Thursday, 30 September 2010

Cisgender male PANIC!

The arrest and imprisonment of apparent transman Lee Brooks in Scotland represents a desperate panic situation for cisgender males. The crisis goes right to the heart of cis male identity and threatens to undermine their worldviews, their own perceptions of manhood and selfhood. Lee Brooks is in jail because what Lee has done represents such a profound threat to the very core of cisgender males' identities as men, that, despite the fact that it appears that Lee has almost certainly done nothing wrong or harmed anyone, this person will be severely punished for threatening to undermine male selfhood in such a profound way.

It is alleged that Lee lied to a number of women to the effect that they believed they were going to have sex with a man. The panic for men's very self image comes from the fact that at least one of these women must have been quite satisfied with this sex, since she was in a relationship with Lee for six years. The threat to men comes from the fact that a man without a penis can satisfy a woman, that a self-defining heterosexual woman can be happy in a relationship with such a person. Of course this is nothing new, musician Billy Tipton lived his life as a man, including being married to an apparently heterosexual woman. It was only discovered that he had been assigned female gender at birth when he died. He died of a very curable illness, because he was afraid to go to a doctor because he was terrified that he would be jailed if it was discovered that he did not have a penis. People have often reacted to this to the effect that it is almost unbelievable that he might think this, and that nowadays this would not be a problem. Maybe the case in Scotland demonstrates that he was right.

The important implication to draw from the cases of Billy Tipton and Lee Brooks, is that a man does not have to have a penis in order to maintain an extended sexual relationship with a women. Yet this is the one possibility which the male hegemonic culture must, from its own point of view, suppress at all costs. Men's identities are totally bound up with the fact that they posess a penis. The Freudian assumptions in this regard have become part of masculine culture to the extent that the phallus has become the core of male identity such that that male selfhood is almost entirely dependent on this. The idea that such an appendage can be irrelevant to maintaining a heterosexual relatinship with a woman is almost certainly privately terrifying to many people born with penises. This is why Carrie Paechter observed, in relation to transgender people, that the masculine gender is more heavily policed than the feminine gender. Men have much more to fear, and much more to loose, and their identities are much more fragile and more easily undermined.

However this also represents a potential cultural (as opposed to sexual or psychological) identities of the women who sleep with these transmen. This is almost certainly the reason why there has been a complaint made to the police after such a long time in a relationship. The Foucauldian idea of different sexual orientations developing into personal identities through the establishment of the categories of 'homosexual' and 'lesbian' means that women who percieve themselves as heterosexual and engage in this type of relationship are likely to feel the need to disown their involvement with someone like Lee because they do not want to be seen socially as lesbians. Indeed this entire trial and the reason why Lee is in jail now may well not be because of any wrongdoing but because of the crisis of identity of these women. It is likely that these women have gone to the law in order to establish their own identities as heterosexual women rather than because of any damage their involvement with Lee has caused them.

Of course there could be other sides to this story, we still have very little information however it seems that sam is likely to be severely punished, not for any sexual wrongdoing but because of the threat Lee represents to heterosexual, cisgender identities, particularly heterosexual cisgender male identities. Cis-masculine identities are too fragile to allow this challenge to go unpunished.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Tory version of the past and its threat to our children’s future

History should no longer involve the robotic learning of facts and propaganda, the crucial 21st century skills of critical analysis and evaluation of information have made it far too important for that.

As one of their priorities for education, the government has appointed a right-wing historian to impose its new History curriculum. This comes hard on the heels of the biggest centralisation of the education system since Margaret Thatcher ordered the original monolithic National Curriculum, SATs and Ofsted system back in the 1980s. However this new curriculum for History is all the more worrying, not merely because it gives lie to the Tories headline claim to be a party dedicated to reducing state dominance, but because it seriously threatens the present and the future of our children.

One of the most crucial 21st century skills, identified by many think-tanks, business and employers’ organisations, as well as universities, is the ability to search for, critically analyse, evaluate, and process information. Indeed this is probably the most vital generic skills children will need after literacy and numeracy. The relationship between information and the individual has changed entirely since 1990. The spread of the internet, the creation of Web 2.0 and information tagging has resulted in so much information becoming available to everyone in such an unstructured way that the skills of finding precisely what you need have now become much more complex than when most of us were at school. Not only that, but the levels of usefulness, trustworthiness, bias and reliability of the information available online is extremely varied, ranging from the genuinely enlightening and useful to the wildly inaccurate and dangerous. Since anyone can publish anything online the need today is for children to become their own editors-in-chief.

Children need not only to develop skills in locating information but also in assessing its relevance and bias and evaluating its reliability. These skills are the skills which will make a huge and tangible difference to most children’s lives in the 21st century, not only making them safer online while they are young but enabling them to become more effective in their adult working and social lives. It will be vital to provide them with the skills to be adaptable and flexible lifelong learners as the single, predictable, linear career for life becomes a thing of the past.

Yet studies of children’s information-seeking skills show that little has changed since the before the internet. Study after study has shown that children do not possess basic skills in finding, evaluating and using information whatever its source. For instance a study in 1991 demonstrated this by analysing high-school pupils’ interactions with historical evidence. Not only did they rate information as either biased or not biased, but they couldn’t identify sources as a means of assessing the nature of the information and then failed to make meaningful use of it. Further studies since then have shown that little has changed in this area despite the spread of the internet.

However, there is one subject on the curriculum that can prepare children for the information environment of the present and the future. Paradoxically that subject is History. Teaching children to find, evaluate, question and use historical sources, especially primary sources; the core skills of the historian, are the same skills children will need when locating, assessing and querying information online. Indeed, History presents teachers with a safe offline way to teach these skills.

Which is why the prospect of a right-wing historian dictating what children should and should not learn in History is against the interests of our children. By selecting such a figure to prescribe the curriculum, the government apparently wants History lessons to become some sort of stale exercise in rote-learning their version of the past rather than an active and engaging exercise, as it truly should be, in critical analysis and argument.

The coming of the internet has meant that History needs to take on a level of importance way beyond what it used to have 20 years ago. The skills of locating, critically evaluating and using information will be crucial for the future business, educational and social life of the generation currently in our schools. Of course, a party relying for its power on a selective and biased media which, for example, wants people to believe it will decentralise power, increase democratic participation and strengthen individual freedoms will not want a population able to engage in critical analysis and evaluation of what they are told. Despite it becoming an increasingly important skill in the globalised internet age, the last thing the Tories want your kids to be able to do is think for themselves.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Cameron. In the Shit. Already.

The sight of the Daily Mail already having a go at Ed Miliband's family (less that 12 hours after he was elected leader of the Labour party) suggests that the apparently serene blank windows of the right-wing establishment hide a greater insecurity than at any time since it became clear that Cameron was not going to win the general election. Yes, if you listen carefully outside Conservative Central Office and the citadels of the gutter press, you can hear the sound of soft furnishings being munched already. Apart from the boost this is going to give to Allied Carpets and other such retailers the reaction of this hard rightwing government to Miliband's election is already to be the passing of enough substantial turds to be used to fix the housing crisis.

Miliband's initial task will be to dispel the expected wave of crap from the Tory establishment that he is (yawn) "in the pocket of the unions", "Red Ed" and all those things. I suspect however that he also needs to come up with a decent left-of-centre narrative which is not just like what Laurie Penny described in her excellent article about the anti-Pope demo, an anti-everything movement which is also being drawn into the Tory discourse about cuts. Whilst he clearly realises that he cannot credibly position himself as being in opposition to all cuts, he needs to move more solidly towards a position in which investment and growth take the place of cuts.

This should not be difficult. The contrast between Ireland, which has already disastrously put in place the sort of cuts that Cameron is intending, and Spain, where public investment has already halved their deficit without creating large-scale unemployment, could not be more marked. Of course the Tory-controlled media and the sycophantic BBC have conveniently ignored these examples of the two divergent policies offered by the Tories and Labour. If anyone ever needed any more evidence that the Tory establishment's cuts were ideological rather than necessary this is it. One economist even stated yesterday that these represent almost laboratory-condition examples of how to get out of a recession and how not to get out of a recession.

In truth the Tories' lies and duplicity are already being exposed and when their cuts start to bite, throwing millions out of work or unnecessarily into poverty, they now know that there is an effective opposition ready to point the finger of blame and make them suffer electorally. Up to now Cameron has had it easy. Gordon Brown's inability to communicate was all his Christmasses come at once, and the opportunity to hide behind a man with a yellow tie (what was his name again?) as he makes the cuts enabled him to turn electoral defeat into a victory of sorts for his loony rightwing economic agenda. Since the election, the only hits Labour has landed on the Tories have been Ed Ball's attacks on Michael Gove's insane education policies which, of course represent a sitting duck for any politician worth their salary. Now the game has changed; Ed Miliband is the sort of politician with the media communicative ability to make Cameron's stage-managed informality look like the fake, insincere PR veneer that it is. The Labour leadership has also realised that there is no point in going for the LibDems, they are already a spent force that is likely to descend into infighting and disarray as their support collapses. No. Just as the solids of Tory economic incompetence hit the airconditioning, just as everyone (except the very rich) becomes less secure, less prosperous and less likely to continue to support Cameron's Cuts, Labour finds its voice again. Building a coherent alternative to the government's economic madness shouldn't be too difficult, and attacking their "achievements" will get easier by the day.

Time to look forward with some optimism. We just have to hope that we are not all too far up shit creek without a paddle by the time a sensible government can be elected.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Redrawing the Boundaries of the State

A number of things have happened recently which make it clear that "The State" is not what some people would like it to be. The most important of these is the New York Times revelations about the Prime Minister David Cameron's Media Advisor, Andy Coulson's alleged lawbreaking in respect of breaching the civil liberties of a large number of people. The NY Times allegations are serious and the UK public needs to know about them. Alas, unless they read the Guardian, they are extremely unlikely to find out about them.

Strangely though, on the day this story broke in New York a scandal about another minister in the government broke. He was accused of doing something neither unlawful nor immoral; being gay. Whether he is or not does not actually matter, the fact is that this story was very conveniently planted just at the right time to cover and distract from any possible whiff of a much more serious scandal, which does involve not merely doing something illegal and immoral, but something, namely breaching people's civil liberties and human rights, which the alleged perpetrator's employer, the Prime Minister used as a campaign tool during the general election.

Yet the silence from the media has been deafening. The allegation that someone this close to the government has been illegally tapping people's phones, something that even the security services can only do with difficulty and legal constraints, is not considered newsworthy by;

  • The BBC
  • ITN
  • Channel 4 News
  • The Independent
  • The Murdoch Press
  • Sky News
  • The Right-wing press incl. the Daily Mail and similar
  • Most political bloggers, including Guido Fawkes
  • The Daily Torygraph
OK so the fact that the right-wing press and the Murdoch press has censored this story is not surprising, but the fact that the others have also, especially the BBC, is worrying.

It is this censorship which gives greatest rise to concern. This is the sort of thing which should happen only in dictatorships. Stories about the government which are inconvenient for it are regularly censored in places like North Korea, Burma and China. So this begs the question about the mechanism behind how this functions in the UK. The only answer can be, is that since these media organisations now fulfil the same role which they do in these dictatorships, it too has to be considered an arm of the state.

Actually it has always seemed obvious to me that teachers, doctors, nurses, lecturers, librarians, home helps, classroom assistants etc. despite being paid from the public purse, are not arms of the state. They do not represent the state or the government while doing their jobs, in the way civil servants, the army or the police do. However it is clear that the censorship of this important story reveals how the majority of the media have effectively become part of the state apparatus in the UK even to the extent of pushing a cover-up distraction non-story (William Hague) to help bury it.

The normal distinction between state and non-state has, in the past been too simplistic anyway; "If you are paid by the public purse you are part of the state apparatus, if not you are not." Rubbish. The truth is that the private sector has, for a very long time, been taking on functions of the state, particularly the media. Perhaps it is better to use the word 'establishment'. The Establishment in the UK has always been those organisations in whom power is vested. This clearly includes the City, large private sector companies, the media and some very rich individuals. When the government is Conservative, the rest of the establishment works with it, when the government is Labour the rest of the establishment works against it.

It is time we regard this establishment as effectively representing arms of the real state. These are the sites of real power, these are the organisations which make the decisions that affect everyone's lives. This power base is all the more powerful because it is able to portray itself as seperate from the state and not part of it when it really is. It also has the power to position others who exercise no state power functions as being part of "the state".

However, this censorship of the Coulson scandal is appalling and, even more than the alleged act of phone-tapping, is something people should be much more concerned about. That the media is controlled to such an extent by rightwing billionnaires is the greatest threat to our freedom, civil and human rights.