What’s Been On My Mind This Week

Question Mark

Apologies for this not going out on Sunday as usual. It was a busy week.

1. President Obama made a controversial decision when he announced his latest executive order concerning America’s immigration policy. Obama has long described the current system as broken and, with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States, it would be impossible (and expensive) to deport them all. Under the new legislation, many illegal immigrants will be able to apply for work permits, though there are various criteria that have to be satisfied before this can happen. Obama made a typically powerful speech – this is a man acknowledged as a gifted speaker after all – appealing to the compassion, understanding, rationality and sense of justice of the American people. He also boldly laid responsibility for his decision at Congress’ door, blaming them for the deadlock and their inability to pass legislation (it is worth remembering that the Senate – in a show of bipartisanship – passed legislation regarding immigration reform last year, but that that legislation never subsequently made it though the House). He singled out John Boehner (Speaker of the House of Representatives) by name, a potentially dangerous move. Boehner responded by accusing Obama of being undemocratic and acting on his own.

In an important sense, Boehner is right: Obama has made a unilateral decision. But neither Boehner nor the Republicans nor the House can completely absolve themselves of responsibility. Boehner referred to Obama disregarding the workings of American democracy, and of refusing to work together with the other parts of the government, but the wheels of that democracy have hardly been turning lately. There has been little evidence of the two political parties working together, and Congress infamously shut down the government last year.

It will be interesting to see how the Republicans react to the President’s actions. Obama announced his decision a little over two weeks after suffering a humiliating defeat in the midterm elections. Following these elections there has been much speculation about the level of bipartisan cooperation America might witness over the next two years. Some hardline Republicans have demanded Obama’s impeachment, but others realise that the party cannot come across as negative or revenge-seeking for too long if they want to have a chance of winning the White House in 2016. Some recognise that Congress should have passed immigration reforms that would have made Obama’s actions unnecessary. They can still, by working together, pass legislation that will later obviate Obama’s executive decision.

It’s impossible not to criticise Obama’s actions. Voters might be sick of the political gridlock currently plaguing America, but this doesn’t give the President a mandate to take matters into his own hands. In the words of the Economist, Obama is flying perilously close to ‘politics by telepathy’. Yet it is also clear that some action needed to be taken, and there is the potential that the lives of millions of people will be improved as a result. There’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence: some have accused Obama of being brash and arrogant, while others have called him brave and assured, pointing out that he acted with the same conviction that he brought to legislation regarding healthcare reforms and LGBT rights.

2. UKIP enjoyed its second major electoral victory last week, when Conservative Party defector, Mark Reckless, won the Rochester & Strood by-election with 42% of the vote. The contest in Rochester was very different from the one in Clacton-on-Sea last month. Clacton has been called ‘ideal’ UKIP territory by one political scientist: a third of its inhabitants are pensioners (it has the second-highest percentage of over-65s in the country), it’s overwhelmingly white (at 97.4% of residents), the number of voters with no qualifications is 16 percentage points higher than the national average, and immigration constantly features at the top of the list of the hardships eligible voters claim they are facing (even though the immigrant population of Clacton is around half the national average, at just 8%). In contrast, Rochester is a prosperous constituency in the south of England, with low levels of unemployment and household incomes in line with the national average. It would be far more likely to vote Conservative or even be wooed by New Labour. Of course, Reckless was formerly a Conservative MP, and it will be interesting to see whether he will retain his seat at the General Election in May, but, in the meantime, we can still draw some conclusions from the Rochester election: UKIP are streamlining their campaign machine, and in particular taking advantage of technology. They’ve upgraded their ‘voter identification software’ and have started targeting specific voters with specific messages. The Liberal Democrats failed to even come fourth, finishing behind the Green Party, with less than 1% of the vote. This has caused some to claim that the Green Party might even beat them in May. David Cameron had vowed to win Rochester at all costs, and he turned up to campaign there five times. That the Conservatives still lost raises further doubts about the party’s ability to win at the forthcoming general election.

3. This week, the results of an investigation into crime reporting were published. Shockingly, 20% of all crimes reported to the police go unrecorded. The majority of these unrecorded crimes are ones involving violence, and almost a third of all sexual offences go unrecorded. If a crime is unrecorded it means that an investigation is unlikely to happen. There might, therefore, be many victims of crime out there who have reported what happened to the police and think they are investigating, when actually no record of their allegations exists. Apparently increased workloads and the pressure of hitting targets has contributed to the increase in the number of crimes that go unrecorded, and police forces have also come under fire recently for fixing crime statistics. Home Secretary Theresa May commissioned the report, and now has to work out how to respond to the results. There’s a useful summary on the BBC website here, or you can read the full report here.

4. Talking of crime, I heard about something called The RAP Project this week. Set up by two American women who both now live in London, the Project (which stands for Raising Awareness and Prevention) sees them going into schools, youth groups and other gatherings of young people to hold workshops and talk about personal safety and sexual assault. These aren’t self-defence classes, but the aim is to encourage healthy attitudes towards members of the opposite sex, which looking at how the internet, social media and the media in general influence society and teenage attitudes and interactions. I also read this week that the average age boys first access pornography is 11, and, while the legal age of consent for sex is 16, it’s illegal to sext until the age of 18. In this age of online dating and pervasive (and often pernicious) social media, where sexism and misogyny remain serious problems, it’s clear that sex education is still in need of a 21st century revamp.

5. This week there were a couple of articles in the New Scientist about a recent genetic study on gay male siblings. Apparently, the study of 409 sets of brothers ‘clearly links sexual orientation in men with two regions of the human genome’. The results have been acclaimed by some as ‘an important contribution to mounting evidence that being gay is biologically determined rather than a lifestyle choice.’ The question of whether or not there is a gay gene is one that keeps returning, though worrying about whether there is or isn’t risks overshadowing the bigger problems of continued inequality based on sexual orientation, persistent homophobia and the fact that homosexuality is still illegal in many countries around the world. Nevertheless, the lead scientist on the study qualified the findings with the comment that they are still yet to identify a single gene that ’causes’ male homosexuality, and that homosexuality – like many other complex human traits – is likely to be influenced by many other factors in addition to a person’s genetic makeup. It’s interesting that the majority of studies conducted into the potential existence of a gay gene focus on men, and therefore don’t take into account lesbians or bisexuals – or any others who don’t identify as strictly heterosexual. Even if a genetic explanation is discovered for male homosexuality, it cannot be applied to the majority of the non-heterosexual population.

Why do we persist in trying to determine whether or not there is a genetic basis for homosexuality? Is it science for science sake? Or in the pursuit of knowledge? But is the acquisition of all knowledge good? One Daily Mail headline that was published to accompany the publication of a previous study into the existence of a gay gene read ‘Abortion hope after gay genes finding’. Would the ability to test for sexuality cause some parents to abort their children? Might the isolation of a gay gene lead to it being called an ‘abnormality’ that some would want to try and eradicate? It is also worth considering whether it would help the gay rights movement were the existence of a gay gene to be proved. But it seems unlikely that basing the existence of homosexuality in genetics will change people’s attitudes towards it. Persecution against people who are different – whether because of their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion – mistrust of those people, disgust at what they do, who they are or what they look like, doesn’t arise because of science and won’t disappear because of scientific findings. Those feelings are a result of thousands of years of human social, cultural and economic history. Hopefully the tide of acceptance is turning, at least in some parts of the world. But what seems most important is not whether human sexuality is a result of nature, nurture or an unquantifiable mixture of the two, but the fact that people are who they are, whether they were born that way or chose to be that way, and therefore should be respected as people regardless of sexual orientation.

6. This week is National HIV Testing Week, and 1st December is National AIDS Day. In advance of this, Public Health England recently published a report stating that the number of people in England living with HIV has reached an all-time high at 110,000. Moreover, around 25% of these people are unaware that they are infected. The report did also reveal that the number of people diagnosed with a late stage of the disease had fallen, which would indicate that more people are being tested and receiving treatment, while on the other hand around 9 men were diagnosed with HIV every day in 2013, an all-time high. These days, those diagnosed early can expect to lead long, healthy lives, and the UK is far ahead of other countries in reaching targets for diagnosis and treatment set by the World Health Organisation in its attempts to prevent the spread of the disease. But it’s clear that there is still work to be done, as, despite medical advances and sex education, rates of infection among gay men are increasing instead of abating.

7. I read a fascinating in-depth feature in the New York Times, in which a reporter spent time with a man studying The Knowledge, the exceptionally difficult test that must be passed before becoming a licensed black cab driver in London. There has been renewed coverage of alternative taxi services such as Uber recently, and the article really demonstrates just how much time, money and effort black cab drivers put in to learning their craft and studying the streets of London. It’s also a really well-written article, with some striking descriptions of London. I am someone who uses Uber because it’s easy (you don’t need to carry any cash on you) and so much cheaper – I don’t remember when I last took a black cab. But reading the article does make you think twice if you need to get somewhere unfamiliar, and get there quickly. It’s astonishing the sort of detailed knowledge of London that these drivers possess.

8. This week I’ve been delighted to be able to return to Stella Duffy’s brilliant Saz Martin series of crime novels. I’m currently on the fourth, Fresh Flesh, in which Saz is caught up in another mystery, but this time one that involves parents and children and where we come from, and threatens to hit quite close to home with Saz’s developing relationship with her partner, Molly. I’ll only have one book left in the series after this, which I’ll definitely manage to read before Christmas, and then I’m sure I’ll feel quite bereft that there aren’t any more. If you haven’t yet read them, it’s worth seeking them out.

9. This week I’ve been listening to a remix of a track by one of my current favourite bands, Vaults. They’ve just released their debut EP, ‘Vultures’, which you can preview or download on iTunes here. You can listen to the Maya Jane Coles remix of title track, Vultures, here.


Categories: On My Mind . . .

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