This appeared on the Huffington Post student blog and pretty much went viral. Decent – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/liam-deacon/the-death-of-student-actism_b_4904133.html 

Whatever happened to the heroes?

Student activism was once a force to be reckoned with. It changed the world, visibly and profoundly. It was the catalysts that lead to the end of the Vietnam War, it pressured governments to finally stop supporting apartheid and it forced the world to start addressing institutionalised racism. But today, in the face of genuine and widely felt grievances, students are impotent and apathetic. Universities are businesses, education is job training and a degree is a holiday.

RuskDemonstration10-31-1967b

It was “re-fresher’s week” and we were sat round on a circle of fold out chairs and boxes drinking warm cider out of mugs. We were taking turns to explain what had brought us here, to University. People were answering honestly and the notion most commonly expressed was that they just wanted to get away from home. It’s an impetus previous generations will struggle to understand. With the employment and property markets as they are, going away to Uni was the only realistic way to get away from mum and dad at eighteen, to find some independence, to ‘find our selves.’ But it’s also unavoidably a somewhat perverse reason to go into higher education; selfish, myopic, indulgent even – racking up loans and maxing out overdrafts just to get away from our doting parents.

As the question circulated it came to the turn of a philosophy undergrad that we’d only recently met. “Well,” he said, “I came to learn how to live… and how to die, I guess. I want to understand the forces at work in the world so I can change it for the better whilst I’m alive.” The room rippled with smirks followed by a hush of confusion. The boy blushed and conversation moved on.

I was too cowardly to defend him that night. My social survival mechanisms learnt in secondary school kicked in and I bit my tongue. But I wish I’d defended him. After all, truly, I had hoped to escape that ‘high school cool’ at university. I thought, finally, it would be cool to care. After all we were all paying a fortune to study here, why would we scoff at those who are passionate about what they study? Maybe, finally, people wouldn’t roll their eyes and sigh with disapproval when someone wanted to discuss whether or not Israel has a right to exist, or if there is a meaning to this life, even. Those hopes were misled, and now I am complicit.

The stark truth is university culture has fundamentally changed in the past decade. The anoraks are out and the ‘lads’ are in. “Education, education, education!” said Blair. An entire generation raised on American Pie and Skins went skipping off to “unaii” for the “experience” of a life time. Previous generations were rocked by Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. We lusted for gap years, Jägerbombs and casual sex.

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It’s an infuriating paradox, but intellectual institutions are now infected by an aggressively anti-intellectual culture. Students are making more headlines for urinating on war memorials and telling rape jokes than for fighting injustice or advancing progressive ideas. Too many went, for all the wrong reasons and universities are fast becoming playgrounds for middle class kids to postpone their adulthood. They are dominated by an ugly ‘lad’ culture that fuses the elitist arrogance of public school rugby with a distinctively American, extroverted and stupefied ‘jock’ persona.

The decay isn’t only down to students. Student Unions are now anything but ‘Unions’. They are failing to protect the interest of students, nurture a hot bed of intellectual activity or help co-ordinate any meaningful student activism. Today, student unions are just shopping malls designed to extract money from the ‘student market’ and political apathy has made student democracy nothing more than a beautified popularity contest. Our own union has been powerless to stop the ACS (Accommodation and Commercial Services) setting up a subsidiary company of the university that can effectively be run as ruthless, profit hungry corporation. Sheffield’s union, apparently the best in the country, now contains overpriced shops, a selection of banking outlets and a fine dining restaurant (seriously) – all installed to exploit us not serve us.

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The apathy that’s infecting Universities is not occurring in a vacuum. It’s part of a wider trend that is characteristic of our entire generation. Politicians have been able to so readily trample on the interest of young people because they know we don’t turn out to vote. The prescribed austerity has hardly touch the baby boomers, who reaped the benefits of the post war boom and extravagance of the Thatcher years, simply because they care enough to walk to a ballot box.

People my age will happily sit on their laptops ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ various worthy causes they purport to endorse. But in reality, all they’re doing is advertising themselves as philanthropists to their thousands of ‘friends’, yet failing to make a difference out in the real world. The Internet and social media have been utilized to magnificent effect in the Arab spring and across the developing world. But here in the cozy west they are insincere platforms of vanity and narcissism.

This generation has so many legitimate grievances; underhand privatization of universities is occurring under our noses, inequality has been rising for half a century and the banking elite continues to leach off the blood of the people. But we’re not scared by the forces that threaten the peace and equality we’ve always known, because we can’t imagine a world where things are any different. To my generation wars are what happened to our grandparents and human rights violations are things that occur in distant lands. We naively take the stability and security of our liberal democracy for granted and have become the most passive and politically impotent generation in living memory.

The student riots of 2010 represented a glimmer of hope. But essentially they were just a furious outburst of shock and anger at the unprecedented tripling of tuition fees (not too dissimilar to the other recent riots). The anger found no unifying purpose, no explanatory ideology or motivating cause. The businessmen who now run universities responded with vengeful and undemocratic means. They have banned sit ins and many forms of protests and the students who care are too fragmented and few to respond at all.

Maybe when the injustice and inequality becomes too much to bear this generation of students will finally wake up. I just hope we don’t leave it so long that the hard won gains of past generations of students are entirely undone.

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This also featured on my HuffPost blog – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/liam-deacon/maajid-nawaz_b_4905802.html

Rights, Democracy and Cartoons

Last week journalists and politicians attempted to have a serious debate over a comic strip. Much ammunition was spent in the ensuing media trial of Maajid Nawaz who provoked the petition that prompted the debate. But frustratingly little of that discussion touched upon the motivating tension behind the issue. Tension derived from the controversial question of weather there is a need or democratic will to sign away certain individual rights to protect certain group rights here in the UK. Including and in particular the religious sensibilities at hand in this case.

The debate over group rights is contested, but what shouldn’t be, is the fact that calling for instant and somewhat arbitrary retributive action against a single MP candidate, who has exercised a right afforded to everyone else, just isn’t a convincing way to invite this debate into the public domain. Neither is it just or democratic.

They issue will remain controversial, but it certainly may be fair to invite the question into democratic conversation as the nation changes – to query if certain group identities might now need protecting by the curtailing of certain individual rights, such as those of Mr. Nawaz. It’s a discussion that’s been had in Canada, where the assignment of fishing rights to native ethnic groups and religious rights to particular immigrant groups has been very contentious.

Many assert that their existence creates different levels of citizenship and is ultimately divisive. The philosophical viability of group rights is sometimes rejected outright, because they are seen to utterly undermine the existence of essential universal and human rights. But supporters also argue that assigning group rights and protections in diverse democracies is essential to the survival of the distinct identities and cultures of minority groups, even if protections are only used temporarily.

I’m sure those who are really concerned with protecting religious traditionalists from cartoons are perusing the relevant lobbying or legislative pathways. But those who also lost their temper over the actions of one political figure have shown their increasing assertion of certain purported religious rights to be representative of what the opposition contends them to be – misappropriated as a tool to silence those who disagree.

A major argument advanced by those who attempted to have him ousted is that that many Muslims do not favour Mr. Nawaz or feel he is representative of them as a demographic group. This might be true; however, Mr. Nawaz’s message is that Islam is a diverse group and is not always appreciated as such. He wouldn’t claim for a moment to represent all British Muslims. He represents the change he and his organization wish to see and it is for the electorate of Hampstead and Kilburn to decide if they want him to represent them. The 20,000 signatures are entitled to be offended, but it certainly has not yet been decided by a court or in parliament that this ‘offender’ should suffer punitive measures for exercising his freedom of speech.

In terms of the Lib Dems, I would hazard a guess that it was an understanding of the importance of individual rights that led Mr. Nawaz towards his chosen party. To then witness them be so dilatory about upholding those very rights, rights they actually purport to embody, must have been despairing. Most worryingly of all, it signaled to the tiny minority who also threatened violence that their actions were productive.

All across twitter people seem to be proclaiming that, “It is now ‘legal’ for police to shoot and kill an unarmed person.”

Fortunately it isn’t. Mark Duggan may or may not have just bought a gun in the exchange the Police encountered, but there were certainly guns present.  He had many violent convictions, including firearms convictions. The intelligence was weak, but it was existent.

Remember the Met did not kill the Woolwich killers, despite them being armed. They are a very flawed institution, but the populist Police bashing the Media are indulging seems somewhat sensationalist and unfair. There are many things the Met could have done better that day, asked more question, used better intelligence or rubber bullets even. They have murdered before, but it is not fair to accuse them of Mr Duggan’s murder.

It should not be forgotten that their primary objective was to protect the general public; they failed this time, and killed a member of the public. But it was not murder and it was not, wholly, unjustified.

There were so many legit reasons to riot in 2013… this was not one of them. Young people have so many grievances this century – rising inequality, stagnating social mobility and genuine racism. But the riots were essential a material driven looting spree. They made a mockery of our generation and the ends the rioters purported to support.

Remember this hero,

This article appeared on freethoughtblog.com as guest post –http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2014/01/06/guest-post-critiquing-islam-or-islamophobia/ 

Critiquing Islam and Islamophobia

For nine years in a row a controversial resolution on, “Combating Defamation of Religions,” described by some as an, “international blasphemy law,” has been consistently losing support in the United Nations General Assembly. Until 2010, the only religion mentioned in the legislation was Islam, when the authors of the legislation, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, invented the terms; “Judeophobia and Christianophobia,” too quell criticism. Domestically too, the term Islamophobia has come under intense scrutiny, just this week. Opinion is sharply divided.

The discourse here in the UK often mirrors the international debate. In one camp, the appropriateness of the terms very existence is questioned; critics lambast the fact that in reality there is no equivalent terminology in existence to describe those who critique other ideologies and religions (other than Anti-Semitism, of course). They say it is telling of the particular defensiveness and privilege that Islam demonstrates and is often afforded. Others, however, maintain that the phenomena is one of the most concerning and potentially dangerous of our age. They contend that the recent increase in Islamophobia is akin to the rise of Anti-Semitism in the last century and portray Islamophobia as a current of hate, engulfing Europe and risking unrest, conflict even.

There is truth on both ends of this dialectic. Islamophobia clearly exists. It is a genuine phenomenon. A ‘phobia’ is an irrational fear or hatred of something – one need only browse the Internet momentarily before confronting a plethora of overtly irrational, hateful and inflammatory views directed towards Muslims. On the other hand, the term is very commonly misappropriated to deflect genuine and much needed criticism of Islam. And it is grossly misappropriated when used to scare and accuse those interested in discussing theology, ethics and progress of racism and bigotry.

The comparison between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism can be useful. Both are genuine and both are often misappropriated. (Israel frequently claims Anti-Semitism is at work when policies of the apartheid state are subject to criticism.) Mohammad Ansar explains here the increasingly worrying similarity between Islamophobia today and Anti-Semitism of the previous century,

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/01/29/3678693.htm

However, misappropriation of the term is so common, and confusion so easy, because alongside the rising tide of irrational Islamophobia described by Ansar, there is an increasing need for a rational critique Islam (a process Ansar is deeply involved in himself).

Religions are not static or homogeneous. They change / evolve over time and at any one time there is often a plurality of voices within any religion advocating differing interpretations. Rigorous and continuous criticism is an important catalyst for this ongoing process. Denying the need for such a critique, and assuming Islam is static and unchanging, is as crude and misleading as islamophobia itself.

Religion is a historical process of change and modernization. Many early religions described man’s relationship with nature. There were Gods of sun, thunder and earth. Later, religions are often seen to embody man’s relationship with the state. The god of Athena, say, represented to the Greeks their relationship with the polis. Later, the great monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity began to function as the Polis itself. Church and state became one; it was the fear of God, rather that the Police, that kept citizens in line and it was parish / sharia courts who made judicial rulings.

After coming to dominate politics in Europe, Christianity did not give up its political power lightly. From Galileo to Copernicus, for centuries, owners of any voice of decent were persecuted. It was a long and bloody battle before Christianity began to communicate with post enlightenment thought. Christianity was battered and berated into submission by a reformation, enlightenment and a well-established tradition of biblical criticism. The result was the subdued and less political Christianity we know today (maybe not so in America). The simple fact is that Islam is not as far through this stage of its historical development, through which it will be brought to communicate with post enlightenment thought and secular politics, as Christianity, which began it in the 17th century.

Comparatively, very little is know about the true origins of the Koran. Historians such as Patria Crone and Tom Holland have only recently begun this mammoth task. Historical and Archeological examinations of the Bible helped Christians a great deal in reconciling their views with the realities of the modern world. Hopefully the same can be true for Islam.

Incongruity, or harmony?

As I’ve said, Islam is far from monolithic; Muslim feminists and gay rights activists are a historical fact. But today, particularly since the Islamic resurgence, Islam is dominated by conservative, and primarily male, voices. Such voices have been politicizing the religion and pushing an oppressive, conservative social agenda. This has resulted in the social regression we see in Iran and more recently, Turkey and Egypt. Critiquing the authoritarian, misogynistic and homophobic values of these interpretations of Islam is of pivotal importance for the survival and wellbeing of millions of people worldwide.

Another issue at hand is the confluence of Islamic culture with Islamic faith. If such a critique is to be as successful as it has been for Christianity then it is likely that many Muslims, especially those living in the west, will come to reject the dogmatism of religion and embrace Agnosticism and Atheism. It is critical that Apostates of Islam can hold on to their cultural identity despite losing their faith. It’s been decades since people, un-ironically, discussed ‘Christendom’ or ‘Christian culture’ instead of ‘western culture,’ and it’s time Islamic culture was more commonly afforded such respect, as something quite distinct from mere faith.

As conservative Muslim populations living inside western liberal democracies become more vocal and politicized, it must be remembered that a central condition of freedom of religion is the freedom of others to criticize your religion. New Atheism and ‘Dawkinism’ are consistently more abrasive and less patient with conservative religious views. If every time the two groups come into conflict commentators call it Islamophobia, the true meaning and importance of the word will very soon be lost.

I must stress, none of what is said above is written to suggest that the majority of Muslims today are not already moderate and do not accept post-enlightenment thought. Rather, if we are to begin to see the end of political Islam and the small but significant strains of radical Islam that western media is so obsessed with, then a vigorous and open discussion must be had about Islam. At a time when genuinely Islamophobic views are on the rise, keeping such a rational discussion distinct from genuinely Islamophobic, irrational prejudice will be increasingly difficult.

Footnote

1) I tweeted the article to Tom Holland (one of the historians mentioned above), and very kindly he replied,

The essay he sent brings out a far more nuanced distinction between Christianity and Islam than i am able to describe in this article. As he explains in the essay, with a full examination of scripture and historical context, the holism and doctrinairism present in Islamic scripture is likely to distinguish Islam’s own idiosyncratic evolution from Christianity’s journey. It’s well worth a read.

2) Many of the Reddit comments have pointed out that i omit to define either, or draw a clear line between, Islamophobia and legitimate criticism. I merely describe one as rational and the other irrational or prejudice. Unfortunately this was simply not within the scope of the article. Kenan Malik draws such a distinction, quite excellently, here,

http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/when-does-criticism-of-islam-become-islamophobia/

References

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2010/03/25/104041.html

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/01/29/3678693.htm

http://cnsnews.com/news/article/un-passes-religious-defamation-resolution-sponsored-islamic-nations-support-dwindles

The idea concerning the evolution of religion and a dialectic of truth is obviously very Hegelian. Taken from Bob Stern’s guide The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Tariq Ramadam is an intellectual and orator who i much admire. He’s brave enough to stand up to a berated Christopher Hitches and defend his faith (www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-spKm13v6c), but also question and confront the authority of those within the faith. As a religious apologist, his rational and anti-literalist critique of Islam presents real hope for reconciliation with post enlightenment thought and for internal evolution and progress in the faith. An imminent critique that Islam can shy away from no longer.
However, It is a fact that cannot be omitted, that Professor Ramadam is a rational thinker who owe’s much of his clarity of though to the western philosophical tradition, something he too often denies. In this fascinating but misleading lecture Ramadam claims to talk of ‘Religion’ and ‘spirituality’…. but, he speaks only of reason and Philosophy.

He starts with Isaiah Berlin and Rousseau of freedom. Rousseau famously declared that we must be “forced to be free,” eluding to a distinction Berlin would make over a century later, between positive and negative freedom. I’m with Hegel on this one, Freedom is a ‘social achievement.’ Western, liberal, consumer society constantly reminds us of how we are (negatively) free to get an education, get rich and buy a BMW, but consistently fails to tell us how we are positively free to achieve anything – be that material, ethical or ‘spiritual.’ My freedom to extend my fist ends at your nose, but my freedom to find affluence and peace begins with my society. Finding freedom is a complex and sometimes contradictory process. To be free we must be restrained and those restrictions must be self-legislating but also universal. Only Philosophy can tackle this issues, Religion is impotent in the face of such complexity.
Then Professor Ramadan deplores rule base, dogmatic moral systems – precisely the sort of closed deontologies religions peddle. In a diverse, modern, liberal society only openminded secularism stands any chance of rectifying the plurality of thought on ethical issues we see, with the aim of create cohesive, peaceful societies. Religious dogmatism appeals to emotion and superstition and it makes little room for disagreement, which can only lead to conflict.

And, through-out, Mr Ramadam claims to promote social and cultural understanding and cohesion. But, once again, normatively it is his treasured religion that arrogantly preach moral superiority and the need to convert others to your way of thinking.

This is not a ‘spiritual’ man – this is a rational man. I encourage religious thinkers to follow Mr Ramadam in rationalising their theology. But it would be better still if the religious simply appealed to the source of such rationality, spared the apologists such a Ramadam the painful and laborious task of rectifying and revamping religious dogma and embraced reason and philosophy in it’s purest form as the only source of just and proper moral systems in the modern world.

This was written on the 25th of september for Canvas, an online politics journal.

http://canvas.union.shef.ac.uk/wordpress/?p=2416

The Cost of Living Crisis and Socialism

The cost of living is a lived and very visible symptom of the persisting economic slow down that the UK has suffered so acutely since banking crisis six years ago. As Kevin Bridges so eloquently put it, “When 10p crisps are costing 15p, that’s when I began to take an interest in economics.” Unfortunately none of the major parties have, as yet, promised to bring the price of 10p crisps back into line with the price implied by their name, but, ‘the cost of living crisis,’ as it’s been dubbed, is emerged as the most hotly contested policy area in the run up to the next election.

Ed Midland’s promise to freeze energy prices for 12 months was slated by many as a populist move to win electoral support that would translate very little savings into the pockets of general public – criticism that is partially deserved. It is depressingly likely that the major six energy companies will simply and unscrupulously raise their prices before and after the freeze. But it’s also a brave and progressive move by Miliband that’s sent a strong message to the shareholders controlling a dysfunctional market and engineering profits that are hard to justify.

It’s a move that has garnered insults Blair would have winced at. Ideologies have been out of fashion for over a decade, and the term Socialist has almost become derogatory in mainstream British politics. A question that is rarely asked along side such accusations however, is what is meant by ‘socialism’ used in this context? How is it we should characterises the alleged ideology? Neither Ed nor his detractors seem to have given a suitable answer to this question, so the surest answer we can get is to derive one from the policies proposals we’ve seen.

Six energy firms dominate over 90% of the market. Such is the lack of competition and the captive nature of the market they have been able raise profits in contempt of the forces of supply and demand and in line with their own desire. Despite inflation running at just 13% and wholesale gas prices plummeting by 50%, their profits have shot up 74% since 2009. Promisingly, only this morning Ed promised to intervene in other markets, such as water, were a similar rip off culture has developed.

If limiting such grotesque profits so normal people can afford to heat their homes, drink and wash is to be defined as ‘socialist’, then we must be characterising socialism in its most broad sense. Socialism as simply arranging the economy in a way that benefits the people who make up that economy, all off them. If that is what Ed is being ‘accused’ of, them he should continue to do little to deny it.

Cameron’s answer to solving the living cost crisis is his ‘help to buy’ scheme. At first glance it seems like an equally valiant attempt to address the soaring cost felt by normal people, whilst potentially curtailing the ever-growing profits raked in by shareholders. On closer inspection it fulfil neither of these criterion.

Four major Banks dominate their market in a similar way to the big six energy companies, and one of their many sins is to stop offering 95% mortgages in recent years, when buyers have needed them most. Potential homebuyers with incomes suitable to meet mortgage repayments have been stuck paying the astronomical rents of our inflated property market until they can find the £40,000 average deposited to buy a house.

Despite UK mortgages performing very well since the down turn and the banks holding so much of the responsibility for the economic mess we’re in, they’re no longer prepared to take the risk involved in offering 95% mortgages. So Cameron has offered to take that risk off of the shoulders of the poor banks and place it on the taxpayer instead. How valiant.

‘Help to buy’ is a farce; all it’s set to do is further inflate the property market as first time buyers flood the market, whilst forcing the taxpayer to accept all the risk as the banks continue to profit. If Cameron really cared about giving normal people a chance of ever owning a home he’d be building affordable homes for all, restoring local honest banking like exists in Germany and limiting foreign investors from using the UK property market like a monopoly board. But god forbid, such rational policies might be perceived as ‘socialist’.

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This was written on the 12th of september for Canvas, an online politics journal,

http://canvas.union.shef.ac.uk/wordpress/?p=2419

Mortality rates 45% higher in English Hospitals – is privatisation the answer?

Two weeks ago Channel 4 News ran a truly shocking story, which shook even the most dedicated NHS of supporters, including myself. Data they had obtained indicated that English hospitals were inferior to those in seven other developed nations. America’s much criticised insurance-based system came out on top, and was alarmingly sighted as a model for change in UK hospitals. “NHS death rates are one of worst in the West,” read the Daily Mail the next morning. By the end of the story, I for one was scared. Such startling figures genuinely made me question if whether I could trust the NHS with my life, and if growing old here, in my native country, is really as appealing as I once thought.

The source of the data was Professor Brian Jarman, and was collected secretly over more than a decade. Not only did it show our mortality rates to be the worst of the seven nations, it indicated that people over the age of 65 are five times more likely to die of pneumonia in hospital in England, and twice as likely to die from a blood infection (septicaemia) than if they were admitted to a hospital in the United States. Channel 4 claimed to have asked if anyone from the Department of Health was available to talk on the eve of the braking news. They weren’t, so they decided to continue with the on screen debate three against… zero. The defense of the NHS in the face of these damming figures was never heard.1

In the coming weeks, free market proponents in government who are currently pushing the ‘back-door,’ privatisation of the NHS will no doubt use this data to forward their agenda. The argument goes; in a system like the NHS, an absence of competition and meritocracy will invariably impact on efficiency and quality of service. As alarming as the figures were however, I quickly began to realise that the data did not prove in the slightest that the NHS is an inferior system to its privatised and semi-privatised counterparts in the other six nations. Firstly, the data is far from conclusive; It doesn’t appear to be peer reviewed, we know very little as yet about the sources and methodology used to produce these figures and nothing at all about the five other developed nations looked at – not even what nations they are.

This aside, the conclusions cannot be ignored; these figures appear to show rather unequivocally that English hospitals are under-performing. In particular, the fact that so many people seem to be getting Ill inside our hospitals indicates some hospitals may be sloppily run, comparatively undisciplined, or unclean. Much has been written about the hospital super bugs that have run rampant in British hospitals and about shock stories of dirty wards. In July of this this year a highly critical report into 14 hospitals with the highest mortality rates in the country by Sir Bruce Keogh described them as “trapped in mediocrity” ignoring concerns raised by patients and Staff.

This was echoed by professor Jarman who blamed the problems highlighted by his data on the ‘culture’ of the NHS.2 However, Keogh’s report suggested that geographical location was often a factor, in that isolated hospitals might struggled to attract the best staff. More common than that was the hindrance of quality care as a result of inadequate numbers of nursing and other staff, or an over-reliance on temporary and unregistered staff – in some cases ward staff were working 12 days in a row. Certainly, changing the ‘culture’ of the NHS will be no small task. It is one of the largest bureaucracies in the world; it’s the fifth largest employer on the planet. Public sector culture and the unaccountability and layered bureaucracy associated with it are undoubtedly factors in creating the problematic culture sighted. It has, for example, just abandoned plans to create the world’s largest single civilian computer system linking to all parts of the National Health Service. A change of culture may be needed, but changing this culture is not a simple as privatising.3

Market forces are not a quick fix and have actually been repeatedly shown to damage the NHS. Since Thatcher’s, “new public management” initiative in the 80’s, hospitals have begun to outsource cleaning (roughly 40% in 2008). The consequences have been; consistently less time spent cleaning each ward each day, higher staff turnover (less competent staff), and less control over cleaning for medically trained staff. I should like to point out those who might be thinking of giving the above argument that it is undoubtedly privatisation and market forces that have made our hospital dirty, not the other way around. Private cleaning firms were doing such a terrible job that by 2008 the Royal College of Nursing conference overwhelmingly voted for a motion proposing an end to contracting out cleaning to private firms.4

The marketisation of the NHS continued into the Blair years. The Labour Party thought they could create a market within the NHS without actually selling any of it off. Targets, quotas, and plans were put in place for most aspects of service. To meet the artificially inflated targets a number of NHS trusts allocated “The Hello Nurse,” whose sole task it was to greet new arrivals in order to claim for statistical purposes that the patient had been “seen.”5 NHS managers took wheels off trolleys too reclassified them as beds and reclassified corridors as wards in order to falsify Accident & Emergency waiting times statistics. From a wider view, hospitals are now paid by the quantity of work they do under a contract, so we see a phenomenon known as hospitals “over performing” when hospitals treat more patients than their contract allows. The “extra” patients are not extra “customers” for the hospital, they are patients with real problems that need to be treated, but the market that has been created in the NHS represents them as figures on a balance sheet and excess costs.

Explaining why private firms so often drive down standard is simple; when a private corporation wins a contract for ten years say, there is no competition for ten years, the motivation to drive costs down and increase profit margins can increase. The same has been seen to be true with rail companies running poor services and private catering companies selling harmful, but profitable foods in school. In the case of the NHS, the historic conception of the public servant proudly giving themselves and their talents to people and nation was permanently tainted. Public service became self service and so emerged the popular image of the petulant NHS working mindless ticking boxes and chasing bonuses. These systems of free choice and opportunity did not perform as the game theorists predicted, because the players cheated.

In an industry trading in the commodity of people lives, market incentives can only result in people being treated as objects and patients as customers. Customers who might one day be judged on their ability to pay, not their medical need. Even if I concede that our hospitals our are made worse by, and our death rates higher because of, our system being public sector run this does not mean that our health-care system is inferior. The primary end of any health care system should be to preserve as much life as possible – not simply to provide excellence to those who can afford it. And it is to this most important end that the NHS continues to excel in comparison to the American system.

A good demonstration of this is that whilst a woman entering an English hospital to have a baby might have a higher chance of not leaving, a US government report conducted under George W Bush found that if just routine clinical care and social services are offered, women can reduce infant mortality rates by a half to a third. This basic care is offered in the UK, by default, and things should remain that way. As is so often asserted, prevention is far more effective than treatment and by providing universal healthcare no one in this country skips vital treatment, vaccinations or check ups simply because they can’t afford it. This is why, even if sadly our hospitals perform comparably poorly; our health care system is still better. More live are saved and less money spent overall. (According to sums done by ‘Liberal conspiracy’ blog the US spends 15% of GDP on health care annually, we spend just 8%. So humanity and morality aside, a free market does not even create economic efficiency in this particular ‘industry.’)6

In the Channel 4 report, the viewer was taken to the Mayo Clinic Hospital, one of the best hospital in the world, where a doctor explained that the success of his hospital was due to putting, “the needs of the patient first.” The simple fact that he had to clarify this, that profits and payment did not rule, is telling enough. It seems obvious to me that America should have many of the very best hospitals in the world – it has a market system creating a pyramid of excellence with a few truly exceptional institutions at the top and others providing more affordable care of differing standards to those lover down. Not to mention that America is also the wealthiest of the large developed nations. To compare English hospitals to those in one of the richest yet unequal societies on earth is to miss the very point. It would be great to have the best hospitals in the world, but it’s even better to have a universal health services that can save as many lives as it can, regardless of who the patients are.

I haven’t been secretly collecting data for a decade like Professor Jarman, but I’d also like to make the logically valid point that maybe part of the reason more people die in English hospital is because more dying people end up in our hospital here. Unlike in America where, as Jeremy Hunt put it on a recent live broadcast, “they have a long tradition of letting people die at home.” This might be because they are one of the 31million American who completely lack health insurance, or even more tragically, because the crippling worry about the financial burden to be left of the shoulders of their loved ones – consider the plot of Breaking Bad had it occurred in any civilised nation but the U.S.

We’ve seen this government allow universities to set their fees up to a staggering £9000 a year. This has undermined the meritocratic values the right so vehemently professes to uphold – the best universities will now start filling up with those who can afford it, not those with the best grades. Further damage to the health care system could create an injustice even more ugly. If we go the American way not only opportunities, but people people’s very survival, will depend on their financial status within this market economy. Our health care system is necessarily inferior, but remains the moral superior. In spite of Channel 4’s harrowing and sensational report, I won’t be leaving the country any time soon.

References

1 http://www.channel4.com/news/nhs-hospital-death-rates-among-worst-new-study-finds

Do you even lift bro?

Over a period of just four years the alter ego of Aziz Shavershina, Zyzz, rose to “personify a way of life,” as he put it himself. He was probably the most famous figure in the world of amateur, Internet bodybuilding and the poster boy of the so-called ‘Aesthetics’ subculture. For a generation of young men locked into the Internet and social media he was admired as the extreme embodiment of the ‘ideology’ that defined this culture. Zyzz was of a new breed of body builder who’s primary, if not sole, aim of the pursuit is admiration via social media. Shavershina became so immersed in his ‘ideology’ and the character he created, he would take the lifestyle it implies to an extreme his body could not withstand. At just twenty-two, on a holiday of excess and egotistical frenzy in Bangkok his body perspired under the combined strain of testosterone, growth hormones, steroids and an undiagnosed heart defect.

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This distinct new breed of facebook bodybuilders are arguably a faction of a wider ‘lad culture’, defined on the Internet and embodied in websites like Unilad.com, ‘Gym memes’ and ‘Yeah, she squats’. It’s a cultural trend that has undoubtedly been made possible by the uninhibited and inherently narcissistic platform provided by social media. An online world where users are encouraged to share as much as possible and compete with their aesthetically polished, highly stylised and sometime extreme online profiles and personas. Among the posing, pouting and peacocking, teenagers compare outfits, music tastes, opinions and very often now, bodies.

Facebook is saturated with beautified, contrived and sexualised images of girls engaged in the competition, posing in mirrors and nightclubs. But surprisingly there are nearly as many images of young, heterosexual men hogging the lens to show off their muscles in similarly reviling clothes. But ever more now young men are purposefully upload images of themselves with the express intent of updating social media of their progress at the gym. As with Zyzz, impressing on social media actually seems to be one of the primary ends of working out for such men. No doubt they reap rewards in real life. But, it is over social media where they size up rivals and potential suitors and where they find the confirmation of the acceptance they crave and the admiration they desire. Conversely, more traditional ends of the sport might be considered winning competitions and increasing ones physical presence in the real world.

Overt masculinity, chauvinism and general modern vanity are nothing new of coarse. Various facets of modern life have contributed to this continuing shift in our culture – celebrity worship, the commercial beauty industry and the sexualisation of teenagers to mention a few. However it’s clear that this allegiance between social media and amateur body building has created a distinct subculture that’s glaring obvious to anyone that has an internet ‘friend’ who shares pictures of their anaerobic endeavours.

It’s a strange subculture; embracing metro-sexuality and changes in just what it is we consider ‘masculine’, but continuing to push a vicious strain of misogynism. Zyzz’s favourite catch phrase being, “acquire ascetics, disregard bitched.” Much of the colloquial vocabulary of the facebook body-builders has entered wider youth-culture in the past year. ‘Mirin’, meaning admiring, was a personal invention of Zyzz; “Walked around Bangkok all day with no shirt… thi girls mirin brah,” he posted days before his death. Phrases like, “do you even lift bro?” are now so commonplace you can buy the fucking t-shirt.

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Masculinities gone feminine

This seemingly baffling expression of masculinity and the behaviour of those involved in the ‘aesthetics’ / facebook bodybuilding sub-culture, or influenced by it, is a phenomenon best explained by a narrative written, ironically, by a seemingly adverse school of though – feminism. It’s nothing new however to appropriated feminist theory on appearance related pressures faced by women to explain similar pressures increasingly faced by men in modern society. Many prominent feminists, such as Susan Bordo in ‘The Male Body’, have gone on to produce literature specifically aimed at men affected by issues once thought to be exclusively female problems.

In an interview on his sponsor’s web-site “simplyshredded.com,” Zzyz climbs that, “4 years into my training, I can safely say that my motivation to train goes far beyond that of merely impressing people, it is derived from the feeling of having set goals and achieving them and outdoing myself in the gym.” The interview was given on cusp of becoming a professional, Zzyz was almost obliged to toe this borrowed rhetoric. It certainly doesn’t sound at all genuine.

His true motivations, revealed earlier in the interview, are far more typical of the facebook body builders of today, “I was always known as the skinny kid. I remember feeling like a little bitch when I was out with girls, walking next to them and feeling the same size as them.” Social and sexual pressure from society made Zzyz feel completely inadequate with his natural physiology. For him, and many boys today, taking extreme lengths to alter their body shape so as to conform to the hypersexual conceptions of gender stereotypes was his only way to happiness.

Feminists have for decades discusses the apparent free choices that many women make in terms of their appearance, that are in fact pressured upon them. They don’t just discuss bra burning and kicking men in the balls. They discuss why the number of Asian women undergoing eyelid surgery doubled between 1997 and 2001, why eighty per cent of women in the UK are concerned about their weight at any one time (Farrell 1995), why so many black women feel the need to straighten their hair and white women use sunbeds. They examine social norms and cultural practices, such as images in the media and the gender conscious way we raise young girls to explain and liberate women from such pressures.

Jenifer Saul writes, “feminist worries about women’s appearance related pursuits are not criticism of women who engage in and enjoy such pursuits.” Few feminists, contrary to popular myth, believe that women truly don’t, or shouldn’t, enjoy beautifying themselves, for the benefit of men or otherwise. Similarly, I don’t wish to suggest that men don’t enjoy, or shouldn’t be going to the gym. Only that the narrative and images found across social media are narrowing the amount of choices, or body shapes, that young men feel are acceptable. We are now bombarded with images of men with unattainable, impossible physiques; not only now in the mainstream media, but also more intimately over social media, of people we actually know. This leaves many young men feeling like they have to train at the gym to ever feel as if their physique is acceptable to their peers, often within the cultural context of social media.

I believe the evidence for this assertion to be plentiful. Gym memberships have sored and the protein shake industry exploded in close coloration with the rise of social media and facbook. Facebook itself is absolutely flooded by topless images of young men, usually at the gym. Many young men who might not at first seem the types to be particularly image conscious are now going to extreme and sometimes unhealthy lengths to change their body, photograph it and share the images on social media. Those images then contribute to influencing other young men – it’s a vicious cycle.

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In the interview Zzyz goes on to openly describe the social setting that fostered the jealousy and self-conscious vanity that would push him into the gym – “After My HSC, it was holidays, and I started going clubbing every weekend and always noticed whenever a jacked dude walked by, they had a presence a lot greater than that of a ‘normal’ person. The guys respect them, and the girls are all over them.” Many young men today, like Zzyz, truly believe the only way to get the “respect” they so desire is to get ‘ripped’. There nothing wrong with gaining and rewarding respect to someone who stays in shape, who takes car of them-selves. But there’s nothing healthy about the protein shake, supplement fuelled lifestyle that killed Zzyz, and there’s nothing wrong with the natural physiques that most “normal” men posses.

In my view, figures like Zzyz pressure and coerce young men down a dangerous path. Ironically however some commentators have credited celebrity amateur body builders like Zzyz with reviving an interest in fitness and training in young men. Body Building website returnofkings.com stated, “Zyzz single-handedly made bodybuilding popular again among teenage boys, which is no mean feat in a culture where brazen displays of masculinity are stigmatised by the feminist establishment.”

Curiously, masculinity as exhibited by Zzyz, his followers and millions of young men across social median would be considered distinctly un-masculine according to historic conceptions / social constructions of what it is to be Masculine. Overt masculinity once preached disregard of, or apathy towards aesthetic appearance. Vainly obsessing over the minutia of appearance was considered small-minded and distinctly feminine. Today’s ‘masculine’ facebook body builders are bleaching their teeth, removing any trace over body hair, using cosmetics and constantly getting fake tans. The fact that such behaviour is now considered part of, “brazen displays of masculinity” means that our very conception of what is ‘masculine’ has blurred. Zyzz and his crew appeared to be acutely aware of this fact; they accompany many of their posts with the phrase, “no homo.” They certainly borrow a great deal from gay culture, the traditional adversaries of ‘Masculinity,’ but today, it seems the two are easily confused.

Facebook body builders are not only victims of similar forms of pressure traditionally associated with women, but they have in fact begun to shift the boundaries of what is considered masculine. Their form of masculinity can now be criticised for displaying vices that traditional conceptions of femininity are, rightly or wrongly, subject too. Their growing prominence perpetuates the increasing amount of pressure young men face in modern society to change their body that only women were once thought to face. Pressure that is exerted more potently and obviously over social media that in any other area of modern life.

Most men who train at a gym are rational, happy, sane individuals. But some of those who do it just for Facebook likes might be described as vain, small-minded men crippled by self-consciousness and a desire to conform to distorted social norms. I for one am not ‘mirin’.

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References

All discussion of ‘feminine appearance issues’ and all feminist quotations referenced are taken from of cited in ‘Feminism, Issues and Arguments’ by Jennifer Saul, 2003.

Thanks to twocountriesonecistern.blogspot.co.uk for the brilliant forensic examination of the Zyzz story, “Pumping idiocy… the short life and strange death of Zyzz.”

To ensure that my student experience is truly complete and i fully conform to the fair-weather student revolutionary stereo type, I today attend an anti-war protest. There was hardly anyone there but a few angry Yorkshire-men (and women) giving some impassioned speeches made it entertaining enough. I wrote this for the student paper.

http://forgetoday.com/news/activists-protest-against-military-action-in-syria/

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These two look baffled

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Today the Anti-war movements returned to one of its historic strong holds. This protest might not have been a huge success, in terms of turnout, but the victory had already been won in Parliament. Speeches given before the protest were revealing – victorious, but also bitter and cautious.

The protest was called by the “Stop the war coalition” who is represented in Sheffield and campaign nationwide for an, “end the occupations in Afghanistan & Palestine, against any attack on Iran or Syria, against Islamophobia, and in defence of civil liberties. The turn out was modest, as expected, after MPs voted down Cameron’s motion before it could even be debated in the commons.

James Eden of Chesterfield trade union council was clear that MPs must be “applauded” for their decision yet Nick Clegg was not so highly lauded, another speaker, Julia Armstrong of the Sheffield star, spoke of Nick Clegg’s recent “warmongering” on a visit to the offices of The Star.

Armstrong also articulated the most popular and repeated sentiment of the event – that spending money on foreign wars is irresponsible when so much suffering is currently felt at home due to financial cut backs. The event was attended by Sheffield Socialist party, Unite union and Sheffield Un-cut, all of whom where canvasing against the bedroom tax, a lack of social housing and austerity in general.

“We don’t have to make a false choice between Imperialism and supporting the Assad regime,” said Armstrong. The consensus at this event was that foreign bombs would only fuel and inflame this extremely complicated and impassion ethnic and religious civil war. Or, that punishing this one Chemical attack may appear to make the countless other ways of murdering civilians slightly more legitimate.

Bill Ronksley, who has been involved with Sheffield Peace Congress since the end of World War Two, spoke of Sheffield’s long history of peace. On the Syrian conflict and American foreign policy he proclaimed, “the world now knows where the British people stand,” and “this so called holly alliance between the UK and the US is dead.”

Those who remember how the two million strong protests and decisions of the UN were completely ignored over the Iraq war, today is a victorious one.

However Armstrong warned that David Cameron might try to support Obama in an indirect way or bring the issue back to parliament for another vote. We should “maintain the pressure of the anti war movement,” she said.

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Old Rock Stars

July 31, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’ve been on the Internet recently and I’ve noticed that a lot of you have chosen to use it so show the world all of the cool, crazy, wild and adventurous thing you’ve been up to over the summer. I’ve been up to plenty of cool, crazy, wild and adventurous things too; like going to see rod Stewart with my mum.

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I grew up with the man’s music. He’s not a classy and Fleetwood, well know as the Stones or influential as Clapton… but me and my Mum think he’s fucking cool and that’s all that counts.

However, even as a life-long Rod fan, I have to confess I wasn’t expecting much out of the evening. Not because I was questioning my undying love for his tunes, but, because I’ve always thought there’s something quite sad and depressing about rock stars trying their best to live out the dream well into their autumn.

My car decided to break last summer so I took to rolling round in my mum’s 1998 Honda civic. Unsurprisingly, motors that cool don’t have an I-pod connection. However, my mum’s civic did have a copy of, “Rod Stewarts Great American Song Book” in the glove box. It was full of classics like, “Somewhere across the Sea” sung by a mam once described as the, “the greatest living white soul singer,” by James Brown. Sounds good yeah? It was terrible, like, painfully bad. Rods signature, growling voice reduced to a karaoke joke, singing along to whiney, characterless melodies aimed at fitting the blueprint and selling a shit-ton across America.

Because of travesties like this I used to ascribe to the view that if any Rock ‘n’ roll icon gets old enough to record something like a Christmas album, he just can’t be “rock ‘n’ roll” any more – by default.

Entering the NEC to see Rod, My suspicions seemed to be confirmed – before me lay a sea of middle aged, white people in their Sunday best waiting patiently to for the show. In the first half hour the only appropriately drunk woman was ejected for standing up and, well, having a good time I guess.

But things got better when, starting with ‘Maggie may’, he started belting out the classics. I learnt, to my surprise, that he had written and recorded an entirely new album. There were songs about his kids leaving for Uni, his wife and his past. They weren’t cheesy or awkward. They were genuine and heartfelt and the vast room resonated with approval. And when he finished on “Forever young,” I think most of the room believed it.

Cat Marnell knows a thing of two about Rock ‘n’ Roll – she recently proclaimed Pete Docherty, “our last living genuine rock star”. Why Cat? Because he’s the kind of moron that’s so intent on ruining himself, he brings heroin to court when he’s being tried for drug possession?

Just because Rod survived, just because he didn’t make the 27 clubs or end up in a coma, doesn’t make him any less “rock ‘n’ roll” that those who did. When Johnny Rotten appears on butter adverts and Jean Simons is making reality TV shows, they are, by default, no long rock ‘n’ roll. But that’s different. Getting on a bit is one thing, selling out to commercialism and the establishment another.

Yeah, It’s hard to imagine Winehouse or Kurt Cobain ever making it old enough to record a Christmas album. But, if they did, there’s a possibility they could still be rockin’ it, just like Rod.