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Podium chicks

Jan Bakelants, a male Belgian racing cyclist, has today had to apologise publicly for a comment about having to carry a ‘pack of condoms, because you never know where those podium chicks have been hanging out’. But who are these ‘podium chicks’?

Why should winners in male-only sports such as cycling and motor racing be expected to be surrounded by half-naked young women who have the effrontery to kiss them – even if they’re married, or in a steady relationship with a woman or a man, or anyway?

Because they’re presumed to be heterosexual, and are assumed by definition to be pleased to be seen in public with half-naked women groping their bodies. No-one asks them if that’s what they want – it’s probably just written into their employment contracts.

And why do these women lend themselves to such degrading performances? I could use various equally degrading terms to explain why, but I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

I’m just embarrassed that Jan Bakelants has been forced by the social media to tweet ‘My sincerest apologies to all those offended by my words in a so-called humoristic itw (sic). My words have been inappropriate.’

Quite the contrary – his words were entirely appropriate. He’s married, with a child; and even if he weren’t, he has no reason whatever to be embarrassed by his statement, which is very much to the point. The ‘podium chicks’ should simply keep their grubby hands off him.

Still waiting for the first openly gay Formula 1 racer (all of them so far men) to slap the grubby hands away – but I fear it won’t be happening any time soon, since he’d instantly lose his job.

Bay of discord (2)

In my first post on this topic I described the complicated historical, geographical and political background to the still unresolved border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia, which centres on the Bay of Piran (named after the small Slovenian town where I now spend more than a quarter of each year); there are other disputes over the long land border between the two countries, but they are far less contentious.

I say ‘still unresolved’, for today’s supposedly final decision on the matter by a court of arbitration in The Hague seems frankly calculated to inflame things still further. The main issues are (1) where the sea border should run in the Bay of Piran, whose southern-western shore is in Croatia and whose north-eastern shore is in Slovenia (no-one apart from a few hotheads on either side have laid any claim to the shores themselves, for these are quite clearly inhabited by Croatian- and Slovenian-speakers respectively – but the waters in between them are another matter); and (2) whether, and if so how, Slovenia can obtain unrestricted access to international waters, since it has a coastline with a deep-water port through which a great deal of economically important traffic passes (currently the country is cut off from the high seas by the territorial waters of Croatia and Italy, which meet at the entrance to the bay – the nearest international waters are some 50 km further south, and neither of Slovenia’s neighbours has so far been willing to grant it even a narrow corridor that would allow its shipping to pass unhindered).

The second issue (the corridor to the high seas) should not in fact be a serious problem, since under international maritime law ‘geographically disadvantaged’ countries – which clearly include Slovenia – are entitled to at least minimum access; so it is perverse of Croatia and Italy to persist in refusing it, especially as the small area of sea involved is of little importance to either of them, but of vital importance to Slovenia. It is not as if there are oil or gas reserves to be found there – the Croats and Italians are simply being obstructive, in the hope of wringing other concessions out of their smaller neighbour.

As if to prove this, the Croatian government has – according to today’s BBC online news site – described Slovenia’s efforts to gain access to international waters as an ‘entirely spurious resource grab under the guise of a maritime access corridor’. This is such a blatant distortion of the historical and geographical facts – there are no resources to speak of, apart from some fish and a lot of salt water, whereas Slovenia quite manifestly lacks the access to international waters that its neighbours enjoy, besides which we’re talking about a very small section of water (the proposed corridor is no more than a few kilometres wide) – that it’s hard to take Croatia’s position on any of this at all seriously. Croatia already has a very long section of Adriatic coast, and should surely be happy enough with that.

On paper, the first issue (the Bay of Piran border) should not be a serious problem either. Since the two shores quite clearly belong to Croatia and Slovenia respectively, it should be possible to draw a straight line up the middle of the bay, equidistant from them and eventually intersecting with the new Slovenian corridor out at sea. The Croatian shore has the advantage of being almost completely straight; the Slovenian one is far less so, but geographers could surely work out a median line for it and divide the bay into two accordingly (perhaps with an angle halfway along to preserve equidistance). There are no islands or other anomalies to complicate matters (there may of course be shallows or shoals that would make navigation difficult in places, but I’ve never heard anyone mention them in the course of the debate; and account could surely also have been taken of these). This would have been a common-sense solution that neither side could reasonably object to. At the widest and outermost point of the bay (from Piran in Slovenia to Savudrija in Croatia) each country would have a 2.5-km strip of territorial water – not much, but fair shares for all.

Instead, the court of arbitration has decided in its wisdom that the border should be a straight line that extends more or less directly from the almost equally straight land border. Unfortunately, even at the widest point of the bay this line runs barely 500 metres from the Croatian coast, and at most points far less than that. Strong swimmers or windsurfers could all too easily find themselves in foreign waters. Not that this should be a problem, since both countries are now members of the European Union; but when it comes to national borders the EU is anything but the unified state it might like to be.

Slovenia has thus effectively been awarded over 80% of the waters in the Bay of Piran, and Croatia can no longer make full use of its own coast – a manifestly unfair decision, and one which the Croatian government has already announced it has no intention of implementing. Although I have a soft spot for Slovenia, have generally considered Croatia’s approach to the dispute petty-mindedly nationalistic and would have expected Croatia to protest against any decision, however fair, here I can only say I agree with the Croats.

It would be magnanimous of the Slovenes to offer the Croats something in exchange – for instance, by proposing a new sea border that is far more favourable to their neighbours (with whom they must continue to live on good terms – for one thing, a good deal of their trade is with Croatia). But I fear Slovenia may instead take a triumphalist attitude and say ‘the international court has decided, and we must all respect its decision’. Indeed, the Slovenian government has already called on the EU to intervene by compelling its member state Croatia to back down.

Only too aware of how touchy the whole issue is, Brussels has steered well clear of it, leaving the court in The Hague (which is not an EU institution) to sort things out; the EU’s stated official policy is that it prefers member states to settle such matters ‘amicably’ (i.e. don’t drag us into your hornet’s nest). But the history of the dispute, which has been going on for a quarter of a century, clearly shows that an amicable settlement would be hard to reach – which is why the two countries agreed to international arbitration in the first place, saying they would abide by the results. A referendum in Slovenia on whether to accept arbitration at all produced only a paper-thin majority in favour; but it was a majority.

Then, just as progress was finally starting to be made, the Slovenes did something very stupid. The court of arbitration initially included a Croatian and a Slovenian member. Perhaps appointing interested parties as co-arbitrators was a mistake, since arbitrators are supposed to be neutral; but that’s the way things were arranged. In 2015 it was alleged, and eventually admitted, that the Slovenian member had tried to influence the other members in Slovenia’s favour – an obvious breach of the arbitration agreement. This gave Croatia an unhoped-for opportunity to pose as the aggrieved party and withdraw from the arbitration process, claiming it could no longer be considered impartial.

In 2016 the court declared that, even though Slovenia had broken the rules, arbitration would continue – a decision that further undermined the court’s authority and credibility. It appointed members from other countries in place of the Croatian and Slovenian representatives; but the Croats now had a powerful advantage that had little to do with the facts of the case, suggesting they were simply taking advantage of a political windfall (for they feared they would in any case have to give up territory, if only out at sea).

When asked some weeks ago how Croatia would respond to the court’s decision, which was to be handed down today, the country’s president replied that it would neither accept nor reject it – since as far as Croatia was concerned the court did not exist. Much though this may sound like a Trump-like denial of reality, Slovenia – or at least its diplomatic representative – surely created the conditions that allowed Croatia to make such a claim seem well-founded.

Today, although the Croatian government has not said in so many words that it rejects the court’s decision, it has effectively done so by saying it will not implement it. A whole lot of inflammatory things are now being said on both sides of the border for domestic consumption; and the two parties seem further apart than ever.

It must be all the more galling to Croatia that Slovenia has done so well out of the arbitration process even after violating the terms of the agreement.

Hardly the world’s most successful example of international mediation. It remains to be seen where things go from here, but the road seems likely to be bumpy. A further embarrassment for the EU, now that Slovenia has publicly urged it to intervene – precisely what Brussels was hoping to avoid. And it would have done the Slovenian government credit to express surprise at the decision and acknowledge its unfairness to Croatia, rather than simply crow victory.

Perhaps the EU will have to set up its own court of arbitration – and insist beforehand that both sides keep strictly to the rules, on pain of having all their territorial claims instantly rejected, and (as an added punishment) European regional development funding withheld for the next five years. But let’s hope an EU court would reach a more sensible decision than the one handed down today in The Hague.

 

Cashless society?

In my youth, ‘plastic money’ was something largely restricted to American films (and American society generally). Here in Europe we paid cash; but although many people in the USA still did too, they were increasingly inclined – and above all expected – to use credit cards. Since the whole idea behind credit cards was to encourage people to consume more by spending money they didn’t actually have, and cough up even more money to the banks to finance their accumulating debt, we Europeans tended to shun them. We didn’t want to get into debt. In America, on the other hand, the credit-card culture eventually meant that never getting into debt worked to your disadvantage, for it meant you could never build up a ‘credit history’ that lenders could use to decide if you were entitled to, say, a mortgage. In other words, people who kept their finances completely in order by avoiding debt and only consuming what they could afford were treated as financially unreliable. Surely the height of capitalist absurdity.

But soon after I moved to Switzerland in the mid-1970s the first bancomat machines (now known in English as ATMs, cash dispensers or ‘holes in the wall’) were introduced there. Until then I had gone to the nearest branch of my bank if I had to top up the cash I needed for my everyday purchases, including restaurant bills, and so I was tied to the bank’s opening hours (luckily the UN organisation I worked for had its own branch on the premises, so I could pick up cash during my coffee break). But henceforth I could go to a bancomat at any time of the day or night; and since then that’s what I’ve done, for the machines have been introduced throughout Europe, while banks now have very few branch offices left.

But the bancomat cards were debit cards – in other words, you could only pick up money that you actually had in your account, so there was no risk of getting into debt. You could even use the machine to check what your bank balance was, and decide how much you could still afford to spend that day.

It took quite a few years for supermarkets and other businesses to introduce a system of instant ‘plastic’ payment; and when I moved to Holland in the early 1980s it scarcely existed. You picked up your cash from a ‘hole in the wall’ and used it to pay for your purchases. But, as time went on, more and more places allowed you to pay electronically, using a four-figure personal identification number (PIN) to prevent misuse. So far so good.

However, there was already growing pressure from the banks and the business sector to encourage more and more people to consume beyond their means, and get into debt, which they then had to pay back at great expense; and the ‘ease’, speed and relative invisibility of plastic payment helped conceal from people how much they were actually spending. The shock came later when they found themselves deeply in the red, and unable to pay the rent or feed their kids properly. Meanwhile the use of credit cards had spread to Europe from America, encouraging even more financial risk and irresponsibility; credit cards could now be used in the same machines as debit cards, and not everyone seemed to realise the fundamental difference between spending money you had and money you didn’t have. The banks certainly weren’t about to remind you.

Not all their attempts to eliminate the use of cash were equally successful. One was the ‘electronic purse’, which was introduced in Holland in the mid-1990s under the name chipknip (‘chip purse’). The idea was that you would no longer pick up cash from the ‘hole in the wall’, but recharge yet another plastic card and use that to pay for your purchases. This had several disadvantages, which people were very soon wise to. Not all businesses allowed chipknip payments, so if you were going to recharge your card at an ATM anyway you might just as well get cash, which was accepted everywhere. And Dutch cities that made certain payments (such as parking fees) dependent on the chipknip quickly discovered that this presented an insurmountable problem for people from outside the city, or even outside the country.

A classic example was the imposition in the city where I live of chipknip parking fees – just months after the euro was introduced in 2002. German visitors, who often came from over the border to shop, now had the advantage of having the same currency as in Holland – but couldn’t use it to park their cars, for only chipknip payments were allowed. Not having Dutch bank accounts, they were unable to obtain the necessary cards; so they shopped in Germany instead, and turnover in local shops plummeted. The whole misconceived scheme finally collapsed about ten years later, and Dutch banks were forced to refund their customers any money remaining on the now useless cards.

But they keep on trying. One of the latest assaults on the use of cash is the elimination of all but a couple of supermarket cash checkouts – at the other half-dozen you have to use plastic. Since cash is ‘legal tender’ and businesses cannot actually refuse to accept it, they keep a minimum number of cash checkouts open. And guess what has happened: I now regularly see a dozen people standing in line at each of the remaining cash checkouts, while several plastic-only ones only a metre away remain unused and the cashiers there can be seen twiddling their thumbs. The supposed inconvenience and delay seems not to discourage people from waiting to pay cash, especially for small transactions – even though signs at the checkouts say you can use plastic for any amount. Deep down, people want to use cash – it’s part of their perception of how society should be. And it isn’t just old people who stand in line at the cash checkouts, but 80-90% of all customers. In Germany there’s even a national movement to promote and preserve the use of cash.

Another recent piece of nonsense is ‘contactless’ payment, whereby you can use your card to pay for things without a PIN number – so no security. Of course that means the card can be misused if it’s stolen – but ‘only’ for €25 per transaction, and just think of the ‘convenience’ of being able to pay in two seconds rather than ten…. Meanwhile, I’ve had the contactless function removed from my debit card.

So the banks and supermarkets have come up with another trick: self-scanning. You pick up a portable scanner as you enter the shop, scan everything you put in your trolley, and then pay for it all electronically at yet another machine, without ever coming into contact with a human being. Young people certainly do use this system; but many still seem to prefer exchanging even a few words with a flesh-and-blood cashier, and handling paper or metal cash to pay for their goods. And if you make a mistake with the scanner or the rest of the machinery, you may well find yourself humiliated by a loud computerised voice telling you and everyone else around you that you’re effectively a shoplifter. Not quite the same thing as going round to the ruddy-cheeked local butcher who gave your kid a free slice of salami or liver sausage and asked if your mother was recovering well from her broken leg.

What we basically want most is human contact – and that includes tangible cash, handled by real people. How much our cash can matter to us became apparent in 2005 when the Swiss National Bank held a competition for a new series of banknotes. In the old days banknotes survived in the same form for decades on end; and when I moved to Geneva in 1975 I was amazed at the old-fashioned, colourless appearance of Swiss money, which looked as if it had been designed well before the Second World War. Even today later Swiss coins look the same as they did then; but while I was living there a new series of brightly coloured banknotes was introduced. Since then the ‘shelf life’ of banknotes has decreased, owing to the risk of forgery; and by 2005 yet another new series was clearly needed.

After short-listing half a dozen graphic artists, the Swiss National Bank chose a daring series of designs by Manuel Krebs. Unfortunately he had focused on explicit anatomical depictions of blood vessels, lungs, an embryo, and even a skull as the watermark on the 1,000-franc note. Perhaps the bank felt this was trendily modern; but the Swiss public strongly disagreed, and so great was the protest that the winning entry was eventually rejected in favour of the runner-up, the work of fellow designer Manuela Pfrunder. All very embarrassing, especially for Krebs; and even Pfrunder’s designs were heavily revised and then held up by technological snags. But last year the new 20- and 50-franc notes finally came into circulation, and the rest will follow between now and 2019.

I’ve seen the Krebs designs, and can frankly understand why they were rejected. You don’t want to be confronted with pieces of Damien Hirst-style experimental art every time you go to the shops; and banknotes remain symbols of the nation’s everyday life, and will continue to be used, whatever banks and businesses may hope.

In the end, cash matters.

Suppress the press

When the Falklands War was fought between Britain and Argentina 35 years ago, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was heavily criticised for its serious – many would say unacceptable – restrictions on coverage of the fighting by what are now known as ‘the media’.

Opinion in the UK was deeply divided as to whether the war should have been fought at all. The status of the Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as las Islas Malvinas) was, and is, disputed. Not that Argentina has any more historical claim to the islands than Britain. It seems they were uninhabited when Europeans arrived there in the mid-18th century: first the French, then a year later the British (who were apparently unaware of the small French settlement on a different island), and five years after that the Spaniards, who at the time still ruled most of South America (the nearest major land mass, nearly 500 km away), and believed they therefore had a ‘natural’ right to the islands. But as the American Revolution loomed in the mid-1770s, Britain decided to withdraw its forces from several overseas territories, and by 1780 Spain had resumed control.

But Spain, weakened in the early 19th century by the Peninsular War, soon found its own  New World colonies rising in revolt, and in 1816 Argentina declared its independence (eight more Spanish colonies did so around the same time, and more were to follow, reducing Spain almost overnight to a minor power). Both Britain and Spain had left plaques on the islands officially proclaiming their respective sovereignties, but for nearly two decades it was not clear who was really in charge of them. Then in 1833 the British reimposed their rule by force of arms; and that is how things remained for the next 150 years.

In those days the British Empire still occupied a quarter of the surface of the globe, and there was nothing remarkable about Britain having such remote possessions (over 12,000 km away – the circumference of the world is 40,000 km). But by 1982 most of the former empire had been granted independence, and the Falklands were an anomaly. With a surface area of 12,000 kmthey were by far the largest of the UK’s few remaining overseas territories, but their population – just 3,000 – made them one of the very smallest.

Over the years the Argentinians had made diplomatic noises about Britain ‘illegally occupying’ land that was ‘rightfully’ theirs; but they had never physically asserted that claim, except in a few unofficial stunts such as the hijacking of an Argentinian airliner that was forced to land on the islands. The United Nations Decolonisation Committee had put the Falklands on its list of (currently 17) ‘non-self-governing countries’ back in the 1960s, and in vain urged Britain to grant them independence; however, this did not make Argentina any more entitled to occupy them, as they would then have simply become a colony of another country. What was more, the local population spoke English and considered themselves British; and they still do. In a referendum held in 2013, with a whopping 92% turnout, precisely three people voted against the islands remaining British (you wonder how they dared); and whatever Argentina might like to think, this was surely not the result of coercion or intimidation. Nor is Argentina’s claim to the Falklands under ‘natural law’ justified by history, since Spain had only occupied them for 25 years when Argentina became independent, and Britain had occupied them (if only briefly) before that.

On the self-determination principle, the Falklands should surely remain British, since that is quite clearly what everyone there wants. If anything, they are ‘more British than the British’.

In 1982, however, General Galtieri’s vicious Argentinian regime was starting to totter; and a war to ‘reconquer’ the ‘Malvinas’ seemed to him a good way to unite his people in a wave of jingoism that would distract attention from economic and human rights problems at home. Faulty UK intelligence allowed Argentinian forces to occupy the islands unopposed, presenting the Thatcher government with a no less welcome opportunity to distract attention from economic problems at home by uniting people in a wave of jingoism. Without even attempting to tackle the problem by non-violent means, she mustered a naval ‘task force’ that would sail the full length of the Atlantic to deliver troops who would rescue the islanders from the unwanted invaders.

The ploy worked in both countries – but more so in Britain, since the Thatcher government had been duly elected and enjoyed genuine popular support in many quarters, whereas the Galtieri government was an increasingly hated dictatorship. British opposition to the war, on the other hand, was based on a number of considerations: however justified, the war was an embarrassing echo of 19th-century British ‘gunboat diplomacy’ that no longer had any place in the modern world; it seemed a vast waste of resources to spend nearly £3 billion, with the loss of 255 British and at least 650 Argentinian lives, 6 British warships and 35 British aircraft, just to protect ‘3,000 people and half a million sheep’; these remote islands would remain permanently vulnerable to attack, and in need of costly defence; resettling the Falklanders, even at great expense, would be far less costly and would eliminate an abiding political problem once and for all; and the presence of a British colony at the other end of the world in waters claimed by Argentina made little sense in a now largely decolonialised world, and merely enhanced Britain’s negative image abroad as a country that had never got over the loss of its empire and was trying to fight the battles of the past as though it were still a major power. In this case Britain could not even pose as a valiant David against a mighty Goliath, as it could in the Second World War – for, although Argentina’s armed forces were able to use state-of-the-art armaments (some of which had recently been sold to them by Thatcher’s own commercially minded government), they were clearly no match for the British. It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – though in the upshot it took Britain two months to put an end to the occupation of the Falklands.

The UK press split along fairly predictable right- and left-wing lines. The jingoistic Sun and Daily Express firmly supported ‘our boys’, crudely mocking anyone who for any reason opposed the war, depicting Argentina and its people as comical and cowardly, with epithets to match (‘Johnny Gaucho’, ‘the Argies’, ‘don’t cry for me, Argentina, we’re going to nuke you’ and more of the same), and called on ‘true Brits’ to boycott Argentinian products such as tinned corned beef and buy Uruguayan Fray Bentos instead (even though the factory there had been closed down three years earlier, and most South American countries supported Argentina anyway). When Ireland proposed diplomatic mediation, the Sun instantly called for a boycott of Irish butter in British supermarkets and urged its readers not to holiday that summer in Ireland (‘our new enemy’).

The Guardian and the Daily Mirror took a less one-sided view; and, faithful to its long-standing principles of even-handedness, so did the BBC. The broadcaster spoke in its reports of ‘the British’ and ‘the Argentinians’ (rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’, still less ‘the enemy’), quoted Argentinian sources, and described the mood of people in Buenos Aires as well as London. This earned it the open scorn and disapproval of not only the jingoistic right-wing press but also the Thatcher government, which condemned it – along with then highly pacifist Labour Party – as unpatriotic simply for opposing the war.

This pattern of identifying support for a particular party’s policies or leaders with support for the nation, and treating opposition to them as tantamount to treason, is now starting to become familiar – Trump, Putin and Erdoğan immediately spring to mind, along with George W. Bush’s notorious statement ‘if you aren’t for us, you’re against us’. But back in 1982 it was new; and the whole phenomenon gave rise to much critical commentary, including Robert Harris’s small but excellent book Gotcha! The title reproduced one of the Sun‘s uglier headlines at the height of the war, and it described how the Thatcher government and the UK military had done their level best to stifle the free press that the right-wing has always claimed to support as a pillar of capitalist democracy (I make no apologies for the contradiction in terms). In fact, as we should all know from experience, it is right-wing governments that are instinctively hostile to a free press; and the Falklands War made that only too clear. There was even talk of introducing legislation to make the BBC more ‘obedient’ to the government of the day – at least if it was Conservative.

Gotcha! quoted a journalist who made the key distinction between the role of the media when a country is engaged in ‘total war’ with an enemy that is bent on destroying the national system of government and reducing its people to subservience, and its role when that is not the case. The Falklands War, he said, was quite clearly not ‘total war’, for the British homeland was never at risk – nor was Britain out to conquer Argentina or oppress its people. Since Britain would one day be negotiating with the Argentinians, said the journalist, we needed to understand them; and only free and fair reporting could help us do so. I had never seen this distinction made before; but it made perfect sense to me, and still does.

Which is why a report this weekend about a Conservative politician who was interviewed on the BBC strikes me as alarming. Her name is Andrea Leadsom; and it should not be forgotten in what follows that she came close to winning the Conservative party leadership after David Cameron’s resignation last year, and so might now be running the British government. We should all be relieved that she withdrew at the last moment, fearing she lacked the necessary backing – even if that left the door open for Theresa May.

Leadsom has a number of very nasty ideas which she has not hesitated to proclaim. Bear in mind that she boasts of being a committed Christian, and of being guided by her faith in everything she does.

First, she thinks men should never be employed in child care, for they ‘might be paedophiles’, and ‘paedophiles seek work that brings them into contact with children’. While the latter is undoubtedly true, the idea that only men are paedophiles, and the implication that all men are potential paedophiles, is damagingly ignorant and absurd. For that matter, I’d sooner the likes of Andrea Leadsom were kept well clear of children.

But she has children of her own; and, despite vigorous claims that she’d been misquoted in a newspaper interview during the Conservative leadership race (which were subsequently refuted by tape recordings), she made this a key argument in her campaign. Theresa May and her husband have no children – something Leadsom was sure must make her opponent feel ‘very, very sad’ (although in the same breath she said she didn’t know her at all well). Whatever May’s reasons for being childless, Leadsom had the gall to claim that the mere fact of being ‘a mum’ automatically meant she was more suited to be the party leader, and hence the prime minister, for it gave her a ‘greater stake in the future’. She went on to say she had children ‘who would also have children’. Is she sure they will, or is she just taking it for granted – and in any case who cares? Yet she accused the Times of ‘disgusting gutter journalism’ for accurately quoting what she had said.

But now Brexit – and this brings us back to the Falklands War, and Thatcher’s treatment of the media back in 1982. Unlike May, Leadsom – and here at least she scores points for consistency – has always been pro-Brexit; and in the recent interview she said she wished broadcasters could be ‘a bit more patriotic’ in their reports on the topic. The interviewer had been asking her some awkward questions about where exactly the Conservative party stood in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, which have just got started; and Leadsom essentially replied that it was the media’s duty to toe the party line, rather than report freely and fairly. The British people had chosen to leave the EU, and the media should respect that by toning down any questions or criticism, in the interests of ‘patriotism’. Remember that only 52% voted for Brexit, whereas the other 48% were firmly opposed to it. But, in Leadsom’s mind, opposing her party’s policy pretty well makes you a traitor.

Trump, Putin, Erdoğan and now Leadsom. At least in Britain people have had a narrow escape – at least for now.

Battle of the sexes

A Jerusalem court has today ordered the Israeli airline El Al to stop asking women passengers to move to another seat if an Orthodox Jewish man sitting next to them requests (or rather demands) it.

It’s shocking that it’s taken until 2017 for a court to issue this order – and still more shocking that El Al has got away with this offensive policy for all this time.

Why would an Orthodox Jewish man want such a thing in the first place? It seems the answer is נגיעה (negiah), a principle of strict Jewish law that forbids people to touch anyone of the opposite sex who is not a member of their immediate family. Although not everyone observes the principle so strictly, there are men who object to even accidental touching – for instance, when sitting on a plane or bus. The underlying idea is that it might give them unacceptable sexual feelings – which, being men, they cannot be expected to control by themselves (poor things). And, although strict religious law says it is the shomer halacha (strict observer of the law) that should avoid the ‘risk’ of such accidental contact by moving elsewhere – or, if it’s such a big deal, waiting for a later plane or bus – El Al has evidently decided that it is the woman (who may or may not even be Jewish, let alone Orthodox) that should move. The implication is, as always, that she has caused the problem (by having a vagina) and hence should be expected to provide the solution.

I can’t help wondering if El Al’s strictures only apply in the case of Jewish men. If a Muslim Israeli (of whom there are many) were to insist on the same thing, on similar grounds, I suspect he would be told he should either move instead, or stop delaying everyone else’s departure by making such a fuss. I may of course be wrong about this – but in any case it makes no difference. The whole business is absurd in the first place.

El Al has apparently said it ‘never pressures’ passengers to change seats – but it has clearly asked them to do so often enough to have triggered an anti-discrimination movement which until today had failed to make much headway. The Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), which supported an 80-year-woman in her lawsuit against the airline for embarrassing her in front of everyone else by asking her to move, has applauded today’s ruling as a ‘huge victory’ in a ‘long-fought battle against gender segregation in the public sphere’.

Today’s BBC online news service simultaneously reported that a leading economist has been accused of sexism by saying he would personally prefer it if the supposedly ‘intelligent personal assistant’ Siri had a male rather than female voice, for he would find it easier to take the information (s)he provides seriously. He may well have been joking, and his audience burst out laughing, but a storm of protest has hit the cyberwaves.

There are those who would say the protest is justified because it is such comments as these that ultimately lead to outright sexual discrimination. But I see a difference between his comment about the virtual Siri and a real-life 80-year woman’s objection to being asked to change seats on an Israeli plane.

The economist was simply expressing a personal preference, without trying to impose it on anyone else – whereas El Al was actively humiliating one of its (female) passengers by indulging another (male) one’s religious whims. Sure, the two matters are not completely unrelated. But I think the economist was also pointing to an undoubted, though perhaps disagreeable, fact of life.

Here in Holland I’ve been struck by the fact that recorded safety warnings and the automated instructions you receive when you phone the tax authorities are almost always given in a stern, no-nonsense male voice – as if to say ‘you’d better listen to this very carefully’ – and that more run-of-the-mill information such as telephone numbers or the ‘speaking clock’ is provided in a mellifluous female voice. This happens so consistently that it is surely no accident. Someone has thought about it, and decided this is the most effective way to get the message across.

I strongly suspect it all goes back to the traditional family roles of fathers and mothers from the days when men went out to work (and only saw their children for a few hours each day), while women stayed at home (and had to deal with their children for hours on end, saying ‘mummy will make it all better’ if they hurt themselves while out playing). The largely absent fathers were then used by the ever-present mothers to threaten the kids with punishment if things got out of hand: ‘Daddy will be very cross when he gets home.’ The underlying implication was that ‘Daddy’ had been doing the ‘serious work’ of earning a living for the family, and that the last thing he wanted to hear on returning home in the evening after a presumably tiring day was that the children had misbehaved.

So, in many people’s subconsciouses, a female voice tends to sound soothing and accommodating, whereas a male one tends to sound angry and threatening – a contrast that surely also has a profound impact on sexual attraction (whatever your orientation). Communication and advertising experts are well aware of this, even though nowadays it doesn’t do to say so out loud. But when did you last hear a car or life insurance ad with a female voice-over?

 

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate

When I was a 4-year-old child living in Scotland, there was a major local outbreak of poliomyelitis, also known as ‘polio’ or ‘infantile paralysis’. Unlike most childhood diseases, polio could leave its victims permanently paralysed, and was one of the most dreaded ailments in the Western world at the time. So when the American doctor Jonas Salk developed the first effective polio vaccine in 1954 and it became available in Britain soon afterwards, my mother, a trained nurse who had seen her fair share of children with polio, had no hesitation in taking me to the nearest hospital to have the new treatment administered to her only son. Whether or not it in fact helped, I never contracted the disease, whereas thousands of children in my region of Scotland did; and I have believed in the benefits of vaccination ever since.

In the mid-1970s I went to work for the World Health Organization (WHO); and while I was there WHO was able to celebrate the worldwide eradication, through mass vaccination, of the often deadly and always severely disfiguring disease smallpox. I personally knew members of the team that had done so much to coordinate the vaccination campaign, tracking down the world’s very last patient (a Somali man, who survived) and making sure the disease could not spread any further. A glorious triumph of modern medicine.

Perhaps surprisingly, the history of vaccination goes back at least five centuries, to China. It occurred to someone (whose name will surely remain unknown) that rubbing pus from smallpox scabs into scratches in someone else’s skin could give the person a mild form of the disease that would not kill them or leave them permanently disfigured, but would protect them against infection for life. The procedure, later known in the West as ‘variolation’ after the Latin word for smallpox, variola, often worked; but it also had the disadvantage that people who had been successfully variolated became a source of infection to those around them, since they were now carriers of the disease.

However, despite this drawback, such were the dangers of contracting full-blown smallpox that the practice of variolation gradually spread west to Western Asia, North Africa and Turkey; and by the early 18th century it was increasingly common in Western Europe. But around the 1760s scientists began to notice a curious phenomenon among milkmaids, who were in daily physical contact with cows’ udders: even in the midst of a severe smallpox outbreak they never got the disease. In the course of their work they had all previously contracted a far milder condition called cowpox (one of the ‘zoonoses’ that can be transmitted from animals to humans), which simply caused scabs but had no other serious effects; and it was increasingly clear that this had protected them against the far more dangerous smallpox. What if people could be ‘variolated’ with pus from cowpox instead of smallpox scabs? They would then not be carriers of smallpox and hence a danger to other people, but – just like the milkmaids – would never contract the disease themselves, or spread it to anyone else.

In 1796 the British doctor Edward Jenner used cowpox pus to ‘vaccinate’ (a word derived from the Latin word for cow, vacca) a boy against smallpox, and tested the treatment by then exposing him to it. The boy remained healthy, and before long it was clear that vaccination could provide effective protection against all kinds of potentially deadly diseases, from rabies and measles to diphtheria and polio. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries it became the preventive treatment of choice for all these ailments. In the early 1980s I was bitten by an unknown dog in Geneva (where rabies was endemic among foxes in the local countryside); and I was given the ‘morning-after’ treatment (a series of six injections in the arm) that would prevent me from contracting a painful and usually fatal disease if the dog had happened to be infected with it. Whether or not the dog had had rabies, I never got it. Yet another reason to believe in the benefits of vaccination.

Unfortunately, there have been very occasional bad side effects of vaccination; and in recent years an urban myth has sprung up that certain commonly administered vaccines, or combinations of them, invariably cause such supposedly serious conditions as autism in children. For one thing, autism is never so serious as diseases such as rabies or polio; and for another, the ‘evidence’ of a link between the vaccines and autism has been largely debunked. Yet the myth continues to circulate unabated on the Internet; and the result has been a marked reduction in the percentage of Western parents who have their children vaccinated against childhood diseases.

The problem with this is that vaccination is only truly effective if coverage remains high (at least 95% of the population). If, say, 15-20% of children are not vaccinated against these diseases, they can regain a foothold in the population. A case in point is Holland, which has a remarkably large proportion of extreme Protestant citizens who reject vaccination on religious grounds, and so willingly expose their children to infection. When I worked at WHO, Holland was the only European country that still experienced regular outbreaks of polio – in these very communities.

But they are now no longer alone. A few months ago, looking out of the window of a bus in the Italian city of Trieste, I saw a government poster warning people that failing to vaccinate their children would put the whole of society at risk; and the Italian government has recently taken the drastic – but to my mind entirely justified – step of insisting that children will only be admitted to crèches and primary schools if their parents can produce medical certificates that the kids been fully vaccinated against a dozen diseases. Parents who fail to do so can be fined. There have of course been protests against this decision; but I don’t see why misguided parents should be allowed to endanger not only their own children, but also the rest of us. Italy is now suffering a measles epidemic.

It seems that the anti-vaccination campaign is being whipped up by comedian Beppe Grillo’s crudely populist Cinque stelle (‘Five star’) movement. Why am I not surprised? Ignorance is these people’s stock-in-trade.

When I moved to Geneva in 1975 and found myself exposed to a whole new range of germs in the international city, I immediately contracted German measles (a.k.a. rubella), which I had evidently never been vaccinated against (it turns out the first rubella vaccine was only licensed when I was 17 years old, and the serious risk to unborn fetuses was scarcely known when I was a child), and found myself in a hospital room with the window blinds drawn to protect my sensitive eyes. ‘Innocent’ childhood diseases can be much more serious for adults.

Worse still, Islamic fanatics in such countries as Pakistan are trying to persuade parents in remote areas that medical teams who come to vaccinate their children against polio and other diseases are infidel Westerners who in fact are trying to poison them. They must know this is utter bullshit, but are clearly quite prepared to sacrifice children’s lives for their nasty religious beliefs. Enough said.

But we know that Islamic fanatics are crackpots who will readily ‘kill for god’. Western parents that reject and campaign against vaccination, and politicians that do the same simply for electoral gain, are to my mind far more guilty – for they have the education and knowledge to realise what damage they are doing, and they still go ahead and do it.

Theresa, regulation was there for a reason

When Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power at the start of the 1980s, they disingenuously presented all forms of government regulation as intrinsically pernicious restrictions on business and trade. Whatever the reasons for it – environmental protection, health and safety, curbs on embezzlement and corruption, you name it – they claimed these were all things that could far better be left for ‘free’ markets to deal with ‘fairly’.

The age of ‘deregulation’ was born. Quite simply, the less regulation the better – regardless of what it had been there for.

This week we have seen just where deregulation can lead when left to its own devices. A badly designed, antiquated (more than 40-year-old) residential tower block in London has burned down, with immense loss of life. The latest figures are around 60 dead, and the final toll may be far higher than that, for dozens of people are still missing. Tragically, some of them appear to have been refugees who had fled death and destruction in their home countries, and were starting to build new lives for themselves in Britain.

A firefighting chief has voiced the more than plausible suspicion that urgent recommendations in the wake of other deadly tower-block fires to ‘retrofit’ such buildings with sprinklers and smoke alarms were simply ignored or at least postponed – because such measures were deemed to be costly intrusions on businesses’ supposed ‘freedom’ to make profits, and hence by definition undesirable. Instead of such fire-prevention devices, which are known to be highly effective, the residents of the Grenfell Tower had to make do with ‘fire notices’ – which surely caught fire and melted away at least as fast as the cheap, poor-quality cladding that had been used to cover the walls of the building.

To add insult to injury, the fire broke out in one of Britain’s wealthiest districts – the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, also home to such up-market stores as Harrods (now largely patronised by fabulously rich Arab sheikhs and their families who have bought up large swathes of central London just to spend a few weeks a year there) and palaces occupied by equally well-heeled members of the British royal family. But just a few hundred yards away is one of the country’s top 10% of deprived areas – including the Grenfell Tower.

It is surely no accident that in last week’s general elections this long-established bastion of Conservatism elected a Labour MP for the first time in its history. The district now has a notorious reputation as the one with by far the greatest extremes of wealth and poverty not only in London, but in the whole of the UK – pointed up by this deadly conflagration which should never have been allowed to happen.

Despite pledging to buy off the victims with a bribe of £5 million in compensation, Theresa May’s government still firmly espouses the deregulation that led to the disaster in the first place. After going out of her way not to talk to the victims during a visit to the disaster site, she has come in for well-deserved criticism. With Brexit negotiations about to get under way, her main concern is to cling onto power at all costs (including an alliance with Northern Ireland’s semi-fascist Democratic Unionist Party); and the fire is simply an embarrassing distraction. She now claims to be ‘as distraught as we all are’. Well, let’s see if anyone agrees. She is now above all seen as a hard-nosed, power-hungry cold fish, rather than anyone who could ever possibly be ‘distraught’.

Theresa, safety regulations were there for a reason – and you and your Conservative predecessors, shamefully abetted in the interim by Tony Blair’s ‘Labour’ (but in practice semi-Tory) government, surely share responsibility for such tragedies as we have seen this week.

Not all regulation is bad – and some deregulation is very bad indeed. The Grenfell Tower fire is just one terrible example.

If you can’t even begin to see that, and won’t consider changing your policies, for God’s sake go.