Prohibition’s rehearsal room

March 8, 2009 at 2:26 pm (beer, Civil liberties, labour party, Max Dunbar, puritan)

Today Kevin McKenna writes about the UK elite’s habit of using its former colonies as a testing ground for dubious social policy.

Last week the SNP government gave us Scotland’s version of Prohibition by setting a minimum price for alcohol and banning cheap drinks promotions. As Holyrood ministers vied with each other to adopt the most sonorous of tones they succeeded only in hectoring a nation. Think of Mr Cholmondeley-Warner in a See You Jimmy wig warning us how intoxicating liquor can only lead to unspeakable beastliness.

To justify this latest act of legislative interference in the personal lives of the citizenry they cited recent world health figures that placed Scotland at number eight in the league table of drinking nations.

Leave aside for a moment the suspicion that these numbers are grossly misleading as they fail to factor in the huge black market in hooch that exists in many other countries. It has now become clear that Scotland is becoming Westminster’s testing laboratory for an assortment of experiments in social engineering that would have been considered dystopian a generation ago. Two hundred and ninety two years had elapsed since the Treaty of Union, yet of all the ills that had afflicted the Scots under the English jackboot since, what did the new Holyrood political class choose to address first? That’s right, fox-hunting. Westminster duly followed.

Three years ago Scotland’s Labour administration outlawed smoking in public places, even though every poll showed that most people did not favour an outright ban. Within 18 months Westminster had passed similar legislation. Who will bet against a ban on alcohol special offers being introduced in England and Wales by the end of next year? Middle Britain has become obsessed with the alcoholic habits of its working-class youth. So they get howling with the drink, they want to fight the locals and they are eager to have lots of sex in a very truncated time-frame? The British aristocracy have been doing it for 400 years. They called it things like Empire-building and the Napoleonic Wars.

I also suspect that such policies are influenced by old imperial-romantic stereotypes of Scottish people as fiery, passionate, tribal Celtic alcoholics.


Labour unveils its new alcohol strategy campaign posters

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Obama versus the prohibitionists

December 28, 2008 at 2:37 pm (Civil liberties, Max Dunbar, Obama, puritan, United States)

There was always going to be a disillusionment among the President-elect’s leftwing backers. After all, he is going to pile more troops into Afghanistan (what?) and he is supportive of the state of Israel (noooo!)

But there’s something even more unforgiveable about the guy from Illinois.

Via Norm, Christopher Caldwell explains that: ‘The attention paid to Mr Obama’s relationship with cigarettes is evidence of a pathology – and not on the part of the president-elect.’

Evidence of the pathology can be seen in this news story:

‘It’s a wonderful opportunity,’ says Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington-based group that seeks to prevent smoking among young people. ‘The president-elect is in a position to help people understand that it’s difficult to quit, and to encourage the 43 million adult Americans who smoke to join him in his efforts.’

Sure Cheryl – it’s not like Obama will have anything else to do, right?

And this is John Gibson from the hilarious Fox News:

Sure he’s young, sure he’s charismatic, but what do we really know about Barack Obama? And what does he really stand for? Obama is the kind of presidential hopeful who appeals to the masses. He portrays himself as a political moderate, but he’s much more liberal than he says he is. And his team works overtime trying to hide Obama’s dirty little secret. He is — get this — a cigarette smoker. The point is: What else do we not know about Barack Obama?

Back to Caldwell:

The TV journalist Tom Brokaw recently closed an interview with Mr Obama by asking him if he had quit smoking. Mr Brokaw wanted to know, since ‘the White House is a no-smoking zone’. Whether it is or is not is a tricky constitutional question. The White House has two functions. On one hand it is a government building. Mr Brokaw may well be right that it is, as such, covered by some intemperate smoking regulation. But it is also the living quarters of Mr Obama, citizen, during the time he is president. There is no reason that getting elected president should make one less entitled to privacy in one’s home. It is not always easy to delineate clearly between personal and governmental activities, but smoking is unambiguously a personal one. The rules ought to be whatever Mr Obama says they are. Once you mix up the body personal and the body politic the way Mr Brokaw does, you lose sight of why the president should enjoy any right to privacy, or any personal freedom, whatsoever. If the people feel reassured by seeing their president grovel before taking power, then grovel he must. This was the attitude in some of the negative letters the Washington Post received when columnist Michael Kinsley dared to suggest that anti-smokers should leave the president-elect alone. ‘He needs to make this sacrifice,’ wrote one correspondent unhappy with Mr Obama. What odd language. Did the US elect a president or a priest?


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More prohibition-related nonsense

November 17, 2008 at 1:08 pm (Civil liberties, Max Dunbar, mental health, parasites, puritan, reaction)

One of the quiet joys of blogging is the opportunity to highlight idiocies of the anti-smoking movement for the purposes of ridicule and contempt.

In this spirit I’ve been checking out the SmokeFree North West website which has the rallying cry ‘Let’s make smoking history for our children.’

The people of the North West have responded in their masses to the Government’s consultation on the future of tobacco control, through the SFNW campaign ‘Let’s make smoking history for our children’.

Over 60,000 responses were generated urging Government to take measures to protect children and young people from the harmful effects of tobacco. This was a collaborative effort between the SFNW team and tobacco control colleagues in PCTs and Local Authorities across the region.

Consultations are a popular tactic for the prohibitionist movement because they are self-selecting: you don’t have to respond to them and people who do are generally extremely passionate about the issue being discussed – and anti-smokers are much more passionate than smokers or liberal non-smokers.

But I love the assumed link with the Make Poverty History campaign. The anti-smoking movement’s one weakness – actually, one of many – is that it has no sense of proportion. Make Poverty History was a vital campaign to help starving people in the developing world. It had international support. By contrast, the anti-smoking movement only benefits homeowners in the rich world who don’t like the taste of cigarette smoke in All Bar One.

Unlike Make Poverty History, people involved in anti-smoking campaigns don’t tend to have a history of activism – trade union work, anti-racist work: you know, stuff that matters. SmokeFree England is supported by almost no one and nobody would care if it disappeared from the planet tomorrow. (Although the prohibitionist movement does provide some economic benefit in that it creates jobs for public sector time-servers who would be otherwise unemployable – Regional Tobacco Policy Manager, anyone?)

Given that the anti-smoking zealots have banned tobacco in every public building you’d think they’d be satisfied. No. In the ‘Hot Topics’ forum, SmokeFree NW turns its attention to art and culture:

We all know that advertising tobacco on TV and in film is illegal and no longer happens, correct? In fact although paid on-screen tobacco advertising is against the law, if you watch your favourite movies and TV programmes again carefully, you might be surprised just how many feature smoking and tobacco brands.

Smokefree Movies has emerged as one of the new themes in the field of tobacco control to have emerged since legislation was introduced to restrict smoking in public places and the workplace. There exists a body of evidence which supports what we had believed for some time; smoking in movies has a significant impact on young people starting to smoke.

The website says its aim is to ‘remove smoking from youth-related films’. But why stop there? Surely adults are at risk too? And why just movies? There must be thousands of books featuring characters that smoke. And characters who drink, and do other antisocial things. I see a ‘Literature Compliance Officer’ advertised at 35K in the pages of the Society Guardian.

Another hot topic is mental health, and this is why it’s necessary to be harsh with our puritan friends. From July this year residential mental health services fall under the blanket ban. This means that, while convicted killers can smoke in their prison cells, mental health patients cannot. From the website:

People with mental health conditions be hard to reach and engage with. Other people’s perceptions of people with mental health conditions and their desire to stop smoking can also be a challenge. As part of one innovative programme to support the introduction of the new legislation, mental health service staff were questioned about service users and smoking. Feedback included: ‘They can’t quit’, ‘It’s their only pleasure’, and ‘It’ll all kick off’.

Well, it looks like the anti-smoking movement didn’t engage with feedback from these medical professionals. There’s no mention of engagement with service users. Too ‘hard to reach’? Or did SmokeFree England just think ‘fuck it, they’re only crazy people’?

A good friend of mine was sectioned last year. She was incarcerated for three months, she was extremely emotionally distressed and vulnerable and it incensed her that she wasn’t allowed out to buy tobacco and could only smoke in a little walled enclosure that was, naturally, rammed. A commenter on the weblog of Kerry McCarthy MP (who, to be fair, is a good blogger and does respond to criticism) had this to say:

I have suffered mild depression most of my life and my cigarettes are my ‘sanity sticks’ – without them I suspect that control of my depression would have been reliant on drugs.

Once the vote was in for the total ban it caused me so much distress that I suffered the worse bout of depression ever, was off work, was agrophobic, caused my husband a great deal of stress and worry, attempted to take my own life on a couple of occasions and started to have regular panic attacks. All that before the ban had even started!

I am now back at work, on reduced hours – this is 2 years later. I am still on medication and was lucky enough to attend a CBT course at the end of last year/beginning of this. In order to attend, however, I had to reduce my working hours further which cost me money I could not really afford!

And then there’s this from Nick Cohen:

Last week, a young NHS psychiatrist, who blogs under the pseudonym Shiny Happy Person, described how she ‘was just taking five minutes out, enjoying the sunshine in the surprisingly pleasant grounds of my new hospital, when the flowerbed spoke to me’.

She went on to reassure her readers: ‘No, I’m not neuroleptic-deficient. Other people heard it too. One moment, all was quiet and the next a disembodied voice was bellowing from somewhere in the vicinity of the begonias. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t actually addressing me and I know this because it said, ‘This is a no-smoking area. Please put your cigarette out. A member of staff has been informed.’ I gave up smoking six weeks ago. But, really, how Orwellian is that?

‘The smokers looked understandably alarmed, glanced furtively around and then scarpered. I can’t help questioning the wisdom of installing a talking flowerbed to tell people off in the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, of all places.’

I’m coming to the conclusion that the anti-smoking movement is not full of well-meaning people who are concerned about public health. It’s full of bullies and scumbags and should be addressed as such.


(Thanks to Swings and Roundabouts for the image)

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Sex Workers: Practical Help, not Puritanism

November 16, 2008 at 5:20 pm (drugs, Feminism, labour party, media, mental health, politics, poverty, puritan, sex workers, Uncategorized, voltairespriest)

Sex Work is Work!I was going to write about the proposed ban on happy hour, another part of the current government’s reactionary and moralistic social agenda, but then this issue came up instead. So the defence of the £3 six pack of Carling will have to wait for another day, though suffice it to say that I think Roosevelt hit the nail on the head when it comes to drinking in times of economic downturn. Anyway, let us turn to a more important subject than drinking, and a more vulnerable group than alleyway pissers and alcopop-swilling morons.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, seems to have come over all full of moral fire and purity with her latest set of proposals to criminalise the buying of sex from a woman (or man, presumably) “controlled for another person’s gain”. That definition would apply to 95%+ of street sex workers, whether the person doing the controlling is a dealer, a pimp or even a partner with a drug habit that the woman concerned is working to fund. All very noble, one might think: after all it is the punters being criminalised and who could possibly want to come to the defence of greasy kerb crawlers? There have been various voices supporting the measure, of varying quality – witness Mary Warnock’s ghastly, moralistic article in today’s Observer, which could have come from Richard Littlejohn if it one were merely to substitute the word “immigration” in place of “sex trade”. On another level, Cat at Stroppyblog puts a more radical case for supporting the measure which, whilst still not correct in my view, is at least worthy of debate.

To me, most obvious issue with this measure is that it will have precisely the opposite effect to the one which is supposedly intended. The very nature of the current sex trade is that it exists in the shadows, away from the public sphere and the checks and balances of everyday life. That’s fine if you’re the punter, who in most cases has a warm home, partner/wife and family to return to after taking your walk on the wild side and parting with fifty quid. It’s not so good if you’re the sex worker, trying to remain alive whilst dodging law enforcement, criminal predators and often carrying psychiatric issues, a drug habit or both. It also makes life more difficult if you’re a worker from one of the various organisations which try to put support services in place for sex workers and their attendant issues. To put it bluntly, you cannot help people that you cannot see, and the criminality of sex work leaves it in a netherworld which is very hard to reach into in order to provide support for those vulnerable individuals who work within the industry. No amount of bleating from the government about this law “targeting punters” will change the fact that its effect will be to drive vulnerable sex workers further into the impenetrable darkness that already surrounds their work. Drug habits and pimps don’t go away just because “men paying for sex” has been made into an illegal activity, but working environments for sex workers certainly do become even more dangerous as a consequence of the measure.

The reaction to Smith’s proposals also offers up a rather more general and damning indictment on various strands within liberal and radical feminism. Whether one agrees with Smith’s stance or not, I think it’s fairly obvious that it isn’t in and of itself “progressive” or “feminist”. It’s the sort of proposal which could just as easily have been put forward by a Conservative administration, and indeed would fit in rather well with the sort of government-as-moral-actor model favoured by religious conservatives within the US Republican Party. Seen in the wider context of this government’s clampdowns on internet freedom, banning of “anti-social” activities in public and assaults on civil liberties, it can be seen as part of a much wider and more authoritarian social agenda. It isn’t really about any kind of emancipatory politics at all, a fact that seems to be lost on certain feminist (and other centre-left) commentators.

Why is it that some feminists seem determined to back this, in spite of the voices of advocacy groups for sex workers clamouring against it and the vast amount of qualitative evidence which suggests it would not work? I think it actually comes down to strands within feminism (and I am not speaking about all feminists here by any stretch) which seem to think that members of oppressed groups who also happen to be women are essentially passive “victim figures” incapable of any emancipatory activity which is not prescribed by their more enlightened (usually white, often middle class) sisters in the media or academia. There is an inherent conservatism there which patronises and marginalises voices which do not fit the expected norm, and I think there is a little of that at work here.

What, then, actually would work? I think the problem is that the system’s failings in dealing with the issues presented by sex workers are multi-faceted and not easily reduced to either media-friendly soundbites or simplistic moral platitudes about “nasty men paying for sex”. It isn’t simply a matter of cutting off demand by criminalising punters (even if that weret the effect of the measure, which it won’t be). I think what is needed is to address the issues which drive women and men into street level sex work in the first place. One such measure should be a massive programme of public investment in effective drug therapies. One of the most poisonous shifts of Whitehall goalposts within the past decade was the abandonment of “drug free” as the objective by which standards of drug services were judged. This was replaced by “in active treatment”, meaning that someone parked on Methadone treatment for fifteen years is seen as a “positive outcome” when reports are given to the press. The knock-on effect of this has been a rise in the street-level availability of methadone for illegal purchase. The fact is that class A drug addiction is a major root of street sex work, and that effective therapy and novel treatments (ranging  from residential rehab to “chemical washes” with modern opioid receptor antagonists such as Naltrexone) <i>can</i> produce drug free outcomes. Freedom from a drug habit makes gaining freedom from sex work much easier.

Another area where sex workers are made vulnerable is by their immigration status if they are trafficked into the UK. It is nothing short of criminal that women should be scared to access services for fear of deportation. Give them all unlimited leave to remain, full recourse to public funds and a work permit. Once more the gaps through which helping hands can reach, will open up.

And of course, there’s the biggie. Legalise sex work and grant sex workers the full right to unionise in the workplace. Making the sex trade publicly visible means that the oppression which it brings into the lives of sex workers can be tackled head on. Unionisation gives those workers the right to forge their own emancipation within the protections offered by the law and the labour movement. I fail to see why we would deny rights to sex workers which we ourselves would demand as of right. The right to work safely and without fear of attack or criminalisation is one which I am prepared to fight for in my own workplace, and I think therefore that sex workers should be able to do the same.

Will any of those things happen? They’re certainly recognisably more radical than Smith’s proposals, and in my view (and others’) would be more effective. However none of them chime in with the current government’s authoritarian agenda. Furthermore, all of them would be politically unpopular with a populace under the thrall of memes about “dirty junkies” and “whores” taking money from the state. Therefore the government will probably stick with what it is currently doing. I for one though see nothing within that agenda that I could possibly support, and it amazes me to see some of my fellow “progressives” doing so.

For more information on the struggle to unionise sex workers, look at the International Union of Sex Workers website.

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Not in My Name: A Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy

October 12, 2008 at 3:11 pm (anti-fascism, anti-semitism, environment, fascism, Feminism, Human rights, Iran, iraq, iraq war, Islam, islamism, israel, left, LGBT, Max Dunbar, modernism, palestine, politics, puritan, Racism, religion, secularism, SWP)

The hypocrisy of the enlightened, of the hip, of those who – externally at least – hold admirable, humanitarian values, but behind closed doors, when push comes to shove, prove to be far darker beings. Nick Cohen examined the increasing darkness among this number in his brilliant book What’s Left? Having written for the Guardian and the Big Issue respectively, we too have come to realise that it often those who shout loudest about what lovely people they are who have the worst secrets.

Cohen’s book was about the political left but also about human nature: ‘children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good.’ Hypocrisy is part of being human. We all indulge in it to some extent. But it’s instructive to focus on those who preach moral purity while snapping their moral compass in half.

There’s the hypocrisy of the liberal-creative male who professes sensitivity and intellectualism, but who is predatory and misogynist in his attitudes to women. The hypocrisy of the gap-year traveller who comes back from the Chinese dictatorship raving about the spirituality of the natives and like human rights is just a Western idea, you know? These are two types you will encounter often, particularly in your student years and your twenties.

In retrospect, the recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism was a godsend to these men. No more paying lip service to liberal ideals to get laid. No more pretence. Here was a chance to support racist, gynophobic, anti-gay fanatical maniacs, to cheer on murder and oppression, to feel the vicarious thrill of ‘contextualising’ woman-hatred and genocide and the rhetoric of the apocalypse, and still keep your moral superiority. What amazing luck! What delicious liberation! We are all Hezbollah now!

Yes, there has always been a creepy servility to power inside the hearts of darkness of the status-quo left. Take the Middle East. A huge amount of intellectual energy goes into the defence of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, whose regime executes trade unionists and for whom holocaust denial is official policy. I’ll never understand why so much time and effort goes into playing this lunatic down. Oh, when he says Israel ‘must be wiped from the page of time’ he’s talking about the occupation, or he’s criticising Israel’s tax system. Or something. Never mind that stuff about ‘filthy Zionist microbes’. It’s a mistranslation. And the nukes? Nothing to see there. All that plutonium is just to power the Revolutionary Guards’ digital TVs. Not that we’re in favour of civil nuclear programmes. Erm…

On the other side of the coin, we have the most liberal, tolerant and multicultural society in the Middle East – the state of Israel. Its paramedics risk their lives to treat Palestinian children; it welcomes immigrants from Yemen to Latin America; its Supreme Court gives relentless scrutiny to decisions made by the government and action taken by the military. Yet this Amsterdam-style paradise is a pariah state on the pseudo-left map. It is compared routinely to apartheid South Africa and its soldiers to jackbooted Nazis. Its enemies are deified, its journalists are subject to discriminatory boycotts and its very right to exist is challenged daily.

These are issues which are debated constantly in the blogosphere but in their book Not in My Name: A Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy, Julie Burchill and Chas Newkey-Burden bring a fresh perspective to the contortions of contemporary thought. Rational politics only explains so much and the arguments of the age have been crying out for Burchill’s more visceral analysis. She has the talent to reduce an apparently intellectual stance down to its base drives. Is it really beyond belief that the inadequate, frustrated, callow misogynists of the Western intelligensia looked upon the sexual apartheids of the Muslim world and thought: ‘At last! A society where the bitches know their place!’

It isn’t all good – articles such as ‘Fat Girl Feminists’ are very time-specific and are only going to chime with people who follow fashion as obsessively as Julie Burchill. The authors also misunderstand the old saw that hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue: it means that hypocrisy is an admission that we would like to be moral but can’t; it’s the Libertine’s Prayer: ‘Lord, make me chaste… but not yet.’

Yet the book is worth reading for its political essays. You may not agree with Newkey-Burden’s take on the Grand March: that ‘millions of people took advantage of Britain’s freedom and democracy, marching through the streets to ask that the government deprive Iraqi people of those very values’. Loads of people marched because they were afraid civilians would die. The doctrinaire pacifist may be a moron but is not a hypocrite. However, as Newkey-Burden says:

I’ve never met a single pro-war person who failed to accept the consequences of their argument. Similarly, I’ve never met a single antiwar person who did accept the consequences of theirs.

Here are some examples of modern hypocrisy that the authors somehow left out.

1) Prolier than thou anti-smoking activists who claimed that the smoking ban was necessary to protect bar staff, when available evidence suggested that smokers were overwhelmingly represented among bar staff, that they were more concerned about pay and union recognition and that bar staff did not want this ‘protection’, such as it was

2) Northern sentimentalist comedians like Peter/Vernon Kay/Jason Manford who get rich with tired and cliched routines about wedding discos and Bolton families that bear no relation to the reality of what growing up in the North is like; and then fuck off to London and a C4 panel show as soon as the opportunity presents itself

3) Celebrity-haters – people with mortgages and dull nine-to-five jobs who moan about the excesses of hedonistic celebrities. These people are like prisoners on life sentence complaining about the immorality of those who escape from jail. Give them a million pounds and a record deal and they’d be falling out of a limo in Camden too.

Feel free to add more in the comments.

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Judge not a man by his words, but by his actions

March 26, 2007 at 10:44 pm (puritan, tesco, voltairespriest, whiskey, whisky, wild man)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketYeah, you’ve all heard about Jim Denham. The hard drinking ladies’ man, the revolutionary, the man who would roar his defiance at a battalion of Chetniks charging at him with bayonets fastened.

But present him with an old lady and a petition trying to ban Tesco’s from selling booze, and he melts like a spun sugar sculpture in an oven. You may recall that Jim rather shame-facedly mentioned his capitulation before said old lady when she presented him with a Tory-inspired petition to stop (horror of horrors) his putative local supermarket from selling intoxicating beverages. “Of course it won’t mean anything, Volty”, he assured me.

And yet, today we learned that he and his band of Tory/Temperance brothers have won, and the sacred dryness of his local area will be maintained. Nice one, Jim!

Ah well, I guess he has to suffer the consequences of his actions – it’s like a half hour walk to his local offie.

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