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The "Best People": a rant

So, there's a phrase I keep hearing lately -- 'the best people'. It nearly always crops up in circumstances in which someone is defending the status quo. "We have to pay huge salaries or we won't attract the best people"; "We have to do it the way we're always done it or we'll miss out on the best people"; "If we give support to that group, we risk not supporting the best people" and so on.
The assumption underlying all of these statements is that the speaker -- usually a highly privileged man, let's be honest -- knows who these "best people" are, and others don't. The assumption is that "best people" can be quantified in terms that everyone is expected to know, but which are seldom, if ever, actually laid out anywhere. The assumption is that the system we already have is the best one, because changes to it risk losing those precious "best people".

Fair enough, you may say. It takes an expert financier, say, to recognise another expert financier. The rules and regulations and habits that have created the system have been in place for a long time, and the people who operate them have doubtless refined and reformed them, and are competent and reliable. They know what they're doing. It works, don't fix it.

Except, of course, that much of the tine, these systems *don't* work, or don't work well, or only work for some people. Except that, of course, there are many, many systems that have been in place for a long time that are demonstrably damaging and uneven and unjust. Systems like patriarchy, privilege based on race, privilege based on class, privilege based on sexuality. Except that we *don't* necessarily know who these "best people" may be, and nor do those who appoint or laud them. What we know is what the system likes us to know. What we know are the mechanisms that prop up the system and the interests -- racial, gendered, class-based, ableist and so on -- that that system upholds.

When I look around me at the "best people", this is what I see. They tend to be male. They tend to be white. They tend to come from the upper social classes. They tend to have a particular educational profile. They tend to have money and to come from families with money. They tend to be friends with a lot of other "best people". They are, in short, the very people that modern free-market capitalism, sexism and racism are all designed to privilege most. They are the oligarchs. (Yes, there are exceptions: there always are. But I'm speaking of the general here.) And every time a banker, say, or a government official speaks of the "best people" I know what they mean -- and so do they.

But the thing is, I don't know if these people really are best. I have no way of judging: I don't have material against which to compare them, by and large. What I do know is that when they are performing well in their jobs, the lives of ordinary people don't seem to benefit very much -- but when they perform badly, they get to keep their privilege, by and large, while ordinary people pay the penalties. Bankers who fail leave their positions with huge bonuses. Public sector workers who are reduced to break-down by overwork and aggressive management are forced out of work, offered pensions that average well below a living income, demonised in the press, and threatened with having those small pensions cut. And they pay tax at the normal rate. Famously, up until 1918, men who were mad, who were murderers, who were alcoholic, incapable, could vote and women, however intelligent and able, could not, here in the UK. But the law of the land held that men were the "best people" as far as the franchise was concerned. Our default images of power and ability remain male: the male politician, the male scientist, the male explorer. This week, the women's football (soccer) world champions (Japan) travelled economy class to the Olympics, while the male team from the same country, who are not considered to be particularly good, travelled first class. The reason? The men were "professionals": they were the best people, even though, in fact, they are not. In job after job, I've watched as women -- gifted, competent, brilliant women -- cluster in middle grades while men are promoted past them. As a culture, we assume that men are better: why else the annual breast-beating over school exam results and the current Tory re-working (yet again) of the exam system? Boys, we are told every year, are being beaten by girls. And this, it still seems, is not acceptable. Because culturally we are told that boys are to be the best people. The same series of lies, assumptions and obstructions underpin issues of race; block the access of people from non-white backgrounds to education and employment, to justice and opportunity. The system of "best people" has little to do with real merit. It's simply one of the many many weapons our culture uses to uphold and retain privilege for those who are already at the top, and to deter, prevent and hamper those below them from "infringing" on what is seen as their rights.

So: next time that phrase comes up, stop and think. Ask what we mean by "best". And ask why we think that.

On Permission

So I'm having some difficult thoughts around writing, and permission, and agency, and privilege. And these are, as is common with me, jumbling and tumbling round in my head, getting mixed up, leaking colours into one another and generally making me dizzy and unsure of where I stand.
And it's May, which may well be relevant. I am, not to put to fine a point on it, rubbish at May. My annual Achilles Heel, it brings me down without fail year on year on year. So though I'm thinking -- and I am thinking -- I'm thinking through that lens of too-bright, too-light, ever-stressing May, when the blossom blows off the trees and the leaves unfold, and the days grow longer, and I drop back into gloom.
Permission is one of my issues. The more anxious I am, the less certain I become of my right to do anything, apart from tasks that benefit others. It's always allowed for me to clean the bathroom, but eat cake, or go for a walk, or write -- that's another matter. It might impinge on someone else, it might take from someone else, it might waste time better spent on someone else, it might (in the case of cake) lead to me becoming even more unacceptable. When I sold Living With Ghosts -- in May, as it happened -- my second thought was guilt about a friend I might be harming by gaining this contract. (The first was delight. I'm selfish.) I am never completely happy that I'm allowed to write in the first place. The issue of what I'm allowed to write is even worse.
Let's unpack this a little and look at what I am in quasi-sociological terms. I'm white, slimmish (not enough, imho) first-generation-lower-middle-class, very well educated (though not privately educated), articulate, reasonably physically fit, variably mentally fit, provided with comfortable living conditions by my partner (a huge privilege which daily awes me, in fact, because the marquis is astonishing), heterosexual, English-speaking, cis-gendered to name only an inadequate few things that privilege me in my culture. It is, by most standards, easy for me to sit down and write. I have time and space and equipment, I have books for research, very privileged access to great libraries, trained academic skills to help with what I want to study. My white skin doesn't get me stared at or suspected when I go places. My femaleness doesn't impede my access to education and knowledge anything like as much as it did for my mother's generation or for far too many women in other countries. My sexuality allows me to be demonstrative with the marquis in public safely. My sexuality and skin colour allow me to recognise myself in the daily norms of both my immediate culture and much of wider international culture.
My culture does impose some expectations and limitations on me. Being female is the biggest, probably. Class, here in the UK, is another. I am mostly out of my comfort zone, class-wise, in my daily life. My parents both come from working class backgrounds (Welsh miners and Herefordshire farm and factory workers) and took the common post WW2 route out of their families' circumstances by becoming teachers. As a child, I grew up with books, parents who valued learning and could give me time to learn, and a mother who loved books, reading, writing and always encouraged me in that area. (My mother is wonderful. The more I think about it, the more lucky I feel in her.) But that lower-middle-classness has its own problems. We're not the people who lead, we're not the people with contacts, we're not members of the Old Boy Network. My attitudes and assumptions are off-kilter to the dominant high- and political- cultures of my country. I am, largely speaking, more left-wing, more touchy, less socially smooth, less southern (and that's a big one), less glossy than most of the people with whom I regularly associated. At the university at which I studied, I was definitely Not-One-Of-Us to a lot of people -- wrong schools (ordinary comprehensive, not expensive private or ultra-posh Public -- [for non-Britons, comprehensives are run by the state, Public Schools are very upmarket fee-paying schools, still largely male-dominated]). I was not the kind they wanted at dinner tables (wrong politics and wrong small talk) or to appoint to the really desirable jobs (not likely to make Us feel comfortable). My family don't have, have never had, those oh-so-useful path-smoothing contacts that can ease many from higher social brackets into desirable jobs and positions of influence. When it came to writing, my family don't, for instance, know 'someone in publishing' who could give me a useful hand. I'm not sure to what extent the latter can confer an advantage, but observation suggests that it can make things easier, at least.
Being female puts me into a certain set of boxes, though. There are clear if infrequently expressed ideas out there about what men and women should write. (These are changing. But they're still there.) Fantasy, rather than sf -- yes, women write sf, and hard sf at that, but the perception remains that hard sf readers are more likely to be male and more likely to prefer to read male writers. Romance, or things with a romance element. (If you doubt this, ask yourself why Catherine Asaro -- who has a PhD in Chemical Physics -- includes romances in her physics-based plots, and seems, indeed, to be expected to do so by readers, where Stephen Baxter, say, isn't.) Books focussing on things socially defined as small -- relationships, domesticity, emotions, family, detail --- rather than the 'big' matters of adventure and war, politics and power. Of course, women write about the latter too, but it's much harder for them to be seen to be doing it. They are more likely to be overlooked, elided or dismissed, omitted from coverage, forgotten. I am thinking here of certain pairs, of men and women who are all fine writers but whose critical and popular acclaim are widely divided. George R R Martin and Kate Elliott. Patrick Rothfuss and Barbara Hambly. China Mieville and Mary Gentle. These are 6 of the best writers I can think of. But in all cases, both are in the same area, but the man gets the bulk of the attention. It's in the water, in the culture. Women's writing isn't as important (and, in the case of Gentle, women's innovations in writing are more easily forgotten or attributed elsewhere).
Even so, though, despite this -- despite my less-than-perfect class background, my gender, my coming from the wrong place (and the Midlands is the bit of the UK you all forget, d*mn your eyes, but that's another post) -- I still have it good. I get, by and large, to write about what I want to. No-one expects me to confine myself to one set of my ancestors, to a set of interests associated with my skin colour, to one region or set of cultural things. I have a lot of freedom. (We are not, here, talking about commerciality. That's a separate matter.) I can go where I want, pretty much, in my words. There's even a commonly expressed trope about how writers should be free to roam where they will, use what they will, for the sake of Art.
The problem is that we're not all equally free to roam.
And yet, and yet... One of my perpetual niggles is what to me feels like the vast Americanisation of my Celtic (maternal) past. It makes me angry, it makes me feel dispossessed (and, if I see another American trying to tell European writers what they can and can't write about in terms of European history or culture, I may explode messily). But this is a very small thing, it really is. I'm a privileged white British woman. Those US writers annoy the hell out of me, yes, but what they write doesn't harm me, it doesn't affect the way I am treated everyday. If I feel denied, elided, pushed aside, I can complain to my compatriots without fear of reprisal. My diamond shoes are pinching.
The fact is that there are millions of people who don't have shoes of any kind, who are derided and ghettoised, ignored, elided, patronised, and, denied any kind of permission at all.
In the face of that.... should I be writing at all? That looks like a stupid question, a May brain poor-me question, but I don't mean it that way. I am trying, badly, clumsily, to unpack my privileges and responsibilities, the things that my country have done (so many of them so bad), the debts I owe personally and politically. And...
I don't know. I don't even know if I know what I'm asking. But I'm thinking, I'm thinking hard and wondering what I can do not to make things worse.

BBC cuts

Much of the BBC Radio 4 coverage today, including Dial You and Yours, has been devoted to the cuts that are happening in the BBC, and in particular the closing of BBC R 6 Music -- the commentators have gone on and on and on; the interviews have focused on R6 presenters.
But it's only now, at nearly 6pm, that they seem to have recalled that the BBC radio service the Asian Network is also to be closed down.
This is appalling: the Asian Network provides a far more important service than 6 Music and its axing sends out a completely unacceptable message to a large section of the UK population. The BBC are claiming that they will include programming for the Asian community within the mainstream schedules, but how far this will go is very debatable. An hour or two a week at inconvenient times -- cf. Channel 4's broadcasting of Indian films only late at night -- is no substitute.
I have complained to the BBC. I hope others will do likewise.


Blog agains racism week

I found this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/28/birther-movement-obama-citizenship
this morning.
I'm not American, but:
Your president influences the world
Your new president is already changing how other countries view the USA
Your new president offers a new view of the US as a potential ally rather than an international bully
When you elected your new president, countries world-wide celebrated. Kenyans saw the possibility of an America which saw them as people.

I know that the Americans on my f'list do not, will not endorse the racist, abusive tactics of the individuals and organisations who are behind this attack. I know you don't endorse the racist agenda that seeks to deny rights and dignity to p.o.c.

This action, these agitators, are deplorable.


For the record

This is a few days late, for which I apologise (I was away and off- line on the proper day).

I was born into the dominant culture for my country (UK) and as such have benefited from the privilege that accrues to that. Others in my country have not had those privileges and that is wrong and unacceptable, and as a white girl, I accept my share of the responsibility and the blame. I accept that I probably have assumptions and beliefs that are privileged or prejudiced and I undertake to try and identify and end these.
I consider it my responsibility to work to end this prejudice. I do not believe that any p.o.c. has any duty to help me or advise me. I do not believe it is in any way my job to advise any p.o.c. I own my background with all its negatives and I undertake to do my very best to undo harm and to overthrow privilege in any ways I can.
It would be easy for me, in the UK, to push a 'me too' button and run for cover. I am mostly Celtic, and the Celtic-speaking peoples have a legacy of oppression and prejudice imposed on them by the English. But I will not do this. This isn't about me and my ancestry, and it isn't honourable, to me at least, to pick and choose for 'acceptable' ancestors. I consider this latter strategy to be weak at best, and hypocritical at worst. I will own all my ancestry and do my best to behave better and to work to help others.
I do not believe that any of the ways in which I have endured prejudice -- for class, for gender etc -- are equivalent or equal to the prejudices endured by p.o.c. Again, this is not about me.
MY own feelings of guilt and fear and upset and complicity are my problem and it's up to me to deal with them without seeking absolution or help from p.o.c. (or anyone else except any close friends who wish to discuss this with me).

I am screening comments on this post. Yes, I'm also something of a coward, and I apologise for that.
This entry is in no way aimed at anyone on my friends' list. It's a consequence of me thinking over the issues by myself.
If anyone wants to ask me about race issues in my writing, please feel free.


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October 2016



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  • la_marquise_de_
    9 Oct 2016, 17:41
    UKIP appear to be adopting the BNP playbook: I await with bated breath the news that Farage has in fact been an undercover cop all along.
  • la_marquise_de_
    9 Oct 2016, 08:20
    This. As they say.

    We also saw the start of Our Beloved Leader's plan to opt us out of the Human Rights Act, albeit from the mouth of A Soldier, rather than herself. Because, in a country that works…
  • la_marquise_de_
    7 Oct 2016, 17:19
    It feels very frightening.
  • la_marquise_de_
    7 Oct 2016, 14:55
    I've said it before and I'll say it again: this is what it must have felt like living in 1930s Germany.
  • la_marquise_de_
    6 Oct 2016, 17:18
    They as Brits can't but Karen and I, even from Estonia can. My ballot was sent back to New York more than a week ago. The real challenge is to get everyone who can - out to vote. There are enough of…
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