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Thursday, 14 October 2021

They/Them? A Very Critical Look at Self-Identifications

 


I’ve never liked being called by positional names or displaying symbols of such positions. So though married for a long time, I never wore a wedding ring. Nor did my wife who never changed her name, used “Ms”, and was irritated (as I was) by Christmas cards addressed to Mr and Mrs T. Pateman.  Our generation? Born in the 1940s. Outside of university settings, I never used my academic title.

I encouraged our children to use my first name and now do the same for my grandchildren. But the encouragement was never a demand and is now generally ignored, except by one grandchild. As a result, I now sign emails as Dad x but persist in signing birthday cards to grandchildren with a cartoon which has so far allowed me to completely avoid Grandad x

So I was not immediately unsympathetic to those who want to be called They/Them;  for many years in my writing I have used they as a generic, having tried the clumsy he or she and the stylistically disastrous App. which mechanically alternates he and she.

But something doesn’t seem quite right in what’s happening now. I accept that my own past preferences could be considered to some degree prissy or attention seeking or narcissistic. But what is happening now strikes me as massively - and not much more than - prissy, attention seeking, and narcissistic, with added readiness to affect offence or worse if not properly noticed. And it does seem all very much more about having a one-up Twitter identity rather than about relations with intimates.

To me it looks like this: middle-class young people,  burdened with names and expectations which they cannot always live up to, mostly at university or recently graduated, are making themselves appear special by turning themselves into They/Them on grounds that they are non-binary. The threshold for entry into this special class of people has not, to my knowledge, been disclosed unlike the titles which Debrett’s regulates. Is it enough to paint your finger nails in non-matching colours? No, but only because no more than self-identification is required, is that not so?

So it is irrelevant for me to muse whether in the past I was, unwittingly, non-binary because I changed nappies. Or because I entered my home-made jams into village horticultural shows. Or because even on the most charitable interpretation my sexual encounters never (sometimes to a partner’s disappointment) achieved the expected binary climax of Wham, Bam, Thank You, Ma’m? No, it’s not feminine or effeminate traits, nor the desire to avoid toxic forms of masculinity, which make you non-binary. It’s brass neck or, to put it in more modern terms, a sense of entitlement.

I look at the images on Google and think to myself, This is just fashion and will mostly be abandoned within a few years just as most of us gave up fairly rapidly on Carnaby Street and Flower Power. But while it lasts there is a big difference: current self-identifications are moralised and essentialised to the hilt. Hence, the offence if you don’t take them seriously enough. Rather like bearded young men in theological seminaries, our They/Them people are utterly convinced of their own self-righteousness - that their choice has real existential depth and the fires of Salem await those who can’t see it.

To be honest, I simply don’t believe many of the self-presentations, partly because the choice so obviously opens career opportunities in the crowded field of desirable, non-manual jobs - well, not just non-manual; preferably media-related. But non-manual is a good start; people on building sites tend to get on with the job; They/Them is not a priority which clearly rules out building sites as workplaces. But university seminars can grind to a halt over naming protocols. After all, seminars are not that important: if you pay your money, you’re going to get a two one anyway unless you make the mistake of studying a STEM subject.

I suspect too that They/Them is attractive to boys more than girls; the girls can always build online Presences by taking their clothes off and for some that earns daily mega-bucks; the boys remain in less overall demand with clothes off - girls remain obstinately more  interested in brains and personality - and so the boys have to find other ways of building a path to alienated Twitter success.

There is another dimension, that of the private and the public. At universities in the 1960s, people were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, kinky (sometimes quite imaginatively so, given the absence of accessible porn and sex toys). They might let you know this or they might not. But it was not the primary way in which they defined themselves: like everyone else, they were studying Maths or History; they were Conservative or Labour or Revolutionary Socialist. That has now changed; it is “gender identity” (especially if you are white) or, more seriously and convincingly, ethnic identity or religious identity which trumps everything else. And “trumps” is not a bad word here because very little of it seems to have anything to do with progressive politics in its usual sense; some of it seems to me frankly far to the right, in the hunting grounds of those who bully and intimidate TERFS, people who to me are simply the feminists - or descendants thereof - from whom I learnt my feminism back in the 1970s. They had and have a coherent set of critiques of patriarchal societies; our modern gender theorists - if "theorists" is the right word - have so far done no more than replace argument with intolerant, incoherent mystifications. There is no coherent argument or theory which supports the (bourgeois? neo-fascist? entitled?) ideology of self-identification. Hence the immediate recourse to outrage and witch-hunting.

Donald Trump self-identifies as the true  President of the United States and about forty million American adults accept the self-identification, based on no evidence at all. It must be something in the drinking water.

Friday, 8 October 2021

Keir Starmer and the Contribution Society

 What follows is the second chapter (of 26) in Trevor Pateman,  The Best I Can Do (2016) available from Amazon or Blackwell.co.uk. It has not been updated



Bus Passes and Benefits


I’ve never claimed my Free Bus Pass. I would be ashamed to wave it while paying passengers watch. Imagine that it was Coloreds who paid and Whites who didn’t .Where I live, looking at workers boarding the bus and paying their fares on the way to low-paid jobs, that’s not far from the reality. Nor is it far from the reality that poor people pay and better-off Over Sixties don’t. Yet the Over Sixties, quite solidly and sometimes fiercely, now seem to believe that they have a Human Right to bus travel paid for by others – even though Bus Passes are a very recent invention. How did this come about? The fault lies with our political parties, always looking for cheap ways to gain the favour of those most likely to vote. Any party now proposing to withdraw the passes would face a backlash of unreasoned wrath. My Benefits, right or wrong!

Bus Passes are not Pensioner Passes. You qualify by virtue of reaching your 60th birthday, well below the ages at which most people qualify for state pensions. At sixty, many people are still working, their children are gone, and they have paid off mortgages. They are better off than at any time before. Many of those waving Bus Passes – of course, not all – are better dressed than they have ever been. They can afford to be. Eventually, they will become old and even frail. It’s always stressful to watch a frail elderly person board a bus, struggling with shopping bags and sticks. They don’t need a Bus Pass any more. They need a once-a-week Taxi Pass. Or, rather, they need adequate pensions. Free bus passes are not only electoral bribes; they are also one of the cosmetic means by which feckless governments have sought to disguise the inadequacy of State Pension provision in the UK.

In relation to former earnings, that pension is much lower than the European average: about one third against an average of a half across twenty-seven other European nations. Our governments have been too fearful to force people to pay enough into retirement income schemes to fund adequate pensions and reluctant - until absolutely forced by a huge rise in life expectancy- to raise the pensionable age. Until very recently in the UK, the State Pension age for women was set at sixty. Men at sixty-five. No one challenged that extraordinary bit of entrenched sex discrimination. It had its origins in discriminatory thinking: women filled up the workforce during two world wars and thus qualified for pensions. But allowing them to take their pensions at sixty was also meant to ease them out of the workforce, leaving more room for men who had fought. Over time, the discrimination transformed from discrimination against women to discrimination in their favour. But for decades no one challenged it.

Self-respect is very much connected to the ability to make your own choices. Older people generally benefit from walking or even cycling but politicians want you to take the bus. The bus companies are happy enough; they get paid. The Bus Pass is a clunking decision by politicians to make choices for you: Here, my good woman, take this Pass and use that bus over there! And show some gratitude!

In a better world, older people would dispose of enough income to make their own choices and thus maintain an important aspect of personal dignity. It would be acceptable to withdraw the Bus Passes and add to the State Pension the equivalent of the money saved. All that you lose is the self-satisfied smile of the politician who wants you to doff your cap and thank him (Gordon Brown, Ken Livingstone).

*

The Bus Pass is a symptom of a deeper problem which resides at the core of the British Treasury and the way it relates to British governments. The Treasury hates two things above all: ring fenced money and entitlements. It is committed to the ideas that all revenues should go into a single big undifferentiated Pot under its own control and that all outgoings, whether to government departments or citizens, are a matter of discretion. That is, of course, an understandable way for a Treasury to think. It gives you the maximum of flexibility in what is often – thanks to politicians – a struggle to make the books balance. But it is also completely symbiotic with the interest of party politicians. They too want maximum discretion.

Let me give one example. British prime ministers now normally want to pick at least one war to fight during their time in office. These wars of choice can be vote-winners. They allow the prime minister to walk tall. Mr Cameron was deeply disappointed in 2013 when he was not able to get his war in Syria, supporting Syrian jihadis. He had better luck in 2015 when  Parliament agreed to his new plan to attack jihadis in Syria. It put him up there with the Big Boys. But equally a government going to war does not want voters to think about the financial costs. The last thing it wants is being forced to impose a War Tax. That would make voters think twice about their gung-ho enthusiasms for bombing far away countries. Fortunately, the Treasury pot is usually big enough to absorb the costs of a small war, one which sticks to the cheap route to failure, that of bombing civilians. Money can be shifted between notional budgets and, if not, borrowing can be discreetly increased. But when monies are ring-fenced and there are entitlements, it becomes more difficult. As a result of this way of thinking, both Treasury and politicians are committed to the ideas (though they would never admit it) that All Benefits are Voluntary Hand Outs and No Benefits are Entitlements. In other words, citizens have no rights.

The obvious way to create entitlement to benefits is through insurance schemes. People pay into the scheme and, at the same time, they are informed of their entitlements under the scheme. That is what Britain’s National Insurance system was once supposed to be about. But now it isn’t. No one pays in anywhere near enough to accumulate entitlement to the benefits they can claim. Nowadays, it is merely a concession to the idea that there can be benefits to which you are entitled because you have insured for them. If the Treasury had its way, even that concession would be abolished. The Treasury loathes the idea of insurance. It gets in the way of tax and spend. The Treasury has almost a winning hand in one simple fact about our psychology. We hate it when we see money removed from our pay packet before we even get it: Pay as You Earn taxes, National Insurance. If National Insurance was for realistic sums of money we would hate it even more. But when it comes to paying 20% Value Added Tax on virtually everything we buy – well, we don’t even notice it (often we don’t see it separately itemised). This is the Treasury’s winning hand – taxes we don’t notice. Not only that, such invisible taxes are not linked to any specific government expenditures. The Treasury gets just the kind of money it wants, money it can use as it (or its political masters) please. In addition, VAT quietly and effectively reverses the progressive character of Income Tax and produces the desired overall result that the poor pay a higher percentage of their income in tax than the rich.

The symbiotic Treasury - Politician commitment to avoiding entitlements and favouring handouts immediately opens the door to the parlour game known as Benefits Scrounging, in which the winners are those who work out every handout for which they can make themselves eligible and promptly claim them all. Those who celebrate their 60th birthday by claiming their Free Bus Pass are benefits scroungers. They have no entitlement to the pass, they have done nothing to deserve it, they often don’t need it – but it’s there, a handout, yours for the asking.

 *

 

We have an increasingly shaky idea of what it means to be a citizen. The benefits culture, created by politicians and sustained until very recently by an all-party consensus, has been disempowering. It encourages childishness at election times as voters shop around looking for the party which offers three for the price of two. No more than that. No expectation that you think about the future, about your children and grandchildren; certainly no expectation that you think about right and wrong, justice and fairness. An obvious route towards re-building ideas of citizenship involves, among much else, dismantling the Handouts culture and re-instating the idea of a contributory system: you pay in for health care, unemployment benefit, and pensions. That must be the expectation for nearly everyone, with a non-contributory but generous social safety net principally for those who are born disabled or become so. It also involves challenging the Treasury - Politician collusion. There is no reason why money should not be ring-fenced, why taxes on X should not go towards paying for Y and only for Y. If politicians want a war, then they must use a War Tax to pay for it. If voters want a war, then they should be obliged to put their money where their flags wave.

Probably the only interesting alternative to this approach is the idea of a universal Citizen Entitlement to a flat monthly income about big enough to live on. Everyone would get it, regardless of income or age. For those in work, for example, it would simply lower their tax bill. For those not earning, for whatever reason, it would be a handout but without the disfiguring features of the electoral bribes currently on offer to selected groups, most obviously and repeatedly in the UK, the voting over 60s. The idea has the merit of threatening the destruction of a thousand benefits bureaucracies, most of which end up in the newspapers for incompetence of one kind or another. So it is a sleek proposal. It has the de-merits that it hands money to people who don’t need it and, in practice, will still have to include small print provisions for special cases like those of people whose disabilities oblige them to make use of expensive equipment or carers. From where I am coming from, universal citizen entitlement has the demerit that it puts all citizens in the position of state dependents. I have yet to read an argument that persuades me that is not the case.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Defending Dogs from Humans: a Case against Pet Ownership

 

Defending Dogs from Humans

 

[Dogs]… are the ultimate reminder that there is more to life than a smartphone

 

Gillian Tett, FT Weekend Magazine, April 13/14 2019


It being the opinion of some philosophers that the absence of an alternative has a great deal to do with the faithfulness of spaniels.


George Eliot, deleted sentence from Silas Marner.


*

 

In many - maybe most - countries, dogs are bred to satisfy the needs of humans. Some of those needs seem to me strong enough to justify the breeding; in this category I place sheep dogs, sniffer dogs, guide dogs. Those dogs are usually well-cared for. Other human needs I am doubtful about, including those identified by Gillian Tett in her “The Truth about Cat and Dog Owners”

 

At the top end, exotic dog brands are created to satisfy a demand for status symbols which fit into a designer handbag. Some of those exotic dogs suffer from chronic health problems which are reckoned a small price to pay for the exoticism. Far from providing a status symbol, ownership of such dogs ought to downgrade the owner’s status as it would if the symbol was a dwarf or a black slave. Likewise, some dog breeds are engineered to create attack animals, and that should also be  cause for concern.

 

But the vast majority of dogs are bred to satisfy ordinary human needs for companionship or to compensate for chronic emotional problems. It’s not that easy to find a dog owner who does not have fairly obvious emotional needs or problems to assuage for which a dog has been selected as the drug of choice. Those problems are evident in the way dog owners address their dogs and talk about them to others. The stand-out literary representation of the situation is to be found in J R Ackerley's My Dog Tulip.

 

From the perspective of the owners, the wonderful thing about dogs is that they are liable to Stockholm Syndrome; they adopt the values of those who have taken them hostage. Occasionally, a dog will go on the attack, but not against its controller; the victim is either a complete stranger or else a child in the same house. But most of the time, dogs are compliant in a way that other human beings aren’t. Part of being mentally healthy is being able to accept that other people don’t always want to run fetch or sit up and beg. Some people can’t come to terms with that and that’s probably a mental health problem in itself, or a sign of one.

 

The dependence of owners on their dogs is not just a worrying psychological fact; it is also a significant social problem - and a growing one, since dog ownership is ever-increasing partly due to the advertising efforts of very large pet food corporations. They encourage the dependency in exactly the same way as the purveyors of alcohol and tobacco. Their advertising is long overdue for the same kind of regulation as applies to the promotion of other drugs, though I am not sure how you regulate sentimentality. You can’t just proscribe doe-eyed, floppy-eared doggies; maybe you just have to ban all pictures of dogs in dog food advertisements.  They are exploitative of canines who have not signed consent forms and do not get paid. They feed the traffic in dogs.

 

The dependency would not matter so much were it not for the fact that it spills over into a variety of social nuisances. Rather like street drinkers who scatter cans and piss on the pavement, dog owners think that public space exists for the benefit of their pets, that the main function of public space is to provide convenient pit stops for dogs. If dogs did not shit and piss, you can be absolutely certain that very few of them would be taken for such regular walkies.

 

Though in my country (Great Britain) it has now become more common for dog owners to Pick Up - and what does that tell us about their state of mind, for goodness sake? - they have at the same time become more grandiose about their own entitlements. A few decades ago, it was unusual for dogs to be allowed into shops, restaurants, offices, schools, hospitals, trains, buses …. Now they are everywhere and there are moves afoot to get them into the last hold-out against their presence, rented homes. So if you live in a converted Victorian terrace house with no sound-proofing and grubby public areas, prepare for the next deterioration in your quality of life. The dogs are coming.

 

Ultimately, we should consider a ban on the breeding of dogs as pets. That would be in defence of the dogs against humans. Such a world is a long way off. Right now, one public policy aim should be to marginalise dog owners in the same way that smokers have been marginalised. Huddled in doorways for a fag break, there is now no disguising the fact that theirs is an addiction which other people, who were once forced into the role of passive smokers, now refuse to share. It took a long time to reverse the grip of Big Tobacco over our lives.

 

In relation to dogs, the place to begin is reversion to how things were before. Dog ownership should be taxed as it once was, very much for the same reason that alcohol and tobacco are taxed. The taxes discourage use but also pay for the clean-up costs of other people's addictions: the street mess, the hospital admissions. Second, we should re-introduce the old policy of Dogs not admitted. Hospitals, chemists’ shops, schools, anywhere that serves food and drink - these are obvious No Go areas. In relation to public recreational space, a good starting point would be to exclude dogs from half of them. Parents of young children, especially, would welcome this. Weekend football and cricket players would also welcome playing fields which do not do double duty as dog shitteries.

 

I like animals. I am uncomfortable with human dog-dependence, so obviously a symptom of emotional and psychological difficulty; but more to the point, I am tired of dog owners’ sense of entitlement, their sense of privilege in which their rights trump those of dog-free people. It should be possible to enjoy a meal in a restaurant without someone else’s dog under your feet and go for a walk admiring the scene, rather than keeping your eyes down for the dog shit.



Written 2019 in response to Gillian Tett's article