Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Women, get a grip!

It's more than a little suspicious that the Lord Rennard allegations should be aired just as the Lib Dems were making some headway in the Eastleigh by-election. Not that it'll make much difference, according to the BBC's James Landsdale. What's been making me cross is the way that the women involved have been characterised. The Daily Mail reported that a young woman had been "molested" by Lord Rennard at a party event in Peterborough:
She was hysterical, shaking and crying and said that he had touched her up in his room. There were senior MPs in that room and party officials and everyone saw how badly she had been affected by it.
Hysterical? How appropriate! That's exactly how women should react in those circumstances, isn't it, the poor things? Having a man's hand on your thigh is enough to make you take leave of your senses.

If it was, there'd be a lot more crazy women than there are, since a significant proportion of the male population has been groping, and worse, for millennia. It's unfortunate that the young woman mentioned in the media hasn't been taught how to take care of herself. Yes, I know that the gropers and worse are the ones who need training, but they're all rather stupid, aren't they, so it's up to us to teach them, since their mothers clearly failed.

To read some of the sanctimonious, hypocritical crap on Twitter and elsewhere, you'd think that the Liberal Democrats are the only ones to have this problem, which is nonsense. You'd think that Nick Clegg has failed in his duty to ensure that Liberal Democrat women remain unmolested, which is also nonsense. You'd think that there was some sort of ideal large organisation, political or otherwise, where everyone is conversant with the rules of appropriate behaviour, and detailed records of every complaint are kept. There isn't. As we've heard lately, this sort of thing has been going on all over the place, wherever powerful men think that they're entitled to sexual favours.

So, girls, no hysterics, please. It only confirms the view of too many stupid men that women are poor, weak, emotionally fragile beings. Don't get hysterical; get angry. Perfect the art of the withering look and the caustic put-down. If that doesn't deter the morons, poke them in the eye, shout very loudly, kick them in the nuts if necessary. Make sure it's his reputation that suffers, not yours. Boadicea never had this trouble. When she was angry, the Romans regretted it. So should any lecherous men who try it on.

And keep a sense of proportion. Gender violence is one of the most common human rights abuses. A hand on your thigh in the lift or some unsubtle rubbing on The Tube may be unwelcome, but they're the sort of thing that a strong woman with a loud voice should be able to deal with. Thousands of women have to deal with far worse. We won't get very far with stopping any of that if we go to pieces over a grope.

"The worlds I inhabit are politics and the media, but women in all walks of life know that this kind of routine sexism exists in any workplace." -- Cathy Newman, Presenter, Channel 4 News

Friday, February 22, 2013

What's cooking?

Have had a couple of conversations prompted by the horsemeat hoo-ha lately, about how so many people seem to rely on processed food. Considering the number of cookery programmes there are on the telly, it's difficult to understand how anyone can plead ignorance in the kitchen, said my son. Yet many do. In a recent Channel 4 episode of Superscrimpers, a couple was shown how to save money by cooking some of their favourite meals from scratch instead of using prepared ingredients. The stupid husband, who would only buy branded packets and sauces in the supermarket, insisted that home-made pasta sauce would be inedible. In a blind tasting, he had to admit it was better than the processed stuff. The culinary-challenged who take part of the programme are taught how to cook healthy, inexpensive meals by an older woman who was brought up to be thrifty. None of them have a clue what to do. Are there really so many non-cooks out there? Polly Toynbee seems to think so. She's claimed that poor families are forced to eat processed meat products, like burgers, which might have had horsemeat in, because they're "all they can afford". Utter nonsense.

It's not just poor families. I live in a village where a majority are comfortably off. A friend goes through the books donated to our recycling centre for ones that are good enough to sell on Amazon - the money benefits the village school. Her husband observed that quite a few cookery books don't appear to have been used. You'd expect good cookery books to have pages marked with ingredients, he said, with splashes of gravy, beaten egg or sauce on the pages referred to most often. Pristine pages may be good from a fund-raising perspective, but what does that tell us about how much cooking is going on?

My mum, like many of her generation (she was a wartime bride), wrote recipes in an exercise book that got progressively tattier. It occurred to me this morning that I must start my own recipe book, since I've accumulated lots of scraps of paper and cuttings in an untidy folder. During and immediately after the war it was unthinkable to waste food because there just wasn't enough to waste. One of my favourite meals was a baked cheese and tomato thing Mum made with semolina. There wasn't a lot of cheese, but it tasted good just the same.

I don't have much sympathy with those who complain that they can't eat well on a low income, as I do, when it's apparent that they expect to do that on a supermarket trolleyful of processed meals. If you're hungry enough, you'll learn. There's no shortage of advice. It's especially galling to see how much food is wasted by fussy eaters who don't plan ahead - see the Love Food Hate Waste website. As food prices escalate, we're all going to have to think about what we eat, maybe learning from our great-grandmothers who fed their families in wartime.

Now I must make some soup.
Preserve label © M Nelson 2000

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"The Sun's selection of the photograph simply reflected Ms Steenkamp's own highly successful career choice"

Like many, I was appalled by The Sun's front page when Reeva Steenkamp was killed. They used a photo of her in a bikini, inviting its readers to see her as a sex symbol, even when she was in the morgue. I tweeted and emailed my disgust to The Sun. Today I got an email from its managing editor, Richard Caseby, almost certainly the same as many others.
Dear Margaret,

Thank you for taking the trouble to write and let us know your concerns about our coverage of the arrest of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in South Africa.

I am sorry that you were upset by The Sun's front page on Friday 14th February and its choice of a photograph of Ms Steenkamp in a bikini.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Ms Steenkamp are shocking and tragic.

However, The Sun's selection of the photograph simply reflected Ms Steenkamp's own highly successful career choice. She was one of South Africa's most famous models who has posed in a bikini in fashion shoots and on magazine covers many times.

She was due to appear as a celebrity in the reality TV programme Tropika Island and in publicity for the show had said that her personal claim to fame was being named by the men's lifestyle magazine FHM as "one of the 100 sexiest women in the world two years running". The first episode of the reality show was aired days after her death.

I note that other newspapers made a similar picture choice as The Sun. The Daily Star showed Ms Steenkamp in a bikini on its front page and the Daily Mail published two photographs of her in a bikini in a double-page feature. In New York the Daily News and the New York Post put her on their front pages similarly, and the Huffington Post featured her in a swimsuit in an online gallery of photographs.

We appreciate all feedback and the Editor has been informed about your views.

Yours faithfully,

Richard Caseby
Managing Editor, The Sun
I don't like being addressed in familiar terms ("Dear Margaret"), especially as that's not how I signed my email. As for the references to other news outlets using the same picture, since when did several wrongs make a right?

Dear Mr Caseby, if your wife, daughter or girlfriend was murdered, would you be happy to see her on the front page of The Sun in a similar pose to Reeva's, or are you such a greedy sexist pig that you wouldn't be bothered, as long as the paper sells?

I laughed when I read that Caseby had complained to the Guardian about a piece by Marina Hyde, criticising The Sun. Maybe if he reads this, he'll complain about the suggestion that he could be a greedy sexist pig?

Saturday, February 09, 2013


Anyone who imagined that the meat in processed foods was good quality can't have been watching Jamie Oliver's crusade against rubbish ingredients. I remember the appalled expression on some schoolchildren's faces when he demonstrated what goes into cheap sausages - cartilage, fat, skin and all. It looked disgusting because it was.

Now everyone's in a lather about horse meat. Until now, hardly anyone's been asking where cheap meat products have come from. Questions are being asked, but not the important ones.

Eating horse meat, provided it's prepared hygienically, won't hurt anyone. You can be fairly sure, however, that the poor beasts that ended up in your burgers or lasagne were hurt. We know that meat products used in cheap British ready meals came from a factory in France called Comigel. We know that the horse meat came from countries like Romania. We know that most other countries, including those in Eastern Europe, have far lower animal welfare standards than we do. World Horse Welfare reports that 65,000 horses a year are transported across Europe for slaughter. They spend days in lorries without water, suffering just as all livestock does when moved this way. Romanian abattoirs are unlikely to care much about the condition of the animals when they arrive, or to bother about their welfare; they're just a commodity to them. Research done with Romanian farmers concluded:
Results of this study shows that in year 2009, 65.8% of the farmers do not have an awareness regarding the animal welfare, but 63.8% consider that in the EU exists legislation regarding the transport of farm animals related to their welfare or protection. Also, about half of farmers consider that in the EU the welfare of farm animals is better than in other parts of the world, but in Romania this issue receives not enough importance.
If Romanian farmers, who work with live animals all the time, are ignorant of animal welfare standards, is it likely that Romanian slaughtermen will be any better?

So whether or not you find the thought of eating horse meat repulsive, surely the issue should be how that meat was produced?

Then, on top of all the indignation about being fobbed off with horse meat instead of good British beef, Polly Toynbee, on today's Dateline London, claimed (if I heard right) that poor parents fed their kids cheap processed meals because it was all they could afford. Horseshit! The reason that poor parents feed their kids these meals, if they do, is because they haven't learned how to cook. Meat isn't essential in a healthy diet, and if you do eat meat, it should be in moderation. Before the Chinese started developing a taste for more of it, with developing affluence, they ate small amounts of meat mixed in with large amounts of rice and vegetables, as do many Asians. Consequently, they suffered far less heart disease than we do. Never mind excusing parents for buying cheap rubbish - what about cookery lessons? In the long term, it would have health benefits. And bring back domestic science in schools. The decline of basic cookery skills has played right into the hands and bank balances of processed food producers.

The Independent: Horsemeat scandal reveals trail of shadowy suppliers - the last thing these people will care about is animal welfare.

The Telegraph: How horses slaughtered in Romania end up on British plates

The Independent: Horse meat found in British supermarkets 'may be donkey'.

Click here to read what Compassion in World Farming says.

Some of the horse meat that came from Romania could have originated in Ireland - live horses are transported across Europe.

Fiddling horse passports to avoid fit for human consumption rules? Abandoned Irish horse shown to have been "slaughtered".

More than a 1000 racehorses a year in UK abattoirs.

The planet can take care of itself

Humanists and atheists campaign about all sorts of things, from faith schools, to evolution in the science syllabus, to legal humanist weddings (why?), yet I haven’t noticed much fuss about what really matters.

What have our bad weather, the insurgency in Mali, and the world's economic downturn, got in common? They’re all linked to population increase.

The bad weather is related to climate change, and most scientists agree that climate change is due to human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels. We’re wet, and we’re going to get wetter, with implications for food production, property damage, and the cost of the clear-up.

What’s Mali got to do with it? Roger Howard wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that in recent decades Mali's population has been growing at an unsustainable annual rate of about 3%. The country's population has tripled over the past 50 years. According to the latest UN estimates, it’s going to triple again over the next 50.
Such a drastic rate of population growth rate has profound implications. In particular, it means that, in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities. Young men have limited hopes of finding employment or even sustenance and are therefore deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency, and to the lure of radical preachers who seem to offer them both a sense of purpose and scapegoats who they can blame for their woes.
As for the economic downturn . . . Political leaders are floundering while they try to think of ways to generate economic growth. In the UK, the emphasis has been on encouraging people to go shopping to “kick start the economy”. Unlimited economic growth is a fantasy. It  would mean using dwindling resources even faster, as we create more stuff and more waste to satisfy an insatiable appetite for things to spend our money on. Countries like India and China are rapidly catching up with this trend, expecting to eat more meat, to own more belongings, and to drive more cars. They’ll ask, why should they be deprived, when the developed countries have been enjoying all this for the last few decades? More and more people with higher and higher expectations, with no thought about where it’s all going to come from.

Who’s going to tell the have-nots that they can’t have these things? And who’s going to tell people that they can’t have more children? Will we just have to wait until there’s no oil left, and no grain to feed the cattle, and no water to grow the crops, and no room? Will we have to wait until there’s even less room because of rising sea levels, and climate change refugees are being slaughtered on the borders of more affluent countries by nationalists waving KEEP OUT signs? Will we have to wait until hundreds of other species have been eliminated due to loss of habitat, poaching, hunting and over-fishing?

The Optimum Population Trust, which campaigns as Population Matters, says,
The mid-range global projection is that the planet’s population will increase from seven billion to nine billion by 2050. Broader estimates range from eight to 11 billion, depending on how effectively and quickly reproductive and development programmes are implemented in developing areas of the world to address the key drivers of population growth: the lack of reproductive health and contraception, lack of women’s rights and poverty. In some countries, migration also contributes significantly to the increase in population.
Isn’t this is the most important issue that any of us have to face? I’m 68, so it won’t affect me much, but I may soon be a grandparent, and I fear for my grandchild or grandchildren (hopefully, no more than two). Yet how often do you hear population growth mentioned in political speeches, unless it’s about immigration? It’s the most enormous elephant in the room, and it’s not going to go away.

The Royal Society recently published a paper headed, “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?” by Paul Ehrlich (Stanford Professor of Biology and Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Scientist in Biology at Stanford), to mark their fellowship of the society.  It’s summarised as,
Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.
The Ehrlichs conclude that there’s a need for rapid social and political change, and end on a cautiously positive note:
Do we think global society can avoid a collapse in this century? The answer is yes, because modern society has shown some capacity to deal with long-term threats, at least if they are obvious or continuously brought to attention (think of the risks of nuclear conflict). Humanity has the assets to get the job done, but the odds of avoiding collapse seem small because the risks are clearly not obvious to most people and the classic signs of impending collapse, especially diminishing returns to complexity, are everywhere. One central psychological barrier to taking dramatic action is the distribution of costs and benefits through time: the costs up front, the benefits accruing largely to unknown people in the future. But whether we or more optimistic observers  are correct, our own ethical values compel us to think the benefits to those future generations are worth struggling for, to increase at least slightly the chances of avoiding a dissolution of today's global civilization as we know it.
It’s true that “the risks are clearly not obvious to most people”, who prefer to imagine that we’re just going through a phase, and ask what can they do anyway, with a shrug. It’s easy to sign some online petition or other about rainforests or rhinos with a click of the mouse, before planning your next foreign holiday over a nice bottle of wine but, as the  Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem said, “Ceux qui parlent de révolution sans en référer explicement à la vie quotidienne ont un cadavre dans la bouche,” or, “Those who speak of revolution without making it real in their daily lives talk with a corpse in their mouths.” In other words, make some effort and begin by changing your lifestyle. No matter whether or not you can afford it, consume less, drive less, and waste little. Then, as you sort out your own lifestyle, become a nag. It’s not necessary to join a campaign group, though organisations like Population Matters can help with lots of useful information, but you can write and email whoever has any influence, anywhere, to review and change public and/or corporate policy. One of the advantages of living in the UK is that we’re free to express our opinions, so do it, and if you need ideas, get in touch.

The planet can take care of itself but its inhabitants need urgent help.

First published in the Suffolk humanist group's newsletter, February 2013

Cartoon © Polyp