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In this week’s New Statesman | Deep trouble

A first look at this week’s magazine.

Cover story: Deep Trouble

George Eaton on why no politician will tell you the
truth about the economic crisis to come

Plus

Martin Rees: technology can be mankind’s
saviour or downfall – the choice is ours

George Kynaston: we can tackle the private school
question and improve state education

Daniel Trilling reports on the desperate migrants
determined to reach Fortress Europe 

John Bew on why the departure of Obama’s third
defence secretary is a sign of serious dysfunction

Mehdi Hasan: you canpoint at things and
tax them” and the City should be one of them

 

The Politics Column: Britain is heading for another parliament of pain but the main parties are in denial

The NS politics editor, George Eaton, argues in his column this week that though Britain is “heading for another parliament of pain” and the main parties speak of “tough choices” ahead, none wants to “itemise the next dose of austerity”:

the truth of Britain’s fiscal situation is now being hidden. In an election as tight as this one, no party wants to break ranks.

[. . . ]

By revealing their own pre-election sweetener – a pledge to raise the personal allowance to £12,500 and the 40p tax threshold to £50,000 – at this year’s Conservative conference, Osborne and Cameron moved earlier than most expected. . . The expectation in Westminster is that the Tories’ sweetener will be followed by a post-election sting. Osborne insists that he can eradicate the remainder of the deficit through spending cuts alone. But rather than issuing a “read my lips”-style pledge on tax rises, he has merely stated that he has “no plans” to increase the burden: the exact formulation used before the 2010 VAT rise.

In this week’s Leading Article the NS accuses “all leading politicians” of being “engaged in a conspiracy of silence about the economic decisions that lie ahead”.

 

The NS Essay: The Runaway World

In this extended essay the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, argues that although technology brings hope and presents us with many opportunities to improve quality of life, we should also fear and respect its capacity to destroy us. The threats from novel technology are very real, he writes, for “the global village will have its village idiots and they’ll have global range”:

Millions will one day have the capability to misuse biotech, just as they can misuse cybertech today [ . . . ] In consequence, maybe the most intractable challenges to all governments will stem from the rising empowerment of tech-savvy groups (or even individuals), by bio or cyber technology that becomes potentially ever more devastating – to the extent that even one episode could be too many. This will aggravate the tension between freedom, privacy and security.

The results of releasing dangerous pathogens are so incalculable that bioterror isn’t likely to be deployed by extremist groups with well-defined political aims. But such concerns would not give pause to an eco-fanatic, empowered by the bio-hacking expertise that may soon be routine, who believes that “Gaia” is being threatened by the presence of a few billion too many human beings. That is my worst nightmare. (Most devastating would be a potentially fatal virus that was readily transmissible and had a long latency period.)

Rees warns that “existential catastrophes” need to be taken more seriously and that scientific expertise should be deployed to “assess which alleged risks are pure science fiction and which could conceivably become real”:

“Spaceship Earth” is hurtling through the void. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their life-support system is vulnerable to disruption and breakdowns. But there is too little planning, too little scanning of the horizon, too little awareness of long-term risks.

 

George Kynaston welcomes Labour’s belated solution to education’s “Berlin Wall”

The former secondary school teacher George Kynaston, who in January sparked a debate about education’s “Berlin Wall” with an NS essay co-authored with his historian father David, welcomes Tristram Hunt’s new proposal for a school partnership standard. The shadow education secretary’s proposal, which would require private schools to form “genuine and accountable” partnerships with state schools, is belated but to be welcomed, Kynaston writes:

Hunt’s intervention is bold. He has overcome personal reluctance and ended a damning Labour silence by putting forward a sensible and practical policy. And he has done so at a time when questions of inequality and social mobility are more pressing than ever. It is a promising and much-needed starting point and Tristram Hunt deserves support for it

Kynaston dismisses Tory claims that the partnership would distract from improving state school education:

As a nation, we are capable of dealing with more than one issue at a time. It is a fallacy that attention to the private-school question will distract from improving state education. For 70 years this has been a tired excuse to avoid a difficult problem. Hunt is being constructive: he is not seeking to abolish private schools but rather aims to leverage their resources for other students.

 

Special report: Fortress Europe’s futile battle to stop poor migrants

In a special report for this week’s issue, Daniel Trilling traces the clandestine journeys of the thousands of poor migrants who each year attempt to find a better life in Europe:

I went to a hotel in south London to visit Samuel, a gentle-voiced man in his early thirties who came from the city of Debarwa, Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa. I had first met him in August when he was still on the French side of the Channel. Samuel told me that a few weeks after this, in late August, he had walked to a lorry park a few miles outside Calais, near the approach road to the Channel Tunnel. . . Six other Eritrean men were with Samuel that night, which meant they could push one another forward, along the narrow gap that separates the rear axle from the underside of the container above, until they reached the middle of the vehicle. “You couldn’t move your arms,” Samuel recalled, “and there wasn’t much air to breathe.”

In Augusta, a port on the east coast of Sicily, Trilling watches as more than 100 refugees from Syria, Gaza and Somalia, all of whom had survived treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean, are documented by officials. The Italian Navy’s Mare Nostrum search-and rescue operation to save migrants at sea has now ended, however:

the intention was always that it would run for a year as an emergency programme, a stopgap until a rescue operation supported by all members of the EU could launch. But it is unclear whether the replacement operation will focus on saving lives, or on keeping boats out of European waters. The British government’s position is that the rescues should stop, because they only encourage more migrants to attempt the crossing. All of the people I interviewed for this story made their first journey to Europe in a smuggler boat across the Mediterranean. Our government believes that, had any of them drowned, it would have been a useful deterrent to others.

 

John Bew: the departure of defence secretary Chuck Hagel means the end of Obama’s
hopes for a “team of rivals”

The NS contributing writer John Bew notes that November was a tough month for Obama with the departure of Chuck Hagel, his third defence secretary in six years, as relations between the White House and the Pentagon continue to deteriorate. The loss of Hagel, who served in Republican administrations, represents a serious setback for Obama’s strategy of bringing the opposition into the fold:

During his race for the Democratic nomination against Clinton in 2008, it was widely publicised that Obama was much enamoured with a book by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In particular, Obama was impressed by Lincoln’s ability to bring former opponents into his team. This seemed particularly important in foreign affairs, which had been the subject of such bitter dispute under George W Bush. In came Clinton as secretary of state. Obama’s appointments of Bob Gates and Chuck Hagel were also symbolic. Both fitted a certain mould. They were Republicans who had served in Republican administrations but who were known to be critical of the excesses of the Bush administration – particularly the war in Iraq – and spoke to Obama’s purportedly “realist” credentials in foreign affairs.

[. . .]

One area of contention between the president and Hagel is reported to have been the latter’s foot-dragging over the closure of Guantanamo Bay, which remains open. What is beyond question is that the latest soap opera is a sign of severe dysfunction. The team of rivals has disintegrated, with many of them becoming a thorn in the president’s side as he limps on for a final two years.

 

Mehdi Hasan: why we should point at the City and tax it

Following Myleene Klass’s much-discussed clash with Ed Miliband on ITV’s The Agenda, Mehdi Hasan argues that you can point at things and tax them and suggests that the City is a prime target:

“You can’t just point at things and tax them,” declaimed the former pop star Myleene Klass on 17 November, becoming overnight a perhaps unexpected pin-up for the right.

Klass made her comment as part of a longer rant aimed at her fellow panellist Ed Miliband, who wants to introduce a “mansion tax” on properties worth more than £2m. (What’s Klass complaining about? She sold her own home for a very modest £1.8m in 2013.) The Labour leader produced this rather feeble response: “I totally understand that people don’t like paying more in tax.”

Myleene and Ed are both wrong. First, governments can “point at things and tax them” [ . . ] Second, raising taxes isn’t always unpopular. Miliband’s “mansion tax” has the support of 72 per cent of voters, although he omitted to mention that on The Agenda.

[. . .]

Then there’s the financial transaction tax (FTT) – also known as the “Tobin tax” or the “Robin Hood tax” – which has the support of 61 per cent of voters.  . .  It really is a no-brainer: a tax that is popular with the public and backed by the experts and would raise revenue for the UK exchequer, while helping to stabilise a deeply unstable sector of the UK economy. As the 1,000 economists pointed out, an FTT is “technically feasible” and “morally right”. It is, you could say, a tax whose time has come. Even Myleene Klass might agree.

 

Plus

Peter Wilby: public school “partnerships” with the state
sector would do little to reduce inequalities

Books: John Burnside on why Seamus Heaney’s
poetry made the personal political

Brave old world: Mark Lawson on the
birth of screen sci-fi

Sophie McBain meets two New Yorkers
fighting teenage misogyny in Britain

Letter from Melbourne: S B Tang reports from a
nation in shock at the death of star batsman Phillip Hughes

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on the confidence gap
left by a state school education

Amanda Craig on the best children’s books of the year

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential:
Dirty Des’s flirtation with Nigel Farage

Will Self: when it comes to Blair-hating I was
an early adopter, but now I feel sorry for Poor Tone 

 

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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones