You know you’re a Third Culture Kid When…
1 You know which airport to go to in the event of a coup
‘Equal marriage’ passed this week. People who previously had their rights enforceable under a civil partnership will now have exactly the same rights under marriage. Their wedding ceremonies will be slightly more streamlined in some cases but that’s about it. For everybody else, no change. But to hear some people tell it, this is a either a civil rights victory akin to the end of apartheid or the beginning of the end of Western Civilisation at the hands of the ‘anti-family’ agenda. I’m really starting to see what a amazingly deft bit of politicking it was to introduce all the legal provisions of gay marriage in 2005 and then just call it something else.
I like going to public lectures; I’ve met some great friends and friends who became colleagues there, many of whom I saw last weekend at the post Pod Delusion Live drinks. I’ve spoken at Ignite, done the odd Skeptics in the Pub as part of a double act with Martin Robbins and will be giving a solo presentation about my own hobby horse at Leicester in January, but I don’t feel that my attendance at things like Skeptics is an identity that represents me the way that some of the hardcore members do. So maybe it’s not my place to join in with the current schism, and plenty of very knowledgeable people have already written on this topic, but it seems like recently everyone has been having their say over the latest atheists/skeptics contretemps so I’m going to demonstrate the levelling power of the internet and stick my oar in.
The issue of the day is sexism/feminism and the debate is splitting down two rough sides: those who find religion immoral or irritating and want to campaign against it with no time devoted to anything else, and those whose objection to religion is part of a generally progressive agenda (frequently called ‘social justice’), and who feel that organised atheism is in danger of replicating the same old problems which religions have perpetuated.
Part of the problem here is that skepticism and feminism are coming from different traditions: feminism has historically been less concerned about evidence and more about consciousness-raising, while skepticism treats evidence as a gold standard and denigrates anecdotes (valued in feminism as ‘lived experience’) as meaningless. Many feminists treat a speaker’s identity as central to their credibility (this is where concepts like ‘mansplaining’ come in) while skepticism is about ignoring the identity of the speaker and focusing solely on the quality of evidence or logic they present. It’s easy to see how these different ways of looking at the world could magnify any argument and turn mild disagreements into longlasting bitter hostility, even before the current level of childishness, name-calling and abuse started.
Now after all that summary, I want to talk about my experience of sexism and harassment. Skeptics, you can dismiss this as an N=1 anecdote, but please at least read it. I have personally witnessed a prominent person getting disturbingly touchy-feely with women and getting away with it, despite the knowledge of nearly everyone who knows him. What’s more I’m willing to bet that you know who I am talking about from just reading the previous sentence.
I first became aware of this at the beginning of last year, though since I voiced my concerns to others I have been hearing that the behaviour in question has been going a lot longer than that. I was at a Skeptics in the Pub, chatting to some friends and getting a drink at the bar (I am a teetotaller, so you can be assured that none of my account has been blurred by intoxication). I heard a bit of a commotion, turned round and saw this fellow (who had had a few drinks) giving an unwilling woman a hug- not a friendly hug, but one which led crotch first, grabbing her around the hips/bum and leaning in as the she bent right back to escape his advances. It was the sort of thing that could have been a joke but as it went on it became clear that she wasn’t playing. Now she didn’t scream or shout or anything, but she was certainly uncomfortable and it was unpleasant to witness. Right there I did something rather cowardly- I convinced myself that I hadn’t seen anything significant. The fact that I remember it so clearly today tells you that this was self-deception, but it was right on the boundary of being ok. I didn’t know either of these people personally, it might have been play-acting, etc. You make up reasons not to get involved.
It was only when I saw this happen again and again that I realised that there was a pattern to this behaviour- it went so far as to be pushing up against the level at which bystanders would start intervening, but not quite going over it. Over time, as his power and influence grew I noticed that he could go further and further and get away with it. Once someone’s prominence gets to a certain point it becomes very hard to criticise them. You think that if they were a predator someone else would have noticed or complained- surely some of those prominent feminist women (and men) in the media with whom he associates would have said something? I don’t know whether they are intimidated or what, but not one has commented in public.
In private, a number of stories have been circulating for years, many of which are more serious than the incidents I have described. I can’t verify any of these accounts, but the fact that they are readily accepted is telling.
So what to do? If you think this post might be about you, then take responsibility for your behaviour and apologise where necessary. If you see this behaviour, don’t stay silent.
For all the fact that this has pissed me off a huge amount, I am wary of naming the offending person. He’s someone with a lot of clout, someone who could make life very difficult for anyone who identified him. I feel it’s up to someone whom he has victimised to make that call, but if that’s you and you are reading this then I will absolutely back you up.
I’m posting this with comments closed, I suppose what this has taught me is that it is perfectly possible for a problem like this to exist, not really tolerated but not ever really dealt with either. Let’s knock this on the head before something more serious happens, because experience has taught me that it almost certainly will.
*********** Update ***********
After posting this, the response has been amazing, but I want to clarify a few points. For readers coming here from the States: we don’t have a First Amendment here, so I would be in legal danger if I named the person I am talking about. My father is a Barrister and looked over my post- this is as far as I can go as I am not the direct victim. Don’t like it? Join me in supporting Index on Censorship. What I can do is say that I have seen the behaviour and so have many many other who have contacted me after seeing this post. If somebody comes forward, you will not be alone.
Very sadly indeed I have had had several DMs and tweets from at least 5 different women identifying themselves as the victim in the example I described, which tells you exactly how widespread this problem behaviour is.
*********** Subsequent Update ***********
A very helpful policeman posted a comment on Facebook, reproduced here with permission:
This is dealt with in other circles I belong to… it’s called sexual assault (section 3 of sexual offences act 2003).
The specific part of legislation which refers is “Touching is widely defined and includes with any part of the body, or with anything else, and can be through clothing. In In R v H (Karl Anthony)  2 Cr. App. R. 9, the Court of Appeal held that the touching of an individual’s clothing was sufficient to amount to ‘touching’ for the purposes of section 3. “
The other points made in the blog describe the individual as someone important in the circle… the same law suggests “abuse of position” which may have a consideration too.
This week I had a post up on the Guardian blog in response to Suzanne Moore’s bizarre attack on the field of economics- there was a variety of interesting responses on twitter, but one irritation that kept appearing was this piece claiming to identify 8 elementary errors of economics
Only one of them seemed remotely valid- see for yourself:
• The measure of success is growth of the Gross Domestic Product.
Economists developed this measure, but it is a very rough tool and its limitations are acknowledged by the field. If politicians over rely on it, that does not say anything about econ as a field of study. Does the fact that life expectancy makes no measure of quality of life invalidate medicine?
• Clear evidence of poor performance is ignored. Growth, unemployment and inflation measures in the neoliberal era, since 1980, have never been as good as those in the 1950s and 1960s, when governments involved themselves substantially in the economy.
In the fifties and sixties the economy was better in the West only- by being so far ahead of other countries it was easy to out-compete. Most countries will not remember this period as a golden era. Now as development raises capabilities and living standards across the world Western workers are less in demand.
• Money and debt are excluded from economic models. I’m not making this up.
You are making this up. There are plenty of economic models which deal with debt and the money supply. What is true is that printing money is not counted as evidence of productivity or development- otherwise ZImbabwe would come top of development indices.
• Modern free-market theory, called the neoclassical theory, predicts the economy will always be close to equilibrium. If that were true it should tick along steadily and sudden changes should only occur in response to large external events like natural disasters or wars. Yet many times over the past two centuries financial markets have suddenly collapsed without any external cause. Some of the more recent examples occurred in 1987, 1997, 2001 and 2007. In 1987 stock prices dropped by 30-40% in a day, though thirty percent of the world’s factories had not been bombed overnight.
Stock prices are the cumulative predictions of all participants in the market. If there is widespread disinformation or ignorance which changes quickly then participants’ predictions will also change quickly. It could have nothing to do with the physical infrastructure, as this is only one aspect of the expectation of performance.
• The neoclassical theory is based on assumptions that are patently absurd or clearly shown by other disciplines to be untrue. Among the patently absurd, it is assumed our collective guesses about the future are accurate, yet people in 1890 could not have conceived how aeroplanes, two world wars, nuclear weapons, computers and digital communication would radically transform the world.
Evidence? Who assumes our collective guesses about the future are accurate?
• Economists assume there are no economies of scale beyond a point of diminishing returns, ignoring the lesson of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Economies of scale allow the biggest firm to undercut other firms and grow faster, until it dominates a market. The existence of many such dominating firms, such as Microsoft, McDonald’s and Facebook, is also ignored.
This is the most nonsensical point. If you think that economists have ignored Henry Ford, you are misinformed. What you are saying is that the big companies you name did not reach the point of diminishing returns. If you can understand that at some level of car production between zero cars per year and infinity cars per year, it would become more difficult to produce each additional car (for example, when every acre of land is already covered in car plants) then you too, assume that there are no economies of scale beyond a point of diminishing returns, just like those foolish economists.
• It is assumed that people are innately individualistic and competitive, but psychologists have clearly documented our tendency to favour cooperation by punishing cheaters, even at a personal cost. Almost every mammalian species lives in groups, and social groups have an innate, and healthy, tension between individualism and cooperation. Most people understand they are better off if they balance their own wishes with those of their family and community.
Now in balance this is probably more valid- levels of cooperation differ widely between societies and are strongly correlated with economic success and political stability (compare Norway with Greece). There are economists studying these effects but there is a lot of political pressure to not look into this area as it has major implications for immigration and development policies.
• It is assumed we are coldly “rational” calculators, yet we are obviously strongly motivated by love, envy, fashion and insecurity, and marketers ruthlessly exploit these foibles. Psychologists have also clearly documented our tendency to other “non-rational” behaviours such as being risk averse. Neither the fashion industry nor the marketing industry would exist if economists were right.
In what sense would anybody regard ignoring somebody that you love as ‘rational’? The motivations from your goals are different to the means by which you go about achieving them. Most people are pretty rational about how to spend their money to maximise the benefits, whatever their motivation is. I would also query that risk aversion isn’t rational- it is simply a preference which people express with their spending.
This link was being sent around by people who really ought to know better. There are criticisms to be made of any field, but surely we can do better than this?
I rather like the idea of an established church- one of the problems with regarding religion as something only for the private sphere is that it robs non-adherents of the ability to comment or get involved. The Church of England’s special place in the UK’s government and parliament, which many atheists see as unfair, is to me a good thing, a sign that whether or not we go to church we can have a say in how it is run, which is why I want to stick my nose into the debate over whether John Sentamu should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
Sentamu has been in the news this week after clarifying his view on whether civil partnerships should be renamed ‘Marriage’. He thinks they shouldn’t. This has been met with a great deal of criticism from those who are attached to their particular view on what name we should give to a legal contract between two people and the Inland Revenue, but all of this talk is obscuring the thing that most concerns me when I think of Dr Sentamu getting the keys to Lambeth Palace: his dodgy links in Africa.
Many remember the incident in which, while being interviewed by Andrew Marr, Sentamu cut up his dog collar and said he would never wear it again while Robert Mugabe remains president of Zimbabwe. An admirable stand, and the first time many considered him a possible candidate to replace Rowan Williams.
Closer to home though, are the activities of Senatmu’s brother, Robert Kayanja, a prosperity preacher who has amassed a fortune in the millions by selling ‘healing miracles’ to poor Africans and who enjoys a close political friendship with Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s President. This relationship is very close indeed, for when Kayanja was accused of raping two young boys in his church, the police arrested the boys, who subsequently retracted their allegation. Kayanja has also established links with the very iffy ministry of Benny Hinn, a similarly profit oriented ‘religion’ and his financial success is based on the same principles of greed and exploitation.
Sentamu has never commented publicly on his brother’s behaviour, having his spokesperson tell the Daily Mail:
“As a matter of Christian discipline he does not comment on or criticise other Churches”
but he has preached as Kayanja’s Miracle Centre Cathedral and officiated at his wedding. Someone in the running to be Archbishop of Canterbury ought to make it very clear whether he thinks this is acceptable behaviour. There is a good point to be made here about homophobia too- the CofE may be unsure on gay marriage, but in a country like Uganda where there are regular calls for gay people to be killed, the Anglican church has a very substantial moderating influence. John Sentamu’s views are far more tolerant than the competing churches in Africa, which exploit local hostility to homosexuality to fill pews, but would he be willing to stand up to them when he has such a close relationship to the Ugandan establishment?
Last week I was at the Frontline Club for an evening dedicated to the phenomenon of Kony 2012. Most interesting, given the stated goal of Invisible Children to find and kill/capture Joseph Kony, was the presence in the room of no less than three people who had separately met and shaken hands with Kony over the last few years, who vocally and by their presence made the point that he is not nearly as hard to track down as The Ugandan government and their allies would have you believe.
There was also representation from Uganda’s northern Acholi tribe keen to point out the failings of President Yoweri Museveni, who has enjoyed what was described on the night as quiet support of the Invisible Children, but which now appears to be a much closer relationship than even hardened cynics suspected. Museveni came to power in Uganda after the violent overthrow of Milton Obote (who took the presidency by force from Idi Amin, who had himself violently ousted that same President Obote eight years previously), and has continued to behave in the established tradition of African big man dictators- ruthless repression at home coupled with appeals to great powers for funding. Instead of seducing the State Department with exaggerated tales of a looming Soviet threat to justify the construction of a police state, it is the first lady’s appeals to the US religious right that have proved most lucrative in 21st Century Uganda. Janet Museveni, wife of the president, evangelical Christian and a cabinet mister in her own right, is also the main driver behind the Ugandan nomenklatura’s links to evangelical organisations with interests in Africa such as Invisible Children.
What seems to have happened with the Kony project can be traced to the impact of the search for Bin Laden. As a dictator whose rule has been looking shaky after 26 years in government and some public disorder following 2011′s presidential election , Museveni must have looked enviously at the huge amount of aid being given to fund Pakistan’s earnest and sincere hunt for Bin Laden, aid which was gainfully diverted by the Pak government to the brutal repression of separatists in Balochistan and a whole host of other matters of purely national interest. Thinking that the solution to their financial problems was a bogeyman who could be used to extract military resources from an ever generous West, the Ugandans must have seen that if a charity was able to raise a campaign to support military intervention to catch Kony then the spigot of Western military aid could be turned on full force- no wonder they granted Invisible Children access to film-making opportunities like helicopter shots that legitimate documentary makers like, well, me would never have access to (and indeed didn’t have access to when filming there last year).
The problems came when the video became so successful that investors were scared away from the supposedly war-torn country and the backlash to the gratingly chirpy (and now sadly troubled) Jason Russell resulted in more negative publicity for Uganda and the government. As Great Game players, the Museveni cadre are novices, but shouldn’t be underestimated; next time, they might just come up with the goods.
Katharine Round, who is an awesome filmmaker and a founder of the brilliant Docheads network posted a link to a recent article in Screen Daily on indie film funding which included this quote from Jess Search, the Chief Exec of Britdoc:
“independent film-makers are the rebels, the thought-leaders, the intellectuals, the troublemakers, taking the place of what used to happen with print journalism and television.”
Adam Curtis touched on this point at DocFest when he said that he was expecting the emergence of a movement similar to New Journalism, but that TV wouldn’t be the medium. TV can be so hidebound by convention and a desire not to upset anybody that challenging ideas struggle to get through, but it’s not dead yet, and I’m not sure that independent film is really offering the alternative that is being talked up here. Some of the most stimulating stuff of recent times has been made by people like Adam himself and Jonathan Meades through the traditional route. Are there independent films offering much of the calibre of Meades’ latest creative docs based on the story of the Algerian Pieds Noirs or indeed of Curtis’ recent work?
A big problem with the piecemeal funding model discussed in the article, broadly speaking bringing in outside corporate and NGO funders, is one similar to the problem with academic journals- there’s a publication bias. Everyone wants to get on board with positive films, so stories about bad things happening can get pushed to the side in the scramble for funding; a case in point is The Interrupters.
It has an uplifting storyline and comforting message and there’s no doubt it is a well made film, but it is socially responsible to put out a documentary which will leave audiences with a misleadingly clean impression of the murky relationship between public funding and gangs in Chicago?
I think a lot of this comes down to a lack of diversity in the broadcast/indie film world. Lots of people with similar background, education, politics and attitude. Every time you hear somebody talk about wanting to hear ‘unheard voices’ in a film, you know exactly what they want, whose voice you’ll hear, and what they’ll be saying.
My own experiences with the tremendous anti science bias of media insiders has been sobering, but oddly, it extends to hating religion too, in favour of a sort of mishmash of New Age anti authoritarianism which doesn’t bear much scrutiny. What is so frustrating is that, returning to Adam Curtis’ remarks, these attitudes were exposed and rejected by the first wave of New Journalism back in the 1970s. Compare The Interrupters’ rather soppy music heavy approach with the surgically efficient and ruthlessly satirical writing of Tom Wolfe on the same topic, or the essay that I can’t imagine many UK media types have read judging by their unblushing faces, The Me Decade.
My own feeling is that the next wave of innovation in ways to inform us about the world will be found in blogs, where radical and challenging ways of telling us about the world are flourishing. Doc film seems in danger of, if anything, being left behind.
UPDATE: Katharine responds on Facebook, plus my response:
The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Baldauf has written an article to which I came late, called “Five Myths About Africa”
It supposedly undermines the lazy stereotypes of the Western media to get to the real heart of the continent, but is actually a perfect example of a new kind of journalism about Africa, one which tries to undermine facts with anecdotes and emotional manipulation. The piece starts with the photo on the left, of two obviously poor girls in rags collecting brushwood. Hardly breaking down people’s preconceptions, is it?
Here are the five myths that the article seeks to repudiate:
1: Africa is Poor.
In this section the article describes a family ground down by “greed by family members” who expected to be given a portion of the welfare check received by a woman called Olga Thimbela who has taken in AIDS orphans. It is very important to recognise that a common theme in Southern African culture is that you must help your relatives no matter what (very important in a country with such terrible poverty).
The trouble with what Scott Baldauf calls ‘cultural wealth’ goes much further: when someone reaches political or administrative high office they will be again expected to use their position to provide for their relatives. This cultural trait, often remarked on favourably by Western journalists among the poor, is responsible for a great amount of the corruption and misallocation of funds that keep that poverty going.
2: Africa is Violent
Baldauf quotes unnamed friends from Mexico and Brasil who say that their home countries are more dangerous than South Africa. In 2008 in South Africa there were 34 murders per hundred thousand population; in Brasil 22, in Mexico there were 12.
3: Africa needs our help
Baldauf talks here about the Mbeki AIDS policy which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, Mugabe’s brutal rule in Zim, Kenyan pols avoiding prosecution for post election violence, Malawi rejecting aid in order to keep corruption for its leaders and poverty for the rest. That sounds like a region in need of some help, but this is a myth because of… Nkosinathi Biko (son of Steve Biko, advocate for African pride) and a lady who hosted a tea party for him and another journalist? Surely it is possible that a proud and hospitable people can still be in need of assistance?
4 Africa is backward
The CSM points to the practise of using cellphone credit as a makeshift mobile currency as evidence of innovation. Certainly this is true, but Baldauf leads onto this:
In fact, it was this common practice of using airtime to send money that attracted the attention of the cellphone company Safaricom and the British Department for International Development to launch a new service called M-PESA. Today, M-PESA serves effectively as one of Kenya’s largest banks, with some 75 percent of the 9.5 million M-PESA account holders using it to store money, according to a study by theMassachusetts Institute of Technology. The project worked so well, it has now spread to South Africa – a country with a world-class banking sector – and plans are afoot to take it elsewhere in Africa.
How does the fact that Safaricom (part owned by Vodaphone UK and run for the last ten years by a white South African who has just stepped aside to be replaced as CEO by a British retail manager) has done a deal with the UK Department for International Development to create a new service say anything about whether Africa is innovative or not?
The other examples given, of farmers making cellphone calls and refugees using solar cookers are not good examples to go alongside William Kamkwamba (the Malawian windmill boy), who while very ingenious indeed, is but one person.
5 Africa is a country Well this one is obviously not true. Africa isn’t a country the way Europe isn’t a country. Hard to fault this one, but it comes at the end of a problematic list.
Go Well, readers.
Islamophobia is a real phenomenon, and muslims have a right to complain about it. I’m not talking about the justified concerns of citizens and media over the number of dangerously ignorant thugs in Britain’s Islamic communities, but the fact that the existence of those people is somehow seen as more serious than other kinds of dangerous ignorant thugs. This is exacerbated by the way that sympathisers with Islamic cause keep trying to point out that not all muslims are terrorists. This is an atrocious media strategy. What they should be doing is reminding everyone that not all terrorists are muslims.
The fact remains that although there is a major threat from Islamic terrorism in the UK, massive resources are being expended to defend against the regrowing threat in Northern Ireland and it is this that campaigners against islamophobia should highlight; I can’t help but feel that had Islamic extremists detonated a car bomb under a police officer in Bradford instead of Óglaigh na hÉireann killing a catholic PSNI officer it would have been covered in total blind panic instead of the slightly bored phoned in shock from the papers.
With this in mind I have new twitter project, called HandofHistory. I am tweeting every bomb that is discovered or detonated by any of the NI terrorist groups. In the two weeks it has been running I have retweeted 15 security alerts including 2 devices with lethal capacity. What would the media coverage be like if this was going on in a muslim area?
Last year when there were all those student protests going on, there was a sit in at UCL, my old alma mater. I had a meeting nearby and so went along to see what the fuss was about. When I got to Gower street, there was little sign of anything unusual, but I followed carefully printed signposts from the quad up to a conference room near the library marked by giant banners (right), the headquarters (and now billet) of the demonstrators. The sit in had being going on for a couple of days and already there was plenty of evidence of mission creep; complaints about tuition fee increases had been joined by ones variously advocating the liberation of Palestine, Tibet and Mumia.
It was here that I met, among the earnest people who have just discovered the world’s injustice and are determined to fix it within the next few weeks and sooner if possible, a couple of former members of the UCL Islamic society. When I was a student here this society and the various satellites around it had a reputation for being a nasty bunch of fuckers, which I think the members quite enjoyed playing up to. Much as with the conservatives who wanted to hang Mandela in the eighties, a lot of the more unpleasant things that they said were simply to épater la bourgeoisie rather than seriously held opinions, but they publicly flirted with some pretty serious antisemitic and violent stuff and were quite cynical about recruiting bewildered and culturally isolated muslim students, which seems to have been the route that brought the fellows I met into this organsiation. At the time, any criticism of the behaviour of the members was met with the standard defence that the accuser was Islamophobic, which was enough to give the university administration, wracked internally with postmodern, ‘non judgemental’ thinking, enough pause to let the problem fester a little longer.
In 2006, my final year at UCL, the society had as its president engineering student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (left), who would become better known to the public in three years later on December the 25th 2009, when he attempted to detonate a suicide bomb attached to his underpants on a crowded flight in midair. He could have killed 289 people; he thankfully succeeded only in burning his penis, testicles and upper thighs.
Following the Christmas Day Underwear Bombing, as it came to be known, the security services woke up and began investigating university islamic societies and trying to disrupt their recruitment and radicalisation.
It was this increased attention from the security services that had brought the former student muslims to the demonstration. They felt that they should not be targeted for monitoring (of which they had no evidence but I sincerely hope was taking place) on the basis that they were no longer members of the society and were not involved in anything that might present a security threat.
Given all that had gone on, I was pretty surprised that they would take that view. Surely if I had previously been the member of a far right organisation whose president had tried to murder 289 muslims they would be pleased if MI5 kept an eye on me? They seemed uncertain. They brought up islamophobia, which is got me thinking. The results of that thought session?