Saturday, August 12, 2017

Between the Lines: A Room with a View (1994)

The Between the Lines column from the August 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Room with a View
   "Room 101", he said. There was a gasp and a flurry at Winston’s side. The man had actually flung himself on his knees on the floor, with his hands clasped together.
     "Comrade! Officer!" he cried. "You don’t have to take me to that place! Haven’t I told you everything already? What else is it you want to know? . . . Write it down and I’ll sign it - anything! Not Room 101!"
So goes a passage in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a passage which has provided the inspiration for a new scries on BBC2 (Mondays, 10.00pm) entitled, appropriately enough, Room 101. This programme invites a guest each week to pick his or her least favourite things — a sort of cynic’s Desert Island Discs. They are not encouraged to pick the real fear in life — in Nineteen Eighty-Four's Room 101 Winston Smith was confronted with the ultimate terror, for him, of being attacked by a cage full of rats. They are not asked to reveal that their personal nightmare is being eaten alive by piranhas or suchlike, only to reveal the everyday things that irritate them.

On the first programme the guest was Bob Monkhouse. Monkhouse, with a smile and a gulp and a glint of the eye, quickly built up a rapport with the studio audience which established that his prejudice were largely their own. The French, crap ventriloquists, Cilia Black, the usual suspects. All this set Between the Lines thinking. Why not choose a top ten of TV eyesores to be banished to Room 101? Why not indeed! The only difficulty would be in keeping it down to just ten, and sure enough this proved to be the case. With apologies to any grotesque televisional monstrosities that have been crowded out, here is the list - Between the Lines’s top ten of irritating TV, in time- honoured reverse-order.

The Countdown
10. Royal Ascot. Anything that brings together horse racing, the Royal Family, the dregs of the aristocracy on a day out and Eve Pollard doing a fashion commentary must be banging on the door of Room 101 with the worst of them.

9. Baywatch. Masturbation TV for frustrated teenagers. Why doesn’t ITV just show soft porn films and have done with it. Some of them are probably better made too, and with an intelligible storyline.

8. Party Political Broadcasts. Yes, they had to be there didn’t they? Aerial pictures of the British Isles on a summer’s day, fine British architecture, seagulls swooping, horses gambolling in fields and a deep husky voice whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the transfixed proletariat. The ultimate triumph of form over content, and generally for the unworthiest of causes. Makes the bile rise in your stomach.

7. The ’O' Zone. Currently running strong in the crap TV stakes. More teeny-bopper television, this time of the, er, musical variety. Rumour has it that it is soon to transmit an edition that doesn’t feature Take That. Don’t hold your breath, though.

6. Football Commentaries. The World Cup has been a boom for the . . . inspired and verbally-challenged, otherwise known as soccer commentators. John Motson seemed at the point of refusing to commentate on one match because the South Korean players "all looked the same". Unfortunately he pressed on for the full ninety minutes. As usual. South American teams display "typical Latin tactics", the Germans are "disciplined" but "arrogant", the Scandinavians are boring, the Irish physical and the ultimate accolade given to a player is that he might be good enough to play in the English Premier League. Nauseating.

5. ITN News. Tabloid TV journalism at its worst, especially during the lunchtime and early evening editions. John Suchet is a particular culprit — watch out for his stock question "what’s the mood like, Brian?" whenever there is an accident/bomb explosion/House of Commons vote making the headlines. Like the BBC, ITN is not averse to bias, either. In one recent bulletin during one of the rail strikes, Dr Ann Robinson of the lunatic Institute of Directors was interviewed to put the bosses’ view's for at least five minutes. She accused the signalmen of engaging in terrorism against the British public. Needless to say, no-one was interviewed to put an opposing view.

4. ITV Serials. Not Coronation Street, but the "blockbuster" variety, often imported from the US or Australia. Bubble-gum for the eyes. Fill up six hours a week though, don’t they?

3. ITV Sitcoms. The heady anti-working class vituperation of On The Buses and Love Thy Neighbour has been replaced with a banditry that could be construed as an improvement, but any semblance of humour seems to have been surgically removed from these programmes. Less interesting that Araldite, they are not be be recommended.

2. Religious programming. Aaargh! Harry Secombe and Roger Royle patronising children and old-age pensioners at the behest of a higher authority, like the BBC Board of Governors. An indictment of a "civilised" society.

1. EastEnders. ’Nuff said. Pass the Prozac.
Dave Perrin

Racism - the myths that kill (1994)

From the September 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Racists see race as one of the central factors in human society and history, playing an important role in how people behave, and explaining why many kinds of social unrest occur or why certain countries are more developed than others. The socialist response to racist arguments is not just to point out their nastiness and the fact that they serve to divide people and to justify discrimination and worse. Rather, we argue also that the whole concept of “race” is a nonsense, and that it has no part in accounting for any aspect of human life.

The racist claim is that a race (and we shan’t keep using the inverted commas, even though it is a non-category) is an identifiable subgroup of human beings, and that (to use their terminology) so-called half-castes apart everybody can be assigned to one of several classifications — usually on the basis of their physical appearance, taking account of such features as skin colour, type of hair or shape of head. The various races, it is argued, have innate hereditary characteristics, which will turn up in all those who belong to that race. Besides physical features such as those just mentioned, racists point to behavioural or intellectual attributes, describing races as inherently more or less intelligent, or more or less hard-working. Some then go on to argue that members of different races cannot, or should not, live in the same community, on the grounds that racial tensions are inevitable. Racist views and policies need not go to the extremes of Nazi genocide, but are still utterly repulsive, condemning some people to poverty and oppression simply on the ground of their supposed racial origin.

Impossible to categorise
One immediate difficulty with this conception is that proponents of the idea of race can never agree among themselves which races should be distinguished, or even how many races there are. Terms such as Caucasian, Negroid and Mongoloid have often been used, but none of these categories covers a group of people with a single set of physical features. Some schemes devised by anthropologists have identified up to sixty races, while still having to admit many intermediate and unclassified groups. Simplistic references to “blacks” and “whites" gloss over the tremendous variety, in skin colour and much else, of members of both these categories. The simple fact is that everyday assignments of individuals to racial groups are based on social, not physical, classifications, which may vary from place to place and from time to time. In the United States, for instance, any child with one white and one black parent is described as “black”, whatever their skin colour. In Brazil there is an incredibly complex terminology of race, with a person’s classification often being unrelated to that of their parents and sometimes being determined in part by their class position. In these and other cases, people are simply pigeon-holed according to whatever system of stereotyping dominates in the society they live in.

In addition, the way people are grouped together will differ greatly depending on which trait is chosen for the comparison, since different features vary independently of each other (dark brown skin and wiry hair need not occur together, for instance). Skin colour has the “advantage” of being immediately visible, but many other bases for classification are possible Many racists, for example, will talk about “British blood” flowing in their veins, but in fact there is no such thing. Blood groups cut right across all proposed racial divisions, having different rates of occurrence in different parts of the world. Categorising people by blood group makes as much sense as doing so by skin colour — in fact, it makes more sense, since blood group membership is objective, and is relevant medically in a way that skin colour is not. But of course racial prejudice aimed at, say, those of blood group A would be pointless, since you cannot tell a person’s blood group just by looking at them.

It is undeniably true that people differ a lot from each other in physical appearance. Yet, from a biological point of view, the significant aspect of humans is not our differences but our similarities: we are a single species, all sharing the great bulk of characteristics. In fact, over 98 percent of human genes are identical to those of our nearest animal relatives, the chimpanzee. All the differences in terms of behaviour and life-style between humans and chimps is due to that tiny contrast in genes. It follows, then, that the differences among all humans can be traced to an infinitesimal part of our genetic make-up. Racists magnify beyond all reason the genetic differences among people.

The variation among humans is mostly due to differing adaptations to the environments in which we live. On the whole, for instance, the darkest skins are found among those living closest to the equator. Though there are a number of theories that attempt to account for this distribution, it is most likely that dark-coloured skin is advantageous for survival in tropical areas because it reduces the risk of sunburn and skin cancer. In contrast, lighter skin is more suited to cooler areas, in that it enables greater production of vitamin D and so prevents diseases such as rickets. Over the millennia there must have been gradual selection in favour of darker and lighter skin in different regions, eventually giving rise to the current distribution. Equally, people in colder areas tend to have stockier builds, as a smaller body surface means less loss of heat. If modem humans originated in Africa, probably with brown skins, expansion into cooler areas such as northern Europe must have involved selection for traits such as paler skin and also the ability for adults to digest milk (milk is a good source of calcium, which is also needed to prevent rickets).

Variation is good
From this point of view, variation can be seen as an undoubted good thing, since it enables humans to survive in a wide range of climates and environments, a range far greater than that for any other animal. And it is precisely because variation is due to adaptation to our surroundings that the variation is almost entirely confined to our physical appearance, which is where we interact most closely with our environment. Thus human differences are confined to such utterly superficial matters as build and skin colour. Moreover, even simple scientific knowledge can nowadays overcome any disadvantages that may exist. When black children began to live in northern US cities, many suffered at first from bone diseases on account of the relative lack of sunlight and hence insufficient vitamin D. But dietary supplements such as cod liver oil were quickly able to make good the deficiency.

Ever since the evolution of the first humans, members of our species have wandered into virtually every comer of the globe. The first way of life — hunting - gathering — involved moving around to find new sources of meat, vegetables and fruits. This inevitably meant encountering other bands, and reproducing with them. Even after the rise of agriculture and the growth of more settled lifestyles, people continued to travel (forcibly or otherwise) to various parts of the earth, and to mix with people of a variety of origins. The slave trades of the ancient world and of more recent times caused enormous population upheavals, just as did wars and crusades. The expansion of capitalism into a world-wide system has likewise caused people to interact and reproduce on a global basis. The upshot of all this is that everyone has a mixed background, with genes from various parts of the world. American "blacks” for instance, have not just Africans but also Europeans and American Indians among their ancestors. All human beings are hybrids, not members of some pure race or inbred local population.

Race, then, is a concept with no scientific validity whatever. Humans simply cannot be characterised or stereotyped on the basis of their supposed innately determined membership of some racial grouping. Humanity is a single species, divided not along biological lines but by the artificial barriers of class and nation. Unlike race, these are not determined by unchanging properties. Rather, they are imposed by a particular social system. Class and national divisions can therefore be done away with — and they will indeed be abolished by the Socialist revolution.
Paul Bennett

Capitalism - Driving Us To Destruction (1994)

From the October 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

January 1993, Bradford: van driver killed by runaway lorry. Lorry' owners subsequently fined £4,500 for failing to maintain the vehicle’s brakes.
September 1993, near Leeds: two killed and five injured by a lorry which crashed through the central reservation of the M62. Lorry owners fined £6,500 for failing to maintain the vehicle’s brakes.
September 1993, East Yorkshire: a schoolgirl and the driver of a school bus killed when a lorry collided with said bus. Lorry owners face prosecution for failing to maintain vehicle’s brakes.
September 1993, Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire: six people killed by 30-tonne truck. The owners — fined £5,000 for failing to maintain the vehicle’s brakes — have applied for their operator’s license to be renewed. Despite an inquest verdict of unlawful killing, the Crown Prosecution Service have decided that there is insufficient evidence for a corporate manslaughter charge.

Spotted the similarities yet?
For one thing, they are all genuine cases, recently picked up again by the local press because they have either just come to court or are being used by some reformer campaigning for better road safety.

For another, the owners in each case look like getting away with murder. And it looks a lot like said owners have a bit of a thing about not maintaining the brakes on their vehicles.

But take a look at this next lot . . .
July 1994: Avon & Somerset police conducted spot-checks on coaches travelling on the M5. Of 236 vehicles inspected, 118 had defects. Three — with exhaust and oil-leak problems — were banned from going any further. Thirty-one prosecutions are being considered.
June 1994: West Yorkshire police spot-checked 98 HGVs on the M62. Sixty percent were defective, with 34 having to be ordered to effect immediate repairs.
June 1994: police spot-checked 104 vehicles of all types near Halifax. Forty-six had defects.

. . . so it is not just brakes on lorries in Yorkshire in 1993!

According to the Department of Transport (DoT) there were 902 deaths on the roads during the first three months of 1994, as well as over 10,000 serious injuries.

Readers may be tempted to think that lorry, bus and car owners are, by nature, deliberately murderously negligent — that they like nothing better than seeing drivers and innocent bystanders alike killed or maimed. But the truth is that vehicle owners and drivers are not psychopaths — it is profit that is the real culprit here.

Car drivers all too often simply cannot afford to properly maintain their vehicles, or cannot take the time off work to get their cars checked. And cost is a major factor for lorry and coach owners too. At the same time, a lorry or coach which has to be checked and repaired is off the road for a day or more, which means it is not earning money for its owners. Which means that the vehicle is not making a profit for the shareholders of the haulage or passenger transport company.

Road safety campaigners argue that individuals should be held responsible for their vehicles, and prosecuted. But as with all types of reform, this is to try to treat the symptoms, not the root cause. The competition for profit leads to companies cutting comers on safety as surely as night follows day.

The same people also call for stiffer regulations, and more resources for those organisations responsible for enforcing them. But here too the profit motive overrides safety. The Vehicle Inspectorate, an agency with the Department of Transport which is responsible for ensuring the roadworthiness of goods and passenger vehicles, has just announced that it will cut 26 percent of its staff over the next three years. As the examples cited above show, this is certainly not because there is not enough work for it to do. In a Parliamentary answer, the DoT revealed that, of 218,648 HGVs and PSVs inspected throughout the country during 1992/3, 22 percent were found to be defective. It is because the Government ordered the agency (along with other parts of the DoT, including the Marine Safety & Driving Standards agencies) to cut 20 percent off their costs. Why? To help deliver tax cuts. Taxes cut into profit margins, after all.

At the same time, the Government aims to “reduce the burden on business” by ending the practice whereby haulage and passenger transport companies have to renew their operator licences every year (cf. The Deregulation & Contracting-Out Bill, currently wending its way through parliament). And for the same sorts of reasons the Government is dragging its feet over implementing recommendations, made in the wake of the recent M40 minibus crash and similar disasters, that coaches should be fitted with seat belts.

Everybody wants to see an end to the slaughter on our roads. But while pursuit of profit is the primary consideration, drivers will continue to fall asleep at the wheel, coaches will keep travelling at 80 mph in the outside lane, wheels will go on shearing off lorries. Capitalism will continue to kill people.
Paul Burroughs