Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The cause of death that dare not speak its name: austerity

Gary Younge                    Guardian/UK                     15 April 2017 

The reasons for knife crime are complex, but it’s wrong to ignore the impact of cuts to youth funding.

On Monday Cedric Anderson, the estranged husband of a special education teacher, Karen Smith, walked into her
primary school classroom in San Bernardino, California, and shot dead both her and eight-year-old Jonathan Martinez; injured two other children; and then fatally shot himself. Martinez was the 67th child under the age of 11 to be shot dead in America this year. (Four more have been killed since then.) Smith, who had married Anderson just a few months earlier, was just one of the estimated 50 women in the US to be shot dead by a current or former partner each month. Of the 91 mass shootings so far this year, almost one a day, all of those where the identity of the shooter is known were committed by men.

Every day in America, on average, seven children and teens are shot dead.
While writing a book exploring the gun fatalities on one random day, I asked every family who I reached an open-ended question about what they thought was driving such shootings. Not a single one volunteered the answer “guns”. I concluded that many I spoke to regarded guns as one might regard traffic, if your child were knocked down – as the regrettable, tragic price one pays for living in modern society, about which little can be done. Similarly, when mass shootings take place commentators will discuss a range of issues – religion, gang affiliation, mental health and race – but masculinity rarely comes up. It’s simply been so factored in to our understanding of how the world works that it escapes scrutiny.

It’s as though once a certain pain threshold has been breached plausible explanations cease to register. People will walk a mile to avoid the evidence right in front of their nose, either because they don’t like it or, more often, because to deal with the underlying issues would demand a conversation for which there is no “public language”: when things aren’t being discussed, it’s hard to find a way to talk about them.

Inured to the obvious, the familiar becomes banal and ultimately invisible even as it stands in plain sight. “Who hears a clock tick, or the surf murmur, or the trains pass?” wrote James Kilpatrick in the early sixties, explaining why white American southerners were so wedded to segregation. “Not those who live by the clock or the sea or the track.”

The day after Martinez and Smith were killed, two Londoners were stabbed to death within 90 minutes of each other, making
three knife fatalities in the capital within a 48-hour period. By the end of the week the Metropolitan police had released its annual figures for last year, revealing a 24% increase in knife crime. National figures, which will soon follow, are likely to show a less pronounced but nonetheless sustained uptick in knife crime.

There have over the years been a number of explanations for both the existence, prevalence and growth in knife crime among the young. David Cameron laid some of the responsibility
on BBC Radio 1 and its hip-hop output; Tony Blair just came straight out and blamed black kids: “We won’t stop this by pretending it isn’t young black kids doing it.” Gangs, drugs, culture, lenient sentencing, absent fathers, police being too sensitive to be effective – and police being insufficiently sensitive to be trusted – have all been suggested at various times. In an editorial this week the London Evening Standard argued: “education and better parenting, coupled with greater responsibility from the minority of retailers who still sell knives to juveniles, offer the best solutions.”

Some of these explanations make sense. (Drugs, for example, have been a factor at some points.) Some are nonsense. (Britain’s parenting, for example, hasn’t suddenly become worse.)

Race appears to be a false flag.
National statistics that break down knife crime by ethnicity are not publicly available. Research indicates that once social class is taken into account, black kids are no more likely to be involved than their white counterparts. Of the 11 children and teens who have been killed by knives so far this year, most have been white – but in the national press the term “knife crime” has only been used when black people are killed.

But it seems there is one enduring explanation for why things have been deteriorating among young people in particular in recent years: austerity. In 2011, the government
scrapped the education maintenance allowance, the £30 weekly grant to low-income students who are in school or college. Funding for the education of 16- to 19-year-olds fell by 14% in real terms between 2010 and 2014, leaving sixth-form colleges struggling for survival. Since 2010 there has been a £387m cut in youth services, and between 2012 and 2016 603 youth clubs were closed. In London, £28m has been slashed from youth services budgets in the last five years, leading to 36 youth centres in the capital closing. A starved NHS is unable to adequately provide mental health assistance to the young. The government now plans to cut funding to schools in urban areas.

Once the government has made the political choices that effectively produce a crisis, it then expects the police to establish order and calm over the instability. Only
it’s cutting the police too. “We’re leading to a very serious conclusion regarding the potentially perilous state of policing,” said ZoĆ« Billingham, Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, recently. “It’s a red flag that we’re raising at this stage. A large red flag.”

Police say that young people who are carrying knives increasingly
do so not through gang affiliation but for protection; youth workers say they are scared and don’t trust the police to protect them. In short, as a nation we are actively and consciously underfunding our kids.

Few would make the claim that there is a direct, seamless, causal link between these cuts and the rise in violent crime. Government policy does not put a knife in a child’s hand and encourage them to use it. But any insistence on personal responsibility must be weighed against the collective responsibility societies assume when it comes to keeping children safe.

Nor could anyone reasonably claim that this is the exclusive reason for the increase – the causes of knife crime are multilayered and complex and
it was trending down for the first few years of the coalition before its recent rise.

But as the cuts go deeper, leaving vulnerable people more desperate, the contextual connection is compelling. If you make it harder for young people to stay in education, harder for them to get treatment if they are mentally ill, harder for them to find safe and productive places to spend leisure time with each other and with adults who are trained to work with them, then we should not be surprised to see an increase in social problems among the young – including social violence in general and knife crime in particular. Austerity has become such an established feature of our political economy that many are becoming blind to its ramifications. Keep tightening the belt by degrees for long enough and we forget why it is we are struggling to breathe.

In all sorts of ways we are creating obstacles for our young people to succeed, and in so doing setting too many of them up for failure. In this particularly gruesome way, we are seeing the results.

Consumerist god reigns supreme

Ian Harris                        Otago Daily Times                13 April 2017                   
What’s the point of society taking time out to celebrate Easter when its true devotion is to the greatest of all contemporary gods: consumerism? That is, to a credo where human purpose is focused on getting more and more, and human fulfilment is measured by the possessions we accumulate.

A token of this is Parliament’s genuflection to the consumerist god by allowing local councils to open the door to tinkling tills on Easter Sunday, and the number of communities opting to do so. Nothing, it seems, should get in the way of the sacred duty to make money.

Till now, and still for those communities that have chosen to live by a different standard, Easter Sunday has been a public sign that there are other values for men and women to live by, other approaches to the great questions of life, meaning and purpose. For those willing to stop and reflect, Good Friday and Easter Sunday will remain such.

Church folk have sometimes blurred the issue by defending Easter closures as protecting a religious privilege validated by an obsolete supernaturalism, instead of promoting a response to those great questions in a way that engages the open-minded among religious and nonreligious alike. It’s too late for that now, and where Easter Sunday drifts slowly away on the tide of commerce, Good Friday and Christmas Day will one day logically follow. The consumerist god, worshipped enthusiastically in hymns praising freedom, choice, even basic rights, is all-consuming. It will not be content until people are at last enslaved by their possessions, for it is those that are increasingly reshaping our values and thus, ever so surreptitiously, how we choose to live.

American priest Matthew Fox, advocate of “original blessing” instead of original sin, sees consumerism as a modern idolatry. “Indeed, our very economic system, to the extent that it creates and whips up consumer fetishes, is running on idolatry,” he says. This is because it flourishes on the view that the acquisition of more and more goodies will somehow satisfy the deep longing of the human heart – “even if such idolatrous buying results in other people going hungry or the earth itself being exploited, species rendered extinct, and climate change raising the seas, destroying cities and homes and the future for our great-great-grandchildren. “Such idol-worship fails to satisfy the heart. But dissatisfaction is at the heart of economic idolatry – it feeds the machines of advertising to keep us buying. And buying. And buying. The addiction of shopping is a special form of idolatry, born of consumer capitalism.”

So there is more to freedom and choice than being able to shop on the traditional holy-days. Indeed, Easter itself is about freedom, choice and basic rights – but on a level that leaves consumerism for dead. It is the freedom, choice and right to be more, not have more. And it springs from a very different vision of what human happiness and fulfilment are all about.

At the heart of this vision is a concern for relationships. Accordingly, the churches have interpreted Easter in a variety of ways over the centuries. Traditionally, emphasis on a theistic God has been central, so the focus was the individual’s relationship to that God. Befouling that relationship was people’s sin, which led to guilt and fanned the fear of hell. Jesus’ death on the cross, however, could cancel their sin, absolve them from guilt, and assure an after-life in heaven.

In a world where heaven and hell were believed to be as real as Earth, and the church’s narrative fitted neatly within it, immersing oneself within that framework made sense. It brought genuine release and newness of life, along with meaning, purpose and fulfilment. In the 21st century that imaginative superstructure has crumbled, so for many Christians, celebrating Easter within its confines is now impossible. They still celebrate, however, for the core meaning of the season remains constant in freedom, choice, and the right to be fully human, all underpinned by unconditional love.

Jesus was put to death because he ran foul of the power structures of temple and state. Yet out of that tragedy, and all that had preceded it, his followers found inspiration and opportunity – not to buy things whenever they felt like it, but of genuine choice in becoming new people. And they asserted the basic right of everyone to do the same in relationships where love, not money, is the touchstone. For that, “death to the old” and “resurrection to the new” are appropriate metaphors – and it’s got nothing to do with shop trading hours.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

My generation fought to be free. What happened to us?

Polly Toynbee                    Guardian/UK              4 April 2017    

We were the generation who won all those freedoms on sex, contraception, abortion, gay rights, divorce, who saw the start of women’s lib, an end to censorship ... what’s happened to us? We stood for liberation. But our Brexit voting has revealed a great many things about ourselves we might prefer not to know. My generation and those older thought we were the avant garde; the tearers-down of barriers; freedom fighters for the
permissive society in the vanguard of progress.

What’s happened to us? The big baby boomer generation bears down on a shrinking proportion of the young. In attitudes, we are not ageing well. A
YouGov poll last week revealed how yearning for that imaginary 1950s golden age was a strong force that helped blow Britain out of the EU. Remember, 64% of over-65s voted for Brexit, while 71% of under-25s voted remain.

Yet the
anti-immigrant sentiment, much stronger among the old than the young, was only the topsoil on deeper strata of backward-looking aches among the old. Brexiters are 53% for bringing back the rope (supported by just 20% of remainers). Bring back beating in schools, say 42% of Brexiters (against just 14% of remainers). Three times more Brexiters than remainers would bring back incandescent lightbulbs, blue passports, imperial weights and measures and pre-decimal currency – which would fox anyone under 55.

At the last election, 20% more over-65s voted Tory than for Labour. Compare that to the under-30s who voted 4% more for Labour. YouGov finds
nearly three quarters of the over-65s would ban burqas (36% of the under 30s). A kindly 62% of the young think we have a moral obligation to refugees, a view shared by only 39% of the old. Same-sex marriage gets 83% support from the young, but just 46% of the over-65s. We who saw the start of women’s lib, an end to censorship, capital and corporal punishment, who threw off hats, gloves and conventions to wear and think what we liked? But no doubt many of my generation never bought into what seemed like the spirit of the age: abolishing capital punishment was never popular.

My generation should count their blessings as the never-had-it-so-good
beneficiaries of the National Health Service, better schools and overseas travel, with new opportunities in that great upward sweep from blue to white collar work. Now most of us sit on the proceeds of decades of booming house prices, enriched by an unmerited, untaxed property windfall. True, the over-60s are twice as likely to give to charity as the under-30s, though generosity may be easier with more cash. Growing old, too many in my generation seem unwilling to share all that experience of progress they have enjoyed.

Of course the poorer old need and deserve all these supports, but the biggest cohort ever to retire on decent pensions still keep their universal perks. The extreme
£12bn benefit cuts starting this week take most money from young families and give 80% of tax cuts to the richest, leaving the poorest third considerably worse off. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts there will be 5.1 million children in poverty by 2020, up 50% – directly due to tax credit and working allowance cuts starting now. Those with children are hit hardest: children’s services, health visitors and schools cut back, yet universal pension perks are protected.

Of course the old never willed any harm to the young, and the real blame lies with the government’s draconian cuts, deliberately shared so unfairly. But the voting habits of the old are the underlying cause of a shift of wealth and income towards them and away from the impoverished young.

The one oddity is the care system, dysfunctional in every way and starved of funds, as described in a trenchant
Commons report last week. If the grey vote is so politically powerful, why doesn’t the social care crisis force the government to act? Partly because relatively few over-65s at any one time need care: many older voters don’t confront the crisis until their very last years, when the average time in residential care is two and a half years.

What do we do about my generation? They have the voting power but too many seem to lack awareness of their good luck. If Brexit further harms the life chances of the young, the old who voted for it will owe them serious recompense. [Abridged]