A sunset in Barbados, where Ed Smith stayed over the election campaign. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
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The Pietersen poll delusion, reading the election, and a tour of Tony Cozier’s Barbados

I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean.

Final proof of the abject failings of Britain’s polling industry: the Kevin Pietersen affair. A survey conducted in March by YouGov “demonstrated” that England fans were split 43 per cent to 43 per cent on whether he should be picked for England. Hmm. Meanwhile, the best two pundits on the election, Matthew Parris and Peter Wilby, mostly ­ignored the polls. They sensed a deeper current in the electorate.

Here is my attempt to gauge the cricketing mood, polls notwithstanding: most real fans are sick of the whole issue. They would refuse to talk to a pollster, vote on a website or join a Twitter storm. They are the silent majority. A good number would love to see KP play for England again. Yet most feel not anti-Pietersen but weary of Pietersen. In the long run, he may realise that he is indeed a victim – not of “the establishment” but of exploitative, attention-seeking “friends”.

On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast programme the other day, I did something that I had never done before on air. I lost my temper. The presenter asked me a routine question about English cricket being “split down the middle”. I cut her off with a version of the argument above. Then, as if to prove the division, she read out a text message from a listener. It suggested that Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss (England’s captain and the director of cricket, respectively) were pathetic failures, cowardly nobodies and losers, men of no achievements. (Between them, they have scored 47 centuries and won 37 Tests as England captains.)

We all know the convention when confronted with a vox pop buffoon: “I absolutely hear what you’re saying and you have a total right to think that. I want an open and frank debate that gets to the core of your legitimate and deeply held concerns,” and so on. Instead, I heard myself saying, “That text was written by an idiot.” There was a gasp. Propping up the delusion that every issue can be solved by an online referendum, pandering to the mob and pretending that it represents everyone, is to delude ourselves that there is always a popular and easy solution. If we in the media don’t challenge that methodology, we are accomplices in infantilisation on a massive scale.

 

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I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean (I was commentating on cricket) when it began and returned to vote on 7 May. I did not consume any British TV or radio, nor pick up a single newspaper or magazine. I returned feeling sprightly, looking forward to the story, in contrast to friends wearied by political overdose.

Hold your opprobrium. I still read a lot about the election while I was away. But that was the only medium: the written word. I downloaded newspapers and periodicals on my Kindle. Unlike the iPad, my Kindle can’t really handle graphics. I absorbed all my news through words. I read the articles from beginning to end. I was not led by cleverly chosen photos; I did not prejudge the writing by decoding images; I did not track the daily news cycle without bothering to confirm first what had happened.

The aesthetic dimension of editing is, without question, central. Yet there is a danger that we impatient readers cede too much power to the people who frame the page and lead our eyes. I relished the Luddite e-reader. How ironic it is that the most analogue-feeling reading experience comes not from the printed newspaper page but from a grainy digital screen.

 

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I love hot weather and especially humidity. The trick to enjoying the tropics is to use dawn and dusk. I would wake at 6am and take sleepy walks on the beach, prolonging the creative torpor of half-sleep, half-wakefulness. Then I’d jump into the sea before heading for the espresso machine. What a delicious juxtaposition: the thick weight of tropical humidity set against the black, treacly fuel of espresso. The comforting froth of milk is for temperate weather.

On days off, I’d write in bed. There is a simplicity to living in hot weather. Clothes are a waste of time and appointments a ­terrible hassle. A writer’s dream: an empty hotel room and a pared-down life.

 

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In my hotel room in Barbados, a note is waiting at the door, insisting that I call a local number. The voice is unmistakable to all cricket fans: warm, amused and beating to a subtle calypso rhythm. It belongs to Tony Cozier, now 74, who has commentated on West Indies cricket for more than 50 years.

“Edward, you need to see Barbados’s east coast. I’ll pick you up at your hotel at 2pm.” Cozier’s life has mirrored the story of West Indies cricket, its rise and gradual decline. He was already a journalist when Frank Worrell became the first black cricketer to be appointed captain of the West Indies for a series in 1960. Now that Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Richie Benaud are no longer with us, Tony’s mellow tone on the airwaves belongs to a fading tradition.

Accompanied by the ex-England spinner Graeme Swann, we set off. There, the Atlantic Ocean; here, a gorgeously isolated club ground; back there, Tony’s former beach house. Every vantage point – by extraordinary good fortune – was opposite a rum shack. The rum and the stories flowed. Tony described an era when players and journalists were friends and (generally) trusted each other, when the game was defined by a sense of adventure as well as professional advancement. What a contrast with the trench warfare of the Pietersen debacle.

As the sun set, I realised that I had been on a tour of Tony’s life, not just of Barbados. As much as I relish travel, what thrills me most is discovering new places through people – and vice versa.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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