Sunday, 26 August 2012

The activist's club

    It is important to us all as humans to at times identify as members of particular groups, united by common interests or objectives. Unthinkingly I'm a motorcyclist for example, identifying with the rider in my rear-view mirror when I'm driving the Rollerskate or the Wreck and moving towards the kerb to let them through.
    Some people identify themselves by their sporting loyalties, their religion, or by where they grew up. Others identify by their politics, and it is with a subset of that group that I am starting to lose patience.
    Activists. Self-described activists, that is, a group whose members seem to be very common on the internet. What seeing "activist" in someone's profile should mean is that this is someone who is committed to the fight for political or social change within the framework of their beliefs or situation, someone who achieves that aim through real-world actions. Good old-fashioned legwork, campaigning, writing letters, lobbying, public speaking, following legal avenues, that kind of thing.
    What "Activist" so often means on the internet though is something very different. When I see that word beneath someone's name in a Twitter, Tumblr or other online profile it's a fair indication that I'm in for a steady stream of faithful regurgitation of the most right-on flavour of whichever political creed they cling to. There will be reblogs of other similar posts aplenty as they vie with others to be the purest carrier of their collective torch, and rabid denunciations of those decreed to be enemies. In short, people who seem to talk among themselves a lot, but who never seem to get anything done.
    It is through a lot of hard work and unglamorous political activism that we trans people have achieved the legal protections, rights and access to treatment that we enjoy here in the UK. These things were gained by a hell of a lot of hard work by and personal toll on the people concerned, not through indignant rants or circular arguments on social media sites.
    So if you see "Activist" on someone's online profile, take a look at their audience. If they're speaking only to their peer group in the language of that peer group, they aren't activists, they're just hangers-on. Activism should be judged by deeds, not hot air.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Rape and that Australian bloke

    There's a famous video from China in which an angry motorist, delayed by a suicidal man on a bridge, scales the bridge and pushes the man off it onto an air cushion provided by waiting firemen.
    If Julian Assange is the man sitting on the bridge, then I think I've reached the point of becoming the angry passer-by itching to push him off it. Tempting though the idea of running into the Ecuadorean Embassy and hitting the fire alarm may be though I'm afraid we're condemned to see the whole ghastly drama play out at a snail's pace. If he's not going to come out I hope the world quietly forgets about him and he ends up mouldering away in the embassy, slowly eroding his welcome. He thrives on publicity and there are too many idiots on all sides who are only too willing to give it to him.
    I get it that Wikileaks took a pop at the Big Evil United States and they'll do anything to get Assange. I also get it that a rape allegation is a very serious thing indeed and he needs to be brought to account for it. I don't need people endlessly turning it into a feminist issue, a press freedom issue or any number of other damn issues. The point at which Assange was one of the Good Guys has long passed, and the British government have really screwed up on the scale at which they seem to have a particular expertise.
    Personally I think the rape allegation has something of an air of convenience about it for the governments involved and I'm sure an extradition case wouldn't proceed at such lightning speed if it wasn't of interest to a superpower. And the circumstances of the alleged crime are such that they are always going to attract controversy. But for someone who knew himself to be of interest to that superpower Assange has shown himself to be at best a complete idiot for putting himself in such a situation.
    Rape as an allegation seems to occupy a uniquely triggering and confusing position. On the feminist side it's a trigger word that trumps all others, thrown around like confetti as way of aligning disparate views and shutting down inconvenient arguments. I take the view that using it in this way cheapens the word, it's crying wolf.
    And on the male side there is a lot of genuine confusion about rape. I'm talking about date rape in the mould of the Assange allegations here, I don't think anybody would be confused about the actions of a sex attacker, instead we're in the territory of drunken liaisons and morning-after-the-night-before regrets. This leaves a lot of blokes bewildered and angry, and when blokes get angry they have a tendency to say stupid things. The news this morning contains several politicians who've waded in where angels fear to tread, for instance.
    Shame really, it's a very simple piece of self-preservation for blokes. Whether you are on the side that sees it as a wicked trap or the one for whom it's sexual predation there's a simple rule of thumb. It's not about whether either party is drunk or awake, or in the charming language of another age which base you go to. And though sometimes behaviour can go beyond the foolhardy it's not about whether someone was obviously gagging for it or otherwise. It's much simpler than that, a three letter word. Do both parties say "yes"?
    Not a difficult word to elicit, and something you'd think Assange would have had the sense to do. But sense seems to have departed that particular case long ago, doesn't it.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Decline of a friend

    How far can you intervene in the life of a friend? When you are watching someone you care about enter a terminal decline, how can you help arrest that decline without invading their privacy and trampling on their dignity?
   My friend Dawn hasn't been doing so well lately. Without going into too much detail a medical condition has left her feeling increasingly weak, and thus ever more unable to take care of herself. Add a few other factors to the mix, and she's in a bit of a pickle.
   As Dawn's friends, we were only able to look on. Because to intervene in such a situation requires the person at the centre of it to acknowledge their situation. And Dawn took some time to reach that point. As a friend you can advise and help, but as a non family member you can't intervene. As someone with five children you'd think Dawn would have few problems there, but aside from the one who lives furthest away who's been very good at keeping in touch they've barely visited her in months. I'm unimpressed.
    The crunch came unexpectedly, wearing a tight shoe damaged her big toenail which started to go septic. Not serious you might think, but she's diabetic and diabetics have to be very careful with foot injuries. Suddenly as well as being weak she was in danger of losing a limb. My friend R and I felt intervention was unavoidable and got her to the doctor for professional wound care and antibiotics. R has some professional experience in these matters and knew exactly what to ask for; before long an army of social workers and care assessors were on the case. Now she's got the district nurse coming every day to dress her foot and someone form Social Services coming in to ensure she's eating properly. R and I are cooking frozen meals for her to give her a varied diet.
    It's partly why I've been a little absent from blogland for the last week. Running around chasing all this stuff takes a surprising amount of time.
    Her family do not come out of this very well at all. They've got their own lives and she's always been deceptively bright on the phone, so they didn't suspect anything was wrong. But considering that two of them only live within twenty miles of her the fact she hasn't seen any of them for months leaves me distinctly unimpressed. They're completely at ease with her being trans so it's not that, they just can't be bothered.
    Could I read them the Riot Act? Very tempting, but I can't. I'm just  a friend. A friend who's visiting and feeding Dawn, something they should be doing. It's another case of something in which you're not supposed to intervene. Maybe I should be a little subtle, suggest that if Social Services arrange her care there won't be much left in her will for them. Hit 'em where they care.
    Life's crap, isn't it. If R and I weren't here, Dawn's immediate future would be very bleak indeed. I don't cleave to the Who lyric "Hope I die before I get old", but I do hope I have more to look forward to than that.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Dead cow

    The title says it all really, yesterday our oldest cow died. Not a sad moment, in that she was a geriatric amongst cattle, over twenty years old which is well beyond a bovine three score years and ten. In her prime she was the matriarch of our little herd, but as she became decrepit we had moved her into our back field where she pottered around unmolested by younger animals. Yesterday morning she was on her feet in the sun, by early afternoon she had died. Probably a better end that having her hip give out and being euthanised by the vet.
    There was a time when we'd have fired up the digger and buried her, just as farmers would have done for centuries. I remember doing exactly that over twenty years ago for our first matriarch, as a spotty teenager learning to use a backhoe on the clay. However since the BSE panic in the 1990s the Government have insisted on the incineration of dead cattle that don't enter the food chain, so this morning a truck will come to take her away.
   Of course, our back field is not close to the road, so my afternoon yesterday was unexpectedly spent moving her with our ever-handy digger. Quite a task, cows weigh a hell of a lot and even though the rain has now gone away the digger still managed to get stuck more than once. Unfortunately the extra load had a habit of lifting the steering wheels off the ground, making it a difficult machine to control. So a hot afternoon with chains and a Kawasaki Mule, inching the larger vehicle through the mire in a cloud of diesel exhaust.
    A somewhat undignified final journey for the cow.
    My normal walking of my parents dog was a little later than usual yesterday. Grubby and aching from my exertions, when the dog plunged into the river I succumbed to temptation and went for a paddle, something I haven't done for about thirty years. I didn't emulate the dog in going for a swim, water up to my knees was refreshing enough.
    As I return to my week in an office I'll no doubt be asked about my weekend. I'm not sure whether a dead cow counts as Polite Conversation.

Monday, 6 August 2012

"I've never been a lesbian before..."

    The best way to broach a rather awkward question is to just come out with it. As I find myself sliding ever closer to the cliff edge and as my wife is now of the view that she'd rather live with an ungainly girl than a depressed bloke, I've been thinking about it. Life, that is. After.
    In my day-to-day life as I write this I am a bloke on the outside. I have always been that bloke on the outside. Like millions of other blokes I did what I was expected to. I fancy women, so as a heterosexual bloke I just fit right in. One doesn't define oneself as heterosexual, one just gets on with it.
    But what if I am swept over that cliff edge? If my wife does not find living with the ungainly girl to be too much for her, suddenly we're a same-sex couple. From being invisible, suddenly we're defined by that word. Lesbians. Putting aside for a moment my being transgender, that is. I've come to terms with redefinition, but for my wife that's likely to be rather challenging.
    Hence my asking a friend: what's it like to be lesbian? Now that's  an odd question, and one that could have many senses. In my case I was asking what it is like to be a same-sex couple, in public in the UK of 2012. Do people give you any grief, or are you part of the scenery?
    Fortunately the nature of the relationship between us is such that I can ask such a question of my friend and she knows me well enough to understand why I am doing so. And her answer was reassuring, she and her partner just get on with their lives. She described once having a yob shout "Dyke!" at her, but otherwise had few worries to report. And I thought "Dyke" was a reappropriated word, most of the lesbians I have known have enthusiastically described themselves as such.
    But there's a problem with self-definition here. On a simple level two women in a same-sex relationship  are lesbians. But on a personal level to be a lesbian you have to see yourself as such, and that's quite a leap for two people who have never been lesbians before.

Friday, 3 August 2012

I went to private school, where's my gold medal then?

    There's something of a fuss in the news this morning. It seems that rather a lot of British Olympic medalists received their education in the private sector rather than in state schools. In a country obsessed with both education and social class envy this is a big story. And rightly so, forgetting national willy-waving over medal tables for a moment and descending to a personal level a talented athlete should have the same opportunities wherever they are born.
    Unfortunately though as is so often the case, the baying mobs have missed the target. It's a case of the statistical trope at work: correlation does not prove causation. This graph is a famous example produced in support of the Flying Spaghetti Monster religious satire, purporting to show that global warming is the result of the decline in Caribbean piracy since the early 19th century. It's absolute rubbish of course, but demonstrates the point very nicely.
    The real reason that our Olympic athletes are disproportionately likely to have attended a private school has little to do with the sporting ability of private schools and everything to do with the fact that private school pupils tend to have rich parents who can ferry them to competitions, buy them expensive kit, pay entry fees, and perform all the other expensive functions of a professional sporting team without bankrupting themselves. My cousin's son - state educated - played his sport at a national level when he was a teenager and I saw the struggles she and her husband went through in his support. Would he have become a household name had they been millionaires? Who knows, but it's certain his path would have been significantly eased if they were.
    So what of the schools themselves? It's a frequent cry, that private schools have better facilities than state schools, and it's not without truth. But it's worth examining the business model of a typical private school.
    The customers of a private school are not the pupils, but the parents. They sign the cheques, they call the shots. And they send their sons and daughters away not with a view of Olympic gold in their minds but of graduation day in Oxford or Cambridge, of My Son The Doctor or My Daughter The Lawyer. They are willing to pay for a bit of sport, perhaps rugby, cricket, or hockey (never football, far too proletarian!), but not at the expense of career ambitions for their offspring. If a child at a private school shows sporting promise their school certainly won't hinder them but support as they progress is strictly extra-curricular. Which is where the rich parents come in.
    Long-term readers of this blog will know I attended a private school. My parents don't have much money, Maggie paid my fees. And as I have expounded at length before, the experience was not a good one. But it does mean I saw the ethos of private schooling at first hand. I thus would agree with anyone decrying the dominance of rugby or cricket by the privately educated, but I can't see it in the wider sporting field. If our sporting overlords really want to increase the numbers of state educated athletes they should concentrate not on the schools but on the extra-curricular support for promising candidates without the benefit of rich parents. The schools' job is education, not elite sporting training.