Chortling with the cops

There’s a really nasty tone creeping into the press right now, with tabloids and local press following the police’s lead and giving ordinary people a kicking. We’re not quite at Two Minutes Hate just yet, but the trickle of “look at these stupid bastards” stories is starting to become a stream.

A lot of those stories are being fed to them by the police, who are clearly enjoying their new powers: before they’d even come into play, some forces were posting on Twitter with obvious excitement about the new ways in which they’d be able to throw their weight around.

Inevitably, they are now throwing their weight around in ever more inventive ways: spending thousands of pounds on helicopters to see if anybody’s meeting their pals in the park, flying drones around to intimidate people in the street, shaming people on social media for taking a walk in uninhabited areas, and deciding what is and isn’t acceptable shopping.

[Update: less than an hour after I wrote this, the BBC reported that the police were harassing corner shop owners for selling Easter Eggs. The Prime Minister’s office has clarified that if a shop is allowed to be open, it’s allowed to sell anything it has in stock. But the episode underlines the wider problem, which is that some police are overzealous – and some of them are particularly overzealous towards members of minority groups.]

This story, from Plymouth Live, caught my eye.

Oasis might have thought cigarettes and alcohol were the only things worth living for, but police in Plymouth disagree – especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown.

It’s the tone of it that really gets to me. Welcome to “let’s chortle along with the cops”.

And you’ll need to be as rich as the bickering brothers Gallagher to keep puffing away… because just 15 packets of fags could theoretically land you with nearly £2m in fines – because the fines can double each time you flout the rules.

The story is based on social media posts by the local cops, who are happily stopping traffic and demanding to know where people are going – and then declaring whether their journey really is essential based on no law whatsoever.

you cannot just go for a drive, you cannot drive to a destination for exercise, going to the shops for beer and cigarettes is not essential.

They’re pretty essential if you’re a smoker or dependent on alcohol. And it’s not illegal to go to the shop.

It’s important that people follow the government guidelines, but this denouncing of ordinary people as villains when they are not breaking any law really disturbs me. We’re already seeing people calling the cops about their neighbours’ behaviour, often without foundation. There’s a narrative developing in the press where blame is increasingly being put on ordinary people, not those in power.

As commentator David Allen Green wrote on Twitter and later blogged, this is an extraordinary legal situation: overnight, freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of worship have been made illegal by a law that MPs didn’t vote on. And the police are already exceeding the powers they have been given:

Under Regulation 6(1), it is even now a criminal offence to leave your own home, unless (in effect) the police are satisfied you have a reasonable excuse.

The whole country is thereby (in effect) under house arrest.

The police, in turn, have been given wide powers to enforce these regulations, including the use of coercive force.

And in turn, again, the police are interpreting these wide powers even more widely, with roadblocks, drones, and a made-up restriction on “essential travel”.

The police are also encouraging people to snitch on each other.

On social media there are accusation and counter-accusation, as neighbours turn on each other.

People are afraid of the police, and increasingly of each other.

We all know that power corrupts, that people in authority often overreach and that powers granted in an emergency are often kept long after the emergency is over.

Green:

If it were not for this public health emergency, this situation would be the legal dream of the worst modern tyrant.

Everybody under control, every social movement or association prohibited, every electronic communication subject to surveillance.

This would be an unthinkable legal situation for any free society.

Of course, the public health emergency takes absolute priority.

But we also should not be blind to the costs.

Coronavirus isn’t karma

Harvey Weinstein

I wrote the other day about not finding any pleasure in the misfortunes of others, even if those people are horrible. But of course some people do, especially when the people are especially horrible. Take the rapist Harvey Weinstein: news that he had tested positive for coronavirus caused much merriment online and off; I saw a comedy show last night in which the comedian chuckled that Weinstein now knew what it meant to have something inside his body without consent.

It’s a good joke, but the wider sentiment isn’t so funny. As Imani writes on Crutchesandspice.com, there’s an underlying ableism in the reaction to various famous people contracting coronavirus: it portrays the virus as a karmic force that punishes the wicked and the undeserving.

COVID19, like any other disability, disease or illness, doesn’t have a moral compass and by projecting one onto the virus, people are subtly saying that those who also contract it [deserve to get it].

Instead of chortling at Weinstein’s misfortune, perhaps we should focus instead on the fact that coronavirus could have horrific effects in prisons -– it could have a death rate much higher than in the wider population. Prisoners tend to be older and have poorer health than the rest of us. No matter what those prisoners may have been convicted of, none of them deserves the death penalty.

And nor does anybody else.

Imani:

Communicable diseases aren’t discerning. COVID19 wants lungs, that’s its only M.O. No one deserves this virus—not even those you hate.

Viruses don’t separate people into the righteous and the damned, sparing the good and judging the wicked. But some powerful people do believe that there is a hierarchy here, that some people do deserve to catch coronavirus and that others don’t. And sometimes those people say the quiet bit out loud.

There was a telling moment on Sky News this morning when the Tory politician Damian Green said that Boris Johnson having coronavirus demonstrated that “even intelligent people trying to do the right thing” can catch it.

Leaving aside the fact that Boris Johnson clearly wasn’t doing the right thing – he was boasting about shaking coronavirus patients’ hands the other week and hasn’t been practicing the distancing recommended to reduce risk – that “even” is telling: even people who don’t deserve it can catch it.

This isn’t new, of course. The concept of the “undeserving” has been with us for hundreds of years – the idea of the “undeserving poor” was quite the topic in the 1800s – and it is regularly trotted out by right-wing press and politicians. We saw it most recently when Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that the 72 people who died in the Grenfell fire did so because they weren’t as clever as him. And it’s back with a bang during the pandemic, weaponised by people who believe some lives – their lives – matter more than others.

In the US, as Imani notes, “The national narrative veered hard right and went from ‘we need to do all we can to flatten the curve’ to ‘maybe we should let the virus run its course and let disabled and elderly die to save the economy.'”

Coronavirus does not discriminate, and neither should we. We should be particularly alert for people in power who want to divide us into the good and the bad, the righteous and the damned, the deserving and the undeserving. Because you can be sure that their definition of “undeserving” never, ever means people like them.

“If people see no path to influencing the powerful, some will kick down”

Adam Ramsay in OpenDemocracy:

In the wake of the Andrew Wakefield scandal and two decades of disastrous climate change denial, newspapers surely have a social responsibility to be calm and cautious when contradicting scientific consensus, not turn serious questions of health communication into flesh for bare-toothed columnists to spar over.

Despite continuing to spread confusion about the virus, the Tory press has been more than happy to denounce people who are confused.

…When responsibility is cast onto an atomised population, it doesn’t land evenly. It is channelled down the social structures which already exist. Race, class, gender, sexuality: blame is always mobilised against the already marginalised.

God doesn’t want you to die of stupidity

 

I’m normally a big fan of schadenfreude, the feeling of pleasure in others’ misfortunes. But so much of what I’m reading just now just makes me sad. For example, there’s no joy in seeing prime minister Boris Johnson admit to having coronavirus just days after boasting about shaking coronavirus patients’ hands; I’m just sad that he’s probably infected others who will in turn have passed the virus on. I feel sorry for his pregnant girlfriend, who must be terrified right now.

One of the saddest things I’m seeing right now is people dying from arrogance, from misinformation and from tribalism. In the US, you’re much less likely to take the virus seriously if you’re a Trump voter, very religious or both; the lines aren’t as dramatic here in the UK but there’s still social media activity indicating a similar split between Brexit leaver and remainer.

Viruses don’t care who you vote for or who you pray to.

There’s an old Russian sailor’s proverb (often attributed to the gonzo writer Hunter S Thompson, but it was around for hundreds of years before him):

Pray to God, but row away from the rocks.

Sadly some people would rather row straight into the rocks and take lots of others with them.

Here in Scotland, the evangelical politician John Mason initially refused to cancel his face-to-face surgeries and home visits to protect his constituents. When one church closed, he posted on Facebook:

Surely we should be bold, take risks, and trust in Jesus?

Trust in Jesus is not an effective anti-viral.

I detest Mason, but I feel sad that his dark-ages idiocy could have caused people to become infected. And he’s not the only one. The usual contrarian clowns have had their say, and Scotland’s Free Presbyterian Church, another bunch of yahoos I’d happily see cast into a lake of fire, initially refused to cancel church services because:

attending public worship is not a mere social activity or recreational pleasure

This idiocy is global. In the US, pastor Landon Spradlin died from coronavirus this week. His death has made him internet famous because before he contracted the virus he shared online posts suggesting the media was creating “mass hysteria” over coronavirus; he also approvingly shared a tale of a missionary who cared for Black Death victims and never contracted the disease because God would ensure that “no germ will attach itself to me.” God must have been looking elsewhere this week. She’s got a lot on her plate.

Spradlin had previously railed against helping poor and vulnerable people get healthcare; when he got sick, his family had to resort to a crowdfunding website “to help relieve them from the stress of the situation [and] medical bills.” Some people are finding schadenfreude in that, and some have gone as far as to abuse his grieving family on social media. I just feel sorry for their loss.

And I also feel sorry for the other families who’ll grieve. Politicians’ inaction and media misinformation – particularly noticeable in the US, where the virus will kill many more people than 9/11 did – will cost many lives. As of today, the US has more coronavirus cases than anywhere else in the world. The toll so far is 1,297 deaths. There will be many more.

You can sum up a lot of current events in a single story.

No matter what god you may pray to, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want you to go out like that.

We are the people

There’s been a really nasty outbreak of everything-ism over the Coronavirus and people’s reactions to it. A tweet from the comedy programme Have I Got News For You today was a good example: it captioned a photo of people queuing too closely outside ASDA as “natural selection in action”. The replies included lots of comments about the people in the photograph being “sheep”, a few swipes at some of the shoppers’ weights and in one particularly horrible comment, a description of how someone should park a tank in the car park and machine-gun the shoppers.

I find it hard to believe that anyone from HIGNFY or any of its social darwinist commenters hasn’t been to at least one supermarket in the last week and bought more than their usual shop or stood within two metres of strangers. But that’s different, isn’t it? They’re not like those people.

And that’s true. They’re not. They were able to stock up – not panic-buying, no, just getting a few essentials just in case – because they had a car and a credit card and the freedom to shop when they first started to worry.

They didn’t have to wait to finish a series of shifts or for a meagre pay cheque or for their universal credit payment before they could get a bus to queue with the others to walk past bare freezers, the contents long moved to the chest freezers in suburban garages, the shelves showing the last known location of the multiple packets of rice and lentils currently sitting in oh so many tasteful kitchen cupboards.

Just because you panic-bought quietly before everybody else started doing it doesn’t make you morally superior. I know I’m not: I bought some extra food before the freezers emptied and the rice ran out. And I also know that had one client not paid me last week, I’d have been queuing up with everybody else outside ASDA.

It’s a similar story with the elevation of people in parks to national hate figures on social media. How dare people without gardens of their own use public parks after being told to do so by the Prime Minister?

Those people are us. Yes, some people are idiots – but idiocy isn’t limited to a particular social class, income bracket, waist measurement or postcode, as contrarian columnists and rent-a-gob politicians frequently demonstrate. Most of us are trying to navigate terrifying times with inadequate information, vague and often contradictory direction and a flurry of misinformation in social media and in parts of the mainstream media too. Sometimes we’ll make bad decisions. Sometimes we’ll panic.

Don’t rage against people going to parks when the government told them to go, and when it won’t stop employers demanding many more non-essential workers cram into the Tube every morning. Don’t blame the panic buyers when the government leaks lurid tales of lockdown to the press and then unconvincingly denies them the next day; don’t blame people for besieging shops when all the online shopping slots are booked solid for six weeks by the worried well. Don’t blame the pubgoers when the PM’s own dad says a pint is your human right and the commentariat tells you it’s your national duty.

There will be a time to rage, and there will be people deserving of your rage. But not now. And not those people.

When empires collapse

A fascinating piece in Mother Jones by historian Patrick Wyman.

The fall of an empire—the end of a polity, a socioeconomic order, a dominant culture, or the intertwined whole—looks more like a cascading series of minor, individually unimportant failures than a dramatic ending that appears out of the blue. Carts full of olive oil failing to arrive at some nameless fort because of a dysfunctional military bureaucracy, a corrupt official deciding to cook the books and claim taxes were collected when they really weren’t, a greedy aristocrat bribing that official instead of paying his bill, an aqueduct falling to pieces and nobody willing to front the funds to repair it.

…Historians will look back at some enormous disaster, either ongoing now or in the decades or centuries to come, and say that it was just the icing on the cake. The foundation had already been laid long before then, in the text of legislation nobody bothered reading, in local elections nobody was following, in speeches nobody thought were important enough to comment on, in a thousand tiny disasters that amounted to a thousand little cuts on the body politic.

“Lazy contrarians are putting everyone at risk”

Alex Andreou, writing for Politics.co.uk:

I fully support Peter Hitchens and Brendan O’Neill’s inalienable right to be infected with a deadly virus. If they existed in a vacuum, I might buy myself one of those big foam fingers and cheer them on, as they march to the extinction that is the destiny of every dinosaur.

But they don’t exist in a vacuum. They have no more a ‘right’ to keep congregating in pubs than they have a right to set fire to their flat on the ground floor of a skyscraper. Not following guidance, not distancing socially, doesn’t just imperil you. It is something that imperils my friends, my loved ones, everyone. Nobody has a right to put others at risk.

… the very talking heads who have been, for some years now, telling everyone else to rediscover the Spirit of the Blitz, were revealed to be the morons who refused to turn their light off during a blackout and endangered their entire neighbourhood.

It’s becoming very clear who the real “enemies of the people” are.

Some people genuinely want us dead

One of the most incredible things I’ve seen in recent days is transphobes gleefully predicting that coronavirus will kill lots of trans women. They’re responding to Chinese stats that indicate a higher fatality rate among infected men than women; this, apparently, means those of us assigned male at birth will get our just desserts for whatever perceived injustice they believe we’re perpetrating. And the people doing this aren’t the lunatic fringe of Twitter. They’re the newspaper columnists and college professors who get to set the tone of supposed “legitimate debate”.

If you’re chuckling about the potential deaths of people, you’ve long abandoned “reasonable concerns”.

Many of these people and their followers have contributed to the Scottish Government consultation on gender recognition reform, which closes on Tuesday. If you haven’t already done so, please add your experiences; if you contributed to the initial consultation, please contribute to this one too. The first consultation was on whether gender recognition needed reform; this one is about how it should be done.

This article by Laura Waddell gives the lie to the claim that women’s groups aren’t in favour of the reforms.

Here’s what various organisations have to say about gender recognition reform in Scotland and what they hope you’ll say in the consultation.

17,700 bottles of hand sanitiser

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought out the best in many people. But it’s also brought out the worst in others, as the panic buying in your local supermarket demonstrates. But the selfish sods filling their vans with enough toilet paper for an army pale in comparison to this arsehole.

On March 1, the day after the first coronavirus death in the United States, brothers Matt and Noah Colvin set out in a silver S.U.V. to pick up some hand sanitizer. Driving around Chattanooga, Tenn., they hit a Dollar Tree, then a Walmart, a Staples and a Home Depot. At each store, they cleaned out the shelves.

Over the next three days, Noah Colvin took a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and into Kentucky, filling a U-Haul truck with thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes, mostly from “little hole-in-the-wall dollar stores in the backwoods,” his brother said. “The major metro areas were cleaned out.”

Now, while millions of people across the country search in vain for hand sanitizer to protect themselves from the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Colvin is sitting on 17,700 bottles of the stuff with little idea where to sell them.

“I demand rights for me, but not for thee”

Every day, transphobes engage in social media pile-ons against individuals and organisations for being trans-inclusive, engaging in abuse that’s rarely if ever reported in the mainstream media. Two days ago it was the Royal Institution, the charity dedicated to promoting science, which received so much abuse for including an image of a trans woman in a Twitter post that it deleted the message.

Today’s one is against Glasgow Women’s Library, which declined to host a meeting of an anti-trans hate group as the library is proudly inclusive of all women. The predictable result was a flood of abusive messages that’s still ongoing. This isn’t the first time the library has been under sustained social media attack for simply being trans-inclusive; previous ones ran on for months.

Glasgow Women’s Library is an important resource and it’s always struggling for money for upkeep and repairs – it’s currently dealing with a leaky roof. It could have raised a bit of cash by hosting the event but chose to value its principles over its finances. You can help support it by donating here.

Many of the people involved in these pile-ons claim to be feminists, although there’s usually a significant cohort of misogynists whose interest in feminism only began when they realised they could use it as an excuse to scream at trans women and any cisgender woman who supports trans women. But there are plenty of women who identify as feminists delighting in the fact that the Library is struggling financially: it’s guilty of the ultimate crime of being trans inclusive. They would rather see an important feminist resource destroyed than have it support trans women; cisgender women who disagree with them are abused.

There’s a word for that kind of feminism, and that word is “white”. White feminism is a subset of feminism that’s exclusive rather than inclusive: it centres the interests of a narrow group of primarily middle- and upper-class white women and ignores or even attacks everybody else: women of colour, poor women, trans women…. you get the idea.

A good example of white feminism in action took place in Ireland in early 2018, at the height of the campaign to repeal the anti-abortion eighth amendment: while cisgender and transgender women took to the streets together to improve women’s rights, a group of English feminists who had previously had no interest in Irish feminism suddenly decided that it was time to talk – not about repealing the 8th, but about the invented evils of trans women. Irish feminists handed them their arses on a plate in an open letter:

The organisers of ‘We Need to Talk’ are making a stop here in Ireland, under the guise of talking about abortion. However, their motives remain clear to us, and we write this letter to show that their exclusionary, discriminatory attitudes to trans people – in particular trans women – are not welcome here in Ireland. We will not sit in silence while the organisers of this meeting peddle ideas and opinions that are actively harmful to the well-being and safety of our comrades.

…What is it that you know of Irish feminism that you feel entitled and authorised to come here and lecture us on?

…We do not need you here. We have not had your support in our fight for #repealthe8th, our fight against the historical and ongoing impact of the Magdalene Laundries, our fight for taking back control of our hospitals from religious orders, our fight for justice for women and babies tortured and entombed in Mother and Baby homes.

Do you know, for example, that in the north of Ireland, legally part of the UK, women still cannot access safe and legal abortion? Have you campaigned on this in any way? If you have, why don’t we know about it? Did you strike in solidarity with us on March 8th last year? Did you even know we were striking and for what? Do you have any kind of concept of what a feminism in a country shaped by struggle against Empire looks like? Did you take even a second to consider that, in assuming you have the right to come here in any kind of position of feminist authority, you’re behaving with the arrogance of just that imperialism? We have had enough of colonialism in Ireland without needing more of it from you.

Cultural critic Mikki Kendall has just written a book on white feminism called Hood Feminism: Notes From The Women White Feminists Forgot. As she explains, all too often the focus is not on basic survival for the many, but on increasing privilege for the few.

Here’s part of a larger extract:

Whether it is the centring of white women even when women of colour are most likely to be at risk, or the complete erasure of issues most likely to impact those who are not white, white feminism tends to forget that a movement that claims to be for all women has to engage with the obstacles women who are not white face.
Trans women are often derided or erased, while prominent feminist voices parrot the words of conservative bigots, framing womanhood as biological and determined at birth instead of as a fluid and often arbitrary social construct…

The sad reality is that while white women are an oppressed group, they still wield more power than any other group of women — including the power to oppress both men and women of colour. There’s nothing feminist about having so many resources at your fingertips and choosing to be ignorant. Nothing empowering or enlightening in deciding that intent trumps impact. Especially when the consequences aren’t going to be experienced by you, but will instead be experienced by someone from a marginalised community.