Sunday, 30 July 2017

London Is My Girlfriend

Pret (Soho)
In Pret there is coffee. That means there are people. Or is it the other way around?
A man hunches over a table, smiles into his cell phone. With his free hand he picks up the leftover packaging from a hot wrap, sniffs it, puts it down. Spins it. He twists a finger in his ear, rubs his face.
Behind me, Spanish girls pick at pots of fruit. They eat like they don’t like the food, pinching it between forefinger and thumb. The guy with them talks loudly and throws his head back when he feels he’s made his point.
Noise rumbles through the place, the noise of things that don’t matter, and those that do. Posters declare, ‘rainforests are cool’, and, ‘freshly roasted Arabica beans’, as if people were in the habit of knowing (or caring) what their coffee beans are, or how the rainforest is doing. This isn’t Shoreditch.
Two men and two women sit; the one closest to me is a man in a blue cardigan and movie-style hair, perfectly coiffed. Every time he nods it bobs up and down a little. His cardigan has leather elbow patches, and when people talk he’s not really listening. I would be a bad person to give superpowers to. I would punch that guy in the face for the hell of it. I wonder if Superman ever got sued for destroying Manhattan – sorry, Metropolis.

The woman in front of me wears full winter regalia in a hot café. Hat, scarf, North Face jacket. She sits with her arms pinched in, like she’s afraid of attack at any moment.
On the wall a paper rack announces tube strikes averted – for now. In England, the papers turn even good news into a threat.
People leave, and I can see that perfect-hair-guy has another perfect-hair friend who I also dislike. Why? It can’t be hair. Who gives a shit about hair?
Children climb around on chairs. The girl with the bunny sweatshirt cries for no reason; her brother drops a kinder egg and scrambles around on the floor, collecting the pieces. Ten seconds later the girl is happy again, bouncing around on the chairs like she can never be hurt, or even understand the concept. I can see how such an attitude would have merit.

The Asparagus
There’s a woman with birds-nest hair, grey and white; she rests her cane against the table, digs through a ‘durable’ Asda bag, places half a pint of milk on the table. Inside the plastic bag is another plastic bag; she rummages, picks things up and holds them jealously in her claws. They’ll not be things anyone wants. She folds the bag up tightly, places it back in the other bag, takes out another one, repeats the process.
To my right a man orders Carlsberg. He doesn’t sound like he belongs here, but then again, neither do I. I wait for my burger, ignore the strange wafts which come past me. I wanted all-day breakfast, but they only serve breakfast here until noon. The humanity.
The food is exactly what you’d expect: watery BBQ sauce, chewy bacon, chips lukewarm but crisp and fluffy. I’ll eat it all. I need salt and mayonnaise.
A man sits at a bar but not at the bar, dressed like Steve Jobs, cellphone call after cellphone call; but if you’re at a Wetherspoons at one pm on a Saturday, Steve Jobs you aint.
The knife and fork sit by, unused. I scoop up the last of the mayo with a chip and lick my fingers.
A girl approaches the bar, leopard print top and ugg boots distorted out of all shape from being worn places they were never designed for. I look at her until her boyfriend walks up. Jeans and wheat-coloured timberlands, or an imitation. She has a nice face, and she doesn’t talk too loudly. Half the voices in this place pierce the room like feedback.
A plump woman approaches the bar, orders, wanders back to the table, comes back again with what she’s forgotten. The girl behind the bar stands around for a chat – she seems nice, genuinely interested in these people and their lives. Regulars.
Cellphone guy is still talking. He has a dark black baseball cap with red lettering. I can’t see the brand. I check my watch, consider ordering another drink. The table is splashed with salt and grease, as are my hands. 

Clapham Junction
On the platform, a wedge of sunlight warms my back. There is nothing better than having time.
Having the same idea, others stand alongside me, in defiance of the yellow line. I see Mr White Trainers, Blue Jeans, Plain T-Shirt, Gold Chain. I know a hundred like him, but I do not know him. His face is whiskered and wants to be tough. He clutches a heavy jacket with both hands.
A stout woman with long hair, and cheetah-print trainers hold a small dog on a leash. Her son has black jeans, ripped at the knee. The dog shivers in the shade.
Across from me a girl fusses with her earphones; trusses thick hair above a bored face. Her red bandana represents nothing. The music she plays is of a type I cannot hear.
The train arrives and people jostle. From years of experience I can tell there’s no need, but stress is a feedback loop. I stand in the entrance way and watch people, debating over seats. An elderly couple pluck up courage enough to sit down.
Beside me a man hangs bright blue sunglasses from a thin sweater. He shuffles his suitcase about. The man and the clothes and the case are the same boring grey – even the shoes. He looks like he’s preparing to film a commercial for blue sunglasses. In his left hand is an empty can of Sprite. In his right hand, a cell phone.
The girl with a bandana is reading an article on her phone. I try, unsuccessfully, not to assume it’s an article about the Kardashians. She is content, smiling softly at no one.
We stop. A woman with a pram gets on; people shuffle to make room. She’s a bright red top, relaxed demeanour. Trainers green, blue, day-glo yellow. You can tell she’s been doing this a while. The child squawks, and receives a face full of mashed rice. I am reminded of baby birds.
I check my phone – I have one notification. As I check it, my signal disappears, so now I am angry and alone.
The baby mewls again, unsatisfied with sshhh for an answer. The sun cuts sharp shadows on to a platform as we squeak to a halt. The girl with the bandana helps the lady with the pram off the train. As if to fill the void, a child further down the carriage begins to complain about something undoubtedly insignificant.
The strap on my bag digs into my back; the train rocks and weaves. We stop at Gipsy Hill. The doors open but there is no breath of fresh air.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Let’s talk about Affirmative Action

The issue:

In some areas, primarily employment and work, in some countries, systems have been and are being trialled, with the goal of addressing historical and institutionalised inequalities. These systems involve what has been described as ‘positive discrimination’, e.g. deliberately selecting minorities for opportunities, sometimes despite superior non-minority candidates, or providing educational subsidies to members of ‘underrepresented’ groups in various fields.
The argument:
Listen, I understand the motivation behind these programmes, I really do. And they’re all very well and good, but it seems to me there are a few fatal flaws. I mean, how can you try and destroy something by using the very thing you’re trying to destroy? How does using discrimination to fight discrimination do anything but create more discrimination? And this applies to issues of both ‘race’, and sex. It doesn’t seem logical.
Furthermore, there’s discrimination within the discrimination. It is well known that men are underrepresented in fields like literature, nursing, and even babysitting. No one is screaming for affirmative action for those areas, are they?
And here’s where it gets tricky. How do you count? How do you know when you’ve been successful? Is it always logical to expect a fifty-fifty split of men and women in every role? For some professions this doesn’t make any sense. We might logically expect to see more men in professions requiring physical strength, like construction. We might logically expect to see more women in professions requiring empathy, like nursing. It’s also worth considering that there are differences in the way men and women think, and approach problems.
Though it’s controversial to say it, the same may be true of ‘race’. (I put the word in quotation marks because it’s a problematic concept at the best of times, but I won’t go into that here.) It may be true that certain peoples are better at certain things. We know this from the Olympics. Koreans dominate archery, eastern Europeans rule at weightlifting. There are stereotypes for a reason.
There’s also the problem half-raised by Chris Rock. In one of his shows he talks about the fact that in the US, slaves were bred to be strong and stupid. They picked the biggest ones and forced them to have children. He points out that this is why African-Americans dominate many sports in the US today (and again, there’s no call for action here, even though you could argue whites are underrepresented, given the ethnic make-up of the country). What he doesn’t point out though, is that if slaves were bred to be stupid as well as strong, does this explain both black overachievement in sports and underachievement in academia?
So, the real question is, what do we aim for? What’s the goal? If a country is half white and half Hispanic, do you have to have a fifty-fifty split in all areas? And it is an important question to consider, even at this stage, not because of a danger of becoming ‘too equal’, but because you don’t build a car without building the brakes, too.
Finally, there’s a form a racism/sexism which is now socially acceptable, and this is to blame the white male for the world’s problems. Again, I don’t see how using prejudice to fight prejudice makes someone any better than the person they’re criticising. But also, it’s just not true. You think there are many white men in charge in China, Africa, the Middle East? I’m not denying that in some places privilege exists, but I am saying, if every time you see a problem, your first reaction is to scream ‘blame the white man’, then how are you any different from the racists and sexists you claim to despise?
The rebuttal:
I want to talk first about the car analogy, because it’s simply not accurate. A better way of looking at it would be that certain people have cars and others have to walk, and the people with cars sometimes stop to pick up their friends who happen to look like them, and then they wonder why everyone else struggles to get around.
We’re not aiming for specific figures here. We’re not aiming for fifty percent women in every job, or thirty-five percent Hispanics in every board room. What we’re aiming for is the paths and opportunities to these roles to be the same. If we take care of that, the numbers will take care of themselves.
We’re not saying, every construction site should be half female, or every hospital half male, but that those who want to be nurses and builders should be able to have the same opportunity to do so, regardless of sex or skin colour. And at the moment that simply is not the case. So we’re not expecting specific numbers per se, we’re looking at the numbers as a symptom.
Currently, the numbers illustrate the problem. The question of what to aim for is logical, and the argument for understanding the goal makes sense, but the idea behind all these systems is that if the paths are clearer, the numbers won’t need to be dictated.
ere’s the thing: people need to see others like them in roles they aspire to, or they automatically (and subconsciously) assume the roles are not available. Even if the paths are ostensibly open, if they cannot be seen or understood, what use are they?
Like it or not, a bias exists. If you feel threatened by a loss of opportunity for ‘your type’ (which secretly many do), then your only recourse is to become better at what you do, so that when the choice is made, it is made on ability. Don’t you want to be selected because you’re the best, not because you happen to look the part? If we persist long enough, things will balance out, the systems we are using will no longer be needed, and merit will become the criterion by which all are judged. If you don’t like feeling like you may be undercut because of who you are, now you know how the rest of us feel. It’s time to take away that feeling for all people. And you can help.
Finally, yes we get that prejudice doesn’t defeat prejudice. But try being disadvantaged your whole life and see if you don’t get a little angry at the people on top, too. We’re not fools, we know that not all problems are caused by white men, we don’t think that all white men are bad people. But it’s easy for you to accept the status quo, for obvious reasons. And you need to understand that the rest of us aren’t going to put up with it any more. And neither should you.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Let’s talk about Casey Affleck

The issue:

Ben’s kid brother won an Oscar, and people complained. Not because of his performance, but because Affleck is a man accused of sexual harassment on an earlier project, by two separate women. Both cases were settled out of court. The criticism is that yet another man has been able to use money and power to get away with demeaning (and possibly criminal) behaviour towards women, and not only move on with his life, but rise above the clamour to win fame and critical acclaim. This sends the wrong message, many say.

The argument:
Let’s be clear about one thing, here. Casey Affleck has been convicted of no crime. He has been accused of actions which are possibly criminal, more likely simply ill-advised. The line from many seems to be that this should make him ineligible for an Oscar, or other awards. Ignoring the fact that awards for acting talent are not based on the moral character of the actor, it seems a little heavy-handed to condemn a man for the rest of his life, for actions he may have committed. Do we want to live in a society where the very act of accusing someone constitutes a life-long black mark? Is this the type of judgment we aim for?
Now, since the cases were both settled out of court, there can be no way of really knowing what happened. We cannot know whether the claims were completely true, completely false, or a mixture of the two. We cannot know whether Affleck is a lecher, or whether the women spied the chance for a quick buck and took it. Or, again, some combination of the two. If the women involved had cared enough about the integrity of the matter to eschew the settlement and proceed with their cases in a criminal court, it’s probable that by now we would have a much better idea of what went on. But they didn’t. They took their money and went away. What does that tell you?
Now, I am not saying that absence of proof means nothing ever happened. And I am not naïve enough to be unaware of the problems with the court system. But to simply give up and walk away – how serious could the actions have been?
I find it disturbing that a man who, as mentioned, has not been convicted of anything, has yet come dangerously close to being crucified by the court of public opinion, as has happened to others before him. To assert that he is now no longer worthy of praise for work well done, because of allegations which the accusers took money rather than push forward, seems excessive and dangerous. 

The rebuttal:
First of all, it needs to be stated that the kind of action that Affleck is accused of is criminal. It is sexual harassment, and should not be tolerated by the industry. Until more is done to punish those who do things of the sort, there will be no disincentive for them to keep doing it.
And Affleck is the latest in a long line of rich men who have been accused of harassment and other, more serious crimes against women, and lived to tell the tale, careers intact. Admittedly the claims are not as serious as those levied against Cosby, Allen, or Polanski, but that doesn’t mean they should be trivialised. From all these case, though, we can see one thing clearly: wealth allows you to make problems of this nature go away. Wealth provides a security net. And the settlement process allows this whitewashing to happen.
Here’s the thing: cases of rape and harassment are under reported. Those that do make it to trial do not achieve a high success rate. Add to that the trauma of the proceedings, as well as the stigma which inevitably and unfairly attaches to the victims, and you can easily understand why the women involved would choose to settle rather than push their cases forward.
The settlement doesn’t imply that the actions never occurred, merely that the women involved were probably too unsure of success to believe that pushing things further would be worth it. The whole system, which should support the victim, often works against them. And make no mistake, women deal with this shit all the time, to a greater or lesser degree. There’s an argument to be made for that fact that these women deserved their settlement, for putting up with what they did.
I’m aware I’m assuming guilt in a lot of what I have said above, and as stated, there’s no real way to know that without a trial. But the way the world works points to some kind of inappropriate action having happened, and it’s be foolish to think otherwise.
The final kick on the teeth is that society accepts it. Life goes on. Mr Affleck gets his Oscar and his praise, and from an artistic point of view, maybe he deserves them. But what sticks in the craw is that even if he is not the type of man to do the things he was accused of (which in itself is hard to believe), there are many more like him who are, and who continue to get away with it while the world looks on and claps politely.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

I Miss Obama

It’s only been two months, right? But it feels longer. Soooo much longer. We’ve been subjected to a daily barrage of bluster, ego, and ignorance dressed up as knowledge, idiocy as virtue. It’s hard to escape it. As John Oliver said, it’s like a fart in a Volkswagen.
I yearn for the good old days, the days when the man who was President acted like it, when twitter tantrums were reserved for angry teenaged boys, and when we were blessed with an example of dignity and decorum we got so used to, it was like a slap in the face when the time came for it to leave. Did we even deserve Obama? (And by we, I mean the world. I’m no American, for better or worse, but the influence of the Presidency is felt far and wide.) Maybe we did and maybe we didn’t, but it sure as hell sucks now he’s gone.
It was so refreshing to see a man of principle remain so, despite the years of abuse, the nonsensical tirades and borderline (and outright) racism hurled at him and his family. Despite having to deal with an opposition whose number one priority was essentially to prevent him doing as much as they could (rather than, say, working to improve the country in whatever way possible), I never once saw him stoop to the level of his detractors. Despite the ridiculous nature of the birther movement, which cost time and money better spent elsewhere, Obama rose above.
Now, I’m not saying the man was perfect, but he was the closest I’ve seen in my life to what a politician should aspire to be. And it’s a shame that what followed him is exactly the opposite.
As the man himself said, progress is not guaranteed, and perhaps instead of whining about the past, I should be looking to the future. It seems fair to say that now is a time to focus on what can be done, rather than on what has been done. There is nothing to prevent the powers that be from taking everything that has been achieved and tearing it down, or building something worse in its place. (Some kind of wall, perhaps.) There is nothing to say that all that has been achieved, in the US and elsewhere, will not slowly (or swiftly) be eroded. But there is also hope. There is always hope.
The signs are encouraging, if you chose to look at them that way. The failure of the Muslim ban in court, the mobilisation of state powers against new and planned laws designed to enrich the rich, remove women’s control over their own bodies, and teach our children that if they’re different, they’re bad people with fewer rights than everyone else. These things and others can, and are, being challenged every day, by brave individuals in positions of power and in positions of no power, people of conscience, and people who are plain old tired of being pushed around.
Perhaps what we’ll see in the coming months and years is the resurgence of the spirit which won so many hard fought victories (some would say that spirit never went away), a massive, beautiful, and peaceful uprising which says no to fear, no to division, and no to injustice. And perhaps Barack will come back and join in the fight once more. Maybe after a few more months. Hell, the man’s earned a holiday.