Sunday, 29 November 2009


One of the interesting things to become apparent recently is that quite a large number of people live in an alternate universe where there is one law for the famous and another for ordinary people.

Roman Polanski raped a thirteen year old girl. That his victim was underage at the time exacerbates the crime, but had she been twenty-two year old, it would remain a crime. It remains a crime even thirty-two years later. There are no excuses or mitigating circumstances.

Now that the Swiss authorities have done the right thing and arrested him, a huge number of people from this alternate reality have stumbled into ours and said some rather ridiculous things. The common undercurrent is an indignation that such a virtuoso of cinema would be subjected to something as common as arrest, and a weird paranoia that Polanski is somehow being "singled out" for being famous. It's true that the trajectory of his case has been affected by his fame - but only in the sense that a non-famous criminal doesn't get to escape to France, remaining untouched by the authorities there.

Rape, when committed by someone sufficiently famous, is apparently a mere faux pas, and to arrest Polanski for it impinges on his tremendous dignity as an artist. But there is no way his dignity could be damaged by his arrest, because he already threw it away when he forced himself on Samantha Geimer.

One common apologist tactic is to ignore the fact that the sex was clearly non-consensual and concentrate on the Geimer's age at the time, and to then argue that a charge of pedophilia is unfounded, as Geimer wasn't really a child. But this is beside the point. Let me reiterate: Polanski raped her.

As for the people why cry "hasn't he suffered enough" - the Boston Globe hits the nail on the head, writing: "By reminding us that he lived through the Holocaust and his wife’s 1969 murder, Polanski’s apologists insult other survivors. Being a victim of genocide or violence needn’t engender and never excuses more violence".

Polanski currently remains under detention in Switzerland, though he has just been granted bail. Given that the last time he was granted bail he ran away to France, this sounds less than sensible, though he is being fitted with an electronic tracking bracelet to prevent this from happening again.

What can you do? Well, for starters, don't listen to the apologists, and don't let them spout their garbage unchallenged. If you are a fan of Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, Pedro Almodovar, Wes Anderson, Natalie Portman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Darren Aronofsky, Diane von Furstenberg, Julian Schnabel, Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal or Penelope Cruz (etc) - you may want to reconsider your fandom. Or send them a letter expressing your disappointment.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Top 10 green living myths

With environmental concerns becoming more mainstream, a number of corporations and special interests have cropped up to provide "solutions" that ultimately only benefit their bottom line, but not the planet. They are pushing the recent public fixation on carbon emissions to the exclusion of other issues, like overfishing, deforestation, ocean acidification, and environmental poisons. This has created a whole category of low-carbon products that can be sold to consumers eager to make a difference, as well as potentially creating a very lucrative market in carbon credits. It's much easier and more profitable than, say, not overfishing the oceans or not abusing fertiliser.

Hence, this Guardian blog entry is absolutely worth reading, as it tells you how to actually reduce your environmental impact instead of just wasting your time and money on greenwashed products.

It doesn't only contain tips on what to do, but also lists a number of actions that are ineffective or counterproductive. For example, buying a more efficient car when your old car still works is a very bad idea, since the impact of manufacturing a new car is tremendous. Equally, "green electricity" appears to be something close to a scam, and you'd be much better off just running big appliances overnight.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

I don't talk to children: Is fear of sexual predators reinforcing gender roles?

I've been reading "There's a good girl" by Marianne Grabrucker, in which she describes her attempts to raise her daughter in a sane way free from gender stereotypes, and the difficulties she faces.

One of the recurring themes, especially at the start of the book, is that men ignore children. When a child sits down next to a woman on the train, the woman will often engage it in conversation, and the parent present will look on approvingly. On the other hand, a man will simply pretend the child is not there at all.

If he's forced to interact with it, he will do so very distantly, in a condescending voice and a minimum of words. To quote Grabrucker:

"So a man is apparently permitted to ignore someone; he is in control of the situation and decides who he will talk to and when. When he does address children, he adopts the tone he will later often use with women."

(page 34f)

Now, the fun thing about examining societal attitudes is that you can just look into yourself to figure them out. A thought experiment with an imagined situation can yield quite surprising results.

In my case, I have realised that I just don't talk to children!

For example, let's say I'm over at some friends', who have a little girl. They're busy making dinner. I have offered to help them, but there is nothing for me to do. The little girl is bored, and bothering her parents.

I could go and entertain the kid - ask her to show me her toys, tell her a story, chase her around - do something to get her out of her parents' way so they can cook in peace.

If the parents ask me to, I will happily do this. I like children. But I would never take the initiative: talking to or touching a child who isn't family feels like a huge transgression to me. So unless prompted, I just stand in the doorway and chat.

A woman, on the other hand, would be expected to entertain the child. Women are supposed to help others out, and to take care of children. Men are not expected to do the former, and are societally prohibited from doing the latter.

Another scenario: A little boy is running across a big park, and falls flat on his face, right next to me. He starts crying. I stand rooted to the spot and wait for his mother to run across the park to pick him up and make sure he's OK. I behave like that because interacting with a kid I don't know at all feels like an impossible transgression.

The same kind of attitude also extends to women, if to a lesser degree:

About two years ago, on the bus home, I noticed this young women and her kid come onto the bus, carrying a bunch of plastic bags. The little girl was pretty hyperactive and kept zooming around the bus, despite being repeatedly told off by her mother. Eventually, I noticed that the mother was crying. I had another look at the (translucent) bags, and noticed that they were haphazardly stuffed with lots of clothes and personal things.

I might have jumped to conclusions there, but to me this looked very much like the two had just been thrown out of wherever they had been living. For all I knew, they didn't have anywhere to go.

So of course, I did nothing.

What should I have done? Gone up to the woman, and asked "Pardon me, it looks like you've just been turfed out on the street. Do you need help carrying your bags? Would you like a cup of tea? Do you need somewhere to sleep? We have a sofa."

But I'm a pretty tall guy who's dressed mostly in black. The last thing she needed at that point (turfed out or not) was having to deal with a random stranger, trying to figure out whether he could be trusted. If I had been with my girlfriend we might have done something, but alone, I worried I would just look too threatening.

The whole encounter left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable with myself.

So a few months ago, when I was cycling down the road, I noticed a young woman sitting slumped on the verge, crying. As such things go, any number of cars and pedestrians had passed her already without taking notice. I cycled past her too, but twenty metres down the road, I remembered my previous experience and turned around.

She was not in a happy place, though she refused to tell me any details. In the end - and after consulting with my girlfriend over the phone - I called an ambulance and let them take care of her.

I'm not telling this story to trumpet my own credentials as a Samaritan, but to point out that it took quite a lot of mental effort on my part to override my conditioning to ignore her as well.


When I ask myself why I don't interact with children - or women in distress - the reason that comes to mind most readily is that as a man, I'm a potential child molester and rapist.

Of course I want to scoop up that kid and make sure he's all right. But I don't want to panic his mother as she sees a strange man touching her child. If I were female, I think I would appear much less threatening, and this wouldn't be a problem.

But the mind readily makes up rationalisations, so I don't know if that's the real reason for my behaviour. I may well be just following the rules society has instilled in me and justifying it after the fact.

The moral panic about child molestation is mostly misdirected. Most such transgressions happen within the circle of family and friends. Your dear uncle Bobby is much more likely to interfere with your child than a random stranger on the street. So is your aunt Susan. And even a stereotypical crazed child-rapist would be unlikely to grab your child in broad daylight and run off with it, cackling.

The idea of men as potential child molesters does seem to be a popular one - I've heard it as the received wisdom that there are nearly no male primary school teachers because all it takes is a single accusation of molestation to end their career. I don't know if that's true, but the attitude does certainly exist. But is it, again, a rationalisation of traditional gender roles?

Certainly the worry about child molestation has resulted in some strange things: parents get in trouble for taking photographs of their children taking a bath, and in one case, they are banned from the playground. The justification for such insanity?

"Sadly, in today's climate, you can't have adults walking around unchecked in a children's playground."

So there you go. This is why I don't talk to children, don't smile at them, don't comfort them if they're hurt. And what does that teach them? That taking care of children is women's work.

What am I going to do about it? I will try to push at that boundary a little, at least. Smile at little kids on the street. Offer to entertain my friends' children. What else? Suggestions are very welcome.