Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Rant against Poor People on Airplanes

Even when one doesn’t buy the crackpot science of so-called “climate skeptics, one has to concede that the real culprits for greenhouse gas emissions are the coal-blazing Chinese (and to a lesser but growing extent Germans – yeah, getting out of nuclear without Plan B was a great idea, wasn’t it) and the shameless and wicked oil barons that push the black gunk on the world and fund the above-mentioned crackpot science.  Apparently also the forecasts are being revised since while the planet is indeed warming, it has recently not been warming at quite the rate as expected.  So the future generations might yet survive, hooray!  Or wait, has the rate in fact been quickening?

All this confusion notwithstanding, I’m a firm believer in everyone doing their bit.  If for no other reason, then at least for the license it gives us to wave a fist at them Chinese (and Germans) and oil barons – not to mention the snootiness we can display towards less environmentally conscious friends at dinner parties and over drinks.

I fly a lot.  I fly for business and I fly for personal reasons.  I don’t fly for “pleasure”, because I hate flying, but it gets me to places I need to go such as Berlin to see F, Helsinki to see everyone or Malaga to see mum and dad (and, ok yes, lounge by the pool, you got me).

I feel constant guilt about my flying.  In terms of personal contributions to carbon emissions, flying is as bad as it gets.  I can munch all the locally grown carrots I want and walk to work, but the fact is that all of that is dwarfed by the ecological disaster that is my flying habits.  On an individual level, my flying probably puts me in the top 5% of worldwide contributors to climate change.  Hence there has not been much snootiness displayed recently on my part.

Simply put: I should fly less.  So should you, even if you don’t fly as much as me.

The reality is, however, that as long as flying is as cheap as it is, neither you nor I will cut down on it. 

Do you remember what it was like when we oldies were growing up, or at uni/college?  We did NOT hop over to Vienna or Lisbon or Istanbul for a weekend, because we had no money for it.  The flights would have cost several hundred pounds (no Euros back then!), which was well beyond our budgets.  The 20-something kids nowadays have it different.  Even on a student budget they take mini-breaks to other countries and fly off to Mexico or Vietnam to backpack between terms, because they can.

I think that the subsidies to air travel should stop and the cost of jet fuel should actually include a huge tax to cover for the environmental externalities of flying.  If a carbon tax is ever implemented anywhere, it could take care of this.  The EU emission trading scheme obviously includes flying, but the whole system is a total dud.  If a working one is ever conceived (ideally a world-wide one), it should definitely include flying at its actual cost and impact. 

I think what I’m making here is a very sensible proposal.  Yet, when I’ve made it in conversation, it has been immediately rejected.  F, for example, has told me that I’m elitist and pointed out that if my idea was reality only I could afford to do the bi-weekly visits that are the lifeline of a long-distance relationship, since I have a job and he is still a student.

Obviously if flying was made more expensive it would mean that less people could afford to do it.  I don’t see a problem with that – in fact it would be the whole point: reduce flying.  There have always been activities that are beyond the means of most people.  I don’t own a private jet or a mansion or a Lamborghini, all of which pollute and contribute to climate change, but I don’t get called an elitist for being OK with this state of affairs and not demanding that we should all be able to afford all that.  The reason I get called an elitist for advocating more expensive flying to discourage it and cover the actual costs of it is because we have somehow come to think in recent years that being able to afford to fly (“hyper-mobility” as it is called in the green lingo) is some kind of a basic human right that should be available to everyone, regardless of their financial situation.  Well it ain’t.  It’s an expensive and polluting activity and it should be discouraged.

So I say hike up the prices, ban Easyjet and get the proles off planes!

Friday, 19 April 2013

Rant about Beautiful Men

So ... As a true believer in equality between the sexes, I feel obliged to follow up my post about good-looking women with one about good-looking men. 

But enough about men, let’s talk about women.  More particularly, about what women do – and should do – when seeing good-looking men.

Stunning women complain that they don’t get approached by men, because men find them to be intimidating.  Surprisingly enough, I don’t have any personal experience of that, so can’t confirm or deny.  But I do know that even us plain-janes get our fair share of cat calls, wolf whistles etc. – all women do.  This is not good; it is harassment.  Harassment comes in many shapes and sizes, and men often don’t understand it, but it is completely, and in all circumstances, WRONG.

Apart from harassment, though, women more often get positive comments about their looks.  This is something that women, as well as men, engage in on an almost daily basis.  We all comment if an overweight friend has slimmed down and is looking better for it, or if a colleague has a smashing new haircut.  In the age old sport of flirtation and pair-formation (or “pulling”, as it is known in England,) often exercised in bars and night clubs, complementing women is a tried and tested strategy.

Not so with men.

It is not common – or perhaps even appropriate – to complement men’s looks.  We are primed still to expect (in the heterosexual context) men to be more active in pursuing women, and women simply have the job of accepting or rejecting wooing candidates.  Some of this is cultural, some biological.  Females are pickier than males when it comes to pair-formation (and not just in humans) since they invest more in child making and rearing.  It is also still the way things are just done among this particular species, and hardly questioned.

If you suggest to a woman that she should complement good-looking men around her, she will in all likelihood resist the idea.  Women often think that pretty men know that they are pretty, and are narcissistic and proud of their looks.  In my experience, this is not necessarily the case.  Encouraged by the example of a friend, I have a few times in my life just walked up to a particularly fine specimen and told him that I thought he was good-looking.  I then proceeded to wish him a nice evening and walked away.  The reactions I got?  Blushing and shy, surprised and pleased “thank you”s.

I used to therefore think that this was a practice to be encouraged.  However, understanding more about harassment, the many forms it can take, and how the harasser often does not understand he is in fact harassing his victim, has made me pause and think twice.  Did I in fact harass the pretty boys?

Monday, 15 April 2013

Rant about Handsome Women

There is a teenage lady in my family.  Teenage ladies are a mysterious species of their own, but not that long ago this particular specimen had a habit of standing in front of the mirror combing her hair and quite unabashedly admiring her reflection.  Her grandma didn’t like it, telling her to stop staring.  I, for my part, didn’t like what the grandma did and told HER to stop it, even though I understood her distaste for vanity.  There are more important forces at play here. 

We are all more or less aware of the pressures on women as regards their looks.  My guess is that it is much worse for teenagers now than it was a million years ago when I was one, and it was bad enough then.  The young lady stopped admiring her reflection soon enough, and will undoubtedly go through a significant amount of self-doubt in the future.  It will be some time, probably decades, before she is again as pleased with what she sees in the mirror as she was a few years back.  Or maybe she never will be that happy with her looks again.

So I say go for it.  Admire yourself, young lady!  It doesn’t matter who else sees it, you be proud, stare in that mirror and tell it, and everyone else, that you look beautiful.

Because there is nothing to be ashamed about in liking your looks. 

And yet somehow we’re made to believe that there is.  A year ago British journalist Samantha Brick wrote an article for Daily Mail in which she analysed the pros and cons of being a beautiful woman.  I started reading the comments to the article – there are a total of 5725 – but had to give up because they were so horrible.  It looks like by declaring herself good-looking Ms Brick had opened some kind of pandora’s box of spiteful comments. 

What Ms Brick said was problematic and in my opinion quite anti-women.  According to her, women are total bitches to those prettier than them – going to such lengths as torpedoing their careers.  While you may expect this to elicit comments, I would have thought the comments to focus on the problematic proposition.  Yet they often did not.  What people appeared to be most upset about was the fact that Ms Brick dared to call herself beautiful when she was (in the opinion of the commenters) not. 

Ms Brick detailed the backlash, including over 1000 hate-filled personal e-mails she’d received, in a follow-up article, calling – understandably – the experience “soul-destroying”.

Who cares what you or I think about the looks of one Samantha Brick?  And what or who would give us the right to voice that opinion anyway?  Where are the manners of all the people who think it ok to publicly declare someone “rather plain with crooked teeth”?  Didn’t their mums teach them anything?

Samantha Brick feels beautiful, and I say good on her.  I hope she has recovered from the upset caused by all the vitriol, and continues to look in the mirror, like my niece used to, and admire what she sees.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Rant about the Connection between Vegan Food and Mouth Cancer

While I have been a sort-of-vegetarian (with a complex set of rules, as those of you that made the mistake of asking me know, and probably hope you didn’t...) for a long time, I’ve been playing with the idea of going more vegan in recent years, and decided for my yearly “fast” or “detox” last year to go fully vegan as an experiment.  The problem I had then, and what remains the main obstacle for me to become more vegan* is the difficulty of it.  So I was hoping to get some help when I saw an ad for an event a local vegan organisation was holding in central Geneva, promising to introduce plant-based products and ways to use them.

Boy was I disappointed.  They had a few lacklustre cartons of soya or rice milk on show, but the event was really not at all aimed at showing people how to cook vegan food.  It was about making people scared and disgusted of meat.  The organisers were handing out flyers with explanations of the evils of meat and dairy production complete with pictures, and their whole tent had a red wrap on it with a dripping effect, in order to make it look like it was covered in blood.  Classy.

We all know already that industrial meat production is horrendous and cruel.  If you didn’t know about it, well first of all what kind of a rock have you been living under and secondly please do feel free to check out some easy-to-find educational videos such as this or this online.  (OK, these are filmed in the US, and the regulations are stricter in the EU, but of course a lot of our meat comes from outside the Union and it doesn’t take a lot to find films about European farming as well.)

I know that shock therapy works in certain contexts – in fact in most contexts.  The more shocking the better: appeal to the instincts, not to rational analysis.  Tobacco labelling is a good example.  Gruesome pictures of cancerous mouths on cigarette packs are more effective than just health warnings that tell you that smoking will kill you or at least give you erectile problems. 

Cynics may say that use whatever methods work, but I think that is too blunt an approach as it assumes that the whole target audience is homogeneous.  Most people in developed countries at least KNOW that smoking is bad for you.  Shouldn’t they be told where to find help in quitting rather than being bombarded with disgusting pictures? 

Similarly, people know about the problems with meat production, but some of them do not care (and I’m not sure they will be won over by force feeding shocking pictures to them) and the rest don’t know what to do about it.  Tell us how to replace dairy and eggs with plant-based products easily and ethically and that may well have a more positive effect.

Or am I just being naive?

* I’m afraid I’ll never become fully vegan and the reasons can be summarised in two words: ICE and CREAM.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Rant about the Last Closet

I would like to think of myself as someone reasonably attuned to unintended insults*, but somehow with hockey all of that was out the window.  Hockey natter is replete with homophobic “jokes” and casual sexism.  Yet I for a long time didn’t see them as such.  I would go along with it, making idiotic (and not even mildly funny) comments to members of the guys’ team about picking up the soap in the shower.  Or call someone failing a shot a “girl”.  Or ... the examples are simply too numerous to list.

I hang my head in shame.

But at least I’m in illustrious company!  The examples in this regard are also too numerous to list, but I’ll give just a few for tasters: A college basketball coach whose usual practice techniques included physically abusing players and calling them faggots and a professional baseball player writing a homophobic slur on his eye-black strips during a game.

When the atmosphere in professional team sports is what it is, it is no wonder that no athlete in such sports has come out as gay, like, ever.  In football (or soccer in American) one player came out decades ago and then committed suicide, and another one did so this year, but felt the need to end his career at only 25 years old as a result.  Football is not even the most macho of sports, so one can imagine how much worse it must be in basketball, rugby, baseball, American football and hockey of course.

Considering that the stereotypical gay guy is pretty athletic, how likely is it that there really never have been any gays playing any of these sports professionally?  Extremely unlikely.  But as long as idiots like me are making the atmosphere totally hostile for them, no wonder that they prefer to stay in the closet.  Many have probably also chosen not to pursue a career in the sport they love and excel at.

Enter my hero of the week, Baltimore Ravens linebacker and Superbowl winner Brendon Ayanbadejo.  Mr Ayanbadejo wrote a superb op-ed piece for USA Today shortly after the Superbowl, using the media attention to raise awareness about homophobia in professional team sports.  He said poignantly that “the sports world – my world – is the last closet in America” and encouraged athletes to be the rolemodels they could and should be and create a safe environment for gays in sport.  He likened our times to 1942 when Jackie Robinson broke the colour line and became the first black player in Major League Baseball.  We are still waiting for the “gay Jackie Robinson” in men’s professional team sports, according to Mr Ayanbadejo, but hopefully not for long.

So momentum is starting slowly to build.  Mr Ayanbadejo is a member of Athlete Ally, an organisation supporting gays in sport, and I was pleased to see Sean Avery, a former NHL goon, also on the Board of Directors.  In Europe, the professional football player Matt Jarvis has just become the third of his kind to pose for the gay magazine Attitude (after Freddie Ljungberg and the trailblazer (already in 2002) David Beckham) and Olivier Giroud did the same for Têtu last year.

Apart from creating a more positive attitude in general, and via publicity, there is something to be done at the grassroots level as well.  Just like in the armed forces, there appears to be an entirely mistaken fear in some sports circles that gays on a team would somehow threaten team cohesion or create awkward situations in the changing room.  Professional male athletes will find it hard to be told that they could learn something from their female counterparts, but this is one area where they really could.  Lesbians are obviously not an uncommon sight on the field, pitch or ice in women’s team sports and I can assure all boys on the basis of years of personal experience, that it is not a problem AT ALL.

*I try to mean them when I make them...

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Rant about Body Parts

One of Sigmund Freud’s more famous theories is about penis envy, according to which the defining aspect of the sexual development of girls is the realisation that they don’t have a penis.  A lifetime of misery and inadequacy ensues.

There are various feminist and other criticisms of penis envy as a psychoanalytical theory.  My favourite is the one provided by the Finnish novelist and historian Kaari Utrio in her excellent Eevan tyttäret: Eurooppalaisen naisen, lapsen ja perheen historia (Daughters of Eve: The History of Women, Children and Families in Europe – unfortunately not translated).  Rather devastatingly for Herr Freud, Ms Utrio points out that as a matter of historical reality, societal norms were so strict at the time and in the social circles Freud was writing and theorising about that girl children simply had in all likelihood no idea what a penis was, and most certainly had never seen one.  It would therefore have been pretty difficult for them to have any thoughts or feelings on the lack of it. 

Yeah, take THAT, Freud!

But there is another theory, not exactly the opposite of, but different in nature from, penis envy.  It has been developed by yours truly.  I call it “breast envy”, or just “boob envy” among friends.

This is how it usually goes:  I’m sitting in a pub (the scene is inevitably a pub) with some female friends.  Male friends of someone in the group join, and conversation and merriment continue.  After a few drinks one of the men can no longer peel his eyes off the upper body of one of the women, usually someone well-endowed in that department and wearing a top that exposes a generous helping of cleavage.  Inspired by this vision, the man in question bursts out something along the lines of “man, if I had boobs (/breasts/tits), I wouldn’t be able to keep my hands off them.  I’d be playing with them ALL THE TIME.”

While this would be unlikely to be the case (I haven’t seen lesbians, who are presumably attracted to female breasts, caress incessantly their own), it is quite a sweet pronouncement nonetheless.  It takes a rather obvious, defining attribute of the opposite sex and comments on its desirability – not just as something to fondle, or something to have, but something to have so as to fondle.  It doesn’t objectify a woman through her breasts like telling her he wants to have a squeeze of her pair would.  Nor does it take the lack of that attribute in the speaker himself as something that lessens him as a person, like penis envy does in the case of women.  Instead, it is “just” a compliment on how nice boobs are.

It is great to see in this world of double meanings, unintended (or intended) insults and constant battle between sexism and stifling political correctness something so unreservedly nice as boob envy. 

Any other examples?