Ten stories I spotted while on hols

From Obama and health care to Rod Liddle and multiculturalism.

As I mentioned in a recent column, I've been away on holiday, visiting the in-laws in the United States.

But I thought I'd do a quick run-through of the top ten stories I spotted -- and wanted to blog about but couldn't -- while I was on vacation.

In no particular order:

1) Health care: Barack Obama persuaded a recalcitrant, divided and dysfunctional Congress to pass his historic health-care reform bill. This was no small achievement, in a nation where one American woman I bumped into compared buying health insurance to buying car insurance: it should be each person's individual responsibility. Writing on our letters page in this week's double-issue of the magazine, LabourList's Alex Smith takes us to task for Andrew Stephen's "tepid and more than a little begrudging" praise of Obama's legislative achievement. But here's the problem. While I agree with Vice-President Joe Biden that the reform was a "big f--king deal", as it will ultimately provide coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, it will still leave at least 15 million Americans uninsured in the long run. Nor does the law introduce a single-payer system, or even the much-discussed, centrist and popular "public option". It is a bad law. But I do support the (bad) law because anything -- anything! -- is better than the current, awful US health-care system.

2) Israeli-US relations: Talking of Biden, it was amusing and amazing to see the self-destructive Israeli right embarrass and insult one of America's most pro-Israeli politicians during his visit to the Jewish state by announcing a new planning and expansion phase for 1,600 apartments in east Jerusalem. Binyamin Netanyahu apologised -- but only for the timing. Or, in the words of Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Ehud Barak and now Middle East analyst at the New America Foundation: "I'm sorry I slapped you on Monday: next time, I promise, it won't be on a Monday." But it wasn't just Biden who was insulted. Here is Prime Minister Netanyahu's brother-in-law, commenting on the "anti-Semitic" Barack Obama: "It needs to be said clearly and simply: There is an anti-Semitic president in the US. It's not that Obama doesn't sympathise with [Netanyahu]. He doesn't sympathise with the people of Israel." Hilarious.

3) BNP divisions: The Sunday Times reported at the weekend how "Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, has told police that a senior colleague threatened to kill him after an investigation into a political 'conspiracy'. Mark Collett, the BNP's head of publicity, has been arrested and suspended from the party after the discovery of an alleged plot by a 'small clique' of officials to overthrow its leadership." Is this the behaviour one would expect from the officials of a mainstream political party? Will the BBC and others now get the message that the British National Party is a collection of loons and thugs, and not a normal party? Can you imagine Tony Blair reporting Alastair Campbell to the police, claiming Ali C was trying to kill him?

4) MPs for hire: My reaction to the secretly filmed footage of Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers prostituting themselves to a fictional US public relations firm, courtesy of Channel 4's Dispatches? Disgust. But not surprise. I'm proud to point out that I skewered this trio of venal Blairite ultras in two separate blog posts in recent months. I despise their money-grubbing antics, which have further undermined trust in our political classes. These three former cabinet ministers were, in the words of Geoffrey Wheatcroft in today's Guardian, "soliciting work more like whores than taxi drivers". Hats off to my former Channel 4 colleagues Dorothy Byrne and Kevin Sutcliffe for commissioning this excellent sting operation, and to my friend Antony Barnett for reporting it.

5) Paedophiles and the Catholic Church: In the wake of revelations that the Church covered up decades of sexual abuse and beatings by priests and nuns, I find it difficult to disagree with the verdict of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that the Catholic Church has "lost all credibility".Given the current Pope's alleged involvement, I also wonder whether it isn't time for Catholic cardinals and theologians to re-evaluate the 140-year-old doctrine of "papal infallibility". Meanwhile, Geoffrey Robertson, QC is calling for the Pope to be tried at the International Criminal Court.

6) Tories, big business and National Insurance: Shock! Horror! Right-wing business leaders support Tory tax cut. Shock! Horror! The business leaders backing the Tory proposal to stop the rise in National Insurance include a number who've given close to half a million pounds in personal donations to the Tory party. Hold the press!

7) Afghanistan deaths: In under-reported remarks, the near-deified commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force." Meanwhile, Afghan officials have stated that Nato jets killed four civilians, including a child, during a firefight with Taliban militants in Helmand Province this week. Fantastic. Winning hearts and minds, I guess . . .

8) Iraq elections (and deaths): Did you know that Iraq's much-awaited and much-praised parliamentary elections last month, in the words of National Public Radio, "left no clear winner, promising months of horse-trading among the Shia, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish blocs"? You might not, given the meagre coverage Iraq gets in our newspapers these days. Did you know that the top Shia bad boy, Moqtada al-Sadr, is now the Nick Clegg of Iraqi politics? With some 40 seats, the Sadrists are the new kingmakers in Baghdad. What an irony. Oh, and have you seen the disturbing and graphic Wikileaks video (dated 12 July 2007) of two US helicopter gunships opening fire on, and killing, 12 unarmed Iraqis, including two journalists who worked for the Reuters news agency? "Look at those dead b******s," one crew member says. "Nice," another responds.

9) Blair's return: I'm sorry to have missed Tony Blair's speech to Trimdon Labour Club in his former constituency, Sedgefield. The perma-tanned ex-premier praised Gordon Brown's "experience, judgement and boldness" and rightly described the Tories' claim that it was Time for Change as "the most vacuous slogan in politics". But did the multimillionaire consultant to JPMorgan and Louis Vuitton, who arrived in a BMW 7-Series, make any contribution to the cash-strapped and struggling Labour Club? From the Times: "Keith Thompson, 50, vice-chairman of the club and a parish councillor who has voted Labour all his life, said: 'We have written to Blair four times since last August and not even received a reply. He has come and used and abused it. There are a lot of people who think that. That is the talk in the club.' " Lovely . . .

10) Rod Liddle and the Press Complaints Commission: I can't say I wasn't pleased to see the toothless PCC censure the Spectator journalist for crass and inaccurate remarks last year, on his blog, about the "overwhelming majority" of violent crime in London being perpetrated by young African-Caribbean men. I'm just astonished it had nothing to say about his concluding remarks: "The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks." What were you thinking, Rod?

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.