Frank Field Fail 
Sunday, September 12, 2010, 04:26 PM
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When I read on the front page of yesterday’s Times that Frank Field ‘proposes that women should be given up to £25,000 in advance child benefit payments to allow them to stay at home to look after young children’ I thought that perhaps this was a slip of the keyboard. But, when I turned to the interview with Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson, Field makes it clear that it is indeed his intention that this proposed frontloading of benefits would be targeted specifically at women.

‘There are some mums who know that they are not good mums and they want to work. We shouldn’t try to build up a culture where we start blaming them. But if we say that breast-feeding is really important for all the reasons for the child’s health and their life outcomes, we should surely make it easier for mums to stay at home to do it.’

The first sentence seems quite extraordinary – it implies that working mothers are bad parents. Perhaps all Frank Field means is that some women know that being a full time parent wouldn’t suit them. But even with this charitable gloss, I still find Field’s proposals problematic. The frontloading (apart from the fact that it would be an expensive investment at a particularly difficult time for the UK economy) seems like quite a good idea. Most new parents experience a drop in income either through one parent giving up work or a huge childcare bill. This situation improves once children start school.

But why should it be assumed that the £25,000 might only be spent on subsidising the mother to stay at home? Some fathers might choose to stay at home, both might go part-time, or the family might simply decide that they wanted to invest the money in better quality childcare. Very few women want to breastfeed for up to two years, most recommendations focus on six months as a good target, and even if you want to breastfeed for longer it is easy to express milk so there is no need for the mother to be the primary caregiver in the way Field implies.

UPDATE

It has been pointed out that a more usual recommendation is to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and then to continue to breastfeed alongside other foods. But it should still be possible to combine some breastfeeding (morning and evening feeds say) with work.

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The Kegan Conundrum 
Saturday, September 11, 2010, 05:36 PM
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I’ve so far resisted the temptation to do one of those posts about Google Analytics, analysing the different search terms which have led people to visit my blog. But I’m doing one now because I’m hoping it might lead to someone solving a puzzle for me.

This has proved a surprisingly popular post – quite a few people type in ‘Lot Orpheus’ or something similar, so clearly others are intrigued by the parallels between these two characters. I’ve also had quite a few visitors looking for information about a possible queer subtext in Singin’ in the Rain – one thing I find Google Analytics useful for is testing whether an idea I’ve had is viable or simply fanciful. Noticing that someone else – to take another example – wanted to find out if any links had been drawn between Falstaff and Faustus made me think that idea would be worth following up in more detail – when I get the time.

Other searchers, unfortunately, must have been disappointed by what they found on my blog – such as the person who typed in Charlotte Yonge’ and ‘slash’ as the search terms. The mind boggles. Whoever was searching for ‘Sexi top 10 incest’ would also have had to take their search elsewhere.

Back to the puzzle I mentioned – in a recent blog (scroll down) I discussed Matthew Taylor’s interesting essay on 21st Century Enlightenment. Here I quote Taylor quoting from the work of Robert Kegan: ‘Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and 'wrong' or 'false' that which is only strange.’Since then I’ve had very many searches containing words from that short quotation. The searches seem to be coming from different locations, and the search terms used are slightly different yet also oddly similar.

Three searches used the words "to resist our tendencies to make right or true". One used “resist our tendencies to make right or true”. Two entered “resist the tendencies to make right or true that which is merely familiar”. Another typed in "our tendencies to make right or true that which is merely familiar and wrong or false that which is only strange". (I’m noting these variations to indicate that this isn’t some mysterious automatically generated process.) I’ve counted about 20 other slight variations – some visitors seem to look around a bit, some don’t, some misquote it. So what’s going on? Has the quote been set as an essay question by some distance learning organisation?

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Dystopian Realities: Jobbik and the Roma 
Friday, September 3, 2010, 07:16 PM
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Dystopian science fiction induces a pleasurable shudder because it depicts a scenario which just might come to pass yet which is safely alien. But our dystopias are sometimes already realities, even if we don’t always recognize them as such. Parallels between the theocratic America of The Handmaid’s Tale and Iran are flagged in the novel itself, for example, and I was reminded of Atwood’s novel when I read Persepolis recently.

I find the dystopian fiction of Chris Beckett particularly effective. His short story, ‘The Welfare Man’, is set in a near future Bristol in which a young woman is being interviewed by friendly social workers to determine her fate. We learn that in this world recipients of welfare have to live in a defined enclave, observe a curfew, and are denied the vote. The heroine is cajoled into accepting that this is where her future lies:

‘A time may come, Stacey, when you don’t need those things – and when that day comes, you get back to us and we’ll be the first to say “Hooray! Well done! Let’s get you off that register at once!” – but we do think you need those services now.”’

Beckett has developed these ideas further in his recent novel Marcher.

Although it could be argued that the physical boundaries which divide Beckett’s imagined future Britain mirror the virtual boundaries which divide our own society, the restrictions he describes still seem securely science fictional. But in another European country measures just as chilling as those depicted by Beckett are being proposed by its third most popular political party. It is potentially distasteful and perhaps counterproductive to overstate the significance of recent news stories about Europe’s Roma. But neither should they be overlooked.

Update.

This, by Mary Dejevsky, isn't quite what you might expect to find in the Independent.

"As it is, though, they are parasites on a state of civilisation, material and cultural, they have done nothing to build and could not reproduce for themselves."

Yet many readers seemed to approve of such sentiments.
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Twenty-First Century Enlightenment? 
Saturday, August 21, 2010, 11:34 AM
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Alex came back from a visit to the RSA with a copy of an essay, ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’, by its chief executive, Matthew Taylor. When I read a work of literary criticism I have a strong sense of context, of which figures and ideas the current critic is perhaps fighting against, and of where I stand on the issues. When reading an essay like Taylor’s I’m much more in the dark. If something is asserted confidently as a given I won’t always know how to combat it – or whether I should want to. But – it’s the weekend so I thought I’d give it a go.

It begins with a question, ‘can we go on like this?’ which it then glosses further, nodding back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in its specific reference to the ‘last two centuries’:

Will the ideas and values which transformed our world in the last two centuries be sufficient to find solutions to the challenges we now face or do we need new ways of thinking?

At this point I assumed we were meant to answer ‘no’ but wasn’t quite sure why. Some of the events/ideas which have transformed the world in the last two centuries have certainly been bad, but generally this seems to be because Enlightenment ideas have been ignored rather than proved inadequate.

Taylor goes on to identify three ideas at the core of the Enlightenment – autonomy, universalism and humanism. He argues for the need for a more self-aware autonomy which recognises the incompatibility between our aspirations and our circumstances and the frequent inconsistences of people’s individual preferences. This seemed to be a good critique of a crude, populist view of what ‘autonomy’ might mean, and perhaps my favourite part of the essay:

Most significantly, in many policy areas the preferences people express in opinion polls are systematically different to those which they reach after a process of deliberation. Yet when politicians and commentators genuflect to public opinion it is generally superficial individual preferences to which they refer, not the outcomes of informed collective discussion.

Taylor calls his next section ‘empathic universalism’. As this quotation demonstrates, the word ‘empathic’ (though it sounds nice) has the potential to tip universalism into relativism. ‘Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and 'wrong' or 'false' that which is only strange.” However, as I am only relatively unrelativist, I was in practice tolerably happy with this section, and agreed with Taylor's account of how newspapers whip up rage against certain groups:

… the modern news media often feel like a disorganised conspiracy to maintain the populace in a perpetual state of self-righteous rage … it is perfectly possible, for example, to believe in tough controls on illegal immigration while at the same time acknowledging that those who cross the world in the hope of security and the chance of a better life are doing exactly what we would do in their parlous circumstances.

In his discussion of ‘progress and ethics’ Taylor put me on my guard when he started to discuss the limitations of science. He complains about an unthinking imperative towards progress, or 'progress': ‘If something can be discovered and developed it should be discovered and developed'. There’s a big difference between to discover something and to develop something and a discovery can be developed in many different ways – some good, some bad. I thought there was a similarly irritating conflation in this statement too:

The decision somewhere in the multinational organisation BP to drill for oil a mile below sea, despite apparently having no guaranteed way of dealing with a possible leak, could be seen to combine the logics of technological progress, bureaucracy and competition.

‘Bureaucracy’ is always used in a pejorative sense so it seems unfair to sandwich it between two forces which may be positive. And I would have thought the BP disaster represented a failure to follow the logics of competition and technological progress, rather than an excess of either force.

I also cavilled (I’ve clearly been reading Spiked for too long) at this:

So powerful are the logics of progress that it can come as a shock to be reminded that as well as lacking all our modern comforts, citizens of pre-industrial periods also enjoyed many things we might envy: shorter working hours, more festivals and parties, stronger community and family bonds, for example.

I’m sure the festivals weren’t supplemented by five weeks or so of paid holiday, and living in a strong community can be stifling. And family bonds aren’t much help if your family is wiped out by smallpox.

I particularly objected to Taylor's attempts to equate the irrationality of (some) non-religious beliefs with religious beliefs. This final assertion seems to me like an irrational point if there ever was one:

We may scorn a religious belief in the sanctity of human tissue reflected, for example, in concerns about stem cell research, but argue the categorical status of individual human rights. However, versions of the former belief predate the latter by millennia.

Apart from anything else it’s misleading to talk down scientific rationalism by invoking non-religious beliefs. A belief in universal human rights isn't a scientific belief at all. Non-religious scientific hypotheses would be a fairer basis for a comparison with religion.

Although, clearly, I didn’t fully agree with Taylor's essay, he lays out some interesting topics for future debate.

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Holiday Reading 2010: Marks out of 10 
Saturday, July 31, 2010, 03:42 PM
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Christopher Priest: Inverted World An early novel by this underrated writer. The setting is mind-bendingly bizarre, a giant city which is (although most of its inhabitants don’t realize this) being wheeled along tracks in order to combat the effects of a strange gravity field. This doesn’t perhaps sound like an immediately engaging premise, yet Inverted World is an extremely compelling novel, which combines a hard sf core with something of the atmosphere of a heroic fantasy novel as we follow the progress of the hero, Helward, through his initiation into an elite guild, his arduous training, and his call to (a very strange) adventure. (8.5/10)

Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms I’m a fan of BEE but was pretty disappointed with Imperial Bedrooms which doesn’t live up to its striking cover. Ellis seemed to be repeating himself twice over – returning to the material of Less Than Zero and also returning to the idea of revisiting his earlier novels – something he did, more successfully, in his last novel, Lunar Park. Yes, there were some slick and effective moments in Imperial Bedrooms, particularly towards the end, but, overall, this felt like BEE writing on automatic. I hope he gets over his attempts to recapture or reprocess the days of his youth – and writes something fresh next time. (6.5/10)

Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy I was ready for something a bit less cool and postmodern by this stage. The hero, Clyde, is the son of missionary parents, and wants to escape from his rather shabby and depressing life. Although Dreiser is criticising the American Dream, he manages (as he does in Sister Carrie too I think) to make the world of work seem rather enticing. Clyde moves from a drug store to work as a bell hop and is eventually offered a promising opening in his rich uncle’s collar factory. To say more would give too much away, but one of the most effective aspects of this very long novel is the unsettling way it makes the reader understand, if not share, the experiences and impulses of the flawed protagonist. Dreiser isn’t a great stylist – but he’s a terrific storyteller. (9/10)

R C Sherriff : The Fortnight in September This Persephone Press reprint is a gentle, sympathetic and thoughtful account of a family holiday in Bognor Regis in the 1920s. Some nice, wry observations and interesting insights into the day to day realities of life at the time – train travel, seaside boarding houses etc. (7.5/10)

Kenan Malik: Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate A good overview for the layperson of some of the debates surrounding race. Malik writes calmly and logically about the relationship between medicine/illness and ‘race’, and seeks to demonstrate that some aspects of ‘antiracism’ and multiculturalism can be seen as allied to, rather than distinct from, racism. Malik concludes with a critique of studies such as ‘The Bell Curve’ which find a correlation between race and intelligence. A very clear and readable study. (8.5/10)

Eva Ibbotson: The Secret Countess I hadn’t heard of this writer until several delegates at last year’s Georgette Heyer conference listed her as one of their favourites in a questionnaire. This is the second Ibbotson I’ve read, and there is something very appealing about her stories, although I wish her social views weren’t quite so conservative and her heroines were a bit more feisty and a bit less Ewig-Weibliche. The heroine, Anna, is an impoverished countess whose family has fled to England following the Russian Revolution. She takes a position as a housemaid with an aristocratic English family. The son has just got back from the war and is engaged to a bossy young woman who takes a keen interest in eugenics. Frothy but hugely enjoyable. [8/10]

Antal Szerb: Journey By Moonlight This is a strange, at times surreal novel, whose hero Mihaly, now approaching middle age, is torn between a yearning for the freedom and excitement of his adolescence (represented by the mysterious brother and sister Tomas and Eva) and a parallel longing for death. The dreamlike and somewhat disjointed narrative takes him through Europe on the trail of his former friends. It’s a frustrating novel at times, and I didn’t think it quite lived up to the rapturous praise it has received from some critics. But it’s also haunting and memorable, recalling for me several early twentieth-century French novels – Le Grand Meaulnes, The Immoralist and Les Enfants Terribles. (9/10)

Arthur C. Clarke: The City and the Stars A classic novel of the far future which anticipates some developments in our own society and raises many questions about the possible consequences of technological advancement and, more broadly, about the destiny/place of mankind in the universe – the meaning of life. As with so many sf novels, the main character is a maverick, the slightly Rasselas-like Alvin, who feels hemmed in by the benign and rich civilisation he inhabits and sets out to explore the world outside the marvellous city of Diaspar. (8.5/10)

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