Sunday, 27 April 2014

Just like Italy, but without the sun: the Berlusconification of British public life

Oops, I've done a silly! But I think I got away with it..
According to a recent YouGov Poll 57 pc of Ukip supporters would prefer to live in continental Europe if they could. Here is the link, go check for yourselves if this seems just too damn ironic for your head not to explode.
But the irony doens't stop there. In many ways Ukip's effect on the public discourse in the UK has brought a little, disfunctional, corner of the continent right on your doorstep. 
 You might still wish to move for the weather and the beaches, but there's no need to go anywhere to experience the dizzying Emperor's New Clothes, world-upside-down, day-is-night and 'everyone's at it', shameless 'whatever'-ness that dominates, for instance, Italian public life. 

I call it the Berlusconification of British media and politics.

Time was when my British husband, during our first few regular trips to my Italian home town, would marvel at the timid reporting of the brazen lies of the Berlusconi regime and the muted reaction of the rest of the political world.  

"I was misquoted", was Silvio's favourite refrain, when caught telling the umpteen porkie, wilfully forgetting that a televised clip  is not an off the record briefing. 

"But everyone heard him say x, didn't they???" my poor husband would ask, bewildered. Or: "Didn't you tell me that the magistrates investigating him have x on tape/ proof of y /testimonies of z?"

My family and I would smile indulgently at the crazy, earnest Englishman with his reverence for facts and reason, logic and consequences.

Berlusconi could promise specific things one day, then deny he ever said anything the next. A trial could find someone else guilty of accepting a bribe from him yet simultaneously clear him of corruption. He could court the Vatican and entertain teen-age lovers. When denial did not work the interpretation of the subject matter would be flipped on its head. You would do it too, if you could. Or: everyone else does it.

His explanations for political failures, disastrous policy outcomes and even, increasingly, the criminal implications of his own behaviour (corrupting judges, paying off members of the opposition ahead of confidence votes, ensuring the silence of loquacious escort girls with political candidatures and sinecures) where noted, like celestial events, but never challenged. "Silvio, what about x?" reporters would bleat. And after a five minute soliloquy there was never a supplementary question.

This is because somewhere along the journey between founding his own personal, private party,  Forza Italia, and becoming Prime Minister (the first of many times), Berlusconi stopped being a person, equal to every other citizen under the law, or a politician, expected to lead by example and to present an impeccable front - at the very least. 

Berlusconi, as any Italian commentator would tell you, with the cynical defeatism that characterises our chattering classes, was a phenomenon. And he was immensely popular. The two things fed into each other and merged into each other: you could not expect the same standards of factual truth or logic or causality to apply to him and his narrative. Plus, taking him on meant annoying his supporters and risking the wrath of his formidable economic, mediatic and financial network.

Now fast-forward to present-day Britain. When no one was looking Nigel Farage arrived seemingly from nowhere with his personal, private band of mavericks, to shake things up. Hopelessly underestimated at first, he then pivoted right into the 'phenomenon' territory. I don't even have to mention the 'immensely popular' bit. 

Having indulged Ukip's leader like he were a mix between stand up comedian, pub bore and old-fashioned family entertainer for the past handful of years, a reflexively anti-European, apathetic media has now woken from its nap and is trying to apply some scrutiny to the guy. But it's far too late. 

Farage is a phenomenon, and yes, immensely popular to boot. It is unwise to challenge him too closely; plus journalistic enquiry is a muscle that needs to be kept exercised - it's no use trying to flex it every five years. 

In the past couple of weeks Farage slithered through allegations of misuse of tax payers' money relatively unscathed and received phenomenal free advertising for his ridiculously over the top posters on all public and private channels. His ratings are up, people.

"But Nigel, aren't you sorry? But Nigel, aren't these posters racists?" Cue indignant or sardonic soliloquy. There is no cogent supplementary question, ever. The reporters following him around haven't a clue about the reality Nigel is bending, cannot tell fact from fiction and -frankly- are no longer paid to care. None of the media outlets employing them wants to annoy his supporters, many of whom are also viewers/readers. 

Cynical defeatism is now the default setting of the British chattering classes too. Explaning how Europe  (Nigel's totemic raison d'etre) works, exploring whether it is reformable and what we stand to gain or lose by staying or going, (validating or puncturing Nigel's arguments, in other words), is considered terribly earnest, unwise and frankly pointless too. 

So should Nigel, the phenomenon, sweep unchallenged into victory at the EU and local election, brace yourself for a sharp turn into Emperor's new Clothes, world-upside-down, night-is-day territory by the rest of the political class.

Mainstream parties will likely react to defeat by basing future policies and diplomatic efforts on Nigel's fantastical version of reality. Such policies, by definition, will not resolve imaginary problems nor address real ones. Such meaningless negotiations cannot result in meaningful deals.

All but the most blinkered or ideological of politicians and commentators will know this but it won't matter: they won't be able to afford to care about that. It will be Nigel's world - we'll be just living in it.


Saturday, 26 April 2014

Why voting in the EU election is a feminist issue

Yes, in French, for added exotic allure..

I have finally fulfilled a lifelong ambition (well, okay, a six month long ambition) to get something published in the Feminist Times, the would-be Spare Rib de nous jours.  

My piece is about voting in the EU election being a feminist issue. A bit  like fat, if you like, but without the comfort-eating of delicious cakes.

You can read the whole piece in full here but this is the gist of my argument:

Don’t let our apathetic media, and the silence of our timid mainstream politicians, fool you into thinking the EU Election on May 22 does not matter. 

Don't let yourself be hypnotised into thinking that a UKIP triumph is inevitable: the UK is not Crimea; your vote counts (if you bother to cast it) and nothing at all is inevitable till the votes have been counted.

And please don't be seduced by the narrative that a UKIP triumph would actually be a desirable outcome, to shake things up or send some sort of message to complacent Westminster elites. 

A decisive UKIP win would do nothing to help the UK lead on reforms in Europe but would spell disaster for the cause of gender equality at UK and EU level.

The European Union has been promoting equality between men and women since its inception, enshrining the goal of equal pay for men and women in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. A Directive on Equal Pay was finally passed in 1975 to be followed by dozens of other pieces of EU legislation - against discrimination at work or in accessing services, combating violence, sexual harassment and people trafficking, establishing maternity rights and parental leave.

The EU funds national campaigns against gender-based violence and in the last 7 years has spent some €3.2 bn in Structural Funds to provide childcare and promote women’s participation in the labour market in Europe’s most economically depressed areas. The EU further promotes gender equality all over the wold with its humanitarian actions and through its trade agreements.

Now contrast this with UKIP’s view of women and their programme.
Their attitude towards women is often described as reminiscent of the 1950s, although my conservative grandfather would have been horrified by their language and sentiments.  Women are sluts, who should be seen (cleaning) and not heard; mothers are worthless to employers. 

And these are not just retired colonels, old fashioned fogeys – the Twitter trolls who tried to silence Women Against UKIP all last week are the party’s tech-savvy young guns, UKIP’s bullish, bullying future.

But worse than that their attitudes is their programme, insofar as they can articulate one. Make no mistake: the biggest advantage Nigel Farage sees in the UK withdrawing from Europe is that it would be able to return to the 1950s not just culturally but also in the law: no maternity leave or labour protection of any kind for the most vulnerable workers, who are often women; a bonfire of health and safety and anti-harassment legislations. This might resonate with chain-smoking pub landlords, (freedom of smoking is championed, by the way, freedom of movement less so), but it sure scares the hell out of me.

Last week we finally saw UKIP’s leader drop the genial ‘chap down the pub’ act when being questioned about his use of EU expenses. Chummy Nigel turned into Snarling Nigel, railing against the media that so far has idolised him for having the cheek of asking him to account for his actions, like any other politician.

Farage’s confusion about EU money not being, somehow, taxpayers’ money tells a bigger story about what you get when you vote for a UKIP candidate to represent you in Europe. Their goal is to destroy Europe not reform it or make it work in Britain’s favour.

In practice this means that after May 22, unless we feminists use our vote, even more UKIP MEPs will be flocking to the European Parliament to get their nose in every possible money trough, whilst disrupting sessions with their cheap stunts and insulting speeches, clogging committees, (including the Gender Equality Committee where so much of the above legislation is dealt with), not voting, not amending, not doing anything at all, and all at our expense, for the next five years.

To exercise your right to vote you need to be on the Electoral Register. The deadline to register to vote in the 22 May European and local elections is May 6. You can do so here.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The stuff of nightmares

So, I'm taking part in a sitting of the Geneva Convention (?), which is in session in a hall inside a shopping mall (??). 

I'm with my team from the pro-EU org I now work for, and our job is to debate persuasively against UKIP's Nigel Farage, who is sitting not far away with his team. We have several papers with killer arguments to present, although there is some confusion as to which will be debated in the hall (???).

All along the horse-shoe table at which we delegates sit there are little dishes of nibbles: nuts, olives and so on. I'm nervous so, true to type, I'm absent-mindedly stuffing my face. At one point Nigel Farage leans over and asks me to pass him some food. Disaster! I've hoovered everything within reach! Farage looks upset and like he's about to make a huge fuss. 

I scramble to my feet and offer to go and get something for him but there are no more nibbles anywhere I search in the hall. Soon I'm scouring the rest of the shopping mall for a bag of cheese puffs, pork scratchings, anything, like a woman possessed , while my colleagues ping me increasingly frantically on the mobile to say that our paper is up for discussion next, and where am I, and what are they to do? 

I return to the Convention Hall empty-handed to find out that we have missed the chance to present our paper and the UKIP team, which we were there to expose, have turned me into the story. 

So to recap: I've disgraced myself, let down my team and become the focus of attention at the Geneva Convention (the Geneva Convention, people!) for nibbling on Nigel Farage's nuts.

And then I wake up. 

It's a gloriously sunny morning (!) of the Easter bank holiday week-end (!!) and Mild mannered Intellectual Husband is snoring gently by my side (!!!). I have not screwed up and I am not disgraced. 

But I am giving up bar snacks forever, just in case.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

My new fuorescent yellow running shoes

My new fluerescent yellow running shoes have been startling a few squirrels in the park, let me tell you. Pigeons have scattered in alarm. Old ladies have been seen clutching their frail husbands' arm a little tighter, eyes wide open in alarm. Toddlers have stopped mid-wail, snot and saliva still dripping from their beetroot-red faces, and stared in utter fascination.

I'm a little embarassed by all the attention, to say the least. As I came home from my first run in them this afternoon I was so flustered I assumed the presence of two fire engines and an ambulance in the middle of my square was somewhat connected with the shoes. It was quite a relief, in the circumstances, to be told about the ammonia leak at n28. 

You see, I'm not the sort of runner who delights in the feel of the wind in her hair, while she zips past the rest of humanity, her high-tech brightly coloured gear ablaze against the pale blur of the world. I'm the other kind, the fat and middle aged kind, forever re-building her strenght, breath and resistence after yet another epidode of back pain or knee trouble, hungover and lassitude pemitting. The weight I was hoping to lose I now just lug around, philosophically. I take the weight for a run as it were - and it enjoys it, mind - but it leaves me breathless, sore and half dead.The last thing I need is people, and small woodland creatures, pointing and staring.

My ideal running clothes would be black, sleek, spandexed and unassuming. The same goes for the shoes. The problem is, I am forever unwilling to spend money on sleek black running gear until I lose the weight, and the shoes, well, they do not come in black, ever.  Today in the shop my only choice (among the models that would accommodate my bulky orthotics insoles) were a pair featuring the colour and design of something Barbie might have vomited after an amphetamine overdose, and the flurescent pair I ended up buying.

Running shoes for non-clowning adults belong to the ever expanding category of goods for which, pace the rules of capitalism 101, a gap in the market persists despite the robust and often desperate demand:

Edible gluten-free bread;

Edible gluten-free anything;

Night clothes suitable for environments other than a Playboy shoot or a nursery;

Nice shoes of any kind with a bit of a heel in which it's actually possible to walk;

News analisys programmes on TV (not just made-for-radio discos made up of bloated right-wing journalists interviewing each other)....

I've run out of thoughts for now. What's on your list?