Tuesday, 30 July 2013

What the Bedroom Tax case reveals about Equality law

The much-despised "bedroom tax" (actually an under-occupancy penalty, which is the accurate as well as the official description of a reduction in benefit occasioned by the presence of what are deemed to be spare bedrooms) does have a reasonable purpose. By forcing social tenants on Housing Benefit to pay rent for bedrooms they don't need, it discourages people from clinging on to large houses once their children, whose existence was the reason they were awarded the properties in the first place, have grown up and moved out. Social housing is in short supply. In many areas there's a huge backlog of families needing to be housed. Encouraging people to downsize once they no longer need so much space, freeing accommodation for families who really do need it, is no bad thing.

The rationale of the policy is rather undermined by the fact that it doesn't apply to pensioners, when it is often pensioners who are over-occupying social housing. There are other practical problems with it. For one thing, there are often no suitable smaller properties for tenants to move into.  Many councils (for example Cambridge) have been bulldozing perfectly viable smaller properties claiming that there is insufficient demand for them.  But the bedroom penalty, as I'm going to call it, will inevitably increase the demand for smaller properties. Which is a good thing. It becomes oppressive and counterproductive when tenants who can't afford to pay the penalty are unable to move - or if they do move, can only be housed by private landlords at a higher rent than the social rents that they are already paying. The basic problem, the shortage of affordable housing, is in no way addressed by the vindictive hammering of some of the poorest people in society if they have no alternative but to live in the properties they already occupy. Nor is it likely to save much money.

The penalty can be rather harsh when applied to disabled people, or to the parents of disabled children, who may live in homes that have been specially adapted to their needs (often at considerable public cost) or who can't share bedrooms without the lives of other family members being unacceptably disrupted. It was the situation of such claimants that led a number of them, together with their supporters, to bring a case at the High Court, judgement in which was delivered this morning.

On the face of it, they had a reasonable case that the rules was discriminatory, since the impact of the bedroom penalty might often fall more harshly on them than on most able-bodied people. The government has established a discretionary fund to alleviate hard cases; but a discretionary fund is by definition discretionary, and it is also limited. Campaigners want the right to receive full housing benefit, and they want the court to agree that failing to grant that right amounts to unlawful discrimination. The court didn't oblige. It held that the existence of a discretionary fund (which the government has now generously doubled) was sufficient to address any issues with the policy. In particular, the court decided that government policy in a democratic system was not really any of its business.

The judgement, delivered by Lord Justice Laws, is significant for several reasons. Much initial comment has picked out paragraph 74, in which Laws clearly signposts the limits of judicial activism. It will be music to the ears of many worried about interference by the courts in the nitty-gritty of political decision-making, and will be much quoted by government lawyers in the years to come:

Much of our modern law, judge-made and statutory, makes increasing demands on public decision-makers in the name of liberal values: the protection of minorities, equality of treatment, non-discrimination, and the quietus of old prejudices. The law has been enriched accordingly. But it is not generally for the courts to resolve the controversies which this insistence involves. That is for elected government. The cause of constitutional rights is not best served by an ambitious expansion of judicial territory, for the courts are not the proper arbiters of political controversy. In this sense judicial restraint is an ally of the s.149 duty, for it keeps it in its proper place, which is the process and not the outcome of public decisions.

It's not the purpose of the court to decide whether or not a policy is right, he declares, merely that it has been rightly arrived at. At issue is the Public Sector Equality Duty (s.149 of the Equality Act 2010, Harriet Harman's poisoned legacy), which requires public authorities to carry out impact assessments before policies are implemented. The purpose of such exercises, in theory, is to ensure that minority or vulnerable groups (or women) will not be adversely affected, or (more pointedly) that any such adverse effect can be justified. Laws LJ explained his thinking very clearly immediately before the paragraph just quoted:

It is plain that the PSED sets an important standard for public decision-making. Where the protected characteristics specified in s.149 of the 2010 Act are potentially affected by a forthcoming public measure, the decision-maker is obliged to conduct a rigorous examination of the measure's effects, including due enquiry where that is necessary. He does not, however, have to undertake a minute examination of every possible impact and ramification...

... As I have indicated the duty of due regard is not a duty to achieve a particular result. The courts will not administer s.149 so as in effect to steer the outcome which ought in any particular case to be arrived at. The evaluation of the impact on equality considerations of a particular decision clearly remains the responsibility of the primary decision-maker... So, as I have said, the discipline of the PSED lies in the required quality, not the outcome, of the decision-making process. This is well borne out by the learning; but in my judgment it reflects a more general constitutional balance.

The only question then became whether the assessment process was "sufficiently rigorous"; in other words, whether the civil servants had gone through the motions convincingly enough. If they have, then the PSED is fulfilled and the government's decision can only then be overturned by the court if it is "manifestly unreasonable".

The effect of Laws' decision, it seems to me, is to make the assessment process under the PSED even more of a bureaucratic dance than it is already. It denudes it of any real significance beyond the opportunity it gives to civil servants to exercise their ingenuity (for which they are rightly famed). It doesn't prevent policies harmful to particular groups from emerging, but it does require ministers to marshall convincing-sounding arguments to defend them. Which is rarely a problem. The PSED was always liable to be a box-ticking exercise; requiring it to be done "rigorously" makes little difference if the ultimate result isn't open to challenge. Indeed, going through the motions with apparent rigour makes the ultimate result less open to challenge. A point Laws LJ hammered home. To repeat: "In this sense judicial restraint is an ally of the s.149 duty, for it keeps it in its proper place, which is the process and not the outcome of public decisions."

So PSED does little to help members of minority groups who will be adversely affected by government decisions, beyond making them a judicial review less likely to succeed. It rather secures government decisions against challenge, by providing convenient insulation. That's the true purpose of box-ticking exercises: not to help members of vulnerable or minority groups but to help bureaucrats shore up their decisions by setting out procedures for them to follow. Achieving equality means, in a bureaucratic context, achieving adherence to procedural norms, established in the name of equality but which are in most respects neutral administrative tools. Boxes must be ticked; it doesn't really matter which boxes get ticked as long as you tick some boxes. Like other parts of the Equality and Diversity culture, for example many of the obligations laid on employers, the chief beneficiaries of PSED are not people with "protected characteristics" but the cadre of Equality and Diversity professionals who form one of this country's few remaining growth industries.

It's nice to have the true position set out so clearly by a judge, especially one as perceptive and distinguished as Lord Justice Laws.
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Monday, 29 July 2013

Kate, William and the royal baby conspiracy

Kate's had a baby. You may have heard. Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge has been safely delivered of a prince, an eight pound six ounce bundle of royal boyhood, a George no less: and what better name to continue the line of the Hanoverian usurpers? A few grouchy feminists may be disappointed that biology failed to keep up with the times, rendering purely symbolic the efforts of forward-thinking politicians who have exercised such constitutional ingenuity to alter the law of succession so as to cope with a potential daughter. But everyone else has been going positively gooey. Britain's miserable handful of remaining republicans are about as popular now as that women's magazine that helpfully offered Kate tips to lose her baby weight, a suggestion swiftly condemned by Jo "ban airbrushing" Swinson to general applause. Because Kate's had a baby. Hasn't she?


True, it has been announced that Kate has had a baby. But it was also claimed that Mary of Modena gave birth to a son by James II in 1688. Many at the time were convinced that she did no such thing: the child was stillborn, and the offspring of a serving woman was smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming pan. It was to prevent such rumours that subsequent royal births were attended by the Home Secretary until well into the 20th century. But that custom has long since been abolished (Princess Margaret's was the last birth to be so witnessed) leaving the royal succession wide open to gerrymandering.

Those redoubtable sceptics over at the David Icke forum have been busy pointing out the holes in the official narrative fed to the the gullible masses. Serious questions, it turns out, surround every aspect of the royal pregnancy and birth. Was the Duchess ever pregnant? Did she lose the baby? Was the child in fact carried by a surrogate and then smuggled in to the Lindo Wing in front of the world's encircling press?
Highly suspicious

1. Was Kate pregnant?

The apparent ease with which Kate carried her child, even into the third trimester, raised eyebrows among even mainstream commentators. Sure, she looked pregnant: but she didn't look pregnant enough. "All these women were blooming at six months," declared the Daily Mail on 23rd April, showing readers a SEO-friendly quota of heavily-laden celebs: Denise Van Outen, Holly Willoughby, Dannii Minogue and Heidi Klum. "So why is Kate's bump so tiny?" Indeed, she did look particularly svelte in her stylist mint-green Mulberry coat. Perhaps it was the camera angle.

Ironically, coming out of the hospital Kate looked more pregnant than she ever did when she was pregnant. To many observers (though not OK! magazine) the Duchess' unembarrassment about her visible post-partum bump sent a positive message to women struggling with body image issues and social or media pressure to lose their "baby weight". But to conspiracy theorists it was grist to the mill. As "actionplan" observed,

She kept purposely pulling the dress down tight around the bump, and you could see it was rock hard, totally unlike a normal post-partum "jelly-belly". It didn't move at all, jiggle when she walked, etc etc. It was so obviously fake. It was absolutely obvious she had not just given birth, confirmed by their uncomfortable, unconvincing show for the paparazzi where they fluffed their lines and looked shifty as hell. Good actors they ain't - should have hired more talented body doubles.

Silkie concurred:

That's what I've been saying - its like jelly after the birth - you still look pregnant but smaller about 7 months for a few days blobbier - not hard and firm and upright - more to the sides than the middle after the birth.

While "elshaper" declared that "Kate's tummy looked stiff like she was wearing a sillicon fake padding." Her chest looked padded, too, some thought. Add the fact that, for many sceptics, the duchess looked uncommonly fresh after an eleven hour labour - she even wore high-heeled shoes, showing off her implausibly slim ankles - and the case against her having undergone a natural childbirth seemed compelling. And then consider...

2. Where did that huge baby come from?

A weight of 8 1/2 pounds isn't exceptional these days, though it's still well above average. And Kate was widely believed to be several days past her due date when the baby finally made his entrance. But the mother's slimness during pregnancy seemed even more puzzling given such a big bairn. How did it fit inside her?

"I saw a baby yesterday while I was shopping yesterday," wrote elshaper, "and I could tell this one was probably about 1 week old or very newborn, still quite wrinkly and red, nothing like Kate's baby which looked like it's been feeding on milk for sometime."

Kiwimaj added: "If you check out the way Kate interacts and looks at the baby you can tell and sense that this is not hers and it is all fake. It's a bit like someone holding a doll and pretending it's a real baby!"

William's behaviour attracted suspiction, too, particularly his words addressed to journalists wanting a clue as to the name: "Well, it's the first time we've seen him really so we need to catch up." Just the sort of thing that might slip out if an unknown child had been slipped into your arms in the hospital lobby.

But does all this mean that Kate can't have been pregnant? As Yass, pointed out, "if the Royals are really reptilians then it all might be a different ball game when it comes to birth."

3. So what happened?

Perhaps there never was a pregnancy. The US gossip magazine In Touch ran a splash in 2011 titled "Will and Kate's baby heartbreak", citing mysterious "health complications from Kate's adolescence" that might affect her ability to conceive. The speculation, supposedly, came straight from the horse's mouth, as it were: step mother-in-law Camilla had "blabbed to friends" about the problem. Then late last year another US tabloid, Globe, claimed that Kate was undergoing fertility treatment and was "determined to be a mom by next year". The story appeared on November 23rd, by which time she Kate was already at least a month with child. At least, so we have been led to believe.

Less than a fortnight later, in fact, Kate was rushed to hospital suffering from severe morning sickness, the intensity of which led to a bout of excited speculation that she might be expecting twins (remember that?) But was this just a cover story? Elshaper's theory is that Kate had miscarried "due to vigorous physical activity" and that as the doctors hadn't been able to save the baby, a "substitute had to be brought in" - in other words, a surrogate. Perhaps, adds actionplan, the real baby hasn't actually been born yet, the surrogate is still pregnant, and Kate is going to her parents for six weeks to keep her cover. The baby we saw on the steps of the hospital was merely a stand-in, a baby procured at short notice (after all, it is a maternity hospital) to satisfy an expectant world. Support for this theory comes from the apparent suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, supposedly upset after taking a call from a couple of Aussie DJs. We all know that the secret services can fake a death. Perhaps, thinks actionplan, Saldanha "saw something she shouldn't" and had to be silenced.

Perhaps a surrogate delivery had been planned all the time, and Kate's supposed morning sickness was a cover for what was actually going on: her eggs being extracted for fertilisation and implantation in a surrogate. Or perhaps the royals were making the best of a bad job. Either way, the pretence of a pregnancy had to be (however unconvincingly) sustained for eight months while somewhere, far from prying eyes, a surrogate mother was, and possibly still is, carrying the penultimate heir to the throne. How she was recruited is unclear. One possibility is that she is herself a member of the Illumanti bloodline to whose existence David Icke has spent so much effort alerting the world over the past twenty years. No doubt her silence has been bought; though one does worry what will happen to her after she has fulfilled her purpose. They're a ruthless lot, these reptilian shapeshifters.

To be fair, some people on that thread pointed out the absurdity of the conspiracy theories being offered. One offered her own experience of motherhood to show that Kate's appearance during and after her pregnancy was far from abnormal: "I don't see anything unusual about her belly and I've been there so I should know." There's sense to be found even on the David Icke Forum, even if those contributors putting forward the conspiracy theories were determined that nothing would make them take the world at face value like the general run of sheeple. But suspicion of the royal birth may be more widespread than you think. I managed to spark off a conversation of Twitter this morning on the subject. As one person sympathetic to the conspiracy theory commented, "it's almost too bizarre to get your head around! But I KNOW life can be weirder than fiction..."

If you think all this is mad, remember that in 1688 the circulation of a no less crazy conspiracy theory led to a revolution, ousted a dynasty and changed the course of British, and world, history.
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Friday, 5 July 2013

Pope Francis - making saints up as he goes along

One of the major perks of becoming Pope is a much increased chance of being made a saint after your death. As of this morning, 78 of the 266 officially recognised Roman pontiffs had been canonised, and we now learn that both John Paul II and John XXIII are to be added to that select company of Heaven. So well done to both of them. No doubt the news will come as some encouragement to the shade of Benedict IX, who died as long ago as 1304 and has been waiting for sainthood for almost three hundred years now, having been declared "Blessed" in 1736.

The problem for Benedict IX (who, if he finally makes it, ought to be declared patron saint of queuers) would seem to be the rules. Because just being pope isn't enough, nor even being an especially holy pope. You also need to have performed at least two verified miracles since your death. One for a beatification, two for full sainthood. And that's a big hurdle, because the Vatican employs a crack team of investigators whose job it is to subject claims of the miraculous to the strictest scientific scrutiny.

They won't accept just any old miracle. The 19th century theologian John Henry Newman, for example, had to wait several decades after his cause was opened until a suitable miracle was discovered. Happily, just in time for Pope Benedict's visit to Britain in 2010 the Vatican confirmed that a man had been miraculously cured of backache through Newman's intercession. Even more happily, the recipient of the miracle, Jack Sullivan, was able to be present at the beatification ceremony. He was even able to hobble painfully to the lectern and read a lesson. A very impressive miracle, you'll agree, especially considering that Mr Sullivan had also endured a back operation. According to Michael Powell, a consultant neurosurgeon at London's University College Hospital, a procedure like Sullivan's typically took "about 40 minutes, and most patients... walk out happy at two days". But of course most patients don't have a would-be saint on their side.

Anyway, the good news is that a second miracle has now been confirmed for John Paul II: a Costa Rican woman was cured of an aneurysm on the very day the late Pope was beatified two years ago. This means that JPII gets to become a saint in near record time, a mere eight years after his death and within the lifetime of some of the serial child-abusers he protected from the authorities. But let no-one say he didn't abide by the rules.

But what of John XXIII, the popular pope who died fifty years ago and who will be canonised at the same time as his successor-but-two? He was beatified on the strength of a miracle that took place in 1965, but it would seem that his posthumous powers must have waned somewhat. No new miracle has been confirmed. But never mind: Pope Francis, who as Pope can do pretty much whatever he likes, has waived the requirement for a second miracle.

No-one, of course, would deny that John XXIII thoroughly deserves to be made a saint. He's known as "the good pope", after all. That epithet can't mean that all the other popes were bad, given how many of them have been made saints already. It can only mean that even by the exalted standards of the papacy John XXIII was remarkable for his goodness. Despite looking more like a mafia don than any pope since Rodrigo Borgia. And he has had a rather longer wait than John Paul II, even if it's nothing compared with the delay poor old Benedict IX has had to endure. (And no special dispensation for him.) But just what is the point of having a rule if the pope can just arbitrarily dispense with it whenever it proves inconvenient? I'm almost tempted to agree with Richard Dawkins, who complained in The God Delusion that

What impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along. It is just shamelessly invented.

Predictably, Pope Francis's decision to canonise John XXIII despite only having one miracle to his name is already being spun as yet more evidence for his refreshing disregard for the niceties of Vatican protocol. As top Vatican watcher John Allen puts it,

In multiple ways, Francis has already demonstrated his willingness to break with convention – not living in the papal apartment, not heading off to the summer residence at Castel Gandolfo for his vacation, even pulling out of a Vatican concert at the last minute because he felt he had better uses of his time. Today’s announcement is thus another indication that for Francis, tradition is more a guide than a master.

I'm sorry, but the procedure for determining whether an individual is, or is not, a saint is a rather more serious matter than where the pope chooses to spend the evenings. It is one of the most solemn acts that the Catholic Church can perform. It's no mere badge of merit, like giving someone an honorary knighthood. Theologically, indeed, the Church doesn't "make saints" at all. Only God can make saints. The miracle requirement exists to provide tangible evidence that the candidate for sainthood has reached heaven and enjoys the especial favour of God. Not only must the miracle be scientifically validated, in other words, but the requirement is itself akin to a scientific proof. It exists to provide experimental confirmation of the hypothesis that X is a saint. And God, the theory goes, will always provide the proof. So to say, "Oh well, never mind, let's just ask the Pope" is to cast aside the whole basis of the canonisation procedure. It's the Pope literally playing God.

Which is a bit much, even for a Pope.

And the "two miracles" rule does make a kind of sense, even if you don't happen to believe in miracles. It offers a fairly good indication of whether a candidate for sainthood attracts sufficient devotion - real heartfelt devotion, that is, as opposed to mere willingness to sign petitions. If enough people are praying for a saint's intercession, after all, the chances increase that someone will have an apparent miracle. Medically unexpected recoveries do after all happen occasionally, whether or not the person is praying, and prayer may even promote healing through a version of the placebo effect. The lack of a recent miracle for John XXIII may indicate that he hasn't been as much at the forefront of Catholic consciousness in recent years as John Paul II has. But the answer to that would be to promote his cause more assiduously, and encourage would-be miracle recipients to get praying.

Allen also thinks that to canonise two such different personalities as the same time "underscores the inclusive spirit of Francis’ papacy" and even a "gesture in the direction of collegiality". In other words, it sends a message. But ignoring the rules just because it's convenient to hold a two-for-the-price-of-one canonisation ceremony for the dead popes in fact smacks of arbitrary rule - of a pope who is, as Dawkins suggested, simply making it up as he goes along. That's no basis for a credible religion. In fact, now I come to think about it, quite a lot of this new pope's actions hint at a lofty disdain for the traditional way of doing things, almost indeed at a Blairite impatience with institutions and procedures. And we all know where that led.

Francis, of course, can't put a foot wrong, just as Benedict XVI couldn't put a foot right. If he sat on a kitten he would be praised for his humility in choosing such an uncomfortable cushion. (If Ratzinger had sat on a kitten, by contrast, it would have been seen as an attempt to restore the ancient papal prerogative of cat-sitting, last invoked by Pius IX after an unusually opulent lunch.) So he can ostentatiously refuse to attend a concert put on in his honour or make snide remarks about people saying rosaries on his behalf, and the international press swoons at yet more evidence of his humility. Actually, though, such high-handed humility strikes me as rather arrogant - or at the very least, indicative of a taste for the exercise of arbitrary power, a characteristic of the papal monarchy at its most medieval.

If in the modern day and age the concept of a scientifically validated miracle has become embarrassing (because almost any, no any, "miraculous" healing can be explained in natural terms, whatever the Vatican miracle-testers may claim), it might of course be amended. By papal decree, if need be. But that would mean dropping the requirement for all future would-be saints, not just for a particular dead pope whose canonisation happens to be convenient. Because consistency matters, especially one would hope in a religion that is meant to offer people certainty in their lives.
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Thursday, 4 July 2013

Breast is best

Apparently - well, according to the South China Morning Post, as retailed in shocked tones to readers of Telegraph Online by Tim Stanley - there's a trend among China's increasingly prosperous and fashion-conscious middle classes to hire wetnurses.  Only not all the milk is intended for babes in arms.  Confirming their national reputation for both omnivoracity and medical gullibility, some at least of the Chinese are convinced that human breast milk is good for them, and wetnursing agencies (which apparently exist over there) are expanding their business to cater to the new demand. 

The service is allegedly "popular among adults with high incomes and high-pressure jobs and who suffered from poor health," and the women "rarely raise objections as long as the price is right."  This despite the fact that you have to suspect that in some cases there's a sexual thing going on, given that some clients elect to receive their dose of the white stuff direct from source, as it were.  (A lawyer quoted in the SCMP, making a suitably fine legal distinction, noted that "there is an essential difference between sucking on a breast and drinking from a pump, as the former largely exceeds the necessity of diet."  Indeed.)

Stanley is scandalised by all this:

On the one hand, it’s revolting. Everything about this scenario should appal the reader, from the very idea of an adult suckling from another adult to the possibility that someone should be so desperate for money that they have to sell their services in this manner. It’s every bit as wrong as prostitution.

But on the other hand, the story is good evidence of how China has become an unrestrained capitalist free-for-all:

When you take the profit motive and strip it of old-fashioned concepts like shame or natural law, it becomes rational in the minds of nihilists to treat the human body as yet another product to packaged, priced up and put on the market. If a society is prepared to employ people for a dollar a day, work them near to death and provide little in the way of health and safety regulation, why not exploit their human reproductive systems, too? If China's oligarchs treat their people like cattle, that’s exactly where capitalism without morality ends. Don’t be surprised if rich Chinese businessmen start wearing clothes taken from the hair of the poor, or jewelry made from fingers. Perhaps an amputated foot as a doorstop?

Actually, this is just the same point put differently.  Tim Stanley sounds a bit like the fashionable Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, lamenting the contaminating effect of money on morality and human relationships - and seemingly unable to see in capitalism anything other than exploitation, a strange position for a conservative to occupy.  "Why not exploit the human reproductive system too?"  Well, commercial surrogacy is now an accepted practice in many parts of the world and has brought joy to countless childless couples.  Donating a uterus for nine months is a much bigger ask than a cupful of milk. 

Stanley's argument is a good case study in the close relationship (often commented on by psychologists and anthropologists alike) between physical disgust and moral disapproval.  He finds the concept "revolting" and "ultra-creepy"; from there it's no distance at all to finding it wrong.  It's telling that he assumes only desperation for money could drive someone to sell her own breast-milk.  Yet it's a renewable resource (just as hair is; and many people in the third world sell their hair), and the women providing it appear to be reasonably well-paid (up to 20,000 yuan a month, as compared with an average monthly wage in China of around 500).  The figures would suggest that women with breast milk to spare are highly sought-after, and indeed highly valued.  Wetnursing was once a respectable occupation in Europe, too, although as far as I'm aware their services were only provided to babies. [or perhaps not. Tim Stanley has now pointed me to this very interesting account of adult breastfeeding during the renaissance.]

What's the problem?  ConsentingC adults providing a service to other adults, harming no-one and indeed providing them with a nutritious and possibly (I've never tried it, at least not since long before my gastronomic memory kicked in) delicious, 100% natural foodstuff.   It's surely not on the same morally questionable level as, say, an unregulated trade in human organs.  Yes, it's unconventional.  But you may reasonably wonder why it's normal for people to consume milk intended by nature to feed baby cows, yet enjoying milk intended for human beings should be considered disgusting and wrong. 

Is it merely the strong hold of conventional thinking?  It wasn't so many years ago, after all, that it was perfectly acceptable to make the same disgusted noises about consensual gay sex (and there are still plenty of people who think that way, even if it has become socially unacceptable to enunciate their revulsion).  Or maybe there's something deeper going on - perhaps the intimacy of the mother-child bond in lactation sets up a taboo (adult milk-drinking as a boundary violation); or perhaps Freud would have had something to say about the milk-drinkers exhibiting an Oedipal craving to return to the maternal breast (in which case, the practice becomes taboo precisely because it is powerfully attractive).  Alternatively, the thought of consuming breast-milk may stir up the same kind of emotions that the recent Western fad of placenta-eating does in some people: are objectors subliminally reminded of cannibalism?  Maybe.  But I'll go with the social convention hypothesis for now.  I suspect Tim Stanley is just incapable of getting his head round the idea of something so (in our terms) unusual.  Anglo-Saxon people tend to be fairly weird about breasts generally, after all.

At the start of this post I noted Chinese medical gullibility.  I was thinking of tiger-bones and the like, but when it comes to human breast-milk perhaps I'm being unfair.  Nutritionists are, after all, very sure that it's good, even necessary, for babies, to the extent that women unwilling or unable to breastfeed are subject to near-bullying from dispensers of official health advice.  Breast-milk contains chemicals important to the development of human infants and to the development of their immune system.  It also helps protect nursing mothers from some cancer.  So it's not wholly implausible that this miraculous substance would also provide health benefits to adults - more, indeed, than are provided by cow's milk, which as I noted earlier is intended for baby cows. 

Leaving aside the yuck factor, it is of course impractical (and morally unacceptable) to milk women in the same way that cows are milked commercially: human milk as such will only ever be a niche product.  But that doesn't make it disgusting, or any less potentially beneficial.  I can imagine, in the not too distant future, genetically engineering cows or goats to produce milk with the same nutritional composition as human milk.  I can also imagine the Tim Stanleys of the world having a problem with the idea.  But I'm not sure that it would be wrong.

Meanwhile, should you have access to a ready supply of human milk, you might like to check-out these delicious-sounding recipes.  Vanilla Breast Milk Cupcakes with Strawberry Frosting.  Yum.
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Monday, 1 July 2013

The pitfalls of being a pixie dream girl

In life, people aspire to be archetypes, but usually end up as stereotypes. Or indeed clichés.

Zooey "Im such a manic pixie" Deschanel
I wasn't actually aware of the phrase "manic pixie dream girl" until I read Laurelia's broodingly soulful piece of self-diagnosis yesterday, but of course I instantly recognised the type. As pinned down with lepidopteristic precision by Nathan Rabin in a film review, she's the young lady who "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." She's Zooey Deschanel, in other words, though Penny somehow manages to get through the entire article without dropping that name once.

I wonder if Nathan Rabin, like many analysts and indeed creators of Hollywood narratives, has been reading too much Joseph Campbell. His enumeration of the manic pixie dream girl's functions makes her sound like an avatar of Campbell's goddess:

Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters.

Or, in Laurie's case (for she too was once a Magic Pixie Dream Goth) sets him up with contacts and talks into the night about the meaning of journalism. All while playing the ukelele.

Laurie's complaint about the archetype isn't just that in her younger years she wasted too much time on "sad, bright, bookish young men" impressed by the fact that she played the ukelele and resembled something left on the bottom of a pond (her words) but mainly that she (the manic pixie, that is, not Laurie) is a male fantasy in a "story that happens to somebody else" - to the male hero, that is. Like most women in fiction (and life) the dream girl isn't the main focus:

We expect to be forgettable supporting characters, or sometimes, if we're lucky, attainable objects to be slung over the hero's shoulder and carried off at the end of the final page. The only way we get to be in stories is to be stories hourselves. If we want anything interesting at all to happen to us we have to be a story that happens to somebody else, and when you're a young girl looking for a script, there are a limited selection of roles to choose from.

The manic pixie exists to "save" the brooding hero rather than being a person in her own right, Penny complains. Indeed, she has no interior life, being merely merely a collection of ditzy attributes, conventionally unconventional music tastes, and non-corporate hair styles. She's no role model for a successful modern woman (would Goldman Sachs employ her?). To become a serious writer - and a serious person - Laurie had to wash the dye out of her hair with the same grim fortitude Nellie Forbush displayed in attempting to shower away Emile in Act One of South Pacific. And it's a struggle, because her inner pixie keeps reasserting itself at inconvenient moments. If only she'd known at 21 that becoming a writer would also mean intimidating men she fancied - which is, I suppose, another way of saying that the men she fancied were such drips.

Because it takes two. It always takes two. If every soulful guitar-strumming post-adolescent male needs a manic pixie girl to teach him the meaning of life, so every manic pixie girl needs a soulful guitar-strumming geek to rescue. And then they both grow up. Usually, at any rate. Occasionally the soulful guitar-strummer fails to grow up and turns into Jeremy Forrest, which is even worse for him than it is for the women in his life. Movies, of course, are full of such cases of arrested adolescence, even if the objects of their crushes, for reasons of propriety, are invariably "legal". Hence, I suppose, the phenomenon of grown women acting inappropriately twee that so offend's Laurie's feminist sensibilities.

I do wonder how she can be so casually dismissive of the women her ex-crushes end up with. "My Facebook feed," she complains, "is full of young male writers who I have encouraged to believe in themselves, set up with contacts, taken on adventures and talked into the night about the meaning of journalism and who are now in long-term relationships with people who are content to be That Girl." Is this really true? Do these men's girlfriends not have careers and interior lives of their own? Are any young women, especially middle-class, educated young women who I assume are sharing their lives with (and may well be financially supporting) Laurie's male Facebook friends really content to be "That Girl" any more?

The lost boys need rescuing for the same reason that the manic pixies need to wear floaty clothes: because they're passing through that liminal life-stage in which adulthood has physically and legally arrived but hasn't yet been fully achieved. Both are stock characters; neither has any more or less interior life than the other. It depends on who's telling the story. And most of these stories - the indy rom-coms - are told for (and sometimes even by) women, or to be more accurate, teenage girls, for whom the guitar-strumming soul-owner is a more resonant fantasy object than he would be for a grown woman, in fiction as in life. The manic pixie is the object of fantastic yearnings mainly at a remove: she's the type of girl that the soulful guitar-strummer or depressive hero is supposed to want, or need, but she's a female ideal of a female ideal. Even soulful guitar-strumming men tend to find the type, and the films in which she looms large, profoundly annoying.

As for Laurie's claim that "men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story [while] women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's", that may have been largely true once, when the only long-term career open to most women was marriage and motherhood, but surely isn't any more. I suppose there are quite a few young women who dream of becoming WAGs, but even for them WAGdom is almost and end in itself: it's the lifestyle, the shoes, the foreign travel that appeals. The footballer appeals, too, but as much another designer accessory than as a flesh-and-blood human being: for the wannabe WAG he's a means to an end, rather than someone in possession of a rich interior life (which, in the case of footballers, may be largely true). He is the supporting character in her story, just as Mr Darcy was a supporting character in Lizzie Bennett's (Pride and Prejudice was never about him.) Whoever thought, "I want to marry a footballer just so I can support my husband's career"?

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