Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Friday, April 02, 2004

In other news...

1. Self-help.
The political fallout from Janet Jackson's "breastcapade", juxtaposed with the praise heaped on Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, was probably reminder enough that a certain section of Americans (and 'conservative' Westerners generally) are much less comfortable with sexuality than violence. But this interesting review of Thomas W. Laqueur's Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation — by Harvard academic Stephen Greenblatt — argues that "solitary sex" is particularly taboo. Describing his plan to have his students discuss Lacquer's work in class, Greenblatt writes:
Panic set in not among the students — a large number of whom must have come of age watching There's Something About Mary — but among the core of instructors who lead the seminars and conduct the tutorials. Though sophisticated and highly trained, when they were faced with the prospect of discussing the history of masturbation with the students, many of them blanched. Coprophagia wouldn't have fazed them at all, sodomy wouldn't have slowed them down, incest would have actively interested them — but masturbation: please, anything but that.
A few weeks back, The Guardian published a short story about masturbation by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. The paper made much of the story's graphic nature, emphasising the fact that some Palahniuk fans in the States had passed out upon hearing "Guts". While it seemed all rather tame to me, you have been warned: "This extract is not for the squeamish, or for children. Some may find it offensive." Fight Club fans might also find this online chat with Palahniuk of interest.

2. Doing their duty.
BBC's 10pm television news bulletin led on Wednesday with reaction to an extensive police operation that had culiminated the previous day with the arrest of eight young British-born men of Pakistani descent. A letter by Iqbal Sacranie, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, to mosques and other Islamic institutions was discussed. The bulletin emphasised the fact that Sacranie had urged Muslim leaders to help police root out any "extremist elements". It was all a pretty picture of official Muslim endorsement of the authorities' counter-terrorism operations. However, when I actually read the letter last night, I was somewhat surprised with its contents. BBC News At Ten O'Clock had failed to mention Sacranie's concerns with "sensationalised reporting" of Tuesday's operations, which had done "immense damage to British Muslims". Furthermore, Sacranie wrote:
You will no doubt recall that in November 2002 the police made high-profile arrests of six Muslims accused of plotting to release cyanide gas into London's Underground system. Yet nearly 18 months later, none of the men have been charged with any crime, let alone being convicted of terrorist activity. There are other examples of incidents that have received prominent media attention only for the individuals to be subsequently released without any charges brought against them. The impact of such ordeals on the persons concerned and their families is unbearable. Therefore we urge against hasty pronouncements of guilt.
3. Training terorists.
If you happen to be using a train in France any time soon, don't take any large pieces of luggage with you. I stood for an hour in a train from Lyon to Valence last week because the luggage compartments at the end of each wagon had been taped off. A sign informed us that we had to keep our luggage with us at all times "for your security". This measure — aimed at stopping people from jumping on a train, dropping a bag bomb in the luggage compartment, and jumping back off — will presumably have little effect in preventing al Qaeda operations, which tend to be suicide missions.

4. Voting patterns.
A tidbit for those political science geeks out there: the French don't vote like us, or like the Americans. Rather than ticking boxes on a piece of paper, or pulling levers, or pushing buttons on a computer screen, they choose the flyer of the party they prefer, fold it up, stick it in an envelope, and drop it in the ballot box. This revelation came to me as I watched my French "parents" vote in regional elections in the southeastern village of Vinezac last Sunday. Like the rest of the country, Vinezac plucked for the leftist opposition to the Jacques Chirac-appointed and Jean-Pierre Raffarin-led Gaullist French government. A possible hypothesis to be drawn: while those leaders who went against public opinion and supported the war on Iraq (think Howard, Aznar, and Blair) have been hurt politically, those who went along with public opinion and opposed the war (think Schroeder, Chirac, and Clark) have not been showered with popular praise for doing so.

5. What if...
The BBC has almost run through a five-episode series of "docudramas" which extrapolate from current trends to create visions of life in 2020. Mixing interviews of learned academics and journalists with dramatic scenarios, What If... has been a worthy contribution to evening television. On Wednesday night, marginalised men were rising up against a society run by women; in prior episodes, much of Britain was plunged into darkness after Chechnian terrorists bombed a Russian oil pipeline, and a black Prime Minister tried to push through controversial legislation to ease a lack of social cohesiveness in a country increasing riven by income inequalities and fear of crime. Next week, Britain will face a public health catastrophe because people just won't stop eating too much. So, much to look forward to here.