Category Archives: politics

Oh to be in England now that April’s here!

Well, I am, actually. I am in England and it’s April. But that’s a recent update. I was in the US for the first ten days of this month, and I could not wait to get back.

Apparently 5.5 years in England are enough to make a girl sufficiently European that three weeks in the US was just a bit too much. Or maybe this year’s presidential election really IS nastier than in previous years. And perhaps partisan politics HAS reached a new low.

Things that became too much for me, in no particular order:

  • Irrationally blaming Obama for fuel prices (which are, of course, elevated all over the globe due to crude prices)
  • Unbelievable sexism.
    Santorum may be out of the race, but he succeeded at making it cool to riff on 1950s Leave it to Beaver stereotypes.

  • People thinking that universal healthcare was evil, and that they somehow had a RIGHT to NOT have access to affordable health care (link should be to USA Today article but I read it on my iPad and can’t find the link in the millions of articles I read on healthcare reform in the last month…)
  • People using the whole “how to lie with statistics” thing in shameful ways
  • Every time I tried to point any of these things out to a Republican, they responded with something along the lines of “OH Yeah, well, Obama did x in the 2008 campaign” as though it was a playground battle and deflection from the issues was the real game.

I am clearly no longer as American as I once was. Because these things really bother me and I can’t seem to let them go. And I would consider myself to be not terribly political, but the politics in the US right now pits left vs right in a way that I don’t really understand.

Schoolgirl Excitement

I have had a most amazing week, and I am sorry that I have not been better at sharing the excitement. But it is in part about my job, about which I choose not to blog. This week has been amazing, and please–Twitter-folk who know about my secret identity, please don’t share it. But the bottom line is that my work life has been a big social media experiment gone good. I’m about to celebrate 50,000 YouTube hits for my work video in just over three days. And that’s amazing. But even better, tomorrow morning I head to Heathrow to fly to Baltimore for a weekend with my sister, and then we fly together to Minneapolis for a long week of celebrations for my father’s x0th birthday. I have more fun things planned for Minneapolis than I have in a while, and for once I am feeling excited about being back “home” and not conflicted in any way. Have I mentioned that my grandmother is now 95 and still kicking arse at Scrabble? It should be fun. I am ready for this trip in a way that I was not ready for trips to Minneapolis in the past. And now I must finish cleaning out my fridge and finish packing. But I’m happy in my British shoes, and happy to be going home to America. Even the inevitable and unfortunate discussions about American politics have not dampened my spirits. Expat life, 2000, former life, 0. Here we go.

It’s time for poppies

One thing about being sick, you get the chance to get caught up on television watching. I have been binging on BBC iPlayer documentaries recently as a general principle, but being sick meant I expanded my watching into other genres such as comedy and variety. So it was in this, pathetically sick, mode that I found myself watching Johnny Depp on the Graham Norton show the other day. And Johnny came out wearing a paper poppy, and I was annoyed. As annoyed as I was a few years ago when I was in a choir that happened to be singing at a service on 11/11, and a person with a box full of poppies came around and affixed one to every member of the choir, lest the chapel dare be seen on the day without the ritual red fake flower on every chest.

Now let me be clear, before the trolls start screaming: I am a granddaughter of a veteran of WWII, a good friend of an injured Viet Nam vet, and I generally believe in the importance of respect for our veterans. I have even been known to buy a poppy from a sweet elderly man in the local shopping mall, and then put it in my bag “to affix to my lapel later”. So I give ££ to the campaign yearly, sometimes buying two poppies (I am a sucker for cute elderly people collecting money for good causes) but I do object to the compulsory nature of wearing the thing. It’s in television where I first noticed it, and thus the Johnny Depp comments. Some producer back behind the scenes of the show has a stash of poppies ready to affix to the clothes of all celebrities, because this is the time of year when you can not appear on the telly without one–just as the choir members could not sing in the chapel without one. Newscasters, political figures, all sheep-like in this display of poppy pride. Johnny Depp is not even British; this is not his traditional observation for the 11th November (which is Veterans Day in the US as well) but something forced upon visitors by the locals. When something gets to this point of cultural compulsion, it is no longer a serious piece of symbolism. It’s a decoration lacking in deep regard.

I am, of course, not the only person to feel this way, and I was reminded of this when an eloquent article on the subject found its way across my twitter feed yesterday. And yes, we are back to the second glamorous part of being sick: not only do I catch up on television, but I spend far longer than usual dinging around on the internet social networking sites. Yay me. The excitement, it’s never ending. And hey, I have time to blog as well! Too bad about the cough… but seriously… I’m sure there’s no turning back on this one, no politician or newscaster wants to become the one who refused to wear the poppy. No one wants to speak out about how perhaps we might re-consider the value of the symbol by removing its ubiquity. I will continue to carry out my own little protest, and continue to donate to a number of lovely vets in the shopping mall near my home but not wear the poppy on my lapel.

MasterChef, or the interesting thing that happened before everyone went gaga over the wedding

When I arrived back from the US early last week, I was arriving just in time to settle in with my iPad and watch the 3-night MasterChef finals while I tried (and failed) to get myself back on UK time. (I’m still not. 8 days in and my typical bedtime is still 3 am. This is not good.) I had seen every episode up until the point at which I left for the US, and I watched the results from afar each week that I was gone, scouring Twitter archives with the MasterChef hash tag to try and see who had been booted out. Why had I become so obsessed? Well, aside from the fact that I’m a big-time foodie on the side, who loves cooking and eating, one of the contestants was American. And not just American, but midwestern, from Wisconsin. Right next door. I don’t share most of my family’s hatred of all things Wisconsin (I still find that one odd) and as an expat I feel like it’s extra super important to be all midwest supportive, given that most locals here in Europe don’t know about the midwest at all. I’ve commented about this before.

In the early weeks of MasterChef, the voiceover constantly mentioned Tim’s American-ness. It was annoying. But as the competition went on, and it became clear that he was really talented, and they showed bits of his life with his British wife, they turned it down a notch. And the unthinkable eventually happened. He won. I cried. I know. Utterly ridiculous. Blame the jetlag.

The press went nuts. My favorite article attributed him as being both from Wisconsin and also Canadian. (Clearly the person who wrote that had not been watching the show…) I was riding up the lift one afternoon last week after the big finale, and mentioned how excited I was about the entire thing. Now it’s important to the story that my two team-members in the lift with me happened to be one Brit, quite local to where I am, and one very proud South African. So I asked if they had been watching it, and expressed my excitement, and made a joke about how I was sure that no one would ever allow the American to win MasterChef.

Now this was a flippant comment, obviously, but it was rooted in nearly five years of experience. “Britishness” is very popular right now. I’ve written about it quite a lot before, because as much as the Brits will claim they are not like Americans in being publicly effusive about anything, “The Great British _____” (fill in the blank with any number of things) is a phrase I hear everywhere. And nowhere is proud Britishness more evident in my daily life than in the food culture. Stickers with Union flags on items all over my local grocery store. “Best of British” written on everything (a phrase whose grammar I still can’t parse). And nowhere is this more obvious than in the cooking shows on the BBC. I thought of developing a drinking game in which you drink every time a food programme goes on and on about British produce and British meat and British everything, but I realized I’d end up terribly soused and probably without a job.

One of the other three MasterChef finalists was a classic “modern British” guy with all of the nose-to-tail specialties that make me (vegetarian-turned-grudgingly-pescetarian) wince. Root vegetables all the time, fresh green vegetables almost never. Now I’m not criticizing that bit per se, I’ve come to love root veg purees and things (especially now that I’m barred from eating my beloved mashed potatoes). But for all of these reasons, and because the third finalist was also foreign (Italian), I was absolutely sure I knew who was going to win and I was not very happy about it. I didn’t just like the American because he was American, I liked him because he was talented. He made me think about food. He renewed my recent interest in learning more about Japanese cooking. He probably played a part in my visit to Nobu in Las Vegas last month. (But that’s a story for another day…)

So I was genuinely surprised and excited that the American won MasterChef, and I was really mostly innocent in expressing this to my two team members. But what interested me the most was the reactions. My South African colleague got it immediately, and agreed enthusiastically with my assessment of how unlikely this result was. My British colleague did not seem to share my amusement at the story, as far as I can tell. (And this was not the first time I’d worried that I’d pissed him off either; the whole story of how affirmative action has played out in the UK always has me worried when dealing with British males.)

So it was an interesting day, and I’m still excited that the American managed a win in this difficult contest, and more than ever I’ve realized how cautious I need to be when I talk about these things in public, especially when I’m in danger of offending my local colleagues.

The big Universities vote

Ahhh England. Always willing to get all up in arms over something that would never had occurred to me. Apparently for many years, university tuition was “free” for students. Of course, it was never actually free, as there is a real cost associated with education. But the funds to support universities were all central, meaning that each and every tax-payer contributed to the higher education of each student. Some number of years ago “fees” were introduced, at the meagre sum of about £3k per year. So £9-12k for a 3-4 year degree, and a generous system of student loans that means that you only paid money back once you had a certain income.

Today is the big vote in parliament about increasing the level of these fees for university tuition, to a maximum value of £9k per year. Still a bargain in the context of an American university: that’s £27-36 for a 3-4 year degree, or $42-57k for an entire degree, including at places like Oxford or Cambridge, compared with $50k PER YEAR to attend a comparable US institution, such as Harvard. Even “public” (state) universities in America cost a fortune: at the very non-Harvard state University I attended, this year the numbers are:

In-State Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $11,722

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $19,542

Non-Michigan Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $29,622

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $37,442

So again, for an out of state student, a year is almost as much as a complete UK degree.

My biggest beef with the coverage of all of this, and believe me, it’s been a near-constant drone in the background for the last few weeks, is the prevailing idea that “it used to be free and now it’s not.” It was never free. This is just a shift in the burden of who pays, from a distributed model (everyone pays for the few students attending university) to a direct model (those who attend university pay for it). I don’t understand what’s not fair about this. The benefit is direct: yesterday I saw numbers showing a £400k+ lifetime additional income for those with a university degree compared to for those without one: is that not worth paying a few paltry tens of thousands for? Especially when none is demanded up-front and the overall payments don’t start until you have a significant income? Sounds fair to me. But then again, I’m always confused when the welfare state model is supported over the personal responsibility model, because after all–I am American. This is what I’m used to.

Oh I know, I’m risking significant ire for having this opinion. The BBC even seems keen to dump their neutrality and never uses the words “universities fees rise” without the word “controversial” in the same sentence. Maybe it is controversial to some, certainly we’ve seen students protesting and even mini-riots in the last few weeks. But on this one I’m with the much-beleaguered coalition government: someone has to pay for higher education, and I’ve not yet seen a good argument as to why it should not be the people who benefit directly from it. (Now ducking for inevitable flames…)

Britain and the Burqa

Two weeks ago, when travelling on the tube in London, I saw a girl wearing a niqab (face covering veil) in person for the first time. (For the pictorial explanation of face-covering veils, such as the niqab and burqa, and headscarves, such as the hijab, the BBC has a great slideshow, linked in this article.) The girl was travelling in a group of three, with two young gentlemen, and they had clearly all been out shopping. They got on the tube and the boys indicated for the girl to sit down while they remained standing close by even though there were free seats on either side of her plus others in the tube car. They rode the tube for only a few stops and all got off together, carrying their high street shopping bags.

The issue of facial veiling has been a hot topic across Europe of late. The grounds for a ban range all the way from public security to women’s rights. France recently passed the first stages of legislation to ban face-covering attire in public, and there has been a pretty serious debate raging in Britain on the same topic. Various voices have called face covering “against the British way of life” while others have said banning face-covering would be “un-British”. Not being British, I have a hard time reading into the nuances of what “British” means in these competing contexts–clearly everyone wants things not to be “un-British” but people are having a hard time defining what exactly that means since the argument is being used on both sides of the debate.

David Mitchell published a rather screechy commentary on the topic today in the Observer. (Seriously, Mr. Mitchell, do you not have an editor there at ye olde Guardian corp. to fix errors of grammar like saying “I should not of done this!” when you mean “I should not have done this!”) His view seems to be that of the “banning the veil would be un-British” sort and he has some pretty harsh commentary for the large (his number) 67% of Brits that support such a ban.

Before I go any farther, let me first comment on the repeated statements from the Tory MP trying to forward veil-banning legislation, that people just don’t cover their faces in public in Britain because it affects their ability to communicate. Without coming down on either side of this debate, I could not help but giggle at the fact that face covering only seems to be extreme in Britain because the climate is so darned mild. Back in Minnesota, come January or thereabouts, all people male and female tend to cover their faces in public due to necessity:

I don’t know why the young dear is not wearing MITTENS, however–normally that would be a requirement when a face-scarf was also required!

Of course, people in Minnesota also routinely wear balaclavas (a.k.a. ski masks) for the same warmth-inducing purposes. And I’m just using Minnesota as an example, there are many other places around the world where people are accustomed to extremely cold weather and where the only exposed skin on display is right around the eyes.

My point overall (and I do have one) is that covering one’s face is not universally considered to be a threatening thing; there are many of us quite accustomed to only being able to see someone’s eyes when they are out and about. And yes, I recognize that it’s different talking about frostbite avoidance and religious modesty. So does the facial veil on a muslim woman make me uncomfortable? Yes, but only in the context of the way it is associated with the separateness of women, such as the episode I described at the beginning of this post, in which the girl was set apart from her male companions and left to sit alone while they chatted to each other. And in this context, just as in many other difficult debates, I think a ban would be too inflammatory, and is the wrong way to bring about positive social change. But it’s going to be an interesting few months watching this one play out here in the UK.

Election Levity

However you feel about Marmite, this puts Britain’s election into focus in a way nothing else can…