ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
But maybe this merits recording.

Just some light material for your evening reading...!

Today I have been quite preoccupied with the vote that was happening today, which ultimately passed, to approve plans to restrict increases in benefits to 1% per year. Why's that such a big deal? Because benefits have historically risen in line with inflation. While I don't think any of my readers are the type of people who begrudge the unemployed Jobseekers' Allowance, it's worth noting that, despite the way the government and media present it, most people in receipt of benefits are in fact employed in some capacity. Cuts affect those who receive:
  • Jobseeker's Allowance
  • Employment and Support Allowance
  • Income Support
  • Elements of housing benefit
  • Maternity allowance
  • Sick Pay, Maternity Pay, Paternity Pay, Adoption Pay
  • Couple and lone parent elements of working tax credits and the child element of the child tax credit
On average,  most households who receive benefits will be £3/week worse off. That's the price of a large Starbucks coffee, so what's the big deal? Well, for some people, their living expenses have such a narrow margin for error that any kind of cuts put them at risk. The real problem, though, is the way the government has framed this debate. For example, this poster:

The Conservatives have framed the rhetoric of this debate around a discourse of deserving vs undeserving poor. They spend a lot of energy talking about "scroungers". It has been consistently demonstrated by studies that while of course there is benefit fraud, far more money - millions and  millions more! - is wasted every year in administrative errors with regards to benefit than is lost in benefit fraud. The government also helpfully ignores the fact that the recession is what has put a large proportion of people on benefits, and that, as we now risk going into a triple dip recession, austerity measures can be quite confidently said to not work as a way of moving out of financial crisis. Furthermore, as this excellent article points out, the government assists big business by supplementing the low wages of the workers at companies like Starbucks by paying them housing benefit and working tax credits,  because the national minimum wage is not equal to what is termed a living wage. I'll say it again: most benefits go to the employed

This, of course, isn't even touching on the issue of people who cannot work due to ill health, disabilities etc. I believe that here in the UK the economically disadvantaged are still in a better position than they are in the US - free healthcare, for instance, although the Tories are doing their best to carve that up - but I have been troubled by the rise of right-wing rhetoric that echoes the kind of ultra-conservative soundbites we're used to hearing from across the pond. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, even if you don't have boots, all that. 

I've been tweeting quite a bit about this today. People have also been tweeting heavily over the last couple of days under the hashtag#TransDocFail, which records the experience of trans people across the world with the medical establishment. I haven't contributed to this discussion apart from by retweeting a couple of things, because this particular hashtag seems to me to be a place where trans people's voices are meant to be heard, and chiming in to me seems to be trying to muscle in on stories of very personal and distressing experiences of prejudice and neglect. They don't need me to filter them. But in reflecting on events today, I have seen some parallels. Here's an example.

Westminster Council proposed that obese and otherwise 'unhealthy' people could have their benefits docked if they failed to carry out GP-prescribed exercise. Their rationale behind this is that Britain's obesity epidemic is raising the rate of diabetes II, heart disease and various other conditions that cost the NHS a great deal of money. I don't dispute this, and I think that many people (myself included!) would be much healthier if they did regular exercise. However, this blackmailing of economically vulnerable people is pretty disgusting - it says "you deserve help only if you change your body in ways these authority figures approve of." This, of course, is the regular experience of trans people when seeking medical help. It assumes that marginalised people can't possibly have any idea of what is best for them and their bodies. It also neglects the fact that, in the case of overweight people on benefits, reasons for obesity don't usually come from laziness - they are closely tied to poverty, and to cultures of poverty involving lack of education (that means people have little understanding of nutrition, or aboutemotionally healthy eating), long working hours for low wages (that may make exercising difficult or impossible), lack of access to cheap healthy food (for instance: being able to drive to a supermarket if you live on an inner city estate can be pretty impossible; your local small Iceland meanwhile will stock you up on cheap frozen food for very little). But the government refuses to see these well documented causes, preferring a simple, splashy tagline about tackling scroungers. Trans people, meanwhile, are asked to answer invasive questions about their sexual habits, are made objects of unprofessional curiosity for medical students, and are denied treatment if they don't appear to be cooperative. The Tories want fat poor people (rich fat people can do what they want!) to knuckle down and obey: they can't give the poor jobs, no  matter how many statistics they massage, but they can damn well still have power over the power by threatening them with destitution if they don't play the part of the "deserving". Doctors, meanwhile, often deny vital care to trans people if they don't follow doctors' notions of what it means to be male or female (usually showing no understanding that there is any scope for gender identity beyond an old fashioned, caricatured notion of normative masculinity and femininity). 

In both instances, I think we can see that the problem is paternalism. I've rarely been more glad that this year I have a book coming out on fatherhood; it might be on medieval men, but anything I can do to contribute to anti-patriarchal discourse is a good thing.

ashwednesday: (spilled milk)
Grr. In the last couple of days the complete lack of maternity leave in the USA has come up a few times in conversations with American friends. And today one American friend said she has to go back to work on Monday. She gave birth just before the New Year. The leave she was given wasn't even mandated by the state, but instead was given by her employer. They could have given her nothing.

For comparison, in the UK by law women are entitled to 39 weeks of paid maternity leave - 6 weeks at 90% of full salary, and the rest at the statutory minimum of c.£130/week. (Many employers choose to give more generously.) Furthermore, women are entitled to unpaid leave, bringing their time off to a full year, with their job security guaranteed. Paternity leave is two weeks, which isn't a great deal but is better than many countries which offer none at all. Of course, compared to other parts of Europe the UK doesn't have particularly generous maternity leave provision.

One reason I get particularly appalled by the US's lack of maternity provision is the gross hypocrisy in a political community that is predominantly "pro-life". Unfortunately, in political discourse pro-life has come to be entirely concerned with abortion rights.

I would describe myself as pro-life. My views on abortion are given here - this entry is 2008 and I would adjust a few things now, but it is more or less reflective of my current views. I'll just quote a short bit that sums up my personal view about abortion:
In any biological definition, conception marks the beginning of a human existence. What people really argue about when they talk about life beginning is where meaningful life begins. B ... [A]lthough I philosophically place the value of each human soul as equal to another, I know that emotionally I would react differently to the loss of a child before it had recognisable human form to a still birth or to an infant death. But I also think that just because a human being is not yet in a state that it can live outside the womb, or because it does not yet resemble a human being, stops it being fully human in the most absolute sense - beyond questions of what the body or mind is or is not - and full of the grace that God has given it. Once a human being exists, it has the right to continue its existence, because each person’s life is only their own and God’s, regardless of their physical capacity, intellectual ability, moral worth or anything else.

I also note that despite this view on abortion, I would not mandate to ban abortion, as the human misery that results from abortion being illegal is too high a cost. And the reasons for abortion are extremely complex, and I do not feel as if I have the right to tell a woman that she should bear a pregnancy that is the result of rape, for example. So although my feeling about the act itself - termination - is one of moral revulsion, my feeling about the reasons for abortion are a lot more complex. And in a political community, one cannot govern by moral absolutes, any more than it is really possible to function as a humane member of a society and judge everyone by an absolute scale, either.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. My position on the right to life extends far beyond the issue of abortion. To be pro-life, as far as I'm concerned, is this:
Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. ... Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that "everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as 'another self,' above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity."

That's from the catechism of the Catholic Church, and it neatly encapsulates a whole range of important things. The right for human beings to live with dignity. Society as a whole's responsibility to protect and promote human rights. Our responsibility as individuals to work toward treating all human beings, without exception, with the same respect, regardless of what they have done.

This for me means, amongst many other things, that:

We treat our prisoners with respect - which does not mean we do not punish them, but that our punishments are proportionate to the crime, that they have a moral function based on justice rather than revenge, that where possible we seek to rehabilitate. That we do not under any circumstances allow the death penalty, that offers blood rather than justice.

That if we cannot avoid the possibility of war, that our conduct in war is just, and is merciful wherever possible, that we do not violate the dignity of the body and mind by performing torture.

That we protect the dignity of the most vulnerable in our society: the disabled, the very young, the old. That we treat our vulnerable members with compassion but also with respect: that we value them as individuals, not as problems, that we recognise that no physical or mental disability, no matter how profound, makes any person less perfectly human.

That we protect the family, by allowing parents to properly care for their children through provision of adequate parental leave and through economic and social assistance for families with complex problems. That we recognise that "family" is a broader concept than the nuclear family of 2.4 children for a husband and wife.

That rather than legislating against abortion, which seems to do little good, we turn to dealing withthe complex socio-economic circumstances that make unwanted pregnancy more common, for instance: that through education of our children we address head-on the problem of rape culture and of sexually dysfunctional behaviour, including issues of consent and "soft" coercion; that we develop foster care and adoption legislation so that children have better opportunities to be placed with loving families, and that we constantly review this legislation to ensure the needs of birth families, adoptive families and the children themselves are met; that we offer support to disadvantaged and struggling families.

That we protect human adults' rights to love and be loved by other consenting adults, including full equality of marital opportunity for adults of any sex over the age of eighteen.

There are lots more things, of course, but those are the things I mean when I talk about being pro-life. If being pro-life means you want to ban abortions and at the same time you sneer at poor people needing economic relief and say they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or you judge young girls who get pregnant out of wedlock and instead of offering them resources and assistance sneer at them for choosing what may seem like the only financially and emotionally viable option open to them, abortion, or you judge families for having more children than they can afford to raise, or you support businesses in not offering leave to mothers after the birth of their children: then as far as I am concerned, you have no respect for human dignity, and your right to the label pro-life is forfeit. And I don't blame pro-choice people a bit for thinking you are selfish and misogynistic, either. If, meanwhile, you want to ban abortions but you will work to promote human dignity in ways I have outlined, then while I'm not convinced that you are necessarily doing the best thing for society, because I still think illegal abortion poses a great threat, I will applaud you and support your moral standpoint.
ashwednesday: (spilled milk)
It's Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, here in the UK. I love fireworks, and I have very fond memories of the fireworks parties we'd have at home when I was a kid - we'd have a barbecue even though it was freezing cold, and Dad would be in charge of a big box of cheap fireworks that did more fizzling than exploding, and we'd ooh and aah at little spurts of colour and shriek appreciatively at the occasional whistling rocket or screaming catherine wheel, and the grown ups would drink mulled wine out of mugs as Dom and I waved sparklers in the air like wands.

On the other hand, there's something a little unsettling to me about the whole concept of this day. I know for most people now it's got nothing to do with Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, and if it is it's probably seen vaguely as a celebration of the protection of the Houses of Parliament. I'm not saying it would've been good to blow up Westminster, either. But it was a conspiracy that came out of a terrible frustration of an oppressed people.

Guy Fawkes was arrested in the early hours of the 5th of November. He gave a false name, and he was taken to the Tower of London, where on the 6th of November Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower, began to oversee his questioning and torture.

At some point on the 7th of November, Fawkes revealed his own name.

On the eighth he gave up those of his fellow conspirators.

An Act of Parliament, in force until the nineteenth century, designated the 5th of November as a day of thanksgiving, and encouraged the burning of bonfires. In 1625, 20 years after the failed conspiracy, the future Charles I married Henrietta Maria of France, a Catholic. That fifth of November, effigies of the pope and the devil - long connected in Protestant tradition - were burned on the bonfires. In the years running up to the deposition and execution of Charles I, the anti-Catholic element of Bonfire Night reached new highs, and then reappeared again when Charles II's brother converted to Catholicism. In the years that followed, the violence and disorder that followed highly emotive burnings of popes in effigy led the government to ban bonfires and fireworks for a time.

By the nineteenth century, the celebration of the fifth of November went into decline - until, that is, the restoration of the Catholic diocesan hierarchy in England in 1850 for the first time since Elizabeth I. Effigies of the new English bishops joined those of the Pope on the bonfires of English Protestants.

A great many things have changed for Catholics in England in the intervening centuries between 1605 and today, and when I see fireworks I feel nothing but a perfect childish pleasure in their loveliness, the magic of their transitory beauty. But whilst most people acknowledge where the first celebrations came from, and nowadays if they have any political feelings about the day at all they connect it to V for Vendetta's rousing cry against authoritarianism, they have the luxury of forgetting that Bonfire Night was established by the state and survived because of the hate and fear the population had for a minority faith. And even now this tradition clings on in a few places in the UK, most famously in Lewes, which fiercely guards its bonfire heritage.

ashwednesday: (Ballet)

Speaking of well-beloved books, this evening I went with my dear [profile] darkspree to see the new Jane Eyre. I was pleasantly surprised. Reader, I married him )
ashwednesday: (London)

I feel quite heartsick about what's going on in London. And I'm also getting annoyed by what seems to be the two major ways I'm seeing the riots perceived. The first is that this is mindless violence and theft by workshy scum. The second is that this is a righteous response to a corrupt state, the police are the enemy, and that looting and vandalism are anarchist actions against capitalism.

It's really too early for proper analysis of the situation - that will come in the aftermath. For now I have these observations.

These riots come following a year of austerity measures that have not managed to stem the tide of unemployment and economic depression, a time that has seen an extraordinary number of protests and public fury over the government's cutting of public services while pandering to big business. The UK is not the most economically deprived developed nation, but it is the developed nation with the least social mobility. The boroughs of London where violence has broken out are deprived, and there is a history of distrust between the police and local communities, racial tension, and educational underachievement. People feel helpless, trapped by their socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, and cuts to public funding - including outreach programmes and community policing - will only make such feelings stronger. People are anxious about their futures as unemployment stays high, the economic situation remains gloomy and benefits are cut. That in these circumstances it's easy for peaceful protest to tip over into violence is unsurprising, and those who condemn these people wholesale as mindless thugs are not only narrowminded, they're also missing an important wake up call about what it is these communities are so painfully lacking.

On the other hand, I don't have any time at all for the kind of armchair anarchist who, in a middle class sort of way, pronounces on how burning down or looting stores owned by major corporations is a strike against capitalism. Who do you think suffers when a local branch of a global chain is broken down? Not the corporation itself; one store out of hundreds or thousands is a loss that can be swallowed. It's local communities, who lose jobs when stores are shut down, who see property prices fall as insurance costs rise and store fronts go vacant, who see derelict buildings become foci of vandalism and petty crime. There were people in Tottenham - working class, ordinary people of all races - who were heartbroken because of what's happened to their area, an area they have pride in, an area they've seen struggle to get out of the mire of economic desperation over the past couple of decades. If you cheer on people who steal and destroy because you think they're sticking it to The Man, you probably aren't having to clean up broken glass or face the fact you don't have a shop to go work in tomorrow morning, or you don't know what it would be like to face that. Which means you're probably pretty privileged, and should maybe start thinking about whether you might be The Man, too.
ashwednesday: (spilled milk)
I've been a livejournal user for a DECADE. That's a lot of time. The idea of wholesale moving somewhere else is pretty depressing. But I am pretty concerned about the future of the company given the way things have been going over the last couple of years. Let's not mythologise the past: livejournal were ALWAYS kind of hamfisted about things. They never really got over being a group started up by enthusiastic amateurs, and their business model was always sloppy. Then they got bought up by a big company and sold to another. But that doesn't seem to have improved service. Instead the clumsiness now has a veneer of Big Business Disinterest. Classy.

Well, we shall see. I hope today's downtime isn't a return to April's epic DDoS attack lack of service!
ashwednesday: ocean (Default)
I wish I could write something about the hideous events in Norway. This morning, getting up to see that the death toll was far higher than had been estimated yesterday, I read about teenagers trying to swim for their lives - swim for their lives, like something that would happen in a teen slasher movie but it's real - and I started crying. It's almost impossible to say anything about it that doesn't feel trivial or obvious.

I think that's why so many more people have jumped on tweeting/facebooking about Amy Winehouse's death. This followed a predictable pattern: people tweet that she's died, say it's a tragedy/waste of her talent etc. People instantly write blogs about how the media/fame/attitudes toward addiction are to blame. Other people tweet about how this isn't that big a deal compared to what's happened in Norway and we should all get some perspective. A little circus right there, of course, the way there always is at the death of a celebrity. People understand the circus; it's easy to pick your particular ride on the carousel and go with it, whether you're riding the "I love Amy & I'm going to listen to Frank all night in tribute" horse, or the one that's "I'll compile a list of other musicians in the 27 club and say she was one of them/say she doesn't really compare" or the horse that's all about how you are watching the real news, not focusing on the death of one drug addict.

Facebook and twitter are great for the fast dissemination of small gobs of opinion. When it comes to the slaughter of a hundred people, many of them juveniles, it's harder to find something valuable to say. Indeed, most of the responses to the Norway killings have been, in one way or another, about Muslim extremism and how this attack fits into a modern preconception of what "terrorism" means. It became, almost instantly, yet another way for the Left and Right to argue with one another. Arguments which, of course, move us away from the reality of what has happened into the comfort of ideological discourse. When it comes down to it, most of us will look at the pictures of the police searching the grey waters and the sundappled trees of Utoeya and find ourselves unable to speak. Around this tragedy we can say all sorts of things. The media is already analysing Anders Behring Breivik based on a few scraps of public knowledge; people are talking about how unfair it is that this is not going to make people suspicious of blond white men the way the aftermath of 9/11 and July 7th made people look askance at Muslims; discussions are arising about freedom and comparing the Norwegian government's response to other western nations' responses following terrorist attacks, even though it is really far too early to know how this will impact on Norwegian life. A number of these discussions are important, but they are still not really about what actually happened. There's a reason we have, for example, a minute's silence in tribute to our fallen dead in World War I. Sometimes, in the face of great loss, there is nothing that can be said.
ashwednesday: ocean (Default)
"Welcome, happy morning!"
Age to age shall say.

Months in due succession, days of lengthening light,
Hours and passing moments praise Thee in their flight.
Brightness of the morning, sky and fields and sea,
Vanquisher of darkness, bring their praise to Thee.

Then said he to them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even to death: tarry you here, and watch with me. Matthew 26:38

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Mark 1:3

On Good Friday I went to Notre Dame for the three o'clock service, as is traditional. It was different to what I have been used to back in England; I would usually expect a reading of the Passion, but instead we had the fourteen stations of the Cross, and there was a veneration of the Crown of Thorns rather than of the Cross - and this went on throughout the service rather than at a fixed point, so there were people walking up the aisle constantly. The cathedral was packed, and there were still tourists milling about. But for all this it was an extraordinarily lovely service. Priests spoke in five languages - six if you count the sung Latin - so that there were at least some parts of the service that everyone, in the international context of Notre Dame, could understand, and the music was exceptionally lovely.

I have not had a very successful Lent. I began with good intentions, but the days seemed to slip away from me, and I gave over hardly any time to the proper sort of devotions. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Good Friday is a fine time for repentance; I always find myself sorrowing over my many failings. It's acting on that feeling which is difficult. I need to find a way to keep God in the forefront of my life. Because I am always welcome, and that in a way is one of the causes of my bitterest regret - when I turn back to God, I find Him, and yet I let myself slip away because keeping in sight of God is hard work, work of ashes and stones as much as of joy.

I always cry on Good Friday. I am moved quite easily to tears, and Good Friday always gets to me, of course. I nearly completely lost it this year, though. I had that aching dragging feeling in my chest of wanting to sob, not merely shed a couple of tears. Don't do a Margery Kempe, I told myself sternly. No one wants to see that. I may want to cry each year, but what makes me want to weep varies. This year it was the reading from Mark that reports on Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane. My soul is sorrowful even to death... Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.

Not what I will, but what you will.

This is one of the most painful parts of the Passion, in some ways more than the Crucifixion. That Christ knows that death is coming for Him, and He is afraid, and He is grieving for the life He is about to lose. He asks God to take this cup from Him. He may be God, but he is also Man, and He is not ready. But at last He says not what I will but what you will.

There's a fatalistic sort of brand of Christianity that talks about handing everything over to God, that says "it's God's will" as if one's own actions make no difference to the course of things, a passive handing over of responsibility to God. That's not what is happening here. Christ makes an active choice to hand over His life to God, not because that is what He wants or what is easiest, but because it is right. It is an act of extraordinary faith. And yes, Christ is God, and so He knows what is to come; but He is also a man, and whatever He knows as God must have been, in the exhaustion of His perfectly human body, difficult to see. The enormity of the present overshadows even the knowledge of the eternal.

The reason I've never got on very well with the pantheon of virgin martyrs is that they always presented as bearing their suffering calmly, completely confident that they are going to heaven. Some of them even seem to seek out martyrdom, in a way that young men and women today strap explosive devices to their bodies for the glory of Allah. Let me show You, Lord, let the suffering of my body be a gift, let me die for Your glory they seem to say, eager for the passionate embrace of death. This isn't how Christ faces death. Christ knows that it will hurt, and he is afraid - of bodily pain, of the humiliation He will face, of knowing that one of his closest friends will reject Him, that people who have adored Him will cheer at his execution. His death is not glorious. The Crucifixion is such a significant part of our cultural consciousness that it's easy to forget this - to see Christ crucified in our minds as art, images of his perfect, beautiful suffering from Diego Velazquez to Salvador Dali. But it was a squalid, painful, humiliating way to die. It was a grotesque spectacle for onlookers, and was a punishment reserved for the worst sort of criminals. It could take days under a hot sun, insects attracted to your sweat and blood and piss and shit, watching crowds jeering, and if somehow you were still alive after a few days someone would smash the bones of your legs to encourage asphyxiation. Of course Christ was afraid. He had the privilege of knowing that this would pass, that it would be worthwhile, but His human heart was afraid. I think I love Him more for that than almost anything save His love for us, because I know that He knows how hard it is to be human, how hard it is to do the right thing.

Today I went to my local church. It was a lovely mass, although without a mass sheet I found it difficult to follow the readings (I really must buy a French mass book - most of the churches I've been to in Paris provide a mass sheet, but not all, and I get more out of it if I can read along with the French!). Two children were baptised - a first for me, because I've seen infant baptisms and adult baptisms but never the baptism of children aged around 7 or 8. I assume that their parents have recently joined the Church. They were solemn and sweet, and the priest was very kind, and it was just lovely to watch. And pouring out of church at the end there were so many bright faced people heading into the sunny Sunday morning. There was nothing spectacular for me about this mass, no moment of great revelation, and I was a bit headachey and the church was hot and I found it hard to make any prayers of note. I always want Easter to feel like a great shout, a ringing of the heavens as Christ conquers death. But today there was just an everyday sort of happiness in the church, and I thought: how easy it is for me, who always wants such storms of feeling in my faith, to ignore the quiet contentment offered by the knowledge that each year there will be another Easter, and another, and another, and each offers the promise that through God it is never too late to start over. And that if each year I need to start over, that is alright. The Resurrection offers us so many different points of contemplation, and I have focused on different ones every year, but this year it seems to me that God was saying quietly: all will be well. Not because we are passively turning over our judgement to God, or because we are blindly optimistic, but because we believe, despite the terrible suffering there is in the world, despite the hurt we do ourselves and each other, that we are worth saving. That we are all worth saving, and we are beloved.

Happy Easter.
ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
Yesterday's journey to work featured some guys calling "vous êtes belle!" and blowing kisses at me; yesterday's journey from work featured a guy exposing his penis to me. I could write a nice little blog post linking these two events, and coming to the conclusion that they are both signs of our patriarchal heritage. But that would be glib. I see quite a lot of glib writing on the internet lately. There's a strong human desire to draw patterns between events, to draw them together in the narrative of our lives, and that makes sense. But doing that simplifies complexities, which does nobody any good.

I was looking rather fetching yesterday, I think. It was a beautiful spring day, temperatures soaring, and my fitted dress was complemented by a jaunty silk scarf ("men loves scarves" says Joan Holloway, and who am I to disagree with The Joan?) and espadrilles. The guys calling out to me from their van didn't upset me. I know plenty of women dislike men doing things like that, and I understand why. For me, though, there's a difference between kinds of catcalling. "Good morning," one of them called, to get me to look round, and then they said "you're beautiful" and blew extravagant kisses to me before the traffic lights changed. I laughed pretty hard, and I felt flattered. They didn't make any overtures, or make any explicit remarks, and as such I have no problem with people marking their appreciation of people they find attractive. I have had plenty of things shouted at me that are offensive - you'll be unsurprised there are a lot of references to my boobs - or being reasonably aggressive in making an approach in a public place, and for me there's a difference between men encroaching on my personal space and trying to appropriate the way I look for a coarse kind of gratification without caring how that makes me feel, and with receiving a straightforward compliment. I'm aware that some of you may disagree, though, and if you feel like sharing your views, please do so! I'm aware that my views on what's acceptable to say in public is shaped by my extrovert nature, for one thing.

The only issue I have with getting a comment like the above is that socially this is acceptable for men to do but not for women to do. Because I think that IS linked to men thinking it's ok to shout more explicit and offensive things, to focus on a part of your anatomy in a way that is objectifying, to make you feel potentially unsafe when you walk down the street, to not think hey, going up to this lone girl in the street at night may seem kind of sketchy. Because that's a case of men having power and either not realising they have the privileged position or just not caring.

Obviously the metro guy didn't care how I felt about what he was doing. It was a pretty gross experience, frankly. The metro was very crowded - it was about 6.30pm, so not late at night - and people were crushed together. I felt a guy pressing up against me, and I wasn't sure if it was just because it was so busy. But I looked round to see that he had his erect penis out, hidden behind his jacket so it wasn't visible to the rest of the train. Nothing quite like knowing someone's getting their kicks from rubbing against you. Ugh. And I did have the brief moment of thinking: this WOULD happen on a day I feel pretty and stylish! But I put that thought aside, because I am not responsible for whatever some disturbed loser thinks about me, and he could just as easily have tried to molest some sweet old lady. Anyway, I got off the metro. I felt vaguely guilty for not reporting it, but it would have involved spending lots of time using my non-native language to no great effect, since I doubt anyone would find the guy. That does make me angry, that men can get away with doing things like that, because so often it's more trouble than it's worth to try to take action.

I dunno where I'm going with this. There are clearly lots of questions around gendered power and the public ways we express our sexualities here, but I am seeing a tendency in gender studies to answer any questions like this with a glib response of patriarchy/kyriarchy - as if we actually know what those words mean. (Trust me, we really don't.) That's almost - though not quite - as annoying as the kind of people who, in well-meaning earnestness, honestly don't see the immense amount of privilege they show by saying "I don't see gender/race; I don't care about sexuality/ethnicity/religion", often followed with a plaintive "why don't we all just get aloooooong."

And I guess I'm also saying: it's ok for me to feel flattered by a compliment from a stranger. It doesn't make me Part of the Problem - at least, not any more than we're all Part of the Problem (whatever the hell "the problem" is). And it sure doesn't mean it's ok for a guy to molest me. The thing is, I reckon everyone who reads this will be on board with thinking the metro guy crossed a major line. But I think people will be divided over whether men making any sorts of comments to women is ok - whether some comments are ok but not others, whether it's an offensive use of privilege to make any sort of comment about a woman's attractiveness, and so on. Which is sort of my point, I suppose: when you're talking about "patriarchy", you're talking about something embedded so deep into our culture that deciding where lines should be drawn varies enormously over time, space and for individuals. There's nothing simple about it at all.
ashwednesday: (London)
So, who's here hiding from the Great Livejournal Disaster that has been this week?

If this keeps happening I may have to start using dreamwidth as more than just an occasional public-facing blog... But I have a lot of money (and history) tied up in livejournal! (Ten years this summer, woah.) Graargh.
ashwednesday: (spilled milk)
NOTE: THIS POST STARTS OUT AS A RANT ABOUT PERIODS THEN TURNS INTO SOME KIND OF CATHOLIC THING. JUST GO WITH IT. I posted this on my livejournal yesterday and it got a surprising number of comments, so let's stick it on Dreamwidth too.

I wish people would talk honestly and openly about menstruation. I don't mean in a "let's be positive about our bodies!" kind of way, or even in a "let's cut the blue-liquid tampon ad crap", but in the sense of actually talking about what the experience of menstruation is really like. Not just cramps, or menstrual disorders, but the whole everyday physicality of it, all the different things it does to your body. Girls get SO little education on what to expect.

There's such a taboo about talking about menstruation. Mostly it's about the blood, but it's not just that. Even people who are all cheerleadery about being open about the fact that yes, every few weeks we do tend to leak blood, shy away from talking about what else menstruation does. I mean, when you start your periods, unless you have a well-informed and willing-to-talk parent, how do you know that increased progesterone levels speed up peristalsis, so you might have to empty your bowels more often? Or that cramping doesn't just necessarily feature in the pelvic region but may radiate down the legs, the arms? That you might throw up because of your changing hormone levels? That the blood on day 1 may be completely different to on day 3 and day 5? That it smells different as well as looks different? No one really talks that much about the whole - shitting, pissing, pukingly physical side of periods. Things that aren't neatly enclosed by a floral-wrapped tampon and a handy box of Feminax. But it's nothing to be ashamed of. At the same time, you don't have to be all hearts-and-flowers about your period, using your blood to make (usually rather dreadful and terribly earnest) menstrual art. You can be grossed out and annoyed by your period, that's cool. I'm not saying let's all talk all the time about all the physical processes - I don't want to hear the ins and outs of people's bowel movements as a general rule, so why should that change now? But I do think it'd be healthy if there was more general awareness of how many things in one's life, physical and mental, menstruation affects.

with this in mind it seems hypocritical to cut, but someone might complain about BLOOD )

I was pretty annoyed, but it struck me this evening - as I rinsed out my knickers, good times - that really, I'm a lot better off than I used to be, given how painful my periods were in the past. I'm not really sure why in the last two or three years they've mellowed out a bit - it might just be age - but after 17 years of having periods I am glad for any slack I may get. This doesn't mean my periods aren't painful, far from it. I still take my prescription drugs, and my cramps are way too strong for a couple of regular ibuprofen to handle. But the agonising pain is rare nowadays, so I'm glad of that.

And I also thought, watching blood rinse away, how human I feel when I have my period, and that that's not altogether a bad thing. I've never been one of those women who get all IN TOUCH WITH MY INNER GODDESS over my period, and I shy away from the idea that menstruation = femininity, because there are, of course, many women who don't menstruate (and some men who do). Having a period doesn't put me in touch somehow with a mystical feminising power. But! I started thinking about - wait for it, kids - Jesus, and how maybe I can find spiritual connection through the processes of menstruation.

Back in the later middle ages, the body of Christ became a focus of particular devotion. People became fascinated by the physicality of Christ, and artists started focusing on his body - Christ as an infant, depicted with sweet folds of fat, with clearly delineated genitalia, sucking on his mother's breast; Christ as a crucified man, forehead and arms and side and feet bleeding. At this time there were a great many religious women who felt passionately connected to Christ's body. And there does seem, in some of these mystical writings, to be a connection between menstruation and Christ's wounds, a sense that the physical processes of medieval womanhood could be understood and in a way almost shared by Christ, who suffered in his body so terribly. Christ-as-Mother is not an outlandish concept to medieval mystics, and while Christ is never a woman, there can seem something liminal about his body. Perfectly human, Christ embodies lived experience, and medieval women, used to being criticised for being too much of the body anyway, seemed to find something very liberating in being able to both express their love for him through their bodies and believe that he shared in their bodily experiences. (There's a whole lot I could say about the sexiness of medieval spirituality, and how a sexualised element to mystical experience is quite common, but I'll save that for another time, if anyone's interested...)

Anyway, thinking of all this made me wonder about ways I can try to appreciate the processes of my body better as an act of faith. I'm not going to suddenly get all holy about menstruating, reverently wrapping up used sanitary towels and saying an Our Father over them before putting them in the bin (jaysis wept!), but I think this might be a useful thing for me to think about. Suffering is such a terrible mystery, and I've been back to thinking about it as a philosophical problem since reading The Sparrow. I know I'm never going to have an answer about it. But I wonder if thinking about the Crucifixion a bit more may help.
ashwednesday: blossoms (Spring has sprung)

Oh Dreamwidth, how I have neglected you in favour of Tumblr. Today I brush off the dust with a post about St Patrick's Day.

Let's be clear about something first. I'm not Irish. My mother, and all my mother's family on both sides, are from Northern Ireland, so I could certainly claim to be half-Irish (we're all good Catholic stock, so they're not going to call themselves British!). My religious identity also plays a part in complicating my experiences, which are otherwise very English. But I have spent little time in Ireland, and it seems somewhat appropriative of me to claim to be Irish. However, my Irish heritage is important to me in understanding the way I have grown up and who my family are.

It's funny; I've met a lot of Americans who have a much smaller claim to Irishness talk very proudly about being Irish. It might've been their great-grandfather who stepped on a boat, but the way they talk you'd think their blood ran green. On the other hand, I now live in France, where not only are British people referred to generically as les anglaises, we're also called les anglo-saxons! The first time I heard this my jaw dropped. Anglo Saxons? Are you kidding me? Not only are all British people "English", they're also of the same ethnicity. I may not be sure that "British" is a great label in general - somehow it sounds so insipid - but despite being fair-haired and pale-eyed I'm definitely not a bloody Anglo Saxon. So on the one hand I have a bit of outrage at people appropriating what-could-be my identity, even though I don't claim it as mine, and on the other hand I am pissed off that people completely ignore the issue.

White girl problem is serious, right? If this was really the point of this post you'd be totally justified in thinking I'm a douche. That was just an entryway into thinking about... hm. The dual nature, I suppose one could say, of St Patrick's Day - how on the one hand it can be a day of celebration and on the other a reminder of why Irishness - and the cultural reception of Irishness - is still problematic.

Now, let's get this out of the way first: I have no problems with people having parties on St Patrick's Day. And I don't have problems with people celebrating events from cultures foreign to their own. One of the joys of living in a multicultural society should be the ability to celebrate with one's neighbours. I read an interesting article today by Marc Scully, who talks about the significance of public Irishness in England. During the Troubles, being Irish on the mainland of Britain was problematic. My own family has plenty of experience of casual anti-Irish prejudice in this period. Scully notes that the reinstatement of the St Patrick's Day parade in Birmingham was significant not only for the large Irish population there but also for the city as a whole; "the reinstatement of the parade (with the full backing of the city council) has come to symbolise a form of reconciliation between the city and its Irish population, and a re-emergence of the Irish in the public space of the city." Scully then turns his attention to the problem of an inauthentic Irishness being represented by St Patrick's Day celebrations, and concludes that "those who had had personal experience of anti-Irish discrimination in England tended to draw on this experience to argue for the importance of the popularity of St. Patrick’s Day as an inclusive celebration. Meanwhile, those who had migrated more recently and did not share this collective memory, were more likely to question the authenticity of the festivities as being insufficiently representative of modern Ireland."

I think that Scully makes an important point here - for those who have experienced the brunt of anti-Irish sentiment, symbolic gestures of reconciliation are far more likely to be met with approval than those who have not. Sometimes, curiously enough, forgiveness is easier for those who have more to forgive. But I also wonder how much of this is a generational gap as well - I think Scully's article hints at this implicitly, though I'd have to read his thesis to find out if my hunch is right. For the Irish who moved to England in the 60s and 70s, expectations of not only how their identity would be perceived but also what kind of lives they would be able to lead must have differed so markedly from emigrants of today that necessarily their perceptions of change must be different. And it's certainly true that people of my parents' generation, and of preceding generations, are often more tolerant of prejudice than those of my own. (This is a bit of a sweeping statement, but I'll let it stand for now since this is just a blog post and not a piece of academic writing...) If you grow up expecting prejudice, not only directed towards your ethnic group but towards anyone who isn't a white English-accented Protestant (and perhaps participating in it yourself), then any gestures of inclusiveness may seem more significant to you than to your differently educated children or grandchildren.

The reason I tend to find St Patrick's Day celebrations as problematic is because they're usually a fetishising of particular types of Irishness - or Oirishness. Ireland is a green and pleasant land full of amusing superstitions, charming drunkards and poets. If you ever meet an Irish person, the words they speak in their quaint accent will convey to you some kind of folksy wisdom that you can enjoy over your green-tinted beer. Begorrah! This in itself is actually not that big a deal - celebrations that happen on any large scale about any culture or tradition end up focusing on stereotypes. This is how en masse celebration works. Cliches are comforting, whether we're celebrating things from within our own cultures or not. Think about Christmas, for instance - there are so many inbuilt cultural signifiers associated with the festive period. The problem is more to what extent the celebrations are shaped by the originating group and how much they're shaped by outsiders, and to what extent stereotypes of celebrations become stereotypes about an entire ethnic group.

St Patrick's Day, as it currently exists, has very few cultural links with the Irish. The modern style of celebrations originate in the US, and I would guess, fairly confidently, that most people who celebrate St Patrick's Day have never set foot on Irish soil. St Patrick's Day doesn't celebrate Irishness; it celebrates a perception of Irishness, and a rather narrow one at that. Americans talk about "St Patty's day", as if an Irish person would ever call him that ("Paddy", please), which is a minor example of a more major dislocation of a festival from its origins. It's also problematic when St Patrick's Day is celebrated in a culture that still demonstrates a lot of anti-Irish sentiment. It's true that nowadays no one in England is going to stick up a sign on their hotel saying NO BLACKS, NO DOGS, NO IRISH - but prejudice is still there. Even the "pleasant" sort of prejudice - the perception, for instance, that Irish people are innately creative - is still prejudice. It's very difficult not to have stereotyped perceptions of cultures foreign to one's own, but it does seem like St Patrick's Day brings these stereotypes to the fore.

More significantly, perhaps, is the way that St Patrick's Day also helps overshadow our more unpleasant cultural history. The reconciliation Scully talks about is important, but in some ways it seems quite superficial. I'm constantly amazed at how little my English peers seem to know about Irish history, or that there was essentially civil war going on in Northern Ireland during even our lifetimes, and certainly the lifetimes of our parents. Irishness is complicated, especially for the Irish abroad, whose personal stories are part of a greater narrative of chosen-and-unchosen exile.

I'm ultimately not sure what my conclusions here are. I don't think people should stop celebrating St Patrick's Day. Frankly, anything that brings whole cities a source of what's fairly clean and friendly joy is by and large a good thing. But I would like to see it accompanied by a better understanding of Irish experience and culture.

Hm. Thoughts?
ashwednesday: (Travel)
I love National Geographic, and their photo competitions also bring out some amazing talent. This one in particular made me gasp aloud:

(Montana; Sean Heavey)

More extraordinary shots here.
ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
My friend Ollie linked me to some beautiful pictures of Paris taken on an infrared setting. They are stunning - dreamlike but not twee. I've not looked at much infrared photography before but some of it is gorgeous. Makes me want to have a go!

IR from around the web, click to continue )
ashwednesday: (spilled milk)
I haven't written anything about the Pope's visit to the UK because mostly the press coverage and people's reactions have been giving me a headache. But here is a quick tuppence worth after reading the BBC's Have Your Say, which posed the question "what does the Pope's visit mean to you?" Most people replied "nothing". Of course, there was also a lot of invective about Catholicism in general, but the thing that struck me was just lots of people saying: "I don't care about this, why is it happening?"

So, let me just try to say why for me, as a British Catholic, it is important that this visit is happening, and why I feel sad I'm not on British soil today.

(Just to get this out of the way: I've blogged on this before, but to reiterate as it's bound to come up. I am, in the strongest possible terms, horrified by the paedophilia scandal, extremely disappointed in the Church's response to it, and understand completely why for a lot of people this casts a pall over the Church generally. I do think it's worth noting that the way the media has reported on this is probably not that helpful to future victims of child abuse, because it presents priests who sexually abuse children as "other" - men made abnormal by their religious vows and beliefs, and a lot of correlation has been drawn between vows of celibacy and sexual abuse. Actually, the men most likely to sexually abuse children are fathers and stepfathers, many of whom will be in a sexual relationship with adult women. This isn't to diminish the significance of what has happened, but it's time we started thinking about what social structures contribute to allowing sexual abuses to take place, rather than smugly acting as if they only happen within institutions we don't really like anyway.)

Right. As the BBC website says:

"The trip is the first to the UK by a Pontiff since John Paul II in 1982. It is also the first to be designated a state visit because the Pope has been invited by the Queen rather than the church."

This is about history. For many modern British people, the immediate response to what I'm about to say is "so what? All this stuff you're talking about happened years - even centuries - ago." But it's funny how long things are ingrained into the national psyche. I wonder how many people who have in the last weeks casually used the words "papist" and "popery" on Twitter, message boards and so on understand what historic prejudices they are drawing on. Let me be clear: I respect your right to dislike the Catholic Church. Objecting to hate language is NOT attempting to silence you. Here is a selection of tweets that use the word "papist" just within the last few hours on Twitter.

I still can't believe that it's 2010, and my city is preparing to welcome the world's premier Papist to it's environs.

pope + rapist = papist

pope + rapist = papist. The beauty of these simple confluences (and) elisions makes my life in the arse lane endurable.

I'm anti-papist I must admit. Mind you, I'm against most organised religions that have been forced by politics upon the masses.

Predictive text win: just tried to type Papist but my phone suggested rapist. Bloody clever phone this.

You can read just a little bit here about the historic use of the word "papist".

It was not until 1829 that civil rights for Catholics in Britain were (mostly) restored. The Catholic Relief Act, for instance, allowed Catholics to take office. There was vehement opposition to the Act both on a national scale and also in government, a lot of which was the result of anti-Irish prejudice. The resulting Act was a compromise, as it effectively disenfranchised the Irish peasantry (in Ireland prior to the Act, any man owning property worth 40 shillings or more had the vote; the qualification was raised to £10).

In 1850, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in England was officially restored, meaning, essentially, that Catholics once again had dioceses - and bishops. Prior to this, for two centuries English Catholics were overseen by Vicars Apostolic. The first Vicar Apostolic landed in secret in England in 1623. I'm just going to quote this bit from Wikipedia since it says it neatly enough: "The years from 1688 to the early nineteenth century were in some respects the nadir for Catholicism in England. Deprived of their dioceses, four Apostolic Vicariates were set up throughout England until the re-establishment of the diocesan episcopacy in 1850. Although the persecution was not violent as in the past, Catholic numbers, influence and visibility in English society reached their lowest ebb. Their civil rights were severely curtailed: their right to own property or inherit land was greatly limited, they were burdened with special taxes, they could not send their children abroad for Catholic education, they could not vote, and priests were liable to imprisonment." So the changes in the 19th century were welcomed enthusiastically by the Catholic population, and there was a significant Catholic revival from the late nineteeth century onward.

Still, the spectre of anticatholicism in Britain looms large. Those of us with Irish blood (which is quite a lot of British Catholics) will be particularly aware of this. There's not really room here (and I don't have time!) to really discuss sectarian violence in Ireland and how the popular trend at the moment to say "it's about politics, not faith" is a way of obscuring the complex web of prejudices (on all sides!) in Northern Ireland. But for those of you who think that anticatholicism is a relic of the past, please do consider 1972's Bloody Sunday, and wonder why it is that it took nearly 40 years for the British government to acknowledge that it murdered its citizens for the crime of being Irish Catholic men who wanted the same civil rights as their Protestant neighbours. They were shot as they crawled to safety. It could easily have been my uncles, my cousins.

I know that the Irish situation is more complex than "just" religion. I know. But I also know that for me, and for many other British Catholics, with history hard at our back, to have an official state visit by the leader of our Church - whatever one thinks of him, and trust me, many British Catholics are angry with him, but our many and varied discussions on the state of the Church today do not get covered by the mainstream media - after centuries of repression of our faith right into the late 20th century, it's a big deal. It's a really big deal. I hope that you can understand that.
ashwednesday: (Dream)
Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and one day, if we're very, very lucky, he might even be a good one.

Lestrade, Sherlock (BBC)

Didn't you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet.

T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia

His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for's power to thunder. His heart's his mouth:
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent;
And, being angry, does forget that ever
He heard the name of death.

Menenius, Coriolanus


The discussion here prompted me to think about the way Lestrade distinguishes between "good" and "great" when describing Sherlock, what makes a hero, and in what ways being a hero is problematic.

Of course, one of the first things we have to ask is "what does 'hero' mean?" Here I turn to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary so I've got some definitions for us to start with (which isn't to say we can't challenge or modify them).

1. Antiq. A name given (as in Homer) to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; at a later time regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal.
2. A man distinguished by extraordinary valour and martial achievements; one who does brave or noble deeds; an illustrious warrior.
3. A man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities.
4. The man who forms the subject of an epic; the chief male personage in a poem, play, or story; he in whom the interest of the story or plot is centred.

So obviously we can just accept definition #4, since Sherlock is the titular character, for goodness sake. The other definitions interest me, however. The origins of the word associate a man with (semi-)divine qualities, and there is throughout Western mythology (and no doubt other cultures, but I can only speak with any confidence about the West!) a fascination with supermen, men who are extraordinary. Sherlock is, of course, a long way from Hercules, but his exceptional intelligence and perception do set him apart from the average person in a way that other heroes are.

The reason I started this post, somewhat pretentiously, with quotations from Lawrence of Arabia and Coriolanus is because I think that Lawrence and Coriolanus offer up a lot of interesting questions about being a hero that we find also in Sherlock (although in a less epic form!). Peter O'Toole's Lawrence is a hero in the classic sense - he is beautiful, he is victorious, he is adored - but he is also a hero in the sense of being a man who, by his extraordinary nature, does not fit in well to the world he is walking. Lawrence is neither a good officer nor a good Arab; he is a brilliant man, but things would have been easier for him had he been less brilliant and more naturally shaped for a lesser task; and brilliance is like a sword, and one not easily wielded. As Prince Feisal observes to Allenby, they will both be glad to see Lawrence gone from the country, regardless of his extraordinary service. Lawrence is not a weapon to be wielded, but both weapon and wielder, and that makes him something to be feared. Coriolanus, meanwhile, is a play about a hero who cannot be contained by his society. (Quick plot summary here, since this isn't one of Shakey's better known plays.) Coriolanus is an incredibly difficult character to play, because he's this snobbish, monstrous, heroic, tragic, funny person. Coriolanus is this great hero of war time, he's invaluable to Rome, but when peace comes, he cannot be contained by his society. He's too much for them; his nature makes him dangerous not only to his enemies, but also to his friends.

What's all this got to do with Sherlock? Well, I suppose a lot has to do with the way he interacts with people. Think of the police, and the way Sherlock is necessary to them, but they all wish, I think, that he wasn't, even Lestrade who is more of a friend to Sherlock than I think Sherlock realises. I don't think this is just jealousy, or dislike of Sherlock's brusque ways and disinterest in procedure. I think there's also a bit of fear in there. I think they're afraid, because Sherlock isn't like them. Sherlock is dangerous. Sally fears that Sherlock could become a murderer, and although I don't think that he would, I can see why she would think it. Who can know what Sherlock would turn his mind to? And what he could achieve if he found he had an ambition for something other than solving cases?

There's this great moment in Lawrence where Lawrence puts out a match with his fingers, and Willam Potter copies him.
"Ooh! It damn well 'urts!"
"Certainly it hurts."
"What's the trick then?"
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

It would be easier for everyone if what Sherlock does is a trick; but it is not. And that is unsettling.

Part of being a hero is, it seems, being alone. I remember there was a lot made of how the recent Batman remakes really stress Bruce Wayne's isolation, but the idea of the hero apart is hardly new. We find it in comic books, we find it in Shakespeare. To be extraordinary is to be apart. One of the pleasures of such narratives for the reader/viewer is often to see the hero finding someone who understands him - sometimes a heterosexual love interest, but more often in a homosocial relationship (that doesn't preclude homosexual subtext, obviously!). Obviously for Sherlock this person is John. John's function is not just to act as a foil to Sherlock, a counter to his excesses, but to actually influence him, to draw him more toward being human, rather than superhuman, without him losing his super abilities. John is, slowly and surely, making Sherlock move toward being a good man as well as a great one. How easily those two things can coexist remains to be seen, and would be an interesting point for discussion! (I think this post is already getting too long.)

Finally, what are we to make of Sherlock's rejection of himself as a hero? How do we think he is defining it? We know Sherlock has a very high opinion of his own abilities. I think it is that he is rejecting the idea that his motivations are noble; he does what he does because he enjoys it, not because it is the right thing to do. Or so he thinks. My impression is that Sherlock has a finer moral sense than he has hitherto let himself believe. Sherlock may be able to erase things from his mind if he doesn't think they are important; John, who acts in some ways as a conscience, is harder to get rid of. Particularly since he seems to be the only person who can stand Sherlock - because, after his first flustered days of hero-worshipping Sherlock's abilities and then being wrongfooted by him, he's now settled into seeing him as a man, for all his extraordinarily good and bad qualities.
ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
Tonight I watched the BBC documentary This World: Stolen Brides, written and presented by Lucy Ash, a respected reporter with a background in covering Russian politics, warzones and women's issues. This programme was on the topic of forced marriages in Chechnya, a region with a complex and violence-ridden history, now struggling to recover after the Second Chechen War. Bride kidnapping has a long tradition in Chechnya, but it has seen a marked revival in recent years, with some estimating that up to 1 in 5 marriages begins with the kidnapping of the bride. Typically a young man and his friends snatch a woman off the street. They will then contact her family to negotiate for her hand. The marriage is usually agreed to, both to preserve the woman's honour and to prevent the need for a blood feud in a country where family honour is prized and where every man seems to have access to a gun. The narrative of the episode moved between the story of Zulikhan, a young woman snatched off the street and married a week later to a man she had met on only three occasions, and interviews with mullahs, human rights activists and ordinary Chechens.

I finished the programme feeling profoundly unsettled by what I had seen. There was a great deal to unpack from the footage, far more than could actually be analysed in the programme (though Lucy Ash gave a useful introduction to isues, she reported rather than analysed - which I think was probably more helpful in this context; it let the footage speak for itself). I sat in the bath, wondering why exactly it had upset me so profoundly. I see terrible things on the news every day, after all. Part of it, of course, was that there was a personal story there. Journalists know that a personal story is worth a hundred nameless casualties, and it would have been a stony-hearted person who wasn't moved by Zulikhan, a university student who suddenly had her career prospects and even her location taken from her as she was displaced through marriage to a near-stranger who moved them to remote Kazakhstan. Clearly bright and capable, Zulikhan had the air of a woman making the best of a bad situation; she liked her new mother-in-law (who enrolled her in a local university), and she described her marriage as "fate", but she had little to say about Bogdan, her new husband. Bogdan, meanwhile, was dismissive when asked if he thought his wife was upset about being snatched. Women, he said, just cried because they didn't want to leave home, but really they wanted to be married.

It would be easy to have gone away from the programme - with its men shooting guns in the air from the wedding cortege, mullahs exorcising women of demons that made them unhappy in their marriages, and grim statistics on women forced into prostitution and human rights activists murdered - thinking that Chechnya is an oppressive nation dominated by cruel, religious-fanatic men who are systematically crushing women's rights. Which in many ways is actually a fair assessment, but it's also a glib one.

One of the issues I have as a researcher on masculinities is the way so many people invoke the word "patriarchy" without actually understanding what it means. And before you ask, no, I don't know what it means either. I may have written a thesis on fatherhood, but I think I've only begun to understand what patriarchy really is. What this programme brought into sharp relief for me was the complex ways in which patriarchal constructs can shape, promote, and oppress. The people of Chechnya are victims of grotesque and repeated abuses of privilege. In 1944 the entire Chechen population was deported by the Russians. Half a million people were exiled to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and allowed to return only in 1957. Unsurprisingly, the ensuing years have seen continued bloody struggles with Russia. An increasingly radicalised Chechen population has in recent years moved away from seeking a western-style democracy independent of Russia and moved toward the ideal of a powerful Islamic state fighting for Caucasian independence - at almost any cost. The war with Russia is supposedly over, but violence is endemic, the unemployment rate stands at a third of the population, and a Médecins Sans Frontières survey in 2007 found that an astonishing 77% of respondents showed evidence of psychological trauma as a result of the war.

It is perhaps not surprising that in a nation that has been systematically brutalised and humiliated by a more powerful enemy that its citizens should seek ways of self-empowerment. It's all very well if we at home, comfortable in our privileges of peacetime and education, think it would be better if people sought productive ways to empower themselves. For many Chechen men, growing up with the expectation that their lives may be cut short by violence, ambitions stymied by economic stagnation and political corruption, an act such as bride-stealing may seem to them an exertion of personal choice and of vigorous masculinity. Patriarchal constructs tell men that they are not really men if they are not demonstrating their masculinity, if they do not prove their manliness. And of course the constructs of patriarchy involve not only the domination of women by men, but the domination of men by more powerful men. This isn't, by the way, all about gender; patriarchy's a lot more complex than that, and maybe sometime I'll have time to get into that. But for now - Chechen men have lived for decades as the whipping boys of their own government and of the policies of an autocratic and powerful neighbour. Is it surprising that a radical and conservative version of Islam which allows men to marry more than one woman, that allows men to make women cover their heads, that encourages men to take back their nation's independence, that neatly gives the blame for their problems to Russia and to the population's moral laxity. In many societies, patriarchal constructs subtly instil the notion that the household is a microcosm of society, and so the man who controls his household is a man who can take his proper place in a social hierarchy.

I couldn't warm to Bogdan, who seemed to have little interest in his new wife, and who did seem like the kind of cold misogynist you might expect. But Lucy Ash spoke to his father on Bogdan's wedding day. The father was visibly relieved; most people, he said, got married at eighteen or nineteen, but then the war came... And now Bogdan was thirty. There was in what he said a sense of an anxiety that went beyond a typical parental desire for a child to settle down and start a family. There is a sense in Chechnya of there being very little time; lives are borrowed, not owned, and this attitude makes snatching a wife - a custom that seems better suited to a more ancient time, not to a society with glossy billboards and a busy TV industry - make more sense. "I didn't want to wait," said Bogdan, and whilst his dismissive attitude toward his wife's ambitions was repulsive, it was easier to understand his anxiety to be married when an old man started speaking at the wedding reception. He discussed how he and his family were deported, how he saw his siblings die - a tiny fraction of the horrifying one-third of all deportees who died during transport or shortly thereafter. He talked about how women knelt down in front of Russians so that the fighting would stop, and how they were mowed down. Everything that the Chechen people have has been scraped together, fought for, stolen, wrung out. They are simultaneously absolutely certain of their right to be Chechen and absolutely uncertain of anything else that governs their own lives. They are fiercely proud of their race and nation; they are afraid of their government, of the future, of the shadow of Moscow.

"It's the law of our grandfathers," one man said about bride-snatching. "We have to respect our Chechen traditions." "Tradition" is often a useful cloak for abuse, and you may rightly sniff at men using dubious "history" to justify the abuse of women's rights - but in a society with an uncertain future and a distressing and bloody recent past and present, the concept of "tradition" is something to cling fast to. Whether or not it actually does anyone any good.
ashwednesday: medieval tapestry (Tapestry desire)
Today a dear friend of mine announced her engagement. I am very happy for her and her intended! Also, she is one of my few Catholic friends, which means I can get a God-mention into my congratulations without it seeming creepy. Thinking on her marriage made me turn to The Song of Songs, one of the most beautiful books of the Old Testament.

Hark! my lover–here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices.
My lover speaks; he says to me,
“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come!
“O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely.”
My lover belongs to me and I to him.
He says to me:
“Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away.”

This is one of the suggested readings for a Catholic wedding. People often misunderstand the Church's teaching on sexual love. (I'm not interested today in debating the Church's position on homosexual relationships; anyone who knows me knows how I feel about this, and I'd rather this not be sidetracked.) No less auspicious and, one would assume, conservative group than the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has this to offer about the appropriateness of this passage:

It is a love poem describing two young lovers discovering the beauty of their created bodies, and their desire to share it in love and mutual fidelity. Parts of the book express erotic love. The gift of sexuality is affirmed and portrayed without apology. There is radical equality with both lovers desiring to share in it with equal intensity. Love is seen as a communion of souls.

(Love as radical, sexuality as unashamed. Take that, naysayers!)

I am particularly taken with this translation of the text - stern as death is love. Often that "stern" is rendered "strong", which gives this text a more romantic and straightforwardly optimistic reading. Love conquers all. Here, however, the "stern" renders love into something more complex. Love is serious; love is as severe as death, as transformative. It is a shock to the body. It transfigures. It can be implacable. In these ways it is similar to death. But that "as" also sets it up as a contrast, a counterpoint. Death is a conqueror, but so is love. Love is fierce. Death takes us all, but love wins. Love does conquer all. That does not mean that love overcomes all obstacles; it means that the ability to love, that emotion which makes us as close to the divine as we can as mortals get, means we do not have to be debased by them. We do not have to be conquered. There are so many things in our world that kill us or disfigure us - in our hearts and souls as well as bodies - but our capacity to love is, I think, a reminder that there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. That may not seem like much consolation in a barren time; the greatest truths are often bald, and the comfort they offer is of a severe sort. Love is stern. Love is a gift that is difficult to use.

It is a great and terrible challenge to decide to love one person as your spouse for the rest of your life. It is only one form of love, but in many ways it is one of the most difficult. It is a choice that must be made again and again. Anyone who believes in Happily Ever Afters is misguided; happiness does not just happen, but is made through our choices, day by day. But this, I think, is a good thing. For fairytales have an ending written into that happily-ever-after. And so I wish my friend not a happily ever after, but a great start on a transformative adventure called We.
ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
For my readers outside of the UK, Dr Ben Goldacre's analysis of the problem with Gillian McKeith will not seem very compelling. However, Goldacre's discussion of how McKeith is essentially a charlatan offers him the opportunity to open up a much more interesting and wide-ranging topic for discourse: how socio-economic inequities are what actually pose the greatest threat to health in this country (and within other nations). Here is a pertinent extract from the article.

In reality, again, away from the cameras, the most significant “lifestyle” cause of death and disease is social class. Here’s a perfect example. I rent a flat in London’s Kentish Town on my modest junior doctor’s salary (don’t believe what you read in the papers about doctors’ wages, either). This is a very poor working-class area, and the male life expectancy is about 70 years. Two miles away in Hampstead, meanwhile, where the millionaire Dr Gillian McKeith PhD owns a very large property, surrounded by other wealthy middle-class people, male life expectancy is almost 80 years. I know this because I have the Annual Public Health Report for Camden open on the table right now.

This phenomenal disparity in life expectancy – the difference between a lengthy and rich retirement, and a very truncated one indeed – is not because the people in Hampstead are careful to eat a handful of Brazil nuts every day, to make sure they’re not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists’ advice.

And that’s the most sinister feature of the whole nutritionist project, graphically exemplified by McKeith: it’s a manifesto of rightwing individualism – you are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. They choose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you choose life, fresh fish, olive oil, and that’s why you’re healthy. You’re going to see 78. You deserve it. Not like them.
ashwednesday: (London)
Five years.

I was in London when it all happened, although safely away from what was happening. It was a terrible day, quite surreal, and all the stranger for having happened only a day after London won the 2012 Olympics, a real source of pride for the city.

Something that struck me at the time was how well Londoners dealt with what happened. People talk about Blitz spirit so much it's become a cliche, but cliches become cliches for a reason. There were acts of heroism carried out with no fanfare and only a need to get things done. There were cups of tea handed out on the streets and there were bad jokes made within hours - hell, knowing Londoners, probably minutes - of the explosions. What the government has done since then, how it has used events like 7/7 to make incursions on our civil liberties, troubles me a great deal. But I still have a lot of faith in ordinary people because of what I saw and heard about that day. Here's something I wrote four years ago on the first anniversary. I might write it differently now, but I think overall I can leave my points to stand.

Each death is a tragedy - for the individual, for the people who loved them, for the countries that lost them and their potential, and for society as another blow against toleration and mutual respect and human feeling. But still, in these dark hours, we see always the best of human spirit as well as the worst; the capacity for people to help one another, to joke in the face of death, to stand in the clotted dark of an underground tunnel helping the wounded to safety. There are great acts of heroism, but more importantly than that there are the little acts of heroism, the small things that let us look at one another and say, for a little while at least, you are my brother and I am yours. I think that is what the events of July 7 last year gave me a sense of: people of every colour and religion, brought together by chance in the beating heart of the city, the underground, emerging from the darkness all alike for a time - soot stained and shell shocked - and then offering, through a bad joke or a visit to the pub or holding the hand of a stranger, a hard nosed London V-sign to the people who thought they could break them, and a collective cheer for the life that will and must go on.


ashwednesday: ocean (Default)

January 2013

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