Friends and family at a memorial mass for James Foley in Rochester, New Hampshire. Photo: Getty
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An ally’s brutality, the “thought crimes” of the Cardiff Two, and how fat became the new normal

Inhumane executions are not unique to the Islamist fanatics in Iraq and Syria.

The beheading of the US journalist James Foley by the group calling itself Islamic State (previously Isis) was a monstrous crime. To listen to western politicians and read British newspapers, however, you would think such atrocities were unprecedented. Yet our ally Saudi Arabia beheads people publicly in what is known as “Chop-Chop Square” in Riyadh. Victims include foreign workers. In the past month, at least 19 people have been executed in this way. The offences punishable by death include blasphemy, drug smuggling, sedition and “sorcery”.

Beheading causes particular revulsion, perhaps because it is thought to be a peculiarly agonising way to die, since, even with a skilled executioner (which the man who killed Foley almost certainly wasn’t), consciousness may remain for a few seconds after the head is severed. Again, such inhumane executions are not unique to the Islamist fanatics in Iraq and Syria. In January, it took the state of Ohio 26 minutes to kill a man sentenced to die by lethal injection.

All this, without lessening our outrage at Foley’s murder, should remind us that our friends can sometimes be as savage as those we see as our enemies. We should also remind ourselves that many civilian victims of western bombing and drone attacks must experience deaths no less prolonged and horrible than Foley’s.


Closing ranks

According to Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work, police and social care staff failed to protect 1,400 sexually abused children in Rotherham. This was clearly gross dereliction of duty. But Jay found no evidence of anyone being “influenced by concerns about the ethnic origins of suspected perpetrators” when dealing with individual cases. Rather, their attitude seemed to be that girls from poor and often broken homes were unreliable witnesses and not worth protecting anyway. So why do newspapers – and, to some degree, Jay herself – think it so important that the racial aspect of the abuse, which involved mainly Asian men and white girls, should have been highlighted? Why is it so important to “discuss” ethnicity and the “culture” of “the Pakistani-heritage community”? Wouldn’t racialising the issue make the community more likely to close ranks? Most abusers nationwide are white men. Moreover, apparently, most of the Rotherham abusers were taxi drivers. Should we not consider the “culture” of the taxi-driving community?


Text offences

Normally, I support “political correctness”, which seems to me just a matter of obser­ving good manners in public discourse – particularly towards groups that, at least in the past, have suffered disadvantage and discrimination. But as I understand it, the alleged exchange of racist, sexist and homophobic text messages between two colleagues who formerly worked at Cardiff City was intended only for each other’s consumption. It was a private conversation in the same way as if they had talked on the phone or chatted together at home. So why is it any business of ours and why should it be the subject of an FA investigation?

Using such language within hearing of those who might be offended would be unforgivable. So would examples of either man discriminating against women, gay people or non-whites. But denouncing the two of them for texts alone comes perilously close to denouncing them for thought crime.


Watching the nation grow

Almost every week, a new example of the effects of the nation’s increased weight emerges. Deckchairs are being made an inch wider. Shops are stocking school uniform trousers with 46-inch waists. The other day, the Daily Mail featured a 29-year-old man who complained that the post-operative hospital meals he received wouldn’t be big enough for his two-year-old daughter. The pictures showed meals that, though not generous, seemed perfectly adequate to me, while a mugshot of the patient strongly suggested that he was rather on the porky side.

Fat is the new normal. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of Britons are overweight and a quarter obese. When I travel outside London, particularly to seaside towns, observation suggests far higher numbers. It is sometimes impossible to walk down the street without being obstructed by people who seem to have expanded to the front, side and rear in a re-engineering of the human body. Although I drink wine and beer, eat vast quantities of cheese and love cream teas, my weight is what would have been thought normal 50, even 20, years ago. I now often receive anxious inquiries about whether I am “quite well”.

It used to be said that the planet’s entire population could stand on the Isle of Wight (or was it Zanzibar?). On present trends, soon even Australia won’t be big enough. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State