In this week’s New Statesman: What make us human?

A new series exploring the most fundamental question of all.

Cover Story: What makes us human?

This week we kick off a series in collaboration with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. We aim to explore the pivotal question: “What makes us human?” Leading thinkers from a wide range of disciplines including Brian May, David Puttnam, Stephen Hawking, Mary Robinson, Susan Greenfield and Alain de Botton will contribute essays that will be read on the Jeremy Vine show and published in the New Statesman.

The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has contributed his answer – “The family is where we learn love” – to begin the series. He writes:

As an answer to the question what makes us human, even in the age of neuroscience, it’s hard to improve on the Bible’s answer . . . We are each, regardless of class, colour or culture, in the image and likeness of God . . . It is the source of the idea of human rights.

The Chief Rabbi then focuses on families. “The centrality of the family is what gave Jews their astonishing ability to survive tragedy and centuries of exile and dispersion.”

“When it works,” he continues, “the family is the matrix of our humanity . . . relationships are what make us human.”

 

Len McCluskey: “If Ed Miliband is seduced by the Blairites, he’ll be consigned to the dustbin of history”

In an interview with George Eaton, the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, warns that Ed Miliband will be “defeated” and “cast into the dustbin of history” if he is “seduced” by the “Blairites” in his shadow cabinet.

McCluskey, the leader of Britain’s biggest trade union, which is Labour’s largest donor, singles out the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, and the shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, for criticism.

Ed Miliband must spend most of his waking hours grappling with what lies before him. If he is brave enough to go for something radical, he’ll be the next prime minister. If he gets seduced by the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders, then the truth is that he’ll be defeated and he’ll be cast into the dustbin of history.

Read this interview in full on our website now.

 

Jonathan Derbyshire: The sorrows of Mr. Weak

In a Letter from Paris, Jonathan Derbyshire asks how it all went so wrong so quickly for France’s Socialist president, François Hollande.

"Never in the 55-year history of the French Fifth Republic have approval ratings for an incumbent president been so low so early in a presidency,” Derbyshire writes. “Hollande’s abject standing in the polls owes something to the humiliation of his former budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac,” he continues. “On 2 April Cahuzac finally admitted, after a series of straight-faced denials, that he had used a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying tax in France. As a consequence, Hollande has become the focus of deep dissatisfaction in France with a remote and technocratic political class.

Hollande has other problems, not least in the economic sphere.

[His] economic policy is failing on its own terms. In the election campaign, in order to outflank his opponent, he accepted [Nicolas] Sarkozy’s commitment to reduce the deficit to 3 per cent of output by the end of 2013, partly by means of €10m worth of spending cuts. [Earlier this year, Hollande was forced to abandon the 3 per cent target.]

Who was the minister despatched to tour the radio and television studios to warn that a recalibration of expectations was imminent? None other than Jérôme Cahuzac. As the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro reported with some glee, one of Cahuzac’s last acts as a minister was to prepare people for the “burial of a presidential promise”.

 

Helen Lewis: Will a tattoo ever hang in the Louvre?

The New Statesman deputy editor, Helen Lewis, writes a first-hand report from inside room G34B of Blythe House, “the most fascinating room in London” and home to over 300 tattooed human skin samples from the 19th and 20th centuries.

She meets Gemma Angel, a tattoo historian who has spent three years working with the macabre collection, consisting primarily of skin from “sailors, soldiers and criminals”, sold to the 19th-century collector Henry Wellcome. She also talks to Matt Lodder, a PhD student, who describes how tattooing has long been popular with “members of all social classes”, and not just “ne’er-do-wells”. As two of the few experts in this rare field of art history, writes Lewis:

The mission of both Lodder and Angel is to drag the study of tattoos away from its early criminological roots towards something more modern. In this, they are not alone, although they could be forgiven for feeling somewhat lonely. Lodder estimates that fewer than two dozen academics are seriously studying tattooing worldwide.

Lewis also considers the contemporary phenomenon of the “celebrity tattooist” and tattoos as an “integral part” of celebrity image (think of David Beckham). She questions the human impulse for body modifications and asks whether tattoos will ever be taken seriously by the art world.

Over the past two decades, at least a dozen international artists have used tattoos to explore ideas of performance and permanence . . . All the academic study of tattoos eventually coalesces around a single question: what does it mean for an image – or a word – to be marked on to a human body?

 

In the Critics

The NS lead reviewer, John Gray, opens our Spring Books special. Gray reviews Philosophical Essays, a new collection of the non-fiction of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Judging by the standards of academic philosophy,” Gray writes, “there is little that is original in these pages.” But that is what he finds so alluring about Pessoa’s philosophical writings. “Far from trying to persuade anyone of any set of convictions, he used philosophy to liberate the mind from belief . . . Pessoa was – with all his fictive selves – a unique modern spirit. It is a cause for celebration that more of his writings are coming into print.

Plus

  • Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Chilean author Isabel Allende about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook.
  • Sarah Churchwell reviews John le Carré’s new novel, A Delicate Truth.
  • Peter Wilby celebrates 150 years of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
  • Jonathan Bate reviews Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, an anthology of essays dealing with the claim that the Bard was not the author of the plays performed in his name.
  • Simon Heffer assesses The Greatest Traitor: the Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by Roger Hermiston.
  • Ryan Gilbey, reviews Michael Winterbottom’s biopic of Paul Raymond, The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan;
  • Will Self’s Madness of Crowds, on ceremonial funerals.

And much more...

Read our full “In the Critics” blog post here.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times