Sunday, 20 August 2017

Princess Diana and the evil of landmines

Princess Diana died this month 20 years ago and the media (apart from the Morning Star) have been commemorating her death with tasteless posthumous intrusions into her private life. What no one mentions is the one thing she really deserves to be remembered for: her surprising but genuine commitment to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.  Such awful weapons still pose an existential threat in many parts of the world, even when the wars that brought them have long since become history.

The Vietnamese government says that around 14 million tons of ordnance, nearly three times the amount used by the allies in the Second World War, was dropped on Vietnam between 1959 and 75. Between 10-30 per cent of that failed to detonate and now lies scattered throughout the country like deadly poison. Explosions caused by buried bombs and mines claimed around 105,000 civilian lives between 1975 and 2007. In total the Vietnamese government estimates that around 15 per cent of the total surface area of the country is still contaminated in this way. A war that families in the farming communities did nothing to start and knew little about, has never ended. Every time they go out to plough their fields or clear weeds, they risk losing legs and arms or even their lives. And these mines target indiscriminately men, women, children and animals. Everywhere you go in the country you will come across some of the many maimed and disabled individuals, their lives shattered by this ongoing war that no one talks about.

In 1962 Laos was drawn into the Vietnam war despite being an internationally-declared neutral state and between 1964-73, the USA dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on the country – the equivalent of one plane-load of bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years. Laos became the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare and many of those unexploded bombs still lie undetected in the country and a re killing daily.

Cambodia, too, is another neutral country that the US chose to bomb indiscriminately in its desperate attempt to dislodge guerrillas hiding in the jungle. It also still has a major problem with landmines. Today there are around 40,000 amputees in the country – one of the highest rates in the world.

Courageous bomb removal experts are working tirelessly to disarm and remove these bombs but it is a Herculean task. At the present rate, it would take another 50 years or more to free these countries to an acceptable degree of these hidden dangers.

There is, however, now some hope that new technology, developed in Israel, could help track and defuse these bombs and mines more effectively. A team at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University is using genetically modified bacteria to detect hidden mines. The bacteria give off a fluorescent light when mines are close. The mines are, iniquitously, often made of plastic, and are thus invisible to metal detectors. The bacteria react to tiny amounts of vapour given off by explosives. Such technology could bring about a transformational change and save thousands of lives once it is made available.

Since 1997 there has been a Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, and it has become the cornerstone of an international effort to end the suffering and casualties caused by anti-personnel mines. It came into force in March 1999. To date, 162 states have formally agreed to be bound by the Convention, including the UK, but significantly not the United States, Russia or Israel who have yet to sign up.
Princess Diana was a tragic figure caught up in the archaic rituals of the monarchy and the intrusive prurience of the tabloids, but clearly her love for her own children and empathy with others gave impetus to her commitment to the campaign against land mines. Something the ruling class was undoubtedly unhappy about. For that she certainly deserves to be remembered.

The information in this article was based on the recent bulletin from the organisation, Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, written by Mary Lidgard.

If you want good sex –socialism will give it you!

If you want good sex –socialism will give it you!
Many readers may think of the former socialist countries as being full of serious Stakhonovite men and heavy-set peasant women, leading lives of hard work and little pleasure. Well if you do think that, it will come as a surprise to you that according to a recent essay by Kristen R. Ghodsee in the series Red Century, about the history and legacy of Communism 100 years after the Russian Revolution, published in the New York Times (12 August 2017) women had better sex under socialism!
She writes, “A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women. Researchers marvelled at this disparity in reported sexual satisfaction …”. While East German women invariably carried a double burden of formal employment and housework, most women in West Germany stayed at home and also had access to more labour-saving devices produced by the bouyant economy. But apparently, according to the author, they had less sex, and less satisfying sex, than women in the East.
It was also certainly true that life in general was not so sexualised as in the West. There was an absence of using women’s bodies to sell consumer products and there was no objectification of women’s bodies. This was reflected in the numbers of sexual assaults in both states.
A study carried out in 1990 showed that 62 per cent of girls interviewed in West Germany had experienced a sexual assault of some sort, whereas of those who had grown up in the GDR it was only 36 per cent.
Of course any reporting on sexual behaviour has to be viewed with a certain amount of scepticism, and there have been other studies that suggest there was little difference in terms of sexual behaviour between East and West.
However, it is certainly true that women throughout the socialist bloc did have many rights and privileges not widespread in the West at the time, including generous state investment in their education and training, their full incorporation into the workforce, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free child care.
Ms. Ghodsee  spoke to Daniela Gruber, a recently married 30 year-old, in the eastern German city of Jena and more than 20 years after reunification. “Her own mother — born and raised under the Communist system — was putting pressure on Ms. Gruber to have a baby,” she writes.
Daniela says, that her mother “… doesn’t understand how much harder it is now — it was so easy for women before the Wall fell. They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract, and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
Ghodsee says that “This generational divide between daughters and mothers who reached adulthood on either side of 1989 supports the idea that women had more fulfilling lives during the Communist era. And they owed this quality of life, in part, to the fact that these governments saw women’s emancipation as central to socialism.”
The number of orgasms GDR women may have had is perhaps not so relevant, but certainly the attitudes to gender relations, to marriage and sex were much more relaxed an untrammelled by religious or social factors as they were in the West. Women didn’t have to fear that a sexual encounter would result in an unwanted pregnancy, demotion or loss of  job; being in a relationship outside marriage brought no stigma with it. Job security as well as the right to a home at a low rent were guaranteed. It is perhaps little wonder that without the stresses that women (and men) experience under capitalism as well as the absence of  ubiquitous sexualised advertising, helped make sex non-stressful.
It is also certainly true that women in the territory of the former GDR as well as throughout Eastern Europe have been the big losers since the demise of socialism. It is they who have suffered the biggest loss of jobs and the resultant erosion of economic independence. The imposition of capitalism’s stereotypical gender imagery and the closure of the many state-funded childcare facilities has also hit women hardest.
Many western feminists, even if they grudgingly recognised what state socialism did for women, were critical because they did not emerge from an independent women’s movement, but came from above.

But the liberation brought about in the socialist countries,  Ghodsee  writes, “radically transformed millions of lives across the globe, including those of many women who still walk among us as the mothers and grandmothers of adults in the now democratic member states of the European Union”. Quite a surprising viewpoint to be given space in the New York Times.

The hidden costs of a dysfunctional system

The hidden costs of a dysfunctional system

Most on the left will be aware of the directly damaging effects of capitalism on society, like exploitation, unemployment, housing speculation, privatisation of public services etc. But what is not so obvious is the intrinsic socially destructive impact of the system that is happening everywhere beneath the surface and is eating away at the core of our society. This process is being abetted and reinforced by successive Tory governments, but perhaps more so today than ever before.  The present government is actively collaborating with what has become the supreme rip-off  system, a form of legalised highway robbery. At the same time it remains indifferent to the steady implosion of our social structures and the millions of individual tragedies that are happening before our eyes.

Take mental illness– one of the best measures of the health of a society –Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem every year. How people cope with mental health problems is getting worse as the number of people who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts is increasing. Mind, the mental health charity says that  ‘worries about things like money, jobs and benefits can make it harder for people to cope’. 
The imposition of senseless tests and targets on school pupils – measuring rather than educating – is increasing mental health problems among children.

The policy of locking-up even minor criminals in prison – many of them requiring mental health support rather than incarceration – and the underfunding of the prison service as a whole is a ticking time bomb.

With draconian benefit cuts, the discrimination of those with disabilities, the unemployed and single parents amounts to a criminalisation of the poor. All this, together with  a lack of job and housing security leads to increased levels of depression and mental health issues, piling even more pressure on an overburdened health service.

A senior family division court judge said recently that the nation will have “blood on its hands” if it doesn’t provide proper mental health support for vulnerable teenagers. But it already has blood oozing through its fingers by starving the NHS of cash in order to drive privatisation. While thousands die waiting for treatment or because aren’t given the support they need. Obesity, diabetes and alcoholism have become epidemics because the government refuses to regulate the big food and drinks multi-nationals or fund prophylactic healthcare.

On top of the mental health problems severely exacerbated by capitalism, we also have the physical impact. The World Health Organisation reported in 2014 that 28.1% of adults in the UK are clinically obese; 62% of adults in England were classified as overweight. Even the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt described rising rates of childhood obesity as a ‘national emergency’, but the government simply twiddles its thumbs. While the government does little to promote health diets, the popular media, in fact, promotes the opposite: advocating ‘perfect’ body imagery among young people, leading directly to dietary and psychological problems.

There is a total disregard by the government for people’s health at all levels, from its support for fracking, its dithering over vehicle pollution, or in promoting healthy eating, its wilful destruction of the countryside and its subsidies for bad farming practices.

The recent letter (Aug 2nd) from Dr. Richard House from Stroud in the Star spells this out: we have an ‘epidemic of children’s mental health problems and Tory cuts are a major education stressor, the main culprit is the unforgiving audit culture that’s engulfed schools since the imposed national curriculum with its anxiety-inducing exams …increased intensity of standardised testing and performance tables. It is fear driven’!

Even economic policies, which on the surface appear to have little to do with people’s health, impact just the same. PFI projects are costing citizens billions while the buildings financed by the system – schools, hospitals, prisons etc. - are falling into disrepair. In Coventry, the city’s two hospitals were to have been renovated by the public sector for £30m. Instead they were demolished and one rebuilt using PFI for £410m. Citizens will be paying off this sum well after the hospital  has closed.

Balmoral High School in Northern Ireland cost £17m to build in 2002. In 2007 the decision was made to close it because of lack of pupils. But the PFI contract runs for a further 20 years, so the taxpayer will be paying millions of pounds for an unused facility. And those are just two such examples.  While at the same time state schools are falling apart because of lack of funding and private academies have cash thrown at them.
Debt created by PFI has a profound impact on the finances of all public bodies. Already by October 2007 the total capital value of PFI contracts signed throughout the UK was £68bn. But central and local government are committed to paying a further £267bn over the lifetime of these contracts. This is an enormous amount of money flowing unnecessarily into private coffers.
Annual payments to the private owners of the PFI schemes are due to peak at £10bn in 2017, but many NHS Trusts are already experiencing serious financial difficulties and, if the level of government spending falls, they may become insolvent. This profligate waste of public money means that is being taken away from areas that are in dire need of it and indirectly causing hardship, illness and death.
Government economic ‘incompetence’ has given the green light to individual capitalists to organise their own rip-off schemes. Take the recent leasehold scandal where home buyers have their leases sold on by the construction companies to predatory profiteers who later bump up the leasehold costs without making any contribution whatsoever. This plunges the unfortunate householders into financial hardship and makes their new homes unsellable.

Utility companies are allowed to charge what they want while an intentionally toothless “regulator” sheds crocodile tears and, instead, advises customers to switch providers. The companies’ profits have reached undreamt of heights and the shareholders are laughing all the way to the bank. British Gas is putting up electricity prices by 12.5% starting next month; Thames Water presented a select group of shareholders with a massive £1.6bn in dividends, while burdening the company with billions in debt. Its planned renewal of its out-dated sewage system will be financed by customers not the shareholders swimming in cash.

Then to rub our noses in it, we have the media peddling poverty-porn. Channel 4’s Benefits Street set the tone. The series portrayed a street in Birmingham where supposedly 90 per cent of residents were on benefits. We were made voyeurs, watching how the feckless poor eked out their living or cheated the system. A second series followed based in Stockton-on-Tees. A follow-up series called Immigration Street was to follow. This week Channel 4 is launching Get a House for Free. Multi- millionaire property owner Marco interviews the ‘deserving’ poor in order to choose a family to whom he will give a fully-furnished 3-bedroom flat. Never mind looking to solve the dire housing problem, let alone attempting to change a dysfunctional system, just entertain the masses by showing a ‘philanthropic’ capitalist showering largesse. The Victorians couldn’t have done it better.