Guardian


CostanzaLaughing at the Guardian’s social justice warriors is a bit like mocking the hairstyles of the 1980s. It is neither difficult nor original. It is fascinating, though, to see them hunt through Western culture in search of perceived offences against egalitarian values. As much as they could be charged with utopianism in their efforts to impose equality, I think they are inspired not so much by thoughts of an endgame as by the affirming sense of righteousness that is obtained through the judgement of others. Take this passage

…there’s a strange double standard when it comes to being natural. Viewers of this summer’s Celebrity Big Brother were quick to criticise Courtney Stodden for her unnatural breast implants, but they were horrified when Geordie Shore star Charlotte Crosby wet the bed. Likewise, the I’m A Celebrity contestants were appalled when Adlington explained that sometimes she needs to pee in the pool to save time when training.

For this commentator, then, it is hypocritical to be repelled by breast implants the size of beach balls and by people urinating into communal bodies of water. This is like saying it is hypocritical for women to dislike both men who take more steroids than a prime Arnold Schwarzenegger and men who go to the toilet and fail to wash their hands. What is brilliant is that the last sentence required no exaggeration for comic effect. It is exactly like that.

twitterIf you are on Twitter and have an interest in politics you have doubtless experienced the Twotskyites. These curious people need not be followers of Leon the Pen but are far leftists who bring revolutionary attitudes to Twitter. Slight divergences from their egalitarian worldview inspire a storm of “isms” and obscenities. The targets of their ire – affirming Sigmund Freud’s theory of the narcissism of small differences – tend to be mainstream journalists with similar ideas to theirs but a less reverent manner of expressing them.

Some of these people are thugs, who exist solely to make themselves feel superior by libelling and insulting strangers on the Internet. Others, though, get a bit of undeserved stick. Firstly, they are often charged with upsetting and intimidating people to the extent that they are reduced to silence. We live in a world where cartoonists are assaulted with axes and professional journalists are cowed by people who watch Dr Who and use abbreviations like “FFS”? I would hope not.

Secondly, such people did not emerge fully-formed. They are the natural product of the manner in which the British commentariat has behaved in recent years. Readers of the left-wing and liberal press have long been informed that mild cases of inequality – such as the firing of an inept football commentator who happened to have Jamaican roots, or the temporary lack of disabled parking bays at an arts gallery – amount toapartheid”. People have been accused of vile prejudice for such rhetorical and attitudinal offences as disliking J.K. Rowling, making a distinction between paedophilia and ephebophilia and laughing at Kim Jong-un. Bidisha, who was a source of much of this stuff, claimed on Comment is Free two years ago that every man with a stay-at-home wife is a “woman-hater”.

Tell people that their society is equivalent to Apartheid South Africa, and that malice lurks behind our disagreements, and they are liable to grow up hypersensitive and intolerant. None of these people are my comrades, and it is not my business to advise them on tactics, but if mainstream journalists dislike the work of Twotskyites they should encourage their peers to maintain their sense of proportion and approach debates as intellectual contests rather than slanging matches. People are, disturbing as it sounds, learning from them.

Journalists are famously unreliable when it comes to writing about health. (And, indeed, pretty much everything they cannot understand.) Aseem Malhotra, who writes for the Guardian, is a cardiologist so you would think that he would be more careful with his data. He is not. In an article last year he wrote

It is estimated that diet-related diseases are responsible for 35 million deaths worldwide, dwarfing smoking-related ones of 5 to 8 million.

It is not. It is estimated that 35 million people die from heart disease, cancer and diabetes but these also include people who have fallen victim to genetics, alcohol, tobacco, nutritional deficiencies and stress. This was pointed out to Malhotra, who ignored the correction and repeated the statistic in a subsequent column.

In this latter piece Malhotra wrote, on the rise of obesity…

…what is the biggest culprit?

More and more evidence is emerging that it is sugars, more specifically High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which is added to almost all processed food.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is used a great deal in America but its production is limited in the EU. It accounts for 1.6% of the sweeteners that are produced in Europe. So much for “almost all”.

I had a healthy scepticism for Malhotra’s claims, then, when I saw him post this on Twitter…

School lunch

Americans eat too much sugar. This is not in doubt. Chocolate milk and ketchup and peaches in syrup and apple sauce, though? I really doubt this is representative. Besides, are there really twelve grams of sugar in a few nuggets? A portion from McDonalds contains one and careless though Americans can be about nutrition I doubt theirs are twelve times less healthy.

So, I asked him for a source and, well, he ignored me. He found time, however, to respond to a praiseful comment…

 Malhotra 2

Open, honest and science-driven debate? I agreed!

Malhotra 3

He ignored me once again.

Malhotra found time, however, to compose another column for the Guardian in which he argued, citing no research, that sugar is to blame for obesity and heart disease. It finished by referencing the “growing army” of anti-sugar researchers “who[se] only incentive is to expose what’s right for public health”. Wrong Dr. Malhotra. We all have less than altruistic intentions. Some researchers, for example, want to speak at conferences and get book deals. Others want to gain respect by being seen to advocate the cause of righteousness. We all have reasons to be propagandistic and Malhotra, in promoting misinformation and ignoring his critics, is proving that.

I agree that sugar is, outside of whole fruits and milk, nutritionally worthless and to be limited. I agree that “low-fat” products tend to be a con and worth avoiding. I agree that teaching kids nutrition is important. I do not agree, however, with dishonest scaremongering, whether it’s in a cause I’m sympathetic to or not. You have to ask why Malhotra is given a platform on this issue. He must be a smart guy to be able to tinker with hearts but what qualifications does he have related to nutrition? What research has he performed that makes him an authority? Ah well. What does it matter what he knows or how he argues? It’s just our health. It is just the truth.

The Guardian have interviewed a woman named Cat Marnell. She’s famous for taking a lot of drugs and writing about her experiences while high. Both she and the interviewer seem to think there’s something radical about this…

…the reason Marnell resonates, and could do so for years, is that she’s more than a poor little rich girl with a hard drug habit; she is clever and, crucially, she refuses to conform to the sanctioned narratives of either desperate victim or contrite, recovering addict.

“The reality is so many people are using drugs,” she says. “I know hardly anybody who isn’t. But people aren’t used to people writing about drugs.”

What “sanctioned narratives”? Does the Guardian’s interviewer think Hunter S. Thompson was some marginal scribe? The idea that it’s counterintuitive for Marnell to be smart is just ridiculous. I’m not going to research it but I’d bet a lot of money on the claims that being a rich young woman and a cocaine user are associated with above average intelligence; never mind wangling your own column and broadsheet interviews.

Unlike Thompson Marnell has nothing much to say. (And don’t think I’m being some kind of 60s snob in saying that. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is mostly a bore; it’s in …the Campaign Trail where Thompson came into his own.) She describes hard drug use and grim sex in a frenetic style that is, I’ll grant, an accurate reflection of the ramblings of a user. That’s just not a good thing. This is punctuated by moments of introspection that might be significant to the author but objectively aren’t.

…you know what—it’s not bad to be different. To be so weird and to love getting speedy and to be chaotic and to love taking notes and copying poems and sleep with pictures of Sid Vicious above your bed. I collected drug baggies and I couldn’t help it; I still love them and all the patterns. I bought them on Ebay…it was and is OK: it’s just a different life. It’s just different.

It’s not bad to be different.” Future humans will look back on our generation’s use of this vapid claim to imbue schlock and sleaze with value and scratch their heads.

If this woman sounds a bit familiar it’s ‘cos she is. In the past few years, as commentators have been noticing, a lot of the pop culture hailed as revolutionary is, in fact, veiled imitation. Marnell barely tries to hide the fact

The First Movie Star I Ever Had A Crush On

Marilyn, duh, and Edie who doesn’t count at all really

Uh huh.

Last Book I Read

“The Warhol Diaries”. I read all of Andy’s books over and over.

Uh huh.

I have no desire to rag on this individual. It’s not her fault that people have decided to listen to her. The reasons for her success are not hard to divine: morbid curiosity, vicarious thrillseeking and, of course, the awe that guys and gals are liable to feel towards women with perfect cheekbones. It’s extraordinary how the mainstream commentators tippy-toe around this fact – that, as with her idol Sedgwick, had her nose been crooked and her waist broader no one would have cared.

What depressing, indeed, is the media’s awe for her. There is, as the New York Times’ interviewer honestly stated, a touch of jealousy to their reportage: of the fact that her life has been so eventful but also, I think, because people are fascinated by her and hacks raised on gonzo journalism and confessional literature wish they were objects of intrigue.

What’s also dispiriting is the fact highlighted by the Guardian’s reference to imagined “sanctioned narratives”. There’s a presumption, in liberal circles, that they’re dissidents kicking against the hegemony of social conservatism. Yet that’s bollocks. The world’s best-selling novel is a hymn to sado-masochism. Its top films can be awash with violence and sex. Its pop stars are people who take photos with lap dancers; gyrate atop Christ figures and state that they’ll vote for Obama because of Michelle’s “fat ass”. The taboos, in this limited sense, haven’t just broken but been shattered.

Well-off people have obtained a license for libertinism yet remain of the opinion that they’re radicals. The unwholesome consequence is a narcissistic delight in transgression not due to its actual worth but because of its defiance of social codes that aren’t powerful enough to even struggle to contain it. A literate user with a fixation on people who died in their twenties is thus fascinating as someone, somewhere might be alarmed. Marnell can live as she sees fit, though I hope she comes to realise that everyone who’s followed paths of self-destruction have found sod all at the end. Her observers, on the other hand, should bloody well grow up.

Charlie Skelton, who I’ve admired for being one of few commentators to realise that when a bunch of statesmen, plutocrats and elite intellectuals meet behind closed doors it’s liable to be an event of significance, has written an article for Comment is Free that details the affiliations of Syrian exiles working for and on behalf of the rebels. It, and the reaction to it, has interested me.

Skelton’s piece contains some rather dubious material. He asserts, for example, that “destablisation” is “being carried out…on the ground” but as the Guardian’s Julian Borger observes, the only source that he provides is a Lebanese TV station affiliated with Hezbollah. A distrust for mainstream sources often leads to a reflexive faith in alternative accounts which is regrettable. The cold depiction of the exiles also rankles with me. He describes them as “PR professionals”, ““activists”” and, in one case, “a trusted lieutenant of the Anglo-American democracy-promotion industry” and to some extent that is precisely what they are but he doesn’t admit that it’s quite possible for them to be both smooth-talking salesmen and people who care deeply for their nation. Some of them might not be, of course – I don’t know them – but if my country was headed by a cruel, imperious dictator I’d be pretty tempted to accept or try to enlist the support of superpowers, so it seems callous to imply that they’re merely objects of suspicion.

But I’d defend elements of Skelton’s piece. Borger claims, rather nastily, that he dismisses the conflict in Syria and thinks Western machinations are “the real story”. He writes, in fact, that they’re another story – which, indeed, they are. Dealing with peoples’ affiliations is a risky business: one can often misjudge the strength and significance of peoples’ relationships. Should somebody wish to conduct a hatchet job on your humble blogger, for example, they could link me to everything from the Euston Manifesto to Islamophobia Watch but these associations don’t imply anything meaningful about myself. Let us not be Joe McCarthys. On the other hand, some of the relationships that Skelton notes do seem significant. It’s interesting that the US was quietly funding Syrian opposition groups, and, yes, it’s interesting that one of their prominent members has been a guest at Bilderberg, and I can’t help wondering if people who imply that it’s poor form mention this have heard the name “Ahmed Chalabi”. The Anglo-American foreign policy elites have a history of exploiting the struggles of oppressed peoples, and of supporting less than ideal representatives in the process, and its worth being cautious lest the past repeat itself. Skelton is also right to note that people whose ambition has long been regime change aren’t unbiased sources, and that their claims are worth substantiating before being accepted as fact. To reiterate, the character of one’s associates needn’t be the measure of one’s own, and one can be both biased and truthful and meticulous. Whatever our ideological affiliations, it would be nice to think that we’re mature enough to hold different ideas within our heads.

I’m not about to claim that overeating, and the wrong kinds of eating, aren’t major problems. (They are.) And I’m not about to say that corporations that manufacture and sell industrially processed foods aren’t doing a lot to worsen this. (They are.) Yet I’m sceptical of Dr Aseem Malhotra‘s warning of the former and jeremiad against the latter. For he claims:

It is estimated that diet-related diseases are responsible for 35 million deaths worldwide, dwarfing smoking-related ones of 5 to 8 million. And while there have been tremendous advances in discouraging cigarette consumption, we haven’t really started to act on obesity.

If the crude mortality rate is any guide there are, per year, just over 60 million deaths worldwide. Are over half of them because of diets? I doubt it. See, I think Dr Malhotra took the statistic from here

The United Nations announced in September that chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes contribute to 35 million deaths worldwide each year…

But is diet the cause of all incidences of heart disease, cancer and diabetes? No. I doubt Lance Armstrong or Gary Hall picked up their illness through pigging out on junk food one too many times. In fact, as well as all the people who were doomed by their alcoholism, lack of exercise, increasing age or genetics that number presumably includes most of the smokers Malhotra was using a comparison. This apparent sloppiness is especially serious when he goes on to make fairly ambitious prescriptions: including banning junk food from schools (which you could make a case for but would be a grave abrogation of parental freedoms) and establishing compulsory food tech lessons in primary schools (which might be doable, though I’m not sure teachers will be thrilled to supervise thirty children with raw food, knives and cooking appliances).

CiF commentators passing off misunderstandings and received wisdom as fact is hardly new. (Here, for example, as we’re on the subject, is my look at Barbara Ellen’s stupid claim that people who eat flesh are necessarily stupid.) Yet when a practicing doctor can make – unless I’ve made a ridiculous error – such a ridiculous error it drives home how lax the standards of epistemic rigour can be in today’s society. And if we’re blind to the truth we’ll never understand the problems it illuminates.

Kristy Bamu was murdered in London by his sister and her boyfriend after they’d accused him of practicing witchcraft. This has shined the spotlight onto a practice that’s been spreading across Africa in recent years. Albert Tucker, though, writing at the inevitable, is discomfited by this interest…

However, if we are to learn anything from this terrible case and better protect children, it is essential that we do not allow this debate to become solely focused on the belief in witchcraft, or a sense that this is an “alien” concept, but understand this for what it is: a horrific form of child abuse…

Actually, it’s both those things.

What is worrying is the tendency to view this abuse differently from other forms dealt with by social services, the police and schools. Although it feels instinctively uncomfortable, these cases do not require a “special” response…

Tucker goes on to mention other forms of child abuse that have shocked our society and if his point is that it isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to particular communities he is, of course, entirely right. Yet I’m not sure how you can deny that different forms require special responses; it seems a bit like claiming that as “Spanish”, “Denver”, “egg-white” and “tamagoyaki” are all forms of omelette they require the same ingredients and prep. (This also applies to people’s identical thoughts regarding “honour” violence.)  The violent fear of witchcraft is associated with particular communities; has specific influences at home and abroad and is openly expressed in peculiar forums. I have no first hand experience, o’ course, but I’m willing to bet that it can leave singular and identifiable effects on its victims. It is, then, a unique phenomenon that cries out for a special response. And so are other forms of abuse! In a society that contains so many different beliefs and practices, which influence people’s behaviour in such different ways, it’s sometimes going to be impossible to take a uniform approach to people and their actions. It’s ironic that some commentators are least fond of multiculturalism when it’s at its least avoidable.

The Guardian’s Peter Preston writes a hymn to multicultural London…

When I started writing regular columns for the Guardian four decades ago – scribbling on my kitchen table – Walworth, just down the road, was white, glum, working class. The only black people you tended to see were young men in old cars having their boots stopped and searched by the white, Carter Street Old Bill. Brixton, just off to the left, was still Windrush world, the West Indies come to rest. And Peckham, a few yards to the right, was where Del Boy Trotter grew up and tried to prosper.

Walworth today is black, not white: a bustle and buzz of hairdressing salons and curried-goat houses open all hours. The Elephant they’re digging up again has become little South America, stretching down the Old Kent Road in polyglot variety. Vauxhall welcomes Portuguese. Camberwell mixes Greeks, Turks, Chinese and more. Welcome to Norbury, and the subcontinent. And Peckham, the high street where geezers grizzle to camera, is one of London’s great amazements: West Africa, its tropical fish, its rainbow of vegetable stalls and smiles, plonked down where only eels and pies flourished. And its array of brand new churches, mosques, temples: fervent belief marching on as the C of E makes an excuse and slinks away.

I hope this doesn’t sound unkind but Preston seems to like the diversity of London because it makes for more interesting strolls down the road. He doesn’t stop to think about how social changes have affected people’s lives – he’s just pleased to note that there’s more to see. The clearest example is the thing about “fervent belief”. Yes, those spires and minarets and veils and turbans are more interesting to observe than besweatered Anglicans but would it be a good thing if humbler faiths were superseded by assertive ones? I don’t think so. What’s significant to me is not how bustling, buzzing and bombastic cities are but how comfortable life is for their people. Welworth might have seemed “grim” to Preston in the ‘70s but was it to its residents? Who knows. I guess those “white”, “working class” people were too busy scoffing eels to get jobs in the media. Still, I know that while everybody likes to see and meet new things and people I suspect that most of them also desire familiarity; community; security; homeliness. Preston, in contrast, sounds like a tourist.

While we’re on the subject, I can’t believe our cities haven’t gotten uglier. I’m not blaming multicultural inclusions for that, though. The biggest and ugliest changes to hit English cities are the hordes of chintzy fast food outlets, identikit coffee bars and insipid retail stores. A characterful part of my hometown was recently supplanted by a clutch of bland, bleached buildings bearing glassy-eyed employees of Topshop and Apple. Yes, I know I’m being a snob. Yes, I know some people like them. But – dear Lord – I can’t believe there’s anything more bleak than finding that a local shop has closed and bears a sign threatening “New Look – Coming Soon”.

Redpesto comments

I’m at a point where sometimes I have to tell myself ‘Just walk away’ (so to speak) when it comes to commenting over at the Guardian. Not because I get outraged in the ‘Hang the so-and-so!’ but because pointing out the shoddiness of some of the analysis across fifteen versions of the same ‘I’m outraged!’ article (see the Sports Personality of the Year fucktwittage) is probably eating away at me on one level.

Ain’t that the truth. Today, a novelist, Catherine Johnson, is troubled by the fact that “stories that receive the most mainstream recognition all seem to be the ones written by white people”. “The problem isn’t that white people are writing stories about people who aren’t white,” she says, but that “these stories are being treated as more worthy and exceptional than similar ones by black authors”. That’s presumably why Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth, VS Naipaul, Malorie Blackman, Andrea Levy and Ben Okri are such obscure and unsung wordsmiths.

Rather than attempt to show us that her theory is true, Johnson just assumes it is and speculates as to its cause…

White readers might be interested in the story of an African British boy like the protagonist of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, but it appears to be much easier for them if the story comes secondhand. The words of a white author are a comfortable buffer, a reassurance that nothing in the story will be too shocking, too hard to understand; the author is like you, and you can trust him or her to tell you this story in familiar terms.

I don’t want to be too tetchy because Johnson, unlike columnists, actually does things that matter. (There are few more worthwhile occupations than children’s author.) Still, this is weird stuff. The implication is that Kelman’s readers googled him; found that he was a caucasian bloke and breathed sighs of relief. Well, I had no idea, before Johnson told me, that he was a white man. If she thinks that British readers seek out the ethnicity of authors of the books they read and that this colours their judgements she holds them in low regard. I can’t prove it isn’t true but, then, she’s made no attempt to show it is. It’s not of me. Are you reassured by the knowledge that your favourite authors are palefaces, readers? (I won’t tell you if I am or not. I hope you won’t think less of me.)

We’ve already seen the trend of Guardian columnists claiming to spy baneful trends within our society on the basis of no data. Like others who share her platform, Johnson follows this by imputing dark motives to thousands of people without the vaguest analysis or admission of doubt. (Is it any wonder that people won’t buy newspapers nowadays if all they’re going to do is tell them they’re a bastard?) Thus are weighty issues like social cohesion and mobility reduced to futile squabbles. As I’ve said

All these writers would claim to defend liberal values of tolerance, pluralism and equality. Yet their sensationalism – which howls when talk is all that’s needed – is often the loudest note of discord in an argument. Their righteous outrage can be more likely to drive people apart than the issue they’re discussing. I fear that the subject which inspires some of the most absurdly hostile rhetoric, wildest generalisations and sloppiest prejudices is, er – bigotry. Time for a little more understanding.

You’ll rarely find me quoting from Harry’s Place but here, writing on a man named Abu Rideh, who was arrested in Britain, jailed and then put under a control order, they’ve got a point…

Amnesty ran a campaign against the control order to which Abu Rideh was subject from 2005-9…CagePrisoners, whose Director Moazzam Begg believes that “securing the release of Muslim prisoners” captured during jihad is “obligatory” on all Muslims, devoted significant campaigning resources towards this case…The Guardian also lined up behind poor Abu Rideh…

However, The Guardian did not report, and still has not reported, on the end of the Abu Rideh saga. Abu Rideh, it was claimed, wished to leave the United Kingdom so that he could rejoin his large and young family. However, that was a lie. Instead, Abu Rideh travelled to Afghanistan, to join up with his Al Qaeda brothers.

In December, The Telegraph announced that an “Arabic jihadi web forum associated with al-Qaeda reported that Abu Rideh had become a “martyr in Afghanistan” and was with a group of fighters when he died”.

As someone who wrote several posts in support of the man I really am disgusted by the failure of liberal – or, indeed, “liberal” -institutions to pay the slightest attention to claims of his death. It’s impossible for me to know for sure whether he’s dead or not and whether he was fighting with the militants but considering the largely uncritical support that they – and, yes, I – had given him, it’s a question that it’s their responsibility to ask. (And mine? Well, perhaps, but I’ve no way of finding out.) In fact, I’d also like to see investigation into whether he was really self-harming and attempting suicide as he claimed. If he was, and it was all an act, he was one sick puppy.

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