Archive for February, 2009

US to rid the world of spam

So that’s where it all comes from…

Comment is free but outrage is easy

The problem with blogging – and it is a trap I fall into myself – is that it encourages extremes of opinion.

For all the blurb about social networks and the global community, posting in the blogosphere can sometimes feel like shouting into a void and listening for an echo, which in the end only makes you shout louder.

Even so-called professionals can be guilty of this sin. Yesterday, on the Guardian’s  Comment is Free section, I read a post by one of their NY-based freelancers, Shahnaz Habib, on the lack of ethics in multinationals.loreal2

Habib is outraged that L’Oreal, the world’s biggest manufacturer of beauty products, sells lightening cream in India. A company that devotes several pages in its corporate responsibility handbook to “skin and hair diversity” and which has run ad-campaigns around their ranges of makeup for people of different ethnicities, she argues, ought to know better.

She writes:

“When international cosmetics companies enter the fairness creams market, peddling in India products that they would not dare stock in the aisles of the politically correct west, there is a layer of hypocrisy that is dangerous to ignore”

Although she admits that “all beauty advertising caters to culturally relative neuroses of what is beautiful”, Habib still believes selling whitening cream is tantamount to promoting racism.

“Even the most naive marketing chiefs at L’Oreal must have had a glimmering of doubt – ‘Wait a minute, is it racist to promote whitening? Would we put these words in a billboard on Times Square?’”

This, she tells us, proves the moral corruption of multinationals that claim to “think globally and act locally” but in fact are merely exploiting the vulnerable people of a developing country for profits.

And so it might seem at first glance. When I first saw lightening creams lining the shelves of supermarkets in India last summer, my first reaction was exactly the same – outrage. But then I started to think about it.

If lightening cream caters exclusively to Asian markets and is deplored by the west, how can it be said that it is imposed upon them? Multinationals may have the GDP of small countries and wield more power than many of them, but they cannot change social and cultural norms.

You can argue that, in India specifically, they are perpetuating the legacy of racism left by the British. But the caste system, India’s very own home-grown brand of prejudice, existed long before the British East India Company had even set sail.

Surely trying to impose western standards of political correctness on the Indian market shows a far more colonial attitude than catering to their “culturally relative neuroses of what is beautiful”. Is selling fake tan or promoting sunbeds perceived as racist in the UK?

This, I believe, is the danger of blogging: it encourages posts that spring directly from gut reaction. Habib is clearly not stupid or arrogant or morally imperious. She was seduced by the medium into writing something that, though researched and articulated with care, ended up as a self-defeating tirade.

But at least it’s a consolation to know that when comment is free, comments there will be – 88 and counting underneath Habib’s article.

Inciting stupidity

The furore that has greeted the Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ failed attempt to gain entry to the UK in order to show his anti-Islam film, Fitna, has been remarkable.

Not because of the heated reaction from ministers, not because of the wall of barrage of anger that has come from Muslim groups, but because so few of the people who denounced with it such vehemence had actually seen it.

After Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, banned Wilders from the UK on the grounds that his “presence in the UK would pose a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society”, Labour ministers were quick to jump on the bandwagon.

David Miliband, the foreign secretary, described Fitna as “a hate-filled film designed to stir up religious and racial hatred and is contrary to our laws”. He then had to admit he hadn’t seen it.

Similarly, when Keith Vaz, Labour chair of the Commons Home Affairs committee, spoke in support of the ban on Newsnight he openly admitted he hadn’t seen the film and then, incredibly, went on to say that he didn’t need to.

More incredible than the sheer arrogance of this comment, which is hardly incredible at all, is the fact that if any of them had actually taken the time to watch the film they would have seen that it is nothing more than puerile, badly-produced trash.

Wilders intersperses verses from the Koran with images of terrorist attacks and various (mainly Saudi) Imams preaching hatred to the West and images of baying mobs, veiled women and children taking part in the Ashoura, a Muslim religious festival.

Yes, it incites racial and religious hatred. Yes, it calls the Koran “fascist” and compares Muslims to Nazis. And yes, it uses the Koran in the most irresponsible, selective manner to do this (exactly what it accuses the Imams of doing).

But the idea that it could pose any serious threat bar providing fuel for existing bigots and racists is nothing more than an insult to the intelligence to the British public.

As Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the anti-extremist think tank the Quilliam Foundation, puts it:

Banning Geert Wilders from the UK is not the solution. Just as the ideas of non-violent Islamist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir should be tackled through debate and argument, so should those of Wilders and others.

Freedom of speech should be protected – so long as people do not use this freedom to call for violence against others.

Well I won’t fall into the same trap. Instead, you can decide for yourself. To see the English version, click the link here.

Fool Britania

Like many Brits, I have something of a bi-polar relationship with national pride.

Unlike the US, where people descend into tears at the mere sniff of the stars and stripes, or Italy, where they created a pizza – the Margherita – in honour of the red, white and green of their national flag, in Britain, being proud of your country is at best slightly distasteful, at worst a sign of yobbishness.

To many people in the UK, the Union Jack is associated more with the racism of the BNP or the violence of skinheads than a sense of pride in our shared values. Although many of the tabloids survive on a culture of patriotism when it comes to football or the army, any more general sense of national pride is the subject of derision.

Gordon Brown’s proposals for a British day to increase our sense of civic pride last year were greeted with derision by the press. Possibly because most of the suggested activities involved drinking and sitting on your arse watching morris dancers on TV.

It has long been remarked that Britain’s multiculturalism, one of its finest attributes and itself a legacy of our colonial history, has actually diminished most people’s sense of patriotism. How can you feel a sense of allegiance to a culture as varied as the continents of the earth?

Any pride in our history is forever stained by the knowledge of the atrocities that have been committed in our name. From the the apartheid of South Africa to the continuing violence in Iraq, there are few that would openly admit to believing that Britain’s interventionist stance in world politics is compatible with today’s world stage.

So I was somewhat dismayed to hear, in the pages of the Daily Mail no less, that my old college’s ball theme this year is “Empire”. While I don’t agree with the constant jibes that are aimed at Cambridge in the press, this almost seemed calculated to reinforce the stereotype of a university filled by upper-class, spoilt idiots.

The tag line: “Travel with us to the Indian Raj, an emerging Australia and the West Indies. We invite you to experience the Pax Britannica and party like it’s 1899” – the year the Boer war started during which the British first invented concentration camps – defies comparison.

No one who has ever been to Cambridge could argue that it is multicultural. I remember being told the saddening statistic while there that there are more people with the surname White in the university than there are black people.

But a theme that celebrates some of the most shameful episodes in British history? That offers food and drink from “all over the colonies of the British isles”?

If that’s what the ball-goers really wanted they should have saved their £136 and just gone for a curry down Mill Road.

I’m a barbie girl in a barbie world

Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and with breasts that defy gravity (and god). Is it Claudia Schiffer, Monica Bellucci or even Madonna? No, this is Angela Merkel, as created by Barbie.

To celebrate half a century as the world’s most iconic toy, Barbie manufacturer Mattel has brought out a version modelled on the German chancellor.

Today, mini-Merkel stole the show at the the 60th annual international toy fair in Nuremberg, south Germany.

She will soon be available in shops for €20 (£17.50).

A spokeswoman for Mattel said that they had chosen to portray Merkel because she, like Barbie, embodies the dreams of ambitious little girls around the world.

She said: “She’s simply a good role model for girls around the world.”

As Germany’s first female Chancellor, it would be hard to argue that Merkel is not a good role model for little girls, whatever you may think of her policies (or lack of them). But does she really represent the kind of woman that girls aspire to become?

Looking at the state of the UK government, it would seem not. Despite speeches, promises and policies to the contrary, women are still sorely underrepresented in British politics.

In the House of Commons only 1 in 5 MPs is a woman. And while local government is doing somewhat better, still only 30 per cent of all local councillors are female.

That places the UK 18th out of 27 European states in female representation in national government, and 21st when it comes to female MEPs, which account for less than a quarter, according to 50/50, a European women’s lobbying.

By comparison, Sweden 57 per cent of seats in Sweden’s government are occupied by women.

Is this disparity down to a lack of interest among women in going into politics, or is it more pervasive? Is there something innately macho about the structure of government that precludes women from entering into the hallowed halls of Westminster?

The UN answers yes. According to a report by iKnow Politics based on research by the UN, most local governments are inherently patriarchal institutions.

It states: “Their structures and procedures are designed for and by men and they do not take into account women’s multiple responsibilities in their homes and communities, or differences of communications and decision-making styles existing between men and women.”

Hardly news. It has long been remarked that the structures of power, be it government, education or business, are innately geared towards men. Yet I believe that there is one decisive factor that differentiates politics when it comes to vilifying women: the media.

Women in politics almost invariably get a bad press. If they are strong or defiant, they are painted as witches or harpies in the eyes of the public. If they are quiet or attractive, they become reduced to classic stereotypes of the Madonna or the whore.

Take the uproar that greeted some recent ill-judged remarks from the Parliamentary Under Secretary, Baroness Vadera. Ill-judged though they undoubtedly were, very little of the media coverage of the incident actually referred to her comments.

Instead, we were shown some kind of evil incarnation of Xena Warrior Princess. In the Spectator she was an “assassin … ass-kicker … axe-wielder”, in the Mail she was given the moniker of “Shriti the Shriek”.

Even the BBC decided to get its penny’s-worth, with Nick Robinson on the Today programme saying: “Civil servants call her Shreiky Shriti. Others choose to leave.”

It is as if we are in the school yard, gossiping in corners about the popular girls in the year.

But at least the UK is not alone. Last year’s US Presidential Elections were one of the most openly bitchy displays of character assassination by the media in history.

While Obama stormed to victory, much of the rest of the press devoted their time to a face-off between Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton. And it doesn’t take much to see who won.

So, maybe in the end Barbie really does have it right. If you want to get ahead in politics, it’s better to be made of plastic.






Great expectations

In 1999 Tony Blair told the Labour Conference: “If we are in politics for one thing, it is to make sure that all children are given the best chance in life.”

A decade on, that dream seems even further away.

Last month, Gordon Brown announced a “national crusade” to improve social mobility for the country’s most underprivileged children.

In a controversial move, discriminating against people on the grounds of class will be made illegal, just as it is on the basis of sex, age or gender. Though exactly how it will be possible to identify such discrimination remains unsurprisingly unclear.

Former health secretary Alan Milburn will head a new commission aimed to widen access to professions traditionally seen as the bastion of the middle classes, such as law, medicine and the media.

So, in the wake of all this government bluster it’s good to know that, on the ground at least, some things never change. The Cambridge paper, Varsity, today published a list that shows the average weekly budget and annual parental income of the parents of students by subject.

And, thank goodness, there are no surprises here. Topping the list with an average budget of £182 and an average parental income of £118,000 are the HAGS: the History of Art Girls.

As in life, following hot on in their heels are the Management boys with an average budget of £171, though the second-highest parental income is in Economics at £117,000.

The group with the lowest parental income are the Education students, on £46,500. Other altruistic professions – the doctors and vets – are average in the parental income groups but sit at the bottom of the tables when it comes to weekly budgets.

All of these are rather higher than the national average salary of around £30k (which has no doubt plummeted since last year). And how many students actually know for sure their parents’ income?

Still, if it shows one thing for sure, it is that we are all still obsessed with money, who has it and how much. I just wonder how many of these students will grow up to have anything like the income of their parents.

The Varsity list in full:

Average weekly budget/Average Parental Income

History of Art £182, £118,000

Management £171, £67,50

Architecture £155, £83,100

Land Economy £153, £74,000

Geography £148, £104,000

Classics £137, £84,600

Economics £137, £117,000

Maths £134, £78,000

Philosophy £129, £57,700

Computer Science £127, £50,900

Oriental Studies £125, £87,800

English £122, £61,200

SPS £119, £77,600

Law £112, £80,000

Music £107, £80,000

MML £106, £62,200

History £106, £74,800

ASNaC £104, £63,300

Theology £103, £74,900

Engineering £92, £68,100

Natural Sciences £90, £64,600

Arch & Anth £89, £52,200

Medicine £86, £62,300

Education £78, £46,500

Vet. Medicine £76, £64,600


February 2009

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