contact between the mother and her children because they were being placed in “an intolerable situation of conflict of loyalties resulting in them suffering serious emotional harm”."

That's called divorce: there will be conflict of loyalties. The role of both parents and the courts is to minimize the harm caused by this conflict, not to place all blame with one party and imprison her. And if she was suffering post-partum depression that, according to her, contributed to the unfolding of these events, then she ought not to have been punished for it, but rather supported through it along with her family. If there was a court order in place barring access to the children, and it was breached, then this mother has to accept responsibility for that, and one might argue that she knew the consequences of not adhering to the law, and contacted the children anyway. But to spend a month in jail for telling her son she loved him, and to face further jail time for posting a video on the internet? Something about this does not sit right with me.

"A psychiatrist who assessed the case said the mother “loved her children” but had harmed their development by trying to be always “available” to them."

That devil woman. I think that at worst, when I picture the most exaggerated incarnation of who this woman might be, I see someone in need of some psychiatric attention and help with parenting. But absent other details, it seems like three years' removal from her children is a bit of overkill. Still, I have not reproduced. So maybe I'm missing some analytical skill that from the point of view of the other parent, would deem this ruling a fair one. I submit myself to your enlightenment.

Read an article containing more details and an interview with the mother here.

Friday, 8 May 2009

And finally, a bit of musical nostalgia in honour of Mother's Day

So my mother got us the Little Shop of Horrors video back in the day, and she, my sisters and I watched it together somewhere between 9 172 and one meelion times. The following clip was one of my favourite parts, because even though "Feed Me" and the crazy dentist bit with Steve Martin and Bill Murray got all the attention, Skid Row had all the vocal chops. Tichina Arnold and Tisha Campbell-Martin are so much more than Pam and Gina in this film.

I know every part of this production: every single lyric, bit of dialogue, harmony. It gave me pleasure. My mother would sometimes come into the front house (that's 'living room' for you outsiders) and say "Want to watch the plant?" which of course meant the film. And duh(!) we always wanted to watch The Plant. Who wouldn't want to watch The Plant? So watch this bit of The Plant with me. Sing it, Gina:

In which I promptly remember things I had just forgotten

Also, my mother worked for many years at a care facility for young people with special learning and developmental needs. For some of the others who worked there, it seemed it was just a job (which is fair enough); but for my mother, it was an opportunity to build really special relationships. Some of the children didn't have parents in their lives, and weren't very acquainted with a home life that was different from the slightly regimented, honestly boring as rocks care home. So sometimes my mum would bring them home for weekend visits or have them come out with us when she felt we were doing something they would enjoy.

One of the boys fell in love with her, and vice versa. He came to stay all the time. And at first, even though we had been taught to be polite to everyone, we really didn't care for him. He was about our age, so he wasn't cutesy to us the way a baby might be. And he was loud. He also had a lot of love to give, which was kind of the point, what my mother was trying to give him an outlet for, but we didn't really want it. He was very talented - he sang and played the keyboard - and was always making something with his hands. He had been born with a condition that caused the digits on his hands not to form or move separately, and was also born with one leg and wore a prosthetic limb. Sometimes the prosthesis would hurt, because he was still growing, so he would remove it and drag it around the house behind him.

Some of this was shocking for us at first, and once or twice when we complained to my mother about his noise or effusiveness, she would explain to him that sometimes people needed a little quiet time, or remind him about inside voices. But for the most part, she was having none of it from us. She knew it was our privilege talking - our unwillingness to be made in the least bit uncomfortable. And she gave us a huge, steaming pile of 'get over it'. She didn't have to say much. But I think the fact that our whole lives, we were shown that you have to share your world and your space and your kindness with other people, that she removed any sense of entitlement from us by opening our home up to others that she also entitled to what we had, was one of the most important lessons of my childhood.

That was 20 years ago. My mum is still working with children and still taking them home. We warn her that this is a different time, and one has to be careful of misunderstandings that might create a difficult situation with parents or authorities. Because even with the best intentions, it has been known to happen. All she says is that she hasn't had a misunderstanding yet. But she has enjoyed and helped a lot of wonderful children. And we can't really argue with that.

In which I boast about my pet goat, my library tickets, and my inimitable mamá

It occurs to me that since Sunday is Mother's Day (Mothering Sunday in the UK was March 22, but my family celebrates the May Mother's Day. Also, Mothering Sunday is kind of a creepy name. It sounds like we're all meant to go out and nurse and diaper whatever we can find - maybe a frog or the postman or David Hasselhoff), I should say something inspired about motherhood, or name my favourite mother characters in film or TV, or write a poem, a skit. Something.

My best friend just became a mother, and I was moved in unexpected ways when I heard that her daughter was born. That should give me an angle, right? Not so much. It does give me a beautiful new child in my life, and another person to call on Sunday, but no useful angle for a Mother's Day post. (I don't so much like the Mother's Day phone call, because after the somewhat weak "Happy Mother's Day!", you feel like you're meant to keep talking about motherly stuff, and I'm not sure what that would be. And it's a bit like that birthday call where you ask "So what does everyone have planned for you today?" and if the answer is "nothing", what can you say besides "I'm sorry your kids suck"? So I stick to calling only people I'd want to talk to anyway. The others get overcompensatingly exuberant e-cards.)

So I thought and I thought about my own mother and all the things I've learnt from her and what has changed about our relationship and all those things we've all thought about millions of times. I thought about how she always made all our clothes for special occasions, and about how that was the treat, not store-bought clothes. When my mother decided she could find the time to make us an outfit, then sat attentively while we described how we wanted a side zip but under no circumstances was it to be a back zip, and a scrunchie to match - the scrunchie was very important - and other ridiculous but crucial details, it was like Christmas. And I thought about how she would wake us in the middle of the night to make sure it fit because she wanted to sleep too, you know, and she wasn't the one going to Andre's birthday party tomorrow. And we would drip out of bed bleary-eyed and (silently, of course) grumpy, wait for the clothes to be pulled on, and then watch in gleeful amazement as we were transformed before our very eyes into Sheena Easton or Lisa Lisa or Ashley from Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Which was of course what we were going for.

And I thought too about Saturday morning trips to the library, when my mother would hang about talking to the library staff about what new books they had gotten in, while we chose our reading for the week. And then we would check the books out ourselves with our very own tickets and feel important because other people's parents were choosing and checking the books for them and wouldn't even let them keep their own tickets. I mean...pfft..what kind of amateur night were they running?

These two habits and passions of my mother's, clothes and books and everything associated with them, were without doubt passed on to me. Less lasting was her interest in farming and gardening. My mother was big on family food security and earning extra for our well-being, which is why I got all warm and smooshy inside when I saw Michelle Obama planting her White House kitchen garden - what we also called our backyard plot. But my mother didn't stop there. she never stopped anywhere. Soon we had chickens, pigs, sheep and all manner of livestock, and quickly realized that this was our deal too: bringing the sheep in from pasture (incidentally, black bellied sheep are given to running around your legs in circles when they're on ropes. So yay for surprise sheep games after school!); helping kill and pluck the chickens; choosing which piglets we would sell on and which we would keep. And when I started to question the whole canine/livestock inequality dynamic - whereby dogs ended up in our photographs and sheep in our stew - I was given a pet goat named Mars, helped my father build a pen for it, and was invited to explore the kind of relationship I might have with pet livestock, which wasn't as exciting as one might imagine.

And I realize that the thing most striking about these examples and about our relationship overall, is the amount of agency and personal responsibility that was involved on our end, as children; the extent to which my mother showed us that it was our thought, our imagination, our creativity and work that would determine the kind of outfits we wore, the food we ate, the kinds of journeys we could take through books and relationships, and the kinds of lives we would live. Even though we were young, we had a space to collaborate with her, and input that was valued. Of course, it was a lot less valued when it came to say, what time we could come home at night, but it counted in the important places. And my mother isn't my best friend these days, which might sadden some. But I don't think she has to be. I have lots of great friends; but there's only one woman on earth to whom I feel an unspeakable connection borne of the independence that she both taught me and allowed me in those early years. And wherever our relationship goes from here, for me, that is something whose value cannot be measured.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

How male is the recession?

One of the most common statistics emerging during this recession, in various incarnations, describes the extent to which men are disproportionately suffering from resulting job losses. A month ago, the NY Times speculated that women may begin to outnumber men in employment figures as layoffs rise, and Spiegel's Susanne Armann last week deemed the crisis "a very male recession".

But these kinds of articles that take aggregate layoff numbers, line them up and declare men the losers in a global recession are missing several issues. Take for example Armann's article, which deduces that men are worse off while acknowledging the following [emphasis mine]:

..a significantly higher number of men work than women. According to the Federal Employment Agency, male employment is currently 81.6 percent while female employment is only 69.2 percent. Those who work more are more likely, therefore, to lose their job.

In addition it is mostly full-time positions that are being cut -- and many women do not work a full 40-hour week. Around a third of employed women work part-time, while only 5.5 percent of working men are employed on a part-time basis.

That means that women are more likely to work in low-paid jobs. The Federal Employment Agency says that 67.4 percent of those in low-paid jobs are women, who often work as carers in retirement homes, supermarket cashiers, childminders or cleaners. These jobs may not be well paid but they are still required even in times of economic crisis.

So just to be clear: we're neatly bypassing the facts that more men than women work, that women's work tends to be part-time, and that it also tends to be lower-paid, and surmising that women are coming out on top in this economic crisis because fewer of them are losing their part-time/occasional, low-paying jobs.

However, better-paid women are also doing well, such as those working in traditionally more female spheres like education or health. The major industries like construction, manufacturing or even the financial services industry have always been more vulnerable to economic cycles and therefore suffer when the economy dips.

"Women are also more flexible when it comes to location or type of job and they adapt more quickly," says Falk of the DGB. "If a woman realizes that she hasn't got any more prospects somewhere then she tries to go somewhere else.

And once again, the old 'women are tough, they can handle it' argument. We seem to assume that women's response to economic hardship (moving or changing to find work) has little or no cost, whereas men's reality (lost employment) does. There is a cost associated with this perceived flexibility, that may involve education, transportation, shifts in family care arrangements, or increased care burdens within the home. If anything, women in some countries are less flexible because of a gendered division of labour which often sees their lives tied to those of their children. But they adapt in what is perceived as a cost-free shift, but may in fact carry several costs to the household. They adapt because women's incomes are still overwhelmingly skewed towards the health, education and well-being of their households, as against men's.

We also have to be careful not to ascribe the same economic behaviours and consequences to all men and women everywhere. In countries, especially in Europe, where there have been historically higher levels of state investment in the household economy, towards universal day care for example, there tends to be a lower cost associated with labour shifts. And while the recession began in developed nations, it certainly did not end there. Developing nations with large export markets are also being hit hard by reduced demand from the global North, and those markets often employ far more women than men.

And if the response is to invest in those industries with the highest losses, where men are more heavily concentrated, then at best, the post-recession economy will position men and women exactly where they were before: with women earning much less. What is required is not just worker protection laws to eliminate discrimination and create equal employment in those sectors without regard to sex, but also more jobs in women-dominated sectors, with higher, living wages and increased benefits.

So given all this, and while we observe all kinds of gendered job-loss phenomena, like positive correlations between male unemployment and incidences of intimate partner violence against women; a slow supply response to domestic care demand by newly-unemployed men (that means that apparently some men pretty much sit around and do nothing - for a really long time - as they adjust to their new situation, increasing the care burden for those who already provide it rather than lightening it. Don't eyeball me. I'm just reporting it); and increased anxiety among women regarding the economy (although this same writer says that women are more worried but men are more likely to just pretend not to be worried and freak out anyway), I wouldn't be so quick to summarily declare women the 'winners' here. There's a little more to the story than that. And while we do need to address men's overwhelming job losses where they exist, and their psychological responses to the recession, we also need to go a little deeper on both sides in order to gauge the real costs and risks, and shape adequate policy responses.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Child protection: you're doing it wrong

A very disturbing case of child trafficking has been in the news recently. It seems that since March 2006, 77 Chinese children have gone missing from a children's home in London, and only four have been found:
Organised criminal gangs have exploited a children's home beside Heathrow airport for the systematic trafficking of Chinese children to work in prostitution and the drugs trade across Britain, a secret immigration document reveals.


Only four have been found. Two girls returned after a year of exploitation in brothels in the Midlands. One was pregnant while the other had been surgically fitted with a contraceptive device in her arm. Others are coerced with physical threats to work as street-sellers of counterfeit goods. It is thought that many work in cannabis farms.

The document reveals that the children are "absconding" at the facilitation of organized crime groups, and when a spokesperson for the home was interviewed on the news recently, he was very quick to point out that the care facility cannot restrict the movements of children, implying that if they want to leave to get involved in prostitution and other nefarious activities, then no one can stop them.

I don't even know where to begin with this one. If, as the news report suggests, these children are taken into care after they have arrived at Heathrow airport having already been initiated into a trafficking ring, the fact is that at the moment the local authority places them with this children's home, it is responsible for their safety; unless the UK government has now turned to state-sanctioned pimping. If these were British children who had been taken from neglectful parents, and had then ended up in the hands of traffickers, all of the UK would be in an uproar. But somehow, we seem to have no problem acting as holdover facilities for Chinese children being sold into prostitution and child slavery. And after these children are taken to this home, how is it that they have the means to subsequently arrange with the traffickers to meet them at pre-designated locations? And why in great googly-moogly, after seeing a trend of flight from this particular institution next to Heathrow, do the authorities still take children fitting this particular profile to this same home, facilitating the traffickers' access? If they do intend to process them through the system and get to the bottom of their unescorted arrival to the UK, why not undertake reasonable measures to see that they are removed from immediate danger?

I'll tell you what it looks like. And you might gasp, choke and splutter at the implication but feel free because here it comes anyway: they can't be arsed. These are Chinese children who as far as they are concerned have already become involved in a system of trafficking, and if they disappear just as easily and as suddenly as they show up, well then so be it. They aren't British. Let someone else deal with them. The very idea that an official from or representing this home would get on the news and suggest that they don't lock the doors so the children can leave to be sold into prostitution if they want is the part that is gasp-worthy. There is no agency here. Would you jump through a window to run headlong into a life of unpaid or underpaid harrowing physical labour if you had the choice? If you didn't feel threatened or coerced or desperate? If you are going to take the step, as a government agency, to 'clean up' the sidewalks outside Heathrow by clearing these wandering children from it, then you are also responsible for taking every reasonable precaution to protect them from threats that you know exist.

As if there weren't enough evidence of buck-passing, Julian Worcester, the deputy director of Children's Services, had this to say:
"There is still a large proportion who go missing but the total numbers are going down," said Worcester. "As a result of coordinated action, Heathrow is now seen as a more difficult airport to traffic people through. We think some of the activity has been displaced to other airports, in particular Stansted in Essex and Manchester."

Ah well that's much better, then. Keep all that nasty trafficking business away from the tourist hubs.

The UK government is at the moment struggling with providing adequate protection for children who merit social care attention. Cases such as the one involving Baby P are strewn all over the news and rightly inspire public outrage that is very slow in dissipating. The lives of these 73 children who have disappeared from this home aren't worth any less than they would be if they had been born here. But it seems the authorities don't see it that way.
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